Witness Against History:
Literature, Film and Public Discourse
in Twentieth-Century China
Stanford University Press

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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 limitations.  I 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 China.  The 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 terms.  Although recent publications have deemphasized May Fourth, they do so by calling attention to coexisting literary trends.  I 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.

Rethinking 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 contexts.  In 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 allegorically.  It addresses the methodological concerns associated with the terms testimony, public discourse and the figure of history, and surveys the specific circumstances in twentieth-century China.  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 mob.

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 over interpretation.  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 Shuo.  The 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 century.  These terms must be understood not as immutable but rather as constructions that have changed form in various settings.  Moreover, 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 China.



Introduction: Critical Discourse in Twentieth-Century China

    I    May Fourth and its Discontents

• 1 Dreaming a Cure for History: The Resistance to Historical Consciousness Within the May Fourth Movement
• 2 Rewriting Tradition, Misreading History: Twentieth-Century (Sub)versions of Pan Jinlian’s Story
• 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

• Epilogue



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