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  • Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895–1937
  • Lingchei Letty Chen (bio)
Jing Tsu. Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895–1937. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. xii, 329 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 0–8047–5176–5.

To claim that modern Chinese identity is built on failure is provocative; to further claim that failure is the primary propelling energy that has brought modernity to China is even more so. But this is exactly what Jing Tsu argues in her book, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895–1937. With this stimulating claim, the author turns around the established understanding of the late Qing and the early Republican era from a period of aspiring for advancement to a time that relishes and even thrives on a collective sense of failure. The author argues that the sense of humiliation and defeat, summed up in the concept of failure, can generate harsh self-criticism and insatiable desire for improvement in the individual as well as the entire society and nation. The feeling [End Page 247] of failure thus becomes a productive kind of energy that pushes for endless betterment. This presumably negative emotional state that permeated the late Qing and early Republican era also dominated the intellectual and literary thrust of the time.

The period from 1895, the year China was defeated in the first Sino-Japanese War and also lost control over Manchuria, to 1937, when the full-scale war of resistance against Japan began, is also a period of China’s intense nation building. Framed within this critical period in modern Chinese history, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature examines the psychological roots of Chinese nationalism and argues that it was born of two seemingly conflicting but actually indistinguishable conditions (p. 2). Jing Tsu challenges the ways in which sociologists and historians have traditionally investigated the workings of nationalism and proposes to situate such inquires in specific cultural contexts “layered with historical memories and antagonisms that fuel the emotional resolve of the ‘nation’” (p. 3). Instead of supporting that nationalism is a state-propagated ideology, Tsu argues that it in fact is more likely to be generated from collective experiences of national injury—case in point: early modern China. Chinese nationalism is built precisely upon the people’s collective feeling of inferiority and self-doubt about its race and its civilization as a whole. Over the period from the late Qing to the early Republican years, Chinese people witnessed the steady decline of this once mighty civilization by invading foreign powers. Fighting for national survival has thus become the basis for modern China’s national, racial, and cultural identity. The passionate call for and enthusiastic envisioning of a strong China and, simultaneously, the agonizing self-loathing of and torment over one’s own weak and backward nation can be found in both serious and popular literature during this period. Such a phenomenon, according to Jing Tsu, is not surprising at all since these positions reflect the two sides of the same (psychological) coin.

With this promising premise, Tsu examines in the following chapters issues such as (the yellow) race, eugenics and the conception of a new nation, the “New Woman” as an eugenic project, the masochistic impulse inherent in nation building, and kumeng—translated as “suffering,” “agony,” “mental anguish,” or “depression” (p. 196)—as an emotional and cultural manifestation of the deep-seated sense of failure. Tsu discusses several lesser-known intellectual and literary texts that bear significant evidence of how thinkers and writers at that time worked hard to rationalize the unbearable reality of China’s diminishing position in the face of colonial powers. Many such intellectual manipulations were achieved by an inward turn to examining Chinese racial characteristics and cultural essence. Jing Tsu argues that the reason such a self-reflective approach works is that, once these intellectuals succeeded in establishing China’s weakness as having resulted not from foreign invasions but from internal racial and cultural degeneration, cures were therefore possible. The logical recourse, from this point on, would be to reinvent Chinese [End Page 248] culture and to rejuvenate the Chinese race by...