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  • Contemporary Chinese Literature: From the Cultural Revolution to the Future
  • Lingchie Letty Chen (bio)
Yibing Huang . Contemporary Chinese Literature: From the Cultural Revolution to the Future. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. x, 219 pp. $90.00, ISBN 13: 978-1-4039-7982-7; ISBN 10: 1-4039-7982-0.

Contemporary Chinese Literature: From the Cultural Revolution to the Future puts forth an insightful and original approach to the study of contemporary Chinese literature, but is at the same time marred with a glaring theoretical lapse on its key operative concept: bastard. This word, and at times the term "cultural bastards," is used to characterize those contemporary Chinese writers who have lived through the Mao era—a group that basically includes the majority of Chinese writers whose works represent the corpus of what is recognized as contemporary Chinese literature. To use such a provocative word certainly can attract attention. However, without sufficiently elaborating on how this word-as-concept came about in the context of modern/contemporary Chinese literature and culture, and without teasing out the many implications and confusions inherent in the word itself, Yibing Huang also makes it exceedingly difficult for this reader to overcome the nagging skepticism whenever the author evokes "bastards" or "cultural bastards" to discuss the generation that survived the Mao era: Cui Jian (b. 1961), Duo Duo (b. 1951), Wang Shuo (b. 1958), Zhang Chengzhi (b. 1948), Wang Xiaobo (b. 1952)—the artist and writers that Huang discusses in depth in this book. To give a more comprehensive view, the list includes Bei Dao (b. 1949), Zhang Yimou (b. 1951), Can Xue (b. 1953), Han Shaogong (b. 1953), Gu Cheng (b. 1956), Mo Yan (b. 1956), Yu Hua (b. 1960), Su Tong (b. 1963), Ge Fei (b. 1964), and so on.

In calling these writers and artists "bastards" or "cultural bastards," Huang is at once claiming them to be illegitimate, false, spurious, counterfeit, and hybrid. Without getting into the meanings of each of these words and their possible implications (and complications), we only need to point out their antonyms to immediately put Huang's operative concept in jeopardy: legitimate, true, genuine, authentic, and original. Hence, we must ask this question: What qualifies as legitimate, true, genuine, authentic, and original culture or literature? Or, to put it bluntly, is it even possible to define such a culture or literature without falling back on racial fundamentalism and extreme nationalism? Huang, however, seems to imply that Chinese culture only began to bastardize since the nineteenth century as Western thoughts and products flooded into China and eventually culminated in the May Fourth sociocultural-political movement. Huang contends that the "new man" who was conceptualized by intellectuals to be free of the burden of the past was in actuality "nothing less than an 'orphan of history' as opposed to one with a contaminated, impure and illegitimate origin, that is, a damned 'cultural bastard' " (p. 2). Taking Lu Xun's "A Madman's Diary" as his springboard, Huang continues to argue that "this Madman, the very first 'new man' of modern Chinese literature, suffers from the discovery of his own rootedness in and contamination [End Page 237] by a premodern history." (p. 2) Meanwhile, almost simultaneous with the publication of "A Madman's Diary," Mao Zedong had developed his own vision of the Chinese subject, which "was a result of a hybridization of the traditional Confucianism with the newly imported German idealism and nationalism" (p. 3). This madman-turned-new man-turned-orphan of history-turned-bastard process, as Huang concludes, replayed itself in the post-Cultural Revolution era after Mao's nearly three decades of nationalizing the Chinese subject to create a "Maoist 'new man' " (p. 4).

Huang's application of the word "bastard" thus seems to be more of a descriptive function than to operate as a theoretical concept by any measure. Regardless of his intended usage, words, however, do convey unintended meanings to readers. Inherent in this line of argument is the suggestion that Chinese culture as a whole was once pure and unhybridized because the so-called (cultural) bastards obviously did not exist before the May Fourth Movement, or at least Huang mentions none. Taking...