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  • The Monster That Is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China
  • Sheldon H. Lu (bio)
David Wang. The Monster That Is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. vii, 402 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 0-520-23140-6. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 0–520–23873–7.

David Wang’s monumental book is an intervention in the interrelations of history, literature, representation, modernity, and violence throughout twentieth-century China. The study is not limited to one genre, one location, and one period, but spans the spectrum of fictional narrative, poetry, and drama from the beginning of the century (the late Qing) to the end of the century (the 1990s). It covers authors from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora. As the author admits, the subjects of the book, “from decapitation to suicide, from hunger to scarring, are not pleasant” (p. 1). Yet this is the brute reality and hard truth about modern China. Scholars must necessarily face the pain and represent the unrepresentable. Hence, Wang’s project resonates with the sober/somber reflections of Walter Benjamin and T. W. Adorno: “There is no documentation of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (p. 8); “after Auschwitz, it is no longer possible to write poems” (p. 4). To accomplish what [End Page 257] seems to be an impossible task requires the utmost courage and the greatest skill from the scholar.

“Monster” in the title of the book derives from the mythological Chinese beast taowu. Wang carefully traces the etymology of the term in early Chinese texts such as Zuozhuan and Mencius, as well as its usages in both traditional and modern Chinese literature. The ferocious animal is associated with a visionary ability. It has the power to foresee the future. Later on, taowu, with its divinatory capability, becomes a term for historical writing. If history, especially modern Chinese history, bears the imprints of violence and savagery on a massive scale, the literary representation of history is the embodiment and indictment of such monstrosity. To recount the past, foresee the future, and admonish the present: these are the time-honored tasks of the incorrigible Chinese historian from time immemorial. This also seems to be the ethnical imperative latent in Wang’s study.

The eight chapters of the book engage the manifold dimensions of violent Chinese “body politics,” as it were. Although the book is not intended to be a history of modern Chinese literature in the traditional sense, the eight chapters are nevertheless arranged along a historical and chronological timetable. Wang’s formidable knowledge allows him to dissect literary works and authors throughout the entire length of twentieth-century history: “the Boxer Rebellion (1900), the May Fourth Movement (1919), the First Chinese Communist Revolution (1927), the Second Sino-Japanese War (1936–1945), the Yan’an period (1940s), the Nationalist and Communist ‘Divide’ (1949), the Taiwan White Terror (1950s), the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), the Post-Tiananmen Disapora (1989), and the Return of Hong Kong (1997)” (pp. 8–9).

Chapter 1, “Invitation to a Beheading,” revisits the “primal scene” of modern Chinese literature. Wang analyzes the description and discourse of decapitation in the late Qing text Women’s Words Overhead (1902–1904) by Youhuan Yusheng (pseudonym), the stories of Lu Xun, the works of Shen Congwen, and Remains of Life by the contemporary Taiwanese writer Wu He. He compares these authors’ different approaches to national traumas caused by the senseless spectacle of decapitation: the Confucian hope of reforming China through pedagogical means in the late Qing, Lu Xun’s realization of a Chinese world broken in pieces, Shen Congwen’s guilty conscience and moral anxiety, and Wu He’s attempt to survive.

Chapter 2, “Crime or Punishment?” examines forensic discourse in modern Chinese literature. He discusses relevant episodes in narratives and plays by a diverse group of male and female authors from different periods: The Travels of Lao Can by Liu E, Living Hell by Li Boyuan, the play Pan Jinlian by Ouyang Yuqian, the play Fight out of the Ghost Tower by Bai Wei...