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  • Witness Outside History:Play for Alteration in Modern Chinese Culture
  • Yingjin Zhang (bio)

Il y a toujours l'Autre.

— Henri Lefebvre

All of us must live within a certain historical era, but this era sinks away from us like a shadow, and we feel we have been abandoned.

— Eileen Chang

Modernity, Discontents, Witness

Since the early 1990s, scholarship in the humanities has persistently interrogated modernity and explored its discontents and critiques. In the field of modern Chinese literature and culture, challenges to "enlightenment" (qimeng) as the core idea of modernity have been frequently mounted. In terms of historiography, David Der-wei Wang joins a group of mainland Chinese scholars1 and extends the parameters of the modern (xiandai) to the early modern period (jindai) by locating incipient modernities in late Qing literature (1849-1911), which is reconstructed as a vibrant literary scene of inventions and innovations that would be subsequently repressed or suppressed by the canonized May Fourth and leftist enlightenment discourses of the 1920s and1930s. "The crucial burst of modernity came in the late Qing, not the May Fourth period," Wang pronounces unequivocally.2 In terms of reconceptualization, Michel Hockx goes further than Wang and provocatively asserts that there is no "May Fourth literature," by which he means that there has never been such a coherent body of writings rigorously distinguished [End Page 349] from other competitors in China's burgeoning and contending literary field of the late 1910s through the late 1920s.3 In terms of methodology, Leo Ou-fan Lee advocates a paradigm shift from modernity as profound ideas—which he himself practiced back in the 1980s4—to modernity as surface images identifiable in an array of urban architecture and planning, print publications, consumer goods, and leisure lifestyles. As he proposes, "We must not neglect the 'surfaces,' the images and styles that do not necessarily enter into the deepest of thought but nevertheless conjure up a collective imaginary. In my view, 'modernity' is both idea and imaginary, both essence and surface."5

Modernity's discontents articulated in such new scholarship derive much from a realization of what Harry Harootunian calls "history's disquiet."6 What has come under intense interrogation in recent scholarship is the teleological concept of history, which has long been legitimated in the name of modernity and nationalism. Instead of promising progress and salvation without fail as before, history at the hands of the revisionist scholarship has re-emerged as a Janus-faced "monster" that repeatedly inflicted violence and trauma on generations of Chinese people living in different geopolitical areas throughout a long twentieth century.7 Inspired by Walter Benjamin's theory of history and memory, scholars nowadays openly declare their intentions to retrieve repressed memories and lost voices from the wreckage of history and historiography.8 The current fascination with unofficial memory may be one of the latest interventions in the ongoing project of what Prasenjit Duara aptly describes as "rescuing history from the nation,"9 in which the task of historiography is no longer exclusively reserved for the nation-state but is instead returned, at least theoretically, to countless experiencing subjects in history. Rather than a homogeneous people whose defense against imperialist invasions and whose triumph over internal enemies demand an unwavering, even self-sacrificial commitment to an imagined, oftentimes utopian community, the nation is now reconfigured in a de-centered landscape of the Chinese modern where the nation is increasingly detached from the heroic and immersed in the quotidian.10 From the textual recess of "May Fourth's discontents" and "wounded memories," a new oppositional stance can be located in "witness against history"—a stance that commands not only historical recognition but moral support as well.11

Recent critiques of modernity are largely empowered by poststructuralist thought, but a poignant irony remains that the binary logic allegedly placed under erasure has actually persisted to the present, albeit in a different rhetorical disguise. Reminiscent of a long list of contrasting terms (e.g., "struggle" versus "harmony," "strength" versus "beauty," "uplifting and dynamic" versus "placid and static," "powerful and grand" versus "prosaic and earth-bound"), enumerated by the young female writer Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing, 1920-95) in her polemic essay, "Writing...


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pp. 349-369
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