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  • A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature (Zhongguo dangdai wenxueshi)
  • Liang Luo (bio)
Hong Zicheng. A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature (Zhongguo dangdai wenxueshi). Translated by Michael M. Day. Leiden: Brill, 2007. xix, 636 pp. Hardcover $148.00, isbn 978-90-04-15754-5.

When does "contemporary" start in the history of Chinese literature? What qualifies as Chinese literature in contemporary times? Contemporary literature (dangdai wenxue), as used in mainland China, refers to literature produced in the mainland after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. This specific category of contemporary seems to reinforce the watershed moment of the founding of the People's Republic. It also excludes literary productions from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Chinese-speaking Southeast Asia, and the Chinese diaspora. Hong's [End Page 517] history makes a deliberate choice to revisit the politically determined history of contemporary Chinese literature. Its inherent limitation is obvious. However, such a limited representation, when translated into English, proves to be most constructive in presenting a lost dimension in the study of twentieth-century Chinese literature in the English-speaking world.

Compared to other similar Chinese texts on contemporary Chinese literature, such as Chen Sihe's edited volume A Textbook of Contemporary Chinese Literature (Zhongguo dangdai wenxueshi jiaocheng [Shanghai: Fudan University Press, 1999]) and Tao Dongfeng and He Lei's Chinese Literature Since Reform and Opening Up (Zhongguo xinshiqi wenxue sanshinian [Beijing: Social Science Press of China, 2008]), Hong's history appears deliberately conservative in that it focuses on "traditional forms of poetry, fiction, drama, and prose" (p. xviii). Chen's edited textbook covering the same period incorporates film adaptations of novels. Tao and He's textbook on the past thirty years pays special attention to nontraditional forms of literary and cultural productions, such as online literature, popular cultural icons, and commercialized literature and the literary marketplace.

In English, Pang-yuan Chi and David Der-wei Wang's edited volume, Chinese Literature in the Second Half of a Modern Century (Indiana University Press, 2000), is more a critical survey than a textbook. It covers exactly the same time period, from 1949 to 1999, and it shares with Hong's text a similar vision of bridging the great divide before and after 1949 and resurrecting stimulating literary movements during the second half of the twentieth century. Although Chi and Wang's survey includes fifteen scholarly contributions from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora, and covers as wide a terrain as the origins of the contributors, one still finds Hong's text filling an important niche in its insistence on the mainland literary scene of the same period.

Hong's history is a study of the cultural politics of literature under socialism and following its transformations in mainland China from 1949 to 1999. The encyclopedic nature of his work, its ambitious scope, and its attempt to be inclusive necessarily invite suspicion on its analytical depth. However, as is emphasized in the author's disclaimer early on, complete and exhaustive are not the goal. Furthermore, although the author often relies on aesthetic nature in selecting works to be included, he also deviates from that new criticism criterion and ventures beyond to include literary phenomena, art forms, and critical models with "undeniable faults with regard to 'aesthetic nature'" (p. xviii). As a result, periods and works long overlooked in the study of twentieth-century Chinese literature, such as the Seventeen Years of Literature (1946–1966) and Cultural Revolution Literature (1966–1976), are seriously dealt with in this history.

With its focus on both the literary mainstream and its discontents, Hong's history not only resurrects many of the socialist canons often tainted by an overly simplified and politicized reading, but also probes the possibilities for polyphonic literary expressions under socialism. It is equally valuable with regard to the last [End Page 518] decade of the twentieth century, as it touches upon the formation of a popular cultural space for leisure alongside the mainstream in the 1990s. Hong's narrative is more sensitive than the official versus unofficial, within-the-system versus outside-the-system type of analysis.

Hong's history consists of two main parts. Part 1 covers literature...


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