Western-language studies of Asian literature have long gone their own way. Since the study of Asian literatures by Westerners began in a systematic way in the late nineteenth century, most Western scholars of Asian literature have served long and arduous apprenticeships in languages and cultures very different in many respects from anything familiar to them. Perhaps for this reason, much of their work has reflected either a philological approach or an orthodox liberal humanism, and more of their labors have been devoted to the production of translations and literary histories than to critical or theoretical discussion. Those scholars from Asia who have worked in Western languages have generally lacked familiarity with or interest in Western critical methods. For decades, critical trends came and went with little or no impact on Asian literary studies; the result has been a substantial body of work by people with much to say to each other, something to say to non-academic readers to whom they introduced numerous Asian texts, but little or nothing to say to those engaged in the study of non-Asian literatures.
Within the past fifteen or twenty years, this pattern has changed. Much of the basic work of introduction has been completed, and younger scholars, their paths greatly smoothed by the efforts of their predecessors, have found themselves looking for new worlds to conquer. Many have found them in the project of attempting to raise the level of critical sophistication in their field toward parity with that of other literary areas. Phenomenology, feminism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, reception theory, cultural studies, and the rest of the usual suspects have been rounded up and set to work in various permutations and combinations, even while their practitioners keep a wary eye out for vestigial [End Page 981] traces of Orientalist imposition of Western-derived methodologies on non-Western texts.
Others remain content with traditional approaches, and much of the discourse continues to take place within familiar bounds; more papers on Asian literature are presented at conferences of the Association for Asian Studies, and to larger audiences, than at the MLA. The question of identity remains unresolved, and perhaps cannot or should not be: are these texts to be read and studied as part of (world) literature, or as part of Asian studies? This question has particular resonance in an area such as modern Asian fiction, where the meeting (or collision) of Asian and European traditions offers a tempting laboratory for the application of Western critical methodologies.
The three books under review provide a fortuitous snapshot of the problems and potentials of Asian literary studies now. Wong's book is firmly grounded in Asian Studies—or, to be more precise, in the kind of exhaustive historically-oriented record-keeping that figures conspicuously in traditional Sinological scholarship, coupled with the impulse to stress the political implications of all actions that characterizes so much of the discourse on contemporary China.
In this study of an influential united front of leftist writers in the 1930s, Wong fills in a significant piece of modern Chinese literary history with as much thoroughness as anyone could want. Names and head counts of League members, dates of meetings and lists of attendees, and accounts of organizational structure are provided in almost mind-boggling detail, and we learn a vast amount about the League's shifting ideological positions and personal alliances (many of which, like the impetus for its very formation and dissolution, were related to corresponding shifts within the Chinese Communist Party). We are also offered generous helpings from League manifestoes and the inward- and outward-directed polemics generated by League members and their opponents.
But what does it all mean? While Wong shows that the League served as an important force in establishing the left-wing ascendance in modern Chinese literature, he sheds little...