The book rereads milestones in twentieth-century
Chinese literature and cinema as well as the
narratives woven around them. I argue that many texts
and films that have aspired to speak in the name of
“history” (understood as the record of reality and
the course of national destiny) have nevertheless
also implied their failure to bear witness to history. Rather than take the authors’ agenda at face
value, I look at the textual dynamics that belie the
works’ purported mission to change the nation’s fate.
This book should be understood as an alternative model
for studying non-Western literature and film, moving
away from the “area studies” reliance on sociopolitical
paradigms and attending first and foremost to the
primary works. In focusing on material conditions, production
data and readers’ reception, China scholars have often
neglected the inner resistance and conflicting messages
within specific texts. I will show through detailed analysis that
many works reputed for their faith in the power of
the word and the image have also implied their own
focus on works by prominent authors, including many
considered among the milestones in their genre.
The novels and short stories have been widely
anthologized and even translated into English. The films have all won critical acclaim and
are often cited as representative of their period,
even though not many have been distributed outside
texts and films reviewed cover the entire twentieth
century, with emphasis on the mainland but drawing
also on Hong Kong and Taiwan. While I do not pretend to offer a comprehensive
history of twentieth-century Chinese literature and
film, the book’s broad scope allows a reevaluation
of the overarching ideological construction at each
and every period.
That these works have been consistently understood
within the hegemonic narrative demonstrates the need
for a more nuanced reading.
In terms familiar to China scholars, I propose
to rewrite the prevailing conceptions about the May
Fourth movement and its legacy. The intellectual agenda of the late 1910s,
named after the student demonstrations on May 4, 1919,
called for a literary revolution that would change
society and usher China into an age of Enlightenment.
Ever since, Chinese writers and filmmakers
have had to situate their work in relation to these
recent publications have deemphasized May Fourth,
they do so by calling attention to coexisting literary
suggest, however, that the resistance to the ideals
associated with the May Fourth came also from within
the very circles identified with the movement. The platform proclaimed in prefaces and essays stands in contrast
with the doubts and paradoxes conveyed within texts
and films, often by the same authors.
the role of national redemption in Chinese literature
allows a broader reassessment of the grand narratives
of the twentieth century. The case of Chinese authors, who have exercised
modernist convictions, socialist views of history
and postsocialist disillusionment with marked zeal,
has important implications for the critical
paradigms used for describing modernity, such as historical
consciousness and the public sphere. My claim, that under the utopian streak
of nationalism and modernism resides a programmatic
critique and a dystopian drive, concurs with challenges
to Enlightenment ideals made in other geopolitical
particular, the texts at hand should be read as critiquing
the public sphere as dysfunctional and adding to historical
consciousness a sense of historical displacement.
The book comprises ten chapters of varying length
and devotes roughly equal space to works from the
1910s through the Cultural Revolution (Chapters One
through Four) and works in the aftermath of the Maoist
era, into the 1990s (Chapters Five through Nine).
An introductory chapter argues for the value of reading historical events
addresses the methodological concerns associated with
the terms testimony, public discourse and the figure of
history, and surveys the specific circumstances in
Chapter One examines Lu Xun’s writings and
his use of the metaphors of dreaming and awakening. Rather than a symbol of enlightenment, awakening
becomes for Lu Xun a trope for the dangerous self-delusion
of writers who look for signs of historical
redemption. Other scholars have invariably read Lu Xun as resisting despair;
I argue that his parables trap the readers in a hermetic
logic of the absurd.
Chapter Two focuses on twentieth-century reinterpretations
of the premodern story of Pan Jinlian, beginning in
1920s drama. Although
usually understood as a critique of premodern values,
in fact these works do not end in an unmitigated celebration
of modernity. The modern plays uphold the original plot and implicitly show the
desire to reinvent history — even if only literary
history — to be the modern playwright’s hubris.
Chapter Three deals with leftist cinema of
the 1930s and argues that its revolutionary message
is often compromised by concern for spectators’ visual
pleasure. Leftist cinema has been considered to have
promulgated public discourse by advancing art for
the masses, yet I demonstrate that from its inception
the appeal to “the masses” was belied by a perception
of the spectators as an indiscriminate and unchecked
In a transitional chapter (Chapter Four) the
book proceeds to consider the fate of public discourse
under Mao. Rather than examine political censorship and
personal machinations, I discuss the internal literary
dynamics within propagandistic film and drama.
The chapter delineates the narrative strategies
through which Maoist discourse preempted and delegitimized,
from within approved works, any debate outside that
generated and controlled by the Party.
Drawing upon films from the 1950s and Model
Plays of the 1960s, I show how the theme of transmitting
an undeciphered code reflected the Party’s monopoly
What gives the lie to Mao’s claim to inheriting
the May Fourth ideology, I argue, is not so much his
political agenda as his suspension of public discourse
and condemnation of literary ambiguity.
The second part of the book looks at the role
of bearing witness in the aftermath of the Cultural
Revolution in the PRC and of the Chiangs’ rule in
Taiwan. Chapter Five addresses the important but mostly-ignored
cinema of the early 1980s.
Even in this period, during the initial stages
of rescuing collective memory, PRC films stressed
the limits of artistic agency. May Fourth notions of public discourse were
revived but transformed through the new concept of
the “inner mind,” which located subjective opinion
in a realm beyond the reach of ideological censorship.
The next two chapters (Six and Seven) turn
to three writers who pay tribute in the 1980s to the
May Fourth and digest the implications of the post-Mao
era for the ideals of their parents’ generation.
Chapter Six looks at “scar literature,” a genre
clearly committed to bearing witness to the past.
Yet as my discussion of Zhang Xianliang demonstrates,
even “scar literature” harbors a fundamental mistrust
of taking history at face value and acknowledges that
experience can often be conveyed only through the
silences between words. Chapter Seven explores similar themes across the Taiwan straits,
in the work of political dissidents Chen Yingzhen
and Liu Daren. While it is tempting to regard their work as
reclaiming silenced voices, Chen’s and Liu’s short
stories of the mid-1980s resist the euphoric belief
that after the demise of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek
repressed sufferings can be recounted. Instead, the stories point out that the traumatic past has rendered
the authors incapable of bearing witness.
Chapter Eight surveys the changes in the perceived
role of PRC writers during the late 1980s.
While the so-called “Avant-garde Fiction” has
benefited from much informed critical attention and
is largely regarded as a reaction to Maoist genres,
little has been written about its critique of testimony.
I focus on Yu Hua’s short stories and argue
that they fashion the author-figure as an unwilling
witness who cannot redeem historical experience. Finally, in Chapter Nine, I offer a reading
of Jiang Wen’s film In the Heat of the Sun,
based on a short story by mega-popular writer Wang
film has been noted for its nostalgia for the
Cultural Revolution. I claim, however, that the playful storyline
conceals not only a challenge to Maoist historical
narratives but also a scathing criticism of reminiscence.
Jiang’s film ends up discrediting memory altogether
and revealing that speaking in the name of history
is no more than a form of affectation.
While each chapter can be read independently, the
book as a whole traces the perception of historical
consciousness and public discourse through the twentieth
terms must be understood not as immutable but rather
as constructions that have changed form in various
the book places the terms in relation to one another
and shows how historical consciousness and collective
memory have been undermined rather than supported
by public discourse.
The emphasis on the ambiguity of modernist
values allows for reassessing the role of literature
and film in establishing and critiquing national,
revolutionary and other grand narratives in twentieth-century
Critical Discourse in Twentieth-Century China
Fourth and its Discontents
• 1 Dreaming a Cure for History: The Resistance
to Historical Consciousness Within the May Fourth
• 2 Rewriting Tradition, Misreading History:
Twentieth-Century (Sub)versions of Pan Jinlian’s
• 3 Revolution and Revulsion: Ideology, Monstrosity,
and Phantasmagoria in 1930s Chinese Cinema
• 4 The Purloined Lantern: Maoist Semiotics
and Public Discourse in Early PRC Film and Drama
II Wounded Memories
• 5 A Blinding Red Light: The Displacement of
Rhetoric in the Cinema of the Early 1980s
• 6 Disjointed Time, Split Voices: Retrieving
Historical Experience in Scar Literature
• 7 Retelling Taiwan: Identity and Dislocation
in Post-Chiang Mystery
• 8 The Aesthetics and Anesthetics of Memory:
PRC Avant- Garde Fiction
• 9 Memory at a Standstill: From Maohistory
to Hooligan History
Berry, China Quarterly, no. 179: 813–815.
- Paul Clark, China Review International 14,
no. 2: 385–387.
- Carles Prado-Fonts, “Against
a Besieged Literature: Fictions, Obsessions
Globalisations of Chinese Literature.” Digithum
10 (see unnumerated page 3).
- Clemens Treter, China Information 18, no.3:
- Paola Voci, New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies
7, no. 2: 202–204.
- Edward Q. Wang, Comparative Literature Studies
44, no. 1–2: 190–194.
- Yiman Wang, Journal of Asian Studies 63,
no. 4: 1095–1097.
- Peter Zarrow, American Historical Review 109,
no. 2: 494–495.