University of Hawai'i Press
Reviewed by:
David Der-wei Wang, editor. A New Literary History of Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. xxvii, 1001 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 978-0-674-96791-5.

The publication of A New Literary History of Modern China, the end product of a three-year project (2014–2017) led by its editor David Der-wei Wang (王德威), is a monumental event in the development of the study of modern Chinese literature—an ever-growing discipline in contemporary Anglophone academia, the bilingual nature of which dictates that acts of comparison and uses of translation are a given. Indeed, the vibrancy of the discipline can be affirmed by a number of important edited volumes published by renowned university presses in recent years, and together they demonstrate the collective [End Page 60] effort of the scholars involved in the field to offer comprehensive summaries of the continuances and ruptures, the divergences and convergences in the development of modern Chinese literature, in terms of both form and content, aesthetic strategies and political ideologies. Among them, the most notable examples include A Companion to Modern Chinese Literature (2015) edited by Zhang Yingjin (張英進), The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature (2016) edited by Kirk Denton, and The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures (2016) edited by Carlos Rojas and Andrea Bachner. Situated in this body of collective scholarship, we can observe that, on the one hand, Wang's volume shares many of the overarching concerns of these scholars (notably, all of them reappear as contributors in A New Literary History of Modern China), such as the conceptual importance of wen (文), the intertwinements between literature and history, and the contested and shifting nature of modernity in the Chinese context and beyond. On the other hand, A New Literary History of Modern China breaks away from the format of the long scholarly article (with long lists of references) conventionally used in academic edited volumes and instead presents a constellation of short essays (161 chronologically arranged entries, around 2500 words each) by academics, translators, and writers on particular events in modern Chinese literary history.

As Wang admits in his introduction to the volume, "Worlding Literary China," the inspiration for this new format "combining both the pointillism of the chronicle and the comprehensiveness of grand récit" (p. 12) comes from the three volumes of "New Literary History" already published in Harvard University Press's series (French, German, and American). Known for his early Chinese translation of Michel Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) and his innovative appropriation of Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of heteroglossia in the Chinese context (眾聲喧'華'), Wang's adoption of this new format of pointillism necessarily carries with it a postmodernist flavor—apart from Bakhtin and Foucault, Walter Benjamin's "constellation" and Gilles Deleuze's "assemblage" are also mentioned in the introduction (p. 8).

However, well aware of the dissatisfaction some comparative literature scholars have expressed toward the problematics of the dominant academic paradigm of "Western theory plus Chinese reality" (e.g., Zhang Longxi 張隆溪 [1992] and Margaret Hillenbrand [2010]) and sometimes toward his own style of literary criticism in relation to this paradigm (e.g., Gao Yuanbao 郜元寶 [2007] and Bi Hongxia 畢紅霞 [2013]), Wang emphasizes the classical Chinese concept of wen as a more inclusive and productive framework for doing literary history. Quoting the elaboration given by Liu Xie (劉勰)on wen as "the five colors (五色)," "the five tones (五音)," and "the five natures (五情)" in his fifth-century classic The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons (文心雕龍) as well as Stephen Owen's interpretation of the term as "schematization" in ancient Chinese poetics, Wang expands our modern, institutionalized [End Page 61] understanding of wenxue (文學), or literature, to include "sounds," "shapes," "dates," "events," and even "objects" (p. 22). Through this mobilization of wen, Wang's literary history is able to go beyond the conventional fixation on texts and contexts and encompasses personal memories (anthropological retellings), print and film technologies (transmedia adaptations), thematic convergences (historical resonances and imaginary futures), and many other cultural paraphernalia long marginalized or excluded in the grand narratives of "proper" literary history governed by pragmatic pedagogy or ideological didacticism.

More importantly, the introduction also reveals that Wang's response to the dominance of Western theories is not simply replacing them with Chinese frameworks; rather, he finds in this expansive concept of wen many resonances with Martin Heidegger's discussion on "Worlding." In line with Pheng Cheah's recent reintegration of the term into the current debates over world literature (2016: 2), Wang evokes Heidegger in order to register wen as a "world-making" activity—"a complex and dynamic process of ever-renewing realities, sensations, and perceptions …" (p. 13). Considering the theoretical complexity of Heidegger's concept and its claimed centrality in Wang's introduction, it would certainly be appreciated by less theory-savvy readers if he could spend more than one paragraph explaining what exactly is meant by this abstract term (and ending the paragraph with a slightly convoluted and confusing quote, "If we let the thing be present in its thinging from out of the worlding world, then we are thinking of the thing as thing," does not really help). Despite the vagueness of the term, what Wang strives to achieve with its evocation is nevertheless clear: like Cheah, Wang's emphasis on "worlding" and "becoming" is but another way of highlighting the "agency" of literature to intervene in and "open up new configurations of the world" (p. 14). With this agency in mind, it becomes clear why for Wang, wen is more akin to "manifestation" than "representation": his inclusion of "a diverse line-up of forms, from presidential speeches to pop song lyrics, from photographs to films, and from political treatises to prison house jottings" is to illustrate that wen, as literature broadly conceived, does "not only represent the material world, but can also shape it and complete it" (p. 5).

Following this conceptual bridging between wen and worlding, the second half of Wang's introduction elaborates on the four major ways in which his volume seeks to challenge and renegotiate the various boundaries of "modern Chinese literature": "architectonics of temporalities, dynamics of travel and transculturation, contestation between wen and mediality, and remapping of the literary cartography of modern China" (p. 14).

While readers outside of academia may be understandably troubled by the dense doses of jargon in these sections (with fancy terms like "architectonics" left more or less unexplained), for those of us more familiar with Wang's [End Page 62] intellectual trajectory, traces of his major theoretical concerns, from the 1990s up to today, are more than palpable. First, underlying this haughty "architectonics of temporalities" is the persistent concern with the temporal dimension of "modern Chinese literature." It recalls his seminal work Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1848–1911 (1997), in which he convincingly argues for considerations of modernity to be extended to the late Qing period, when genres like "the castigatory novel (譴責小說)" and "science fiction (科學小說)" arose and anticipated their veritable reincarnations in post-socialist China. In practice, Wang's "architectonics of temporalities" not only encourages his contributors and readers to rethink the temporal and (con)textual confinements of the modern but also enables the juxtaposition of different literary events separated by time and releases the imaginary energy of time itself. This can be observed in the fact that out of the 161 entries in A New Literary History of Modern China, a total number of 35 essays have chosen a date before the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912 to feature their literary event. For example, the opening entry by Shershiueh Li (李奭學) features the year 1635 (late Ming dynasty, the earliest date in the volume), when the religious pamphlet A Sequel to the Removing of Doubt (代疑續篇), authored by the Confucian scholar-official and Catholic convert Yang Tingyun (楊廷筠), was posthumously published. Li juxtaposes this event with the years of 1932 and 1934, when renowned intellectuals in the Republican period, such as Zhou Zuoren (周作人) and Ji Wenfu (嵇文甫), noted certain emancipatory resonances between late-Ming thoughts and their own literary philosophies (humanism and Marxism, respectively). While crediting Yang's pamphlet as the earliest example of the Chinese rendering of the Western concept of literature into wenxue (文學), Li also notes that this concept would not have arrived in Zhou and Ji's discussions without its further development in the translational activities of Western missionaries like Giulio Aleni, Karl F. A. Gützlaff, and Joseph Edkins in the Ming and Qing Dynasties. There are many other examples of such temporal juxtapositions: the entry by Lingchei Letty Chen (陳綾琪) brings together Jia Pingwa's novel Ruined City (賈平凹, 《廢都》, sometimes translated as Decayed Capital, 1993) and Chu Tien-hsin's short story "Old Capital" (朱天心, '古都', 1997), and the volume's ending entry by Mingwei Song (宋明煒) discusses the different modalities of the future in the works of Han Song (韓松) and other contemporary Chinese science fiction writers. These entries transgress the boundaries between fiction and reality and highlight the creative interventions imaginary settings (i.e., Jia's reconstruction of the 1980s and Han's conjectures on the intergalactic politics of 2066) can make on historical contexts.

Second, by "contestation of wen and mediality" Wang refers to wen's inclusive nature when it comes to literary genres and the various historical entities that constitute the literary (p. 20). In other words, wen disrupts the [End Page 63] formal, as well as material, boundaries of "modern Chinese literature" as such. This inclusive vision activates the humanistic bridging between literature/wen and history/shi found in Wang's recent works on Chinese lyricism (or shuqing, 抒情), such as The Lyrical in Epic Time: Modern Chinese Intellectuals and Artists Through the 1949 Crisis, in which he uses a range of Chinese writers, philosophers, and art practitioners to argue against the singular narrative of enlightenment and revolution and balance it with shuqing as part of "a history with feeling (有情的歷史)" (2015: 41). In A New Literary History of Modern China, the lyrical and affective dimensions of the literary are brought into focus through a diverse range of narrative styles and objects of study. For example, in the entry by Uganda Sze Pui Kwan (關詩珮) featuring the date "1873 June 29", she impersonates the British diplomat Thomas Wade and writes about his Sinophilic journeys in late Qing China in the first person. Such innovative usage of narrative style for literary history affords epistolary qualities to historical events and revives, if only partially, the affective power of Wade's experiences in learning Cantonese and designing English textbooks for future cultural ambassadors to China. Similarly, Helen Praeger Young's entry delivers the recollections of women soldiers on the Long March (1934–1936) in an anthropological manner, and the many quotes from her interviews with these survivors call for the re-evaluation of the highly glorified event through a gendered lens. With a broader view of intertextual genealogy, Andrea Bachner's entry recounts how the Qing dynasty official Wang Yirong (王懿榮) discovered "dragon bones" in 1899 and demonstrates the symbolic and emotional power this particular textual form has carried for different generations of intellectuals, including Liu E (劉鶚), Luo Zhenyu (羅振玉), Guo Moruo (郭沫若), Hu Yuzhi (胡愈之), and Ng Kim Chew (黃錦樹). In comparison with these creative strategies of textual archaeology employed by literary scholars, many of the entries by the writers themselves in this volume deliver the intimate energy of qing/feeling in a much more straightforward manner. For instance, readers may find strong emotional resonances between the entry by Wang Anyi (王安憶) on the literary career of her mother Ru Zhijuan (茹志鵑) and that by Chu Tien-hsin (朱天心) on the diaries of her father Chu Hsi-ning (朱西甯).

Finally, "dynamics of travel and transculturation" and "toward a new literary cartography," as Wang's last two organizing principles, come together to challenge the geographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries surrounding "modern Chinese literature" and seek to free our imaginations of "Chineseness" from monolithic equations. On the one hand, following the comparative outlook of C. T. Hsia (夏志清) in his foundational work A History of Modern Chinese Fiction (1961), over half of the entries in Wang's volume focus on, or at least touch upon, writers and texts' intercultural mobility in and out of China, involving multiple experiences of travel or translation in the process. Among the most prominent examples of such "transculturation" are Chih-ming Wang's [End Page 64] entry on the complex translational afterlives of Yung Wing's My Life in China and America (容閎, 1909, known in Chinese as 《西學東漸記》), Göran Malmqvist's entry on the activities of Kang Youwei (康有為) during his visit to Sweden in 1904, Ban Wang's entry on the Yan'an lectures of the revolutionary writer Zhou Libo (周立波) concerning Western literatures, and Jing Tsu's entry on the Dunganese poet Iasyr Shivaza's diasporic engagement with socialist China during the Cold War and its profound effects on the Latinization of both Chinese and Dunganese.

On the other hand, Wang puts his theoretical debates with Shu-mei Shih (史書美) over the concept of the Sinophone (華語語系) in practice and argues that "instead of merely critiquing the hegemony of national language and literature, Sinophone studies must also account for the generative power of 'linguistic nativity' within the national territory of China" (p. 25). In effect, this heteroglossic take on the Sinophone turns Shih's resistant vision of "nonrelation with China" (2013: 33) into a kind of inter-Asian "relational comparison"—a theory of doing comparative and world literature defined by Shih herself as "setting into motion relationalities between entities brought together for comparison and bringing into relation terms that have been traditionally pushed apart by certain interests" (2015: 436). We see such relationalities between Chineseness and its shifting margins in the entry by Chien-hsin Tsai (蔡建鑫) on the lyrical expression of loyalism in the poems of Qiu Fengjia (丘逢甲), David Der-wei Wang's own entry on the Musha Incident (1930) in relation to Lu Xun (魯迅), Shen Congwen (沈從文), and Wu He (舞鶴), Chong Fah Hing (莊華興) and Kyle Shernuk's entry on the complex textual politics of Hunger (飢餓, 1960), a sensitive novel written by a Malayan Communist Party member Jin Zhimang (金枝芒), and many more. With the support of a wide range of contributors, Wang delivers his promise of "avoiding the pitfall of tokenism" embedded in the performative dimension of contemporary identity politics, as almost all of the entries concerning Sinophone locations address the literary sentiments of marginality through either the usage of multiple languages/dialects or a trans-local/national route of literary production and circulation. As such, Wang demonstrates that his Sinophone disruption of Chineseness is not an ideological summoning of an a priori Other vis-à-vis a supposititious nemesis called "China," but rather a reorientation toward the content and agency of the text "in constant negotiation with official linguistic and literary mandates" (p. 25).

By way of these four organizing principles, A New Literary History of Modern China succeeds at the task of mapping out a more inclusive and complex picture of "the extant imaginary of 'China'" (p. 26) and demonstrates the exciting possibilities in the future development of the studies of modern Chinese literature in relation to the field of comparative literature and translation, as well as the studies of wen and the world at large. Indeed, with [End Page 65] wen as our repertoire of inexhaustible data and experience, Wang's four principles constitute "a method of imagining China (想像中國的方法, 1998)" replicable in the writing of many more entries the 1001-page volume does not yet contain: an entry on Zheng Zhenduo (鄭振鐸) and the rise of world literature (世界文學) in modern China, an entry on Ezra Pound's Cathay (1915) and his lifetime obsession with the Chinese ideogram, an entry on the Saudi travelogues of Singaporean writer You Jin (尤今), an entry on the bilingual poetry of the Chinese Australian writer Ouyang Yu (歐陽昱), and this imaginary list can go on and on. Despite the risk of polemical overloading (e.g., when Stephen Owen unapologetically declares that "most poems … in the vernacular 'new poetry' are … banal, not just in Chinese but in every literature" on page 79), the format of the short essay renders A New Literary History of Modern China extremely informative and highly readable, offering encyclopedic knowledge to the common reader and niche insights to concerned academics. While the volume will undoubtedly be of tremendous value to readers, students, and researchers in the field, on the pragmatic side, it would make the reading and researching inspired by the entries in this volume a lot easier if Harvard University Press could allow the inclusion of the Chinese names of the writers and literary works under discussion, or at least provide a bilingual glossary of proper names as is conventional in Chinese studies conducted in English.

Flair Donglai Shi

Flair Donglai Shi (施东来) is a DPhil candidate in English at the University of Oxford. His thesis focuses on the Yellow Peril as a traveling discourse in modern Anglophone and Sinophone literatures.


Bi Hongxia 畢紅霞. "我們為何批評王德威—兼論面對'海外漢學'的複雜心態" [Why do we Criticise David Der-wei Wang—also on the Complex Mentality in the face of 'Overseas Sinology'], Zhongguowenxue (中國文學) (March 2013): 32–35.
Cheah, Pheng. What is a World? On Postcolonial Literature as World Literature. London: Duke University Press, 2016.
Denton, Kirk, ed. The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.
Gao Yuanbao 郜元寶."重畫'世界華語文學版圖?—評王德威《當代小說二十家》" ['Remapping' World Chinese Literature?—On David Der-wei Wang's Twenty Contemporary Writers], Wenyizhengming (文藝爭鳴) 4 (2007).
Hillenbrand, Margaret. "Communitarianism, or, How to Build East Asian Theory," Postcolonial Studies 13, no. 4 (2010): 317–334.
Hsia, C. T. A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.
Rojas, Carlos and Bachner, Andrea, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Shih, Shu-mei. "Against Diaspora: The Sinophone as Places of Cultural Production." In Shih, Shu-mei, Tsai, Chien-hsin, and Bernards, Brian, eds. Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, 25–42. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
———. "World Studies and Relational Comparison." PMLA 130, no. 2 (2015): 430–438.
Wang, David Der-wei. Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1848–1911. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.
——— 王德威. 想像中國的方法 [A Method of Imagining China]. Shanghai: Sanlian, 1998.
———. The Lyrical in Epic Time: Modern Chinese Intellectuals and Artists Through the 1949 Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.
Zhang Longxi. "Western Theory and Chinese Reality," Critical Inquiry 19, no. 1 (1992): 105–130.
Zhang Yingjin, ed. A Companion to Modern Chinese Literature. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2015.

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.