- Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth-Century China
This challenging book makes a significant contribution to studies of twentieth-century history, literature, film, and public discourse that deserves to be read and debated widely. Yomi Braester cannot be cited for lack of ambition, in both the range of materials and phenomena he examines here and the determined revisionism that he brings to the task. He sets out to "challenge the definitions of modernity, Chineseness, and literariness" (p. 207), questioning national teleologies in which texts and public discourse are directed toward a shared cultural project. In nine chapters arranged chronologically, he considers fiction and film from Lu Xun's Kuangren riji (The Madman's Diary, 1918) to Jiang Wen's 1995 directorial debut, Yangguang canlan de rizi (In the Heat of the Sun). Along the way he discusses 1930s left-wing films, the model operas of the Cultural Revolution, post-Cultural Revolution fiction, and Taiwan writing in the 1980s. He also touches briefly on Hong Kong film and fiction. The texts chosen, with the notable exception of the model Peking opera Hongdeng ji (The Red Lantern, 1970), resist ready employment for nationalist purposes in some notion of the progress of history.
Braester extends the previous Lu Xun work of scholars such as Leo Ou-fan Lee, Wendy Larson, and David Der-wei Wang. Like these predecessors, he argues for a scrapping away of the accretions of nobility and greatness that have accumulated around Lu Xun and obscured the complexity and profound ambiguity at the heart of his attitudes and writing. Braester attempts a careful rereading of Kuangren riji without preconceptions about its historical function [End Page 385] and significance. Lu Xun's unease with the notion of literature for or as social transformation is well illustrated. This and subsequent chapters shed new light on the May Fourth heritage, arguing for further care with generalizations about modernity and history in the literary and other products of the 1910s and 1920s. These themes are nicely illustrated and elaborated in a chapter on twentieth-century reworkings of the Pan Jinlian episode from the sixteenth-century novel Shuihu zhuan (The Water Margin). Maxu Weibang's 1937 hit movie Yeban gesheng (Song at Midnight) offers an opportunity to explore the popular attractions and political layers of meaning in a movie drawing heavily on Western models of the "Phantom of the Opera" story. Braester notes how in the 1937 film the mob turns against the phantom, who might be the harbinger of revolution. The last of the four major chapters shows how the "model performances" (yangbanxi, which Braester renders "model plays," overlooking the two ballets and symphonic work that the expression included) shut off audiences from any agency in interpretation of works like the modern Peking opera Hongdeng ji (The Red Lantern). History in these works, Braester argues, is entirely the arena of Party control.
In the second section, five shorter chapters cover the post–Cultural Revolution period. Films discussed include what have been called the "scar films" of the late 1970s (including Xie Jin's Tianyunshan chuanqi, Legend of Tianyun Mountains, 1980) and Jiang Wen's later reinvention of and play with Cultural Revolution nostalgia, which "resists the History of grand narratives" (p. 200). Fiction from scar literature in the late 1970s and early 1980s (including the autobiographical work of Zhang Xianliang), avant-garde writing from the mainland in the 1980s (especially Yu Hua's disquieting fantasy), and post–Chiang Kai-shek writing on Taiwan are the focus of three chapters.
The themes that run through these nine chapters revolve around the idea of witnessing history. This can be witnessing for, to, or against history. As he notes, "Writers from Lu Xun to Zhang Xianliang and filmmakers from Ma-Xu Weibang to Yang Yanjin have tried to relieve fiction of the need to act as objective testimony" (p. 194). Some of the chapters explore in considerable depth this challenging notion, while in others the idea seems...