The Translatability of Revolution:
Guo Moruo and Twentieth-Century Chinese Culture

By Pu Wang

Reviewed by Yi Zheng
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright July, 2019)

Pu Wang, The Translatability of Revolution: Guo Moruo and Twentieth-Century Chinese Culture Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. xvi + 336 pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-98718-0.

Owing largely to the controversial nature of his political affiliations and intellectual achievements, Guo Moruo has to date not received adequate academic attention in the English-speaking world. There are notable studies of Guo’s historiography, literary theory and practice, and his intellectual and life choices.[1] His early poems and poetics have also received substantial treatment.[2] But as one of twentieth-century China’s most important poets, translators, dramatists, and scholars, his work is understudied and underappreciated. The Translatability of Revolution: Guo Moruo and Twentieth-Century Chinese Culture is ground-breaking in affording Guo his rightful place. Pu Wang’s comprehensive new study of Guo’s life and work is not only a first, but also an intellectual and literary-historical tour-de-force that both demonstrates excellent scholarship and offers remarkable insights into Chinese literature, history, comparative literature, and translation studies.

The book is an “exploration of the dialectic of translation, revolution, and historical imagination,” and an examination of the “cultural dynamics of China’s revolutionary century” (6) through a “critical engagement with the multifaceted works of Guo Moruo” (6). One of Wang’s key concerns is the transformation of Guo’s aesthetics and politics and the role of translation in both—the question of “the translatability of revolution.” Wang divides Guo’s life and work into two parts. Part I, “The Translingual Making of a Chinese Zeitgeist,” is comprised of three chapters on Guo’s translation practice, poetic experimentation, and political development before 1949. Wang proposes to understand Guo’s diverse aesthetic and intellectual choices as part of a self-conscious development of “China’s revolutionary culture” (35). Thus, chapter 1 frames Guo’s early poetic creations and translations as well as his creative enchantment with pantheism in terms of a “lyrical politics” that “gave rise to a radical ideology of pantheistic translatability” (35, emphasis added), a key term the author uses to demonstrate Guo’s instrumentalization of literature for a revolutionary Chinese zeitgeist. Interpreting Guo’s apostrophic Whitmanesque poetic compositions and his translations of Shelley, Wang argues that “Guo’s ideal of pantheistic translation preconditioned a revolutionary subjectivity” (ibid). Focusing on his apostrophic poetics is an excellent choice for elucidating Guo’s early poetic ambition, especially the new poetic confidence—much needed by the then-nascent modern poetry movement—that came with his proclamation of the new poet as an individual god-like “Creator”/I.

Although Wang compellingly demonstrates how Guo’s apostrophic addresses called a new Chinese poetic universe into being, he seems little interested in Guo’s contribution to the New Poetry movement. The emphasis on the translingual aspects of Guo’s early apostrophic compositions quickly leads to an argument that a transnational revolutionary culture rather than engagement with modern Chinese poetics was already at the heart of Guo’s literary practice. This argument is made possible by suggesting that what Guo translates from Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is the spirit of a Romantic historical imagination that prefigures his concept of literature as the gramophone of organized political revolution. However, as many a scholar of European Romanticism has pointed out, Shelly’s metaphor of the poet as the “lyre” (which Guo glossed as “瑤琴”) of a poetic zeitgeist is simultaneously a self-effacement and an aggrandizement of individual creativity. As an instantiation of the creative/literary sublime, it bears witness to the poet’s simultaneous [near-]annihilation and transcendence, engendering a moment of mastery through imagination (Zheng 2011). Taking this into consideration would have added some needed nuance and complexity to Wang’s otherwise persuasive interpretation of Guo’s understanding of Shelley’s lyre.

Wang also discerns a revolutionary tendency in Guo’s penchant for apostrophic poetics, which recreates a Whitmanian, Shelleyan, and Qu Yuan-style fusion with the cosmic—suggesting that Shelley’s lyre inevitably led to Guo’s “gramophone.” Guo, however, only used the metaphor of gramophone years later. This comparison was made years later when Guo was no longer writing pantheistic poems but directly serving as a political functionary for the ongoing revolution (79). As Wang’s insightful account indicates, “[B]e a gramophone” was proposed by Guo as a slogan in “a to-do list for young revolutionary writers in the wake of National Revolution of 1925-27” (ibid). The gramophone is the voice of a political organization, an instrument for promulgation. The issue then is not only that, as a metaphor, it conveys a more mechanical sense of reproduction than the invocation of the lyre, signaling that Guo’s view of literature indeed has undergone “a significant departure” from his “early romantic celebration of selfhood” (ibid), but that this change is qualitative, marking a disjuncture in Guo’s literary and political development. The author seems to gloss over the latter point for the larger goal of the book. But the question remains: how does the Romantic historical imagination embodied in Shelly’s lyre, which champions the primacy of the aesthetic in bringing about a new society,[3] necessarily lead to Guo’s gramophone, which hyperbolizes the political instrumentalization of aesthetics? Wang’s proposal that the one “prefigures” and “preconditions” is not an adequate or sufficiently nuanced explanation. Perhaps more elaboration on how “an ‘active’ organ of the revolutionary consciousness as self-empowerment and self-cancellation at one and the same time” fell “[W]ithin the lyrical logic of self-instrumentalization” (80) might help.

The larger goal of the book is not only to chronicle Guo’s life but to trace, through his writings, his path to and seminal role in twentieth-century Chinese revolutionary culture. In elucidating Guo’s lyrical works, Wang aims to establish the inevitable transference between romantic lyricism and revolutionary politics. Chapter 2 is a pivotal stage in this project: it focuses on the Creation Society’s transliteration and Guo’s translation of the German concept of “Aufheben.” This foregrounds the theme of translatability, which is applicable both to literature and revolution, as the key to understanding Guo’s work, particularly his changing literary and intellectual-political choices. It also helps Wang introduce Guo’s translation projects—especially his decades-long work on Faust (the focus of chapter 3)—and demonstrate their centrality to both his intellectual and political development. In a well-researched and insightful account that is at once intellectual, historical, political, and textual, Wang shows that while the radical Creationists transliterated the Hegelian-Marxist notion as Aofuhebian (奧伏赫變), with the aim of introducing a dialectics of teleological progression through negation, which in due course became the foundation for a revolutionary/CCP historiography, Guo chose to gloss Aufheben as tuibian (蛻變). Tuibian not only means “metamorphosis,” but also the molting/shedding of one’s own old skin. What Guo emphasizes here in translating the German term is a painfully disjunctive and qualitative change. Contrary to the author’s thesis, the story of this chapter actually tells us that Guo’s transformation from a Romantic lyrical poet to a revolutionary gramophone marks a fissure, a radical personal change in political direction at a critical moment of modern Chinese history. It is a tuibian, in which Guo shed his old skin, rather than a dialectical development of Romantic poetics. It shows that advocating for art as the “gramophone” of a political cause at this juncture in his life and career was a result of Guo’s hands-on experience as a leading propaganda functionary at a critical moment in the on-going revolutionary movement.

Taken together, chapters 2 and 3 establish that translational practice is the key to understanding Guo’s corpus and reveal the extent of the German influence in Chinese leftwing intellectual circles. Chapter 3 adds imaginative, occasionally speculative, analysis of Guo’s choice of poetic language in his translation of Faust, which was at the center of Guo’s aesthetic-political universe as “he transformed it into an allegory of China’s unfulfilled modernization and on-going revolution” (36).

Part II of the book turns to Guo’s “intralingual practice” after 1949—that is, his translation of classical Chinese poetry into modern vernacular and his study of ancient pictographs. This is especially valuable because Guo’s work in these fields has never been fully explored. Chapter 4 innovatively links Guo’s deciphering of ancient Chinese scripts to his earlier autographical writings, concluding that both are translations, the latter striving to establish “a correspondence between individual experience and modern China’s ‘epoch’ of ‘social revolution,’” the former to achieve “an epistemological translation of the visual existence of Chinese pictographs,” for the purpose of conveying “a universal urgency of revolution” (36). Chapter 5 examines Guo’s historical plays and scholarship, highlighting their role in the production of a political imagination of “the people.” Chapter 6, the final chapter, brings together the two aspects of the book’s thesis: literary translation and historical imagination. It does so by looking into Guo’s “modernizing translation”—jinyi [今譯]—of ancient Chinese poetry, at a time when he was no longer composing the modern vernacular poems that had contributed so significantly to May Fourth poetic experimentation. That Guo turned away from composing and promoting modern vernacular poetry is an important point in the debates concerning the implications of Guo’s intellectual career vis-à-vis twentieth-century China’s political and cultural history. The chapter does not deal with this thematically; rather, it examines the principles and praxis underlying Guo’s various renditions of classical Chinese poetry, arguing that Guo is all along guided by (aspires to) the same cultural-revolutionary logic as found in Marxist historiography.

Guo’s work since 1949 is more controversial because his choices were unambiguously bound up with the tumultuous history of Mao’s China. Wang attempts to make sense of this body of work in Guo’s own terms—that is, by trying to sympathetically elicit Guo’s possible motivations. The “cultural-revolutionary logic” he discerns in Guo and with which he understands and elucidates Guo’s translations and other texts echoes standard CCP historiography. Guo’s literary and translational practice of fanan [翻案] (turning the table) and his anachronistic historical and philological studies, are thus evidence of his deliberate creative translating of [a version of] the Chinese past and its traces into a cultural foundation for revolution. As understood in this book, translation, from the translingual to the intralingual, is a process of turning foreign and ancient sources into the ideological wherewithal for a revolution. In the end, Guo emerges not as a political opportunist, as he is oftentimes characterized, but a steadfast aesthetic visionary and cultural builder of China’s revolutionary present and future. But important questions remain that are under-addressed by Wang: how do we evaluate Guo’s contribution to the field of historical philology, his translation of Faust, and translations of classical Chinese poetry into the modern vernacular? What might be the intellectual and cultural-historical implications of this body of work and the epistemological and cultural-political violence engendered or enabled by it?

The author’s scholarship and narrative are fine-tuned enough to retain the complexity and difficulties of Guo’s choices (or the lack thereof), including his exchanges with Mao, discussed in the conclusion. However, framing and explaining (away, at times) Guo’s multifarious and constantly evolving corpus via the imposition of a revolutionary cultural logic can only result in a historiography that is forced and anachronistic. The conclusion, for instance, that Guo’s May Fourth poetic compositions are simply a prelude to his revolutionary cultural visions can only be reached at the expense of excluding important parts of his poetic corpus. Guo’s fascination with Shelly’s lyre does not, in this reviewer’s opinion, necessarily lead to his vision of the gramophone of organized political revolution. More important, his poetic creation at the time is not limited to apostrophic invocations (nor are his influences limited to Whitman and Shelley); furthermore, Wang does not give Guo’s Romantic novellas and short stories their due. Glossing over the disjuncture between Guo’s May Fourth poetic creativity and his post-1928 political-intellectual turn can only be premised on a teleological biographical approach that treats personal change as historical inevitability, even though Wang disavows such an approach in his introduction.

Despite these issues, Wang’s excellently researched and compellingly narrated accounts often undermine his own intellectual-historical framework, guiding readers into the depth and intricacies of Guo’s personal, political, and intellectual transformations as well as their contexts; in the end, the author’s own insights and research seem more illuminating than the invocation of the “global revolutionary century” (22) and its explanatory historiography. Still, it is humbling to read this book, not only because of the author’s sweeping grasp of primary and secondary sources and theoretical acumen, but also owing to the depth and nuance it adds to our understanding of twentieth century Chinese literature and intellectual culture, as well as the possibility and difficulty of grasping it.

Yi Zheng
The University of New South Wales


[1] See: Denton, Kirk A. “General Introduction.” In, Denton, ed., Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 1-61; Arif Dirlik, Revolution and History: The Origins of Marxist Historiography in China, 1919-1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Wendy Larson, Literary Authority and the Modern Chinese Writer: Ambivalence and Autobiography (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); Jiayan Mi, Self-Fashioning and Reflexive Modernity in Modern Chinese Poetry, 1919-1949 (Lewiston: Edwin Mellon Press, 2004); David T. Roy, Kuo Mo-jo: The Early Years (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971); Xiaoming Chen, From the May Fourth Movement to the Communist Revolution: Guo Moruo and the Chinese Path to Communism (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2007).

[2] Julia C. Lin, Modern Chinese Poetry: An Introduction. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972: 197-227; Yi Zheng “The Figuration of a Sublime Origin: Guo Moruo’s Qu Yuan,” Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 152-198; Yi Zheng, From Burke and Wordsworth to the Modern Sublime in Chinese Literature (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2011).

[3] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy. The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (Albany: SUNY 1988).