Work through Power, Discourse, and Subject Formation:
Wang Xiaobo’s Contributions to Chinese Intellectual Debate

By Gengsong Gao

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 31, no.1  (Spring 2019), pp. 121-160

This essay draws upon Foucault’s theories to explore Wang Xiaobo’s contributions to the post-Tiananmen Chinese intellectual debate and discourse regarding the key issues of power, discourse and subject formation. As China’s market-oriented reform was accelerated in the 1990s, China’s economy was developing at a breathtaking speed. Meanwhile, political corruption was rampant, economic disparity increased and environmental pollution was worsening. Chinese intellectuals debated heatedly over the fundamental cause for and solution to these problems and crises. It was under such a highly charged intellectual atmosphere that Wang Xiaobo and his works began to emerge from obscurity and receive wide public and intellectual attention. Despite their disputes and conflicts, different intellectual factions enlist Wang Xiaobo’s works to support their embraced political and cultural positions. As a result, Wang Xiaobo’s works serve only to harden the intellectual split. Differing from the existing interpretations, this essay treats Wang Xiaobo’s essays and fictions as resources to broaden the argumentative space and enrich the intellectual debate.

This essay first analyzes the limits of the Chinese intellectual debate and discourse.  This analysis shows that despite their conflicting political viewpoints, different intellectual factions share a common state-centered approach to power. In dealing with the relationship between power, discourse and subject formation, intellectual debaters either ignore the relationship between power and discourse or treat human subjects as passive victims of dominant discourse or as rational appropriators to serve mere instrumental purposes. Then this essay offers a close reading of Wang Xiaobo’s novella The Golden Age as an intellectual resource to address the above-mentioned intellectual limits. This close reading demonstrates that Wang Xiaobo’s fiction could enrich the intellectual debate and discourse in the following two aspects. First, it supplements intellectuals’ state-centered and top-down approach to power and discourse by thematizing the active discursive practices and interpretive agency of everyday life. Second, while being informed by Foucault’s thoughts, Wang Xiaobo constructs a more positive and dialogical human subject that is able to evoke and work through modern power relations by bringing past and present, stories of oppression and stories of agency, first-person experiential perspective and third-person structural perspective into a productive tension and conversation with each other. This human subject is not only concerned with the self-interested utilitarian ends but also committed to an active pursuit of liberty, identity and meaning of being under a crushingly authoritarian rule.