Another Look at Subjective Self-Consciousness and Contemporary Chinese Literature

By Zhigang, Hong | Chinese Literature Today, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Another Look at Subjective Self-Consciousness and Contemporary Chinese Literature


Zhigang, Hong, Chinese Literature Today


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The Chinese scholarly world since the mid-1980s has periodically reevaluated and proposed new criticisms of contemporary Chinese literature. In the process of rendering specific criticism, it often fails to depart from two modes of thought: "using history to face problems" and "facing history's problems from the here and now." The former emphasizes taking the item being criticized and placing it in a specific historical environment in which it can analyze and confirm specific historical parameters, including the meanings and values of particular times and places in history. The latter highlights current values and critical methods based on the latest developments in humanistic theory to perform reevaluations of the important literary achievements of the past.

We should acknowledge that each mode of thought has its limitations. Due to excessive reliance on historically specific cultural discourses and an emphasis on the importance of returning to historical places, the practice of "using history to face problems" will always eschew the necessary intervention of modern concepts. In the process of supposedly esteeming history, it reproduces some of the greatest mistakes of history. It has inevitably brought about a schism between the values of literary history and aesthetics. As we try to form a history of contemporary Chinese literature, this situation has become a prominent issue of discussion.

Simultaneously, there are also many scholars who have begun to opt for the "facing history's problems from the here and now" approach, which uses current theoretical concepts and values to form new criticisms of literary works from the past. There is ample theoretical basis for this method of thought, since all history is (viewed through) contemporary history. Thus, using a contemporary lens to reevaluate and analyze all literary works and trends is not only necessary but inevitable. This is because the final purpose of literary history is to facilitate the continual development of literary study. However, this type of contemporary thought is no more scientific than the other. Foreign scholars such as C. T. Hsia ..., Leo Ou-fan Lee ..., and David Derwei Wang ... have carried out a large number of unique reevaluations of works from modern and contemporary Chinese literature using the concept of modernization as the basis for their criticism; even though their efforts have provided us with no small amount of inspiration, we still have a number of reasons to be dissatisfied. More importantly, contemporary literature, which has not been around for long and which has not yet needed to solidify its identity, can easily result in reactionary and nihilistic ways of reading. This is what led Nan Fan ... to exclaim, "The melee of contemporary Chinese literature is a casual affair well-suited for the venting of frustrations. Everyone is qualified to get in a random slap."

If we compare these two modes of thought, "facing history's problems from the here and now" might have a little more impact. After all, it has already seeped into many of our values and our theoretical systems, so it can accommodate current aesthetic expectations on a broader scope. Also, it has simultaneously maintained the imprints scholars have made on the present's literary theories. Literature is constantly progressing forward, and though people will always want to set forth an unchanging standard of values, reevaluation will continue to be a central academic practice.

Of course, the best method would effectively integrate these two modes of thought. We can both think in historically specific ways and utilize the best of contemporary critical values and theories. However, this has once again brought up an essential question: How do we select and maintain an effective standard for evaluation? It might not be difficult to select such a standard that is relatively scientific and commonly recognized at any given moment; however, the difficult thing would be to ensure that such a theory maintains a suitable level of historical specificity because "using history to face problems," in essence, requires a standard that recognizes changes undergone through history. …

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