A Search for the Soul of the Mainland

By Liz CarterMay 1, 2016

A Search for the Soul of the Mainland

The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature by Yunte Huang

THE BIG RED BOOK of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by UC Santa Barbara English Professor Yunte Huang, is definitely big (it’s a 624-page doorstopper) and unquestionably red (several shades of the hue artfully adorn its cover). But does it survey “modern Chinese literature”? That depends on your definition of each of these three words. For Huang’s purposes, “modern” means from the 1910s on (a common but not universal usage for the topic). “Chinese literature” does not refer to texts originally written in Chinese — although nearly all selections are that — but ones written in Mainland China. This distinction sets this anthology apart from its most important competitor, The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, which was published in 2007 and covers literature from Greater China (that is, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, as well as the Mainland). The title of The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature further drives home Huang’s geographical focus and concern with the relatively recent past, as it evokes Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, a symbol of a particularly tumultuous time in the history of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Huang is transparent about this focus. This “book is a search for the soul of modern China,” he writes, “a story that, carrying the historical weight of a nation in its most tumultuous century, seeks a coherence lying on the page and beyond.” The 20th century was a period of political turmoil for Mainland China — it saw the rise and fall of governments, long periods of foreign occupation and conflict, a civil war, all-encompassing political struggles, purges, protests, and massacres.

The political bent can be limiting: as Julia Lovell writes in her New York Times review of The Big Red Book, “the equation of modern Chinese literature with politics is also something of a straitjacket.” Nonetheless, seen as a supplement to studies of Sinophone literature — a field that casts a much wider net in terms of geography, culture, and language — it is an excellent collection: poetry, stories, and essays, rendered into English via the work of a host of gifted translators, based in different parts of the world and belonging to different generations.

The book covers three main periods: the Republican period (1911–1949) extends from the fall of China’s last dynasty to the founding of the PRC, a period of soul-searching and experimentation. The Revolutionary period (1949–1976) covers the country’s early, red decades under Mao, including the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other violent ideological campaigns of vast scope and impact. The final section catalogs works of the post-Mao period.

The collection is bookended by two selections of immense political significance. The first is, fittingly, a preface written by Chinese literary giant Lu Xun to introduce his influential collection of short stories, Call to Arms. Lu Xun’s first-person account of his hopes and fears for Chinese society on the brink of a new age sets the tone for the book’s opening third. In this section, as in the other two, quite a bit of poetry is included, a choice likely influenced by the fact that Huang is himself a poet and a translator of verse.

While important selections by female writers Ding Ling and Xiao Hong are included in this section, the relative dearth of writing by women here could have been avoided. Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City is one of the more noteworthy omissions (although also an unavoidable one, Huang writes, due to difficulty in obtaining permission to reprint it). It is almost fitting, however, that her works were not included in this volume, since she was known throughout her life to have resisted being totally incorporated into others’ political narratives.

Across the Republican, Revolutionary, and post-Mao periods, most of the included authors experienced some form of persecution — forced labor, death, and exile are not uncommon outcomes. But the middle section, chronicling the period from 1949 to 1976, is the shortest, with only 11 selections representing the 27 years, a fact that reflects not an editorial omission but the systematic and often violent repression of that time. Additionally, what literary output survived was heavily restricted in style and subject matter — it is largely a record of what was left unsaid. (The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature dealt with this challenge by including selections almost exclusively from Taiwan during this period.) Expression and censorship emerge in counterpoint, and the biographies included for each writer show that few, if any, were entirely untouched by repression. The Big Red Book presents selections from what little was published in Mainland China during that time, in the process revealing a wound in the country’s literary history.

This baring of a difficult time in Mainland Chinese literature helps the reader feel more viscerally the meaning of much post-Mao era writing, with all of its rebellion and wild expression. In this section it becomes clear what Huang means when he describes the book as a story dedicated to his father and others who continued to dream despite their struggles.

It is worth noting that in Mainland China, the period covered by this book is generally divided into only two periods, the modern (1917–1949) and the contemporary (1949 to the present), deemphasizing the literary impact of censorship, repression, and violence. Huang’s approach is very much the opposite. In his biographical introduction to Mao (some of his poetry and quotes from the Little Red Book are included), he writes that “hundreds of millions once hailed him as the ‘Great Helmsman,’ to their ultimate sorrow.” In this and other ways, The Big Red Book reads this century of literature in China much differently than it is read domestically.

The last section, covering the literature of the post-Mao era, showcases a wide range of previously impossible styles and subjects. Poetry, especially that of the Misty School, is represented heavily, and many poets of this movement (as well as writers such as Gao Xingjian) are included despite their current residence outside of Mainland China. In this choice, Huang expands the concept of Mainland China from a geographical one to a more abstract idea or cultural concept. Perhaps partly a consequence of this choice, there is less room for some notable China-based women writers, such as avant-garde novelists Chen Ran and Lin Bai.

The final selection, the lyrics to rocker Cui Jian’s “Nothing to My Name,” would be missing if this book were published in Mainland China. In addition to being immensely popular in China when it was released, the song became the unofficial anthem of the Tiananmen Square protests. Cui performed the song live in the square in solidarity with the protesters, just two weeks before the tanks rolled in, and again the next year as he toured the country, memorializing the fallen. By choosing to end on this note, Huang makes good on his promise to deliver more than an anthology — he proposes an alternative reading of the Mainland’s 20th century, one that challenges the narrative upon which the current government bases its legitimacy. In this sense, the selection is a statement, at least part of which is: “Fuck you.”

The editor himself is of the Tiananmen generation, a student at Peking University during the protests who later came to the United States to start over as a poet and academic. He has been criticized for mixing his own story with that of his subjects — both in his 2010 book Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History, also published by Norton, and in this collection. It seems to me that this was no oversight or sloppiness — Huang makes his own position and perspective clear in his introductions and selections. Whether you find this intrusive or intriguing depends largely on your own expectations for the volume.

Personally, I find up front subjectivity to be the more honest choice. Whatever readers’ political persuasion or reasons for picking up the book, they will come away with a greater knowledge of Chinese literature, as well as a glimpse of the spiritual struggles that have been an indelible part of Mainland China’s recent history. And then, unlike many who wrote and read there during its long 20th century, they will be able to make — and express — their own judgments.


Liz Carter is a Chinese translator and the author of Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, published by IB Tauris in 2015.

LARB Contributor

Liz Carter is a Chinese translator and the author of Let 100 Voices Speak: How the Internet is Transforming China and Changing Everything, published by IB Tauris in 2015. She was formerly an Assistant Editor at Tea Leaf Nation, now a part of the Foreign Policy Group, and a translator for China Digital Times, where she helped co-author their e-book, The Grass-mud Horse Lexicon: Classical Netizen Language. She lived for several years in Beijing, where she authored and translated a number of textbooks for China’s Foreign Languages Press.


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