Revolution of the Heart:
A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950

By Haiyan Lee

Reviewed by Charles Laughlin
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July 2011)

Book cover for Revolution of the Heart

Haiyan Lee.
Revolution of the Heart:
A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007. 384 pp.
ISBN: 9780804773270 (paper);
ISBN: 9780804754170 (hard)

Haiyan Lee’s study of literary discourses about love in modern China is one of the most engaging and broad-reaching books written about modern Chinese culture in recent years. It crystallizes important work published over the past several decades on the issues of human relationships, cultural and personal identity, and revolution and romanticism under one coherent theme–the discourse of love. I was going to list examples of these works, but I quickly began to realize that virtually every important monograph published in this field explores these issues, yet without organizing them under the theme of love. Nevertheless, some more recent studies have demonstrated a general tendency to focus more on the literary politics of love and desire and are particularly germane to Lee’s arguments, including Ban Wang’s The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China (Stanford, 1997), Jianmei Liu’s Revolution Plus Love: Literary History, Women’s Bodies, and Thematic Repetition in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (Hawai’i, 2003), and Jing Tsu’s Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937 (Stanford, 2005). Revolution of the Heart won the Joseph Levenson Prize for a monograph about modern China in 2009, attesting to its quality and impact. In February of this year, The Journal of Asian Studies also published a superb review of the book by Alexander Des Forges. Des Forges’ review takes on the aspects of modern identity theory and moral philosophy better than I could, so here I focus more on the aspects of love and desire and how they relate to the emergence of revolutionary literature and art.

Revolution of the Heart begins long before the dysfunctional marriage of culture and revolution around the late 1920s and early 1930s and is thus more focused on love than on “revolution” as a cultural phenomenon. Nevertheless, the book culminates in a discussion of the Chinese revolution and its aftermath in terms of love and emotional expression, which is the crux of its unique contribution to modern Chinese cultural studies. Lee retraces the genealogy of modern Chinese love discourse through three overlapping phases, which she calls the Confucian, enlightenment, and revolutionary “structures of feeling,” following Raymond Williams’ concept of the dynamic interaction between often unarticulated historical modes of consciousness. In doing so, she demonstrates that literary expressions and depictions of love within pre-revolutionary structures of feeling are already embroiled deeply in articulations of cultural and national identity, and in this sense were already paving the way for what she portrays as the friction between love and revolution.

Lee takes pains to clarify that she is reconstructing and historicizing love as a moral discourse, which overlaps with but is not coextensive with discourses of desire, noting in her introduction that the sexual-reductionist tendency in Foucauldian analyses has been discredited by some, passing over sexual tension without comment in scenes she analyzes, as well as giving short shrift to authors in whose works sexuality is profoundly tied up with love and revolution, such as those of Mao Dun and several later writers, including works of the socialist period in which sexual tensions are discernible in less explicit ways.[ 1 ]

Lee accounts for this marginalization of desire and sexuality in terms of the focus of her argument (it is love, not desire), but the result is that where desire is conveyed less explicitly, it falls outside the purview of her analysis. In discussing Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, a highly influential text in China, she focuses on the scene in which Werther falls in love with Charlotte, when the latter is handing out bread to her younger siblings (106). Werther is supposed to be channeling true love as opposed to the instrumental rationality of socially condoned marriages, but in my reading it is not romantic without the smoldering glow of desire to drive it (in Werther this is represented not so much in terms of the physiology of desire, but in terms of the protagonist’s sustained emotional agitation). This is consistent with Lee’s argument because like many modern Chinese writers who focus on love, Goethe seems to steer clear of sexuality, though there are many suggestive scenes in which the protagonist’s agitation is tangled up with physical contact with Charlotte and there is often a direct correlation between physical proximity and excitement. For Lee, “The Wertherian cult of the heart gives May Fourth youth a powerful weapon in their struggle to make the individual and heterosociability into the new organizing principle of Chinese society” (107). Quoting from Hegel on love, Lee reinforces the putting of desire in its place: “this emotion [of selfless renunciation] does not remain mere impulse or emotion but that imagination builds its whole world up into this relation”; the assumption is that if “merely” sexual, love cannot generalize to encompass the world in this way. While plausible, the argument seems to accept a hierarchical or dualistic relation between the visceral and the spiritual or mental. It is interesting to note here that Yu Dafu’s “Sinking,” the modern Chinese work most imitative of Werther, actually goes much further to sexualize the protagonist than does the original.

An example of this isolation of love from desire occurs in the section on the enlightenment structure of feeling is the analysis of Feng Yuanjun’s “Gejue,” in which Lee points out that the heroine Junhua’s mother sequesters her because she assumes that Junhua had sex with Shizhen as they traveled together, whereas the crux of the generation gap is that the young man and woman’s love is “noble and pure”–i.e., unsullied by sexual gratification. What they really desire–liberty and autonomy–is more threatening than immediate sexual gratification. But in a key passage Lee discusses, Junhua and Shizhen undress each other and sleep together, a scene this is meant to prove the nobility of their love. As Lee puts it, “As they huddle together in bed, sex is both the closest and furthest thing on their minds” (110). Lee seems to be inadvertently acknowledging the sexual power of this scene while she wants to do with it what the author does: make it a demonstration of the sublime virtue of love. While I doubt Lee is deliberately aligning her interpretation with that of the author, it is important not to always go along with the author’s apparent intentions: often the text is telling us something other than the author seems to be telling us. How could there be any tension here without sexual desire? Why lie together if all they want to do is prove their chasteness?

On the other hand, Lee provides clues to the momentous but as yet little understood movement away from explicit sexuality in New Literature and revolutionary literature. Her discussion of the Confucian structure of feeling, and its connection through the role of the Ernü yingxiong zhuan (Tales of heroic sons and daughters) model in the development of the revolutionary structure of feeling, helps explain the denigration in many quarters toward “earthly love” as antithetical to a “healthy” (read “public-spirited”) modern identity. The Ernü yingxiong zhuan and similar early modern works differ from other kinds of traditional and modern fiction in tending to elide sexual tension from the depiction of young men and women interacting with one another.

This begins to answer questions that have puzzled me for some time: When/where/how did the desexualization that characterizes modern Chinese culture from the 1930s through the Cultural Revolution get started? Are revolutionary narratives meant to subliminally consummate desires, or suppress their arousal? Are these considerations even relevant to revolutionary stories? Lee’s contribution to this argument, raised more pointedly in the face of the overt sexuality of post-Mao and reform period literature, and brought to the forefront in Wang Ban’s reading (cited by Lee) of Yang Mo’s Song of Youth as turning on Lin Daojing’s sublimation of desire as the basis of her revolutionary awakening, is to view love and revolution as supplementary, rather than revolutionary zeal as sublimated love.

Lee introduces the “logic of supplement” as a preferable alternative to the structure of sublimation. Reading Hu Chenbing’s play Ai de geming (Revolution of love), Lee writes:

Although I agree that the process of sublimation is certainly at work, the term does not capture the persistently ambivalent standing of love in revolutionary literature. The supplementary logic enables us to discern the double-speak of “revolution + romance”: on the one hand, love must be recognizable in the conventions of romantic love stories–to wit, the revolutionary lovers must still be erotic beings, rather than robotic sloganeers . . . On the other hand, love must be denied of its centrality or claim to transcendence. . . . In short, as the internal supplement to revolution, love is simultaneously affirmed and disavowed, it is coopted as an indispensable ally and repudiated as an intransigent rival. (277)

While it is undeniable that on the level of rhetoric, love’s centrality is disavowed, I think it is more important that works like these (of which Ai de geming may not be the most compelling) require love/desire, however sublimated, to escape from the artistically untenable “robotic sloganeers,” so Lee’s argument in effect functions as an affirmation of the logic of sublimation.

But Lee also demonstrates, on the one hand, that the Ernü yingxiong zhuan as a literary model probably contributed not a little to the monotony of revolutionary literature and, on the other hand, shows that many important cultural figures in the Republican period appeared to advocate the unfolding of sexuality and sexual discourse in modern China. In chapter 4, Lee goes in depth into the 1920s discourse on love and sexuality, including Zhang Jingsheng’s “four rules of love” in response to a female college student leaving her betrothed in favor of a professor, special issues of Women’s Magazine on love, and conservative, radical, and enlightenment voices appearing in books and series edited by Wang Pingling, Zhou Jianren, and including Pan Guangdan. In a suggestive but unusually confusing statement Lee says that “it is ironic but logical that May Fourth romanticism, at least in its non-Freudian moments, should denigrate ‘earthly love’ along with the pursuit of wealth . . .” (111). This raises a number of questions: what are May Fourth romanticism’s “Freudian moments”? Are they atypical or typical of May Fourth romanticism? Why is this denigration “ironic” if sexual desire is actually not primary?

Of particular interest to me here is a writer named Zhang Dongsun whom Lee describes as a conservative trying to revivify Confucianism and bringing love to play in his argument. He argues that instincts are given too much credence, particularly by romantics, because (following Kant) they are not in themselves good. “On the contrary, Zhang maintains, by sublimating our basic instincts to nobler ends, we create culture and civilization. Confucianism has erred in stipulating the necessity of ‘minimizing desire’ (jieyu zhuyi) because it discourages the spirit of progress and adventure. To remedy this, Zhang proposes ‘sublimationism’ (huayu zhuyi), which allows reason to take control of passion and transform it for the good of society” (169). If this is indeed an accurate characterization of Zhang’s position, it does seem consistent with Confucianism, while at the same time resisting the marginalization of sexual discourse.

Furthermore, Lee illustrates how the famous Kantian aesthetician Zhu Guangqian joins the fray: “In one of a series of letters addressed to an unidentified middle school student, Zhu invokes the antirationalist, anti-teleological currents in western philosophy since the eighteenth century that see life as purposive without a purpose. Psychology has also demonstrated that the primary motive force of action is instinct or emotion, not reason. Freudian psychology, in particular, holds that action is driven by unconscious desires. Without art, religion, and emotion, the world of pure reason is a dull, cold and cruel one” (170). The reason I think this is significant –and Lee may not have followed through as she might have on how all this contributed to the continuing literary discourse on love and desire– is that Zhang Dongsun’s and Zhu Guangqian’s positions form a compelling counterdiscourse to the Ernü yingxiong marginalization of desire, as well as providing room, through structures of sublimation and the association of the frequently unconscious quality of desires with art, for indirect and implicit expressions of desire in literature, perhaps even literature in the Ernü yingxiong model.

One of the pitfalls of discourse analysis is that by restricting analysis to what is explicit and documentable, either in literary works or in criticism and social commentary, it is easy to overlook what is implied, as well as meanings that may not be consciously intended by writers. This would actually seem to run counter to Raymond Williams’ notion of the structure of feeling, which he notably describes as being “in solution” and not yet “precipitated” (10), good metaphors for unintended, unconscious, or at least implicit notions and phenomena. If we have to limit ourselves to what writers were consciously aware of and able to articulate, we would miss a lot of what is historically and culturally significant in literature and its criticism, and at least we are probably missing Raymond Williams’ point.

This also relates to the issue of anachronism that comes up in the presentation in chapter 5 of Pan Guangdan’s psychoanalysis of the Ming poetess Feng Xiaoqing. Pan’s reading of Xiaoqing as a pathological narcissist seems quite convincing to me (194). Pan uses a term “the stream of libido” (Lee does not gloss it in Chinese like some of his other terms); his explanations often turn on how the stream of libido is channeled or blocked (mother, male/female lover, self). A curious facet of the lore, whether manifested in the premodern male admirers propagating the cult of qing or in Pan’s modern discourse of repressed sexuality–at least as Lee presents it–is a complete disregard of or apathy toward the object of Xiaoqing’s desire. If we admire Xiaoqing for her sacrifice and the extremes to which she goes in its service, in the service of love, why is it so unclear who she is in love with? Her libertine husband? She admires the Peach Blossom Fan, but the play has a clear male love interest, outside of marriage. Is she pining for someone we don’t see in the story? Or is Pan right in saying that she is really in love with herself?

Lee seems to concur with some of her theoretical sources in condemning this kind of psychoanalytic approach to premodern culture for its anachronism. This position seems blind to the possibility that an author can write something that means something s/he doesn’t consciously realize. Part of the argument, though, is that something is not a reality until it has been analyzed into existence. “Sexuality,” for example, by this argument, cannot be said to have existed before it is designated as a category, analyzed, and discussed. Lee is not as circumspect with “desire” and a couple of other terms, since she has to talk about what underlying realities get reorganized into the modern concept of “sexuality.” Does positing the a priori existence of such underlying realities such as desire constitute a naturalization of the modern sexual subject? Was there a premodern Chinese discourse of desire? Lee mentions earlier a tradition of ars erotica in China, a category that Foucault also posits as his orientalist other of the repressive Western discourse of sexuality (187-88). Lee is not as quick here to dismiss Foucault, and like him, she reads ars erotica in the Chinese case as a discourse not of sexuality (because sexuality, for Lee and Foucault, did not exist) but of ethics and morality. But what does that mean?

The resistance to or avoidance of anachronism is perhaps not intended to mean that the underlying realities of sexual life–pleasure and desire–did not exist in premodern times, but in the way Lee handles them the point seems to be that they were not separated out from other, specifically ethical/moral, discourses, and thus looking back at specific (often literary) cases from the point of view of the twentieth century errs in making premodern manifestations of desire and pleasure constitutive goods or evidence of a repressed but existing value system before its time. If this is really what Lee means, it seems to essentialize “premodern” and would not be able to explain the emergence of new values in literature, whether premodern or modern. Can we not “translate” premodern phenomena (especially emergent, unnamed phenomena) using modern concepts? If not, what means can we use to understand such phenomena?

Turning to the revolutionary and socialist periods, Lee presents the early “love plus revolution” convention as an awkward negotiation between the ideal of love emerging from the enlightenment structure of feeling and the need for social and historical engagement to reign supreme in the world of youthful passion. Criticism from the late 1920s and early 1930s on “love plus revolution” was largely negative and focused on its formulaic aspects rather than the cracks and fissures that emerged in literary practice, and Lee seems to follow the critical assessments in their assumption of the incompatibility of revolution and love.[ 2 ] Moving into the socialist period, she rightfully points to the Ernü yingxiong zhuan/Xin ernü yingxiong zhuan model as the apparent “solution” to this problem; most socialist treatments of young people and their romantic involvements cleave to the unproblematized subsumption of the interests of love to those of revolution.

But Lee reads Xin ernü yingxiong zhuan almost satirically, focusing on a peasant couple’s awkward utterances about each other as indicative of a lack of passion/desire, or of the author’s lack of interest in the couple, and highlighting the “tenderness” and attention to romance and love the novel lacks (284-85). The inflection of satire in Lee’s description of socialist realism’s “effortless,” “perfect” solution to the love vs. revolution problem strips them of any possibility of complexity or ambiguity. In this Lee joins the long list of commentators on socialist realism in reinforcing the self-fulfilling prophecy of its unreadability. We still await critics willing to wade through the sea of (presumed) insipid material to explore the contradictions and ambiguities that saturate it. Lee’s unwillingness to read against the author’s stated or perceived intentions, the blandishments of socialist realist “theory,” or the perfunctory interpretations of supportive or unsympathetic commentators can only lead to the confirmation of conventional wisdom about such literature, or earlier revolutionary literature, for that matter. This is regrettable, because Lee’s overarching argument about the vagaries of love in modern Chinese culture creates unprecedented potential for unfolding its at times surging presence not far beneath the surface of social realist literature.

Despite these few caveats, Revolution of the Heart is a highly successful and provocative study, both in its integration of important previous criticism under a much broader theme and for its nuanced close readings of both well-known and lesser-known works across a truly vast historical range.

Charles Laughlin
University of Virginia


[ 1 ]. See pp. 280-81. Mao Dun is brought in for his critique of the “love plus revolution” formula, but is taken to task for being hypocritical, and so his article is more prominent in the chapter than his Eclipsetrilogy, which is relegated to a footnote, and the novel Rainbow gets a one-sentence reading. It seems that by depicting the complex and frustrating dialectical quality of emotions and principles as well as the ubiquitous pitfalls to revolutionary work, the failure of Mao Dun’s stories to neatly fall into his own critical categories makes his literary works less useful to the exposition of this chapter than the narcissistic “Seaside Sacrifice” of Jiang Guangci and the relatively transparent play by Hu Chenbing.

[ 2 ]. For an alternative approach to this question, probing the “uncalled for” and possibly unconscious attention to desire in revolutionary writing, see my “Jiang Guangci he Mao Dun xiaoshuo zhong de geming yu yuwang (Revolution and desire in Jiang Guangci and Mao Dun), in David Wang, ed., Zhongguo xiandai xiaoshuo de shi yu xue (The history and study of modern Chinese fiction (Festschrift in honor of C.T. Hsia)]. Taipei: Lianjing Publishing, 2010, 241-259.