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Rose and Lotus: Narrative of Desire in France and China.

Comparative critical studies on Chinese and Western literature are a rarity, as are studies of Chinese literature using the full arsenal of contemporary critical theories. Tonglin Lu has helped fill in both of these lacunae with her study of early prose narrative in China and France. She has selected for analysis four novels: Chin P'ing Mei; Hung lou meng; Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise (of Jean-Jacques Rousseau); and Les Liaisons dangereuses (of Choderlos de Laclos). The overarching topic of Lu's project is the "narrative of desire," or the language, themes, and imagery of love in these four novels. Lu examines the range of definitions of love from "destructive and perverse desire," to "lofty love," from libertinism to romanticism. She ranges from controlled and detailed analysis of smaller passages to broader interpretation of structure and theme. Throughout she is guided by the works of contemporary theorists and critics such as Michel Foucault, Georg Lukacs, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Georges Poulet, Harold Bloom, Tony Tanner, and a considerable list of scholars who work in narrative theory and in romanticism.

Since this sort of study is so rare, Lu deserves praise for the originality and daring of the project's concept. Her application of theory and her comparatist approach are of value to the field and necessary for continued innovation in fiction criticism. Her use of theory is essentially successful. She uses to good purpose, for example, the insights of Lukacs in her discussion of narrative techniques in Chin P'ing Mei. Her comparatist observations are also of interest. She notes, for example, that the characters of Hung lou meng and of Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise make contrasting uses of literary texts. In Hung lou meng the reading of literary texts subverts the progress of love; in Julie . . . the citation of literary texts advances the affair.

Lu's most successful observations seem to me to be her close critical readings. Her analytical readings of the detailed linguistic features of passages are subtle, sensitive, and rigorous. Her discussions of Rousseau's Julie . . . are the most successful. Her treatment of the aestheticization of passion and the mystification of the notion of illusion, and the subsequent ambiguities inherent in the creation of a completely self-referential world of the characters is persuasive. Her arguments are well substantiated by the texts she cites and clearly argued. Her discussion of Julie herself is also fascinating. Lu examines the divinization of Julie by her husband and lover, and through Julie's own projection of innocence. Overall her treatment of love and romanticism in Rousseau is subtle, lucid, and forceful. and fully acknowledges the ambiguities in the text. Her treatment of Pao-yu in Hung lou meng is solid. She explores the eccentric and iconoclastic aspects of his portrayal and relates these aspects of his personal to larger concerns of the novel. Her discussion of dream and illusion imagery in Hung lou meng is also good.

In terms of Lu's discussion of the cultural context of the rhetoric of desire, I have, however, one criticism. Although Lu does not focus substantially on the Ming-Ch'ing cultural context in her study - her focus is explicitly on the texts of the novels she has selected - yet a working knowledge of the Ming and Ch'ing rhetoric of love is essential for such a study. Lu's definition of love and the erotic in the Ming and Ch'ing context and Ming and Ch'ing novels is out of date. Several generalizations, several critical statements, and her bibliography need to be revised in the light of research done on the rhetoric of love.

Lu states, for example, in her discussion of love in Hung lou meng: "In China, there was no rhetoric of love relatively free of sensual implications comparable to the one existing during the same period in France. . . . Moreover, passion in Confucian China has less chance to be mystified and glorified than it does in the West, because Confucianism is mainly an ethical code based on moderation centered on family values. . . . Naturally there are always exceptions. . . . But the point is that there is no well-defined positive language that identifies sensual love with spiritual love or with religious faith" (p. 132). The operative word here is "Confucian." Lu assumes that elite discourse on love is based largely on "Confucianism," and that Ming-Ch'ing Confucianism may be defined by citing pre-Han texts such as the Analects and the Hsun Tzu. This "Confucian"-based definition of love and sexuality has some ramifications for her interpretations of the novels. In her discussion, for example, of the erotic novel Chin P'ing Mei she interprets the sensual elements in the portrayal of women in an exclusively moralistic light. Hence this complex novel about women and the nature of eroticism seems to be simply a cautionary tale on the dangers of sex. Ultimately Lu's reading of Chin P'ing Mei, despite the very modem look of her study, is a rather conservative and puritanical reading.

Fang Cheng-hui's study of love (ch'ing) in fiction, Li Huayuan Mowry's study of Feng Meng-lung and his Anatomy of Love, Patrick Hanan's study of the vernacular novel and its context, E. H. Schafer's studies of Taoist poetry, would all be useful to begin with in refining the treatment of the rhetoric of love. There have also been several dissertations and articles treating love stories, eroticism in Ming fiction, and the nature of feminine eroticism in the early modem period that would be helpful.

With the exception of this omission of recent scholarship on love and sexuality in the Ming and Ch'ing, Tonglin Lu's study is a useful contribution to the field of fiction criticism. Her sensitive readings, particularly of Rousseau, set a high standard for critical readings. Additionally her comparatist treatment of love and eroticism raises important issues in the field of narrative studies.
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Author:Caiss, Victoria B.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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