The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature

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The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, by Julia Lovell. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2006. viii - 248 pp. US$60.00 (hardcover), US$26.00 (paperback).

This beautifully written book gives a pleasure in reading unusual for academic books. It is the first book-length study on Chinese intellectuals' "Nobel Complex", namely a preoccupation with the Nobel Literature Prize and an anxiety about China's international status. Supported by exhaustive scholarship and a wealth of materials, much based on her own interviews with Chinese writers and critics, Julia Lovell explores her topic with theoretical sophistication. In all, the book is a welcome and timely contribution to heated discussion on the dynamics of nationalism, globalization and Chinese identity in modern Chinese literature and culture, especially in the context of the rise of nationalist fervor in mainland China in recent years.

The book ranges widely, from the late Qing intellectual Liang Qichao to the 2000 Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, and can in fact be read as a quick survey of 20th-Century Chinese literature. Such a bold time frame would normally risk being too broad and hollow. Lovell, however, convincingly identifies "two of literary China's fundamental aims in the twentieth century", namely "to forge its own identity and situate itself within a global framework" (p. 106). Her discussion centers around these two issues and focuses on the predicaments faced when pursuing a national modernity by literary means. China's quest for the Nobel Prize is treated as a thread in this study of the complex interaction between modernity, nationalism and individual authorial identity in modern China.

Lovell begins her book with a "diagnosis of the complex", putting forward questions such as "Why should China win a Nobel Prize?" "Why should China care about, or even find anything illogical or unfair in the fact that a group of Swedish judges - almost all lacking the ability to read Chinese - had failed to appreciate its modern literature?" (pp. 3-4). She situates the Chinese intellectuals' obsession with the Nobel Prize in a larger context of anxious cultural nationalism, which has been described by C T. Hsia as intellectuals' "obsession with China". The "complex", therefore, is a result of the national sense of inferiority which has dogged the Chinese intellectual experience of modernity. Throughout the 20th century, a marginal position in a "global culture" has doomed Chinese intellectuals to a perpetual game of catch-up in their pursuit of (secondhand) modernity. Literature has played a particularly important role in nation-building and the nationalistic search for a center from the margin.

While Lovell is right about the traditionally important position of literature in Chinese politics as well as the modern role played by literature in the construction of a collective, centralized national identity, I believe that there is another reason feeding the desire for the Nobel Literature Prize in contemporary China. Tbe Literature Prize should be easier for a developing nation to win than science or economics prizes. The Nobel Prize, like the Olympic Games or the football World Cup, is one of the signifiers of international recognition which the Chinese think they deserve because of their country's size and position. …