Subjectivity and Realism in Modern Chinese Fiction:
Hu Feng and Lu Ling

By Xiaoping Wang

Reviewed by Yunzhong Shu

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2022)

Xiaoping Wang, Subjectivity and Realism in Modern Chinese Fiction: Hu Feng and Lu Ling. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022. xxxii + 201 pp. ISBN 978-1-4985-6619-3 (cloth); ISBN 978-1-4985-6620-9 (ebook).

Subjectivity and Realism in Modern Chinese Fiction: Hu Feng and Lu Ling consists of an introduction, nine chapters, and a conclusion. In the introduction, the author provides a brief survey of the leftist literary world in China during the War of Resistance, a summary of scholarly works on Hu Feng 胡风 and Lu Ling 路翎 published in English, and a section on his methodology and the structure of his book. Chapter 1, titled “Cultural Capital, Hegemony and the Zeitgeist,”  discusses Hu Feng’s wartime struggle for cultural leadership as a spokesperson for realism and his views on subjectivity. Chapter 2, “Intellectuals’ Politics and a Bourgeois Subjectivity,” examines Hu Feng’s views on critical realism, modern Chinese intellectuals, and bourgeois subjectivity. Chapter 3, “Subjectivity in Loss: Disintegration of Traditional Family and Emergence of Desire,” investigates issues such as “primitive unconsciousness” and “political anxieties” in connection with Lu Ling’s Children of the Rich (财主底儿女们) and Hungry Guo Su’e (饥饿的郭素娥). Chapter 4, “Subjectivity in Search of ‘Bildungsroman’ of Modern Chinese Intellectuals,” discusses moral relativism and the notion of “the people” in Children of the Rich.  Chapter 5, “Subjectivity in Vain: A Fable of the Failure of Bourgeois Social Reforms,” analyzes the mental experiences of Jiang Chunzu 蒋纯祖, a main character in Children of the Rich, together with some other characters in the novel. Chapter 6, “Intellectuals in Predicament: Other Stories,” categorizes characters along a spectrum from “weaklings” to those who “bust out by taking violent rebellious actions” (107) depicted in Lu Ling’s wartime stories. Chapter 7, “Politics of Recognition and Politics of Style,” uses concepts from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind as tools to analyze the language and style in Children of the Rich. Chapter 8, “Self-Other Relationship and the Other as the People,” focuses on the mental states of Jiang Chunzu and his brother Jiang Shaozu 蒋少祖 as intellectuals influenced by the May Fourth enlightenment agenda. Chapter 9, “Lu Ling’s Theory and His Fiction,” approaches Lu Ling’s views on realism from a cultural-political perspective and discusses the similarities and differences between Lu Ling and Hu Feng. In the conclusion, the author briefly discusses the general significance of Hu Feng and Lu Ling in their historical context.

I must add that the above synopses are tentative—the truth is I cannot confidently summarize what the author is attempting to say in this study. This stems from fundamental problems with the book—most notably, Wang’s shaky command of English and his careless writing. To give an example of the language problems, I quote one of Wang’s translations of Lu Ling:

“In this dark society, lofty ideal is drown.” He thinks, trying his best to suppress his excited sentiments, walks in front of the mirror to get dressed, “I have such kind of demeanor, I’m so young, having such talent and mettle—I’m entitled to get it!” He ponders, fastening his tie and wiping his face, making an anathematic facial expression, then he walks around in the room to do up his hair, holding cigarette in his mouth.

He goes out looking after friends, chatting and wearing away time. Around four and an half, he walks into a crowded, bright coffee house with an alarmed, gentle but stern mind. (138)

Examples of awkward, archaic, and poor English abound in this book. As a result, we see phrases like “vulnerable acracholia” (50) and “dying bed” (90). Even captions for the photographs in the book are full of errors such as “Lu Ling in His Young Age” (48) and “Hu Feng (left) and Lu Ling in their Elder Age” (168). The following quotation, from a discussion of Hu Feng’s promotion of the writer’s initiative, demonstrates Wang’s careless writing:

In particular, he was against the (neo-)traditionalism of the KMT, which in his eyes Pwa rejuvenating feudalist concepts for the sake of legitimacy; and he was also against the rigid and monopolized cultural policy from literary bureaucrats of the CCP, which in his mind weakened writers’ creative energy. (26)

Whatever word processing software Wang used, its spellchecker would have easily detected glaring errors such as “Pwa,” whatever that is supposed to be.

Compounding the problem of careless writing, Wang often shows a tendency to abruptly change the direction of his argument, obfuscating his intended meaning and precluding a sustained engagement with relevant scholarship.

As a result of its poor English and careless writing, Wang’s book is excruciatingly difficult to read. On rare occasions, when more or less comprehensible ideas do appear, they are often so erroneous as to highlight their invalidity. Here is what Wang claims about the workings of the “subjective fighting spirit,” the central idea in Hu Feng’s literary theory:

Here, the intellectual writer’s mind remains fundamentally unchanged; the object might effect certain changes in him, but it can only “transform” or “overturn” his “functions,” which means adapting to his ways of doing. An aggressive gesture of conquering and crushing the object in order to subjugate the latter under its control, the subject never doubts its legitimacy of working in this way; neither does it acknowledge its possible defects or weakness. (p. 9)

Now let us look at Hu Feng’s own description of how the “subjective fighting spirit” functions, in an article written in October 1944 that later became the inaugural statement of his journal Hope (希望):

The assimilative process of representing the subject matter is, at the same time, a critical process of overcoming the subject matter. This requires, on the one hand, the fortification of subjective strength to the point that it can fight and criticize the subject matter from real life. Through this it creates an artistic world that contains deeper truth than any individual subject matter. On the other hand, it requires that the writer should delve into the sensuous subject matter to such a depth that he becomes one with the sensuousness of the subject matter and cannot tear himself away or stand aloof from the subject matter according to his wishes. Consequently, the artistic world he creates will be an accurate, lively, and sensuous reflection of historical truth, not just a rigid illustration of an abstract concept. (Translation my own, from Hu Feng’s “Placing Ourselves in the Democratic Struggle” 置身在為民主的鬥爭裡面, 《胡風評論集》3:19.)

It is crystal clear that in Hu Feng’s view the “subjective fighting spirit,” far from leaving the writer’s mind fundamentally unchanged, as Wang claims, entails an interactive process in which the writer changes both the subject matter and himself as he grapples with social reality.

In addition to poor English and careless writing, readers will also encounter many passages that display a lack of familiarity with and understanding of such things as the theoretical sources ostensibly undergirding the book’s arguments. For instance, Wang uses “his” when referring to Dorrit Cohn’s categorization of narrative modes (129); also, the word “habitus” is used no less than twenty-six times, without a single reference to Pierre Bourdieu, who formulated the concept. A further example of Wang’s decontextualized use of concepts can be seen in his discussion of the lumpenproletariat in Lu Ling’s Children of the Rich, where his  argument is substantiated with a quotation from “Social Classes in the United States,” an article published by three American scholars in 1983, that contains the following words: “Members of this class have consistently been used as anti-union gun thugs, police informants, agent provocateurs, assassins, Klansmen, mercenaries, etc.” (76) The decontextualized application of concepts here begs the question: Why not cite a scholarly discussion of the lumpenproletariat in China to support this argument?

There is so little of scholarly merit in this book that it demands a turn from its contents to the issue of its having made it to print. Evidently, precedence was placed on the rapid cobbling together of a manuscript that could be rushed to press without having to undergo editing or copyediting, for this book displays little evidence of even minimal attention to matters of language usage, the soundness of arguments, the general structure and thesis of the book, or concern for  prospective readers. Upon encountering the note at the end of  this monograph listing five other books the author published between 2018 and 2021 (one by Palgrave Macmillan, one by Routledge, and three by Brill), the weary and wary reader may be disinclined to purchase them or consider them as scholarly resources or teaching resources. Full disclosure:  This reviewer has not read any of these books and cannot comment on their quality. Nor can I claim knowledge of what sort of review and production processes are routinely used at Lexington Books, but it is all too obvious that the publisher has failed to follow the most basic standards of quality control for Subjectivity and Realism in Modern Chinese Fiction: Hu Feng and Lu Ling.

Wang’s book is not a glaring exception, unfortunately. It is, rather, a symptom of a growing and conspicuous problem in academic publishing. As they become bigger and bigger players in the field, large commercial academic publishers—often owned by still larger entities—cut corners in their manuscript review, copyediting, and other stages in the production process. Consequently, the quality of their publications suffers, the volume under review being but an extreme example.

As far as Wang’s book is concerned, any gatekeeper at any juncture in the review and production processes who had performed his/her duty even perfunctorily could have easily detected the manuscript’s egregious problems and sent it back for major revisions or rejected it for publication altogether. To prevent debasement of scholarship in the field of modern Chinese literature, gatekeepers in the field and in academic publishing should carry out their tasks responsibly.

Yunzhong Shu
Queens College, The City University of New York