Revolution Plus Love: Literary History, Women's Bodies, and Thematic Repetition in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction
Feng, Jin, The China Journal
Revolution Plus Love: Literary History, Women's Bodies, and Thematic Repetition in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction, by Liu Jianmei. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2003. xii + 272 pp. US$49.00 (hardcover).
Liu Jianmei was well aware of two major obstacles in her choice of the theme of "revolution plus love" in Chinese fiction from the 1930s to the contemporary period. She had to contend with the presumption that this genre of literature had only produced bad, formulaic writing. She also had to contend with her readers' indifference to what they conceive to be ideologically driven propaganda literature. In light of these challenges, she articulates as her goal the excavation of the "latent and unconscious in cultural politics and literary practices" (p. 213). The result is a solid, engaging book, Revolution Plus Love, that will generate discussions about individual agency, women's bodies, and the literary and political histories of twentieth-century China.
By tracing the evolution of revolution and love in Chinese fiction within different historical and political contexts, Liu brings to our attention, not only the often ignored literary output of the first seventeen years of the PRC, but also the divergences and negotiations within this apparently univocal corpus of revolutionary literature. She proposes to examine "the formulary writing of 'revolution plus love' ... as a case study of literary politics that structures the possibilities available to agents and their relationship to the literary field" (p. 2). Towards that end, she widens her analytical focus to include both the radical leftists (Jiang Guangci, Mao Dun, Hong Lingfei and Hua Han) and the urban modernists (Shi Zhecun, Liu NaOu, Mu Shiying, Zhang Ziping and Ye Lingfeng), examining both the male standard bearers' rhapsodies of revolutionary Utopia and the female writers' counter-narratives of irreducible bodily decay. Invoking the notion of texts as "performative acts" via Austin, Derrida and Judith Butler, she both meticulously outlines the different configurations of revolution and love and seeks to historicize the thematic variations. She concludes: "At the heart of the theme is the deep confusion between self-conscious modern subjectivity and the collective commitment of the modern nation" (p. 215).
Liu's work is engaging in two respects: it not only opens up the site of revolutionary literature, previously either dismissed as of poor quality or neglected due to its presumed homogeneity, but also demonstrates the complexity of applying theory to the field of modern Chinese literature. As such, the following comments should be construed as a testimony to the power of Liu's book to generate thinking rather than as a critical focus on the mode of her analysis.
Liu cites Prasenjit Duara's idea of "bifurcated history" (p. 193) as both the motivation and rationale for privileging discontinuities and discordances in her investigation. Yet one wonders whether she operates from a locus more unified than that claim suggests. Her reading of Chen Zhongshi's The Land of White Deer, for instance, focuses on the femme fatale Tian Xiao'e rather than on the more obvious choice of the woman revolutionary Bai Ling, perhaps because the latter would have complicated her criticism of the novel's "ideological blind spot" (p. 200): its purportedly monolithic glorification of traditional culture. Another example is her persistent search for "resistance" that at times creates overly simplistic analyses. For example, she praises the subversive practices of the female writers Bai Wei, Lu Yin and Ding Ling, whose fiction exposed the conflict between the feminine body and the radical revolutionary discourse of their time. Yet, interestingly, she seems oblivious to the diversity within this group of women writers. Ding Ling, for instance, remained unsatisfied with her tales of revolution plus love, regarding them as copycat, "vulgar" imitations of the narrative forms first invented by Jiang Guanci. …