IDEOLOGY, POWER, TEXT: SELF-REPRESENTATION AND THE PEASANT "OTHER" IN MODERN CHINESE LITERATURE
IDEOLOGY, POWER, TEXT: SELF-REPRESENTATION AND THE PEASANT "OTHER" IN MODERN CHINESE LITERATURE.
Comparative Literature, Fall 2000 by Saussy, HaunBy Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. viii, 321 p.
Books reviewed in this journal normally meet the definition of "comparative literature" current in university departments; to wit, they discuss works from two or more languages or cultural traditions: that is what "comparison" has historically been about. Recently, as our discipline has come to include in its orbit postcolonial studies (political or ethnic differences within one language) and cultural studies (generic differences among means of expression within one culture), it is no longer so easy to say that comparative literature's meter starts running with the second language or culture and to relegate anything below that to the remit of national language and literature studies.
Yi-tsi Mei Feuerwerker's book merits consideration as a comparative study because of its exploration of a significant fissure within modern Chinese literature-a fissure that helps to define modern literature in China. Differences within cultures, not just differences among cultures, deserve our attention: there is room for different kinds of difference. The differences Feuerwerker brings to our notice here are painful and often come to expression only in indirect, symptomatic form-sometimes as allegory, sometimes as silence, sometimes as violent political action. Literature's relation to this difference is anything but simple, and, to say the least, it cannot be merely representational. This is not a study of "themes," but of disturbances. Even to summarize such a study is, accordingly, to hazard guesses, supply missing connections, and yet to leave aspects of the problem inarticulated. I hope the reader will allow me a degree of improvisational complementarity as I try to do justice to both work and problem.
Feuerwerker contends that
When [Chinese vernacular] literature came into being... it had conceived of itself as a "literary revolution," as a radical rupture from the traditional past, and high on its agenda was a commitment to make the peasant into a serious subject of literature. It began by "discovering" peasants as oppressed victims, as a subject to be used as a means for exposing that dark underside of Chinese society that the writers and intellectuals-the modern successors to the old scholar-official elitehad undertaken to reform ... To move the peasant to center stage... has involved a correlative repositioning of the intellectual's role. Whatever the peasant might be "in reality," he or she has more often than not been a site or metaphor, a blank page on which various political visions and ideological agendas have been inscribed, articulated, and contested (p. 6).
This passage comes from the book's introduction, and so should not be expected to carry a detailed argument; but even the summary form of these sentences betrays the difficulties of the subject. If the promotion of peasants "to center stage" actually did lead to a "correlative repositioning of the intellectual's role," we do not see the evidence for it here: the peasant now under the spotlight is still an occasion for intellectuals' thinking and writing, a "blank page" and not a self-expressing subject. Or is that the substance of the "repositioning"-that it depended in a deeply unsettling way on the peasant misery it was supposed to help alleviate? The gap between the "repositioning" Feuerwerker alludes to and the appropriation of peasant misery as "site or metaphor" is the gap between the programs announced by writers and political figures and their realization. In modern China, the self-designated mainstreams of political and literary history alike amount to a series of claims made in the peasants' name, but none of these claims, not even the most apparently radical, accomplished ends that might reasonably be ascribed to the peasants themselves. Collectivization of agriculture, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Lin Biao and Confucius Campaign did nothing for the peasants who were so prominently showcased as beneficiaries of each of these movements. Any "repositioning of intellectuals" that has occurred came out of struggles among political factions seeking to disable and silence one another, and had no lasting effect on urban-rural relations. When, after 1976, it became possible to write critically of the `ears of disorder," urban intellectuals showed how destructively capricious the decisions taken in the name of the peasantry had been, but by then a significant part of the political leadership was already about to reverse collectivism. Though peasants have loomed large in literature, theater, and film since the May Fourth period, actual cultivators of the earth might well wish they had been spared such attention.
The difference between twentieth-century and earlier versions of the peasant "blank page" lies on the urban observer's side. "Modern writers seized upon the plight of the peasant as a means, a rationale, for indicting the entire system [of traditional Chinese society]. But if the system was being discredited, from where then should the writer write? ... Modern writers could not make their individual choices from within an established framework, which in any case they themselves were in the process of dismantling" (p. 27). Here "individual choices" and "dismantl[ed] framework" stand more or less in the same relation as "repositioning" and "blank page," "site or metaphor" above. Narratives that enact this "dismantling" often involve a skeptical, reflective urban narrator observing, with various degrees of condescension and horror, rural or small-town people going about some particularly heartless or vicious business, and yet remaining unable (unwilling?) to do anything about it.
Lu Xun's (1881-1936) "favored narrative device" of a "face-to-face, direct and unsettling encounter" (p. 81) with a member of the mute majority often ends with both participants in the encounter-the urban narrator and the peasant interlocutor-somehow paralyzed and speechless on account of the distance between them. "The New Year's Sacrifice" (1924) thematizes speech itself, as the interlocutor, known only as Xianglin's Wife, is a peasant woman and thus someone existing at two removes from the urban male narrator. Her horrifying tale of woe, told repetitively, becomes a local joke, and the mockery with which it is received, along with other injustices, leads to her madness and death. Only when retold by the narrator does her story stand a chance of being taken seriously; she has neither the art nor the credentials to bear her own message. At the story's close, she has managed to leave only the narrator with an unshakeable feeling of guilt, while the worthy people of his home town are quietly glad to be rid of her.
Paralysis insinuates itself even into the title of Lu Xun's second short-story collection, Panghuang ("Wandering" or "Hesitancy"). After Lu Xun stopped writing fiction and began to move in Communist Party circles in 1928, commentators and Party historiographers ignored his self-critical infliction of silence on his narrating personae. In their eagerness to make Lu Xun into a bearer of doctrine, they twisted the inarticulate peasant figures of his stories into heroes firmly engaged on the path to social revolution-even the absurd, caricatural innocent Ah Q (p. 91-94). If Lu Xun's writing went no further than expressing reluctance to do more (or less) than register the complaint of Xianglin's Wife and show it preying on his narrator's mind, his stories now became another "blank page" on which a predictive literary and social history could be inscribed by others.
Feuerwerker holds that, like Lu Xun's narrators, writers and thinkers in the 1920s through the 1940s used peasant characters as a means of evaluating their own qualifications for moral leadership. What they saw led them to "give up on themselves"; their .sense of mission and accompanying culpability may help to explain why so many intellectuals, in later joining the Communist establishment, went along with the notion that it was they themselves who needed fundamental reform" (p. 96).
Continued from page 1.If a writer like Lu Xun left his representation of peasant characters suspended, conditioned by the undeniable difference between their world and his, the "peasant writer" Zhao Shuli (1906-1970) had encouragement, and apparent qualifications, to write with authority about sharecroppers and small-holders in the poorer regions of China. His assignment in the late 1930s, coordinating anti-Japanese propaganda in the United Front areas of Shanxi Province, led to commissions for plays and fiction that would unite popular, folkloric "form" with progressive political "content." The "realism" of his early stories about peasants brought him praise from the Party leadership and considerable fame in the Northwest, but shifting political demands after the civil war reversed this judgment: by the 1950s "his peasants were found not to have been portrayed as they ought to have been, but had, on the contrary, been `slandered"' (p. 104). "What had changed ... was not so much the writer, nor his subject, but the demands to construct an ever more positive and heroic peasant" (p. 136), and Zhao was unable to comply and still remain true to his experiences. Experience and truthfulness were not important factors in the politics of literary reputation under Maoism. Only good news could be spoken, only positive heroes could be described; one's adherence to policy today could be decried as an aberration tomorrow. Zhao's 1959 submission to the Party's Central Committee of