Retrieving the Working Body in Modern Chinese Fiction:
The Question of the Ethical in Representation

By Jian Xu

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 16, no. 1 (Spring 2004), pp. 114-152

This essay rereads four master works of fiction by Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Xiao Hong, and Lao She to open up an ethical space that is inherent in the works but much neglected by critical scholarship. By loosening up the established interpretive perspectives on these works, it tries to tease out a textual surplus that is recalcitrant to the dominant mode of reading and therefore suppressed by it. This textual surplus inhabits the working body and challenges a certain kind of ideology critique that seems politically savvy but ethically irresponsible. In its attempt to fix the meanings of the above texts, this ideology critique appropriates the working body and turns it into a self-consolidating other. As a result, the working body, which has been created with tenderness and respect by the master authors of modern China, and whose ruin is meant to be a powerful indictment against the dark social political condition, is lost to contempt and scorn. With it, goes also a fine fabric of modern Chinese fiction.

The writer of this insurgent reading wants to show that the literary quality of multiple meanings need not be limited to Western literature but denied to “third-world literatures.” He foregrounds the ethical position of those modern authors with regard to the subaltern other and argues that the reason why the ethical has not received due attention is that the contemporary critics/scholars, the writer of the article himself included, tend to be unaware of their own transcendent position when passing judgment on the world. This position, left unexamined, may impoverish modern Chinese fiction, because it makes us so easy to announce the ideological backwardness of all that gives rise to pathos, lyricism, and the joy and dignity of human labor.