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Chinese Modern: The Heroic and the Quotidian
Xiaobing Tang. Chinese Modern: The Heroic and the Quotidian. Durham: Duke UP, 2000. xiii + 380 pp.
Aiming at a general readership of literary scholars, as well as Chinese specialists, Chinese Modern is both a noteworthy attempt to bring the experiences of Chinese modernity to bear on theoretical discourses of modernity and a dexterous use of western theories to illuminate the workings of modernity in Chinese literature and culture. It offers close analysis or "intimate readings" of selected literary and visual texts rather than a narrative history of the twists and turns of modern Chinese culture. Lest these readings be dismissed as a "postmodern" hodgepodge, Tang stresses the grounding of his project in history, seen now as "uneven and multifocal." Each of the seemingly randomly selected texts, he argues, is in fact "an overdetermined historical intervention that provides a crucial link in modern Chinese literary and cultural practices," even if they do not easily cohere into a uniform historical narrative. Connecting the apparently disparate narratives is what Tang calls the dialectics of the heroic and the quotidian, a concept that not only provides an interpretive framework but also denotes "an inescapable condition of secular modernity" under which a structure of ambivalence is maintained between passions for a utopian future and longings for a fulfilling everyday life.
It is not difficult to see how Tang's conception of such a dialectics is informed by the particular historical experiences of Chinese modernity under the Communist regime. The personal sacrifice exacted by revolutionary [End Page 519] fervor in the socialist era is paradigmatic of the ways that utopian politics overcome everyday life, an issue at the crux of the dialectics, as Tang's discussion of a key 1963 play, Nianqing de yidai (The Young Generation) in terms of revolutionary mass culture makes amply clear. Accordingly, much of the literature and culture produced after the Cultural Revolution needs to be understood with reference to utopian politics and its impoverishment of everyday life. This framework lays the ground for some penetrating analysis of literary and cultural practices in the second part of Chinese Modern, where the heart of the book clearly lies. Focusing on works from the latter half of the Eighties and the early Nineties, Tang insightfully unpacks the cultural dynamics in China's post-revolutionary struggle to transform itself in the pursuit of market economy. The dialectics of the heroic and the quotidian now play out in two different cultural interventions: a modernist construction of new identity and self-consciousness against a landscape of social disintegration and commodification on the one hand, and an affirmation and interiorization of the consumerist desires of urban everyday life on the other. Tang's investigation tracks the dialectics circuitously through various topics, including residual modernism, the spectacularization of history, the cinematic representation of the city, the anxiety of everyday life and the ways it can be overcome in new urban culture, interiority, and postmodern melancholy. Though the diverse discussion does not always illuminate the said dialectics, it nonetheless enriches our understanding of some significant concerns in modern Chinese literature, notably the urban/rural symbolic opposition, subjectivity, and engagement with history.
If the proposed dialectics serve Tang relatively well in his analysis of Chinese cultural practices under the People's Republic, their relevance is more oblique in his reading of literary texts from the first half of the century. Reflecting the current trend of questioning the canonical construction of modern Chinese literature, Chinese Modern begins with a serious discussion of Henhai (The Sea of Regret), a 1906 harbinger of modern Chinese romance. Tang then goes on to re-read well-known works by canonical writers Lu Xun, Ba Jin, and Ding Ling. In his consideration of two of Lu Xun's famous short stories he discusses the madman as a deconstructive reader and also performs a Lacanian exploration of modern Chinese consciousness. This reading undoubtedly opens [End Page 520] new paths on well-trodden ground, as does his analysis of the...