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  • The Translatability of Revolution: Guo Moruo and Twentieth-Century Chinese Culture by Pu Wang
  • Haosheng Yang (bio)
Pu Wang. The Translatability of Revolution: Guo Moruo and Twentieth-Century Chinese Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018. xvi, 336 pp. Hardcover $45.00, isbn 978-0-674-98718-0.

Pu Wang's groundbreaking monograph The Translatability of Revolution: Guo Moruo and Twentieth-Century Chinese Culture is a valuable addition to the studies of Guo Moruo, one of the most influential romantic poets, leftist writers, and Marxist historians, as well as one of the most controversial cultural figures in twentieth-century China. It provides a firmly grounded, insightfully argued, and compelling close reading of Guo Moruo's poetry, dramas, fiction, personal and professional essays, and polemical writings from the perspective of translingual and transcultural analysis. Moreover, this book is also a [End Page 244] refreshing demonstration of how translation, not only as a linguistic rendition but also as an ideological interpretation, can offer an intriguing dimension to scholarly examination of the problems of the Chinese revolution vis-à-vis China's dynamic sociopolitical discourse in the twentieth century.

Guo Moruo's dramatic transformation from a romantic poet and an eminent historian to an ardent propagandist in Mao Zedong's PRC has often aroused polemics against him. As David Wang points out, such a contested image of Guo has prevented him from becoming a popular scholarly subject. However, Wang's book argues explicitly that Guo's embrace of communism and Mao's revolution does not mark an astonishing discontinuity in his career, but can be explained convincingly through the lens of his lifelong engagement as a translator. Ranging widely from rendering German, Japanese, and English works into Chinese, and from reinterpreting Chinese classical texts in modern vernacular language, Guo's practice of translation confronts the boundaries of languages, genres, and ideologies, and draws attention to the intimate relationship between his aesthetic principles and political ideas. The three major facets of Guo's career—as poet, as historian, and as Maoist propagandist—are correlated with his personal life and larger worldview as reflected in his whole translingual creation.

What lies at the center of Guo Moruo's entire career are his consistent efforts to understand, interpret, and manifest a Chinese Zeitgeist (shidai jingshen 時代精神), which not merely represents the epoch-making event of the Chinese revolution, but also applies to a universal metric of "progress" within the Marxist framework of world history. As comprehensively addressed in the book, Guo consciously translated the German phrase Geschäftiger Geist into "chuangzao jiangshen" (creative spirit) when rendering the opening act of Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the early 1920s. Ever since then, his fascination with the most powerful patterns of creative spirit in his time—deconstruction and construction in the practical and theoretical domains of human life—dominated every meaningful decision in his career. His literary production, historical scholarship, and political activism were all fueled and directed by his commitment to progressing along with the Chinese Zeitgeist of a ceaseless revolution. While Wang has provided a series of precise quotes in the beginning of "Introduction" to outline this essential pursuit of Guo, I believe that the following passage from Guo's memoir sets one of the best examples for the reader to understand his theoretical-practical view of the historicity of literature and art, based upon which he arguably advocated that writers and artists should grasp the spirit of their times by serving as "a gramophone" of the Chinese revolution:

At that time [mid 1920s], I already had ambition to establish a fundamental theory for literature and art by myself . . . The components of literary and artistic "cells," from my point of view, are nothing else but the emotions [End Page 245] stimulated by external conditions and the necessary fluctuations of the emotions . . . The conditions, whether internal or external, are evolving along with the evolution of human society. Therefore, the emotions as a reflection of the conditions are evolving as well. One age has its own conditions and emotions, thus has its own literature and art. The conditions of the past cannot be reproduced, so that literature and art of the past cannot be copied . . . This...


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