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A Reflection on Postmodernist Fiction in China: Avant-Garde Narrative Experimentation

From: Narrative
Volume 21, Number 3, October 2013
pp. 296-308 | 10.1353/nar.2013.0013

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As we know, postmodernism, as a literary and cultural movement, came to an end some time ago not only in the West but also in China, although it has permeated in a fragmentary way nearly all aspects of contemporary culture and thought. Today, we readily think about the duality of something without falling back on the traditional idea of “center” or “totality.” In the field of critical theory, there is no longer any dominant theoretical school or literary current that plays a role like the one played by postmodernism and poststructuralism in the latter part of the twentieth century. But as a literary scholar who promoted postmodern studies in China in the late 1980s and early 1990s and once focused on the study of postmodern literature and theory in a global and comparative manner, I still feel some regret. That is, in carrying out post-modern studies from a literary critical perspective, we Chinese critics and scholars, including myself, seldom put forward insights based on our close reading of literary works with postmodern characteristics. The spirit of this particular age might well have changed, but superb narrative techniques will always remain useful and valuable to those who undertake literary innovation. If the peak period of the Chinese avant-garde novel came to an end over a decade ago, when certain novelists stopped experimenting with narrative techniques and shifted their attention to more commercial and popular writing, nevertheless the value of their experiments for literary history may be “rediscovered” by future researchers. But I still think it appropriate to reflect on this historical phenomenon, which I will do before I analyze in detail a characteristically postmodern text by Mo Yan.

Rethinking Chinese Postmodernism in a Context of Global Culture

It is true that postmodernism was once one of the most heatedly discussed and debated theoretical topics, first in the West and then in the East. But when it started in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the American literary and cultural field, it largely referred to avant-garde practice in philosophical thinking and narrative experimentation, especially to such postmodernist theorists as Ihab Hassan and some others. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, due to the publication of Jean-François Lyotard’s book La condition postmoderne: Rapport sur le savoir (1979), the debate originally confined to the North American literary and cultural field quickly became European and then international in scope. Since the beginning of the debate on an international scale, postmodernism has undergone continual redefinitions and redescriptions. So-called “constructive postmodernism” is a recent example of the revival of interest in post-modernism at the turn of the century (Schiralli). In the peak years of the international postmodernism debate, such eminent Western theorists or thinkers as Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, Matei Călinescu, Ihab Hassan, Leslie Fiedler, Douwe Fokkema, Hans Bertens, Linda Hutcheon, Jonathan Arac, and Brian McHale, among others, offered their own definitions and descriptions of postmodernism, both in culture and in literature. Their theoretical constructs were based largely on Western literary and cultural practices, seldom touching on Asian or Third World cultures and literatures. We Chinese scholars, confronted with the impact of postmodernism, reacted mainly passively, translating and introducing the different versions of this new literary and cultural phenomenon to our colleagues and the broad reading public in the Chinese context. In our piecemeal introduction of postmodernism to our Chinese colleagues, we usually read whatever books we could get hold of and then immediately wrote our introductory articles and published them in Chinese literary magazines or scholarly journals, without first letting our Western and international colleagues examine them. So in this sense, we should admit that the introduction of postmodernism to Chinese academia was partial at best, with many major works, literary and theoretical, left untranslated and even unintroduced.1

Until the mid-1990s, we were almost confined to the postmodernism debate within the isolated Chinese context, seldom carrying on dialogues with our Western and international colleagues. Thanks to the kind invitation by such open-minded Euro-American scholars and journal editors like Douwe Fokkema and Hans Bertens, Arif Dirlik, Ralph Cohen, Paul Bové, and Jonathan Arac, domestic Chinese scholars like myself, Chen Xiaoming...

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