Book review: David Der-wei Wang’s opus of modern Chinese literature

A New Literary History of Modern China demonstrates the vibrancy of the nation's modern literature and its eagerness to embrace outside cultural and linguistic influences.

A reading event for World Book Day at a subway station in Harbin, China, last year. There are few modern English-language translations of Chinese literature. Tao Zhang / NurPhoto
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

When The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature appeared last year, Harvard professor of Chinese literature David Der-wei Wang sang the praises of both book and subject. "In this volume," he wrote, "Chinese literature appears to be a most powerful institution that inscribes, and sometimes even prescribes, the history of modern China."

In A New Literary History of Modern China, Wang edits an undertaking of perhaps even greater audacity. In this enormous 1,000-page volume, produced in a beautiful edition by the Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, brief essays from more than 140 scholars, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, shine quick, intense light on hundreds of facets of the Chinese concept of wen, "literariness".

It runs through a staggering array of literary forms, from prison memoirs to travelogues to Socratic dialogues to stage plays to pop song lyrics, to the rough equivalent of fan fiction written about silent films.

The book is a racing profusion of names, time periods, nations and people: countless writers, editors, copyists, publishers, actors, poets, scroungers, scoundrels, censors, poseurs, and even the occasional lowly book reviewer.

In his invaluable introduction to the volume, Wang focuses on “the distinctive modernity that characterises Chinese literature alone” and spends the rest of his Introduction and most of the book trying to map the geography and boundaries of wen as it applies to a vast body of writing, an almost unmanageable body of writing.

Wang’s aim is “to view Chinese literary modernisation not as a monolithic process, with each stage inevitably leading toward a higher one in accordance with a certain timetable, but as a process with multiple entry points and ruptures”.

A key element of that modernisation, the key ingredient of all those multiple entry points and ruptures feels at first a bit counter-intuitive: the outside world.

The stereotypical view of literary China has always been one of isolation, even xenophobia – a cloistered, inward-looking literature. Wang and his fellow contributors amply demonstrate that this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, Chinese literature has always been eager to seek out foreign influences and is hyper-sensitive to their effects. Our host calls this “transculturation” and defines it as “linguistic, cultural and intellectual interactions between continents, nations, societies, institution and communities”.

Wang and some of his contributors occasionally resort to this kind of academic double-speak, which can lead with woeful ease to phrases like “the heteroglossia of the diasporic communities”. But considering the fact that this book will certainly be used in graduate-level literature courses, blocks of heavy jargon are mercifully rare.

Instead, what readers get is a gallery of colourful characters and an impossibly long list of books and authors they’ll be intrigued to consult (indeed, one of the perhaps unintended consequences of a book like this is to underscore how comparatively little of Chinese literature exists in modern English-language translations).

Each of Wang’s contributors writes a brief (two to six pages, on average) piece introducing some literary figure and concisely but colourfully sketches in the broad details of their work and then moves briskly off-stage in order to allow the next scholar to step up and do the same. This is certainly more disorienting than the slower pace and more focused ambit of an actual anthology of the prose in translation, but its strength lies in its inclusiveness.

The book includes a very great deal – there is a teeming multitude in these pages. For instance, we meet Sai Jinhua, the courtesan who is said to have used her relationship with the commander of the allied western forces in Beijing at the end of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 in order to save the city from further destruction. The fact that Carlos Rojas can outline her story in a six-page essay that also covers topics ranging from historical fiction to social Darwinism and make it all fascinating is, against all odds, typical of the contributions in these pages.

This is serious literary history, yes, but it’s also clearly intended to be engaging reading.

Eileen Cheng gives readers a fast-paced and heartfelt account of the career of the great scholar and author Lu Xun (1881-1936), mainly by concentrating on his superb short stories.

Yale University scholar Kang-i Sun Chang offers a gripping autobiographical sketch about Taiwan’s 228 Massacre and its long, heartbreaking aftermath.

Clint Capehart tells the fascinating story of the Taiwanese writer who worked under the pen name of Sanmao, who threw off her conventional upbringing and became famous by writing up accounts of her far-flung travels around the world (“She bridged the gap between popular fiction and highbrow literature,” Capehart writes, “entertaining with sentimental tales while educating readers about the outside world, enriching not only her audience but also herself in the process”).

Ying Lei relates the picaresque life and times of the poet-monk Su Manshu (1884-1918), who once drank five to six pounds of frozen dessert in a single day and “ended up lying still on the floor like a corpse”.

In all of these entries and many others can be found one of the book’s main joys for the curious reader. They open by concentrating on one literary figure but then inevitably broaden in all directions.

Stanford University professor Haiyan Lee, for instance, starts by telling the tragic story of the activist Lin Juemin (1887-1811) and the famous last letter he left for his wife (“As I write this letter, I’m still a man in the land of the living; when you read it, I’ll be a ghost in the netherworld”).

But in short order, readers are also learning about the great 14th-century epic Water Margin, Xu Zhenya's 1912 "lugubrious tale" Jade Pear Spirit, Taiwanese singer Chyi Yu and half a dozen other references worth chasing down.

In his wonkish way, Wang earnestly tells readers that his anthology offers four themes for grounding modern Chinese literature firmly in the wider world: “architectonics of temporalities, dynamics of travel and transculturation, contestation between wen and mediality, and remapping of the literary cartography of modern China”. Like most academic jargon, a great deal of this is gibberish.

Fortunately for his readers, Wang has wrought far better than his architectonics knew. A New Literary History of Modern China is a veritable world unto itself, a triumph of expansive enthusiasm and omnivorous literary curiosity, science fiction, fan fiction, web fiction and the thousand ways more traditional Chinese literary forms have always grappled with the present, the past and the outside world. All are illuminated in these pages. It's a stunning collection and its own wen is beyond reproach.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.