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  • Corruption and Realism in Late Socialist China: The Return of the Political Novel
  • Shuyu Kong (bio)
Jeffrey Kinkley . Corruption and Realism in Late Socialist China: The Return of the Political Novel. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. viii, 289 pp. Hardcover $55.00, ISBN 978-0-8047-5485-9.

Numerous accounts of corruption and its social origins in contemporary China have been produced by Chinese and Western social scientists, journalists, and television reporters. Yet readers familiar with the socially and politically engaged tradition of modern Chinese literature may wonder how contemporary Chinese writers view and represent this overwhelming social problem. Do they follow the official line in the mainstream media, or do they present alternative or dissident voices? Do they even care to write about corruption at all, since some recent studies of Chinese literature imply that writers are more interested in avant-garde and postmodern themes, or in urban middle-class literature, women's private writing, and historical novels that can easily be adapted into television screenplays?

Jeffrey Kinkley answers these questions by taking as the subject of his new book a group of writings neglected by Western scholars and elite critics in China yet extremely popular among mass readers: anticorruption novels and their discourse of corruption. Although it can be read as a sequel to his study of law and literature Chinese Justice, the Fiction: Law and Literature in Modern China (Stanford University Press, 2000), Kinkley's new book is actually a less ambitious but more focused and unified study of a particular literary genre in contemporary China. Through close readings of five of the most famous recent anticorruption novels (written between 1995 and 2002), Kinkley argues that Chinese anticorruption novels are simultaneously serious, popular, and realistic (p. 145), and they deserve an important place in our understanding of the public discourse on corruption in contemporary China.

The book is divided into three main sections. The first chapter is an introduction to the book in terms of its subject, the definition of its methodology, and its structuring principles. Justifying his chosen subject, Kinkley, an erudite reader and scholar who is intimately familiar with both Chinese literary and popular culture fields, points out that a large corpus of Chinese literature—often ignored by elite literary critics both in China and abroad because of its association with the "outdated" realistic tradition—still concerns itself with pressing social problems such as corruption, social inequality, law and justice, and morality. Such literature, in book form as well as cinema and television screen adaptations, has been enjoyed by millions of people. Moreover, many Chinese writers still believe social realism to be the "great tradition of modern Chinese literature since late Qing," and frequently reinvent this tradition in their own terms. Thus Kinkley sets out his task as examining this new development of realism in a "late-socialist China" [End Page 487] (p. 8), "to show that the realism of China's works about corruption was a critical realism of some depth, not just a schlock realism that justifies the critics' neglect" (p. 144). In his introduction, Kinkley also briefly outlines the rise and fall of anti-corruption fiction between 1995 and 2002, the social origins of this genre, and its major events and representative authors, all of which provide a useful context for his subsequent textual analysis.

The main body of the book, chapters 2–6, consists of detailed content analysis of five "representative and influential novels" of the anticorruption genre: Lu Tianming's Heaven Above (1995), Chen Fang's Heaven's Wrath (1997), Zhang Ping's Choice (1997), Wang Yuewen's National Portrait (1999), and Liu Ping's Dossier on Smuggling (2001). Kinkley arranges his readings in chronological order by publication date, as he claims that in this way he can show not only the mutual influences and close connections between these works, but also the rise and fall trajectory of this particular genre.

These chapters each follow a similar structure under uniform headings, and Kinkley's method can literally be summarized as content analysis. At the outset, Kinkley provides a brief sketch of the author and the work as well as its significance and reception. The analysis proper includes...