Socialist Cosmopolitanism:
The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945–1965

By Nicolai Volland

Reviewed by Tie Xiao
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2018)

Nicolai Volland. Socialist Cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945–1965 New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. x-xii + 281 pp. ISBN: 9780231183109. (Hardcover: $60.00 / £47.00).

This learned study examines the “world-orientedness” of Chinese literature of the 1950s. Socialist literature of the young PRC, as Nicolai Volland has convincingly demonstrated, was “a literature in the world, a literature of the world, a literature for the world” (3). It was shaped by and shaped the multiple and multidirectional flows of texts across national and linguistic borders, which constituted and characterized the emerging socialist literary universe. Reading the transnational and transcultural literary imaginaries as “configurations of world-ing” (4), Volland examines the roles that the literary world played in the making of the socialist world in the mid-twentieth century, tracing the transnational traffic in literary imagination. ​More important, reading world literature as a world-making activity reaffirms the importance of understanding, to borrow Pheng Cheah’s apt words, “the world as an ongoing, dynamic process of becoming, something continually made and remade . . . a dynamic process with a practical-actional dimension instead of a spatio-geographical category.”[1] Socialist Cosmopolitanism invites the reader to rethink the relationship between the force of literature and the openness of the world.

Transnational cultural circuits structured the socialist (literary) world. Not only did writers, translators, and bureaucrats travel under the auspices of socialist cultural diplomacy, literary characters, plots, genres, and poetic images also moved across national borders and linguistic boundaries through translation, adaptation, and other forms of creative appropriation. Volland argues that the worldliness of Chinese literature of the 1950s is defined by the centrality of transnational socialist culture in the PRC; Chinese socialist literature as world literature came into being through transnational and transcultural literary practice. Tracing the mobility of people, texts, and ideas, Volland illustrates how the literary production and consumption of socialist China became part of the socialist literary universe, contributing to the formation of a shared but diverse socialist cosmopolitan culture. It was an asymmetrical cosmopolitan formation, with Moscow as its gravitational center defining hierarchies of meaning and regulating literary circulation and exchange in the socialist bloc. The power asymmetries and unevenness raise the question of agency, both governmental and individual, in transcultural engagement. Focusing on the interplay of the local and the translocal, Socialist Cosmopolitanism examines the tension between the centripetal pull from the center and centrifugal forces at the periphery in the formation of the socialist literary universe.

Volland looks at what he calls “the transnationalization of the Chinese literary system after 1949” (63). Chapter 1, “The Politics of Texts in Motion,” studies the modes of the PRC’s cultural diplomacy and uncovers the institutions and structures that not only set people and texts in motion and integrated China into socialist transnational networks of cultural relations, but also aspired to contribute to the creation of a new cultural world order. Made possible by the active engagement of the state, China’s entering into the socialist cultural world changed the ways in which Chinese literature circulated in the world, diversified the Chinese literary universe with translations of Russian, Bulgarian, Czech, German, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, and North Korean authors, while also remapping world literature and impacting the world at large. In chapter 6, “Mapping the Brave New World of Literature,” a close reading of the spatial imagination that emerges from the pages of Yiwen 譯文 (Translations), China’s premier journal of translated literature, demonstrates how literary practice created images and understandings of the emerging new world and China’s place therein, and thereby helped to shape the changing contours of China’s cosmopolitan worldview.

Volland is at his most interesting and convincing when illustrating how “transnational flows enabled by the vibrant networks of cultural production in the socialist world called for a new literary language, introduced new fictional themes, and stoked interest in genres hitherto neglected by Chinese writers” (62), and how Chinese writers, translators, editors, and readers, through practices of cultural production and consumption, contributed to the shaping of the socialist literary universe. Volland unravels the role of transnational factors in the production and consumption of the new pansocialist literatures by scrutinizing the circulation and creative appropriation of Soviet textual models in socialist China. Chapter 2, “The Geopoetics of Land Reform in Northeast Asia,” analyzes Zhou Libo’s 周立波 (1908–1979) land reform novel Hurricane (暴風驟雨, 1948–1949) as a creative modulation of the Soviet agricultural epic, Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned (1932), and thereby examines the geopoetics of agricultural fiction in Northeast Asia that idealized a new socialist world community. Chapter 3, “Fictionalizing the International Working Class,” analyzes how Cao Ming’s 草明 (1913–2002) novel The Moving Force (原動力, 1948) appropriated the plot structure from Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (1925), transplanted the transnational genre of industrial fiction to China, and experimented with a new industrial aesthetic in its portrayal of the working class. Chapter 4, “Soviet Spaceships in Socialist China,” discusses the transculturation of Soviet entertainment literature (including adventure novels, anti-spy novels, and science fiction) in China. It focuses on the work of Zheng Wenguang 鄭文光 (1929–2003), a major writer of Chinese socialist science fiction, and explores the role of “transculturation and transgenre migration” of scientific ideas in the utopian project of socialist construction (118). Focusing on the adaptation of Soviet children’s and juvenile literature by Chinese translators, editors, and educators, chapter 5, “Sons and Daughters of the Revolution,” demonstrates how the imported ideal of the young revolutionary successors was domesticated in the PRC. Together, these chapters illuminate the working of the cosmopolitan forces in the emergence of pansocialist genres, such as agricultural fiction, industrial fiction, and socialist science fiction, that redefined China’s literary terrain. Uncovering the diversity of the Chinese socialist literary landscape, Socialist Cosmopolitanism questions the canonicity and supposed monopoly of socialist realism in the socialist world.

Volland’s analysis of the kinship between Soviet literature and “Chinese variations” (41) is not intended to prove that the Soviet texts were urtexts or to establish a genealogy of pansocialist literatures. Instead, he emphasizes the dynamic synchronicity in the practices of literary production and literary consumption, which characterizes the formation of a cosmopolitan cultural sphere across the socialist world. Read in a transnational and intertextual context, Chinese texts and foreign textual models interacted and informed each other; their coexistence and entanglements highlight “the conditions of synchronicity under which authors and readers alike operated” (94). Furthermore, Volland’s reading foregrounds the transformations that textual models from abroad underwent in the processes of transculturation, demonstrating “how the transnational can be contained and made to serve the interests of the national, all the while retaining its transnational qualities and character” (127). Circulation and exchanges in the pansocliast literary orbit were held together by the centripetal force from the center and at the same time subject to strategies of localization.

Methodologically, Socialist Cosmopolitanism draws from and contributes to studies that pluralize and reenergize the “cosmopolitan” by exploring cosmopolitan practices and histories outside of the European Enlightenment context (such as, most notably, Sheldon Pollock’s work on the “Sanskrit cosmopolis,” Ronit Ricci’s study of “Arabic cosmopolis,” and Katerina Clark’s book on Moscow of the 1930s as the center of a cosmopolitan Soviet culture).[2] Volland argues that, paradoxically, as China became a relatively closed society, Chinese writers and readers became more committed to literary engagement with the world beyond their borders and Chinese literature increasingly laid claim to its place on a new literary world map. In his introduction and conclusion, Volland summarizes the central goals of socialist cosmopolitanism in comparison with past cosmopolitan practices: “the valorization of the collective, which replaces the individual as the agent of cosmopolitan cultural practice, and which is ultimately represented by the socialist state; the acknowledgment of the role of the national within the transnational; and finally an emancipatory ideal that establishes cosmopolitanism as a subversive force that aims to change the existing world order” (13). Volland recovers the 1950s as an era of writers and texts in motion enabled by the vast and vibrant networks of cultural exchange and cooperation in the socialist world. Rather than a retreat from the Republican-era cosmopolitanism, Chinese socialist culture represents a phase of reorientation in China’s long-standing commitment to openness and exchange: “Socialist cosmopolitanism is not an aberration but a modulation and continuation of a longer cosmopolitan trajectory” (191) that spans China’s long twentieth century. Thereby, Socialist Cosmopolitanism pays homage, I think, to Joseph R. Levenson’s short but brilliant work, Revolution and Cosmopolitanism: The Western Stage and the Chinese Stages (1971), which situates the cosmopolitan spirit of the 1950s within modern China’s turbulent transition “from a world to a nation in the world.”[3]

Theoretically informed, closely argued, and elegantly written, Socialist Cosmopolitanism is an exciting book that contributes a new perspective to our understanding of Chinese socialist literature—a world literature perspective. Challenging parochial studies of literature, the world literature perspective provides a vantage point to unpack the transnational forces at work in Chinese socialist literary life when Chinese literature became part of a shared new world literature. Socialist Cosmopolitanism not only recovers the worldliness of Chinese literature of the 1950s, but also brings into relief the dynamics of transnational cultural contacts that shaped the emerging socialist cultural universe. Given the ephemerality of socialist cosmopolitanism in China (the cosmopolitan openness of the 1950s, as Levenson said, was soon “out” in the middle and late 1960s and was replaced by “communist provincialism”), one is tempted to ask whether certain patterns of cultural circulation, production, and consumption of the 1950s or certain underlying tensions inherent in socialist cosmopolitanism presaged some impulse toward “a willful cultural provincialism.”[4] A deeper engagement with Cai Xiang’s seminal work, Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949–1966 (Duke University Press, 2016), especially with his nuanced discussion of narratives of labor and working-class subjectivity, would have also been welcome. That said, Volland should be congratulated for producing an engaging and insightful study that makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the literary universe of the young PRC and the formation of textual communities across the socialist bloc. Socialist Cosmopolitanism is a must-read for anyone interested in Chinese socialist culture and will undoubtedly further animate studies on cosmopolitanisms, transculturation, and world literature among scholars from across disciplines.

Tie Xiao
Indiana University


[1] Pheng Cheah, “What Is a World? On World Literature as World-Making Activity.” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 3031, 35. On the relationship between world literature and cosmopolitanism, see also Cheah’s more recent work, What Is a World?: On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[2] Sheldon Pollock, The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006); Ronit Ricci, Islam Translated: Literature, Conversion, and the Arabic Cosmopolis of South and Southeast Asia (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011); Katerina Clark, Moscow, The Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931–1941 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

[3] Quoted in Frederic E. Wakeman, Jr., “Foreword.” In Joseph R. Levenson, Revolution and Cosmopolitanism: The Western Stage and the Chinese Stages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), xv.

[4] Levenson, Revolution and Cosmopolitanism, 47, 5051.