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  • Configurations of the Real in Chinese Literary and Aesthetic Modernity
  • Frederik Green (bio)
Peter Button . Configurations of the Real in Chinese Literary and Aesthetic Modernity. Leiden: Brill, 2009. xiii, 316 pp. Hardcover $169.00, ISBN 978-90-04-17095-7.

In his Configurations of the Real in Chinese Literary and Aesthetic Modernity, Peter Button argues that our understanding of the discourse of Chinese realism can greatly be enhanced if we reconsider the various factors that gave rise to a modern Chinese aesthetic theory from the 1920 until the 1960s. He begins his study with a discussion of Lu Xun (鲁迅), the father of modern Chinese literature, and Lu Xun's interest in Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Button then discusses the pivotal importance of Lu Xun's introduction of the concept of the type (dianxing 典型) to modern Chinese literature through his canonical novella The True Story of Ah Q (A Q zhengzhuan 阿 Q 正傳, 1921), before showing how, through the work of Marxist critics, Cai Yi (蔡儀) in particular, the concept of the type became paramount in the emergence of modern Chinese realism and subsequent socialist realism. Through a reading of two novels, The Song of Youth (Qingchun zhi ge 青春之哥, 1959) and The Red Crag (Hongyan 紅岩, 1961), Button finally demonstrates how socialist realism, which all too often is dismissed by critics as "literary critical embarrassment or artistic travesty" (p. 279), exemplifies the very institution of modern literature in China, and realism in particular: the complex tripartite relationship of literature, theory/criticism, and philosophy.

This tripartite relationship and its impact on modern literature in China and elsewhere is at the very center of Button's study, and he spends a great deal of time elucidating its configuration. Button draws principally on the critical work of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, specifically their important study The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism (1988). Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy argue that the institutionalization of literary criticism, generated by the Jena-Romantics, sought an appropriation of philosophical aesthetics into literature, resulting in what they term "eidaesthetics," from "eidetics" (philosophy) and "aesthetics" (literature). This concept manifested itself most clearly in the modern bildungsroman, since the formation (bildung) of the human subject increasingly dominated the modern discourse of aesthetics. While Button's reference to the German Romantics might at first sound paradoxical in the context of a work dedicated to Chinese realism, it soon becomes clear that for Button, it is precisely its promise of bildung of the human subject that caused Chinese critical discourse in the early twentieth century to pursue this tripartite relationship with great urgency.

This promise of bildung is further enhanced through Lu Xun's invention of the type in Chinese literature. Through his reading of Nietzsche's Zarathustra, [End Page 166] Button argues in chapters 1 and 2 that Lu Xun adopted a belief in human agency that he harnessed through the invention of the type in Chinese literature. This new ontotypolgy not only denied the ontotheology of Western missionaries (Button here mainly refers to Arthur Smith), but also paved the way for a Chinese theory of aesthetics that was, according to Button, by no means exclusively politically motivated. Instead, it displayed a deep engagement with the relationship between the real and aesthetics. Button, thus, clearly disputes the notion that the onset of realism in China was the result of translation/introduction (fanyi jieshao 翻譯介紹) of preexisting Western doctrines of literary realism, but rather an example of "one of the most diverse, creative, and complex engagements with a global literary modernity" (p. 83).

Button then further explores this engagement with global literary modernity in chapters 3 and 4, in which he focuses on the work of the Chinese Marxist critic Cai Yi, and especially Cai Yi's New Theory of Art (Xinyishu lun 新藝術論) from 1940. Button argues that Cai Yi's main concern was the formation of a modern Chinese subject that realized its fullest cognitive potential and freedom through aesthetic theory. Button, thus, tries to show that the Chinese Marxist aesthetics "took as its point of departure the desire to rescue the sensuous concrete from the predatory clutches of modern positivist philosophy's abstraction, globalized in the wake...


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