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Postmodernism and China

Postmodernism and China

by Arif Dirlik (Editor), Xudong Zhang (Editor), Wang Ning (Contribution by), Anthony D. King (Contribution by), Abidin Kusno (Contribution by)

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Few countries have been so transformed in recent decades as China. With a dynamically growing economy and a rapidly changing social structure, China challenges the West to understand the nature of its modernization. Using postmodernism as both a global frame of periodization and a way to break free from the rigid ideology of westernization as modernity, this volume


Few countries have been so transformed in recent decades as China. With a dynamically growing economy and a rapidly changing social structure, China challenges the West to understand the nature of its modernization. Using postmodernism as both a global frame of periodization and a way to break free from the rigid ideology of westernization as modernity, this volume’s diverse group of contributors argues that the Chinese experience is crucial for understanding postmodernism.
Collectively, these essays question the implications of specific phenomena, like literature, architecture, rock music, and film, in a postsocialist society. Some essays address China’s complicity in—as well as its resistance to—the culture of global capitalism. Others evaluate the impact of efforts to redefine national culture in terms of enhanced freedoms and expressions of the imagination in everyday life. Still others discuss the general relaxation of political society in post-Mao China, the emergence of the market and its consumer mass culture, and the fashion and discourse of nostalgia. The contributors make a clear case for both the historical uniqueness of Chinese postmodernism and the need to understand its specificity in order to fully grasp the condition of postmodernity worldwide. Although the focus is on mainland China, the volume also includes important observations on social and cultural realities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, whose postmodernity has so far been confined—in both Chinese and English-speaking worlds—to their economic and consumer activities instead of their political and cultural dynamism.
First published as a special issue of boundary 2, Postmodernism and China includes seven new essays. By juxtaposing postmodernism with postsocialism and by analyzing China as a producer and not merely a consumer of the culture of the postmodern, it will contribute to critical discourses on globalism, modernity, and political economics, as well as to cultural and Asian studies.

Contributors. Evans Chan, Arif Dirlik, Dai Jinhua, Liu Kang, Anthony D. King, Jeroen de Kloet, Abidin Kusno, Wendy Larson, Chaoyang Liao, Ping-hui Liao, Sebastian Hsien-hao Liao, Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, Wang Ning, Xiaobing Tang, Xiaoying Wang, Chen Xiaoming, Xiaobin Yang, Zhang Yiwu, Xudong Zhang

Editorial Reviews

Bonnie S. McDougall
“Several articles offer unique insights into the chaotic and contradictory world of Chinese culture.”

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Duke University Press Books
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Boundary Two Book Series
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post modernism & china

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2544-4

Chapter One

wang ning

The Mapping of Chinese Postmodernity

Whether there is such a thing as postmodernism has been, and continues to be, controversial. In this essay, I argue that postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon in the contemporary era exists not only in the West but in the East as well-as evidenced by recent debates on the question of postmodernity and the "postmodern fad" in China and in other Asian and Third World societies. For the past thirty years, the debate about postmodernity has been of acute interest to major European and American scholars and critics in the humanities and social sciences. Some, moreover, have extended the consideration of postmodernity to Asian and other Third World cultures and literatures. Until recently, many Western scholars who think that postmodernism does, in fact, exist have held nevertheless that it is a Western phenomenon that is irrelevant to Third World and Asian societies, which lack the conditions for postmodernity. Frequent cultural and academic exchanges in recent years have inclined increasing numbers of Western scholars to think of postmodernity as a universal phenomenon, even if it germinated in the cultural soil of Western postindustrial society. These days, when debates about postmodernism overlap with questions of postcolonialism or postcolonialityin the non-Western world, the relevance of postmodernism to scholars, writers, and literary critics in the East is enhanced even further.

The global extension of postmodernism has other consequences. As a Chinese scholar studying postmodernism from within its current creative and critical practices in the Chinese context, I would argue that postmodernism is no longer a monolithic phenomenon but rather has generated different forms both in the West and in the East. So to observe postmodernism-as either a cultural phenomenon, a contemporary episteme or weltanschauung, a literary current, or something else-it is necessary to construct this concept at different levels in a pluralistic way. In this essay, I try to avoid using the term postmodernism, as it is undoubtedly a Western cultural product that is characterized by postindustrial symptoms. Instead, I use the more inclusive terms postmodern and postmodernity to map its travel, spread, and development in China. In mapping out the Chinese postmodern, one of my primary goals is to elucidate the similarities and differences between Chinese "postmodernism" and its Western counterpart. Before I get into these complex issues, however, I would like to say a few words by way of introduction about the various forms this postmodern has assumed.

Postmodernism, or Postmodernity Redescribed

Since the beginning of the international postmodernism debate, postmodernism has undergone continual redefinition and redescription. Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, Matei Calinescu, Ihab Hassan, Leslie Fiedler, Douwe Fokkema, Hans Bertens, Linda Hutcheon, Jonathan Arac, and Brian McHale, among others, have offered their own definitions and descriptions of postmodernism. Their constructs are based largely on Western practices, seldom touching on Asian or Third World cultures and literatures. Jameson and Fokkema, whose descriptions and criticisms of postmodernism are the most influential in China with regard to Third World cultures and Chinese literature and literary criticism, are nevertheless unable to redefine it on the basis of a knowledge of Chinese culture and literature. Jameson's construction of postmodernism, in particular, based as it is on a periodization of capitalism, would automatically exclude China, for China is still a developing country in the Third World and is far from attaining the standards of a postindustrial society. But in reality, uneven development in its politics, economy, and culture undoubtedly manifests postindustrial symptoms in the economy and postmodern elements in political life and culture. Beginning with Jameson's and Fokkema's descriptions of the actual situation in China, postmodernism could be redescribed in terms of the following eight forms it has assumed within the scope of literature and culture alone: (1) a fundamental cultural phenomenon in highly developed capitalist countries or postindustrial societies that occasionally appears in unevenly developed regions within underdeveloped countries; (2) a kind of worldview, or a way of looking at the world and life, in which the world is no longer a world of totality but rather one of plurality, fragmentation, and decentralization; (3) a main current of literature and art after the fall of modernism, both continuous and discontinuous with modernism, and relevant both to avant-garde experimentation and to popular literature; (4) a narrative style or kind of discourse that is characterized by suspicion of "master narratives," or "metanarratives," and that resorts to nonselective or quasi-nonselective devices and to a certain "schizophrenic" structure of the text, in which meaning is actually decentralized in the course of a fragmentary narration; (5) an interpretive code or a reading strategy with which earlier and even non-Western texts can be analyzed from the perspective of postmodernity; (6) a philosophical trend that is contrary, in the current postindustrial and consumer society, to the elite preoccupation with the Enlightenment, or as a sort of post-Enlightenment phenomenon characterized by the crisis of legitimation and representation; (7) a cultural strategy adopted by Asian and Third World critics during their economic modernization and struggle against cultural colonialism and linguistic hegemonism; and (8) a critical mode that emerged after the failure of structuralism and that is characterized by Foucauldian and Derridean poststructuralist approaches to literary texts, which dominate current cultural criticism and cultural studies. This is how I have recently come to understand postmodernism in the current global context-as a sort of extended modernism, but one that needs to be distinguished from modernism.

Juxtaposing postmodernism with modernism may not be novel for Western scholars. Many Chinese readers and critics still think that there is little difference between the two, but others maintain that postmodernism actually marks a distinctive break from all modernist conventions and even a powerful challenge against modernism. For those who take the latter position, modernism is canonical and thus conservative, while postmodernism is avant-garde and thus very progressive. I would rather view the relationship between the two from a diachronic and a synchronic perspective. That is, as a movement that follows modernism, postmodernism evidently has something in common with the latter; but it differs from postmodernism in its philosophical foundation, aesthetic ideals, artistic representation, as well as in the cultural context in which it originated and developed. It is true that in their debts to the irrationalist trends of culture and philosophy, modernism and postmodernism are quite similar. But modernism is based largely on the assumptions and ideas of Schopenhauer, Bergson, Kierkegaard (partly), Nietzsche, and Freud, while postmodernism is more indebted to existentialists such as Nietzsche (as rediscovered by Foucault), Kierkegaard (partly), Heidegger, Sartre, and Freud (as reinterpreted by Lacan). Thus, it is not surprising that they are more different than alike in many respects.

In an earlier essay, I identified eleven major differences between modernism and postmodernism. Further examination would probably reveal more differences between the two, but these are sufficient to indicate that postmodernism not only appears after modernism but also runs counter to the dominant code of modernism in content. As an undercurrent, postmodernity can be traced back in history, for it is anticipated by the baroque period, by realism, and by the historical avant-garde in Western literature and art. But it emerged completely only after World War II, when modernism became more canonical and exhausted itself. In its belatedness, postmodernism might well be interpreted as a "culture of secondarity." While in recent years, postmodernism has lost some of its popularity in the West, it has been gradually penetrating Third World and Asian societies as a globalized cultural phenomenon and as a literary and artistic current responding to the frustration with modernism. Nevertheless, modernism is the logical starting point of postmodernism; as Lyotard has observed, the postmodern is essentially "part of the modern" and is an inevitable product of the development of modernism. We cannot neglect the intrinsic connection between the two, but instead must understand the postmodern according to the paradox of the "post" and the "modo."

In discussing the Chinese postmodern, the more inclusive term postmodernity is preferable to postmodernism, for, unlike the latter, it does not presuppose a certain cultural tradition (which is lacking in China) nor is it subject to the assumption of a solid modernity as a precondition for postmodernity. I do not wish to negate the fact that although it has something to do with an intrinsic logic in the development of Chinese culture and literature, Chinese postmodernity is chieflya "borrowed thing" from the West. Mapping its presence in China may help us understand what Chinese postmodernity means in a world of global capital and a globalized cultural context, how it is different from its original form(s) in the cultural context of Western society, the extent to which this borrowed thing has assumed indigenous characteristics, and how it has functioned in the current Post-New Period (hou xinshiqi) Chinese culture and literature as well as in contemporary Chinese society, which is colored by the market economy and a sort of postsocialism.

The Reception of Postmodernism in Chinese Literature

We can easily trace the origin and development of postmodernism in China by considering the literary field. Postmodernism was introduced and discussed in the Chinese cultural and literary context in the early 1980s, concurrently with the revival of modernism in literature of the New Period (xin shiqi, 1978-1989). The introduction and translation of modernist writings in China is by no means a contemporary event. Modernism first arrived in China in the 1920s, and almost all of the major writers and critics at the time either were involved in the "modernist" movement, were more or less influenced by it, were interested in the debate on it, or reacted to it with their own individual stand, which paved the way for its second high tide in the New Period. But in the late 1930s, with the increasing influence of Marxist doctrine among Chinese intellectuals, modernism, along with other expressions of Western thought, such as Nietzsche's philosophy and Freud's psychoanalysis, subsided and was of little interest among literary circles. It was not "recovered" until after 1978, when it flourished for a second time. During this period, there was a proliferation of polemical discussions of questions such as: What is modernism? Does modernism contain progressive ideas, or is it a totally decadent Western bourgeois ideology? Should modernism be introduced in China, or should it be rejected despite its strong influence and academic value in the West? Should socialist China have modernist culture and literature? The socialist realist doctrine of "Chinese characteristics" (as the organic combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism) provided the standard for judging whether modernism was progressive or reactionary. It is not surprising that there was no definite conclusion to this debate, but scholars and writers seemed to agree that modernist literature should be critically and moderately introduced and studied, though not necessarily advocated. It was in the course of this debate that issues concerning postmodernism were touched on, and the terms postmodern and postmodernism appeared occasionally in journals devoted to foreign literature (although they were translated inaccurately, despite the fact that the terms had already been discussed in the field of architecture).

Generally speaking, postmodernism appeared in three forms: as a poststructuralist theoretical discourse, as an avant-garde intellectual rebellion against the modernist episteme, and as a contemporary consumer culture. There were signs of all three in Chinese culture, literature, and art, but the greatest impact seems to have occurred in literary circles, in part because writers and critics were most active in pursuing the most recent fads, and because they commanded the largest space for writing and publishing. As a literary movement, postmodernism was launched in China in 1980, with the publication of the Chinese translation of John Barth's essay "The Literature of Replenishment: Postmodernist Fiction" in Report on Foreign Literature (Waiguo wenxue baodao), a journal published in Shanghai that stopped publication in the late 1980s. Since then, other journals devoted to foreign literature-for instance, World Literature (Shijie wenxue), Foreign Literature and Art (Waiguo wenyi), the Bulletin of Foreign Literature (Waiguo wenxue tongxun), Literature Abroad (Guowai wenxue), Foreign Literatures (Waiguo wenxue), and Contemporary Foreign Literature (Dangdai waiguowenxue)-have published literary works by postmodernists such as García Márquez, Borges, Nabokov, Barth, Barthelme, Salinger, Mailer, Heller, Beckett, Pynchon,Vonnegut, Robbe-Grillet, Calvino, and others. They were joined in short order by academic journals of literature and culture, such as the authoritative Social Sciences in China (Zhongguo shehui kexue), which was published in both Chinese and English; Reading (Dushu); Peking University Journal (Beijing Daxue xuebao); Contemporary Cinema (Dangdai dianying); Studies of Literature and Art (Wenyi yanjiu); Literary Review (Wenxue pinglun); Foreign Literature Review (Waiguo wenxue pinglun); Literature and Art Gazette (Wenyi bao); Foreign Literature Studies (Waiguo wenxue yanjiu); People's Literature (Renmin wenxue); Shanghai Literature (Shanghai wenxue), Purple Mountain (Zhongshan); and Flower City (Huacheng), all of which published translated articles on postmodernism by Western scholars such as Ihab Hassan, Jean-François Lyotard, Fredric Jameson, William Spanos, Douwe Fokkema, Jonathan Arac, Linda Hutcheon, and Hans Bertens, and included, as well, introductory and critical essays by Chinese scholars.

With regard to translated theoretical books, two books in postmodern studies deserve special mention: Jameson's Postmodernism and Cultural Theories (Houxiandaizhuyi yu wenhua lilun) (1987, in Chinese) and Fokkema's and Bertens's edited volume, Approaching Postmodernism (Zuoxiang houxiandaizhuyi) (1991, in Chinese). Jameson's book is quoted and discussed most often, simply because of its early publication and the author's international prestige. In fact, since Jameson has always adopted a Marxist critical attitude toward postmodernism, his work is quoted by both supporters and critics of postmodernism. Although the book is not a scholarly work written in a systematic manner, it has influenced Chinese critical circles and literary scholars about Western postmodernism and informed them about how it differs from modernism. Its role in enlightening Chinese scholars cannot be underestimated. Fokkema's and Bertens's book, because of its academic value and empirical approach to literature proper, is quoted mainly by literary critics and scholars, and has enabled Chinese scholars to further their exploration into literary postmodernism from both the linguistics and genre studies points of view. Currently, it is the most widely available book on postmodernism both on the mainland and in Taiwan.


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Meet the Author

Arif Dirlik is Professor of History at Duke University.

Xudong Zhang is Assistant Professor of Comparative and Chinese Literature at New York University. He is the author of Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms, also published by Duke University Press.

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