Left Melancholy: Chen Yingzhen, Wang Anyi,
and the Desire for Utopia in the Postrevolutionary Era

By Hang Tu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.1  (Spring 2021), 122-160

This essay explores the aesthetic, affective, and political dimensions of leftist melancholy in Chinese and Sinophone literature following the fall of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It focusses on the literary and intellectual exchanges between the Taiwanese Marxist Chen Yingzhen 陳映真 (1937-2016) and the Shanghai-based novelist Wang Anyi 王安忆 (1954-), to illustrate how left-wing writers on both sides of the Taiwan Strait come to terms with the ruins of socialist utopia. As one of those veteran Marxists whose faith in socialism was shaken by the human costs of Mao’s utopian experiment, Chen’s melancholic reflections on the failure of radical politics were underpinned by a persistent, one might say outdated, belief in the messianic promise of revolution. Wang Anyi, by contrast, sought to overcome her sense of exhaustion and ennui in the 1990s by drawing inspiration from Chen’s utopian socialism. In delineating the rifts and affinities that both created tensions and nourished the friendship between the two writers, the essay explores their melancholy efforts to confront disillusionment, resignation, guilt, and forgetting in the postrevolutionary era. Some critics have dismissed such melancholy as a “pathological” or “reactionary” approach to leftwing politics, but the dystopian turn in leftist writers like Chen and Wang is in fact still animated by an emancipatory political promise.