- Contested Modernities in Chinese Literature
This collected volume is a timely and solid contribution to the burgeoning field of modern Chinese literature in North America from a new generation of scholars who are likely to play major roles in the field in the future. In his introduction, editor Charles Laughlin explains his editorial principle: "to map and negotiate" boundaries, and to explore "the intersections of . . . nation, gender and city, diaspora and modernity, feminism, and historiography" (p. 4). This may be an approach similar to what Fredric Jameson once called "cognitive mapping." Accordingly, the book is divided into three parts whose themes illuminate one another: "Rewriting Literary History," "The Quotidian Apocalypse," and "The Moral Subject under Global Capitalism." Laughlin's introduction itself stands as an ingenious critical [End Page 444] reexamination of the boundaries and nature of modern Chinese literature in addition to providing useful critical frameworks that will aid readers' understanding of some of the most interesting developments in the field.
In the first section, "Rewriting Literary History," five authors tackle the problematic of Chinese literary historiography from rather different perspectives. Engaging ambitiously in contemporary theoretical inquiries and debates, Alexander Des Forges locates a tendency to fetishize "a modernity that is subjunctive, spectral, limited, failed, problematic, or once removed" (p. 25) in modern Chinese literature itself as well as in the studies of it in both China and the United States. On the other hand, Xiaobin Yang reveals Chinese postmodernity as "a parody of modernity" and a deconstruction of "sociopolitical totality, grand national imagination, and the discourse of rigid historical teleology" (p. 82), concepts that are closely associated with what he calls "the political-historical Mao-Deng and the culture-literary modern" (p. 93). Emma Tang brings this quest of "rewriting literary history" to a different frontier-questioning, crossing, and almost literally breaking down the boundaries between modern Chinese literature and the emergent Chinese diasporic literature. Megan Ferry and Amy Dooling, in a more historicist fashion, offer feminist rereadings of the May Fourth "New Woman."
Interesting enough, similar to Des Forges' discovery of a lack of presence of "modernity" and the anxiety surrounding this lack in modern Chinese literature, Ferry finds the same degree of despair and anguish among some May Fourth women writers and intellectuals over the fact "that no representative New Woman existed in Chinese literature to emulate" (p. 44), with the woman writer or "New Woman" being taken as "an icon of Chinese modernity" (p. 46). Dooling notices the same "absence-rather than agency-of women in the narratives of Chinese modernity" (p. 51), and yet she also challenges this notion of "absence" and gives it a critical spin in her reading of the "noncanconical" woman writer Bai Wei and Bai Wei's 1936 autobiographical novel Tragic Life. What distinguishes her reading from conventional ones is her sophisticated application of the feminist critique of subjectivity and identity, as shown in this analysis:
Rather than make claims to special knowledge about the "real truth" of feminine nature or seek to uncover an "essential" self buried beneath woman's myriad social guises, what Bai Wei strives to represent is how the female self is constructed in social interactions but also how these constructions can render the self as other to itself. (p. 54)
Rather than setting forth a simplistic proposal for recovering an alternative canon of the always called-for and yet always "absent" New Woman, Dooling provides an incisive critique of the very mechanisms of essentialism and fetishization of identity. Dooling's nuanced and gendered reading of Bai Wei may be reflecting a common agenda to which all the authors included in this section have subscribed-to resist and deconstruct an obsession with an essentialist and absolutist identity, be [End Page 445] it "Chinese modernity and postmodernity," "canon," "Chineseness," or the "New Woman." This anti-essentialist realization itself could bring us closer to the most liberating objectives of "rewriting literary history," rather than constituting yet another attempt to engender and foster "new" or "alternative" icons of modernity.