Postsocialism and Its Narratives:
An Interview with Cai Xiang | 蔡翔访谈

Interviewed and Translated by Yu Zhang and Calvin Hui

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2018)

Cai Xiang

Time: July 3, 2016
Location: Bodao Café, 1420 Meichuan Road, Putuo District, Shanghai, P. R. China

Notes from the Interviewers and Translators: Cai Xiang is Professor of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Literature in the Department of Chinese at Shanghai University and the director of its Research Center for Contemporary Literature. His book Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949-1966 was translated into English by Rebecca E. Karl and Xueping Zhong and published by Duke University Press in 2016. In this interview, Cai Xiang shares his thoughts about the contemporary Chinese writer Lu Yao (1949-1992) and China in the 1980s, the revival of realism, pure literature, the relationship between the subaltern and the middle class, literary and cultural studies in China, and finally his research on socialist literature and culture. Cai Xiang stresses the importance of rebuilding an ideal mainstream society and looking for a new kind of certainty in this fragmented world. He also introduces illuminating new concepts such as “intellectual laborer,” “cultural proletariat,” and “petty bourgeois-socialism” to understand the cultural politics of postsocialist China. For the Chinese version, see below. The interviewers would like to express our gratitude to Kirk Denton and Xueping Zhong for their support and to Gao Ming for his assistance.

Ordinary World, by Lu Yao

Interviewer: In the past few years, the Chinese writer Lu Yao (1949-1992), the author of the novel Ordinary World, has regained broad attention and huge popularity in China.[1] The airing of the TV serial Ordinary World (2015) made his work even more appealing to contemporary Chinese readers. I heard it has become one of the most widely read novels among college students in China. Your career as a literary critic started with the publication of an essay about Lu Yao’s well-known novella “Life” (1982). Could you tell us about the writing of this essay?

Cai: That was about thirty years ago. Now, looking back, I think what motivated me to write about Lu Yao’s “Life” was several factors: first, “Life” suggests the possibility of changing one’s destiny, even though the male protagonist’s effort fails in this tragic story. This was probably one of the key issues in the 1980s. It was precisely in the 1980s when everyone felt there was a possibility to change their fate. China’s “planned economic system” had lasted for thirty years, but then the system started to be shaken up. The reason I used quotation marks for “planned economic system” is that the concept permeated the entire society, including every aspect of individual life. Therefore, it is not merely an economic concept; an individual’s destiny was determined by the society within the planned economic system. Of course, the planned economy also brought with it a sense of security and even warmth from inside the community. Published precisely at this historical juncture, “Life” implied that the nature of human fate is changing, which actually refers to what is commonly called social mobility (such as the migration from the countryside to the city that takes place in the novella). Moreover, this change can be determined by the individual, yet it comes with high risk and a strong sense of insecurity, and even causes an inner fear. In Lu Yao’s novella, the fear is manifested in the realm of morality.

Interviewer: The realm of morality?

Cai: Yes, the realm of morality. On the one hand, personal choices lead to changes in the individual’s fate; on the other hand, because such changes largely depend on one’s own decisions, they can lead to a sense of insecurity. This is different than the 1990s. After 1990, such a risk was basically a market behavior, but in the 1980s, particularly in the early 1980s, marketization had not started yet. Therefore, I think Lu Yao is an extraordinary writer, who had already keenly noticed that an expansion of the self would simultaneously bring about risk. But the story transforms the possibility-as-risk into a question of morality, which is one of the reasons it touched readers so deeply. From a literary perspective, I started to focus on the possibility of showing human destiny within the matrix of the changing social-historical context. This had an impact on my later approach in literary criticism. Therefore, I have been much concerned with the changes in the social-historical context. Even in my later study of socialist literature in the PRC’s first thirty years, I always stressed this social-historical relationship as an underlying structure.

Interviewer: Yes, I can see it.

Cai: In a changing social-historical relationship, how do we control human destiny and grasp the direction of society? Now, looking back, I realize that I probably already had these ideas when writing about the novella “Life.” But later I focused more on how to look for a new form of certainty in the changing society and history. This is one of the reasons I turned to the study of Zhang Chengzhi (1948- ).

Interviewer: By certainty, do you mean the individual’s or the society’s, or both?

Cai: I mean both. This brings us back to the 1980s. If we only talk about social-historical change, then what should an individual do? How does society operate? Is there any kind of certainty? Now, looking back, particularly after the mid-1980s, I was hoping to remove myself from the atmosphere of relativism and look for a new certainty. Therefore, I used the concept of idealism to name the possibility of looking for a new kind of certainty. I still hold on to it today and always search for a new kind of certainty, a new utopia. This leads to a two-sided problem, which is that when I discuss the socialism of the PRC’s “first thirty years,” I would not lightly deny the importance of the individual, and when I discuss “the subsequent thirty years,” I would not deny the importance of the collective. The contradiction between these two has been one of the questions embroiling my generation, a generation that has experienced the entire sixty years of the PRC.

Interviewer: Our generation born after the Cultural Revolution is also facing questions about the individual and the collective, and the individual and the community.

Cai: What has probably preoccupied my generation most is first the notion that the individual itself was produced by modernity. Whether in “the first thirty years” or “the subsequent thirty years,” the PRC itself was the product of modernity; and therefore it also produced individuals in the modern sense. This is unavoidable. The issue is what kind of community the produced individual should be situated in. As you said, this question remains to be solved not only by my generation but also by your generation. This produced individual cannot stay in atomistic state forever. Neither can it stay in a jungle society or free-floating forever. It needs a place to stay. I think Lu Yao already touched on this question, although he might not be very conscious of it. But discussion of this topic was brought to an end in the 1990s.

Interviewer: What kind of individual and what kind of community? These two questions must be discussed simultaneously, though this has been overlooked…….

Cai: Right up to the present. I mean that starting from “Life” up to now, I have been thinking in such a scholarly framework. This is the reason I take a retrospective view to discuss the Chinese Revolution and the 1980s and the present. This is one of the most urgent tasks we need to take up.

Interviewer: A writer like Lu Yao obviously has had far more impact on the mainland Chinese readers, but his major work has not been translated into English. What thoughts do you have on this?

Cai: I think Lu Yao basically is still a realist writer. The issues he was concerned with are the most sensitive of contemporary Chinese society since the 1980s, such as personal struggle, social mobility, and individual destiny. The significance of Lu Yao does not merely lie in the literary sphere; in fact, he has more to do with contemporary social history. If China resumes its path of development along such a social logic, the significance of Lu Yao will be constantly produced and reproduced. Of course, Lu Yao’s work has various facets, and critics thus have various reactions to it. In his later years, Lu Yao also avoided many questions. For example, the protagonist Sun Shaoping (in The Ordinary World) is in fact a rewriting of Gao Jialin (the protagonist in “Life”). Such rewriting is driven more by a romantic impulse and lacks realism. Realism gradually declined in China after the mid-1980s.

Interviewer: Why?

Cai: Mainly because of the rise of modernism, which posed a huge challenge to realism. Modernism emphasizes individual subjectivity, the depth of the self, and interior monologue. Generally speaking, this trend was a refusal of a social totality. In a certain sense, it bore more middle-class or bourgeois features. This is a literary question that interests me a lot now.

Interviewer: Do you still have a nostalgic feeling toward realism?

Cai: This is not entirely about nostalgia. I even think that this is the case not only with modern Chinese literature but also actually with world literature. Today we are facing the challenge of postmodernism. I don’t deny that modernism and postmodernism have brought many significant insights. But we cannot continue to think and exist in the midst of a fragmented world. I even think that what we need to do today is to depart from the postmodern narrative and investigate the possibility of reviving realism. To be concise, is it possible for literature to assume the responsibility of pointing to a better life? Or offering suggestions about what a good life is? This is probably an idea from Walter Benjamin, and he used it to distinguish classical writers from modern writers. Of course, realism also needs to be re-created, which would require us to think about whether there is a possibility of building a new utopia. Of course, this involves some really difficult reflection. To be more candid, I think what is beneath the so-called revival of realism is our lack of ability to rebuild an ideal mainstream society.

Interviewer: Could you please elaborate on what you mean by an ideal mainstream society?

What Is Literature Itself?

Cai: I have no objections to a pluralist society and culture. But we need to rebuild an ideal mainstream society. In this sense, I think that the culture of “the first thirty years” of the PRC struggled all along to tell a story about an ideal mainstream society; therefore, the socialist culture had a strong mobilizing force. Lu Yao inherited the form from the first thirty years of the PRC, though the content of the story was changed. That is why his work has had such an impact on generations of young people. I hope that we can rebuild an ideal mainstream society, and try to contest, struggle, and gain cultural hegemony over mainstream society. Therefore, it’s likely that I’ll reconsider realism. But this realism must be different from our former realism.

Interviewer: Your essay “What Is Literature Itself?” has an in-depth discussion of the concept of “pure literature” that arose in the 1990s. Could you please introduce the historical context in which pure literature emerged and its impact on contemporary Chinese writers?

Cai: There was a discussion when I was the editor of the magazine Shanghai Literature. It started with Li Tuo’s essay “On ‘Pure Literature,’” which was published in the third issue of 2001. I remember it was probably the end of 1998 when I had a discussion with Li Tuo in Beijing. In the middle of the discussion, he mentioned that he was reconsidering the concept of “pure literature.” At the time, I quite agreed, because to some extent what he said was very close to my thought. Later, I persuaded Li Tuo to put his thoughts into writing.

In the year 2000, Li Tuo and Li Jing had a conversation, which later was turned into the essay “On ‘Pure Literature.’” After its publication, I organized another discussion with some writers and scholars, who started to participate in the conversation. I myself published an essay, “What Is Literature Itself,” in 2003 as a response. I think this discussion is still significant insofar as it worked as a summary of or a conclusion to the twenty years of literature from the 1980s to the 1990s.

The concept of “pure literature” is very ambiguous. There was no such phrase in the 1980s, and it did not gain popularity until the 1990s. Liu Xiaoxin did some research on this issue, and he thinks that the concept was first raised by Wang Guowei. In Wang’s time, it mainly referred to fine arts, or pure fine arts. I remember that Qian Mu also discussed the topic, and his idea was that the concept of “pure literature” in fact also originated from the philosophies of Laozi and Zhuangzi and was related to the individual. Now we can understand that what underlies the concept of “pure literature” is the discussion of the individual, the idea that the self can be dissociated from society or independent from  social reality.

During the past thirty years of literary development in China, this concept has played an enormous role in reformulating the mainstream narrative in contemporary Chinese literature. It also borrowed a variety of techniques from modernism. In fact, this concept constantly excludes various factors external to the individual. As a result, the self has become more and more self-centered. The writer Han Shaogong (1953-) frankly pointed it out in the discussion at the time.

This literary trend had its own significance at the time. The significance is that the 1980s was subject to a new emancipatory politics, which required the individual to stand out from the collective in terms of aesthetic principles. This is what the poet Xu Jingya explicitly stressed in his essay “The Rising Poetic Group”: escaping from the collective aesthetic principles and establishing a new kind of individual literature. However, the individual gradually became more and more self-centered, which developed into a form of private writing. In this sense, our discussion actually demanded that literature should intervene in Chinese social reality again and intervene in the new changing historical relationship again.

Beneath the concept of “pure literature” is not only a new aesthetic principle but also a new political principle that stresses self-centeredness and develops increasingly toward middle class values. This notion has also penetrated into the present mainstream society. Therefore, a new discussion of the concept of “pure literature” in fact also aims to rebuild a new interpersonal relationship.

Interviewer: Do you mean the concept of “pure literature”?

Cai: No, I mean a reflection on the concept of “pure literature.” In fact, it demands rebuilding a new social relationship, a new interpersonal relationship. These were probably the thoughts behind our discussion at that time.

Interviewer: Could you talk about your career transition from an editor of the magazine Shanghai Literature to a professor who has been teaching at Shanghai University since 2002? On the one hand, you rejected the professionalization of literary studies, but on the other hand, you are also exploring the possibilities of the scholarly study of contemporary Chinese literature. Can you tell me more about your experience in this career transition?

Cai: Since this is a personal question, I can only talk about my own thoughts, my own experience. To me, the concept of literary criticism in the Chinese-language context mainly refers to literary review, not exactly the same thing as literary criticism in the Western sense, especially not in the theoretical vein of New Criticism. I think literary criticism should still contain discussion of artistic sensibility, because what needs to be determined first is the question of whether a literary work is well written. This is an aesthetic judgement. I think literary criticism is very important, for it has its own unique characteristics, and it differs from the study of literary history.

Why do I not particularly agree with the professionalization of literary criticism? The preface I wrote for my student Xiang Jing’s book touches on this topic.[2] I think it would be really tiring to be a professional critic, because you need to constantly keep up with new literary works and you are also expected to do a great amount of reading. Besides, I feel if literary criticism is professionalized, we will gradually exhaust our aesthetic sensibility, and our thinking and reading will be restricted too. Of course, this is simply my personal opinion.

Contemporary literature is relatively special. On the one hand, it is developing, with new literary works constantly coming out, a process that is both disrupting the existing literary order and posing a constant aesthetic challenge to it. On the other hand, a relatively stable field of literary history studies has gradually coalesced around contemporary literature. In fact, today’s scholars who are doing contemporary literary studies often engage in two aspects of the work: they are both studying literary history and writing literary criticism. In other words, they can bring the fresh artistic sensibility of contemporary literary works to their studies of literary history; and they can discuss what are good literary works in the lineage of literary history. There is no contradiction between these two aspects.

Since teaching at Shanghai University, I have also felt that contemporary literature as a discipline should have a relatively stable aspect to it. This relative stability refers not only to the objects of its research but also its methodology. From this perspective, the study of contemporary literature should take a temporary break from a pure or excessive criticism-oriented trend and seek to establish some regular research practices, including a relatively regular practice of collecting and organizing historical data. In this sense, scholars in the field of contemporary literature need to learn from scholars in classical and modern literature. Of course, in the study of literary history, I think we need to use multiple methods. I favor a discussion of literature in connection with intellectual and social history, which is different from solely focusing on intellectual and social history.

I think the uniqueness of literature probably lies in the fact that it builds a structure of feelings. This structure of feelings must be closely associated with social ideas, politics, economics, and culture, but it also stands as an independent system. It eventually points to rebuilding a new civilization. Therefore, how to discuss contemporary literature in the context of a theory of civilization is my recent scholarly concern. I think the present study of literary history provides a large space for scholarly discussion. Of course, studies of literary history and literary criticism are precisely what characterizes contemporary literature as a discipline. These two aspects should be organically related to each other.

Interviewer: What I am really curious about is that you had close contact with a great number of writers when you were editor of Shanghai Literature; afterward, you came to teach undergraduate and Masters and PhD students at Shanghai University. So how do you think about the impact of contemporary literature on education in the Department of Chinese, or university education in general? Could you please talk about what kind of changes you felt deeply as you experienced you own career transition?

Cai: I think this transition had a great impact on me. The first big impact is reconceptualization. As I mentioned earlier, literary review requires a degree of sensibility, but literary study at the university level cannot rely mainly on sensibility.

Interviewer: Your own career transition to some extent represents a very good combination, that is, moving from the frontier of literary criticism to studies of literary history.

Cai: I am not certain. I think one first needs to reconceptualize. In order to do more in-depth research on contemporary literature, we need to defamiliarize contemporary literature. It is only through defamiliarization that we can liberate ourselves from [the convention of] literary review, and distinguish the study of literary history from literary review. This way, literary review can be an object of study. Thirdly, we also need to raise new questions, because what we in effect explore are not only issues about literature but also issues about China. Compared with other disciplines, what are the characteristics of modern/contemporary Chinese literature? The latter closely intersects with the transformations of modern China in the twentieth century. While this literature touches on almost all the significant problems caused by such transformations, it also has its own unique way of thinking and responding. The motivation for our discipline is to attempt to respond to these questions. Otherwise, why should we study it?

Interviewer: Your essay entitled “The Subaltern” (1996) has been widely circulated and positively received. While the subaltern is one of the core concepts in postcolonial theory and subaltern studies, your work provides a uniquely Chinese perspective. Can you tell us more about the writing of this essay?

Cai: I wrote this essay more than twenty years ago. In addition to literary criticism and scholarly research, I wrote essays and casual reflections. I valued this genre highly because I could bring my feelings to it. It also felt freer. After joining the university, I was busy writing academic papers and had less time to write essays. But I feel I will return to essay writing later. Concerning “The Subaltern,” it has to do with the disappearance of the illusion formed during the 1980s. Now, looking back, why did we have such illusions in the 1980s? In the 1980s, “modernization” was a core concept. To borrow Louis Althusser’s term, this “modernization” has become a kind of “interpellation.” “Modernization” was endowed with multiple meanings. Which is to say: realizing modernization would change everyone’s fate. For me, that was the 1980s.

Interviewer: You said this was an illusion?

Cai: Of course, it was an illusion. This “everyone” can be characterized by the concept of humanism and the discourse of human nature. Modernization was thought to be the only way to change everyone’s fate. This was the psychological illusion of the 1980s.

The concept of modernization has replaced the concept of class struggle. In the (socialist) past, we thought it was through class struggle that we could enter a new world. But in the 1980s, we believed that modernization was a better path that could be achieved through a critical reflection on and abandoning of class struggle. Then in the 1990s, this belief began to fall apart. This was why I mentioned in my essay that “the concept of the poor has revived.” In the 1980s, there was no such concept as “the rich versus the poor.” This dichotomy did not exist in the mainstream. But in the 1990s, society became re-stratified. This is related to the changes in my later thinking.

So, behind the concept of the subaltern is social re-stratification. Honestly, during the “first thirty years,” for people in my generation, the concept of class was in fact relatively abstract. But in the 1990s, we suddenly discovered it referred to a very concrete reality. We were just discussing: what is mainstream society? Who constitutes this mainstream society? In China, the mainstream society should be constituted by the majority of the people. It should not only be a middle-class society, because in China the subaltern class constitutes the majority of the population; more precisely, it includes the workers and the peasant class(es). In modern China, one problem that the Chinese Revolution were striving to solve is how to make the subaltern class, comprising workers and peasants, to become the mainstream, a process that involves bestowing the dignity on the majority of the people that its deserves. It also involves the position of intellectuals: should they be part of the elite or part of the ordinary people?

Interviewer: How is it possible to imagine and construct the Chinese mainstream society? There is a close relationship between the mainstream society and the subaltern class that you mentioned.

Cai: Yes, in the Chinese context, it is unlikely that this mainstream society only includes the middle class. As we know, nowadays all the narratives about this mainstream society are not only related to the elite class; they are also closely connected to the middle class, but have nothing to do with the subaltern class. But the question is: how is the middle class related to the subaltern class?

Interviewer: Yes. This is exactly what I’d like to ask.

Cai: This is quite a key question that deserves further discussion. We cannot neglect the importance of the middle class. In fact, the Chinese middle class and the subaltern class are closely intertwined. This is especially true since the expansion of student enrollment in universities in China. The middle class is a Cold War concept; against the backdrop of the Cold War, the West told its middle-class story.

Interviewer: A middle-class story?

Cai: The West told a coherent middle-class story. In fact, many of our current understandings of the middle class come from this narrative. But can we tell this middle-class story differently? I think this is a fundamental issue. To retell this middle-class story, the relationship between the middle class and the subaltern class has to be an important element. I think we need to liberate ourselves from the story of the middle class told by the West in the Cold War period and to reconstruct it by emphasizing the relationship between the middle class and the subaltern class.

Although the middle class is a story, it is also an objective existence. With the transformations of the economy (including the current development of artificial intelligence), the number of people in the middle class will increase. So, it is a stratum that should not be overlooked, but how, then, should we look at it? We must seek truth from facts. To be honest, I think this stratum (the middle class) and how to view this stratum and its development are becoming more and more important. I am inclined to use a different concept to name it, such as intellectual laborer. I have even proposed another concept, namely, the “cultural proletariat.” The rise of the knowledge economy results in the formation of the so-called cultural bourgeoisie. Culture can be converted to capital, hence the rise of this new cultural bourgeoisie. This is an idea from Alvin W. Gouldner’s book The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class.[3] Conversely, if culture cannot be converted to capital, it will be converted to labor, hence the formation of the cultural proletariat.

When you look at China and the world, the middle-class dream formed during the Cold War era is dissolving. Everywhere it is the same. The dissolution of the middle-class dream and the expansion of this stratum of cultural proletariat are related to each other. Culture (knowledge) is also a form of labor that can be sold. It is more suitable to name this stratum the “cultural proletariat” and “intellectual laborer.” What do you think?

Interviewer: Could you talk more about naming the middle class the cultural proletariat?

Cai: It means that the middle class is also part of subaltern society and increasingly so. We can continue to discuss the position of intellectuals in this society. This also means the so-called elitist position of cultural activities (including literature) will retreat somewhat.

Interviewer: In your interviews and essays, you mention that we do not need to establish a subaltern literature and that it is more meaningful to consider the subaltern as a perspective in literary writing in general.

Cai: That was a long time ago. What I meant is that the subaltern is an affective condition of writing or the position of the writer, not simply a theme or an object of writing.

Interviewer: What is inspiring about your idea is that you think the middle class can identify with the subaltern class. But the reality is that the middle class today identifies with the upper class.

Cai: The middle class should be the majority of society. From a different perspective, it is important to think about how to build a new united front. This way we can avoid both a kind of ultra-right narrative and a kind of ultra-left narrative.

Interviewer: Your essay titled “Hotels, High Aesthetics, and Modernity” represents your cultural-studies-oriented writing. The Cultural Studies Department at Shanghai University is also very well-known. Can you talk about the development of cultural studies in China and its research methodology?

Hot Wind Studies

Cai: Cultural studies has been introduced to China over the past twenty years. Professor Wang Xiaoming has done much work in this area. He has also built a Cultural Studies Department at Shanghai University. We have worked together and edited a cultural studies journal called Hot Wind Studies. Wang Xiaoming is currently teaching and focusing on cultural studies.

In my work, I try to combine cultural studies and literary studies. More precisely, I consider cultural studies as a research method. One of the inspirations of cultural studies for me is its interdisciplinary perspective. In the past, we just narrowly emphasized the disciplinarity and professionalism of literary studies, which restricted literary studies. However, now, interdisciplinarity has become much more recognized and accepted, and I am thinking of some other questions: what is the uniqueness of literary studies within the context of interdisciplinarity? What concerns me is how we can rebuild the professionalism of literary studies when cultural studies has been widely recognized. How can we return to the discussion of form?

Cultural studies pushes us to go outward and to reconstruct the relationships between literature and other domains—society, politics, ideas, etc. This is what my former work was about. However, after these relationships have been constructed, how can one return to questions of literary form, including aesthetics? This is what I’d like to do. This is also inspired by the work of Professor Ban Wang. I think it is particularly important, because literature not only conveys intellectual, cultural, or political ideas, it also conveys aesthetic ideas, which can entail a sort of ambition to reconstruct civilization. However, it would be unclear for us to discuss questions concerning form, aesthetics, and feelings only within the confines of literary studies. This is why we need to borrow the perspective of cultural studies and construct relationships with other domains, and later return to the questions of form. This should be a dynamic process.

Interviewer: Do you have any suggestions to share with us concerning the writing of cultural studies essays?

Cai: I don’t have suggestions. I have only written two essays that seem to be cultural studies essays. Later I returned to my research on literary history. But I had wanted to write a book discussing urban problems. This plan had to be called off because I was working on the book Revolution and Its Narratives. I am not certain whether I can continue with the original idea or not. I don’t have good suggestions. I just think that the city is an especially important topic.

Another inspiration from cultural studies is that it can convert the object of study into a text. We can discuss the city as a cultural text. This is what I was trying to learn from cultural studies while writing those two essays. That effort was later interrupted, but I think these problems will continue to be discussed. In some ways, modern nations can also be considered city-nations. In other words, a city is a space of governance in politics, the economy, and culture. These two essays discuss urban space, but underneath it is the question of temporality.

Industrialization, organization, desire, the individual, consumption, and so on are all related to the city. The city has pushed the development of the Chinese Revolution. Conversely, socialism has encountered huge challenges from the city. If I continue this work later, I may not write in this way and instead discuss it within the larger context of the history of ideas. Cultural studies has its limitations. The political vision is not wide enough. Perhaps these scholars have been too much influenced by Michel Foucault’s micropolitics.

Interviewer: Now you have been focusing on reflections on and discussion of the 1980s. In China, research on the 1980s has become a “fever.” Can you tell us how it became your research interest from the perspective of the discipline?

Cai: Yes, to be more precise, my work concerns the early years of the 1980s (up to 1985). There are several levels here. The first one involves the transition between the two thirty-year periods. Why did this transition happen? This is the first question I am concerned with. The second question involves the historical origin of the 1980s. I have already finished the introduction of this book. I discuss “The New Policies in the Cultural Revolution” and the 1970s. The chapter concerns the relationship between the 1980s and the Cultural Revolution. It is around 40,000 words long. I have not finished revising it yet; it includes many topics. One is why the mobilization power of the Chinese revolution became weaker and weaker in the 1970s. That led to the problems of the 1980s. In analyzing the origins of the 1980s problems, I hope to discuss the problems with socialism itself. This is the second level.

For the third level, I inquire into what exactly was proposed in the 1980s? In this book, I use the concept of “petty bourgeois-socialism.” The reason I use a hyphen is to distinguish it from Marx’s critique of Proudhon’s petty bourgeois socialism. Why do I use this concept? In the 1980s, the structure of socialism (including the cultural structure) was relatively stable. However, the elements that constituted this structure began to change. Its expression can be located in how the petty bourgeoisie was imagined to be a major stratum that could represent the future. It included intellectuals and the traditional small-scale producers. This was a fantasy at the time. It was also expressed through the concept of modernization. These contributed to the formation of unique structures in literary and cultural expression.

Cai: Why do I discuss this problem? The development of marketization of the 1990s attested to the impossibility of petty bourgeois-socialism. This also resulted in the subsequent phenomenon of the Chinese intelligentsia moving either to the right or the left.

Interviewer: Your book Revolution and Its Narratives was recently translated into English. It has become an important academic work as part of the trend of reevaluating socialist cultures in English-language scholarship. Could you share your thoughts about this?

Cai: First of all, I would like to thank Professor Xueping Zhong and Professor Rebecca Karl. It is through their hard work that my book has been introduced to readers in the English-speaking world. My book stresses two points concerning today’s reconsideration of Chinese socialism. First, in recent years, Chinese socialism has been demonized. My first task is to liberate Chinese socialism from such demonization. This is why I emphasize the legitimacy of the Chinese revolutions, including the richness of the political and cultural legacies of Chinese socialism. I think we need to be fair in how we evaluate this past, because it concerns how we imagine our future.

Second, while emphasizing the legitimacy of Chinese socialism, I consider how to squarely face the problems created by it? We need to have a clear understanding of the problems created by socialism, including its failures. We cannot replicate another “first thirty years” of Chinese socialism.

It cannot reappear in its original guise. Given the premise that it was legitimate, we need to seriously analyze the various problems that it created. We need to seriously discuss the causes of these problems. Some are connected to the history of the time, such as the Cold War; some are caused by socialism itself. How to discuss these problems is a more difficult task. Therefore, we need to avoid romanticizing socialism. This is another reason I study the 1980s, because it was precisely in the 1980s that these socialist problems could be discerned more clearly.

If socialism itself had no problems, the 1980s would not have unfolded in the way they did. First, we need to focus on the legitimacy of socialism. It has rich political and cultural legacies. This is an important part of the discussion. Second, what are its problems? How do we locate them? We cannot afford to be too romantic about socialism. In Revolution and Its Narratives, I borrow Weber’s idea that legitimacy produces its own irrationality. This is worthy of discussion. These two problems are also closely connected. If we don’t emphasize socialism’s legitimacy, then we risk demonizing it. If we don’t focus on its problems, then we risk romanticizing it. Here, we must be clear about the premise: that traditional socialism failed. Why? It involves many issues. Next time, if you are interested, we can have an in-depth discussion of this question.

Yu Zhang is Assistant Professor in the Department of Chinese Culture at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University and a Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at The University of Hong Kong

Calvin Hui is Assistant Professor of Chinese Studies in the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures at The College of William & Mary


[1] The first volume was published in 1986. Lu Yao did not finish the all three volumes until 1988.

[2] Cai Xiang, “The Expression of This Era” (这个时代的表情), Reading (读书) (November 2014).

[3] The full book title is The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class: A Frame of Reference, Theses, Conjectures, Arguments, and an Historical Perspective on the Role of Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in the International Class Contest of the Modern Era (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press), 1979.


小注:蔡翔是上海大学中文系中国现当代文学专业的教授、当代文学研究中心主任。他的著作《革命/叙述:中国社会主义文学与文化想象(1949-1966)》由瑞贝卡∙卡尔(Rebecca Karl )和钟雪萍翻译成英文,并于2016年由杜克大学出版社出版。在此次访谈中,蔡翔讲述了他对一系列当代中国文化、社会问题看法,例如作家路遥与八零年代的中国、现实主义的复兴、纯文学、底层与中产阶级的关系、文化研究与文学研究在中国,以及他自己的社会主义文学文化研究。蔡翔强调了重建一个理想的主流社会以及在一个破碎的世界里寻找确定性的重要,并且提出了一系列新的概念来分析当代中国的文化政治,如“知识劳动者”、“文化无产阶级”和“小资产阶级-社会主义。

采访者: 在过去的几年里,作家路遥的作品再次得到广泛关注,2015年电视剧《平凡的世界》的热播也使得他的作品再次升温。路遥的长篇小说《平凡的世界》也成为高校大学生广泛阅读的作品。我知道您的文学评论生涯始于对路遥小说《人生》的评论。可否请您谈一谈关于《人生》的评论文章的写作?




















采访者:您在《何谓文学本身》中深入讨论了兴起于1990年代 纯文学这一概念。请您介绍一下纯文学生成的历史语境以及对作家的影响?











































采访者: 您对文化研究类型的文章的写作有什么建议?





蔡:是的,讲的更具体一点,主要是1980年代前期的问题, 主要是在1985年以前。有这样几个层面:一、涉及到两个“三十年”的转折,1980年代恰恰处于两个三十年的转折点。它为什么会出现这个转折?这是我关心的第一个问题。第二个关心的问题,1980年代的历史起源到底在哪里?我这本书的导论基本上写好了,主要讨论“文革新政”和1970年代,涉及1980年代和文革的关系。大概有四万多字,但还没有把它修改出来。里面涉及的话题比较多,其中有一点,就是中国革命的动员力量为什么在1970年代越来越弱,也只有中国革命的动员力量趋于弱化,才会导致1980年代的出现。通过1980年代起源性的问题,来讨论社会主义自身的问题,这是第二个层面。