Contending for the “Chinese Modern”: The Writing of Fiction in
the Great Transformative Epoch of Modern China, 1937-1949

By Wang Xiaoping

Reviewed by Christopher Rosenmeier

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2021)

Wang Xiaoping, Contending for the “Chinese Modern”: The Writing of Fiction in the Great Transformative Epoch of Modern China, 1937-1949 Brill: Leiden and Boston, 2019. xii + 604 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-39862-7 (hardcover); ISBN: 978-90-04-39863-4 (e-book)

Wang Xiaoping’s monograph surveying Chinese literature and cultural theory in the 1940s presents itself ambitiously as “a new paradigm in studies of modern Chinese literature” (back cover), but it belongs, I believe, to a rather different category of writing that had its heyday in the PRC some time ago: a political critique targeting various writers and scholars from a Maoist perspective. Although a study of class dynamics in 1940s wartime fiction might well have been a worthwhile addition to the current research on the period, Wang’s analysis unfortunately appears to be driven by an agenda based on how he thinks class issues and relationships ought to have been portrayed at the time so as better to serve national causes. As a work of academic scholarship, there is little to commend Contending for theChinese Modern.”

The volume starts by discussing several Western studies on modern Chinese literature, mostly finding them to be without merit. This dismissive approach to previous studies is based partly on a desire to clear the ground about what constitutes modern literature and partly on a political view of Western scholarship as being insufficiently focused on class and leftist politics. Thirteen pages are devoted to David Der-wei Wang’s argument in Fin-de-Siècle Splendor concerning emergent modernity in late Qing literature. There are no discussions of any Qing sources, but Wang Xiaoping still believes that literature to be insufficiently modern to justify using the term and that David Der-wei Wang’s approach is based on “a sort of confusion between the substance and the discourse of modernity, and between social modernity and literary modernity alike” (7). The study is not only dismissed as “ungrounded hallucination” (11) but is even seen as politically suspect, stemming “from a variety of right-wing accusations of modern Chinese history” (17). Shu-mei Shih’s study of Shanghai modernism in The Lure of the Modern is similarly faulted for its supposed “enchantment of capitalist modernity” (22) and a “deliberate negligence” (24) of the leftist intellectuals who were critical of Shanghai’s semi-colonial status. Leo Ou-fan Lee’s Shanghai Modern is criticized for its “one-sided understanding” of modernity that downplays politics and collective action (28), and Michel Hockx’s Questions of Style is deemed “too ponderous to be used as a tool” (29). Marston Anderson’s The Limits of Realism is criticized for neglecting historical materialism due to a supposed preference for New Criticism (34–35) and a failure to sufficiently acknowledge the reasons behind the increasing prevalence of the masses and lower-class heroes in literature from the 1930s. Whereas Anderson found that critical realism was eventually found wanting, Wang asserts—again without sources—that “realistic writing in modern China played a significant function of awakening and arousing the masses” (39) and concludes that Anderson’s “limits lie in the writer’s mind or his political awareness and unconscious” (39). Other studies are reproached elsewhere, such as a ten-page critique of Haiyan Lee’s article “All the Feelings that are Fit to Print” on popular romances from 1900 to 1918. It is found to be “bereft of substantial discussion of socio-political issues” (105), and this, in turn, leads Wang to an argument that subjectivity is collectively formed and conditioned by society and politics (108).

Having discarded much previous research—including studies completely unrelated to the topic at hand—Wang Xiaoping finally proceeds to an examination of the literature of the 1940s. The study is divided into three sections: the Japanese-occupied territories, the Guomindang hinterland, and the CCP-controlled areas around Yan’an. These sections are respectively labeled the “nightmarish modern,” the “disintegrated modern,” and the “New Democratic modern.” Despite the regional division, the study is squarely focused on a number of individual writers who are seen as representing the three regions: Xiao Hong 蕭紅, Mei Niang 梅娘, Zhang Ailing 張愛玲, Wumingshi 無名氏, Xu Xu 徐訏, Lu Ling 路翎, Zhao Shuli 趙樹理, and Ding Ling 丁玲. There are also sections on works by Zhang Henshui 張恨水 and Hu Feng 胡風, as well as a lengthy discussion of Mao Zedong’s 毛澤東 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” (在延安文藝座談會上的講話) from 1942.

The individual authors, rather than the broad literary scene, are the focus of the book and some of their lesser-known writings are occasionally discussed alongside their more famous works, and that is where this study makes a positive contribution. There are helpful summaries of many novels and short stories, and it is clear that significant work has gone into this. Unfortunately, much like the scholarship overview, Wang’s analyses are more concerned with subjectively judging the quality of the authors’ works than with contributing anything substantially new to our understanding of them.

For example, Xiao Hong’s Field of Life and Death (生死場, 1934) is recognized as dealing with class issues and injustices but is also claimed to show the author’s “incompetence” (149). After debating the novel’s supposed structural flaws, Wang argues that the faults are due to her feminist outlook:

All these drawbacks that impair the artistic unity of the novel are not merely out of the author’s careless negligence; but it is probably because the writer fell into the pitfall of her feminine (or feminist) concerns, thus being incapable of integrating the three dimensions of the plural social contradiction—patriarchal gender relations, (which is undergirded by) class oppression, and nationalist resistance (which helps to lessen, but not to solve, the two other problems)—together in her mind and in her work. (151)

Wang finds that Xiao Hong has “little equipment of theoretical knowledge of class politics” (155), and this causes an “ambiguous dividing line between stories with the spirit of liberal humanism and stories with leftist information” (155). Implicitly, Wang holds up his own ideal-type representation of social issues for works to be measured against, and the various authors are then found to fall short of this ideal.

Other authors are similarly criticized for how they represent class. Xu Xu’s popular novella “Gypsy Enticement” (吉布賽的誘惑, 1939)—which presents the view that love can only truly flourish for those who live as vagrant gypsies—is criticized as blindly supporting the “lumpenproletariat” (353). Another of Xu’s works, In Love with a Ghost Girl (鬼戀, 1937), features an urban narrator who falls in love with a glamorous woman who claims to be a ghost. Eventually, he discovers the truth: she is a former secret agent and assassin who had tired of her previous life of adventure. Wang presents this as a “political allegory,” arguing that “what the story narrates in a historical fable is symbolically the author’s separation from his erstwhile leftist passion for the revolutionary ideal” (356). I find this interpretation unconvincing. Xu Xu was briefly inspired by Marxism some years before writing this, but the glamorous secret agent of Guilian comes across as a romantic stereotype, not an indicator of any particular political persuasion; reading the text as Wang does strains credulity. It is worth noting here that Xu Xu wrote anti-Communist essays in the 1950s, after moving to Hong Kong.

The class backgrounds of the authors are also found to determine the nature of their works. This is, for example, the case with Eileen Chang, whose fiction Wang is also quite critical of:

… Chang’s preference for the aesthetic state of “cold desolation” (cangliang 蒼涼) is nothing but a projection of a social sentiment of enfeeblement, an effeminate way of perceiving and handling social and class contradiction (which is partly shown as interpersonal conflicts or internal family feuds). For this emasculate, weak proto-bourgeoisie, a sorrowful sense of doomed fate bereft of a fatherly love, protection, and guidance is thus prevailing. (265)

Only Zhao Shuli and Ding Ling are considered authors of “masterpieces” (577). Ding Ling’s authorship in particular is seen as reflecting a process of steady improvement, as her focus changes from her early feminist works, such as “The Diary of Miss Sophie” (莎菲女士的日記, 1928), to her later more politically engaged works, such as the short story “Flood” (水, 1931), where “the choice of collective peasants as the protagonist and the improvement of creative method in portraying the revolutionary masses both reflect a great progress of the author” (542). Still, Ding Ling’s works don’t come fully into their own until a decade later, after she had learned from Mao’s “Talks.”

Indeed, Mao Zedong’s famous “Yan’an Talks” are an undercurrent guiding much of the discussion. It should come as no surprise that Hu Feng is dismissed as a May Fourth elitist who was out of touch with the times and “lacked substantial support from the people” (319). Mao’s “Talks” are presented by Wang in a positive light, noting that they “aimed to create a literary style that was modern, democratic, and possessed a ‘national flavor’” (103). It probably goes without saying that the use of “democratic” here is to be understood in Mao’s sense of the word—meaning CCP control—not in the sense of popular elections and representational government. Wang even makes the case that Mao’s “Talks” are still useful today, particularly for third world intellectuals facing various challenges from the first world: “Mao’s historical agenda, in this perspective, brings us inspiration and lessons in terms of both its achievements and its historical lessons” (446).

The problem with this book is not that it presents a Marxist interpretation of literature, which remains a valid approach. I also sympathize with Wang’s view that historical context should be taken into account in the analysis of literature (e.g., “Always Historicize!” [577]). But here historicization and the references to Fredric Jameson and other theorists come across as a thin academic veneer to help justify the author’s promotion of a political agenda. An awareness of historical context should entail neither picking sides nor declaring oneself to be the arbiter of good and bad literature and scholarship.

Finally, Contending for theChinese Modern” is marred by a lack of editing. There are references pointing to the wrong texts (e.g., footnotes 16–19 should be to Norman Smith’s Resisting Manchukuo, not Vera Schwarcz’s The Chinese Enlightenment [85]), translation errors (e.g., Wumingshi’s “Luxiya zhi lian” 露西亞之戀 should be “Love of Russia,” not “Love of Lucia” [324]), and countless typos (e.g., a foreword by C. T. Hsia becomes “Forward” [583]). There are inconsistencies in title formatting (mostly novels not being italicized), terminology (story/short story), and awkward phrases and grammatical errors. The quotes above are verbatim, and English titles of works are given here as they appear in the book. Even place names can be idiosyncratic, e.g., Huashan being called “St. Mountain” (334).

Christopher Rosenmeier
University of Edinburgh


Anderson, Marston. 1990. The Limits of Realism: Chinese Fiction in the Revolutionary Period. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hockx, Michel. 2003. Questions of Style: Literary Societies and Literary Journals in Modern China,1911–1937. Leiden: Brill.

Hsia, C. T. 1994. “Foreword.” In Pu Ning, Red in Tooth and Claw: Twenty-Six Years in Communist Chinese Prisons. New York: Grove Press.

Lee, Haiyan. 2001. “All the Feelings That Are Fit to Print: The Community of Sentiment and the Literary Public Sphere in China, 1900–1918.” Modern China 27 (3): 291–327.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. 1999. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schwarcz, Vera. 1986. The Chinese Enlightenment: Intellectuals and the Legacy of the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Shih, Shu-mei. 2001. The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Smith, Norman. 2007. Resisting Manchukuo: Chinese Women Writers and the Japanese Occupation. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Wang, David Der-wei. 1997. Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849–1911. Stanford: Stanford University Press.