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LITERATURE AND LITERARY THEORY IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA. By Zhang Jiong. Translated by Yang Limeng and Wu Yisheng. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2017. 188 p.

Zhang Jiong, director of the Institute of Literature, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, composed this ambitious scholarly monograph to introduce some of the basic ideas of Marxist literary theories and outline their spread and development in China. The latter portion of the book scrutinizes more specifically major issues relating to modern literary theories and aesthetics. The final two chapters are edited transcripts of the author's speeches--the former delivered to Capital Normal University in Beijing titled "Recognition of literature and humanology"; and the latter an article prepared based on the recording of a speech on "The present and future of literature" delivered at the University of Nanchang. The author demonstrates a deep knowledge of Marxist theory, often citing and paraphrasing theorists such as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping. Jiong also demonstrates an adequate knowledge of other theorists such as Freud and Sartre. Though Jiong's book focuses largely on contemporary Chinese literature, Jiong's erudite knowledge of classical Chinese literature and literary theory is also readily apparent, occasionally quoting from a work of classical Chinese literary aesthetics, like Liu Xie's Wen Xin Diao Long (The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons). The book also provides solid empirical information regarding the quantity of literary publications appearing in contemporary China, observing that in the present age literature and art is indeed flourishing in China (61; 172). I dare say even the most decadent, bourgeois scholar would still find the work informative in its nuanced discussion of the history of contemporary Chinese literature. As a scholar of Chinese literary theory and history for over sixty years, Jiong brings in a breadth of knowledge to this volume that is quite impressive.

However, the book is unfortunately mired by stylistic deficiencies that litter this otherwise fairly competently reasoned work. The sheer quantity of typos, awkward phrasing, and grammatical errors brought about through translation is not negligible; nevertheless, I do sympathize as a native English-speaking editor with experience in the humanities, continually battling with these stylistic deficiencies that occur with even the most diligent and assiduous Chinese scholar's translation. I dare say this work could have greatly benefited from a native English-speaking scholar's careful perusal of the content because this edition is not well edited by any stretch of the imagination. Many of the errors are careless misspellings of names like "Hussel," (4), "Lev Tolstory," (23) "Mao ZedongMao Zedong," (109) or "George Bernard Show" (168). Ordinarily, I might say I'm nitpicking, but the sheer frequency of the editorial flubs cannot be overlooked. Occasionally awkward and unique phrasing is conspicuous as with the term "closed-doorism" (47), "authoress Yang Hongying" (181), or with the "bringism" of the United States (181), along with the omnipresent Chinglish omission or faulty inclusion of articles like "a" "an" or "the." In sum, I dare say some form of nationalistic pride, permeating throughout the book, may have served as its own deadly sin or Achilles heel in not allowing a foreign, native English-speaking scholar to carefully edit this work prior to publication. My advice would be to clean this volume up considerably and publish a second edition in order for this book to receive the serious appraisal and consideration it most certainly deserves.

The book does well to tackle an issue common to most claims against Marxist literature and theory; that is, regarding the purported subordinate relationship of literature to politics. After the Cultural Revolution in China, scholars were understandably wary of literature being used once more solely as a tool for government propaganda. The consensus was that the development of literature and literary studies should remain unhindered by any sort of political intervention and that while literature and art cannot be detached from politics the function of literature and art is not necessarily to serve politics (26). Deng Xiaoping strongly stipulated that literature and art do not belong to and should not be subordinate to politics (66). The book also does well to state that Marxists, while advocating socialist realist art and literature, still place no restrictions on the development of romantic art and literature (11).

At times some of the quotations become redundant, particularly with the repeated appearance of Mao Zedong's advocating for "letting a hundred flowers blossom in the field of arts and letting a hundred schools of thought contend in the field of literature," which is quoted eight times (17, 27, 55, 59, 61, 64, 74, 188).

Lastly, while I certainly understand the aspiration to make a book on literary theory socially relevant to our modern age in crisis, I doubt the author did well to open a can of worms with this paragraph:
Marxism came into being more than 160 years ago. When the Soviet Union
collapsed and the Eastern European nations changed their banners, some
Western scholars felt overjoyed and declared bankruptcy of the Marxism
and ultimate victory of the capitalism. After the financial crisis
erupted in 2008, however, socialist China managed to stay immune to the
crisis while the capitalist world went into a total panic. People once
again recognized the value of Marxist theories. In many European
countries, Marxist works had been reprinted over and over again and
even sold out.

Such broad sweeping claims do little to enhance Jiong's argument here, while consequently giving rise an elephant in a room--arguments against socialism in China. Let me be clear--I certainly possess scant love for capitalism, especially having lived in the United States and witnessed firsthand the horrific state of income inequality and political corruption capitalism has wrought on a strong Western nation aspiring toward democracy. However, the ideology of "democratic socialism" has recently entered into the political arena of American politics and will hopefully check the havoc of unbridled capitalism set loose today. The aims of socialism and a government ruled by the people are noble, but unfortunately the reality of Marxism as manifest in Chinese politics is a different story. Chinese Marxism in literary scholarship is undercut by government policies of censorship of literary and artistic works which has forced many authors and artists to leave the mainland in order to engage in free expression. Even certain classical works of literature such as The Golden Lotus and Sex and Zen have been banned by the government due to their strong sexual content, branding them as obscene and pornographic (160). This suppression of free, artistic expression ultimately brings about unhealthy repression and does more harm than good for society. Furthermore, even engaging in basic research is undercut by the Chinese Internet firewall that can make it difficult to access even a research tool as basic and simple as Wikipedia. Serious scholars can usually get around these impediments by using a VPN, but why must it be necessary? At least, though, foreign databases are easily accessed through university libraries. Lastly, scholarship is also undercut by the government's use of propaganda and the lack of a free press, which in turn creates an understandable and automatic skepticism among foreign scholars in evaluating works pertaining to Chinese Marxism. None of these crucial issues or obvious counter arguments was discussed in this book; and therefore, I think it would have been better for the author not to grapple with such a sticky wicket in the first place and address more poignantly the topic of Marxist literary theory in China.


Sichuan University, China
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Author:Moore, Aaron Lee
Publication:Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019

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