Introduction to Ethical Literary Criticism by Nie Zhenzhao (review)
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Reviewed by
Nie Zhenzhao. Introduction to Ethical Literary Criticism. Beijing: Peking UP, 2014.

When Nie Zhenzhao proposed ethical literary criticism about a decade ago, Chinese critics were just troubled by a lack of their own theoretical discourse. Against this background, Nie's efforts were rather significant. The years' work yields a comprehensive theoretical framework and a set of core concepts and arguments, which are exemplified in Nie's new work, Introduction to Ethical Literary Criticism. The book, composed of two parts and appendixes, namely, basic theories of ethical literary criticism, the application of these theories to text analysis, and the list of its terms and their definitions, seeks to illuminate the working mechanisms of ethical literary criticism and its terminology such as ethical taboo, ethical environment, ethical knot, ethical line, ethical identity, ethical confusion, Sphinx factor, human factor, animal factor, rational will, irrational will, natural will, and free will.

The first part of the book begins with a discussion of the origin of literature from an ethical perspective. Regarding the origin of literature, there are a number of critical theories dealing with it, such as the mimetic theory, the cathartic theory, and Labor Theory. So far, the most influential one has been Labor Theory conceptualized by Frederick Engels, who argues that literature, or arts in a broad sense, has originated from human labor. Unlike Engels, Nie forcefully argues that labor is just one of the conditions for human beings to produce arts. Therefore, in his opinion, literature is not the product of labor, but "a product of morality," or "a unique expression of morality in a given historical period" and it is "fundamentally an art of ethics." Nie then defines ethical literary criticism as "a critical theory that approaches literary works on the basis of their ethical essence and educational function from the perspective of ethics" (13). [End Page 270]

In this part, Nie also draws a distinction between ethical literary criticism and moral criticism. In Nie's conceptual system, moral criticism lays much emphasis on "good or bad evaluation of a given literary work from today's moral principles" (128), while the goal of ethical literary criticism is to uncover ethical factors that bring literature into existence and the ethical elements that affect characters and events in literary works, thus examining the ethical values of a given work with reference to a particular historical context or a period of time in which the text under discussion is written. To illuminate this issue, Nie uses Shakespeare's Hamlet as an example. According to moral criticism, the influential interpretations are a play about "character tragedy" and that about "Oedipus complex" (130). However, from the perspective of ethical literary criticism, readers might find that it is "a tragedy about ethical dilemma aroused by the change of Hamlet's ethical identity" (133).

A big breakthrough in the first part is the discussion about biological selection and ethical section. Nie points out "the biggest problem for mankind to solve is to make a choice between the identities of animals and the identities of human beings" (32). The theory of biological selection by Darwin and the argument of labor assumption by Engels are regarded to be forceful in differentiating human beings from animals, yet, in Nie's view, "both Darwin and Engels failed to make a fundamental distinction between man and animals though explained where human beings have come from" (34). With reference to Darwin's concept of biological selection, Nie places much emphasis on its counterpart: ethical selection. Biological selection, for Nie, is only the first step to help human being to be who they are in a biological sense. "What truly differentiates human beings from animals is the second step, ethical selection" (35), which helps to endow human beings with reason and ethical consciousness, and thus eventually turns them into ethical beings.

To make it more persuasive, Nie resorts to the story of Adam and Eve from Bible. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve are human beings purely in the biological sense. Despite of their being physically different from such creatures as livestock, insects, and wild animals, so far as knowledge is concerned, there are no fundamental differences...