- The Not So Soft Power of Chinese Literary Theory and Criticism:A Review of Literature and Literary Criticism in Contemporary China by Zhang Jiong
At a time when China flexes its economic muscles and aspires for the so-called "soft power" on the world stage, there is one area where China's global reach has been woefully deficient: literary theory and criticism. Compared with Chinese literary works, which have gained increasing traction and recognition around the globe, Chinese theory and criticism have lagged far behind. In the absence of available statistics or data, let us just imagine the following scenario, which we know to be too true: Nowadays a doctoral student in literary studies at any Anglo-American university would have no problem writing a dissertation on the work of a contemporary Chinese author by using the theories of, say, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, or Friedrich Nietzsche. But a student trying to interpret William Faulkner by using any Chinese theory or method, ancient or modern, would be told that it is absurd, professionally suicidal. This review essay is not the right place to dig into the reasons for such a glaring disparity, which has to do with cultural capital and vicissitudes of world history. But it is a reality [End Page 257] we need to keep in mind when assessing a book like Literature and Literary Criticism in Contemporary China by Zhang Jiong.
A prominent scholar who has held the key position as the Dean of the Institute of Literary Studies at the China Academy of Social Sciences and has served as general editor of several monumental, multivolume series on Chinese literature and criticism, Zhang Jiong certainly represents the "official" view on literature in China. Such a view is reflected in Zhang's strict adherence to the principles of Marxist literary criticism. He quotes from Karl Marx's Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy a key passage that constitutes the tenet of dialectical materialism: "In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness" (3). In other words, material conditions determine consciousness, or one's social being determines one's social consciousness. Against this bedrock of dialectical materialism, Zhang reiterates the golden rules of Marxist literary criticism: "Literature and art are to be conditioned by a specific social history. Not only did it reflect the historical life of a given society[,] but it also expresses the philosophical, political, legal, ethic, religious, and aesthetic viewpoints of people in a given society" (4).
Scholars living in Western democracies, inured to the ideas of free speech and individual expression, might feel ambivalent about Zhang's unabashed advocacy of Marxist ideology. Some might even dismiss him for toeing the party line. But Zhang was emphatically unapologetic:
I do advocate [the] ideologicalization of literary criticism because I do not believe there is any literary criticism under the sky that has been truly non-ideologicalized. Is criticism delivered by a critic who has alleged his belief in aestheticism, formalism and supreme personal interests the "non-ideological" criticism? In my opinion, it is nothing more than another form of ideology, just like any ideological system. In the era of value pluralism, critics certainly have the right to their belief in ideology, but they have no need to shy away from admitting the fact that they fail to be "non-ideologicalized."(10) [End Page 258]
If we can suspend ideological kibitzing for a moment and assess Zhang's work for its own merit by scholarly measures, we will see that this book, consisting of seven stand-alone but still interconnected essays, presents a panoramic view of the history of Marxism-centered Chinese literary theory and...