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  • The Problematic of Self in Modern Chinese Literature: Hu Feng and Lu Ling
  • Kwok-kan Tam (bio)
Kirk A. Denton . The Problematic of Self in Modern Chinese Literature: Hu Feng and Lu Ling. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. x, 324 pp. Hardcover $49.50, ISBN0-8047-3128-4.

Kirk Denton's The Problematic of Self in Modern Chinese Literature: Hu Feng and Lu Ling merits the double attention of scholars and students in modern Chinese studies. To begin with, it is much more than a study of modern Chinese literature, for it attempts to chart cultural change in modern China in terms of the transformation in Chinese subjectivity. In doing this difficult job, Denton offers an "interpretive social science" perspective in delineating the cultural dimension of the modern Chinese self as a problematic caught between tradition and modernity.

In many other studies on Chinese modernity, scholars tend to adopt theoretical models that account for changes in modern China in terms of social continuities and discontinuities, which are more often than not represented as acultural in orientation. In this respect, Denton's book is not only a major contribution to the study of modern China, it also provides a model for placing literature in the broader context of sociocultural developments. The book consists of two parts: "Modernity and Cultural Politics" and "Lu Ling and the Problematic of the Subject." In part 1, there is a detailed discussion of Hu Feng's and Lu Ling's views of subjectivism in the context of cultural politics in modern China, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. This part serves as historical background for the study of Hu Feng and Lu Ling, and also as a theoretical discussion of how to define Chinese modernity. As Denton says, "By modernity I mean the rhetoric of newness, progress, enlightenment, revolution and self received from Western sources but remodeled by intellectuals in response to a specific historical context of imperialism and domestic social decay" (p. 7). Anything that was Western was thus new and exotic to the Chinese from the late Qing through the 1940s. Defined as such, many aspects of Chinese modernity cannot be regarded in the same way as the modernity that occurred in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. Thus, even European Romanticism was received as modern in China in the 1920s and 1930s. Such a view sheds much light on the nature and context of modernity in China.

For many scholars working in the field of modern Chinese culture, how to define Chinese modernity remains a problem of central importance. If Chinese modernity can include various aspects of European Romanticism, then how can it still be called modernity? Should Chinese modernity be called something else? If there is something in Chinese modernity that parallels modernity in the Western sense, then what is it? Denton gives the answer that it is the changing Chinese concept of self that marks a cultural shift from tradition to modernity in China; as he puts it: "Chinese modernity and its literature, with their attention to the individual [End Page 434] and the representation of mind, clearly marks a break from tradition. But underlying this radically new narrative orientation lay profound continuities with traditional views of mind, particularly its 'linkage' to the external world of others and the cosmos. . . . This dual nature of self, at once transcendent and determined, and attempts to reconcile this duality inform the writing of modern literary critics" (p. 41). This view of duality and the conflicts that have ensued have been discussed in many books and essays, including the volume edited by Roger T. Ames et al., Self as Image in Asian Theory and Practice (1998).

In part 2, Denton focuses on two novels, Children of the Rich and Hungry Guo Su'e, both by Lu Ling. In his reading of these two novels, Denton shows that the changing modern Chinese self is represented as a duality between individualism and collectivism, between the subjective and the objective aspects of the mind, and is caught in the conflicts thus involved. Such conflicts actually are not limited to the characters of Lu Ling's fiction. They can also be found in the...


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pp. 434-437
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