- China’s Lost Decade: Cultural Politics and Poetics 1978–1990 by Gregory B. Lee
Gregory Lee describes the 1980s as a unique period situated between two spectacular moments in the twentieth century in this chronological study of the culture, politics, and history of the decade. Using Guy Debord’s theory of the [End Page 346] spectacle, Lee argues that while the Maoist period was one of Communist spectacle, and the 1990s saw the domination of global consumerism in Chinese culture, the 1980s was a period of possibility—a time in which poets and artists were able to experiment with language, art, and political possibilities that would be cut short with the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Key in his argument is linguistic practice. He writes that the 1980s were special in part for linguistic freedom, which he analyzes using George Steiner’s work on language in East Germany. The decade was a brief respite in which Maoist language was shed, and the “language of falsehood” that would come with China’s increasing commercialization had not yet infiltrated the depths of popular linguistic practice, something that would occur in the twenty-first century. Lee describes contemporary China, following Debord, as an “integrated society of the spectacle” (p. 134). The 1980s is thus the “lost decade” because the potential for reform, the dangers of speaking out against the regime, and the possibilities for new artistic expression have all been forgotten in the marketization of the 1990s.
The book starts with an introduction to the time period and his methodology, specifically his blend of history, literary analysis, and memoir. Lee experiments with a historical narration that is influenced by literary analysis, political study, individual character study, as well personal reflections gleaned from his experience living in Beijing on and off for much of the 1980s and his friendships with influential poets and scholars. He follows the introductory chapter with two chapters that primarily focus on poetry, introducing the poetics of the decade and the major players in the book. In the following four chapters, Lee chronologically narrates the history of the decade, even the chapter titles in the table of contents give the years that will be studied, until chapter 6, titled “Tiananmen.” Finally, in an epilogue, Lee describes a 1990 meeting of the Today poetry association that took place in exile in Stockholm, where he conducted an extensive dialogue with Gao Xingjian about Chinese writing in exile.
The first two chapters, which focus on poetry, are an apt beginning for many reasons. Gregory Lee is one of the foremost scholars of Chinese modern poetry, and he was conducting research into Chinese poetry in the 1980s, and so he had firsthand knowledge of the events he narrates. Additionally, the rebellious spirit of post-Mao literature was primarily defined in poetry, specifically poetry written by the Misty poets such as Bei Dao, Duoduo, Shu Ting, and Mang Ke whom Lee discusses. In the first chapter, “Antecedents,” Lee argues that the kinds of discussions over poetry in the 1970s, while seemingly new, were actually closely connected to those debates between modernist and revolutionary language that had been playing out since the 1930s. He adds an international element when he discusses Ai Qing’s relationship with Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, in what is one of the strongest moments in the study. Lee argues that poets active before 1949, while unable to continue in the critical tradition they had engaged prior to the codification of Maoist literary tenants, were able to use some of that background in their [End Page 347] writings about other nations. Ai Qing, in particular, was able to “continue with his vein of socially critical poetry by writing about the injustices in the world beyond China’s borders” (p. 49). Lee goes on to analyze some of Ai Qing’s poetry, as well as poetry about him written by Neruda. The attention to works with international political themes is a strength of the study.
This first chapter...