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The Literature of Leisure and Chinese Modernity (review)

From: China Review International
Volume 16, Number 1, 2009
pp. 126-129 | 10.1353/cri.2009.0017

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In The Literature of Leisure and Chinese Modernity, Charles Laughlin explores a modern Chinese literary genre the importance of which cannot be overemphasized: the informal prose essay. All too rarely, however, has it been the object of Western scholarship on modern Chinese literature. Laughlin focuses his insightful study mainly on essays written during the 1920s and 1930s, a period that witnessed the revival and elevation of the genre to previously unattained popularity. In an attempt to guide the reader through the vast and indistinct corpus of a genre the writing of which was practiced in some form by practically every Chinese intellectual of the period, Laughlin chose to limit himself to a subgenre of the essay he identifies as xiaopin wen, or little prose pieces. Laughlin sees xiaopin wen as most representative of a Chinese aesthetic concept called xianqing wenxue, which essentially describes the pursuit of happiness and leisure through literary expression. Circumventing other popular forms of informal prose writing of the period, such as the satirical zawen, informal jottings (suibi), or conventional travelogues (youji), Laughlin demonstrates throughout his study not only how the Republican-period practitioners of xiaopin wen creatively drew on premodern literature of leisure in their own prose responses to Chinese modernity, but more important, how the genre was able to challenge (and at times accommodate) calls for a socially redemptive literature, and how it could persist even during the early years of the People's Republic.

Laughlin organizes the body of works he discusses around four major, if loosely defined, schools or cohorts of xiaopin wen practitioners of the Republican period who respectively shared a common aesthetic view of the forms, roles, and content of xiaopin wen. Typically aligned with one or more journals in which they published their xiaopin wen, the four cohorts are the Threads of Conversation (Yusi ), the White Horse Lake (Baima hu ), the Analects (Lunyu ), and the Crescent Moon (Xinyue ). Each is treated in a separate chapter. In addition, Laughlin identified for each of these cohorts a common criterion that heads its chapter and that can be read as a single defining aesthetic concern shared by the group's members: "wandering" for the Threads of Conversation, "learning" for the White Horse Lake, "enjoying" for the Analects, and "dreaming" for the Crescent Moon group. Throughout the study, Laughlin comments on the shifting and often overlapping nature of group affiliation and aesthetic concerns of some of the period's most influential literary figures, examines the degree to which xiaopin wen can be seen as an intrinsically Chinese response to modernity, and discusses the politicization of a body of works that its authors tended to view as strictly apolitical.

In chapter 1, Laughlin first attempts to demarcate xiaopin wen against other forms of prose writing. He elucidates the concept of xianqing wenxue as a loose canon of premodern work that was first defined by Zhou Zuoren, who was also one of the foremost pioneers of modern xiaopin wen and cofounder of the Beijing-based Threads of Conversation group, which was seminal in the revival of xiaopin wen. Because Zhou and others aligned the modern xiaopin wen with its premodern predecessors—most important, the unconventional works of the late Ming Gongan school that celebrated the personal pursuit of leisure and the art of living—it constitutes, according to Laughlin, a major challenge to the notion that modern Chinese literature is characterized by the demise of tradition. Consequently, the kind of literary wandering that defines the works of the Threads of Conversation group discussed in chapter 2 is characterized not only by spatial wandering, but also by an intertextual, cross-cultural wandering, a "cultivated wandering in creative digression" (p. 49). Exemplified through xiaopin wen by Zhou Zuoren, Yu Pingbo, and Fei Ming, the idea of wandering as digression is thus read by Laughlin as a "deliberate frustration of utilitarian readings of self-expression" (p. 76), an intention to diverge both from the ordinary and from the norms of the New Culture Movement, shared to some extent by all subsequent groups of essay writers.

The idea that utilitarian concerns and the pursuit of leisure need not constitute mutually exclusive agendas of literary expression is explored in chapter 3...



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