Literary Authority and the Modern Chinese Writer: Ambivalence and Autobiography

Literary Authority and the Modern Chinese Writer: Ambivalence and Autobiography

by Wendy Larson

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Throughout the twentieth century, Chinese writers have confronted the problem of creating a new literary tradition that both maintains the culturally unique aspects of a rich heritage and succeeds in promoting a new modernity. In the first book-length treatment of the topic, Wendy Larson examines the contradictory forms of authority at work in the autobiographical texts of modern Chinese writers and scholars and the way these conflicts helped to shape and determine the manner in which writers viewed themselves, their texts, and their work.
Larson focuses on the most famous writers associated with the May Fourth Movement, a group most active in the 1920s and 1930s, and their fundamental ambivalence about writing. She analyzes how their writing paradoxically characterized textual labor as passive, negative, and inferior to material labor and the more physical political work of social progress, and she describes the ways they used textual means to devalue literary labor.
The impact of China’s increasing contact with the West—particularly the ways in which Western notions of “individualism” and “democracy” influenced Chinese ideologies of self and work—is considered. Larson also studies the changes in China’s social structure, notably those linked to the abolition in 1905 of the educational exam system, which subsequently broke the link between the mastery of certain texts and the attainment of political power, further denigrating the cultural role of the writer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822377696
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 222
File size: 462 KB

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Literary Authority and the Modern Chinese Writer

Ambivalence and Autobiography

By Wendy Larson

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7769-6


Referentiality and Authority

Referentiality and culturally determined signification within a text or other system of discourse has been a longstanding topic of research in semiotics and sociological anthropology, areas of study that have spanned many decades and volumes. My approach to the four texts analyzed in this chapter is basically semiotic; in each text I collect incidences of certain types of signification whose meaning depends on reference within a particular textual code. Although the texts I have chosen are all "autobiographies" according to the guidelines established in the preface, they should not be taken as representative of premodern Chinese autobiographies or as attempts to indicate and discuss the history of Chinese autobiography. Even though there is no classification for autobiographies in the Siku quanshu nor any body of literature Chinese scholars regard as autobiography, there are hundreds of texts—zizhuan, zishu, and zixu as well as diaries, journals, travelogues, poetry, confessions, and self-admonishments—which should be discussed in a comprehensive or even preliminary history of autobiography. My thesis in this chapter is that among premodern autobiographies there are a number of texts which, if categorized according to signifying referents, fall into my two main categories of "circumstantial," in which the author refers primarily to his social and material circumstances, defining the self by its relationship to institutions and structures that signify status and power and locating the self physically within places identified with common, socially accepted names; and "impressionistic," in which the writer attempts definition through identification with an atemporal, intertextual tradition that suppresses reference to the temporally and spatially organized world of ancestry and position, substituting instead references to the leisured life of the literati. Within the text the writer is positing a definition of the intellectual self and its role in society which will differ radically depending on the type of autobiography he chooses to employ. The following examples, two of which are clearly circumstantial and two of which are equally as clearly impressionistic, indicate that whereas the denigration of textual labor common in modern writer's autobiographies does not exist in these premodern works, the self of the intellectual has been constructed in at least two very dissimilar ways. The individual intellectual in the circumstantial autobiography is formed through textual affiliation with society's present and past affairs, whereas the intellectual of the impressionistic autobiography is distinguished through a textual construction of a life of withdrawal from affairs and association with literary pursuits. Thus the split between an intellectual determined through affiliation with textual work as opposed to social (or, in modern times, physical) labor, which is so plainly displayed in the modern autobiography, is not solely a modern ideology.

The circumstantial autobiography is a textual construction that relies on reference to ancestry, position, locale, and status, creating an intellectual figure that is firmly entrenched within the signifying institutions of society. This is the bulk of the orthodox tradition of official biography, although many early biographies contain a brief character appraisal at the end. The impressionistic autobiography eschews this orientation, instead substituting for it the figure of the somewhat reclused, leisured literatus who spends his time reading and writing poetry and discussing literature with his friends over a bottle of wine. This also becomes an orthodox tradition, although it is not common in official biography. Both are wenren, but each draws on a specific aspect of the wenren tradition in self-definition.

Although the impressionistic autobiography refers to a more exclusively literary code of poetry, discussion of writing, and the general existence of an intellectual whose time is taken up with literary endeavors, it is not in itself a more "literary" document than the circumstantial text. Only the referents, which are the only segment of the text relevant to this study, are more exclusively literary, not the style or even the author. Thus the "literary code" is not just writing or literary writing, but includes reference to various components of the life-style of a nonsocially engaged literatus.

Sima Qian: The Prototypical Circumstantial Autobiography

One of the earliest known autobiographies in China, that of the historian Sima Qian, consists of the seventieth chapter of his Shiji (Records of the grand historian). Like many autobiographical essays that follow, this text is appended to or included in the main text as an explanation of the questions which surround the text itself: the author's reasons for writing it and the circumstances of its existence. A reason not given in the text yet discernible in its progression is Sima Qian's desire to defend himself and his actions in a story well-known to Chinese historians. When he championed the cause of the general Li Ling, who surrendered to the Xiongnu rather than follow the established practice of fighting to the death, Emperor Wu of the Han ordered Sima to chose between castration or death; in order to finish the work of the Shiji, he chose castration. Thus the autobiography is a vindication of the self and an attempt to validate his text even though historical record has called into question his authority both as representative and transmitter of orthodox morality. As such the text is an attempt to fix or define the identity of the self with relation to what the writer regards as the context of its emergence.

At the beginning of his translation of the Shiji, Burton Watson inserts this note: "Following custom, Sima Qian begins his account with a genealogy of his family, tracing it back, as is the wont of Chinese writers, to the golden ages of the legendary past". The custom to which he refers is that of biography, which begins the life of the individual in the distant past, placing him in a temporal sequence in which his life appears as simply a moment along the way. Sima Qian conforms with this tradition by reciting a brief genealogy which becomes somewhat lengthier as it arrives at the life of his father, Sima Tan, who was the Grand Historian before him. The "Discussion of the Essentials of the Six Schools" is an essay by his father that details his father's ideas on the various philosophic schools of the time.

When he arrives at his own life, Sima Qian deals with the time from his birth up until his entry into government service in one short section:

He had a son named Qian. Qian was born at Longmen. He plowed and pastured on the sunny side of the hills along the River. At the age of ten he could read the old writings. When he was twenty he traveled south to the Yangzi and Huai rivers (Jiangsu), he climbed Huiji and looked for the cave of Yu (Zhejiang), and he saw the Nine Peaks (Henan). He sailed down the Yuan and Xiang rivers and in the north forded the Wen and Si rivers (Shandong). He studied the learning of the cities of Qi and Lu. He observed the customs and practices inherited from Confucius and took part in the archery contest at Mount Yi in Zou. He met with danger and trouble in Po and Xue and Bengcheng. Then he passed through Liang and Chu and returned home. After this Qian entered government service as a Langzhong.

This section uses names that in actual social usage correspond to commonly identifiable locales, and the language is referential to the context of the phenomenal world and orthodox ideology. Through reference to the physical world this section of the essay situates the identity of the writer in a spatial context, whereas the previous section situated the identity of the writer in a temporal context. The self or identity of the writer is defined temporally through its lineage and spatially through the physical sites of its existence. Both the temporal and spatial aspects of this definition of the self take material phenomena as the framework of their reference.

Sima Qian mentions his participation in a large military expedition that was sent to the southwest in 111 A.D. in an attempt to conquer new territory for Han rule, and his father's resentment at being unable to attend the ceremony of the Feng Sacrifice at Mt. Tai. As a "symbol of the divine election of the ruling house," the Feng Sacrifice contains and indicates the cosmology of the assumption and continuation of the abstracted power that allows the emperor to continue his rule. The military expedition is a symbol for the physical manifestation of power which the emperor can exert to extend and maintain his rule. In that they are indications of the existence and extension of powerful political and moral institutions, both the Feng Sacrifices and the military expedition are linked to the phenomenal world which was defined spatially and temporally in the last two segments of the text.

Sima Qian quotes his father as he implores his son to take over the duty of Grand Historian when he dies:

The Grand Historian grasped his hand and said, weeping, "Our ancestors were Grand Historians for the House of Zhou. From the most ancient times they were eminent and renowned when in the days of Yu and Xia they were in charge of astronomical affairs. In later ages our family declined. Will this tradition end with me? ...

I have been Grand Historian, and yet I have failed to set forth a record of all the enlightened rulers and wise lords, the faithful ministers and gentlemen who were ready to die for duty. I am fearful that the historical materials will be neglected and lost. You must remember and think of this!"

Significantly, the transfer of the power to record and preserve the exemplary lives and deeds of enlightened men is put into a monologue (with a short acceptance by Sima Qian attached) spoken by his father. Sima Qian's embodiment as one in a conceived chain of historical recorders who maintain morality and even, through their records, create the morality of the past comes out of the mouth of a previous holder of this power whose temporal and spatial existence is important in establishing his and his son's authority.

The moment of Sima Qian's assumption of the position of Grand Historian comes immediately after this speech: "Three years after the death of his father, Qian became Grand Historian". After the reading of the available records the first act he records is the rectification of time: "Five years after this was the first year of the era Taizhu. At dawn on the first day of the eleventh month, the day jiazi [December 25, 102], the zenith of winter, the calendar of heavens was first corrected and set up in the Illustrious Hall. All the spirits received the chronology". Sima Qian then repeats a slightly altered version of his father's words and expresses his determination to carry out his father's will.

The self which Sima Qian constructs is partially based on the act of rectification. This is most obvious in Sima Qian's attempt to rectify the physical self, which has been mutilated through castration, by defending his acts and by privileging his role as Grand Historian. Similar to the rectification of time, which is accomplished through the reordering of the calendar, the rectification of the self is accomplished through the individual assumption of a moral role which is passed through time and through the persona of a moral figure of authority. The rectification of the self is effected through transmission, a duty of the Grand Historian which Sima Qian emphasizes when he explains his responsibilities to his friend Hu Sui. Self-definition is accomplished through appeal to transmission, first through the father and then through the work to which this autobiography is attached. The authenticity of the self and the text is linked to and proven by their value in assisting transmission. Thus the act of transmission is vital in its ability to authorize the act of writing as well as the author's identity, or in authorizing both the self and the text.

Transmission implies both information, or content, and position, which must define the role of the transmitter and perhaps the implied role of the receiver. Sima Qian situates his discourse in relation to the seminal power structures of elite Chinese society: rites and calendar time, which indicate the power of the emperor as the proper representative of the will of heaven, the emperor's appearance (the color of his vestments), and the books which are his sacred texts. The self as he writes it takes its being only in relation to these elements, all of which are external to the characteristics of the self (appearance, personality traits, likes and dislikes, etc.) or any essentialized vision of the self that would accentuate individual traits. Rather, the self emerges through situation within and juxtaposition against this social context. The identity of the writer becomes evident only through the defining power of phenomena such as the Feng Sacrifice, the emperor's vestments, and the military expedition to the southwest.

In the last section of this chapter Siam Qian refers to his castration and claims that misfortune often inspires writing, lists the contents of the Shiji chapter by chapter, and reviews his purpose and accomplishments in the writing of the Shiji. Although he does not directly defend himself in the Li Ling case, reference to it in conjunction with his examples of writers who were inspired to write through misfortune establish this section as a defense and validation of his own writing (the Shiji). The self has been invalidated through castration, yet it can revalidate itself through its position as inheritor of the right to preserve and transmit records and as the rectifier of morality, or as a narrator of orthodoxy. The loss of his self through castration can be rectified by writing, and the self can be regained.

Thus although the motivation behind the writing, validation and rectification, springs from personal circumstances, Sima Qian still deals with his life only in its official capacity and only in its relation to external phenomena, social structures and institutions, and political ideology. He is the tool through which historical records and the historical identity (ancestry and line) will be transmitted. In his own self-rectification he can rectify future transmissions as well; his mutilation and humiliation will disappear through his assumption of the role of transmitter of records, and the name that will be transmitted to future generations will not be connected to his disfigurement, but to the morality he seeks to hand down and to his own role as transmitter of that morality. By attaching the autobiography to another text as an explication, Sima Qian can avoid potential criticism that he is attempting to write his own biography.

In identifying Sima Qian's autobiography as the prototype of a circumstantial type of text, I am focusing only on the kind of referents he uses to construct a textual self. This interpretation says nothing about the style of Sima's writing or his character, which some critics have identified as extremely emotive and romantic, or about the fictionality or factualness of his historical account.

Liu Yuxi: Rank, Status, Official Life

Another example of a circumstantial autobiography is "Zi Liuzi zizhuan" [The autobiography of Zi Liuzi] by Liu Yuxi (772?—842). He begins:

Zi Liuzi's name is Mengde. The son Sheng of his ancestor the Emperor Jing of the Han along with his wife Jia was given the rank of the King of Zhongshan (Zhongshan wang), and posthumously called Jing; so his grandchildren are enfeoffed as people of Zhongshan. For seven generations his ancestors Liang served the northern dynasty and often served as councillor for the provincial governor. When the capitol was moved to Luoyang, they became northerners of Duchangli.

They have always served as Confucians. Their graves are at the north mountain of Luoyang.

About one-third of the text traces Liu Yuxi's ancestry, listing the occupations of his great grandfather, his grandfather, and his father. The family's whereabouts are also clearly delineated. Liu discusses his own success in the government's civil service examinations, his teaching duties, his illness, and his subsequent official positions. He identifies the times of occurrences and refers to specific historical events and the names of people involved. The entire narrative is basically little more than a recitation of the names of the posts he held, the names of the cities in which he lived, and at the end the epitaph he wrote to be put on his tombstone. He wrote this autobiography at the age of seventy-one, not long before he died.

In this text the name the author uses is his socially and culturally sanctioned name, which is also the name of the author's ancestors. This name functions as a link of a chain that places him in line with official history, which consists of ancestors and close relatives who held official positions and whose names and titles could contribute to the status of the author, giving him definition in his relation to other people and to holders of political power. Through referential language which takes these elements as its context, the autobiography of Liu Yuxi aligns itself with structures of political power. Ancestors appear not as multifaceted people who perform in numerous capacities but as progenitors—those who give the author lineage and establish his name in time. The author's works are also listed by name, establishing his identity as inheritor of the public role of officeholder.

The authority of the text derives from an alignment of the self within political configurations which influence and control social intercourse in the material world. Thus the textual creation of self is accomplished through juxtaposition with a common recognized and acknowledged structure which also exists temporally, in the manifestation of ancestry, and spatially, in official position and location. As in the text of Sima Qian, these defining elements exist outside any essentially determined self that is individual in focus.


Excerpted from Literary Authority and the Modern Chinese Writer by Wendy Larson. Copyright © 1991 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Referentiality and Authority,
2 Autobiographies of the Late Qing Dynasty and Political Implication,
3 Shen Congwen and Ba Jin: Literary Authority Against the "World",
4 Hu Shi and Lu Xun: Writing, Identity, and Race,
5 Guo Moruo: "China" versus China,
Conclusion Writers and Modern China,
Works Cited,

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