If one harbors ‘feeling’ throughout life, one may end up violating the societal demands of ‘actions.’– Shen Congwen
The above quote from fiction writer Shen Congwen, cited by David Der-wei Wang (p.41), articulates the unique challenge facing mid-twentieth-century Chinese artists – striving to adapt themselves to the demands of the Communist Revolution while maintaining a sense of the ‘lyrical in epic time’ – that makes this book such an eye-opening and thrilling read. David Der-wei Wang, Professor of Chinese Literature at Harvard University, has written a comprehensive survey of Chinese writers, artists, musicians, film-makers and calligraphers practising during the cultural and political upheavals of twentieth-century China. Grappling such dichotomies as affective autonomy versus political commitment, original self-expression versus collective vision, and the reimagining of Chinese modernity against classical poetics in the face of anti-imperialist fervour, Wang illuminates the historical and continuing plight of Chinese artists.
The book is organised into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the ‘poetics of the lyrical’ and rigorously draws on western literary criticism, including Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno – aptly quoted: ‘the lyric work is always the subjective expression of a social antagonism’ (35) – Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin (particularly interesting on the role of the storyteller in society) and sinologist Jaroslav Průšek, among others, whose critical frameworks are clearly and helpfully outlined in the Introduction. Though academic in tone, this book is highly accessible to non-academics who want to learn more about Chinese art, culture and history – from the upsurge of Chinese nationalism and anti-imperialism of the May 4th Movement (1919) through the Communist Revolution (1949), Cultural Revolution (1966–76), and beyond – illuminating the impact of national crises on artists and intellectuals who nevertheless managed, with varying successes and setbacks, to express the collective vision of the times in such a way that allowed for a degree of individual lyricism and artistic integrity, albeit for many in seclusion or in disguise. Part 2 is comprised of in-depth case studies, drawing on examples in literature, music, film, art and calligraphy that interrogated the ‘aesthetics of the lyrical’, including a sufficient number of beautiful and well-placed photographs and images to accompany the textual analysis.
The keywords in Wang’s cultural study are ‘lyricism’ – defined in the Introduction as the ‘poetics of selfhood’, not a concept that springs to mind when considering communist China. As might be expected, the concept was criticised during the Revolution as a ‘petit bourgeois gesture in resistance to social engagement’ (2), and so it was very interesting to learn that during this time many artists endeavoured to retain this sensibility. Even in the late twentieth century, intellectuals such as Li Zehou sought to encourage Chinese people’s ‘search for postsocialist subjectivity’ (xiii) and Wang notes that the self was the traditional origin of Chinese literature, as opposed to the drama of the West, and this is reflected in the many contemporary Bildungsroman-esque Chinese novels, such as those by Hong Ying and Xiaolu Guo.
One criticism of the book would be that Wang does not look at any Chinese female artists, only touching on female novelist Eileen Chang, described by Wang as ‘the most talented woman writer of the twentieth century’ (190) yet not analysed in-depth and mentioned primarily in relation to her romantic affair with Hu Lancheng, novelist, poet and infamous Japanese collaborationist (believing this as the route to reclaiming traditional Chinese culture in the early-twentieth century after a century of western domination), who is given the lion’s share of the chapter.
The book is delightfully presented, and the repetition of certain Chinese terms is helpful in immersing the reader in the culture. I particularly enjoyed learning the etymology of some Chinese characters, such as the pictograph that forms the root of characters meaning ‘rhythm’, which is of an elephant foot, representing ‘pause/movement’ (12). In particular, the term ‘shuquing’ is used throughout in critiques of the variety of artistic forms discussed (‘shu’ meaning to ‘release/express’, ‘qing’ meaning ‘feeling/one’s inborn nature’), to which Wang draws parallels with French symbolism. Any artist would be inspired to read this book, as there are many beautiful ideas on artistic expression, such as being the difference between ‘that which stops with the mind and that which moves forward to find outer expression’ (13). Wang also draws parallels with the complementary ideas of such writers as TS Eliot and Rainer Maria Rilke, who inspired many early-twentieth-century writers such as Feng Zhi in their search to rediscover Chinese lyricism. Feng translated Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet in 1936. However, with the 1949 Revolution, socialist solidarity quickly became the goal of literary engagement resulting in the ‘loss of shuqing’, and the debates about lyricism in the early modern era drew to a halt when the PRC was founded and all efforts were directed towards ‘nation building’.
As well as being of interest to artists and Chinese scholars this book would be a great resource for historians, as Wang has successfully managed to weave in factual information without loss of poetic sensibility to the narrative style. It was interesting to learn that even Mao Zedong is said to have drawn on the concept of the lyrical and composed classical-style poems and promoted folksong as a method to boost morale during the difficult first few years of land reform. Despite this, many folk arts and artists once accepted by the authorities, such as Jinha daoquing, a musical genre that sung the praises of socialism, were banned beginning in the late 1950s, leading to a feeling of betrayal amongst those who sincerely gave up their ‘lyricisim’ and lent their efforts to propagandising on behalf of the new society. Traditional genres came to be associated with the ‘Four Olds’ (old ideas, old habits, old customs, old culture) and were prohibited. Writing became a ‘treacherous profession’ (103), and writers such as Shen Congwen were sent for ‘re-education’ during the Cultural Revolution, despite having previously worked in support of the revolution.
It was also surprising to learn how many intellectuals and artists were in thrall to Mao, including Feng Zhi whose poem of gratitude to Mao, ‘My Thanks’ written in 1952, is cited on page 145. According to Wang, there was initial trust ‘in the Party’s generosity towards different sentiments and opinions’ (149) and the lyrical mode continued until gradually poets transitioned to mere socialist propagandists or were publically humiliated, sent to reform school, exiled or imprisoned. During the Revolution there was ‘no room for imagination, only belief’ (362) and ‘shuqing’’s expression of spontaneous presence or divine inspiration was antithesis to the communist revolution’s ‘orderly configuration of the world’ (140), yet artists managed to find ways to practise this traditional and treasured ideology. Many did so in disguise, such as Shen Congwen’s whose study of ancient clothing, though ostensibly emphasising the old class and gender inequalities in China and ostentatious individualism, was allowed because Shen claimed he was inspired to write it by Mao’s materialism, despite the uniformity of dress during the Revolution. Regardless, the book was not published until 1979, 17 years after the first draft was completed.
Lin Fengmian is an another example of an artist who managed to continue independent practise by withdrawing to the mountains and working in isolation. There he experimented with forms, including western modernism and abstraction and eastern classical styles, rather than work within the narrow band of socialist-realist mimesis and naturalism, an example of which is his painting Farewell, my concubine (1959) which can be seen in contrast alongside Xu Beihong’s more traditional painting of the same name. Xu is an example of an artist who embraced revolutionary art, keeping within the boundary of ‘individual talent and collective imaginary’ (265). However, though made president of the Central Art Academy in 1949 he soon grew weary and was forced to emigrate in 1956, while ironically Lin enjoyed freedom in obscurity. Wang ends this chapter suggesting that millennial painters should turn to Lin as an example of the ‘last modernist before the creed of socialist realism’ (265). Each of the case studies follow a similar trajectory, most experiencing a period of forced exile or imprisonment, public humiliation, re-education, put to work in labour camps, their works confiscated and destroyed, followed by gradual returns to China in the late 1970s, and their works gradually rediscovered as late as the 1990s. Once the ‘gang of four’ (whom Mao had tapped as leaders during the Cultural Revolution) were repudiated, and reform and openness adopted in 1978–79, a ‘Spring Wind’ in the arts ensued.
Wang shows great aptitude at analysing a range of artistic forms, including music, art and calligraphy, which are not his areas of expertise as a scholar of Chinese literature. Chapter 6 is a particularly refreshing break from close study of poetics in looking at the development of realism in modern Chinese painting. Similarly, as a visual medium, Wang then looks at film in the next chapter, which ‘because of its optical accuracy and evocative power in representing reality carries an ethical mission’ (275). Wang focuses on Fei Mu, a poet-director who was enchanted by the Soviet realist filmmakers. Finally, Wang turns to calligraphy, in particular Tai Jingong. Similar to those who took refuge in ancient forms during the revolution, his turn to calligraphy may have ‘served as a distraction from the harsh reality’ (327), and similar to several artists, even today, this ‘kept his wavering loyalism in ambiguous form’ (342). There are some beautiful reproductions of calligraphy paintings, in which the thickness of the brushstrokes and angles are explained as being a way to express subjective feelings about the words, hence Wang clarifies why calligraphy is considered art more than writing and recording.
In the final ‘Coda: Toward a Critical Lyricism’, Wang reiterates what he has evidenced through his case studies of mid-twentieth-century Chinese artists that ‘amid the national call to arms, they sought options for selfhood and aesthetic articulations’ and helpfully gives a paragraph to recap each primary figure analysed. The double binds of personhood versus collectivity, neoleftists versus neoliberals, remain relevant dichotomies to Chinese artists today, and this book is a magnum opus for scholars on the subject. China has become one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the world and as a result the state, and especially the Communist Party, have struggled to maintain legitimacy, both politically and psychologically. Though most Chinese artists cannot and will not be openly dissident, there is an open space permitted in China where negotiation and renegotiation of freedom and nationalism are finding their equilibrium.
Wang ends with a quote that puts one in mind of Jacques Lacan’s concept of the ‘lamella’: ‘When the sensuous colors of the physical things are finished, something of the feelings (or “circumstances”) lingers on’ (369). That is, without the expression of feeling as well as worldly engagement, without lyricism, art cannot have longevity.