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Reviewed by:
  • Superfluous Words
  • Ellen Huang (bio)
Qu QubaiJamie Greenbaum, translator. Superfluous Words. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2006. xi, 230 pp. Paperback $28.00, ISBN 1–74076–120–0.

Born in 1899 to a literati family in Jiangsu, Qu Qiubai was a major intellectual figure of the May Fourth period, one of China’s first Marxist literary thinkers, and an early leader of the Chinese Communist Party in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Before his capture, imprisonment, and execution by the Guomindang in 1935, his literary and political career took him to positions of influence in such places as Moscow, Shanghai, and Jiangxi. Despite his stature in the twentieth-century Chinese cultural scene and political arena, Qu remains a figure little studied by historians and intellectual historians alike. Almost thirty years ago, Paul Pickowicz’s 1981 intellectual biography on Qu Qiubai focused on Qu’s cultural and literary thought and emphasized his adaptations of Soviet Marxist thought to the cultural scene in China. Pickowicz’s study remains the most complete English-language study of Qu Qiubai’s influential career to date, but, as one contemporary reviewer commented, the significance of Qu’s last written work, “Superfluous Words” (Chinese: Duoyu de hua ), remained underanalyzed (Lee Feigon, Journal of Asian Studies 44, no. 4 [1985]: 818–819).

Jamie Greenbaum’s translation and commentary fills this gap in analysis. In his book Superfluous Words, Greenbaum provides the first complete English translation of Qu’s prison memoirs. Greenbaum also attempts to sift through decades of varying interpretations of the text in order to shed light on the nature, meaning, and historical significance of the text itself. Written over six days, “Superfluous Words” is an interesting historical document, whose significance and meaning seem to have avoided any one conclusive understanding, having been denounced as betrayal, regarded as confession, seen as a warning to CCP comrades, or viewed as a letter to Qu’s second wife, Yang Zhihua (1900–1973). Greenbaum’s translation is based on a handwritten copy held in the Central Archives in Beijing; no copy of the memoir in Qu’s handwriting has yet been found, furthering the multiple debates surrounding the memoir’s authenticity, editions, and authorship that have gone on for decades.

Greenbaum’s study is divided into three chapters. By way of historical context, the first chapter provides a short overview of Qu’s life and career. The second chapter presents a history of the text’s reception since its first appearance in July 1935 through the present day, a time span that Greenbaum divides into three major periods, based on the relationship between official attitudes toward “Superfluous Words” and the CCP’s view of Qu. As Greenbaum’s narrative demonstrates, the text’s authenticity and centrality to Qu’s thought was directly connected to whether the party viewed Qu as a revolutionary hero or semifeudal remnant. [End Page 117] The first period spans the period between the 1930s and the start of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, when Qu was lauded as a revolutionary martyr for the Communist cause. During the Cultural Revolution, the Party vilified Qu, whose daughter and wife also suffered attack, incarceration, and, in the case of wife Yang Zhihua, death. Accordingly, the CCP substantiated impugnations against Qu by appealing to “Superfluous Words” and the traitorous ideas supposedly contained within. After Deng Xiaoping rehabilitated Qu’s reputation in the late 1970s and 1980s, “Superfluous Words” was again regarded as a small aberration in relation to Qu’s more “orthodox” writings. The final period thus begins in the late 1980s and continues to the present day, during which interpretations of the text are more academic and analyzed via literary theories, an indication of the irrelevance of the text to the CCP’s political needs.

Greenbaum urges us to view Qu’s final work not as a deviation from his social agenda but as an important historical document that illuminates three related aspects of modern China’s revolutionary history. As a personal document of an important political and intellectual leader during the 1920s and 1930s, “Superfluous Words” is a summary of Qu’s thoughts on and feelings for his political life. The memoirs express the feelings of...