National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China

National Past-Times: Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China

by Ann Anagnost

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In National Past-Times, Ann Anagnost explores the fashioning and refashioning of modern Chinese subjectivity as it relates to the literal and figurative body of the nation. In essays revealing the particular temporality of the modern Chinese nation-state, Anagnost examines the disparate eras of its recent past and its propensity for continually looking backward in order to face the future.
Using interviews and participant observation as well as close readings of official documents, propaganda materials, and popular media, Anagnost notes the discontinuities in the nation’s narrative—moments where this narrative has been radically reorganized at critical junctures in China’s modern history. Covering a broad range of issues relating to representation and power—issues that have presented themselves with particular clarity in the years since the violent crackdown on the student movement of 1989—National Past-Times critiques the ambiguous possibilities produced by the market, as well as new opportunities for "unfreedom" in the discipline of labor and the commodification of women. Anagnost begins with a retrospective reflection on the practice of "speaking bitterness" in socialist revolutionary practice. Subsequent essays discuss the culture debates of the 1980s, the discourse of social disorder, the issue of population control, the film The Story of Qiu Ju, and anomalies at the theme park "Splendid China."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822378402
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/24/1997
Series: Body, commodity, text
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Lexile: 1680L (what's this?)
File size: 950 KB

About the Author

Ann Anagnost is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Washington.

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National Past-Times

Narrative, Representation, and Power in Modern China

By Ann Anagnost

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7840-2



During a great revolution, literature disappears without a sound. —Lu Xun, "geming shidai de wenxue"

Lu Xun's prediction must, in retrospect, be read ironically. Revolution in China may have meant, for many, the silencing of literature, but this "silence" was surely filled by the embodied voice of the oppressed peasant subject. Was this relationship merely adventitious? The suggestion that literature leaves no trace in revolutionary action belies the power of narrative to construct subjects who act. If literary realism did not have the power to effect social change, as many May Fourth writers had hoped, it had perhaps a different kind of power already implicit in the project to make "literature speak with the voice of history." Revolutions, especially great ones, are seldom silent, but filled with words—words that have the power to perform new worlds into being.

What I argue below is that the failed project to make literature translate directly into political action was completed in a profound sense by the narrative practices of the revolution. "Speaking bitterness" (suku) provided a narrative structure in which oppressed members of the "old society" took center stage to vent their rage in a compelling performance that made the working of history palpably "real." To link literary experiments in social realism to the practice of speaking bitterness is not to suggest a linear relationship of cause and effect but to explore the contingent process of history itself, in which the origin of a thing and the ultimate uses to which it is put may indeed lie "worlds apart." My objective is to trace a genealogy for the politics of representation in Maoist political ritual that invests the body with the ability to make physically present the theoretical abstractions of Marxist discourse. I argue that this "myth of presence" that focuses so intensely on the body ultimately led to the physical violence of the Cultural Revolution and that it continues to have its effects on the narrative practices of the post-Mao era.

In exploring this uncertain trajectory, I focus on three specific moments. The literary experiments of the 1920s were a powerful means of translating the categories of bourgeois ideology inherent in Marxist social analysis into Chinese contexts through the adaptation of social realism as a tool of social critique. Transcendental categories—such as Society, Class, History—took on local referents in literary explorations of society and its ills in a process that Tani Barlow has referred to as the "localization of the sign." Alongside these literary explorations, the party's narrativization of class injury as a spoken performance gave these transcendental categories flesh and blood form in the retributive justice of class struggle, which ultimately overtook literature as a strategy for revolutionary change. In the development of a postrevolutionary political culture, however, the ritualized drama of class struggle during land reform ultimately took on a more congealed form as writing. To summarize the argument: What was first written as fiction came to be spoken as the unmediated truth of History speaking itself and was then written again as inscribed speech in the forging of a revolutionary culture.

In negotiating these shifts between writing and speech, the distinction between them implodes. "Speaking bitterness" was not possible without a prior writing, and yet its status as "unmediated speech" enabled a later writing to secure the institutionalized violence of the class-status system of the socialist era. I use "writing" here in the expanded sense suggested by Derrida, who would collapse into it all systems of social inscription through which persons are made subject to the order of the symbolic. In the Chinese Revolution, the symbolic order was often cruelly written on the bodies of class enemies as a physical enactment of a new regime of truth. Speaking bitterness was elevated to the status of "history speaking itself," but the body provided the material ground through which this history was made real. The speaking voice and the body became tied in the labor of making present the abstracted circulation of a dispersed social evil. The spoken pain of the oppressed class subject was posed against the Confucian order identified with the authority of the written word. While this privileging of speech over writing suggests a myth of presence already inherent in Marxism, in China this was to take a historically specific form. Given the power of this narrative strategy to fuel a massive revolutionary movement, we might well ask what the attendant costs were of founding a new socialist reality so heavily on a notion of "presence" that was to engender repeated cycles of violence literally inscribed on the bodies of its victims.

In this circulation of violence through narrative, a politics of representation realizes its concrete materiality through spectacularizing the body in pain. As Marston Anderson has argued, the spontaneous cry of the body became a privileged signifier of the "real" for May Fourth intellectuals, providing them with the means by which the "wheels of history" could be actively grasped through literary practice. But this literary appropriation of the body was only the first of a series in which the body and its pain are made to speak a kind of truth. In revolutionary practice, a poetics of the body and its insults moved from literary representation to the spoken words of uneducated peasants. This eruption into speech of the peasant subject must therefore be placed within a whole system of representations in which new conceptions of the social and historical became "real-ized" through the visceral experience of the speaking subject. The physical body itself became the medium for registering the collision of material forces in history. The old order was narrativized as a violence that seizes hold of the body. What was spoken became identified with the release of bodily anguish, a speaking that carried narrative to the very limits of language and beyond—to the materiality of the body and the immediacy of tears and blood. However, this use of the body did not end with the establishment of a new social order but was reprised in the postrevolutionary period, most viciously during the Cultural Revolution. This physical writing upon the body was again transcribed into literature in the "literature of the wounded" (shanghen wenxue) of the early post-Mao period, which displayed insults to the bodies of intellectuals, who then turned to writing as a means to redress the injuries of the past.

This circulation of violence between writing, the spoken word, and the body is central to understanding how class subjects were constructed in revolutionary China. Marston Anderson noted in the literature of the 1920s and 1930s a profound shift in literary representations of the subaltern from a passive object of "pity" (tongqing), who must be represented by others, to a subject who speaks. This "coming to voice" of the subaltern subject in literary realism is eerily doubled by the party's early experiments in peasant mobilization. Therefore, rather than claiming a directly causal relationship between the two, we need to theorize one that is more subtly dialectical in character, placing both within the larger project of making the categories of Marxist social analysis manifestly real.

The literary explorations of subaltern speech must therefore be read not merely as reflecting the political struggles of the time but also as actively constituting the subjectivities "unleashed" in those struggles—most important, the reciprocal constitution of a modernizing intellectual elite and the subaltern subject as its "other." Rey Chow has suggested that the predominant subjectivity of the May Fourth period was not just the densely portrayed center of the bourgeois subject but also a tripartite figure in which the relationship between intellectuals and "the people" becomes triangulated with an emerging concept of the nation itself. Chow appeals to the image of zhao duixiang, a phrase that condenses the meanings of mating and mirroring (in the psychoanalytic sense of mirror image), to characterize the specular pleasure of Chinese intellectuals in the pain of the subaltern. In this light, we must read speaking bitterness narratives not as an explosive sounding of voices silenced in history but as having emerged from a historically specific politics of representation. If intellectuals sought their duixiang in subaltern bodies, they later found themselves cast into the position of douzheng duixiang (struggle objects), including many of those writing realist literature in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, the word "duixiang" also gathers into itself the meaning of "target," the arrow finding its mark.

In exploring these particular issues, what follows could therefore be considered a contribution to a "history of presencing" that traces how the transcendental categories of bourgeois ideology came to define the "real" in modern China. Such a project entails a theory of narrativity that spills across the usual disciplinary boundaries between literary scholarship, history, and ethnography. Thus I must acknowledge my debt to all these fields of scholarship, each of which in turn has provided the intellectual inspiration for the three sections of my argument as presented below.

Writing upon the "Real"

[Sociology is] the science of a society which speaks, which is a society precisely because it speaks— Roland Barthes, "Why I Love Benveniste"

The construct of colonial modernity has been suggested as a way of noting the colonizing power of modernizing discourse among Chinese intellectuals and the local trajectories of what declared themselves as universal categories. Notions such as Society, Nation, Individual, History, and so forth, all belong to the language of colonial modernity, as the categories of a bourgeois ideology that come from elsewhere to operate as signs of what China "lacked"—its inability to access the "real" because of its literary ties to an older metaphysics. And yet, despite their presence as "lack," they offered a powerful source of agency for a modernizing elite intent on the project of constituting a modern nation, a project made compelling by the unequal exchanges of China's semicolonial status. This imperative seemed to confirm the transcendental nature of their "truth" as necessary for the progressive movement of history with the nation as its proper subject. Therefore, these categories had to be filled with local referents in order to operate effectively as the tools of social analysis and transformation. This necessity perhaps explains why literary realism became so important to Chinese intellectuals as a sign of the modern, even as realism was being superseded by modernism in the West.

These categories were transplanted to China through the literal process of translating European literature and political philosophy into Chinese. They formed a constellation of elements whose individual functions in local sign systems are difficult to isolate because of the complex relationships among them. Here, however, I focus specifically on the notion of "society" (shehui) because its denotation as the ordered heterogeneity of a complex social totality was fundamental to a concept of "class" (jieji), and it is the discursive determinations of the latter that I wish to move toward. The phrase translated into English as "class status" (jieji chengfen) includes the Chinese term "chengfen," for which the literal meaning is "component part." The Chinese term therefore explicitly embodies the objective language of scientific analysis that breaks down a larger totality ("society" itself) into its constituent elements. A concept of society was the necessary ground for the discursive constitution of the abstracted categories of social analysis—gender as well as class—that could mobilize new kinds of actors for the project of national salvation.

For Chinese intellectuals, shehui defined an object unaware of itself because it lacked representation. Its unknown contours had to be delineated as a necessary precondition for a "modern" social critique. It was the sign of a novel desire to map the contours of a social totality, to hold it within the grasp of language from an imaginary space "outside." Literary realism was accorded great power as a tool of social critique, as indeed a form of social science, a means of making society "present" to itself as a self-conscious national community. The close association of realist literature with the high tide of nationalist movements in Europe attributed it with great powers for social transformation. Yet despite the novelty of this conception, the very inscription of society as shehui betrays an ambivalence about its foreign origin. Shehui was not so much a neologism as a reinscription of an older term by way of an "innovative classicism" not by Chinese, initially, but by Meiji modernizers in Japan eager to fill a void in their conceptual vocabulary to facilitate the appropriation of Western political theory. This genealogical link offered a reassurance that the resources necessary to achieve modernity were hidden somewhere within the cultural repository of "East Asian" tradition. Its movement as a "back translation" from Japan to China would seem to affirm its status as a category of universal history that recognizes no single point of origin.

Therefore, we see in this history how shehui emerges as a category that defines the nation. The definition of this national community perhaps begins with Liang Qichao's notion of qun, a word whose root meaning is "group" or "crowd"; its later inflection as qunzhong gave rise to the revolutionary usage of "the masses" to mean the social collectivity that stands for the nation. Indeed, Liang's use of "qun" approximates Hegel's idea of "nation" as a historical subject, which in Liang's formulation progresses through history via a Darwinian competition for survival among nations. Therefore "qun," in Liang's sense of the word, denotes an undifferentiated social collectivity as a homogeneous national community.

The notion of "society," on the other hand, refers to a heterogeneous totality, in which the Darwinian struggle for existence, in the light of Marxist discourse, as we shall see, becomes internalized as the struggle between warring classes. However, as I explore below, this conception of class as the marker of intranational heterogeneity is made by metonymic extension to be continuous with forces operatinginternationally through the economic and political processes of imperialism and semicolonialism.

Indeed, as a marker of China's semicolonized status, shehui marks another heterogeneity in the body of the nation that becomes closely bound with the discursive construction of "class" in Maoist revolutionary practice. Shehui came to mark an imaginary space "outside" the Chinese feudal order, a space of relative autonomy, an escape or exit from the oppressiveness of the "old" society, in which individuals were free to interact anonymously in a shared symbolic universe, in which Confucian hierarchies and kin ties could become displaced by an imagined community of individuals not necessarily known to one another, a space made possible by the intrusion of imperialism into the body of the nation, hence its characterization as a "colonial modernity." Barlow suggests that the concept of shehui allowed intellectuals to occupy a new social field, one that "acquired concrete referents" in the context of the treaty ports, a new modern mode of existence that defined itself against more established hierarchies and kin relations subsequently designated as "tradition." In this sense society represented a new ordered collectivity prepared to receive and contextualize new kinds of subjects liberated from earlier forms of identity.

This new social space provided a platform for cultural critique in which the objectivity of its gaze depended on the distance between this new urban social field and the rural hinterland as its "other" that was still rooted within the horizons of a Confucian world. The urgency of constructing society as an object of knowledge was to reorient the social order away from an imperial "high center" and a kin-inflected universe toward a horizontally defined democratic national community that could respond to the aggressive challenge of imperialism.

"Society," therefore, marked a discontinuity in the time and space of the national community—the division between "modernity" and "tradition," a territorialization between city and country. Therefore "society" bears within its sign an interesting oscillation of meanings referring both to the social totality and to the discontinuities that made this totality problematic. The very heterogeneity of the social landscape made compelling the desire to grasp hold of the totality in representation. The figure that bridged this indeterminacy was, of course, the notion of a shared national destiny that made the literary display of modernity's other a "call to arms," a mobilization for national self-determination. Therefore, a "modern" literature had to seek its proper object in this other, so that subaltern bodies became the medium through which the exhaustion of the "traditional" culture could be exposed in its failure to support even a minimal human existence. Lu Xun perhaps best captured this aspect of social realism in his characterization of it as a literature that "speaks mostly of others" (duojiang bieren). In this sense, then, the conditions of possibility for the subaltern's coming to voice are precisely the conditions of its impossibility in that this absence becomes the compelling imperative for a "making present" in literature.


Excerpted from National Past-Times by Ann Anagnost. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments Introduction Chapter 1. Making History Speak Chapter 2. The Mimesis of Power Chapter 3. Constructions of Civility in the Age of Flexible Accumulation Chapter 4. The Politicized Body Chapter 5. Neo-Malthusian Fantasy and National Transcendence Chapter 6. Chili Pepper Politics Chapter 7. The Nationscape Notes Bibliography Index

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