The Monster That Is History: History, Violence,
and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China

By David Der-wei Wang

Reviewed by C. D. Alison Bailey

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2006)

David Der-wei Wang. A The Monster That Is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. pp. 402. ISBN 0-520-231-140-6 (cloth); ISBN 02-520-23873-7 (pbk)

The “long twentieth century” was a terrible time for humanity, and the Chinese suffered as much or more than most. Wars, revolutions, riots, natural disasters, famine, poverty, disease, terrorism, and totalitarian regimes all contributed to the appalling toll of the dead, as human beings conspired to devour each other. It has been suggested by Adorno (cited in Wang, p.178) that violence and suffering cannot be adequately represented in literature or that writers fall silent at times of trauma, cataclysm, and revolution, unable to give voice to pain; yet time and time again writers do attempt to describe the unspeakable and try to find words to bear witness for the dead. Many Chinese writers have been silenced, others have chosen silence or complicity with the forces of violence, and some have chosen to cry out against those forces. David Der-wei Wang’s recent book The Monster That Is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China is an ambitious study of the ramifications of violence in twentieth-century Chinese literature and the ways in which writers respond to, propel, or oppose human suffering.

Wang’s book is an extraordinary achievement, as complex, fascinating and problematic as the century and the literature upon which it focuses. Baroque in style and often flawed in execution, it provides a challenging vision of a formidable variety of texts and contexts, as he engages and evades the central questions of violence and the representation of violence in modern China and modern Chinese literature. This is a book that takes on the profound issues of history, modernity, and violence in densely packed arguments, a wide range of theoretical approaches and texts, and insightful readings. This reader found much with which to agree and disagree in this thought-provoking book that opens up new territory as it goes over old ground.

Eschewing a chronological survey or canon-forming history, Wang instead juxtaposes apparently disparate texts and contexts to support his themes. This works particularly well with the most masterly of his chapters, “The Monster That is History,” where late Ming, late Qing and mid-twentieth-century works are brought to bear in a tightly wrought discussion of the banality of evil. The downside of this approach is that texts or writers of uneven quality are, for thematic reasons, placed on an equal footing. The purpose of Wang’s decentring strategy is to avoid privileging a particular literary history or ideology or geopolitics, while acknowledging (as he does explicitly in his introduction) that his choices are inevitably shaped by his personal, familial, and communal ties. The vast canvas of this book and the scope of Wang’s knowledge support his argument that a conventional historical survey could never fully encompass the wide-ranging nature of modern Chinese literature. For this reader, however, the marginal sometimes displaces the central and significant. Canons and tastes fluctuate, to be sure, but the absence or minimal discussion of particular writers or genres (such as Wu Jianren, Xiao Hong, Can Xue, Yu Hua, Han Shaogong, Su Tong, Ge Fei, Mo Yan, Li Ang, Chang Ta-chun, Li Yongping, Jin Yong, Cultural Revolution memoirs, fiction of psychological violence, martial arts fiction and fiction of the anti-Japanese war, as well as the apparently unrelenting violence against women in works by male writers, for example) in favour of more obscure figures, texts, or topics diffuse the effectiveness of the argument. Furthermore, despite Wang’s comment that local contexts are often ignored by critics (10), his method of linking texts across space and time, while often enlightening, tends to elide the local and the specific in favour of a de-historicized and undifferentiated “Chinese-ness.”

Wang’s book is built upon eight inter-connected essays (several of which have appeared in different form elsewhere), organized in roughly chronological order. The essays are uneven in quality and there is some redundancy. While some are outstanding, others, like his chapters on revolution and love (“An Undesired Revolution”) and poets and suicide (“The End of the Line”), are less successful because of the tenuous connections between the writers selected for discussion, reliance on anecdote, and weaker links to the book’s themes. Wang’s introduction lays out a clear and persuasive post-hoc schematic for the eight essays, beginning with the violent “birth” of modern fiction and ending with references to Derrida’s “hauntology” and the role of fiction to give voice to ghosts when history fails. The essays themselves, however, do not always fully live up to the promised clarity of the introduction.

Chapter 1, “Invitation to a Beheading,” revisits earlier work by Wang on the significance of decapitation in the work of Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, and others. Novels by the late Qing writer Youhuan Yusheng and the modern Taiwan writer Wuhe are given insightful readings (Wang is at his best when discussing the late Qing or the more “gothic” of Chinese writers). The chapter’s basic premise of the “bodily rupture” of modernity is not as persuasive as it could be because Wang fails to fully explain what is new or modern about the texts he analyses here. Similar questions might be asked about Chapter 2, “Crime or Punishment?” Here Wang selects four “moments” in twentieth century history (the late Qing, post-May Fourth, the 1930s, and the Yan’an period) to explore the ways in which literature and forms of justice (and injustice) are inter-related, an exciting and under-explored topic. This chapter provides a series of literary vignettes, covering a wide range of time and writers, all of whom might have been discussed in more detail (the kernel of a book, perhaps?). Again, the analysis of Liu E and Liu Boyuan’s work does not completely show how they were doing something new. Lu Xun, Wu Zuxiang, and Ding Ling are all critiqued for their apparent Foucauldian sado-masochistic delight in the spectatorship of suffering, but this judgement seems overly harsh, except perhaps in the case of Ding Ling’s later work.

Chapter 3, “An Undesired Revolution” describes the rather dreary and self-absorbed agonizing of Mao Dun, Jiang Guangci, and Bai Wei, focusing on literary debates, doomed relationships, and various diseases at the expense of a more fully-developed exploration of their texts and the revolutionary context. More might have been said here on the dangers of revolutionary rhetoric and the erotics of revolution, perhaps bringing in case studies from later periods, such as the Cultural Revolution.

Chapter 4, “Three Hungry Women,” returns to earlier work by Wang on various fictional and ideological discourses linking the motif of the hungry woman to national identity. Again, this chapter covers a lot of ground, and some of the examples Wang provides are more persuasive than others. His discussion of Lu Ling’s Hungry Guo Su’e is couched in heavily theoretical language and is not easily accessible, nor does it critically address Lu Ling’s problematic portrait of a sexually hungry woman. Wang’s readings of Eileen Chang and Chen Yingzhen’s work are excellent (Wang’s obvious affinity for Chang’s writing and the ways in which he frequently returns to her work suggest to this reader that a full-length study of her by him would be a fruitful and long over-due endeavour). The choice of the best-selling Hong Ying to conclude the chapter seems more theme-driven than anything else; perhaps an examination of the ways in which a writer like Can Xue transmutes the “hungry woman” into something mad, subversive, and strange would have opened this chapter up in more interesting ways.

Chapter 5, “Of Scars and National Memory,” is a solid, uncontroversial historical account of mid-century mainland and Taiwan literature and the numerous parallels between them, despite their ideological differences. It is hard to tell whether or not this literature is of interest other than for its topicality. Wang brings into play the image of the scar as it appears on both sides of the Straits at this time. He alludes to the scar literature of the post-Cultural Revolution period but does not go into detail. This tendency to point to, but ultimately evade, late twentieth century mainland writers’ attempts to come to grips with their violent history, runs like a refrain throughout the book.

Chapter 6, “The Monster That Is History,” is the centre-piece of this book and the strongest chapter. Wang focuses on the Taiwan exile writer Jiang Gui’s The Whirlwind (alternative title, Jin Taowu zhuan: A Tale of Modern Monsters) and two novels dating from the late Ming (Li Qing’s 1629 An Idle Commentary on Monsters) and late Qing (Qian Xibao’s 1905/1916 A Compendium of Monsters) that share a preoccupation with documenting and exposing the monstrosities of human history. The common image tying the three novels together, and the one that Wang uses both in the title of his own book and as its mythopoeic core, is that of the Taowu. Taowu refers to a mythical monster with divinatory powers that transforms over time to become identified with both evil individuals and the writing of history to “record evil so as to admonish” (6–7). All three novels, as Wang shows in his nuanced discussion, try to come to terms with the ancient human capacity for savagery while showcasing the endlessly inventive ways in which savagery reappears. Neither the writing of history nor fiction can fully contain human monstrosity and might, Wang suggests, be implicated in its permutations. This chapter works because Wang’s argument is compelling and his choice of texts limited and telling.

Chapter 7, “The End of the Line,” however, is a disappointment. The main discussion, about the deaths of three poets—Wen Jie, Shi Mingzheng, and Gu Cheng—has interesting moments, particularly the section on Wen Jie (and Dai Houying), but the links between the three men seem tenuous. Yes, they were Chinese poets, and yes, they all committed suicide, but this does not seem enough to justify bringing them together in one essay. Wang’s comment that “their suicides were either anticipated in their writings or written about posthumously by others” (228) is not really sufficient to connect them. The inclusion of the Taiwanese Shi Mingzheng, a writer of interest in his own right, breaks any continuity there might be in discussing the fate of poets under Communism.

Chapter 8, “Second Haunting,” begins with a wonderful premise: the plethora of ghosts in late-twentieth-century Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and mainland Chinese fiction (and cinema) and the replacement of realism by phantasmagoria as the dominant discourse. There are several excellent discussions of individual writers, all of which could have gone further, but the wide coverage of writers, places, and times undermines the potential of this essay. There is so much of interest here but the chapter is fragmented, suggesting that this might be a better topic for a full-length study than a concluding piece.

The essay format of the book suits his polycentric strategy but works against a fully-elaborated discussion of what Wang means by history and violence, and their relationship to modernity, tradition, and Chinese identity. The lack of a conclusion to bring the essays together might reflect the author’s sense that the issues he raises are still in process, but the abrupt ending does a disservice to their importance. The last chapter gives a sense of having been rushed, covering so much tantalizing ground too swiftly, and leaving too many editorial errors uncorrected. (Proofreading, particularly of pinyin errors and translations of titles and other details such as names from Chinese into English, leaves much to be desired throughout the book.) Wang frequently employs rhetorical questions in his essays, a tendency that is particularly noticeable in the final chapter. Perhaps his intention is to underscore the indeterminancy of literature and the impossibility of representing human experience except through fragments and traces, but the result is disconcerting for readers looking for conclusions, however tentative.

Wang argues in his introduction that he is “opening a new critical dimension by looking into the rich repository of Chinese historiographical imagination,” paying “special attention to a strain of historical discourse that stresses history’s potential to witness, and sometimes even instantiate, what is violent and potentially undesirable in humanity” (5). It is not always certain to this reader whether “history” as Wang deploys the term implies lived experience or written record, despite Wang’s central metaphor of the Taowu, “the monster that is history.” Wang’s ambivalence about historical testimony is given voice in his manifesto: “I believe . . . that suffering does not translate into virtue; that surviving a calamity does not authorize one to speak for those who perished in it; that justice, either as a concept or as an institution, is overdetermined and therefore subject to continued contestation” (2). While I agree that there is a distressing tendency toward exploiting “Chinese atrocity” (1), particularly in the recent glut of Cultural Revolution memoirs for the Western market, the dangers Wang perceives as inherent in such testimony must be weighed against its impact. Lu Xun comes in for particular censure by Wang, but the former cannot be completely blamed for wilful misreadings of his work by revolutionaries. Writing about suffering is a means of instigating (violent) change, but the aching need of people like Lu Xun to articulate their anguish in order to awaken others still needs to be acknowledged rather than demonized. Primo Levi has written of the absolute life-saving necessity to bear witness: to live to write, as a duty to those who died and to those who follow, as well as for oneself. Chroniclers of the fall of the Ming spoke of their need to stay alive, despite their loyalties, to memorialize the dead. Testimonies of the Cultural Revolution, both fictional and historical, are barely mentioned in Wang’s book, but surely need to be addressed.

Similarly, Wang’s definitions of violence and the role of violence in literature, and vice-versa, are opaque and tentative, perhaps because of their amorphous nature. Nonetheless, it would have helped to have a clearer formulation of what violence means on the basic levels of injury, pain, and power dynamics, and how literary representations of violence can work to disgust, titillate, or awaken readers, as well as instigate further violence. Is violence, as Wang at one point rather oddly suggests (10), something that arrives in tandem with modern Chinese literature and modernity, or has it always been with us? How has it (and its representation) changed over time? Is there something uniquely “Chinese” at issue, as C.T. Hsia in his classic discussion of The Water Margin or Lu Xun in his dissection of the “Chinese national character” seem to imply?

David Wang’s fine study of late Qing fiction (Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849–1911; 1997) convincingly challenges the orthodox mainland narrative of May Fourth fiction as the beginnings of modern Chinese literature. In this more recent book, while providing compelling readings of certain late Qing texts as proto-modern, he seems to return to Lu Xun’s (debatable) “decapitation complex” (10, 21) as the “primal scene” of violence engendering Chinese literary modernity. Recalling Lu Xun’s famous account of the lantern slide show he saw in Japan, Wang writes, “Violence and ‘modern’ literature erupted at the same time, as Chinese literati set out to gaze at the bloody consequences of their cultural heritage” (51). And yet the bloody image of the severed head is ubiquitous in pre-modern Chinese literature and histories, as are vivid accounts of torture in courts and hells, legal corruption, and other forms of violence, including cannibalism (so favoured by Lu Xun as a literary metaphor), found, for example, in many revenge narratives. Wang briefly refers to the late-Ming, early-Qing literatus Ding Yaokang’s (1599–1670) Tianshi (History of heaven) that chronicles almost 200 violent episodes in Chinese history up to the Yuan dynasty (Ding Yaokang quanji, xia, 28–129). However, he does not address how (and why) Lu Xun’s (and his contemporaries’) response was different from Ding’s (and his contemporaries’). What is it about the violence indirectly witnessed by Lu Xun and its context that propelled China and Chinese literature towards modernity that was not present before? The same questions might be asked about suicide, a not-uncommon occurrence in literature and history prior to the modern era (contemporary accounts of Ming martyrs are rife with suicides, for example). What is “modern” about the poets’ suicides Wang discusses in Chapter 7, “The End of the Line” (224–225)? Foucault’s argument that suicide in a modern state testifies to an individual’s right to take possession over their own life and death (cited p.234) is rightly queried by Wang (234–235) because it does not fit the realities of “feudal” state power under Communism, but the connections Wang makes between his poets’ suicides and modernity are strained.

David Wang is one of the most interesting scholars of Chinese fiction working in the field today. Even when his work is uneven, as here, it is always thought provoking, causing this reader to engage in a constant unspoken dialogue of assent and disagreement. At times his delight in provocation and gothic wordplay undermines the potency of his arguments and overshadows the nuances of his insightful textual analyses. Nonetheless, his passion for, and fascination with, Chinese literature and writers always make for compelling reading. David Wang’s work is preoccupied with particular writers, themes, and forms of discourse to which he returns again and again. It is to be hoped that the questions of violence, human suffering, and their representations in literature and history raised in this book will continue to offer him avenues of exploration.

C. D. Alison Bailey
Director, Centre for Chinese Research
Institute of Asian Research
University of British Columbia