Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist
Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949-1966

By Cai Xiang
Edited and translated by Rebecca E. Karl and Xueping Zhong

Reviewed by Nicolai Volland
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2017)

Cai Xiang, Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949-1966 Ed. and trans. by Rebecca E. Karl and Xueping Zhong. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. xxix, 450 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-8223-6069-8.

The past decade has witnessed a renaissance of studies on Chinese socialist cultural production—including literature of the 1950s and early 1960s as well as that of the Cultural Revolution. This trend is observable in both English- and Chinese-language scholarship. Dialogue between these academic communities, however, remains limited, at least as far as published output is concerned. While translators have made available to Chinese readers many English-language studies of, say, Republican era history, the amount of literary criticism translated into Chinese remains limited (with the exception of theory); this is especially so for critical studies of post-1949 literature. Flows in the opposite direction, from Chinese to English, are an even rarer species. Nonetheless, several translation initiatives over the past decade have set out to bring more of contemporary Chinese literary criticism to the attention of English readers. These include Hong Zicheng’s (洪子誠) A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature, translated by Michael Day; and Debating the Socialist Legacy and Capitalist Globalization, a volume of essays edited by Xueping Zhong and Ban Wang.[1] With Cai Xiang’s (蔡翔) Revolution and Its Narratives, translated by Rebecca Karl and Xueping Zhong, we are given a monograph-length study that contains a wealth of fresh and original observations on literature from the 1950s and 1960s, all the while offering insights into current (21st century) academic debates in China.

Published originally in 2010 as Geming/xushu: Zhongguo shehuizhuyi wenxue-wenhua xiangxiang (1949-1966) (革命/敘述:中國社會主義文學—文化想象 [1949—1966]), Cai’s book is a wide-ranging inquiry into the relationship of revolution, modernity, and socialism in the literature of what PRC discourse calls the “seventeen-year period,” from the founding of the People’s Republic up to beginning of the Cultural Revolution. It is, as the translators note in their introduction, “an entirely new theoretical meditation on the historical and aesthetic possibilities opened up by, as well as the ultimate impossibility of writing a literature adequate to, the socialist transformation of China in the 1950s and 1960s” (xi-xii). While other authors—Ban Wang and Wendy Larson come to mind—have addressed these issues,[2] Cai Xiang’s account is original, emphasizing especially the discursive nature of the revolution and its ongoing need to narrativize itself. The challenge to write the revolution’s story/ies as it/they unfolded was a formidable one, but it afforded Chinese writers a spot at the forefront of the struggle for the country’s transformation. An understanding of that transformation, Cai argues, must avoid conflating the socialist imaginary and the national one. Unfolding simultaneously, nationalism and socialism never achieved congruity, but rather created a field of tension within which Chinese authors worked “to create an entirely new literary form and content for the socialist transformation of life, culture, and China” (xvi).

In their introduction, the translators locate Cai’s book within its larger discursive context. Upon publication, Revolution/Narrative (革命/敘述) garnered wide attention (and criticism) in PRC scholarly circles, as much for its aesthetic reappraisal of literature from the early People’s Republic as for its politics. Not only does it reconstruct the literary and aesthetic discourses of the early Mao era; it is also a systematic pushback against the “liberal revenge” (xix) of the 1980s and 1990s, the repudiation and dismantling of socialist realism in the 1980s. Cai Xiang’s book, Karl and Zhong explain, represents a “challenge to liberal discursive hegemony” in present-day China in the form of “a layered reexamination of socialist cultural practices” (xxii). The positions of China’s New Left are clearly a motivating force and a point of departure for Cai. The book’s politics account for many compelling insights, but also some of its more obvious blind spots and limitations, to which I will return later. On balance, they offer a productive vantage point to reexamine the aesthetic strategies of a crucially important era in modern Chinese literature. As the English translation addresses a very different audience, I will put aside the author’s politics for the moment and focus on his understanding of the literature and culture of the period between 1949 and 1966. Politics and culture, however, can rarely be neatly divided, a point the author emphasizes repeatedly and that Revolution and Its Narratives drives home.

Cai Xiang starts on a personal note, explaining the motives that led him to write the book. He cautions against, on the one hand, a naïvely apolitical “understanding-based sympathy” and, on the other, reductionist notions of China’s socialist revolution as a monolithic entity. What is needed, rather, is due attention to the complex relationships between revolution and tradition, the national and the international, and the multiple origins of Chinese socialist theory. Only then can we productively approach the literature and culture of China’s “postrevolutionary period.” The book’s conceptual thrust, hence, focuses on three aspects or dimensions. First, Cai proposes to see “Chinese socialism as a historical process filled with both tensions of self-negation and impulses for continuous revolution” (24). Second, both international and national conflicts—the Cold War as well as the contentious nature of class struggle in a revolutionary society—shaped the literary and cultural debates of the young PRC. Their imbrication demands a flexible analytical framework. Third, Cai draws attention to the systemic structure of the postrevolutionary state, what he calls a “productive apparatus” that generated, in a dialectic manner, not only new social ideas and ideals, but always also their opposites. These contradictions and the structures in which they are embedded are, for Cai, the central dynamic of postrevolutionary culture in China: “The establishment of a socialist country does not mean the end of revolution” (26). In sum, Cai argues for an approach that consciously takes on the entanglement of literature and politics, without falling into the trap of “reflection theory.” This approach informs the discussion in the book’s main chapters.

Cai sets the stage with an inquiry into the dialectical relationship between the local and the national in the revolutionary imagination. Chapter 1 shows how the national and the local are mutually constituted: The local cannot exist outside of the nation, while the nation-state is bent on regulating and eventually remolding the local in its own image. Cai’s analysis draws on a wide range of sources, such as the stories of Sun Li (孫犁), Liu Qing’s (柳青) The Builders (創業史, 1959), but also lesser known works like Wang Wenshi’s (王汶石) 1963 novel Black Phoenix (黑鳳). He shows that, while the local is an obvious obstacle on the road toward modernization, the party-state’s ambition to transform the countryside nonetheless requires knowledge and understanding of local practices deeply rooted in the native soil. To introduce a new national language and make it relevant to the “people’s masses” (人民群衆) across the nation, for instance, authors had to draw on local language. The ubiquitous dialogue passages found throughout Chinese socialist fiction in turn preserved and reanimated elements of pre-revolutionary local social and cultural practices. What ultimately emerges is thus a compromise: “the socialist imaginary of this period did not completely detraditionalize [itself]; rather, at times, it recalled tradition by occasionally treating the local (tradition) as a resource for its own imaginary” (80).

Chapter 2 turns to what Cai calls the “mobilization-reform [動員改造] narrative structure.” Drawing on the ambitious project of a transformative politics through mass mobilization that the victorious CCP instituted after 1949, this new narrative framework came to permeate much of Chinese socialist literature.[3] The mobilization structure was instituted with land reform and its fictional depictions in the late 1940s, and took on a normative function in the 1950s. Cai draws here on epic novels depicting the collectivization movement, such as Zhou Libo’s (周立波) Great Changes In a Mountain Village (山鄉巨變 1958) and Liu Qing’s The Builders (like in the book’s other chapters, none of these works receives a sustained reading; rather, the discussion floats across multiple texts). Cai’s analysis focuses on the cadres—often the central protagonists of these novels—the masses, and finally the intellectuals. The mobilization structure proved to be both empowering—creating the space for new fictional subjects and discourses, such as the emergence of a new bureaucratic or capitalist class among party cadres (a topic figuring in Hao Ran’s (浩然) Bright Sunny Days (艷陽天, 1965)—and restricting: the precarious position of knowledge-holders within the revolutionary state, for instance, imposed narrower boundaries on how intellectuals could be portrayed in fictional texts from the 1950s and 1960s.

In chapter 3, “Youth, Love, ‘Natural Rights,’ and Sex,” Cai Xiang tackles the well-known complex of revolution and desire. The Chinese revolution, Cai points out, was fueled by youthful passions, yet these same passions constantly threatened to undermine it. The dual nature of youth, as a subject of revolutionary modernity and as a symbol for the nation, can be traced from Liang Qichao through May Fourth discourses to Yan’an, a space populated by young men and women. The challenge, then, was for writers under the aegis of the socialist state to channel the youthful passions of love and desire toward productive purposes. The results were either evasive, such as Zhao Shuli’s classic “Xiao Erhei Gets Married” (小二黑結婚, 1943), or didactic, or both. Only on rare occasions, such as in Feng Deying’s (馮德英) novel Bitter Flowers (苦菜花, 1958) does sexuality rise to the plot surface, rather than being sublimated, or “reidentified,” in Cai’s terms. His conclusion, that this “reidentification” remains an unstable element that continues to threaten the discursive boundaries of Chinese socialist literature, is not implausible. Nonetheless, in this chapter in particular the English reader wishes that Cai would have had access to the nuanced and insightful work of Ban Wang and Wendy Larson on the same topic.

Revolutionary history and its protagonist, the heroic subject, have long been a focal point of research on Chinese socialist literature. In chapter 4, Cai addresses the entanglement of nation, revolution, and history in the course of national myth-making. Critically engaging the concept of “revolutionary popular literature” (革命通俗文學), he notes the difficulty of constructing a new national myth situated at the crossroads of popular traditions, modernity, and the educational project of the Party-state. Reading novels such as Ma Feng (馬烽) and Xi Rong’s (西戎) 1946 Heroes of Lüliang (呂梁英雄傳), Zhi Xia’s (知俠) 1954 The Railway Guerrillas (鐵道游擊隊), and Keep the Red Flag Flying (紅旗譜) by Liang Bin (梁斌, 1957), Cai offers a genealogy of the revolutionary hero and illustrates the authors’ struggle to accommodate the tastes of the newly defined reading public—the masses—with the pedagogical inclinations of the Party and its intellectuals, all the while drawing attention to the discursive roots of these constructs in traditional and modern Chinese popular literature. The result, Cai explains, was a remarkably complex amalgam in which “modernity and nativism passed through the mediation of the revolution to form a highly synthesized narrative model” (247).

The next two chapters focus on the issues of labor and industry. Chapter 5 highlights the crucial category of labor in both Marxist theory and Chinese socialist culture. Not only do labor and participation in collective labor have deep moral implications; collective labor also represents a pathway of emancipation for the subaltern classes, including Chinese women. In chapter six, “Technological Revolution and Working-Class Subjectivity,” Cai zooms in on the “new masters” of the nation, the working class. What is at stake is socialism’s imbrication with industrial modernity, which itself is, however, also imbricated with capitalism. To navigate the narrow dividing line, novels such as Ai Wu’s 艾蕪 Steeled and Tempered (百煉成鋼, 1958) draw on the Maoist “Angang Constitution,” a countermodel to Soviet industrial planning, to emancipate working class consciousness: “It was only with this expanded and radical massification of participation [advocated by the Angang Constitution] that the consciousness of the [worker as] master could genuinely be situated within the political and economic structures of society. In some sense, it was the radical echo of political democracy in the sphere of the economy” (354). In the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward, then, the task of literature became to narrativize this newfound subjectivity of the working class—a project that, as Cai notes in the chapter’s conclusion, was ultimately doomed to fail.

The final chapter moves to the cultural politics of the decade immediately preceding the Cultural Revolution and aims to identify the roots of the crisis that would soon consume Chinese socialist literature. Cai sets out to address the increasingly urgent problem of alienation or, by way of Deleuze  (not entirely convincing here), “territorialization.” The specter of alienation loomed over aesthetic and philosophical debates as well over discussions of everyday life and in fiction. The most acute formulation of this problem was, of course, Mao’s 1962 call to “never forget class struggle,” which reverberated through the literary and cultural realms. Altogether, Cai finds five interrelated elements that contributed to the crisis in socialist theory that would erupt in 1966: the unresolved problem of distribution vs. consumption in socialist society; the alienation resulting from increasingly specialized labor that was insufficiently compensated for by the discourse of workers as “masters” of their own fate; the contentious borderline between private and public matters, between individual and collectivist urges; the clash between strong romantic impulses and the regularizing demands of realism; and, finally, the conflict between the need for obedience and constraint in a rational socialist society and the right to rebel—the revolutionary instincts of opposition against all forms of oppression and subordination. As Cai shows, the conflicting demands of socialist society appear in vivid detail in the often neglected novels and plays of the time. They came to a head in the spring and summer of 1966.

In the book’s conclusion, Cai picks up the last chapter’s five contradictions in slightly different form: “(1) the contradiction between egalitarianism and social class differentiation; (2) the contradiction between bureaucratic hierarchy and mass participation; (3) the contradiction between political society and the world of (everyday) life; (4) the contradiction between internalization (neizaihua [内在化]) and objectification (duixianghua [對象化]); and (5) the contradiction between maintaining the status quo and facing the future” (405). Literature mostly falls by the wayside here,[4] as the author squarely addresses the political nature of the crisis of socialism, as well as efforts to overcome this crisis—especially in the heterodox thought of the Cultural Revolution. By the 1980s, however, both these radical leftist ideas and the more modest socialist models of the 1950s were discredited, as China bade “farewell to the revolution” (in the words of Liu Zaifu and Li Zehou). Socialism consequently slipped into an even deeper crisis, as the contradictions that had first stirred in the 1950s grew out of proportion and control. Here, Cai adopts the standard New Left position, making no secret of his sympathies.

Revolution and Its Narratives contains numerous compelling insights and productive readings, as the detailed chapter summaries above make clear. The translation’s ability to communicate with its English readers, however, is at least in part frustrated by an apparent disconnect between the questions and concerns that drive scholarship on Chinese socialist literature in the PRC and the United States, respectively. One instance of this disconnect is the book’s periodization. English-language scholarship over the past two decades has concluded that boundary markers such “1949” and “1966” are artificial, imposed by a rigid political chronology. They obscure longer aesthetic trends that connect the 1940s and the 1950s, and the culture of the early Mao period and that of the Cultural Revolution. Cai himself is critical of the mainstream periodization of contemporary Chinese literature, but his insistence on a derivative chronology—reiterated in the book’s subtitle—does little to solve the conundrum, or to persuade his English readers. His reiteration of externally policed boundaries remains unconvincing, and in fact is undercut by Cai’s own choice of texts. Quite a number of the novels that Cai examines were written and published in the late 1940s, not in the People’s Republic, a problem the author evades but that undermines the very chronology he imposes on his reader.

Lack of awareness of—or interest in—scholarly discourses from outside the PRC is apparent also in Cai’s refusal to inspect the broader international context of Chinese socialist literature.[5] The internationalist and even cosmopolitan nature of 1950s Chinese culture is widely acknowledged, at least in the West.[6] Chinese socialist literature was never an entity in and of itself; it was conceived, from the late 1940s, as part of a global movement, a new socialist world literature. The young PRC built a dense network of cultural contacts with its partners in the socialist world (the Soviet Union, but also the socialist nations of Eastern Europe and East Asia), and pan-socialist literary works and discourses permeated the culture of the early PRC—as any issue of The Literary Gazette (文藝報) will demonstrate. The chapter on Chinese industrial fiction, for instance, suffers from the neglect of Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (Tsement, 1925, Chin. 1929), the canonical ancestor of socialist industrial fiction that was hugely popular in China in the 1940s and 1950s. Cai’s refusal to look beyond the PRC’s borders in his otherwise original and nuanced project attests, on the one hand, to the systematic repudiation of the Soviet Union after 1960 (ironically it also reflects the decline of interest in global socialism after the neoliberal “end of history” circa the 1990s). On the other hand, it is rooted in the rising tide of nationalism that has characterized Chinese popular and academic discourses since the 1990s. Yet “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was a slogan of the 1980s, not the 1950s. Cai’s rejection of an epistemological framework other than his own deprives him of an opportunity to add the complexity of a transnational dimension to his ambitious reevaluation of Chinese socialist literature. It also prevents him from entering into a more sustained dialogue with current English-language scholarship.

These limitations notwithstanding, Revolution and Its Narratives contains numerous original insights, based on a wealth of readings of both classics of the 1950s and 1960s and many lesser-known works. It covers a wide range of topics and will be essential reading for scholars and graduate students working on Chinese socialist literature.

Nicolai Volland
Pennsylvania State University


[1] Hong Zicheng, trans. Michael M. Day, A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2007; 中國當代文學史), reviewed for MCLC by Ed Gunn; Xueping Zhong and Ban Wang (eds.), Debating the Socialist Legacy and Capitalist Globalization in China (PalgraveMacmillan, 2014), reviewed for MCLC by Jie Lu.

[2] Ban Wang, Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, and History in Modern China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004); Wendy Larson, From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

[3] As the translators explain in their introduction, Cai rejects the designation “socialist literature” as a shorthand for the literature of the 1950s and 1960s and the periodization that has taken root in Chinese academic practice since the 1990s, and which tends to distinguish the seventeen years and Cultural Revolution period from the “New Era” (新時期). Rather, he speaks of “contemporary literature” (當代文學), which he expressly wants to be understood as the entirety of the literary production from 1949 to the present. In this review I will stick to the more familiar “socialist literature” for the works of the 1950s and 1960s.

[4] This may be a moot point, or precisely the point: Cai concludes his book with the sentences, “behind the literary always lurks the political. Or perhaps the political itself already constitutes the literary” (431).

[5] The editors in fact acknowledge that Cai “disavows the problem of influence altogether,” speculating that “Cai’s point is to emphasize how socialism was nativized in and through China’s modern experience with revolution and cultural production, for which Mao’s ‘Talks’ are far more important” (xix). The latter claim is debatable.

[6] See Nicolai Volland, Socialist Cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945-1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). See also the work of Tina Mai Chen, Mark Gamsa, and upcoming work by Ban Wang.