- The Lyrical in Epic Time: Modern Chinese Intellectuals and Artists Through the 1949 Crisis by David Der-wei Wang
David Der-wei Wang’s new book aims to investigate the role of the lyrical in Chinese modernity. With eight chapters, an introduction, and a coda, Wang delves into the lives and work of a motley crew of writers, calligraphers, musicians, film directors, and painters. The primary subjects are Shen Congwen 沈從文, He Qifang 何其芳, Feng Zhi 馮至, Hu Lancheng 胡蘭成, Jiang Wenye 江文也, Lin Fengmian林風眠, Fei Mu 費穆, and Tai Jingnong 台靜農. As the wide scope across various cultural forms suggests, Wang hopes to develop a general theory of Chinese lyricism in order to alter what he sees as the “extant paradigm” of Chinese modernity, which has been dominated by the concepts of enlightenment and revolution (p. x).
I use the phrase “aims to investigate” on purpose, because although lyricism is the ostensible object of study, the project is overwhelmed by a powerful subtext. This subtext pits the aesthetics and values of socialism against an alternate modern culture derived from premodern Chinese cultural heritage. Wang’s first pages propose not a binary but a lyrical core at the heart of revolutionary action—and therefore a lyricism so pervasive that it is almost impossible to avoid, even for the most stridently ideological. Most of his examples, however, deal with cultural figures who rejected communism, faltered in the face of its demands, met with harsh treatment, or simply fell out of the developing socialist society. Wang’s “epic time” spans the various wars and struggles throughout the twentieth century, including the anti-Japanese struggle, but Wang focuses primarily on revolutionary socialism. He uses “the lyrical” to emphasize how the writers and others he investigates veer away from or turn their backs on the radical social change implied by socialism in order to take emotional sustenance, intellectual profundity, and creative inspiration from a vast range of premodern literary and cultural sources. Most of Wang’s chapters feature a contrast between a lesser socialist-leaning writer or artist and a greater figure who redeemed indigenous aesthetics and centered [End Page 265] human subjectivity and affect in cultural production through his work (no women are featured).
Below, I return to my concerns over some implications of Wang’s argument, but first I want to comment on the richness of Wang’s chapters, each of which explores one or two central figures. This approach develops a focused interest on a limited number of characters and thus is much more satisfying than a survey. As is always the case with Wang’s work, his research is backed up by impressive erudition and enlivened by a deep and wide-ranging historical knowledge about the important players and their complicated cultural situations. The book is divided into two parts, the first emphasizing the poetics of the lyrical in literature and the second the aesthetics of the lyrical in other cultural forms.
In his introduction, Wang makes a good case for the indigenous strength of shuqing 抒情, or lyricism. Despite the near absence of the term before the modern period, lyricism had a solid footing within Chinese culture as a dual engagement with sentiment and with events or circumstances (shiqing 實情). The term qing 情 and its cognates express this double meaning, which Wang expands philosophically to suggest that “qing is a repository of sensorial data as well as epistemological sources” (p. 11). As Wang notes, he is not the only one to have made the case for Chinese lyricism. At the Association for Asian Studies annual meeting in 1971, Chen Shih-hsiang argued that Chinese literature is fundamentally a lyrical tradition (p. 11). Although Wang takes issue with Chen’s essentialism, he nonetheless agrees that there is something uniquely Chinese about the way lyricism (including xing 興, the spontaneous outburst of feeling) informs Chinese literature and art. Others who recognized indigenous Chinese lyricism include Shen Congwen, who became a lyrical archaeologist visiting cultural remains, and Jaroslav Průšek, the Czech Marxist...