Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century/Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age

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Postsocialism and Cultural Politics: China in the Last Decade of the Twentieth Century, by Xudong Zhang. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2008. ? + 346 pp. US$89.95 (hardcover), US$24.95 (paperback).

Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age, by Jason McGrath. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. xiv + 300 pp. US$60.00 (hardcover).

These books have titles that suggest a similar double-focus, postsocialism and culture. Both promise a critical perspective, "criticism" and "politics", and both privilege cinema as the key locus for postsocialist discourse. Nonetheless they are very different kinds of work and the voices of the two authors are quite distinct.

Zhang Xudong brings together a collection of essays, many of which have appeared in previous publications. He endeavors to create a more substantial narrative of postsocialism in action in the cultural field. His opening sections include several commonplace macro-statements (with few references to the scholarship of others), such as that the middle class is a deliberate anti-political creation of state socialist-capitalism which may outgrow its master, the CCP, in terms of financial and political ambition; that there is a splintering of intellectual debate among Wang Hui, dissidents and conservatives (like the neo-Marxists Li Zehou and Yu Ying-shih) (p. 51); and that where Chinese scholarship takes on Western theoretical premises it sometimes gets lost in ahistorical absurdity (p. 52).

This approach is by turns engaging, irritating and a bit gossipy. I really wasn't sure why Wang Hui was given such a raw deal in Zhang's account, especially as there is no actual engagement with the text of Wang's work but only the gloss on it as summed up and dismissed by Zhang himself. I quote at length, as this passage captures the tone of the sections: "Wang writes as though he has to pass the stringent examination of both the theory-driven academic Left and a text- and empirical data-obsessed Sinologist in the United States. To what extent Wang's scholarship may enter meaningful dialogue with traditional scholars working on the same archival materials . . . remains to be seen, as his framing questions may be perceived as a hardened shell of unwanted terminological and discursive complications even by their implied authence in Western academic circles" (p. 5 1). This criticism strikes me as a little unwarranted in a book which is itself laden with complicated discursive turns which really do not serve the clarity of the argument overall, and which in some cases only serve to re-state what has been argued elsewhere with more precision.

The main case in point is the chapter on trauma and national allegory in Tian Zhuangzhuang's The Blue Kite, which reads to me as a re-telling of Ban Wang's essay on the same film, in his book, Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory and History in China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) which also deals with trauma at some length. …