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positions: east asia cultures critique 10.3 (2002) 525-546

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Radical Ethnicity and Apocryphal History:
Reading the Sublime Object of Humanism in Zhang Chengzhi's Late Fictions

Jian Xu

Zhang Chengzhi is a well-known contemporary Chinese writer whose sentiments and styles, especially in his late works of fiction (ca. 1990), are considered by some critics to be anachronistic.1 In a time of aesthetic desublimation and commodification, Zhang seems affected by neither the negativity of a modernist culture nor the “hot” popularity of consumer culture. His work has not only managed to keep alive an old-fashioned idealism but also has given the humanist subject an infusion of energy, finding for it both a new emancipatory cause and a new experience of what can only be called the sublime. In order to establish such a cause and to author such an experience of the sublime, Zhang assumes a radical ethnicity and its corollary, a marginal political position, from which he can revivify such out-of-favor humanist values as truth, liberty, social justice, and moral commitment.2 These values have been lately in disfavor due to two main factors: one is an antihumanist critical discourse rather globally institutionalized through the [End Page 525] seminal writings of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, among others; the other is the social and political reality of China defined by the rapid commercialization of culture and the governmental suppression of human rights petitions. Zhang forges a powerful if unusual identification with the Hui nationality and its Islamic religion, an identity that is not just the effect of literary strategy, although it is that too. He declares that his novel History of the Soul [Xinling shi],3 a solemn narration of the religio-political history of the much-victimized Muslim Chinese sect known as the Jahrinya, from Northwest China, is not a normal literary work but a “religious homework,” predestined to be done by him in order both to represent the Jahrinya people and to save his own soul. Therefore the decision to be the pen of the Jahrinya and to write a book that the Jahrinya people would defend with their lives is to him a religious one.4 A Hui by birth but educated as a Han, Zhang returns to his ethnic roots when he claims to speak for his people.

Zhang's work thus exhibits a certain sacral authenticity that would seem to transcend the alleged practice of “playing the saint” (zhuang), of which Wang Shuo has famously accused the Chinese intelligentsia.5 The force of this authenticity derives from two apparently separate extradiegetic dimensions that tend to exceed the generic boundaries of fiction. One dimension emerges from an Islamic religious avowal; the other is founded on a politics of subaltern representation. Both inflect his literary narrative with ardent—and mordant—truth claims that cannot easily be equated with those of a referential realism. Rather, Zhang makes clear that what he writes is nothing less than an Apocryphal counterhistory, for it is supported in part by secretly held writings in Arabic and Persian, which have been collected and translated for him by students in the hermetic security of the mosques. His other sources are a set of orally preserved tales that have been entrusted to him by his Jahrinya friends. He maintains that the authenticity of his present writing is a direct derivative of those ancestral writings and sacred oral tales, which reveal the Jahrinyas' theretofore untold and unknown lived experience. As such, the “truths” he finds preserved in this ethnic legacy violently contradict official historiography, for they record brutal abuses both long inflicted on his people and long concealed by the Chinese political hegemony. Zhang's adopted ethnic and religious identification thus enables him to occupy a moral high ground that contemporary Chinese fiction seems to [End Page 526] have evacuated. From that high ground he can censure those who betray the moral obligations of “serious literature” by prostituting themselves to the vulgar tastes of a market economy. Indeed, in certain...


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