Imaginary Sites of Memory: Wang Zengqi
and Post-Mao Reconstructions of the Native Land

By Carolyn FitzGerald

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 20, no. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 72-128

This essay analyzes Wang Zengqi’s (1920-1997) modernist reworking of native soil (xiangtu) literature, focusing on his story “Buddhist Initiation” and his essays from the post-Mao period. While Jeffrey Kinkley and David Wang have written about Shen Congwen’s (1902-1988) impact on roots-seeking (xungen) writers during the 1980s, Shen’s student Wang Zengqi, in fact, had a greater impact on these younger writers. Therefore, this paper investigates Wang’s unique vision of the “native land” or rural homeland of the past (guxiang) as a means to better understand contemporary reconfigurations of collective memory. Drawing from Pierre Nora’s theorizations on “sites of memory” (lieux de mémoire), it argues that Wang and the roots-seeking writers began writing about the countryside as a locus of pre-modern literary and cultural traditions at a time in history when personal and collective memory had become torn with the falling away of the Mao era. Charting a genealogy of pre- and post-Mao native soil literature, it shows how Wang’s portrayal of the native land diverges from both Shen’s and other earlier Republican writers’ in the greater emphasis it places on the psychological workings of memory and modernist formal experimentation with language. Borrowing from David Wang’s term “imaginary nostalgia,” it uses the term “imaginary sites of memory” to describe Wang’s textual reconstructions of this site.

The paper begins with a discussion of Wang Zengqi’s return to writing in the post-Mao era and an overview of scholarship on native soil writings, analyzed within the context of Nora’s theorizations. Next, the following two sections look at Wang’s formal experimentation with language and divergent temporal frames in order to portray the anachronistic workings of memory in his remembrances of the native land of his youth. Given his focus on the centrality of language as a “culture bearing medium,” searching for the native land becomes an abstract process of recording regional language (tuyu) that has sedimented over time in the countryside, rather than of realistically portraying life in the countryside. Also, it involves seamlessly mixing together regional and classical language, as well as his own pre- and post-Mao native soil writings, together with those of his teacher Shen Congwen. Moreover, it is a process of interweaving personal and collective cultural memory into an integrated vision that sutures memories torn by the ending of the Mao era, and also through Wang’s experience of decades of revolution and colonial war during the War of Resistance (1937-1945).

Finally, the last section examines Wang’s essay, “Two Records of a Trip to Hunan” (Xiangxing erji), together with his painting of chrysanthemums inscribed with a poem drawn from the essay. These works shed light on his conception of Peach Blossom Spring (Taohua yuan) in Western Hunan as an important site of memory through which to reconnect to a personal and cultural past, even as he recognizes it to be both a tourist spot and the product of previous textual constructions. In addition, Wang’s many experimental reconstructions of various homelands reflect his ambivalent relationship to heterodox and orthodox culture. Although the roots-seeking movement he helped to inspire is generally understood to be a peripheral and anti-establishment movement, Wang and the other roots-seekers writers were in fact attempting to recoup a more pluralistic conception of personal and national memory outside the confines of politicized ideology or Maoist discourse (Mao wenti).