- Revolution and Its Narratives: China's Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949–1966 by Cai Xiang
Revolution and Its Narratives is a translation by Rebecca E. Karl and Xueping Zhong of Cai Xiang's (蔡翔) Geming/xushu, 革命/敘述, an important study on [End Page 151] modern socialist Chinese literature, which was first published in 2010 and has gained wide critical attention in China. Carefully pruned and annotated, this elegant English edition of Cai's book is an indispensable source for understanding the complexity of Chinese revolution and its legacies.
In their introduction to the English translation, Karl and Zhong lay out a tripartite frame to address the significance of Cai's work: (1) the context of "the Chinese historical turn in socialist new culture towards massification (dazhonghua)" and its logical connection to May Fourth period's "new culture" (p. xiii), (2) the interventionist nature of Cai's work against the post-1980s "liberal revenge" and "historical-ideological erasure" of the socialist literature (p. xiv), and (3) the dialectical connection between revolution and its consequent cultural narration in everyday contexts. These three parts form an unbroken intellectual configuration, returning always to a certain view of history. Two distinctive qualities of Cai's work valued by the translators, among other characteristic elements, are Cai's seriousness in taking on the legitimacy of socialism and Cai's systematicity (p. xii). These two qualities seem to remain central to an understanding of Cai's work: the former being its premise and the latter its dialectical vicissitudes.
In his own introduction, Cai takes on the immediate task of establishing the legitimacy of the Chinese revolution. First, he evokes May Fourth cultural figure Chen Yinke's "understanding-based sympathy" and relates it to "a particular kind of attitude toward history." If his emphasis on attitude shows a certain affinity to Mao's Yan'an Talks, Cai then directly quotes the leading leftwing philosopher, the venerable Maoist Alain Badiou, from his comments on the Communist Manifesto. Cai then concludes: "Once we have established our own historical attitude through which we emphasize the legitimacy of the Chinese revolution, we also recognize that this legitimacy was grounded in the … resistance of the weak and the demands of labor … to be liberated from a state of alienation" (p. 3). It is easy to see that Cai owes as much to Marx as to Badiou. In a perfect Badiouian sense, Cai then calls for a "return to the complexities of historical trajectories" and "the range of entangled logics within" (p. 4). This methodological commitment to systematicity and abstraction puts Cai in opposition to the use of "specific cases and historical detail" (p. 4). In a dismissive and combative tongue, he writes: "too often we have seen certain specific cases and details being singled out and magnified from a particular narrative point of view" (p. 4). Later, when discussing the factors that have prevented the study of socialist literature, he blames the "criticisms based on memories informed by a particular class position" and claims that they are often "opportunistically motivated" (p. 11). Cai's clear political desire and his New Left position, or attitude, inform his very understanding of the socialist literature. Relying on Hegelian/Marxian ideas of history, Cai situates literature within this processual totality structured by [End Page 152] tensions. One strong merit of Cai's book lies in his dialectical approach to such tensions manifested in literature. Cai's treatment of literature is extremely structural and yet it indicates not the vulgar Marxism of determination but a materialist analysis of processes. His analytical subtlety and attention to the creative nature of the socialist literature are lucidly shown through the individual chapters.
One major theme in chapter 1 is the dialectical relation and mutual constitution of the local and the national in the revolutionary imagination. Warning against a reductive understanding of power as mechanic, centralized control or the crude substitution of the old during...