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  • From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China
  • Zhen Zhang (bio)
From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China. By Wendy Larson. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009. 336 pp. Cloth $55.00.

Wendy Larson's book makes an important contribution to the study of twentieth-century Chinese literature and film by revealing the productive tension between cultural studies approaches and neoformalism. Larson's shift from Freudian theory to neoformalism exemplifies a text-centered approach that is thoroughly informed but not overwhelmed by the critical trends in new historicism and cultural studies. Focusing on five stories and films produced in 1990s that mostly deal with Cultural Revolution experiences, Larson's project demonstrates how the revolutionary spirit acts as a crux for understanding modern Chinese literary expressions. While the texts she studies might exhibit subjectivity that looks like the kind of modern self defined by Freudian sexualized desire, in showcasing diverse modes of identity formation and expression, they convey complex enactment, evasion, or resurrection of the Maoist revolutionary spirit.

Central to Larson's book are two sometimes overlapping and sometimes mutually exclusive discourses: one is the Freudian approach that takes sexualized desire as essential to the formation of modern subjectivity, and the other is the revolutionary epistemology that privileges social interactions in molding identity and subjectivity. Noting that many texts represent the Cultural Revolution as a sexually interesting time that "modernized the entire revolutionary past," Larson starts out with a working hypothesis aimed at proving the relevancy of the Freudian model in decoding these texts. Her quest soon reveals that the key to these works is not Freudianism but a "revolutionary epistemology that conceptualizes subjectivity and identity as socially developed and yet also informed by a passionate wellspring of [End Page 466] emotion and intellect." The project's unique trial-and-error method is fruitful and enlightening in itself. It highlights what Larson advocates—the necessity of studying Chinese literature with a view to its disciplinary specificity rather than reducing it to footnotes to history or theory, which includes Freudianism. Larson's reflexiveness in laying bare the usefulness and limit of her own episteme makes this book a critic-researcher's intellectual journey of "the wrong road taken and the promising path found," an inspiring way of moving beyond Euro-American theoretical frameworks while still retaining theoretical rigor.

The first two chapters constitute a very valuable resource on Freud's reception and impact in both Euro-American and Chinese contexts. Relying on extensive sources, Larson reviews and questions the universal applicability and naturalness of the Freudian paradigm, Larson finds that owing to the limited circulation of Freud's work in university enclaves and the disruption of wars and social movements Freud's impact was not as strong in twentieth-century China as elsewhere.

Chapter 3 includes a valuable overview of the trajectory of mind and spirit in traditional, late Qing, and early Republican Chinese culture. Contrasting the complete lack of spirit (jingshen) in Lu Xun's Ah Q with the full embodiment of revolutionary spirit in the PRC cultural icon Lei Feng, this chapter argues that the discourse of spirit was socially positioned and that the self was developed in relation to power. The emotional and intellectual identification with that position was essential in the construction of revolutionary subjectivity. While theorizing the making of revolutionary subjectivity by taking power and positionality into consideration, Larson spells out the inadequacy of reading post-Cultural Revolution texts as participating in using open sexual excessiveness to undo a sexually repressive past.

Chapter 4 deals with two representative figures of anti-Lei Feng, whom Larson locates respectively in Mang Ke's Wild Things and Wang Xiaobo's Golden Years. Both novels challenge the revolutionary spirit through their main characters, Maodi and Wang Er. Relying on an antidepth aesthetics, Mang Ke's text employs a spatial strategy as of means by which to keep both revolutionary spirit and interiority out of the picture, thus expressing a vision that is not only antirevolutionary but also anti-Freudian. Discerning an "anti-emotional modernity" in Wang Xiaobo, Larson notes the power of Wang Xiaobo's language...


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pp. 466-469
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