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The Subject in Crisis in Contemporary Chinese Literature

The Subject in Crisis in Contemporary Chinese Literature

Rong Cai
Copyright Date: 2004
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    The Subject in Crisis in Contemporary Chinese Literature
    Book Description:

    Post-Mao China produced two parallel discourses on the human subject in the New Era (1976–1989). One was an autonomous, Enlightenment humanist self aimed at replacing the revolutionary paragon that had dominated under Mao. The other was a more problematic subject suffering from either a symbolic physical deformity or some kind of spiritual paralysis that undermines its apparent normalcy. How do we explain the stubborn presence, in the literature of the 1980s and 1990s, of this crippled agent who fails to realize the humanist autonomy envisioned by post-Mao theorists? What are the anxieties and tensions embedded in this incongruity and what do they reveal? This illuminating and original critical study of the crippled subject in post-Mao literature offers a detailed textual analysis of the work of five well-known contemporary writers: Han Shaogong, Can Xue, Yu Hua, Mo Yan, and Jia Pingwa. The author investigates not only the literary characters within the texts, but also their creators—real subjects in history, Chinese writers whose own agency was being tested and established in the search for a new subjectivity. She argues that, reenacting the Maoist legacy, the literary search failed to provide a viable model for a postrevolutionary China. In addition, the deficiency and inadequacy of the subject cannot always be contained in the Communist past—a history to be transcended in the design of modernity after Mao. The representation of the problematic subject thus punctured post-Mao optimism and foreshadowed the eventual abandonment of the move to rethink subjectivity in the 1990s. By diving beneath the euphoria of the 1980s and the confusion and frustration of the 1990s, these critical readings offer a unique perspective with which to gauge the complexity of China’s quest for modernity and a fuller understanding of the self’s multifaceted experience in the post-Mao era.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6506-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-27)

    The late 1970s and the 1980s in post-Mao China were an age of ideas and ideals. Thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s more liberal cultural policy, Western theories of various persuasions surged in with unprecedented speed and force. Despite their sometimes conflicting and mutually deconstructive theoretical premises, Western concepts of all sorts were eagerly swallowed up, hastily digested, and hurriedly circulated by the intellectually starved Chinese critics to both create and fill up a new discursive space where the critics’ position in the changing society was negotiated and their own notion of modernity articulated and disseminated. Among all the entrées on the...

  5. 2 In Search of a New Subject
    (pp. 28-59)

    In this chapter, I contextualize the search for a new subject in post- Mao literature. I approach the task by concentrating on two areas pivotal to the unfolding of the historical project: theory and literary practice. First, I discuss the efforts made on the theoretical front, focusing in greater detail on the aesthetic theory of what China’s well-known literary theorist in the 1980s Liu Zaifu called “subjectivity in literature.” Second, I give an overview of post-Mao representation of the subject in the New Era, examining the literary, cultural, and ideological characteristics of three models of the subject: as a sociopolitical...

  6. 3 The Spoken Subject: Han Shaogong’s Cripples
    (pp. 60-91)

    Despite the changing perspectives in the theorization and representation of the subject in the 1980s, and despite the multifarious roles the subject was called upon to perform in the post-Mao era, one thing remained constant: the emerging new subject was expected to be an empowered being fully competent to exercise its formerly inhibited agency. Anticlimactic to the eager anticipation and passionate theoretical pleas for the autonomous subject, however, postrevolutionary literature produced an unprecedented contingent of deformed beings, as David Wang notes.¹ That a problematic subject should dominate the cathartic “literature of the wounded” and “literature of self-reflection” in the wake...

  7. 4 In the Madding Crowd Self and Other in Can Xue’s Fiction
    (pp. 92-126)

    While Han Shaogong and his fellowxungenwriters dug into the collective, cultural foundations of the subject from a historical perspective, others chose to face the present, lodging the subject in its daily, individual reality. When the Cultural Revolution and previous political movements were openly repudiated in the late 1970s, people had a chance to look honestly into the real conditions of their existence without the officially imposed, and sometimes self-exercised, ideological sanctions. As a result of the candid scrutiny, a new trend in the representation of the subject appeared: “absurdist fiction”(huangdan xiaoshuo),which presents life as irrational, illogical,...

  8. 5 The Post-Mao Traveler on the New Long March
    (pp. 127-153)

    In the preceding two chapters, I concentrated on a number of works published by Han Shaogong and Can Xue in the heyday of the New Era, the mid-1980s. The two writers’ visions of the physically and symbolically deformed being are anything but congruent with the optimism of the age that had invested much of its energies and desires in the recovery of theren, the human being writ large. Despite differences in their subject matter and artistic sensibilities, Han Shaogong and Can Xue are products of the times. Embodying as well as contributing to the ethos of the 1980s, their...

  9. 6 Mirror of the Self: The Foreign Other in Mo Yan’s Large Breasts and Full Hips
    (pp. 154-178)

    The image of the traveler I analyzed in chapter 5 reveals the frustration and confusion experienced by the ill-prepared youth on the post-Mao journey of reforms. But this journey does not only involve the Chinese self. Just as in the initial stage of the national journey in the late nineteenth century, the post-Mao move toward modernity has also been designed and implemented under an acute awareness of the need to position China in an increasingly globalized environment. Opening its door to the outside world to establish strategic and economic ties with the West was at the basis of China’s post-Mao...

  10. 7 Appropriation and Representation: The Intellectual Self in the Early 1990s
    (pp. 179-223)

    The fictional characters’ lack of subjective powers I have discussed so far unquestionably contradicts the humanist model of individual worth, rationality, and self-autonomy. But this should not lead to a simplistic denial of the recovery of the writers’ own creative agency. As Lacan would tell us, the attempt to represent absence is the first step toward replacing the void, opening up possibilities for signification. The breadth and depth of the postrevolutionary inquiry into the Chinese soul in literature attest to the autonomy the writers have reclaimed from Mao’s dictatorial cultural policy. Behind the variegated representations of the subject, there is...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 224-236)

    The representation of the disenchanted agent constitutes a recent chapter in a convoluted national narrative that Chinese intellectuals have been writing since the country’s entry into the modern world. With its debut some eight decades ago, the humanist hero, one of the central tropes of this national narrative, embarked on a long and arduous journey only to come to a problematic stop in the last decade of the twentieth century. The sound and fury of the Enlightenment ideals having finally been drowned out in the din of modernization and commercialization in the 1990s, we can now look back on the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 237-256)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 257-276)
  14. Index
    (pp. 277-282)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 283-284)