David Der-wei Wang - East

David Der-wei Wang
This anthology contains fourteen Chinese short stories and novellas
written in the late eighties and early nineties. The writers of
these stories are from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
America, and New Zealand. By grouping these stories togeth­
er under the category of contemporary Chinese fiction, the
anthology intends to posit a new image of China, a China
defined not by geopolitical boundaries and ideological closures
but by overlapping cultures and shared imaginative resources.
Traditional anthologies of modern Chinese literature are
too often regionalistic, corresponding to the reality of a Chi­
na that has been divided into politically exclusive realms. It is
not uncommon to find that a criticism or the works ofa cer­
tain anthology of Chinese fiction are drawn exclusively from
mainland China or Taiwan." But at a time when mainland
the embrace of its vast neighbor, any attempt to define Chinese lit­
erature in terms of the old geopolitics will risk instant anachronism.
Events in the late eighties and early nineties have pushed Chinese
literature toward irreversible change. In mainland China writers are
fighting to reclaim the ground lost after the 1989 Tian'anmen Inci­
dent; in Taiwan unforeseen political upheavals and financial successes
have caused a substantial shake-up of the traditional literary market; in
Hong Kong, the specter of the end of Hong Kong's separate existence
in 1997 has driven writers to write about the end of the century as if
it were peculiarly their own.
During this period Chinese writers have also traveled overseas
more frequently than ever before, thanks both to the easy access of
transportation, and, ironically, to the cruelty of politics. The expatri­
ate experience is one ofthe major themes of twentieth-century Chi­
nese literature. The latest exodus of intellectuals from mainland Chi­
na has added a new and poignant dimension to that tradition.
Pessimists are again announcing that the Tian'anmen Incident has
brought an untimely end to the development of modern Chinese lit­
erature. But mainland Chinese literature bounced back vigorously
after the bloody crackdown, impressing us with its more somberly
sophisticated discourse. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and
overseas Chinese communities, literature has been undergoing booms
and metamorphoses. It's safe to predict that the last decade for twen­
tieth-century Chinese fiction will be just as exciting.
The changing landscape of contemporary Chinese fiction is relat­
ed to political dynamics, but it is also a result of postmodern tech­
nologies. With computers and global telecommunication systems,
writers and publishers are able to contact each other instantly; works
considered unpublishable for political or commercial reasons at one
publishing house may quickly appear in print somewhere else. For
instance, writings by Mo Van, Yu Hua, and Su Tong-three of the
most talented mainland Chinese writers-now often receive their first
publication in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The inventive Hong Kong
writer Xi Xi, though unpopular among local readers, has won great
acclaim in Taiwan, so much so that she was once mistaken for a Tai­
wanese writer by the Hong Kong government.f Where fashionable
2. Zheng Shusen [William Tay], introduction to the special issue on Xi Xi, Lianhe wenxue
[Unitas] '99 (January 1993): 117.
1. Michael Duke's Worlds ofModem Chinese Fiction (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1990) repre­
sents perhaps one of the first attempts to anthologize modern Chinese literature On a global scale.
I 239
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Marxists discern signs of technocratic incursions on China's authentic
existence, Chinese writers see new ways to disseminate their own
truths and myths. As Ye Sis "Transcendence and the Fax Machine," a
short story about a bittersweet affair between a religious scholar and
his fax machine, indicates, transcendental truth now mingles with
mechanical reproduction; the global and the local impinge upon each
other's territories.
Overseas writers constitute a major force in modern Chinese liter­
ature. Around the time of the Tian'anmen Incident, many important
mainland writers left China and have since formed a new expatriate
voice clamoring for attention. A Cheng, one of the most celebrated
"root-seeking" writers of the eighties, has settled in the United States;
the dramatist and novelist Gao Xingjian is sojourning in France. Bei
Dao, poet and founder of the controversial TOday [jintian] in the late
seventies, is now taking refuge in Sweden, while Yang Lian, one of
the most brilliant of the young Chinese poets, has made New Zealand
his new base. Exile may eventually deprive these writers of the native
experience their works were nurtured on, but for the time being at
least it provides them with a different perspective from which to think
and write about China.
Little surprise that some of the most powerful writings about the
Tiari'anmen Incident are written by mainland Chinese writers in
exile. A parallel case can be found in Ping Lu, a writer who lives in
the United States but writes most vividly about the Taiwan status quo,
thanks to her consistent concern about and frequent visits to the
island. Already situated outside their homeland, overseas writers find
it both a condition and a result of narrating China that their works
must cross established physical, formal, and conceptual boundaries.
The new generation brings to mind names of an older generation,
such as Lu Xun, Lao She, and Yu Dafu, the May Fourth writers
whose experiences abroad helped them modernize Chinese literary
discourse seven decades ago.
All the foregoing observations about the contemporary Chinese
literary world-its cultural/political turmoils and technological inno­
vations and the diaspora ofmainland Chinese writers-make us think
afresh about a theoretical scheme for characterizing the nineties. The
fictive map "center versus margin" has to be redrawn for the new
While works by mainland Chinese writers still claim most of our
attention, the old questions will be asked, such as: What are these
writers writing about? For whom are they writing? Where are they
writing? How does one classify a work produced on the mainland and
published in Hong Kong with a Taiwan sponsorship, which receives
its first acclaim from readers in the United States? In answering these
questions, one comes to realize that literature from mainland China­
the "center" of traditional geopolitics-is becoming decentralized.
Some writers "inside" literature are politically outside. Literature
from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas-the "marginal" Chinese
communities-is to be taken seriously because its readers are already
living, economically and culturally, inside modernity:'
However, this should not be taken to mean that the marginal can
occupy the center, as if the old notion of dialectic struggle were being
revived. Instead, it points to a landscape where dialogues between
many different Chinas become possible, a negotiation that does not
establish a republic of Chinese letters but rather creates a real hetero­
geneity of contemporary Chinese literatures.
A reconfiguration of Chinese literature from different regions fur­
ther questions the concept and practice of realism and representation.
By representation I refer not only to the aesthetic meaning of mimesis
but also to the political implication of legitimacy. In claiming to tran­
scribe an objective reality, realism became the genre ofprivilege as ear­
ly as the twenties, and until after the Great Cultural Revolution it
dominated Chinese literary theory, be it called humanitarian realism,
critical realism, or socialist realism. It is significant that the mid-eight­
ies saw the decline of realism on both sides of the China straits along
with the disintegration of authoritarian regimes.
When ideological truth proves to be fiction, when realism proves
to be an art not of revelation but of formulas, the celebrated realist
canon "art reflects life" also has the ring of a political slogan. In writ­
ing, representation leads to new questions: What kind of work re-pre­
sents popular consensus that doesn't represent governmental policy?
What nonrealists were sent into internal exile when only realism
could be acknowledged or written? Why can't expatriate writers'
works be representative of a national capacity to write? Why can there
3. See also Leo Ou-fan Lee's discussion in "On the Margins of Chinese Discourse,"
Daedalus (Spring 1991): 207-26.
242 /
be only one foreign mapping of the (post)modern and not several
Chinese versions? Chinese writers' efforts to go beyond realism are
therefore no more aesthetic gestures than they are radical historical
gestures, gestures against the old systems of truth by power and the old
myths of representation by centralization.
The best contemporary Chinese fiction cannot be classified as real­
istic in a traditional sense. For those used to seeing modern Chinese
fiction as a supplement to social history or as a predictable Jamesonian
"national allegory" ofsociopolitics, the fiction produced since the late
eighties may tell a different story. It shows that literature in the post­
Tian'anmen period has not harked back to the old formulas of reflec­
tionism. Precisely because of their refusal either to remain silent or to
cry out in an acceptably "realist" way, the new writers see life as an
ongoing process, a conglomeration of possibilities and impossibilities.
Precisely because of their inability to believe in the one true path
through realism to modernism and then postmodernism, or in any
melodramatically predictable path through history, contemporary
Chinese writers promise new and lively beginnings for the end-of­
the-century Chinese imagination.
There is another aspect of representationism. In opposing the total­
itarian Maoist regime to the relatively more open post-Maoist society,
critics and scholars have coined a new term, Maoist discourse (Maoyu,
Mao weslti, etc.), to summarize the coercive rhetoric that once con­
trolled humanistic activities in China. The term has historical validi­
ty, particularly in insinuating the irony that a Marxist society could
reproduce the superstructural tyranny it set out to overthrow. But the
term may have also created an easy way out for critics, generalizing an
otherwise complex issue. By uncritically contrasting the Maoist and
the post-Maoist eras as two distinct or even dialectical discursive par­
adigms, and by asserting in retrospect the total, irresistible power of
Maoist discourse, one actually risks succumbing to the double bind of
representationism. A verbal reenactment of Maoist purges will neither
redeem the deaths and the resentments of millions of Chinese nor
properly represent the dark force of Maoist tyranny and the hidden
power ofa million unutterable questions. Only by continuously refus­
ing to speak summarily of the past can we remember the past.
To launch a retroactive protest against Maoist discourse, one has to
learn not to affirm the lie of its omnipotence, because it was not an
undivided whole that erased all other voices-it merely suppressed
them. This is an ironic strategy, but it is based on an ethical imperative
rather than mere rhetorical play Had Maoist discourse been perfect at
both the technological and ideological levels, all critique of it from
within would have been unthinkable. We know, however, that even at
the darkest moments of the Cultural Revolution, thousands of Chinese
uttered dangerously nonconformist speeches-and this accounting
does not include those who protested mutely, often through suicide.
To speak of Maoist discourse in the nineties as if it had been an
unquestionable, total power, therefore, indicates less a critical indict­
ment of it than a complicity with its pretensions. It eschews the real
intellectual labor that would have thwarted Mao's brand ofhistoricism
and therefore dissipated its spell.
Extrapolating from these observations, I propose a different way of
reading contemporary Chinese fiction, in terms of the following
three configurations: familiarization if the uncanny; lyrical appropriation of
the epic; flirtation with China. Each heading refers not only to a theme
that pervades contemporary Chinese writings but also to a polemic
stance that has been adopted by Chinese writers as they have set out
to reconfigure China.
1. Familiarization of the Uncanny
One of the most fascinating phenomena in Chinese literature of the
late eighties has been the radicalization of traditional realist discourse.
Writers in mainland China, as in other Chinese communities, have
explored materials hitherto considered untouchable and rendered
them in a wide range of forms: stream of consciousness, metafiction,
magical realism, etc. Particularly in mainland China, this rejuvenated
creativity has become a powerful critique of Maoist discourse, the
formidable literary and political rhetoric that prevailed in China for
more than three decades, suppressing all hope of free literary expres­
sion. But now, by turning the world into a realm of fantastic and
uncanny elements or by identifying normalcy with the grotesque and
insane, writers awaken their readers from aesthetic and ideological
inertia, initiating them into a new kind of reality.
Difamiliarization--aesthetic and conceptual distancing of a familiar
subject in order to restore its perceptual newness-has been frequently
used by critics to describe this phenomenon. But the term cannot real­
ly cover the new Chinese rhetoric, especially the political rhetoric
composed on the eve and in the aftermath of the Tian'anmen Incident.
Defamiliarization presupposes a perceptual diminution of life to a
banal, repetitious continuum, an aesthetic malaise from which readers
can only be rescued by a regimen of parody and disruption, till these
readers lose confidence in tradition. With the artificiality of the old
realism exposed, the imagination of the real can start again, fresh and
new. In China, this recipe must appear ironic at best and perhaps even
cruel. Who else, after all, is more competent (or decadent) than the
Chinese Communist propaganda apparatus in sending its people
through the same ideological hoops again and again by defamiliariz­
ing that which is all too familiar? Who else is more imaginative than
the party at churning out a new set of slogans, campaigns, and ene­
mies and at reenacting the old cadre games in the guise of yet anoth­
er people's revolution?
Moreover, the Chinese people, who have gone through so many
calamities over the past half-century, have seen no shortage of grotes­
queries and disruptions in their everyday lives. Amid the continual
parade of the absurd and the abnormal, they might be thought to have
hoped for a year or two of routine and repetition. Reality was already
more eerie and unthinkable than anything that fiction could conjure."
Insofar as it aims to "make strange" things that otherwise seem famil­
iar, defamiliarization would have to mean, in the Chinese context,
not an outrage or a revolution to subvert the tedium of the familiar
but either a refamiliarization of the trivial or a creative deformation of
the unbearable.
I suggest [amiliarization oj the uncanny as one key to Chinese writers'
handling of defamiliarization. Precisely because reality is already too
bizarre and grotesque, the writers' greatest challenge lies in how to
make it more plausible rather than more strange. Whereas for Freudi­
ans the uncanny means "something familiar and old-established in the
mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.P there
4. For more discussion on the discourse of the grotesque, see David Der-wei Wang,
"Jirenxing" [A parade of the grotesques], in Zhongsheng xuanhua [Heteroglossia in modern Chi­
nese fiction] (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1988).
5. Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny," in Studies Oil Parapsychology, Alix Strachey, trans. (New
York: Macmillan, 1981),47.
is an additional dimension to the Chinese uncanny. In China, repres­
sion is not just an individual defense mechanism; a governmental
mechanism represses individual responses and legitimates that repres­
sion as something necessary and reasonable. The horrors and unpre­
dictabilities of ordinary experience are legitimated; the temptation to
see these everyday events as uncanny is repressed. This second repres­
sion is made possible by public exposure of the private, by normaliza­
tion of the unnatural. To talk about the Chinese uncanny, therefore, is
to explore the paradoxical question as to why things that would be
seen as dreary and therefore repressed in a Western, Freudian context
have ever been taken as natural in China. If the majority of works
appearing in the early nineties can be called uncanny, they are so
merely as a preparation for, or an evocation of, the incomprehensible,
which nevertheless manifests itself everyday.
Accordingly, the contemporary Chinese uncanny can be seen in
the paranoia and megalomania that have alternately possessed China's
two hostile regimes and their peoples: the horrors and absurdities of
the Cultural Revolution, the deification of Mao Zedong, even tri­
umphant consumption of human flesh in the name of "Mao
thought"; a national campaign of abuse of woman's body, through
mandatory abortions of the most primitive kind; stock-speculation
mania involving millions of people, first in Taiwan, now in mainland
China; and the brutal bloodshed of T ian'anmen Square, televised all
over the world, followed by cynical rewritings of the Incident by Peo­
ple's Republic of China officials-no bloodshed, no massacre, just "a
tiny handful" of bad elements.
There are four genres of stories that rely on familiarization of the
uncanny: grotesquerie, fantasy, the gothic tale, and the animal allego­
ry. Yu Hua's "One Kind of Reality" is an example. The novella
chronicles the way in which a family quarrel turns into a series of
family murders. Few readers will be undisturbed by the discrepancy
between the bloody family feud and the matter-of-fact style with
which Yu Hua narrates the incident. One can almost discern macabre
humor when the narrator catalogues the ways the family members
humiliate, torture, and mutilate each other-a veritable museum of
Chinese cruelty. One of the most talented avant-gardists in mainland
China, Yu Hua has been praised (or criticized) for his desolate view of
life, his violent deformation of language, and his penchant for the
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neurotic. But personal idiosyncrasies aside, all Yu Hua does is to lay
bare the horrors that Chinese are used to in life but would rather find
incredible when encountered in art. Yu Hua purports to record mere­
ly a slice oflife, a story about nothing. Can the sadomasochist festivi­
ty of the family murders still be seen as uncanny when the bloody
national carnival of the Cultural Revolution or of the Tiari'anmen
Incident is an unrepressed everyday affair?
The mode Yu Hua uses to deal with human neurosis and grotes­
querie can also be seen in Su Tong's "Running Wild," a story about a
child's obsession with death, which ends with unexpected misfortune.
But whereas Yu Hua opts for almost barren narration, Su Tong, one
of the most charming storytellers of the early nineties, displays a rich,
elaborate symbolism and an ornate vocabulary. Su Tong is at his best
in writing family melodrama with a gothic touch; looming behind
the facade of his domestic tales are decadent motives and unspeakable
desires. As "Running Wild" opens, something infamous has already
happened to the family; we witness, from a child's perspective, its
utter downfall amid disappearance, adultery, madness, and
murder/suicide. But do these incidents really "mean" anything? Do
they really "matter"? "Running Wild" is as dazzlingly elaborate and
inscrutable as "One Kind of Reality" is bothersomely simple and lit­
eral. Beyond its stylistic exuberance, however, one finds in the text a
hollow center. The verbal intricacy of the text cannot hide the banal­
ity of its evils.
In Yang Zhao's "Our Childhood," comic fantasy is used as a per­
spective from which to examine the social!cultural problems of Tai­
wan. In a fantasy, the real and the illusory mix with each other; the
impossible becomes possible. This syndrome is illustrated in "Our
Childhood," a story about a fantastic outcome of the Taiwan stock
speculation frenzy in the late eighties. The two women speculators in
the story have been losers at life's game until they find new hope in
the boundless optimism of stock-market speculation. They not only
consume the fortune they have yet to make but also manage to
redeem their real unhappiness with an investment in imaginary nos­
talgia. They fantasize their childhoods in the same way they speculate
on stocks, to the point where money and memory become inter­
changeable tokens. Nostalgia, after all, pays a dividend, in entropic
speculation and fictitious dealings.
S.K. Chang's "Amateur Cameraman" is a black comedy about a
man's secret desire to murder his wife. In many ways the novella com­
bines the uncanny and the fantastic. One of the most popular overseas
Chinese writers, Zhang has tried his hand at genres ranging from sci­
ence fiction to fantastic romance. He is best known, however, for his
series of sarcastic stories about the war between the sexes. Situated in
an American city, the novella introduces a middle-class Chinese cou­
ple trapped in marital crisis, which is followed by the murder of the
wife. The husband is charged with the killing. Did he really commit
the crime? Was he set up for having merely fantasized on paper about
killing his wife, as he claims? Was his wife really dead? Mixing mys­
tery and black humor into a surprise ending, the novella completes its
dizzying attack on militant feminism and male chauvinism.
In the anthology there are two gothic tales, "Ghost Talk" by Yang
Lian and "The Isle of Wang' an" by Zhong Ling. Both stories borrow
from the genre of the gothic tale, using such conventions as ghostly
atmosphere, macabre plotting, mysterious reincarnation, and an
ambiguous moral schematization. Writing at the turn of the nineties,
however, Yang Lian and Zhong Ling convey the paradox that
accounts about our reality cannot be related except as gothic tales: the
ghosts looming in their works are not supernatural beings of the oth­
er world but phantoms of this world.
In Yang Lian's "Ghost Talk," a lonely soul is heard speaking to him­
self in an empty house; the response he receives is a cluster of chilly
echoes of his own voice. In Zhong Ling's "The Isle of Wang' an," a
woman launches a desperate search for love and sexual fulfillment on
a desolate island under the auspices of the ghosts of her family ances­
tors. Why are these characters deprived of their authentic existence?
Why are they doomed to be wanderers outside the arguable "human"
world? Who are these ghosts? Perhaps they are expatriate poets whose
voices have been reduced to meaningless rambling; political exiles
who have lost the grounds on which to fight for their ideals; women
whose desire for sexual fulfillment has been repressed as obscene. In
their attempt to contact the human world, to overcome social taboos
and indifferences, these ghosts find they have always been habitants of
the human world, which remains part of the ghostly unknown.
Whereas Zhong Ling is inspired by ghost stories in her portrait of
a modern Chinese predicament of sexual fulfillment, two other
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women writers in the anthology, Tang Min from mainland China and
Xi Xi from Hong Kong, turn to animal imagery in dealing with the
issue of womanhood and motherhood in two different Chinese com­
munities. Tang Min's "I Am Not a Cat" records in a tone ofjournal­
istic apathy the way in which mainland Chinese women are forced to
have abortions under the most primitive medical conditions; Xi Xi's
"Mother Fish" renders a poignant portrait of women's desire for and
anxiety about marriage and maternity. Despite their differences in
style and concern, both writers compare their female characters to
animals. In so doing they seem to proclaim that in a representational
system prefigured by men, one way to make women's fate "intelligi­
ble" is to translate the established code of mimesis into an animalist
Mimicry implies exaggeration, dehumanization, and simplifica­
tion. For these women, this is exactly where the politics of their ani­
mal allegories start. The Chinese women in Tang Min's "I Am Not a
Cat" are treated worse than cats when they are ordered to wait in line,
pants off, to await their abortions. Xi Xi, the more sophisticated, sees
in her "Mother Fish" an ironic parallel between an unmarried
teenage girl's fear and desire when she thinks she is pregnant and a
pregnant fish's painful death before delivery, in the absence of her
male partner. The story also contains a subtext in which Xi Xi juxta­
poses women's unfulfilled motherhood and female writers' aborted
creativity. For both writers, animal allegories are less literary devices
than literal testimonials to the fate of Chinese women. To read these
stories is to familiarize oneself with the uncanny that is the real.
2. Lyricization of the Epic
The second direction this anthology indicates is contemporary writ­
ers' higWy subjective approach to history. In response to the drastic
political changes since the late seventies, writers on both sides of Chi­
na have raised questions about the authenticity of traditional histori­
cal discourse: what valorizes the appearance of truth in history; who
legitimizes the "voice" of history; how history exerts its power over
our view of the future. Because History has been sanctioned by Com­
munist theoreticians as a holy text, one that prefigures China's destiny
in the Socialist millennium, mainland writers' efforts to rewrite histo­
ry 10 fictional forms deserve special attention. Facing the hiatus
between what happens and what should have happened in accordance
with official historiography, these writers try to make sense of the
broken past by personal accounts. Instead of offering a new narrative
closure, however, their stories are often marked with an ironic aware­
ness of the contingency or even absurdity of any human effort to
recapture the past.
Almost half a century ago, Jaroslav Prusek commented on the rise
of modern Chinese literature by pointing out its lyrical inclination.
By lyrical Prusek means a subjective and individualistic discourse that
the first generation of modern Chinese writers formulated, a dis­
course that derives its conceptual and enunciative format from classi­
cal poetic tradition.P This lyrical inclination enables modern writers
to articulate their nonconformist feelings against feudal literary and
ideological canons. For Pnisek, however, the lyrical mode cannot
generate a powerful literature until it is complemented by writers'
epic sensibility, i.e., a sense ofshared communal fate at a changing his­
torical moment. Writing in terms of Marxist ideology, Prusek sees in
the lyrical and the epic, or the mode of the individual and the mode
of society, a dialectic tension, one that appropriately constitutes the
sub text of modern Chinese (literary) history." Implied in his theory is
a view that the lyrical and the epic would reach their happy (re)union
in a Marxist era. People's Republic of China literature from 1949 to
1979, however, shows that the lyrical mode was erased from a dis­
course dedicated to writing the (Socialist) epic. Only in the eighties
does one see a resurgence of the lyrical in Chinese narrative discourse.
If Prusek's paradigm makes sense to us today, it is not because the
lyrical and the epic still function as two disparate modes, perennially
negotiating the "total" inscription of national fate, as Pnisek would
have argued. Rather, the lyrical and the epic have undergone a mutu­
al displacement, which has reshuffied their inherent aesthetic and ide­
ological expectations. History is still the primary concern of contem­
porary writers, but its literary manifestation, epic discourse, can be
conveyed only by its lyrical other. Writing at a time when the master
narrative of history is already fragmented and anachronized, Chinese
6. Jaroslav Pnisek, The Lyrical and the Epic: Studiesof Modem Chinese Literature, Leo Ou-fan
Lee, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980), 1-29.
7. Leo Ou-fan Lee, introduction to The Lyrical and the Epic, vii-xii.
250 /
writers can only approximate (rather than authenticate) historic
meaning through a lyrical evocation. The forces at work in the dark
realm of the political unconscious can be simulated only through a
language that transgresses generic boundaries between the real and
While the lyrical appropriation of the epic may point either to the
new capitalist desire to make personal what used to be public or to the
schizophrenic syndrome of broken historical subjectivity, as suggested
by some critics, a deeper motivation has to be spelled out. s With its
emphasis on the figurative landscape that language can construct, the
new lyrical mode points to a critical position that refuses to be con­
fined by the referential imperatives of epic (or historical) discourse. If
literary representation is substantially a rhetorical performance rather
than the outcome oflogical or ideological prefiguration, then the text
can be liberated from the iron prison of referential determinism to
make its own figurations of the real. This emphasis on language and
poetic expression is a confirmation of human choice in "figuring out"
the world. In this regard, the predilection for the lyrical recapitulates
the critical lyricism evolved for Chinese literature by Shen Congwen,
the great modern Chinese nativist writer, half a century ago."
Yu Hua's and Su Tong's stories offer access to the margins of war
and history, away from the official depravities of the center. They
emphasize a microlevel, the level of seemingly insignificant happen­
ings, the empty space between the significant disruptions of historic
events. The grand epic narrative dissolves into fragmentary impres­
sions, fortuitous events, and pointless monologues. These bits and
pieces serve as poetic incantations, ushering us here and there in the
cavern of history, sending flashes of light down some of the darkest
In A Cheng's "Festival," history is lyricized by another personal
style. Though dealing with an impending bloody clash between two
factions during the Cultural Revolution, the story is nevertheless nar­
rated from the innocent perspective of three children. These children
s. See,
for example, Wang Jin, "Benweihua qingjie yll dayuejin xintai" [The complex of
egocentrism and the mentality of "the Great Leap Forward"]. Zhang Xudong, translated, inJint­
ian [Today] 3-4 (1991)' 26.
9. For more discussion of Shen Congwcri's "lyricization" of history, see David Der-wei
Wang, Fictional Realism in Twentieth-Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen (New
are . takin~ a one-day vacation in celebration of their own holiday,
Children s Day; they play together, not knowing their parents are
about to begin a deadly combat against one another. The situation all
too easily recalls the story in which Lu Xun founded modern Chinese
literature, and its famous slogan: "Save the children!" But A Cheng
refuses to continue the mode of shouts and slogans that had become
the rule in the intervening decades, instead favoring understatement
and quiet, just-visible symbolism. In "Festival," A Cheng's narrative
rhythmically blends sensory images from the natural and the human
environments into a contrapuntal whole until one cannot ignore their
harmonic resonances. One can, of course, talk about A Cheng's iron­
ic intention, which reveals the absurdities of the adult world by lyri­
cizing it with the innocent eyes of the children. But I suspect the
polemicist's dilemma with a story such as "Festival" lies in the fact that
it draws the reader's attention without any specific investment in the
subject matter and without any conviction that the work is a defini­
tive treatment of anything. The narrated event and the narrative event
demand equal attention.
Mainland writers' lyrical inclinations reach an apogee in Yang
Lian's "Ghost Talk." A poet taking refuge in New Zealand after the
Tian'anmen Incident, Yang Lian makes a radical move in dealing with
the subject of exile. Exile indicates not only physical or psychological
displacement but also a break in the symbolic chain that used to make
sense of one's existence. Yang Lian's story foregoes elements thought
necessary to a coherent narrative, instead piling up images and
impressions, murmurs and silences. The result is a story that reads like
rambling, a narrative turned against the narrative premise of verisimil­
itude. Perhaps this is the poet's most vehement indictment of History;
for all his effort to remember and narrate the unspeakable historical
event, he manages only to utter something that erases the line
between the lyrical moment and the epic event. As the story's title
suggests, "Ghost Talk" is nothing but a phantom voice that is forever
doubled in its own echoes.
Taiwan writers have shown a similar tendency to see and write his­
tory as if from a subjective angle. In Yang Zhao's "Our Childhood,"
one finds two interlacing arrays of narrative segments-one realistic,
one fantastic. Whereas the realist segments point to the dreary con­
tinuum of life as it is lived, their fantastic counterparts bring forth a
York: Columbia UP, 1992),203-10,224-33.
252 /
past where dreams and desires can be found. When "childhood" is
personalized as a girl, when nostalgia is crystallized by the girl's con­
test with a galloping train, poetry is evoked as the redemption of time
from pain and ressentiment by fantasy.
Zhu Tianwen's "Master Chai" exhibits a lyrical rewriting of the
epic narrative no less ambitious and eccentric than her mainland
counterparts'. The story has only one character, an aging masseur
who runs an underground clinic in a dubious district of Taipei, and
one event, the masseur's waiting for a young patient who is coming
for her last treatment. What really "happens" in the story is the
masseur's remembrances of the past narrated in a kind of litany: his
escape from mainland China when the Communists took over; his
involvement in smuggling; his desolate marriage and family life; and
his decaying business and health. We thus see a life that has been wast­
ed and a figure whose existence, in a society that cannot wait to deny
its historical ties with the mainland, seems only a useless decoration, a
relic of some almost-forgotten event. Zhu Tianwen's story intrudes
into the most unlikely life an epiphanic moment, one that casts a sud­
den light on the pathos of one generation's fate. The innocent patient
embodies for the masseur an escape to the realm of youth and hope.
Through massaging (or fondling) the girl's naked body, the masseur
undergoes an erotically charged ritual of spiritual rejuvenation; each
touch leads him closer to the forever-exiled past, recalling, obscenely
or rhapsodically, one generation's dreams of sorrow and meaning.
3. Flirtation with China
The discourse of modern Chinese literature from 1919 to 1989 is
burdened with writers' heavy concern for the Chinese nation and
eager readiness to reform Chinese society with a program of literary
admonishments. "Obsession with China,,,l0 the phrase coined by C.
T. Hsia in his ground-breaking study of modern Chinese literature,
has been widely used to describe the general tendency of modern
Chinese literature. Chinese writers are so committed to their coun­
try's salvation that their sole mission is to excoriate social malaise, pro­
voke or resolve national crises, and contemplate if not actually hasten
the nation's future. In practice, the obsession with China has led fic­
tion writers to "hard-core realism,"11 another phrase ofHsia's, mean­
ing a raw, even brutal expose of Chinese misery that spurns preten­
sions, aesthetic or intellectual. China is considered so aillicted with
spiritual disease that there is no way to save it from degradation except
through extreme measures. While this obsession has generated a
moral ethos rarely seen among other national literatures, it has also
enticed writers into ideological fetishism, one that makes China sanc­
tion their unwillingness or their inability to deal with issues beyond
immediate political concerns.
One might talk about the sadomasochism in Chinese writers' insa­
tiable desire to write about the pain of their mother country and to
share in her despair, as one contemporary critic notes.V But one must
face the issue of the morality of form. For writers of both the
post-May Fourth era and the early People's Republic of China
regime, writing is a political act, and any literary re-form must yield
to the agenda of overall reform. History, however, has shown us how
postponing questions about the form of the idea has led over and over
to ideological emptiness and moral capitulation. The more that
post-May Fourth writers wrote about the mindlessness of their com­
patriots, the more they threw doubts on their own writings and on
the mindless way in which they captured and then changed reality
The continued celebration of the new Communist utopia by early
People's Republic of China writers turned out to be transparent self­
exposure, a reenactment of the fable of the emperor's new clothes. In
both cases, writing starts out confident of its refreshed moral vision
but ends up declaring its complicity with a decadent reality.
Chinese writers since the beginning of the nineties have tried to
break away from hard-core obsession with China by reducing what
they do to a flirtation with China. While its undertone of frivolous yet
harmless eroticism is intentional, flirtation refers not to the new writ­
ings' treatment of sexual subjects but to their attitude toward or
approach to any "serious subject"-above all, to the most serious seri­
ous subject, China.
II. C. T. Hsia, "Closing Remarks," in Chinese Fiaionfrom Taiwan: Critical Perspectives, ]an­
nette L. Faurot, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana UP,
12. Rey Chow,
1980), 240.
Woman and Chinese Modernity (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press,
C. T. Hsia, "Obsession with China," in A History of Modem Chinese Fiction (New
Haven: Yale UP,
254 /
Writing in a postmodern era, Chinese writers have come to real­
ize that writing does not have to be equated with political action and
that literature cannot solve all social problems, as Lu Xun's successors
expected it to. Writing now becomes a facetious gesture, a playful
action, that titillates rather than teaches, flirts rather than indicts.
Instead of the conventional "tears and sniveling" or "call to arms,"
contemporary Chinese writers exhibit a much wider range of emo­
tive skills, from crying to clowning, in accord with a subtler relation
to society. And beyond the single standard of hard-core realism, they
are ready to tryon a variety of styles, old and new, classical story
telling or modernist collage-whatever best fits their slimmer
The state of unbearable lightness suggested by contemporary Chi­
nese writers' flirtation with China, however, must be treated with no
less caution than the deadly gravity of literature from earlier genera­
tions. From one angle, it reflects writers' self-ironic contemplation of
literature's position in a postmodern multimedia network, one in
which images deconstruct realities and morals boil down to mere
manners. But from another angle, flirtation with China informs us of
the writers' strategic repositioning vis-a-vis their volatile political sur­
roundings. Through their "light" writings, writers either tantalize the
formidable organs of censorship or tease the apparent solemnity of the
state and thus redeem their readers as well as themselves, however ten­
tatively, from the old cycle of obsession with China. For some critics,
this may represent the demise of the modern Chinese literati, a sign of
end-of-the-century dissipation and self-indulgence. But at a time
when writers themselves refuse to treat writing as a crusade, those
critics who insist on the old ways are sick with the most dissipated and
self-indulgent of Chinese diseases: an obsessive desire to consume
writings that show an obsession with China.
Five stories about love and lust, drawn from mainland China, Tai­
wan, Hong Kong, and America, illustrate this point, though in fact
flirtation with China does not have to be understood in romantic
terms. The transition of style in some of Mo Yan's recent work, such
as "Divine Debauchery," is an example. Mo Yan was praised as one of
the most brilliant writers of the eighties, and his popularity among
readers and critics climaxed with the publication of Red Sorghum
(1987), a fantastic mixture of national romance and family saga. In the
wake of the Tian'anmen Incident, one would have expected a writer
like Mo Yan to produce powerful works that exposed Communist
atrocities at either a literal or an allegorical level. But the best works
he has produced are a series of anecdotal stories, such as "Divine
Debauchery," that relate quaint customs, fantastic happenings, and
eccentric personalities from the old days. "Divine Debauchery" deals
with a rich man's strange sexual behavior: he brings home all the
prostitutes in town, plays with them by walking over their naked bod­
ies, then sends them away. Be it called a bawdy joke, an erotic fanta­
sy, or an account of sexual perversion, this is a story about a sexual
tease that leads nowhere, a story that ends before anything real (hard­
core?) happens. One can certainly infer from the aborted sexual
action an allegorical reading, but I would rather argue that Mo Yan's
unabashed attachment to the surface of his subject matter is the story's
driving force. Insofar as the absence of allegory is a new kind of alle­
gorical manifestation, "Divine Debauchery" is symptomatic of con­
temporary writers' facetious tactics in playing with their subject mat­
ter, whatever it is.
The misery of the peasantry is a sanctioned theme of modern Chi­
nese fiction, but in Li Peifu's "The Adulterers" the theme finds an
expression that combines both irony and sensuality. The story may
look like a remake of a conventional farce, with a farmer setting out
to catch his unfaithful wife and her lover in flagrante delecto. It is not.
Overhearing that his wife will be deserted by her lover after all her
passion and self-sacrifice, the farmer starts to feel sorry for her. His
jealousy gives way to compassion, and his anger with his wife's
unchastity is replaced by fury at her lover's ungratefulness. But a sen­
timental solution is the last thing Li Peifu intends; his story takes yet
another turn. The farmer's poor bachelor brother, taking his brother's
forgiving attitude for a signal, now begs to sleep with his sister-in-law,
perhaps for a modest fee! At a time when the democratic movement
was going strong in the capital, what preoccupies this group of Chi­
nese farmers is the necessity not of revolution but of (prudent) copu­
lation. "The Adulterers" does not contain any political comment, but
through muffled laughter it permits a word on behalf of the libidinal
needs and perverse hopes of the people.
Overseas Chinese writer Gu Zhaosen's "Plain Moon" is the only
story in the anthology that bears directly on the aftermath of the
Tiari'anmen Incident. But Gus intention lies less in glamorizing the
movement than in deflating the heroism and tragic hyperbole that
constitute most narratives about the movement. The story does not
even take place in Beijing, where the incident happened, but in New
York; it details a marriage of convenience between a former student
leader of the movement, who is desperately seeking permanent-resi­
dent status, and a mediocre Chinese American woman, Plain Moon,
who yearns for marriage. Though the Tian'anmen democratic move­
ment is sufficient cause to bring the two together, the pressure of life
in America will not allow either of them time to look back senti­
mentally at the Incident. The marriage is soon in crisis, as our hero­
ine Plain Moon discovers that her husband's sweetheart has come to
town. Thousands of miles away from Tian'anmen Square, Plain
Moon becomes a belated victim of the Incident. Gu Zhaosen makes
a parody of the "revolution plus romance" formula that governed
modern Chinese literature from the thirties to the seventies, revealing
heroes and heroines that ultimately are captives of either vanity or the
survival instinct. His indignation at the bloody outcome of the Inci­
dent and his sympathy for his characters are undercut by his ironic
tone and black humor.
In Zhu Tianwen's "Master Chai," sexual perversion and historical
pathos are mixed with each other in Master Chai's caressing his
patient's body. Zhu Tianwen rewrites the genre of tearful obsession
with China, turning it literally into a bizarre piece of erotica about an
old man's obsession with a young woman. As Zhu Tianwen's charac­
ter caresses his young, innocent patient, so Zhu teases the total body
of nationalist literature. Zhu's vision of Taipei deserves equal atten­
tion. Taipei is envisioned as a city that has almost forgotten its days as
the center of the Nationalist crusade to restore a lost China, or as the
stopover for those mainland emigres who yearned to go home. Taipei
at the end of the twentieth century is a city where post-martial-law
politics mingle with post modernist fashions, a place where memories
of the past and desires for the future meet and cancel each other out.
Zhu's end-of-the-century aesthetics tells us: time wears out one's will;
all lofty ideas of nation and history must succumb to decayed senses
and sensibilities.
In Hong Kong writer Ye Si's "Transcendence and the Fax
Machine," a professor finds himself more and more isolated from his
colleagues while his tie to a group of theologians in France gets
increasingly close, thanks to the advent offax communication. His fax
machine silently and obediently takes his theoretical treatises and
sends them to somewhere far away; it functions as tamely and sub­
serviently as a woman. This "romance," however, is endangered one
day when the machine acts up and starts to produce junk messages
from all sorts of sources. Ye Si lavishes feminine images on the
machine, at the risk of seeming a male chauvinist, but in so doing he
manages to dramatize Hong Kong life torn between seduction and
despair, one drawing ever nearer to the double perils of 1997 and
1999. Through the fax machine, concepts such as religion, history,
and nation are turned into mysterious signaling systems; the transcen­
dental telos that the professor searches for and receives is always in
danger of proving itself to be a phantasm, a ghost in the machine. By
the end of the story, the professor has to face the fact that transmission
of ideas and transgression of truth are mixed together. The story
touches as much on the alienation and narcissism of Chinese intellec­
tuals in end-of-the-century Hong Kong as on the dissemination and
promiscuity of information in an age of postmodern technology.
With examples drawn from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong,
and overseas sources, I have identified three directions in the develop­
ment of contemporary Chinese fiction. These three directions are famil­
iarization of the uncanny, the manifestation of the epic through its
lyrical other, and flirtation with China.
First, in their effort to re-present China through defamiliarization,
Chinese writers must confront the paradoxical result of familiariza­
tion of the uncanny. For them, any literary endeavors to take the real
and "make it strange" may turn out to be a painful laying bare of the
real. The absurdities and horrors contained in the recent history of
China are so unbelievable that they make their mimicries take on the
modes of the uncanny.
Second, writing in an era of post-History, contemporary Chinese
writers can make sense of history only by evoking its lyrical other.
This lyrical inclination seems to take us full circle to the point almost
nine decades before where the first generation of modern Chinese
writers reformed literature by proclaiming their subjective vision. But
unlike their predecessors, who posited a collective historical subjec-
258 /
tivity-in the name of the epic-as the goal of their lyrical discourse,
contemporary writers' negation of that subjectivity as well as its for­
mal manifestation constitutes the most intriguing aspect of their end­
of-the-century writings.
Third, breaking with the obsession with China, contemporary
Chinese writers find in flirtation with China a better way to instanti­
ate the circumstances in which they write and the strategies that they
have developed to cope with these circumstances. With its playful,
erotic overtones, flirtation with China refers to a discourse that rec­
ognizes its own theatrical or figurative quality and therefore refuses to
fall victim to the allures of hard-core realism.
All three directions have significantly undermined the traditional
approaches to China and Chinese literature, approaches that were
bound by a mimesis-oriented canon of realism, a yearning for a total
knowledge of History at the expense of a first understanding of the
self, and a desire to prescribe the national discourse before local voic­
es have learned how to speak. In stating these new directions, I am not
offering a transcendental view of the nature of end-of-the-century
Chinese fiction, much less prescribing what path it should take. I want
only to convey the wonder and pleasure that any reader must feel
when suddenly aware that a literature is on the verge of recovering
itself, ofletting all its voices speak-as if the departing century had at
last learned from its painful experiments.
David Der-wei Wang received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature
from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has taught
at National Taiwan University and Harvard. He is currently
Associate Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department
of East Asian Languages and Cultures of Columbia Universi­
ty. His most recent publications include Fictional Realism in
Twentieth-Century China: Mao Dun, LAo She, Shen Congwen
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), From May
Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century
China (coedited with Ellen Widmer; Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1993), and Xiaoshuo Zhongguo [Narrating
China] (Taipei: Ryefield, 1993).
Jeanne Tai received her degree in law from the University of Michi­
gan. She practiced law in New York and taught modern Chi­
nese literature at Harvard University before becoming a free­
lance translator. She is the translator and editor of Spring
Bamboo (New York: Random House, 1989), a collection of
Chinese stories of the eighties.