Masculinity Besieged?: Issues of Modernity and Male Subjectivity in Chinese Literature of the Late Twentieth Century

Masculinity Besieged?: Issues of Modernity and Male Subjectivity in Chinese Literature of the Late Twentieth Century

by Xueping Zhong

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In Masculinity Besieged? Xueping Zhong looks at Chinese literature and films produced during the 1980s to examine male subjectivities in contemporary China. Reading through a feminist psychoanalytic lens, Zhong argues that understanding the nature of male subjectivities as portrayed in literature and film is crucial to understanding China’s ongoing quest for modernity.
Before the 1990s onslaught of popular culture decentered the role of intellectuals within the nation, they had come to embody Chinese masculinity during the previous decade. The focus on masculinity in literature had become unprecedented in scale and the desire for “real men” began to permeate Chinese popular culture, making icons out of Rambo and Takakura Ken. Stories by Zhang Xianliang and Liu Heng portraying male anxiety about masculine sexuality are employed by Zhong to show how “marginal” males negotiate their sexual identities in relation to both women and the state. Looking at writers popular among not only the well-educated but also the working and middle classes, she discusses works by Han Shaogong, Yu Hua, and Wang Shuo and examines instances of self-loathing male voices, particularly as they are articulated in Mo Yan’s well-known work Red Sorghum. In her last chapter Zhong examines “roots literature,” which speaks of the desire to create strong men as a part of the effort to create a geopolitically strong Chinese nation. In an afterword, Zhong situates her study in the context of the 1990s.
This book will be welcomed by scholars of Chinese cultural studies, as well as in literary and gender studies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397267
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/28/2000
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 224
Lexile: 1550L (what's this?)
File size: 379 KB

About the Author

Xueping Zhong is Assistant Professor in the Department of German/Russian/Asian Languages at Tufts University.

Read an Excerpt

Masculinity Besieged?

Issues of Modernity and Male Subjectivity in Chinese Literature of the Late Twentieth Century

By Xueping Zhong

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9726-7


Masculinity Besieged? Toward an Understanding of Chinese Modernity and Male Subjectivity

As I briefly mentioned in the introduction, post-Mao Chinese literature and culture in the 1980s witnessed a particularly strong concern over a male lack of "masculine" identity, and the concern suggested a sense of siege and a desire to break out. My goal is to investigate what "masculinity" meant in that context and to examine its various manifestations and larger implications. In this chapter, I turn to history first for a better understanding of the trajectory that led to the contemporary concern over masculinity and the sense of besiegedness. I do so by focusing on a number of key notions and related issues, ranging from concepts such as the self, desire, and lack, to the historical, social, and political implications of these concepts in relation to China's quest for modernity, to the existing perceptions of modern Chinese men, to Chinese male intellectuals' search for their own identity, and finally to the post-Mao popular assumption of yinsheng yangshai (women are too strong and men are too weak) and how to understand it in conjunction both with China's early-twentieth-century quest for modernity and with the PRC's post-1949 pursuit of modernization.

An understanding of the historical context does not alone yield a fuller understanding of the issue in question. This is not only because most of the existing (Chinese) historical narratives are yet to be more fully engendered, but also because the historical, as it is conventionally understood in most (historical) narratives, often discredits the psyche as "ahistorical," and thus excludes the possibility or the necessity of examining the "historically precipitated but psychoanalytically specific" aspects of the historical. A better understanding of Chinese male subjectivity calls for an inquiry into the psychosocial, or the "psychoanalytically specific," aspects of the historical of Chinese modernity.

I believe there is a space where the historical and the psyche intersect, where history cannot exist without human or individual or subjective participation. In Male Subjectivity at the Margins, Kaja Silverman links the historical and the psyche when she defines the term "historical trauma" as "a historically precipitated but psychologically specific disruption, with ramifications extending far beyond the individual psyche." In this sense, the psyche is more than just about the individual; perceived through Silverman's definition, it is about the social construction or configuration of the individual psyche, or the construction of subjectivity. Historical trauma is the very juncture where the link between the historical and the psyche becomes visible. And the interdependence between history and human participation is the very space within which social, cultural, political, and psychological activities take place. Put differently, this interdependence constitutes the "materiality" of the space, as Judith Butler would suggest, within which the complexity of the historical is to be understood.

Although this poststructuralist view of the historical continues to be subject to debate, its attention to the role that signs and language play in the (re)formation of power, knowledge, hegemony, and the survival of human communities and to the human participation in such (re)formation adds a necessary and important understanding to the cultural and ideological dimensions of the historical. In historicizing modern Chinese male subjectivity, therefore, I find such claims as "Chinese men are weakened by the CCP'S power structure" and "Chinese male configurations are different from those in the West" not satisfying. They imply a passive subject formation or construction without indicating precisely the interdependence between history and human participation on social, political, cultural, and discursive levels.

In the following discussion, situating my examination of Chinese male subjectivity in modern Chinese history, I venture into uncharted territories—via the notion of desire—to examine how modern Chinese intellectuals are not only the agents of Chinese Enlightenment (in the sense that they were responsible for introducing Western ideas and smashing the old and traditional cultural heritage), but are also products of their own desire, a desire conditioned by China's modern encounter with the West and by the rise of Chinese modernity. I explore these issues within two related and yet different contexts. First, I place the discussion within the context of modern Chinese intellectuals' quest for modernity, which is arguably both part of the political, social, and cultural changes taking place throughout twentieth-century China and a unique component of modern Chinese history with its own specific trajectory in relation to those changes. Furthermore, because this specific trajectory has always been conditioned and affected by the ups and downs of political and historical events, when it comes to the post-Mao era, additional understanding of recent Chinese history is also necessary. Second, therefore, I discuss the issues within the context of the yinsheng yangshuai (the rise of the feminine and the decline of the masculine) phenomenon, specifically in conjunction with what I identify as the CCP'S pursuit of modernity. If the CCP has exerted a direct impact on the lives of contemporary male writer intellectuals and if the latter's desire to search for strong cultural and masculine identities is to be understood as an oppositional move in reaction to that impact, in what ways is their oppositional stance also conditioned by that part of history and by their own participation in it? My hope, in short, is to explore the ways these two different and yet overlapping historical contexts constitute the very historical juncture from which the post-Mao male writers emerged and against which they responded.

The "Self" in the Formation of Modern Chinese Male Subjectivity

In their efforts to revitalize Confucianism, some contemporary believers have looked to the notion of the self and "self-cultivation" for an entry point. Tu Wei-ming, a leading scholar of Confucianism and an advocate of the contemporary neo-Confucianist movement, for example, argues that "Confucian learning, in its inception, took the cultivation of the self as its point of departure," and he adds that learning and self-cultivation have always been the essence of Confucianism. He contends that the task of the Confucianist movement today is to envision a new polity based on a revival of this Confucian essence. His criticism of the May Fourth intellectuals ("May Fourth Westernizers," in his words) is centered on their "iconoclastic attacks" on traditional Chinese culture represented by Confucianism, acts that, according to Tu, throw the baby out with the bathwater. One can infer the following logic from Tu's criticism of the May Fourth intellectuals: If not for the May Fourth "iconoclastic" rejection of Confucianism, China (or the PRC, to be exact, for he has already made clear that other Chinese communities such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have not been affected by the aftermath of the May Fourth movement and have benefited from their holding onto Confucian values by becoming contemporary little economic giants) might not face so much crisis today (or, for that matter, may not have gone through the Communist Revolution either). Using those other Chinese communities as examples of the success of Confucianism in the modern world, Tu is convinced that modern China's refusal of Confucianism was a bad judgment call on the part of the May Fourth intellectuals, and helped turn China into a place of endless turmoil.

What is at issue here is not whether Confucianism as a social theology can help strengthen a society and make it more humane; what is at issue is the fact that Tu's criticism of the May Fourth intellectuals, which is based on a deep belief in the humanity of Confucianism, turns history on its head. That is, from his contemporary vantage point concerning today's China, the link between the present and history is only thinly connected on the point of the "iconoclastic rebels" of May Fourth. The complex history of modern China is reduced to "wrong" moves made by modern Chinese intellectuals in relation to Confucianism. Though I am not arguing for a historical determinism, I do believe that contemporary Confucianists fail to come to terms with the historical factors that led to the "iconoclastic" attacks in the May Fourth cultural movement. To argue this point, let us come back to the very accusation made against the May Fourth intellectuals for having thrown the baby out with the dirty bathwater, and ask: What is the "baby" that was supposedly thrown out (assuming that the "baby" here pertains, in part, to the values and principles surrounding the cultivation of a Confucian self)?

Generally speaking, the Confucian self, as constructed by various interpretations, denotes a belief that humans are originally good but need to be perfected through learning. A self is always perfectible; perfectibility, in essence, constitutes the self. A perfected self, in turn, is a sage with the qualities suitable for a king. What is assumed and needs to be made visible here is that the self is always a male self. This seemingly forward-looking and optimistic view of the (male) self, unfortunately, could not sustain itself at the turn of the century after the self-isolated Chinese society had been forced open by the Western powers and as "Chinese norms" began to break down. With the influx of Western ideas, the Confucian norms were not only unable to prop up the (self-contained model of the) self, they also came to be seen as the very cocoon that was suffocating the self who was henceforth to be seen as an individual. Precisely because of this, when the self turned up in May Fourth discourse, it became the voice that demanded social change and reform. In the language of the modern, this is the modern Chinese self that, under the influence of the Western humanist notion of the individual, emerged from the traditional hierarchy, whose concern was no longer first and foremost to perfect the self but to free and liberate (him)self from the grips of that tradition. The difference between the Confucian self and the modern self, in this sense, lies in the fact that the former emphasizes an unchanging and always self-referential concept of the self, whereas the latter departs from the former in response to history, or as the result of history. The liberation (and later, the split or besieged) motif in the modern self, that is, comes not from the iconoclastic attacks of the May Fourth intellectuals but is historically conditioned.

The important question one must ask in relation to modern Chinese history (a question Tu's and other contemporary Confucianists' charges against the May Fourth intellectuals are vague about) is this: Where and what was the self to be perfected at the turn of this century? That is, why did not the May Fourth intellectuals seem concerned with "the cultivation of the self"? One can even ask, along this line of argument, why in the late nineteenth century, when Kang Youwei attempted to revive the "origins" of Confucianism (which, again, based its belief in the perfectibility of the self), his efforts ultimately failed? What is it about his thinking that did not manage to revive Confucian philosophy? Was Western influence too strong to fight against? Perhaps, but why? Also, why, while searching for the self, did the modern intellectuals refuse to revive it through Confucianism? The real irony lies in the very fact that, like the Confucianists then and now, the May Fourth intellectuals were actually concerned with the self and many were obsessed with its "crisis" status. The self, that is, was actually central to the minds of the May Fourth intellectuals when they took on traditional Chinese culture represented to them through Confucianism. Unlike the Confucianists, however, the May Fourth intellectuals rejected the self-referentiality embedded in the tradition and responded strongly to new ways of perceiving the relationship between the self (or, more accurately, the individual) and community (family, culture, society, etc.). To characterize the May Fourth intellectuals' rejection of tradition as a simplistic response to the West is to forget that we can only understand history "after the fact."

In some recent discussions, critics have (re)examined the emergence of the (writing) self in May Fourth literature. They do so in a context in which, as they argue, modern Chinese intellectuals were increasingly confronted by, among other things, their own anxiety over a (lack of modern) Chinese identity. In her article "Text, Intertext, and the Representation of the Writing Self in Lu Xun, Yu Dafu, and Wang Meng," Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker writes, "By presenting history in the form of the diary entries of a designated madman, Lu Xun inserted into Chinese literature a new kind of problematic self, a self in a state of crisis over its own identity. The madman's sanity is at stake as he struggles to sort out his relation to the external world, but he must also learn how to reinterpret the traditional texts that had hitherto defined that world for him." In foregrounding this "new kind of problematic self" in Lu's "A Madman's Diary," Feuerwerker shifts critical attention from the familiar interpretation of the story (it is the first Chinese fiction written in vernacular Chinese with an iconoclastic attack on traditional Chinese culture represented by Confucianism) to the "writing self," namely, the narrator/writer. This writing self in Lu Xun's story, as Feuerwerker reads it, is simultaneously embodied by the first-person narrator who provides information regarding the existence of the diary, and the first-person narrator—the "madman"—who is the author of the diary. As the "new kind of problematic self," he is symptomatic of a time when Chinese men of letters were forced to confront the inscriptive power of tradition as well as their own "weakness" mirrored back to them at the threshold of modernity.

In examining Yu Dafu's "Sinking," Feuerwerker argues that the "I" in the story is different from that found, intertextually, either in Sima Qian's "affirmation of the self" or in the "Daoist recluses ... in discarding both of these textual traditions and the ideological codes they carried." The protagonist "is imprisoned in a spiraling structure of voyeurism, masturbation, and paranoia, with self-destruction the only way out" (181). At the same time, Feuerwerker cautions that, "in spite of its obsessive focus on the subjective self, 'Sinking' is not the single-minded or one-dimensional work it is often taken to be" (182). The "writing self" is not the same as the "imprisoned" protagonist, and the difference between the two suggests, and this is implied in Feuer-werker's argument, the emergence of a modern male subject who will continue to struggle between a "paranoid view of the world and the 'objective' situation" (182). This split is echoed, according to Lydia Liu, by the split self in Juansheng, a character in Lu Xun's "Regret for the Past." As a man, Juan-sheng is both a liberator and one who abandons the woman he supposedly liberated, a paradox that signifies far more complexity than Juansheng's own plight. As a "modern" man, he can act as a woman's liberator because of his access to "new" ideas and the possibility that they provide him as a man. At the same time, this male position is also limited because it is a marginal one itself in relation to the tenacious traditional power structure and in the face of China's lack of a powerful modern identity.

Both Feuerwerker's and Liu's readings of the writing self in modern Chinese literature reveal the complexity of modern (male) subjectivity. As part of the psychological ramifications of China's encounter with the West, this "new kind of problematic self" is "a self in a state of crisis." It is a mental state often commonly known as youhuan yishi (an anxiety complex), which has accompanied China's century-long struggle to come to terms with modernity. Seeing the modern writing self in terms of the problematic self, Feuer-werker and other critics provide one important dimension for our understanding of the historical condition of the modern Chinese male self and its manifestations. Indeed, one can argue that part of Chinese modernity constituted the emergence of a consciousness—sometimes in the form of anguish, sometimes uncertainty, and sometimes declaration—that accompanied the rapid social and cultural changes or were a result of those changes.

Here, an additional example of such a modern male self conveniently comes to mind: Qian Zhongshu's novel Weicheng (The besieged city) and its portrayal of the male protagonist Fang Hongjian. By convenient, I refer to the coincidental (or perhaps not so coincidental) use of the word "besieged" in the English translation of the title. Even though the novel (published in 1947) was written decades after the May Fourth movement, when China had gone through the Resistance War against the Japanese and was facing a new set of social and political circumstances, it nevertheless offers proof that the crisis of the modern male self continued even beyond the days of the May Fourth movement. For this reason, I would like to dwell a bit longer on this example.


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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction Chapter 1. Masculinity Besieged? Toward an Understanding of Chinese Modernity and Male Subjectivity Chapter 2. Sexuality and Male Desire for "Potency" Chapter 3. From Heroes to Adjuncts, Nobodies, and Antiheroes: The Politics of (Male) Marginality Chapter 4. Zazhong gaoliang and the Male Search for Masculinity Chapter 5. Manhood, Cultural Roots, and National Identity Afterword Notes Bibliography Index

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