Academic journal article Hecate

Tragic Alliance as (Post)Modernist Reading: 'Jasmine Tea' by Zhang Ailing

Academic journal article Hecate

Tragic Alliance as (Post)Modernist Reading: 'Jasmine Tea' by Zhang Ailing

Article excerpt

Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang, 1920-1995) was one of the major prose stylists of modern Chinese literature.1 Heir to the great tradition of premodern vernacular fiction in China, Zhang was also wellacquainted with Western modern fiction. This paper, a reading of 'Jasmine Tea,' attempts to read Zhang in the context of some of the many readings of Zhang by critics. I am not claiming to provide a framework for all of Zhang's work; however, 'Jasmine Tea' is a significant example of what Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang refers to as 'domestic conflict' in Zhang's work. Zhang's depictions of domestic relations are a key strategy of her fiction.2 Zhang's work is sometimes linked to modernism; my approach to Zhang is to position her fiction as a type of modernist commentary.

Zhang's emphasis on domesticity deserves to be historicized. In a discussion of gender in sports in China, Susan Brownell notes what she considers to be an emphasis on alliance over sexuality in contemporary China.3 Brownell's discussion is an adaptation of Michel Foucault's historical sketch in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, where he contrasts the deployment of alliance ('a system of marriage, of fixation and kinship ties, of transmission of names and possessions') in Western societies with the deployment of sexuality that 'has its reason for being, not in reproducing itself, but in proliferating, innovating, annexing, creating, and penetrating bodies in an increasingly detailed way, and in controlling populations in an increasingly comprehensive way.'* In Foucault, sexuality is an historical layer that grows out of alliance, a sort of historical development that reflects upon the system(s) of alliance. Foucault's claims hint at a teleological reading of history in which systems of sexuality develop out of alliance. The relationship between alliance and sexuality is teleological in a similar manner to Hegel's reading of the development of art, in particular Tragedy and Comedy. Hegel claimed Comedy followed Tragedy because, while both Tragedy and Comedy exhibit the self-consciousness inherent in art, in Comedy the actor goes a step further by coming out from behind the mask in 'nakedness and ordinariness,' breaking the illusion of the performance and the boundaries between 'the genuine self, the actor, or ...the spectator.'5

Alliance, through an emphasis on fate and the predestined in human relations, partakes of the Tragic, while sexuality, even in the Foucaultian notion of governmental control, functions like a layer of self-consciousness, individualizing the body though abstraction to surpass, like Comedy, the predestined relations implied by the systems of alliance. However, instead of the teleological narratives implicit in the Hegelian/ Foucaultian binaries, it would be more appropriate to suggest an interplay or tension between elements. The suggestion that alliance is superseded by sexuality would be too cut and dried to account for the interplay between tradition and modernity, and popular social practices and government policy. It is also worth recalling that a teleological relationship has been claimed between modernism and postmodernism, where postmodernism is a later development surpassing, or at least commenting upon, modernism.

I describe Zhang Ailing as a modernist because this is a term that has been applied to her writing. However, in my opinion, Zhang's work is very much in historical limbo. Without reducing the field too much, twentieth-century Chinese literature is roughly divided into two separate periods, modern literature beginning with the founding of the Republic of China in 1912 and ending with the founding of the PRC in 1949, which is considered the starting point for the contemporary period. Nevertheless, the so-called Republican period (1912-1949) is far from monolithic. Modern Chinese literature is very much a series of contested sites. The first wave of modern literature is usually dated with the May Fourth period in the first two decades of the twentieth century. …

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