Three Trends in Recent Studies of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture

By Wang, Xiaoping | China Perspectives, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Three Trends in Recent Studies of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture


Wang, Xiaoping, China Perspectives


As an academic discipline or field, the study of modern Chinese literature and culture in North America has seen profound changes since the late 1980s, culminating in a "theoretical turn" in the field. This new situation has produced an array of works that can be broadly classified under "cultural studies." Compared to the field in mainland China, which still stresses empirical research, in North America this theoretical turn is marked by a conscious application of various cutting-edge theories in scholarly studies that support their theoretical frameworks. Many of these works follow postmodernist and post-structuralist trends, especially in the early period of the turn. The arrival of the global media age and the ensuing media studies fever has been accompanied by the emergence of a new tendency that emphasises studying literary and cultural texts and phenomena from the perspective of cultural production. The scholarship in the field has generally followed the theoretical paradigm-shift seen in the Anglo-American world: from structuralism to post-structuralism, from historicism to New Historicism, and from modernist-oriented New Criticism to postmodern, postcolonial criticism. Recent years have seen the emergence of a renewed interest in historical experience, which in turn has proven conducive to the formation of a hermeneutical paradigm.

Postmodern and postcolonlal criticism

Postmodern theory holds that various "grand narratives," such as modernity and revolution, in their teleological narrative of a linear, progressive modernity, all disregard the plurality of historical experience and repress alternative choices and opportunities. As a counter-move, postmodernists stress local experience, "suppressed voice," and exploration of "plural modernities."(l) This tendency in the field manifests itself mainly in critiques of the "May-Fourth paradigm" as a master narrative, and the argument for "repressed modernities" existing in the late Qing period.

David Wang Der-Wei has strongly advocated this thesis over the last decade, especially in his work Fin-de-siecle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849191 /.(2) In this highly influential and inspiring book, Wang argues that promising sprouts of incipient modernity burgeoned in the late Qing period, but were either eradicated or repressed following the May Fourth transformation. In challenging the orthodox view of May Fourth literature as the beginning of modern Chinese literature, this thesis provides many insights for studying late Qing literature.

Over the years, however, challenges have arisen to Wang's thesis, in particular regarding its concept of "modernity." Disparaging the May Fourth pursuit of (literary) modernity, Wang persistently contends that in their effort to save and change China, writers of the period passionately and blindly embraced any "newness" from the Western world, yet their "discourse of the modern" was less modern than that of the late Qing period, which was imbued with an energetic spirit of experimentation. Yet if the modern or modernity only refers to the new and the innovative, we might say the modern has appeared numerous times in human history, and the term therefore becomes vacuous.

The crucial point lies in identifying modernity. Anthony Giddens defines it as the emergence of industrialisation, imperialism, nation-states, etc., terms that for the most part refer to concrete institutions or historical phenomena,<3) while Jameson connects it with the new, capitalist mode of production.(4) In terms of cultural modernity, the "modernness" of the May Fourth period lies in the spread and entrenchment of modern Western ideas (science, democracy, liberty, equality, individualism, etc.), which formed the base on which intellectuals envisioned a modern world for the Chinese. In the West, modern ideas had become institutionalised in the course of fundamental social, political, and cultural changes over hundreds of years; for China, the pursuit of modernity as new set of social and economic as well as political and cultural institutions by which to reorganise the nation and society in a belated industrial stage had substantial significance: it was not blindly dreaming up something that was "new" in a merely discursive sense. …

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