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Reviewed by:
  • A New Literary History of Modern China ed. by David Der-wei Wang
  • Flair Donglai Shi (bio)
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...


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