- Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950
In the 1980s, a famous Chinese dissident visited Oslo and was taken to town by fellow Chinese. Upon seeing a pretty girl on the street, he immediately went over and embraced her, despite her protests and attempts at breaking free. When chastised by his Chinese friends, the dissident protested, "But isn't this the West? The freedom of the West?" Whether his confusion was genuine or just an excuse for doing as he liked, or even an attempt at posing as unorthodox, it may be seen as a late after-effect of deep changes in Chinese culture in the first half of the twentieth century. These changes are explored in Haiyan Lee's book.
Chinese views of love changed dramatically with the enormous Western influence on the country in the first half of the twentieth century. However, Lee's book is not simply an account of how traditional love changed into modern love. On the one hand, it shows the continuities between the two kinds of love. On the other hand, it shows the changes that took place and the complexities that always [End Page 219] existed on both sides of whatever demarcation line one might set between traditional and modern.
Although Lee is acutely aware of the massive influence Western literature had on Chinese thinking during the period under investigation, she never makes facile statements about Chinese and Western views of love—except when quoting such views in the writings under scrutiny. European literary and philosophical influences, of which there were many, are traced and treated comparably to Chinese influences, without attempting to label the result.
The book is extremely and sometimes overwhelmingly rich in illustrative detail, but at the same time never quite loses track of the long lines in its historical narrative. It studies both literary expressions of love and sentiment and the intense social, cultural, and political debates surrounding emotional and sometimes sexual themes. Within these discourses, Lee identifies three major "structures of feeling": the "Confucian," the "enlightenment," and the "revolutionary" types. All share a strong interest in feeling—in emotion, sentiment, and, in particular, love. In the Confucian structure of feeling—forms of discourse starting in the late Ming and reaching into the Butterfly fiction of the early Republican period—the interest in feeling still largely takes place within the ethical and cosmic universe of Confucian orthodoxy, sometimes in opposition to orthodox values, but just as often just supplementing them while making them more humane. In the enlightenment structure of feeling, which coincides with the advent of the May Fourth Movement, the interest has turned to modern notions of love, in particular zìyóu liàn'ài 自由戀愛 (free love), typically regarded as the highest of all values, which would automatically break down the oppressive hypocrisy and callousness of Confucian ethics and cosmology. In the revolutionary structure of feeling, which increasingly dominated the scene in the 1930s and 1940s, romantic love and its intensive concern with the individual is once again subordinated to a larger cause (both by nationalists and communists). Romance is linked to revolution, sometimes as a supplement, more often to infuse revolutionary fervor with private passion.
There is, of course, no attempt in the book to pretend that these three structures of feeling exhaust the themes and attitudes discussed in literature and literary debates. On the contrary, Lee seems even more interested in authors who place themselves at the outskirts of a given period, and even in opposition to it. Though not mentioned by Lee, these authors often turn out to be the ones who have, in retrospect, been lauded as the greatest writers of their times. Lû Xùn 魯迅, for instance, does, of course, participate in the May Fourth denunciation of traditional values. However, he is also an early sarcastic critic of the unrealistic promises of free love. And Zhāng Àilíng 張愛玲 writes, in an era of revolutionary romanticism, of how...