Remapping the Past: Fictions of History in Deng’s China, 1979-1997
The most prominent literary phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s in China, historical fiction, has never been systematically surveyed in Anglophone scholarship. This is the first investigation into how, by rewriting the past, writers of Deng Xiaoping’s reform era undermined the grand narrative of official history. It showcases fictions of history by eleven native Chinese, Muslim and Tibetan authors. The four chapters are organized in terms of spatial schemes of fictional historiography, namely, regional histories and family romances, discourses on diaspora and myths of minorities, nostalgia for the hometown in the country and the city, as well as the bodily text and the textual body, thus broadly covering the eternal themes of memory, language, food, sex, and violence in historical writing.
If Croce’s celebrated maxim that all history is “contemporary history” can still be deemed true today, then it should be understood in Linda Hutcheon’s definition of postmodern intertextuality as “a formal manifestation of both a desire to close the gap between past and present of the reader and a desire to rewrite the past in a new context.” Such intertextuality is less a moral matter of the influence of the past upon the present than, according to Julia Kristeva’s semiotic approach, a transposition of one system of signs into another.
In this book, Choy examine ‘historical fiction’, a genre so well established that the nomenclature has become a perpetual paradox of the factual/ fictive, objective/subjective, collective/individual, and so forth. I ask how historical fiction from the last two decades of the twentieth century came to reconstruct and re-create China’s past while simultaneously re-defining itself in contemporary communist China. My research, however, is not a survey of Chinese history, nor am I a historian. As Aristotle asserts, “the poet and historian di,er not by writing in verse or in prose …. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.” To this famous characterization, we should add the important role played by the fictionist in between. The fiction writer, by telling us what might have happened, blurs the boundaries between facts and fantasy. Intertwining actual events and possible actions, fiction explores alternative avenues for historical writing.
A tendency in contemporary Chinese literature to resist the master code of the Central Plains, that is, the mainstream political culture spreading along the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River, by shifting focus to the marginal areas. The journey starts with Wang Anyi’s patrilineal and matrilineal genealogies, which follow her overseas and ‘barbarian’ ancestors’ respective migrations from the South Pacific region and Gobi Desert to the city of Shanghai. Wang’s diasporic discourses of overseas Chinese and ethnic minorities form a counter-narrative to Sinocentrism with a migratorymythology. Then we have minority literature from the Muslim storyteller Zhang Chengzhi, the Tibetan writers Tashi Dawa and Alai, and the Han traveler Ge Fei.
In their pieces, while myths, legends, and anecdotes all become indispensable components of history, the religious and magical pasts turn out to be implicit criticisms of the political present. Exotic as their tales appear to be, they provide peripheral perspectives for us to re-examine the notions of ‘Chineseness’, ‘Muslimness’, and ‘Tibetanness’ in the histories of ‘minority nationalities’. By grouping these texts together, I hope to discover di,erent points of view and alternative modes of writing, so as to put into question the linear idea of history and nationalistic ideologies of identity.
The rise of a market economy in Deng’s China resulted in a return of literary interest from the country to the city, where urban writers staged nostalgia for their hometowns, as shown in chapter: Su Tong’s twin series of Maple Village and Suzhou city have created, in an age of prosperity, an aura of depravity. Nostalgia for him is an escape into a fictional past, a past more decadent than didactic. His and Wang Shuo’s coming-of-age stories represent personal memories of the latecomers of the Red Guard generation, recollecting a Cultural Revolution less burdensome than their parents’, often rather carnivalesque and playful—in effect,Wang Shuo’s -.1*s Beijing appears somewhat like a lost Eden. The inadequacy of his age group’s historical experience has led to contemplation on the inaccuracy of language in historical accounts. In contrast to this bad-boy literature, Wang Anyi’s descriptive historiography o,ers a feminine feeling of nostalgia. Her detailed city map of old Shanghai reduces history from a spectacular drama to an ordinary life. Amidst the longtang alleys, macrohistory is replaced by microhistory; grande histoire is dissolved by gossipy hearsay; great personages yield to common people; sublimity and tragedy give way to banality and parody. While the revival of urban literature effectively ridicules the rusticism in the Maoized historiography, nostalgia problematizes the progressionism of Deng’s modernization.
If there exists a common theme in the above chapters, then it is corporal violence in its various forms. The killing fields in regional-familial histories, massacres of Chinese by Japanese and of Chinese minorities by the Han majority, rapes and revenges across the country and the city, et cetera, all converge on the bodily space to be studied in the last chapter. It is ‘scar literature’ in the literal, true sense. Food and sex, the two impulses of violence featuring centrally in the works of Mo Yan, Su Tong, and Liu Heng, present history materially and physically as gastric and sexual manifestations. Yet Yu Hua problematizes the presentation of violence in his reflections on its politics and poetics through both performance and nonperformance of historical cruelty. Thus, trauma is first dramatized in narrative form and then de-dramatized as everyday experience. Su Tong then diverts our attention away from the human body as a historic text to the printed text as a physical body. Where violence visually and loudly inscribes history on both bodily texts and textual bodies in the typography of Su Tong and Ge Fei, the latter’s topographic drawings map the maze of historical discourses. I want to point out that body and text are the ultimate carriers of history, hence the last battlegrounds for memory mapping. Finally, the notion of a ‘retro-fiction’ is brought forth to summarize the post-Mao literary trend against the teleology of materialistic progression in capitalistic communist China.
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