Academic journal article Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese

Omens of History: Su Tong's Southern Landscape and Dynastic Histories

Academic journal article Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese

Omens of History: Su Tong's Southern Landscape and Dynastic Histories

Article excerpt

Born in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in 1963, Su Tong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] belongs to the post-Mao generation of writers whose experimental spirit in creating "new languages and literary forms in order to provide new meanings for society" (1) has earned them the status of the "avant-garde" on the Mainland. He began publishing poems and short stories in literary magazines in the early 1980s. His tour de force in the West, Raise the Red Lantern: Three Novellas (1990), (2) originally titled Qiqie chengqun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (A Profusion of Wives and Concubines), (3) won him international acclaim, especially after director Zhang Yimou's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] film rendition from which the book derived its English title. Many critics have commented on Su Tong's "decadent" style, particularly "decadence" as a subversive gesture toward the utopian rhetoric of revolutionary literature sanctioned by state ideology. (4) Like their Western counterparts, these avant-garde writers usually exhibit a fin-de-siecle consciousness, or what Arnold Hauser calls "the feeling of doom and crisis," "the consciousness of standing at the end of a vital process and in the presence of the dissolution of a civilization." (5) Apparently, this apocalyptic temperament finds a not so distant echo in contemporaries like Mo Yan [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Han Shaogong [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], whose sense of "devolution" and cultural decline provokes a literary reinvention of the past as a resistance to (and sometimes a redemption of) the flux of time. As David Der-wei Wang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] observes, Su Tong's depiction of Fengyangshu xiang [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Maple-Poplar Village), his fictional homeland, is a nuanced continuation of the "imaginary nostalgia" in modern Chinese fiction championed by Shen Congwen [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and Lu Xun [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] decades ago, only that in Su Tong's case the "return" to the past is fraught with incomprehension, revulsion and disgust, while the predominant movement is, ironically, "escape." (6)

What further differentiates Su Tong's "nostalgia" from search-for-roots fiction is that his imaginary homeland is a self-conscious fictional construct concentrating on the dubious and demonic aspects of "home." The I-narrators in "Yijiusansinian de taowang" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("1934 Escapes") and "Feiyue wo de fengyangshu guxiang" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] ("Flying over to My Maple-Poplar Home Country"), (7) for example, try to rewrite their family history by overtly creating the characters, setting and action as a kind of psychological quest for meaning and self-knowledge. Be it Fengyangshu xiang (the country) or Xingchunshu jie Hriif [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Fragrant Cedar Avenue (the city), the decadent South is shrouded in an obscure atmosphere (oppressively moist, exotic and opaque) that illuminates the inner world of emotions and desire of its inhabitants. History, says Su Tong, is "a heap of paper scraps" from which he constructs his fictional world, in which both the author and the reader are to discover the "defects of history" and the "defects of mankind in history" that constitute the world of fiction. (8) In fact, the interest of Su Tong's work lies less in a direct criticism or reflection of the "defects of mankind and history," as in critical social realism of the May Fourth tradition, or the post-Mao scar literature, than in the experimentation with different possibilities of fiction writing, from metafiction to neo-realist fiction, from fatalistic predestination to more open-ended melodrama, and from the twentieth-century to ancient dynasties. Current critical studies of Su Tong have amply demonstrated the writer's complex engagement with history in the stories of the South, Su Tong's imaginary homeland where most of his fictional narratives of the past take place. …

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