Published in China in 2010, Revolution and Its Narratives is a historical, literary, and critical account of the cultural production of the narratives of China's socialist revolution. Through theoretical, empirical, and textual analysis of major and minor novels, dramas, short stories, and cinema, Cai Xiang offers a complex study that exceeds the narrow confines of existing views of socialist aesthetics. By engaging with the relationship among culture, history, and politics in the context of the revolutionary transformation of Chinese society and arts, Cai illuminates the utopian promise as well as the ultimate impossibility of socialist cultural production. Translated, annotated, and edited by Rebecca E. Karl and Xueping Zhong, this translation presents Cai's influential work to English-language readers for the first time.
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About the Author
Cai Xiang is Professor of Chinese Literature and Director of the Research Institute for Contemporary Literature at Shanghai University.
Rebecca E. Karl is Associate Professor of History at New York University and the author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World: A Concise History, also published by Duke University Press.
Xueping Zhong is Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at Tufts University and the author of Masculinity Besieged?: Issues of Modernity and Male Subjectivity in Chinese Literature of the Late Twentieth Century, also published by Duke University Press.
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Revolution and Its Narratives
China's Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949â"1966
By Cai Xiang, Rebecca E. Karl, Xueping Zhong
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
THE NATIONAL/THE LOCAL
Conflict, Negotiation, and Capitulation in the Revolutionary Imagination
When I use the word local here, it is a spatial concept that I counterpose to the centralized power of the national state. Of course, this concept cannot be delimited by the position of a local administrative entity, nor can it be contained in some naturalized geographical description. Rather, my interest is more on the multiple elements that comprise this space, such as systems, mores and customs, social groupings, the disposition of the population and its languages (or dialects), as well as those deep accumulated cultural modes that are hidden in the heart of these spaces. It is these multiple elements and their inner cultural modes that comprise what we will call the local or even local knowledge.
Naturally, one could unconsciously evoke the local as if it were a self-regulated or self-sufficient space; but I rather tend to see the national and the local in relations of mutual constitution. For the nation-state not only deploys myriad forms — as well as systemic methods — to effectively incorporate into itself local knowledge (for example, the ancient system of collecting folk songs); but at the same time, it deploys different methods to deeply implant its own political vision, its own quest for power, and its own forms of knowledge into the local (for example, the form of traditional storytelling). This is so much the case that the nation-state has become a sort of dominating ideological form.
It is precisely because of the complex interactive relationship between the state and the local that, in the process of China's modernization, the transformations in China's ruling power have never been simple substitutions of one kind of power for another kind. Rather, at the same time, these transformations have always also implied changes in the nation-state structure and its ideologies. It is precisely because nation-state ideology is in an instructional position with relation to the local that the disintegration of older national ideologies usually spreads to the local, even producing great instability and disorder in the local order. In certain historical descriptions — for example, in Zheng Chaolin's Memoir (Zheng Chaolin huiyilu) — we can see that popular disorder in Xiangping villages began only four or five years after the Xinhai Revolution [of 1911]. In these four or five years, "in order to express certain differences with and to alter despotic dynastic rule, the name of the administrative position of 'general inspector [zongdu]' was changed to 'provincial military inspector [dudu],' and 'county magistrate [zhixian]' [was changed] to 'provincial governor [zhishi].'" Gradually, "the second-grade district government was abolished," and at the same time "the centuries-old system of 'hometown avoidance' was eliminated." In other words, "somebody from this province could become the district administrator of this same province." Behind the systemic transformations were profound alterations in the forms of knowledge and ideologies. Indeed, in the narrative of Zheng Chaolin's Memoir, there are two details that stand out. One is that "the former official in office from the previous dynasty had more sway than the official in office for the current dynasty," and he doesn't even speak one word of the dialect local people can understand. The second is that "the fact that there is no more emperor is something that the common people in Zhangping County cannot in any way grasp. How can the world not have an emperor? There has been an emperor ever since Pan Gu established the earth." I think what this explains, or at least partially explains, is that the local, at least in the cultural or ideological sense, cannot exist outside of the control of the state.
From the late Qing [1880s] onward in China, a so-called unprecedented historical transformation was occasioned due to the arrival of Western modernity; this transformation was rooted in the emergence of the so-called modern nation-state. According to [Benedict] Anderson, the modern nation-state is "an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign." In the course of this imaginative process, the individual is at the same time imagined as a citizen and his rights and obligations are not subject to racial, religious, ethnic, or class restrictions; rather, all can enjoy equally the resources society offers. Because of this, inherent to this concept is the political implication of participation in national sovereignty, and thus the modern system of participatory politics. [Kojin] Karatani also believes that "the so-called nation should be understood as being composed of a community of individuals (urbanites) who have separated themselves from blood- and race-based characteristics." That is to say, the nation is "formed out of urbanites, who were freed from the shackles of feudalism." As a consequence, in the process of building modern nation-states, the reform of the individual — how to turn the obedient subject of feudal society into a citizen in the modern sense — became one of the greatest tasks of modern political culture. It is thus that we can see the derivation of, for example, Liang Qichao's advocacy for the new citizen [in 1902] or Lu Xun's reform of the national people [in the 1920s].
Through this process, the local, or the local knowledge therewith associated (for example, religions, superstitions, political systems, modes of production, and so on), is usually seen as a spatial obstacle to the realization of modernization. Such a perspective is in some measure evident in Lu Xun's early stories, such as "Madman's Diary"  or "New Year's Sacrifice" . In particular, when the older state system is in the process of being dismantled, its national knowledge or ideology will have been disseminated to the local, there to be preserved or even to become itself an important element of local knowledge. As a result, the national and the local, in the sense of knowledge or culture, are sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another. But this is only one part of the problem. Another part resides in the fact that "'nation' is not composed only of the rational aspects of an urban social contract; it must also be implanted in the sympathy that informs the mutual interactions and dependencies between kin or ethnic communities. We could go so far as to say that nation is the product of the expansion of capitalist market relations and the consequent destruction of ethnic communities, which forced people to use imagination so as to restore the lost reciprocity of that type of mutual dependence." That is to say, "in this process, that ideal community of rural village communities was destroyed, and that ideal condition of mutual dependence and mutual reward had to be restored anew through imagination."
Even though Karatani himself has a provisional attitude toward his own explanation ("whether or not this can be linked up to the concept of the nation is not yet determined"), we can feel the seriousness of his attitude toward community as well as the importance of tradition manifested within those communities in nation-state building. In reality, modern Western social theories of modernity do not all merely trace one path of liberal individualism; the fact that this factor is singled out and exaggerated has to do with other complex social historical conditions. In any case, in China's modern history, including modern literary history, the critique of the local always follows a rediscovery of it. This rediscovery is manifested not only in the stories and novels by Shen Congwen [1930s] and others. It is also tangled up in Lu Xun's works, such as his story "Hometown" . In other words, critique and sentimental attachment are often mutually entangled.
After 1949, conflicts of modern nation-state building were included in the Chinese socialist imaginary as well. For this reason, some important issues of concern in [pre-1949] modern intellectual history were extended into this period. This is one reason that in the literary narration of the 1949–66 historical period within the nation-state there always lurks the intention to reform and remold the local. At the same time, the local is always being rediscovered and in various ways is being appropriated into national knowledge or modern knowledge. A complex sociocultural form eventually came into being from all of this.
I. Narratives of Local Landscape and the Bewildered Reconstruction of Landscape
The analytical model for what I want to discuss with the topic of landscape is Karatani's "discovery of landscape" in his Origins of Modern Japanese Literature and certain discussions by [Stuart] Hall. In Karatani's view, the description of the object (landscape) is not merely a simple attempt to represent the natural world; to the contrary, this so-called object only exists in narrative, and so-called narrative can only ever be subjective. Put differently, the object does not exist prior to the [narrating] subject but rather is the product of the subjective narration. By the same token, in Hall's theory of cultural structuralism, things do not derive meaning from material manifestation, but rather "it is by our use of things, and what we say, think and feel about them — how to represent them — that we give them a meaning." That is to say, meaning "is also produced ... when we weave narratives, stories — and fantasies — around them" and for this reason, "one of the privileged 'media' through which meaning is produced and circulated is language." Yet a follow-up question has to be how this "we" or subject is produced. It is precisely here that Karatani introduces the concept of installation [zhuangzhi]. In Karatani's view, the subject or subjectivity can never be posited as a priori existence but rather is a continuous process of construction. In the course of this process, the flood of national, social, systemic, political, and ideological forces enters; precisely only with the entrance of these multiple forces can there be the productive formation of an installation. The production of this installation is actually the construction of the subject and of subjectivity; correspondingly, this produces and constructs the narrative materials of the subject. For this reason, the so-called object — namely, the material of the subject's narrative — always retains some sort of concealed link to the subjectivity of the narrator. In other words, what we see is possibly only what we wish to see. To emphasize this point, Karatani uses the concept of landscape to explain the signifying importance of the discovery of the landscape. In analyzing the story "People Hard to Forget," Karatani writes: "Landscape is intimately linked to the inner core of solitude. This character experiences a feeling of 'not me/not him' towards a random person, but at the same time this feeling exhibits a certain coldness towards the 'other' who is right before him. In other words, landscape is discovered only when the 'inner person' has no concern for those around him. Landscape is discovered by someone who does not see 'outside.'" For Karatani, this "inner person" is precisely a product (as individual, self, and subjectivity, and so on) of Japanese modernity since the Meiji Restoration . For this reason, the actual discovery of landscape is "a product of a particular system." The point of Karatani's analysis is to argue that "what I am referring to as 'landscape' is an epistemological constellation, the origins of which were suppressed as soon as it was produced."
What interests me here are not the specifics of Karatani's analysis of landscape in Japanese literature. I borrow this concept and the theory that informs it merely to explain that I do not consider landscape in contemporary Chinese literature (1949–66) simply as a description of the natural world. Rather, I wish, through an analysis of landscape, to explore how, after 1949, under the imperative of China's modern nation-state formation, the discovery of landscape was introduced into [modern socialist] contemporary literature and how, hidden within, were complex relations between nation and the local. In addition, I wish to elucidate how, with the entry of class politics [in the socialist period], the reestablished local landscape became particularly difficult to narrate and how its narrative produced an internally paradoxical discourse.
In her essay on the transformation of White-Haired Girl, Meng Yue uses a case study of the drama to discuss the "process of cultural-political production in the liberated areas" and the "unpolitical dimensions of political literature" in this "production process." What Meng means by "unpolitical dimensions" perhaps points to how, under politically discursive narrative conditions (for example, "the old society turned people into ghosts, [the] new society turns ghosts into people"), there were still concealed certain "unpolitical narrative conventions akin to folk artistic patterns." That is to say, "the narrative mechanisms of the opera White-Haired Girl, even though its major theme was molded out of political discourse, were not completely controlled by it"; "rather, to some extent, its plot is structured around a certain folk lifeworld, ethical order, and moral logic." Within this narrative construction, the landlord, Huang Shiren, does not exist merely to represent a class enemy; he also exists as "an enemy of the folk ethical order." As Meng Yue proceeds to point out, in the opera White-Haired Girl, "the function of a folk ethical logic and its mutual relation to political discourse is expressed in the following way: the stability of the folk ethical order is the legitimizing premise for political discourse. Only as an enemy of the folk ethical order can Huang Shiren also be a political enemy." Meng Yue's explanation here is extremely significant for research into contemporary literature, for not only does the intruder become a relatively common structural element in contemporary literature, but at the same time a multiplicity also exists in Yan'an cultural practice and, to a great extent, persists through the socialist literary-cultural imaginary from 1949– 66 as well.
There are complex reasons for the existence of multiplicity, but here it may have to do with certain implicit connections to the specificity of the Chinese revolution. The Chinese revolution was not only profoundly rooted in rural villages and for this reason usually maintained a certain respectful and compromising posture vis-à-vis rural ideals, but at the same time, because of the stagist quality of the Chinese revolution (for example, national revolution/ class revolution, new democracy/socialism, and so on), even though the politics of class were from the beginning a dominant desire, this politics could never completely eliminate other political desires and their related literary-cultural imaginaries. For this reason, within a heterogeneous political discursive space, the so-called other was not always the same; indeed, sometimes there were many others [national, class, and so forth]. And the political subject constructed from the stipulations of these many others bore the particularity of multiplicity. Of course, this is not to say that the multiplicity existed in a relation of equality or in some state of calm; to the contrary, this multiplicity precisely animated and informed a sharp ideological-cultural struggle. It is only because of this type of multiplicity and struggle that political discourse was able to establish itself as hegemonic. For this reason, so-called reeducation (gaizao) or self-remolding was informed by multiplicity in political discursive space and in fact foreshadowed the possibility of self-negation or continuous revolution. However, this multiple political discursive context in some sense also brought about the posture of compromise in the Chinese revolution. Often modern knowledge (political discourse) either proactively or passively incorporated and transformed local knowledge (folk ethics) into its own narrative resource. Needless to say, this process of incorporation was filled with contradiction and conflict.
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Table of Contents
A Note on Translation
Introduction to the English Translation
Introduction. Literature and Revolutionary China
1. The National/The Local: Conflict, Negotiation, and Capitulation in the Revolutionary Imagination
2. The Mobilization Structure: The Masses, Cadres, and Intellectuals
3. Youth, Love, "Natural Rights," and Sex
4. Renarrating the History of the Revolution: From Hero to Legend
5. Narratives of Labor or Labor Utopias
6. Technological Revolution and Narratives of Working-Class Subjectivity
7. Cultural Politics, or Political Cultural Conflicts, in the 1960s
8. Conclusion. The Crisis of Socialism and Efforts to Overcome It
What People are Saying About This
"Cai Xiang is a self-reflexive and capacious thinker. His dialectical approach to unresolvable tensions and contradictions within Chinese socialism is extremely valuable for scholars who take the lived experience of socialism seriously. This timely translation will help English-language readers reassess their received views about China's socialist past and its postsocialist present, allowing them to better appreciate why conflicting stories about the Chinese revolution continue to shape China's self-understanding and its position in the world."
"A groundbreaking study, Revolution and Its Narratives presents a series of sympathetic and penetrating analyses that helps us better understand the cultural and social legacies underlying contemporary China. Since its publication in 2010, Cai Xiang's book has been widely recognized as a landmark achievement in Chinese socialist culture and history scholarship. This timely translation ought to have a deep impact on the study of modern China in the English-language world."