Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China: Theoretical Interventions and Cultural Critique

Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China: Theoretical Interventions and Cultural Critique

by Kang Liu

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This collection of essays addresses the perception that our understanding of modern China will be enhanced by opening the literature of China to more rigorous theoretical and comparative study. In doing so, the book confronts the problematic and complex subject of China's literary, theoretical, and cultural responses to the experience of the modern.
With chapters


This collection of essays addresses the perception that our understanding of modern China will be enhanced by opening the literature of China to more rigorous theoretical and comparative study. In doing so, the book confronts the problematic and complex subject of China's literary, theoretical, and cultural responses to the experience of the modern.
With chapters by writers, scholars, and critics from mainland China, Hong Kong, and the United States, this volume explores the complexity of representing modernity within the Chinese context. Addressing the problem of finding a proper language for articulating fundamental issues in the historical experience of twentieth-century China, the authors critically re-examine notions of realism, the self/subject, and modernity and draw on perspectives from feminist criticism, ideological analysis, and postmodern theory. Among the many topics explored are subjectivity in Chinese cultural theory, Chinese gender relations, the viability of a Lacanian approach to Chinese identity, the politics of subversion in Chinese reportage, and the ambivalent status of the icon of paternity since Mao.
At the same time this book offers a probing look into the transformation that Chinese culture as well as the study of that culture is currently undergoing, it also reconfirms private discourse as an ideal site for an investigation into a real and imaginary, private and collective encounter with history.

Contributors. Liu Kang, Xiaobing Tang, Liu Zaifu, Stephen Chan, Lydia H. Liu, Wendy Larson, Theodore Huters, David Wang, Tonglin Lu, Yingjin Zhang, Yuejin Wang, Li Tuo, Leo Ou-fan Lee

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"This present volume, as a whole, abundantly demonstrates that the much talked-about 'paradigm shift' in our field is no longer merely wishful thinking or hot air. It provides us with convincing examples of what some new directions and subjects of investigation may be, and what reading strategies we could apply to old, familiar texts. It is a volume that the next generation of students of modern Chinese literature will have to come to terms with."—Leo Ou-fan Lee, from the Postscript

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Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China

Theoretical Interventions and Cultural Critique

By Liu Kang, Xiaobing Tang

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8184-6



Subjectivity, Marxism, and Cultural Theory in China

Subjectivity as a humanist concept has been under assault in the current debates about contemporary "postmodern" culture in the West. Its fate in China, however, seems to have taken just the opposite direction. Following the resurgence of the humanist May Fourth (1919) tradition in literature and the arts in the wake of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) and the subsequent debates in philosophical and economical circles about modernization, the concept of subjectivity has gained a centrality in recent debates about culture in China, starting in the mid-1980s. The May Fourth Movement, a watershed in modern Chinese history, was initiated by the demonstration of Beijing students against the government's humiliating concession to Japan after World War I. It then turned into a nationwide cultural movement for a radical break with the Confucian tradition, as well as for a transformation of Chinese culture into a modern and global one. As Western humanist values of "democracy" and "science" were hailed as liberating forces by May Fourth intellectuals, radical social theories such as Marxism and anarchism made a tremendous impact, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. The Chinese communists under Mao, however, gradually abandoned the humanist goals of the May Fourth Movement in the course of their struggle for and consolidation of power. The recent debate about China's cultural heritage and about the problems of tradition and modernity can be seen as a strong critique of Mao's legacy through the recovery and continuation of the incomplete cultural enlightenment of the May Fourth Movement.

The debate has taken place largely in the realms of literature, history, and philosophy, but its impact has been felt in many sectors of social life. A central issue in the debate has been the place of subjectivity in Marxist cultural theories. Despite the fact that Chinese Marxism, preoccupied with political and economic struggles, has never had a separate cultural theory, the problem of subjectivity has remained central to Marxist literary thought. For instance, Hu Feng's theory of a "subjective fighting spirit" in realism, formulated at a critical juncture of the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), linked the concept of social revolution with that of individual consciousness. In the 1980s, Li Zehou, a leading philosopher and cultural critic, and Liu Zaifu, a major literary theorist, who is now in virtual exile in the U.S., initiated a resurgence of interest in subjectivity.

Hu Feng's task in the 1940s had been to stake out a site of revolution and resistance at the level of subjective experience and consciousness, an area that the Chinese Marxist ideology of class struggle and national salvation deliberately ignored or suppressed. In Hu Feng's view, subjectivity is a key to realist representation, a mediation of political reality and lived experience. As such it pertains to the aspect of cultural critique as a major objective of the May Fourth New Culture Movement, for the question of subjectivity is as much a preeminent instrument of rejuvenating China's culture as it is a relentless critique of the Confucian tradition that subsumes subjectivity and consciousness within an ethic of universal kinship and communality. To be sure, Hu Feng's theoretical work is eminently representative of the May Fourth enlightenment project. Unfortunately, the debate in the 1940s ended in a virulent political assault on his deviant and "counterrevolutionary" stance. The increasing attacks against bourgeois subjectivism and idealism, and various forms of "revisionism," such as Lukácsian theory and Western Marxism as a whole, further consigned subjectivity to the enemy camp of antisocialist ideologies.

Only after Mao's extremist "Cultural Revolution" had undone its own myth of creating a brand new cultural formation could the once-stifled voice of May Fourth humanism and its enlightenment project of cultural critique again resonate in China. In the realm of culture, Li Zehou's and Liu Zaifu's initial reflections on subjectivity in the late 1970s and early 1980s crystalized a cultural ethos of "recovery" and "return": a recovery of once-denounced humanist values and a return to the May Fourth enlightenment projects. In this respect, the connection between the two debates over the span of some forty years becomes apparent.

In what follows, I will begin with a brief account of Hu Feng's theory of the 1940s in order to recapture the historical specificity of the question of subjectivity in Chinese Marxist thought. I will then move to the cultural debates of the 1980s, focusing on Li Zehou's appropriation of idealist German philosophy and historical materialism, and on Liu Zaifu's reinvention of humanist and Marxist aesthetic thinking in their respective undertakings to reconstruct subjectivity in Chinese culture. This historical recontextualization is necessary, for later debates can be fully comprehensible only in the light of the earlier ones. I will argue that while Hu Feng's theory of subjectivity bears an urgency of political commitment directly supportive of the politics of cultural activity during the War of Resistance, in the theories of Li Zehou and Liu Zaifu of the 1980s there is an aestheticizing and depoliticizing tendency, which attempts to distance cultural activity from political reality by valorizing culture over and above other aspects of social life. This tendency, akin to that of contemporary Western cultural theories and Western Marxist theories in particular, must be contemplated within the global perspective of contemporary cultural reconfigurations. By tracing these thinkers' appropriations of Marxist categories in reconstituting subjectivity, I hope to bring this experience to bear on present Western theory. I want to demonstrate, through this rather rudimentary and less-than-adequate description of the debates, that categories such as subjectivity, culture, and consciousness have a very complex relationship with politics and cannot be reduced or attributed to an all-encompassing "culturalism." These recent debates on culture must be examined with respect to China's historic emergence as a new social formation following the long process of political pluralism and economic decentralization over the last ten years. The suppression of this civil society in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown indicates the vulnerability of the cultural domain and the interdependence of political, economic, and cultural spheres.


Hu Feng had always been at the forefront of controversy and debates in leftwing literary circles. His writings, as Theodore Huters puts it, "came increasingly to chronicle the internal dynamics of the leftist literary scene itself," and "there was to be no debate in literary circles after 1938 in which Hu Feng did not take an active role." In the debates of 1936, Hu Feng insisted that May Fourth new literature, inspired by the realist literature of the West, was the only correct mode of expression in educating and mobilizing the masses. In the next debate regarding national forms, which took place in 1939 and 1940, Hu Feng stood up firmly again to defend the May Fourth legacy of realism. The proponents of national forms promulgated a populist and nationalist literature for the sake of war propaganda, whereas Hu Feng insisted on the absolute necessity of May Fourth realism to demystify the traditional Confucian ideology and enlighten the masses (hua dazhong), rather than popularize (dazhong hua). As both Li Zehou and Liu Zaifu acknowledge, the questions of national forms and of May Fourth realism are essentially an issue of enlightenment and cultural critique. The masses, composed mainly of illiterate peasants, need to be educated and enlightened by intellectuals armed with revolutionary consciousness. But politics cannot be ruled out in considering this literary debate. The real agenda of the proponents of the national forms was to rally the peasants around Mao's revolutionary army through traditional and popular forms of entertainment. In his refusal to compromise the goal of transforming Chinese culture with the expediency of communist propaganda, Hu Feng revealed his nonconformist political stance.

The debate on subjectivity in 1945 was a continuation of these previous discussions. The earlier controversies over national forms and Western influences, enlightenment and popularization boiled down in the subjectivity debate to the philosophical question of subject-object relationships in literary representation. This debate took place largely in the noncommunist territory of Sichuan and Hong Kong, three years after Mao's Yan'an Talks codified Chinese Marxist literary criticism. Almost the whole leftist literary circle, both in the Communist-controlled area and outside it, became involved in the debate. The issue was not settled until several years after the establishment of the PRC. Not surprisingly, the settlement came in the form of political repression. When Mao sensed the real threat that Hu Feng's aberrant position might pose to his cultural and literary orthodoxy, he intervened by denouncing Hu Feng as the captain of an anticommunist, counterrevolutionary clique. After the ruthless political assaults against the "Hu Feng clique" that swept across the whole country, Hu Feng was arrested in 1955. Thereafter the issue of "subjectivity" only received negative characterizations in literary history, and Hu Feng and all his colleagues were either imprisoned or banished from cultural circles. The official rehabilitation of the "Hu Feng Event" would come as late as 1987.

Hu Feng's theory of "subjective fighting spirit" was mainly concerned with the problems of form and representation in the realist mode. By concentrating on the relationship between subjective experience or class consciousness, on the one hand, and representation, on the other, his theory encompasses critical problems of ideology and hegemony, body and desire, domination and resistance. "Subjective fighting spirit" for Hu Feng serves as a powerful weapon to combat both "subjective formulaism"—gongshi zhuyi, which means dogmatic adherence to literary "formulas"—and the "objectivism" then in vogue. The Japanese invasion and the national crisis caused writers to have an emotional crisis. A subjectivism prevailed that did not lead to truthful representation of social reality but to formulaic, stereotyped literary work. It remained divorced from the concrete world and individual lived experience, and derived its inspiration only from abstract idealism and romantic sentimentalism. At the same time, the ethos of national defense and political imperative was so overwhelming that the writer "felt himself completely given over to the demands of the time and found solace in a state of selflessness." Objectivism thus dominated literary work, preventing the writer from realizing the broad significance of the war in its daily events. "Objectivism" appears to be a coded term in Hu Feng's usage, like "naturalism" in Lukács's vocabulary, referring to the narrow-minded, partisan, and utilitarian views of art held by the commissars of the Red Army's propaganda teams. Hu Feng finds that "subjective formulaism" and "objectivism" are but two sides of the same coin. He argues that only a "subjective fighting spirit" can lead to realism: "The unity or combination of subjective spirit and objective truth has produced a militant new literature. We call it realism." There is an eminent Hegelian overtone in Hu Feng's emphasis on the unity of the subjective and the objective in the consciousness of the individual as a way to grasp the totality of meaning. The "subjective fighting spirit" hence bears a striking resemblance to Lukács's "class consciousness." Just as Lukács insists that proletarian class consciousness is the only way to ensure that the proletariat overcome alienation and reification through comprehending social reality as a historical totality, so Hu Feng regards "subjective fighting spirit" as the foremost means for understanding social reality and realizing the potential of the people, which he ascribes to realist literary representation. It is no coincidence that Lukács, too, takes the literary form of narrative as the most privileged means of achieving revolutionary class consciousness.

Realism serves as a powerful ideological critique and counter-hegemonic strategy. In his seminal essay of 1944, "Situating Ourselves in the Struggle for Democracy," Hu Feng emphasized the combative character of the creative process by which an authentic work of realism is produced. He calls this process the "interfusion of the subject with the object," a term synonymous with social life itself in his vocabulary. The "interfusion" of the author's self with the object-Other by which subjectivity is constituted is made possible only through revolutionary practice, which includes "opposing fascism and feudalism, lashing out at all forms and measures of slavish ethics, unearthing the potential power of the people, and articulating the people's desire and struggle for liberation" (22–23). The key to the successful constitution of revolutionary subjectivity is the power to combat the "spiritual slavery" of the masses and to uncover their revolutionary potential: "Although their [the people's] desires or struggles of life embody the demand of history, they take on myriad and malleable forms as well as complicated and tortuous paths. Although spiritually they were given over to liberation, the scars of thousands of years of spiritual slavery are always inherent or expanding in their mind. If the writer does not want to drown in the ocean of such a sensuous existence when engaging himself deeply into it, he has to foster a critical power in combating the content of their life" (21). Hu Feng locates "spiritual slavery" at the internal, unconscious level of sensuous existence, as an ensemble of cultural constituencies of domination through consensus rather than coercion. The "subjective fighting spirit" thus takes on a counterhegemonic character, in the sense that its task is to combat the deeply embedded and internalized cultural values installed over thousands of years by the holders of power. This is precisely the primal objective of the May Fourth enlightenment project of cultural critique, to which the Li Zehous and Liu Zaifus of the 1980s were to return with a deep sense of belatedness and vengeance.

Yet this subjectivity of resistance stems from the sensuous and bodily experience of the masses. In the same 1944 article, Hu Feng characterizes the dialectics of the formation of revolutionary subjectivity as a "struggle of one bloody mark after one scourge," the passion and affliction incurred in the course of artistic creation being "not simply the reaction to pressures of the time or burden of life, but the internal process of conscious expansion, accompanied by the pain of the body" (22). Literary representation, or realism, is entwined with this bodily experience and made possible only through the "passionate expansion," spiritual "embrace," and "penetration" of this powerful subjective experience, will, and feeling into its object of representation. In a somewhat phenomenological or Hegelian synthesis of subject-object relations, Hu Feng describes the genesis of artistic creation as "stemming from the struggle with the real life of flesh and blood. The real life of flesh and blood, of course, means the sensuous object." "The struggle with the real life of flesh and blood is a process of embodying, and absorbing the object, as well as a process of overcoming, and critiquing the object.... The critique ... must grasp the social significance of the object from its concrete, lively, and sensuous experience, and instill into this experience the author's positive, affirmative, or negative viewpoint" (18–19). Four years later, in a much longer and more elaborate treatise, "On the Path of Realism" (1948), Hu Feng made the most explicit connection between subjectivity, sensuous experience, and reality: "The Real as such is simply the glowing and painful historical content in which flows the people's burden, awakening, potentiality, and desire and longing for life; ... the author must internalize this historical content and make it his own subjective demand."


Excerpted from Politics, Ideology, and Literary Discourse in Modern China by Liu Kang, Xiaobing Tang. Copyright © 1993 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author

Liu Kang is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Chinese at Pennsylvania State University. Xiaobing Tang, Assistant Professor of Chinese at the University of Colorado, has translated Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism and Cultural Theories into Chinese.

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