Republic of Letters6 min read

Eleanor Goodman reviews A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Der-Wei Wang


One evening this summer as I was waiting for a table at a restaurant, I overheard a well-dressed woman describing a bike trip she was planning to take to Japan. “I’m so excited about it,” she told her companion, “that I just picked up Memoirs of a Geisha.”

That literature is a window onto a culture – a point of access that can be utilized even from afar, a safe mental space in which one’s own attitudes, prejudices, preconceptions, and expectations can be challenged and even altered – is an idea that is not only true but important. In an era in which globalism is a simple fact and travel to previously remote places is easy and ordinary, while simultaneously xenophobia and racial fear-mongering are on the rise, there is an increasing need for exposure to other cultures in many forms. Then again, reading a book written by a white man about sex workers in the 1930s and 40s does not necessarily offer the most accurate picture of Japan as it exists today.

This is why this monumental anthology on modern Chinese literature is so essential. Let me start where most critics don’t dare end up: the price. This handsome book, weighing in at 1,000 pages with 161 individual essays, is listed at $45.00 and can be had right now from AbeBooks for $29.56 plus shipping. Given the quality of the writing, editing, and printing, the low price must have been a deliberate decision on the part of the publisher, and it’s a smart one that most academic publishers fail to make. It indicates that this book is meant for a broad reading public, not just for purchase by university libraries, and the editor David Der-Wei Wang clearly made his editorial decisions with that in mind.

Unlike most academic tomes, with their sprawling theory- or theme-based arguments, this book is structured around brief, readable, largely jargon-free essays that discuss a given moment or figure in literary history. We are given rich descriptions of the arrivals of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Sherlock Holmes stories into China around the fall of the Qing Dynasty as intellectuals were looking toward the external world for information and inspiration. We are shown different aspects of the life and career of Eileen Chang, a novelist and essayist who wrote in both English and Chinese, told as the story of an independent woman in Hong Kong, a tale of being forced out of Shanghai for political reasons, and a snapshot of an expatriate Chinese writer in California, trying to reinvent herself as an English-language writer.

These multinational, cross-cultural, cross-linguistic stories are not the only surprisingly contemporary aspects of these essays. Carlos Rojas writes engagingly of the “issues of gender and gender inversion” at stake in the power dynamics displayed in a novel of the early 1800s. Amy Dooling describes the “publishing sensation that unequivocally established the commercial potential of ‘the woman writer’,” a phenomenon that is a close cousin to – if not a progenitor of – the contemporary “beautiful woman writers” who today proliferate on the shelves of Chinese bookstores with their airbrushed large-eyed portraits. Maghiel van Crevel presents a powerful examination of a “‘cult’ of poetry” that romanticizes suicide among its members, the effects of which can still be seen in more recent examples like the tragic suicide of the Foxconn factory worker and poet Xu Lizhi.

These lines of historical continuity can be seen everywhere. We are shown the connective tissue that stretches, both linguistically and culturally, between Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia, Singapore, and Chinese-American communities in the United States. The myth of homogeneity that still exists with regard to Mainland China itself is also handily dispelled by essays about Tibetan and Hui Muslim literature, ethnic minority poets, and a personal piece by a young Han writer who grew up in a largely Kazakh village in the far western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. While the book avoids wading into the scholarly debate about what constitutes “Chinese literature” or “Sinophone literature” or the “Sinosphere” as a whole, it comes down emphatically on the side of inclusion.

Indeed, one theme of the book is the importance of inclusivity, exchange, and communication to understanding trends not just in literature, but in global affairs. Many of the writers under discussion here spent time outside of China, particularly in Japan, Europe, and the United States, or are impressively well read in foreign literatures. These essays address works that have been translated from Chinese into other languages, or works in other languages that have been translated into Chinese. Implicit in their juxtaposition, then, is also a picture of geopolitics and global history. These lines of communication were largely severed during the years of the Cultural Revolution; the essays from this period turn inward and are necessarily more political. In contrast, the essays engaging with the outward-looking years around the turns of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries demonstrate just how fundamental literature and art are to a mutually intelligible and diverse world culture. It becomes clear reading this book that one can trace the larger history of China itself across the twentieth century by looking at its literature and its writers.

This book is unlike its shelf-mates in its mix of well-established senior scholars, Ph.D. students, and independent researchers, from both English-language and Chinese-language backgrounds. It also, very unusually, includes creative writers themselves, such as Ha Jin, who writes a richly imagined piece about the composition of arguably the most influential story in modern Chinese literature: Lu Xun’s ‘A Madman’s Diary‘. Very far from the dry dust of standard contemporary scholarship, the piece inspires curiosity about the original work –what kind of story “would be a message from a Nietzschean madman who was convinced that people, including his family members, had been plotting to butcher and eat him”? Read and find out.

It is precisely these links – the curiosity that leads to connections or a desire to know more – that will make this anthology significant to readers. It challenges a creeping insularity that does harm to a culture by cutting off nourishment from the outside. The problem with reading Memoirs of a Geisha in preparation for a trip to Japan is not the instinct to reach for a book. Rather, it’s the limited mode of reference. Just as Donald Keene’s classic Anthology of Japanese Literature would have been a resource for my bicycling friend, A New Literary History offers a potent glimpse into China, as it was and as it is. With each essay only a few pages long, one can cherry-pick according to one’s interests, and not just the loftier ones. Enjoy science fiction? Mingwei Song’s terrific piece on a “posthuman future” and contemporary Chinese sci-fi will fascinate. You want rock and roll? Read Ao Wang’s rollicking insider’s take on the “Godfather of Chinese rock ‘n roll,” the irreverent and fascinating Cui Jian. In this meticulously edited and selected anthology, there really is something for everyone. All you have to do is look. ∎


A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Der-Wei Wang (Belnap Press, an imprint of Harvard University Press, May 2017)