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  • Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature by Jianmei Liu
  • Mabel Lee
Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature by Jianmei Liu. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. x + 294. $69.00. E-book available.

Scholarly research has largely overlooked the role of Zhuangzi 莊子(fourth century bce) in modern Chinese intellectual history and literature, and Jianmei Liu rightly claims that her book Zhuangzi and Modern Chinese Literature is the first to address the issue. The foundation of China’s modern literature was forged during the May Fourth era (1915–1921) at a time when escalating Japanese intrusions on China’s national sovereignty had ignited widespread passionate nationalism that demanded political and social action. It was also during these few years that what might be defined as a “modern” awareness of the individual self and individual autonomy came to be articulated, extolled, but in the end painfully sacrificed for patriotic needs. During those few years of the May Fourth era, Chinese youth were united in their demand for a re-evaluation of China’s traditional culture and the establishment of a new culture built on science and democracy. [End Page 263]

However, the nation’s lack of standing among the Great Powers radicalized Chinese youth, and they demanded political solutions. China had sent close to 200,000 peasants mostly from Shandong Province to serve as laborers for the Allied forces against Germany, but at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference formalizing the end of World War I, China was denied a voice. Shandong Province, which had been a German “sphere of influence” in China, was awarded to Japan because of pre-existing secret agreements. This news led to protest rallies throughout China, culminating in the intercity united student march through Beijing on March 4, 1919, which was put down with mounted Chinese government troops bearing rifles with bayonets. Political action was demanded, and Zhuangzi’s approach of noninvolvement was patently inappropriate to the times.

Zhuangzi slipped off the radar screen of Chinese literary research after the 1920s, but in this book, Liu fully restores him to intellectual debates of the next few decades that debunked him for the nonaction promoted by his philosophy. She also later demonstrates how, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, Mao’s maniacal politics caused Zhuangzi to be grossly distorted in polemical discussions on both society and literature. What is quickly apparent in this book is the extensive reach of both the archival material and analytical studies at Liu’s command: ancient philosophical tracts and their interpretations over historical time are summoned forth with facility, and the interpretations of Chinese and Western experts all contribute to Liu’s analysis.

Part 1 of the book surveys the various assessments of Zhuangzi by such writers as Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892–1978), Hu Shi 胡适 (1891–1962), Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881–1936), Zhou Zuoren 周作人 (1885–1967), Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895–1976), and Fei Ming 废名 (1901–1967). Liu condones the fact that Hu Shi and Lin Yutang both followed their instinct for freedom, as promoted by Zhuangzi, and eventually left the politics-driven scene of China. Lin Yutang lived mainly in the United States from 1935 onward, and Hu Shi left China after the establishment of the PRC. On the other hand, Liu harshly indicts Zhou Zuoren several times for choosing a life of luxury as a Japanese collaborator while his Chinese compatriots were forced to suffer untold misery (pp. 85, 90, 91, 92–93). Liu uses Zhuangzi’s “On the Equality of Things” (“Qiwulun” 齊物論) to evaluate Zhou’s claim to be a modern-day [End Page 264] Zhuangzi and finds his claim to be patently hypocritical. Part 2 of the book discusses Zhuangzi’s fate under Mao Zedong’s authoritarian regime. During the 1980s, in the post-Mao era, writers again turned to Zhuangzi in order to comprehend the individual’s position in the cosmos, the human impulse for artistic creation, and the desire for human communication.

Liu begins from the premise that the modern fate of Zhuangzi is intimately connected to the rise and fall of modern Chinese individuality. In chapter 1, she presents a swathe of ecstatic poems that Guo Moruo wrote to celebrate his discovery of his...


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