Book Reviews

Socialism in One Genre: On Cai Xiang’s Revolution and Its Narratives (Geming/Xushu)

cai xiang

A Review of Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949–1966 by Cai Xiang

Christopher Connery

Department of Literature, University of California Santa Cruz


This is a review of the English translation of Shanghai-based scholar Cai Xiang’s Revolution and Its Narratives (originally published in Chinese asGeming/Xushu in 2010) in the context of other writing – in China and elsewhere – on socialist literature. It is also an analysis of the contemporary Chinese left and its relation to the socialist past. Cai’s book is valuable not only for the imaginativeness with which he treats the literature of the 1949–66 period, but also for its ability to represent a version of Chinese socialist critical discourse, of which there are few representatives in English. The essay treats the politics of socialist memory, the nature of Chinese political mobilisation, and discourse about class in the socialist period.


socialist memory – socialist realism – mobilisation – class – crises of Chinese socialism

Cai Xiang, (2016) Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949–1966, edited and translated by Rebecca E. Karl and Xueping Zhong, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Labelling China as capitalist puts many self-identified Chinese leftists in high dudgeon: What about the economic dominance of the state-owned enterprises? What about the prohibition – albeit steadily weakening – on private ownership of rural land? What about the name of the governing party? No-one on the left is blind, of course, to China’s actually-existing political economy, yet the recourse to exnomination – elsewhere a tool of the right – is quite pervasive in left circles. Hence, perhaps, the related appeal to the virtual socialist state, to which many on the left are committed. I once had a conversation with a prominent Shanghainese leftist about private cars, whose numbers have led to the ruin of Chinese cities and the degradation of its air. I said that when the Chinese market reforms began in the late seventies, the data on private cars and their environmental and urban effects were widely known. For the future of its cities, China had the advantages of the latecomer: it could choose the Amsterdam/Copenhagen path or the Los Angeles path. As we know, it chose Los Angeles. My friend told me not to worry, that the CCP could abolish private ownership of cars overnight, and if necessary it would do so. Responding to formulations such as the ‘Beijing Consensus’, which argues that contemporary China represents a developmental path superior to and distinct from the ‘Washington Consensus’, Lin Chun proposes a ‘Chinese model’ based on a different China that does not exist: ‘a normative Chinese model would stand by its socialist commitment, opposing any reforms that depart from that commitment rather than concealing or legitimizing the departure’.[1] How will that socialist China appear? Is it the deeper and more-massive force, capable of bursting through the present subduction zone in some historico-tectonic thrust? Is it summonable into existence through demiurgic will? Does it await its proper place in a point on the telos when the forces of production will have matured in their proper sequence – this time without the stage-skipping errors of the twentieth-century peripheral revolutions? The pundits on the Chinese left are, like their comrades elsewhere in the world, relatively silent on questions of transition or emergence.

What divides the left from the liberals in China is not, for the most part, the orientation toward the future. There is general consensus across the political spectrum about the desirability of the ‘moderately prosperous society’ and ‘national rejuvenation’, the former a Confucian-era social ideal and the latter the restoration of the dignity and prosperity that ‘China’ – this is in quotation-marks because the formation of the current entity ‘China’ took place within the history of global conflict[2] – was deemed to have lost since the Opium Wars. Although most on the left call for significant increase in social-democratic protection for the rural and urban poor, any discourse smacking of class war is still generally anathema on all sides, and there is remarkably little call on the left for significant redistribution of wealth. Even a central pillar of China’s current global economic strategy – the ‘one belt, one road’ infrastructural development of Eurasia – is hailed equally by capitalists who see business opportunities and by socialists who see a renewed efflorescence of Bandung-era Third Worldism.

The Politics of Periodisation

But consensus breaks down in relation to the pre-reform era, to non-capitalist China, to what some call ‘the socialist era’. As the opening sentences of Cai Xiang’s Revolution and Its Narratives declare:

In my opinion, the deep division within contemporary Chinese thought or theory does not mainly reside in how to understand and criticize existing social problems. Rather, major divisions exist more in the field of history. (p. 1.)

The terrain of the Chinese Historikerstreit is varied, and polemics involve not only judgements about a particular period – the Cultural Revolution, the 1980s, even the entire pre-reform period from 1949 to 1978 – but about the demarcation of periods. Is 1949–78 one period or two? Does 1969 divide the Cultural Revolution period into two distinct or even opposite orientations? Are the 1980s best understood as a development of political and cultural currents from the sixties and seventies, or as the harbinger of the emergent market/consumer society? Does 1993 mark the ‘rightward’ turn of the reform process, with emergence of a new class society, and was it ‘left’ or social-democratic reform before that? Are we to understand the first thirty years of the revolution (through 1978) and the second thirty years primarily through the lens of continuity or of rupture? How is the socialist period inscribed on bodies and psyches: as scar and trauma, or as resources for a different future? What are the politics of ‘socialist memory’? For many on the left, a significant periodisation is that of the ‘seventeen years’, 1949–66, bounded by the founding of the People’s Republic of China – a great event – and the Cultural Revolution, still a subject of some controversy on the left, but represented as a tragedy in most official and popular writing. Cai Xiang, Shanghai-based essayist and editor from the early 1980s through the 1990s, and Professor at Shanghai University since 2002, has devoted much of his writing career to the negotiation of the temporal, ideological and discursive divide that separates the post-reform from the socialist period, and has been a distinctive voice in discussions around the political possibilities of what he and others on the left call ‘socialist memory’.

One of Cai’s most widely-read essays has been 1995’s ‘Diceng [The Subalterns]’, anthologised in his collection Shensheng huiyi [Sacred Memories] and widely available on the internet.[3] For many Chinese readers, the essay’s publication signalled the point at which China’s new class society was recognised and felt. The essay – evocative and lyrical – touches on Cai Xiang’s biography – born to working-class parents in a family that had emigrated to Shanghai from the poorest part of neighbouring Jiangsu province, living first in slum conditions and later in one of the ‘workers’ new villages’ constructed in the 1950s, which were not only housing for mostly ‘model workers’ but also models themselves for the material environment of the emerging socialist state in which workers were the masters of the nation. The essay’s affective trajectory traces his experience of China’s passage from egalitarian ideology to a society marked by nearly unbridgeable class divides, a divide so stark that it causes Cai to question the very nature of memories of the earlier time. In a 2004 interview on the earlier essay and the circumstances of its composition, Cai wrote that it appeared

after the discussion of the ‘humanistic spirit’ in the 1990s,[4] when the market economy had really gotten going, and when a number of intellectuals were paying close attention to the new social stratification. This was most salient in the literary field, with people such as Li Tuo, Zhang Chengzhi, and Han Shaogong.[5] It wasn’t a huge number, but we had started to notice this, and I was one of them. I don’t remember clearly the specific impetus for the essay, but I think that, in addition to being a response to the provocations of the time, it had more to do with the complexity of ‘memory’ itself. For those of my generation, memory had a huge impact on our writing. Now many people – Xue Yi,[6] for example – are discussing ‘socialist memory’, but for us this is a complex issue. What to make, for example, of the memories of the despotism of the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, which propelled us into the 1980s movement for the liberation of thought, with all its calls for freedom, liberation, the power of the individual; these, I still feel today, are precious memories. Realistically speaking, most of our generation passed through the baptism of liberalism. Among all members of the ‘new left’ today you can find traces of the liberalism of that era. And I for one hold that even today there are intellectual legacies of that era’s liberalism that need to be carried forward. But we have still another memory, and that is of the socialist commitment to equality and fairness and also to the masses – that is, the workers and peasants. We live, thus, in the tangled and conflicted terrain of these two opposing memories. In the eighties, these memory-scapes coexisted. We thought of modernisation – including the market economy – in an emancipatory way, as a real guarantee of freedom, equality, and justice. But in the nineties we finally realised that the ideals and hopes of that earlier time were fantasies. It was Zhang Chengzhi who first revived the discourse of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, and it was 1980s writings like his that shaped our memories. Driven by those memories, our focus on actual social conditions drove us more and more into the camp of critical intellectuals.[7]

Complicating contemporary leftist intellectuals’ relationship to the socialist past is the fact that two of the historical prisms through which its representations are refracted – the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 events that represented the culmination of the eighties currents sketched above and which are popularly referred to as ‘June 4th’ or ‘Tian’anmen’ – are more or less discursively off-limits. Restrictions on discussion of the Cultural Revolution have never been absolute, and there has been scattered but important scholarship and archival organisation in recent years, but this does not include much in the way of new analyses or critical reinterpretations. Cai’s critical reference to the Cultural Revolution in the passage quoted above, as well as in other writings, locates him perhaps more on the ‘humanist’ left than the more strictly Maoist left, who would generally refrain from public criticism of any phase of the Cultural Revolution. But these taboos take their toll. The social, political, and intellectual fissures that both of these events occasioned have not been subject to the sort of analysis that might clarify the nature of contradictions under socialism over the longerdurée. Cai’s evocation of the shifting and misty space traversed by ‘socialist memory’ expresses one dimension of the complex and evolving relationship to the socialist past. Most younger leftists, for whom ‘memory’ is not the mode of access to the socialist past, share a generally more affirmative relationship to the ‘seventeen years’. A left or communist critique of the Maoist period – rare or non-existent among the ‘new left’ – is only just beginning to find its voice in contemporary Chinese discussions, mostly in Trotskyist or left-anarchist or left-communist circles.

In Revolution and Its Narratives, Cai begins from the recognition that ‘the seventeen years’ was a discursive as well as an historical period, that the memory of socialism is also shaped by socialism’s discourse – political pronouncements, official documents, and the literature of the time. The book focuses on the era’s literature, but not exclusively, ranging frequently onto more-strictly historical or political terrain. The centring of the discussion on literature, however, allows for a sustained analysis of the relationship between socialism as lived experience and its representation. The translator–editors write in their introduction:

As Cai argues, a significant feature of the revolution was that it was an ongoing cultural narrative event, whose logic, tensions, localizations, and so on all needed to be worked out in concert with the economic building of socialism and the socialist transformation of everyday life. That is, the revolution was embedded in narratives just as it was narrativized in multiple different ways. These are not separable, according to Cai’s analysis; indeed, he insists that the Chinese revolution was a cultural revolution from the very beginning in its intention to transform social consciousness. Rather than turn narrative into a function of revolution, then, Cai dialectically intertwines them. (p. xiv.)

Red Lit

Literature from the seventeen years is rarely read today. Although ‘red’ music and operas from the socialist period and the Cultural Revolution remain very popular, literary taste since the 1990s has moved in a very different direction. The translator–editors make the point that the neglect or belittling of that literature in scholarship is often politically motivated, part of anti-communist efforts to negate the very existence of the socialist period. Still, we indeed have few models in approaching ‘official’ socialist literature produced anywhere in the world. Although a nuanced discussion of ‘proletarian literature’ – including Soviet socialist realism – comprised the first chapter of William Empson’s 1935 Some Versions of Pastoral, the genre would not reappear in the New Critical literary-critical canon, nor beyond. It received its liberal or rightist dismissal largely in terms of theGleichschaltung said to be typical of all ‘totalitarian’ regimes.[8] Probably the most sophisticated treatment of Soviet socialist realism in recent years, Katerina Clark’s The Soviet Novel, avoids explicit anti-communism, but the Bakhtin and Propp-influenced framework of ‘ritual’ leaves her analysis far from the political. In China, Hong Zicheng, professor at Beijing University and a prolific scholar on modern and contemporary Chinese literature, is foremost among those who critique both the period’s homogenisation and its habitual purges and critiques of writers on the left.[9] A more common approach in Chinese literary scholarship is that of Huang Ziping, Professor of Literature at Renmin University in Beijing, and author of the first major treatment of ‘seventeen year’ literature published in the post-reform period, Geming–lishi–xiaoshuo [Revolution–History–Novel], which was initially published in Hong Kong by Oxford University Press’s Chinese-language division. Huang treated the literature of the period primarily as ‘contemporary historical novels’, locating them primarily within the context of political developments of the time.[10] Li Yang’s more eclectic 5070 niandai zhongguo wenxue jingdian zuopin zaijiedu [A Reinterpretation of Classical Chinese Literary Works from the Fifties through the Seventies][11] centres each chapter on a particular classical work – and seeks variously to adumbrate the works’ relationships to contemporary history, to show a particular imbrication of form and content, to perform genre analysis, or to argue for the organic location of Chinese socialist realism within the longer literary history of modern Chinese literature. Li Yang does not dismiss or disparage or ignore the political character and context of the works he studies, but in arguing for the excellence of a particular work generally bases this judgement on its ‘literary’ rather than the strictly political content. The translator–editors of Revolution and Its Narratives discuss in their introduction some of the scholarly mechanisms whereby the socialist period is neutralised or depoliticised (pp. xii–xiii, xix–xxiii), and while they do not mention Li Yang in this context, the judgement could apply to his book, which, borrowing eclectically from poststructuralist literary-critical practice, largely confines study of the literature of the seventeen years to the discipline of literary criticism. Recent writing on the literature of the seventeen years in English is also contained largely within mainstream disciplinary parameters. The most comprehensive literary history – Richard King’sMilestones on a Golden Road: Writing for Chinese Socialism, 19451980 – treats a series of prominent works chronologically, contextualised within the political history of the time and the biographical details of the works’ authors.[12] About half of Peter Button’s Configurations of the Real in Chinese Literary and Aesthetic Modernity[13] touches on the literature of the seventeen years, and his placement of literary production in its contemporary philosophical context makes his a distinctive study. Still, it is one that stresses the continuities of Chinese writing over the entire modern period rather than the distinctiveness of the socialist period. Krista Van Fleit Hang, in Literature the People Love, breaks the mould somewhat, attempting to limn a distinctive aesthetic around the category of the ‘popular’.[14]

To treat socialist literature politically is a challenge, and we have few models on how to do so. Even in the work of Fredric Jameson – the foremost Marxist literary critic of our time – we have only a few examples. Brecht and Method provides a host of productive and apposite concepts, and makes an argument for the originality of Brecht’s version of the dialectic, but the conceptual categories of Jameson’s analysis are not those that could be ‘applied’ to other cultural production. In an essay on Platonov’sChevengur, Jameson suggests a context for the study of a ‘Second World literature’, that is, the access to the cultural production of ‘people formed in a nonmarket non-consumer-consumptive society [who] do not think like we do’.[15] What is particularly valued in Chevengur, however, is not its engagement with contemporary Soviet society – it was written in 1927–8 on the eve of forced collectivisation – but its privileged position for a distinctive kind of utopian imaginary:

I follow Wallerstein in believing that actually existing socialism was not and could never have been an alternative system, since at any given moment only one world system can hold sway; the various socialisms, rather, were antisystemic movements within the force field of a capitalist world system itself; geared for one form of capitalism, they were largely undone by its unexpected mutation into a different moment, what we now call late capitalism, whose new laws and intensities peremptorily disrupted structures built only to withstand the more primitive pressures of the older moment. What thus obtains was at best the cultural anticipation of the new superstructural or formal tendencies, in a situation in which only the provisional sketch of a new base or economic situation can be sustained for a time.[16]

As is well known, this gesture toward utopian literature and the imagination of a future has led Jameson to find in science fiction, rather than in the literary production of the second world, the most potent literary version of a revolutionary politics. In a recent contribution to utopian fabulation – An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army – he suggests that in the utopian society he envisions, the content of art will be the realised vocation of socialist realism – the critique of bureaucracy: ‘the Hegelian power of the negative is secured and strengthened here, in the nagging and obsessive sniping at the group itself as it begins to ossify into an institution’.[17] This is – coincidentally? – a thematic that recurs in the literature of the seventeen years, but not precisely within the post-individual social context that Jameson suggests. I will return to the anti-bureaucratic theme below. I bring these matters up here to underscore one of the great values of Cai Xiang’s analysis – the window it provides on an imagining of socialist society from within the process of socialist construction.

If a salient feature of second-world culture was its location within a social orientation that proceeded on a very different foundation from the ‘Western individual’ and its imbrication within consumer society and the realm of manufactured desires, this would be reason enough to pay attention to it, in either an historical or a utopian vein. Yet this extra-individual subjectivity appeared unevenly in the socialist literary canon. Realism’s structural and aesthetic concern with the individual can make a group-based aesthetic difficult to realise, and, perhaps paradoxically, the official literary doctrine of the seventeen years – a combination of ‘revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism’[18] – would tend even more toward the treatment of political themes within the context of the individual psyche. Cai Xiang’s political commitment to the collective, to the masses, and to the group, particularly as opposed to the version of the individual that emerged along with consumer society in the reform period, coexists with the critical and aesthetic predilection for the high-modernist complexity and self-exploration that he honed in the eighties and nineties as critic and editor. One of his most admired works from the eighties – and one that he commonly references in his writing – was Zhang Chengzhi’s[19]Beifangde he [The Northern Rivers], a lyrical, meandering stream-of-consciousness and largely plotless novel whose narration moves in and out of dreams. Despite some overlap in political orientation, one could hardly find a novel so different from the novels of the seventeen years in style and aesthetics. One of Cai Xiang’s intentions inRevolution and Its Narratives is to make an aesthetic case for the tightly imbricated literary and political content of the period’s literature, and his combination of aesthetic and political evaluation is distinctive. The multiplicity, complexity, and heterogeneity valued in the conventional modernist evaluative system, were also reflections of political realities. While not stated so explicitly, there are throughout the book suggestions that in the latter part of the seventeen years, a univocality and one-sidedness grew stronger in both the literary and political spheres, making for worse literature and worse politics. Indeed, throughout the book are judgements on politically progressive tendencies subtly turning into their opposites.

We need to bear in mind that for Cai Xiang, literature’s imbrication with the political is not merely one of reflection, but also derives from its role in the creation of culture. In many of his essays, Cai contends, often in bittersweet retrospection, that the Chinese revolution proved that a new culture, a new subjectivity, could be created. This was the charge given to revolutionary cultural workers by Mao Zedong in the ‘Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art’,[20] a text that serves Cai Xiang as the determining context for the literary production of the seventeen years. The imagining of a community, in Cai’s détournement of Benedict Anderson, becomes an active process, whereby literary imagination is part of the revolutionary project of social-subjectivity formation. This greater political burden placed on cultural production is another reason for Cai’s insistence on the aesthetic quality of the works he analyses. The translator–editors report that in an interview with him during the preparation of their translation he stated that

[P]utting the ideas in Mao’s ‘Talks’ into practice demanded a high level of competency and self-reflection; that this endeavor was embraced by great writers of the time, and was essentially inaccessible to hacks; and that the effort was not merely to apply some theoretical or ideological yardsticks to existing writing, but rather, as in the spirit of Mao’s ‘Talks’, it was to create an entirely new literary form and content for the socialist transformation of life, culture, and China. (p. xvi.)

This of course considerably raises the evaluative stakes, for history’s provisional judgement must of course be that the goal of socialist transformation has been defeated or reversed. The seeds of that defeat and reversal are also present throughout Cai’s book, and this of course adds to its dialectical interest.

The Work of Socialist Literature

Unlike other book-length studies of seventeen-year literature, Revolution and Its Narratives is arranged not according to individual literary works but through broad thematics. A set of canonical works – and Cai focuses largely on well-known canonical texts and not the work of non- or semi-professional writer/workers or writer/peasants, a group whose numbers exploded during the seventeen years – is referenced throughout the book, in varying contexts. There is a certain amount of overlap between the conceptual rubrics, and they are not restricted to single chapters. ‘Mobilisation’ for example, is discussed at length in Chapter 1, as well as in Chapter 2, ‘The Mobilization Structure: The Masses, Cadres, and Intellectuals’. Cai’s use of non-Chinese theoretical works is frequently idiosyncratic, as in the use of Anderson cited above. Still, his organisation allows him to give a multifaceted analysis of the revolutionary project of the seventeen years and its contradictions.

The conventions of the realist novel – its setting in concrete time and space – privilege its ability to highlight the encounter between the space-time of the new revolutionary nation and the older scene of the peasant village, a common thematic in many of the works Cai analyses. Where some scholars’ treatments of the ‘traditional’ or ‘folk’ elements in revolutionary literature are part of an effort to de-emphasise the works’ literary and political distinctiveness, Cai Xiang’s analysis of this dynamic – with all of its contradictions – is intended to see literature as recapitulating the course of the revolution itself. Descriptive passages on local scenes in revolutionary literature are, in his analysis, implicitly simultaneous evocations of local particularities, and contextualised by the national-political context, including the new language of class.[21] Mobilisation is the key concept here, since it was through the logics of the mobilisational campaign that the relay was formed between the national and the local.

More important, given the text’s claims for cultural and subjective fashioning, was the centrality of the ‘mass line’ to the practice of the Chinese revolution and its literary manifestations, for it was only in reference to the masses, through a political programme ostensibly derived from the masses, that mobilisation campaigns took shape. Cai identifies several kinds of mobilisation narratives. He introduces the narrative of mobilisation and re-education[22] in the context of the rural cooperative movement, when ‘experts’, party cadres, and local cadres worked in rural education and cooperative formation in the years prior to the formation of communes. In several important examples of ‘cooperative’ fiction, local cadres, who showed a propensity for quasi-capitalist restoration, were represented as the primary impediments to the formation of cooperatives, enabling the narrative of cooperative-formation to foreground the cooperatives’ popular, ‘bottom-up’ origins.

In the mobilization-transformation narrative structure, and through these types of cultural, political, ideological, and moral imaginaries, the rural cooperatives attained legitimacy among the villagers along with a huge injection of utopian enthusiasm from them. These imaginaries were appropriated into the entire national modernization construction project, with the local simultaneously integrated into the modern mobilization-transformation program. At the same time, this modern vision was also narrated as a spontaneous demand from the masses. (p. 59.)

Cai shows that the narratives of mobilisation, like the campaigns themselves, were filled with more aporia than the novels’ often cheery resolutions would suggest. The process by which mobilisation becomes intelligible through narrative is not merely a literary matter; Cai’s underlying premise that the revolution had a narrative dimension is useful here. Hershatter (2011) and other detailed studies of the history of the rural cooperative movement demonstrate the various ways in which these campaigns – at least in their initial phases – brought to peasant villagers an ideology and habitus of modernisation. Narrative was one means by which this was achieved, in various genres, including the renarrativisation of a life-course, as in the case of the ‘model labourer’,[23] a Soviet formation that was used far more extensively, and to greater political effect, in China.

          As Elizabeth Perry has illustrated, mobilisation has been a feature of the Chinese political scene from the early revolutionary period onward, retaining considerable efficacy well into the post-Mao period, primarily through the ability to focus the attention and energy of the local officials,[24] just as in so many of the plotlines of the novels of the seventeen years. The Chinese version of the ‘mobilised’ group fits uneasily into the Sartrean typology of the group, falling somewhere between his notion of the ‘organised group’ and its atrophied form – ‘the institution’ – wherein elements of human freedom have been basically extinguished.[25] Cai Xiang traces the atrophy of the group along different lines than Sartre’s, locating it not as a consequence of coercion, or non-economic means whereby the individual is reduced to a function, but as the process of depoliticisation whose first instantiation was the degeneration of mobilisation into a formalistic conformity, and then later consequent to the withdrawal of the state from the political campaign to the more limited sphere of developmentalism. Cai traces the rise of new forms of individualism in the society and cultural production of the 1980s to the fate of the individual after the revolution: severed from tradition and ties to earlier collective modes and then endowed with a political subjectivity derived from the new articulation to nation and class, the diminution of political subjectivity, including its social dimension (meetings, criticism sessions, etc.) and its moral behavioural codes, in the post-reform period left individuality emptied of its earlier content, and rendered it susceptible to being ‘renamed by various political, economic, and ideological forces’ (p. 83). In a significant departure from contemporary liberal critics of the socialist period, Cai Xiang finds in the seventeen years a dialectically rich development of individualism, albeit of a socialist kind.

Questions of Class

The category of class – neither ‘group’ nor ‘collectivity’, but a sodality that in literature and political discourse was commonly opposed to the category ‘individual’ – as might be expected formed an important trope in the literature of the seventeen years, with its related aims of producing a working class newly defined as ‘masters of the nation’ as well as the category for a critique of bourgeois power, bourgeois-class residues, and any emergent hierarchical class formations. The category of class has enjoyed a peculiar trajectory in the PRC. Shortly after liberation, nearly all citizens received a class designation in a schema that reflected, broadly, original or familial relations to the means of production. These designations were subject to negotiation and reclassification, but by the second half of the 1950s, and the near disappearance of private firms and private capital, they served less as social identifiers and more as a ‘static ordering of revolutionary honor and shame’.[26] ‘Good’ (worker peasant) and ‘bad’ (landlord, bourgeois, Guomindang) class designation played a decisive role in access to jobs, schooling, and other social privileges, and formed a significant axis of social cleavage in the Cultural Revolution. Class discourse attenuated rapidly in the reform period, and at present in China, even the word ‘class [jieji]’ is avoided in favour of the term ‘stratum [jieceng]’. Even on the left, there is a general reticence around class, particularly with regard to implications of class conflict.

Cai Xiang has a generally negative evaluation of the role that class discourse played in the literature of the seventeen years and earlier. In Zhao Shuli’s 1946 land-reform era novel Changes in Li Village, and in Qin Zhaoyang’s 1950 story ‘Re-education’, characters’ destructive or anti-social behaviour is generally attributable to personal qualities not wholly borne of class ideology. In Hao Ran’sSunny Days [Yanyang tian] (1962), the formula had been reduced to ‘good people and good deeds versus bad people and bad deeds’ (p. 111). In Cai Xiang’s summation,

When class perspective was absolutized, class attributes (attributes that constitute a different kind of generality) substituted for any form of individuality; this came from left-wing (urban based) intellectual traditions, and in some sense, we can also say that this move was another form of the absolutizing commonality of human nature. (p. 267.)

A question not answered during the seventeen years, but one on which many polemics and struggles were centred, was that of the socialist bureaucracy, including the power of ‘experts’: did this stratum constitute a new type of ruling class? How significant were class divisions under socialism? The questions of bureaucracy and authority, which, following Jameson, should properly be the preoccupation in the literature of the utopia to come, had their first general airing in the literature of the seventeen years. Cai judges that the effort to transform the workers into the masters of the country had been unceasing, but ultimately unsuccessful – the reform-era transformation of workers into a class whose sole function was the sale of labour-power was proof enough of that. But it was in the relationship between worker and bureaucrat – or to put the problem in a related register, between labour and technical expertise – that these contradictions took social form during the seventeen years. For workers to become masters of the nation they would have to acquire technical skills. In his treatment of several works of literature, in particular Ai Wu’s 1957 novel Steeled and Tempered [bailian cheng gang], Cai Xiang focuses on the figure of the senior worker with technical expertise – expertise usually acquired in pre-revolutionary times – who for individualistic reasons such as pride, authority, or competitiveness is insufficiently attentive to the importance of transmission and socialisation of knowledge. A growing tendency to cast these issues in more simplistic class terms, however, leads to a degeneration of both narrative and political possibilities.

Socialist Contradictions and their Vicissitudes

The best literary work of the seventeen years, in Cai Xiang’s analysis, is marked by a perspective that avoids easy resolution of the contradictions and crises that arise within the experience of constructing socialism, though even in the writers he most admires a reductionist temptation is present. Cai identifies five categories of contradictions in the socialist period – between egalitarianism and class differentiation; between bureaucratic hierarchy and mass participation; between political society and everyday life; between internalisation and objectification;[27] and between maintaining the status quo and facing the future (p. 405). These contradictions, he suggests, are unavoidable. The danger is that of arrested dialectic, whereby an attempt to resolve a contradiction leads to crisis. The literature of youth, for example, treated at length in Chapter 3, treats a trajectory of narrative types that begins with the modernist figure of youth as representing an orientation toward a utopian future. As the seventeen years progress, youth emerges as the object of pedagogy, subject to adult authority, and thus functioning as a conservative support for the status quo, which then produces the crisis of the Cultural Revolution and beyond. In an original analysis which merits further expansion, Cai suggests that it was the early success of the revolution in its efforts at modernisation and economic development that quickened socialism’s crisis. In the early 1960s, as China recovered from the Great Chinese Famine, Cai judges that ‘China began to see symptoms of a transition from an era of accumulation to an era of consumption.’ (p. 418.) This new, albeit-relative material abundance raised the stakes for class conflict, with growing reference throughout society to a ‘special-privileges class’. As we read throughout Revolution and Its Narratives, it was the reductionism and simplicity of the framing of contradictions that led to an arrested dialectic and a diminution of political, analytical, and imaginative possibility.

I do not mean to fundamentally negate the legitimacy of class struggle. On the contrary, I think that the problems of the 1960s reveal an overreliance on the traditional mode of class struggle and a lack of formal innovation. What transpired not only concealed the complexity of the issues, it was also crude and violent. The more serious resulting problem was that this violent form generated the retaliatory narration of the 1980s, which often targeted this form of class struggle consciously or unconsciously, without paying attention to the real problems concealed within the issue of class itself. (p. 419.)

This is an important summary of this historical trajectory, and the contradictions it suggests are many. The 1980s would see, in the literary, economic and political fields, considerable ‘formal innovations’, yet as we know these have ultimately resulted in capitalist restoration and a deeply stratified class society. Cai Xiang’s recuperative efforts in his reading of the literature of the seventeen years is in part an attempt to find in that literature, as well as in the history of that period, a more productive mode for the exploration of contradiction, and one can imagine, based on those explorations, different fates than those that took shape over the sixties and seventies for the categories of individual, class, labour, both intellectual and manual, as well as modernisation itself. His commitment, as a literary scholar, is to this political imagination, and Revolution and Its Narratives is most valuable as an exercise thereof. There is nothing like this book in English, and its appearance is noteworthy.

Revolution and Its Narratives might be hard going, however, for readers unfamiliar with revolutionary China and its culture. The discussion of individual literary works scattered across chapters rather than in one textual location means keeping track of a number of unfamiliar names and titles. The overall organisation of the book is fairly loose, though this has the advantage of allowing a number of the book’s key organising concepts to appear in different contexts and arguments, allowing a broader and deeper understanding thereof. Cai Xiang’s use of non-Chinese theoretical material too frequently seems tangential to his argument or otherwise idiosyncratic. That the Chinese translation of ‘imagined communities [xiangxiangde gongtongti]’ could also be read as ‘imaginary communities’ has led to misapplication in many more works besides this one. Cai Xiang’s academic writing style can be more abstruse than his essayistic style, and the flow of associations that serves the essays so well is less graceful in the academic context. The translator–editors seem to have decided to stick fairly close to the original text in syntax and sentence organisation. This was probably the correct decision, since an important benefit that this book provides to non-Chinese readers is access to Chinese scholarly style. Readers may grow weary of it, but should persist.

Western readers on the left know far too little about the Chinese left. Beyond Wang Hui and Dai Jinhua there is very little in English, and the translator–editors are to be commended for the difficult labour of making this work available. Cai Xiang’s position on the left is somewhat distinctive. He is more strictly literarily and aesthetically oriented than many on the left, and he retains considerable faith in the power of the literary to affect the social sphere. He is more critical of the socialist period – though fairly circumspect in his criticism – than many on the left. His work joins the efforts of many on the left whose pedagogical aim is to forge a more positive relationship to China’s socialist past. Any prospects for a non-capitalist future in China will involve the continued working through of the relationship to the pre-reform period, to the many and varied legacies of socialism, and Revolution and Its Narratives provides fresh insights into that reckoning. But this reckoning will only go so far, especially in an appeal to a younger generation for whom socialism is not even a memory. For some of them anyway, more significant than various appeals to a virtual socialism, including historical socialism, might be more forceful attacks on actual Chinese capitalism. That engagement has barely begun on the Chinese left. We need more of it.




Button, Peter 2008, Configurations of the Real in Chinese Literary and Aesthetic Modernity, Leiden: Brill.

Cai Xiang 1998, Shensheng huiyi [Sacred Memories], Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin.

Cai Xiang 2010, Geming/Xushu: Zhongguo shehuizhuyi wenxue – wenhua xiangxiang (1949–1966), Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe.

Cai Xiang 2016, Revolution and Its Narratives: China’s Socialist Literary and Cultural Imaginaries, 1949–1966, translated and edited by Rebecca E. Karl and Xueping Zhong, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Cai Xiang and Liu Xu 2004, ‘Guanyu diceng gainian [On the Concept of the Subaltern]’, Tianya [Frontiers], 3: 4–13.

Chung, Hilary, Michael Falchikov, Bonnie S. McDougall and Karin McPherson (eds.) 1996, In the Party Spirit: Socialist Realism and Literary Practice in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and China, London: Routledge.

Clark, Katerina 1981, The Soviet Novel, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dirlik, Arif 2015, ‘Born in Translation: “China” in the Making of “Zhongguo”’, boundary 2, 29 June, available at: <>.

Empson, William 1974, Some Versions of Pastoral, Revised Edition, New York: New Directions.

Hang, Krista Van Fleit 2013, Literature the People Love: Reading Chinese Texts from the Early Maoist Period (1949–1966), Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Heilmann, Sebastian and Elizabeth Perry 2011, ‘Embracing Uncertainty: Guerrilla Policy Style and Adaptive Governance in China’, in Heilmann and Perry (eds.) 2011, pp. 1–29.

Heilmann, Sebastian and Elizabeth Perry (eds.) 2011, Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hershatter, Gail 2011, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hong Zicheng 1998, Zhongguo dangdai wenxueshi [A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature], Beijing: Beijing daxue chubanshe.

Huang Ziping 1996, Geming–lishi–xiaoshuo [Revolution–History–Novel], Hong Kong: Niujin daxue chubanshe (Oxford University Press).

Jameson, Fredric 1994, The Seeds of Time, New York: Columbia University Press.

Jameson, Fredric 2016, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, edited by Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso.

King, Richard 2013, Milestones on a Golden Road: Writing for Chinese Socialism, 1945–1980, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Kraus, Richard 1981, Class Conflict in Chinese Socialism, New York: Columbia University Press.

Lin, Chun 2013, China and Global Capitalism: Reflections on Marxism, History, and Contemporary Politics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Li Yang 2003, 5070 niandai zhongguo wenxue jingdian zuopin zaijiedu [A Reinterpretation of Classical Chinese Literary Works from the Fifties through the Seventies], Jinan: Shandong jiaoyu chubanshe.

Mao Zedong 1967, Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Volume 3, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

Meng Yue 2003, ‘“Baimaonü” yanbiande qishi: jianlun Yan’an wenyide lishi duozhixing [On the Evolutionary Origins and Trajectory of the “White-Haired Girl”, with a Discussion of the Historical Multiplicity of Yan’an Art and Literature]’, in Ershishiji zhonguo wenxueshilun [Collected Essays on Twentieth-century Chinese Literary History], edited by Wang Xiaoming, Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin.

Perry, Elizabeth 2011, ‘From Mass Campaign to Managed Campaigns: “Constructing a New Socialist Countryside”’, in Heilmann and Perry (eds.) 2011, pp. 30–61.

Sartre, Jean-Paul 2004, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1, translated by Alan Sheridan-Smith, London: Verso.




[1] Lin 2013, p. 83. The Chinese-language version of this chapter, ‘Zhongguo moshi [The China Model]’, has had wide online circulation in China, especially in left circles.

[2] Dirlik 2015.

[3]Cai Xiang 1998, pp. 27–37.

[4] A public exchange featuring Wang Xiaoming, Chen Sihe, and others that began with attacks on the commercialisation and crudeness of film and literary culture of the early nineties. The primary targets were Wang Shuo and Zhang Yimou, whom Wang and Chen held to be symptomatic of the loss of the ‘humanistic spirit’.

[5] Respectively, an editor/critic essayist and two novelists, all of whom came to prominence in the 1980s. Zhang Chengzhi and Han Shaogong are often associated with ‘root-seeking’ literature.

[6] A scholar of Lu Xun and contemporary cultural studies, and on the faculty of East China Normal University.

[7] Cai Xiang and Liu Xu 2004; my translation.

[8] Mostly typical of this approach is Chung, Falchikov, McDougall and McPherson (eds.) 1996.

[9] Hong Zicheng 1998.

[10]Huang Ziping 1996.

[11] Li Yang 2003.

[12] King 2013.

[13] Button 2008.

[14] Hang 2013.

[15] Jameson 1994, p. 74.

[16] Jameson 1994, p. 76.

[17] Jameson 2016, pp. 878.

[18] King 2013, pp. 736.

[19] A former Red Guard proud of his time as such, and also, coincidentally, the person who coined the term ‘Red Guard’. He went on to identify more and more with his Muslim ethnic background, converting to Islam and publishing in 1991 a best-selling novel Xinling shi [A History of the Soul], which centred on the Jahriyya Sufi order, an order frequently subject to proscription during the late Qing dynasty due to its propensity for rebellion.

[20] Mao Zedong 1967, pp. 6998.

[21] In his discussion of the nature of the ‘local’ in the literature of the seventeen years, Cai Xiang draws heavily on the argument advanced in Meng Yue’s analysis of ‘The White-Haired Girl’. Meng Yue 2003.

[22] The translator–editors comment on the difficulty of translating this term, sometimes using ‘reeducation’ and sometimes ‘transformation’. Cai Xiang 2016, p. 34, n. 17.

[23] Hershatter 2011, pp. 21035.

[24] Heilmann and Perry 2011; Perry 2011.

[25] Sartre 2004, pp. 400ff; 600ff.

[26] Kraus 1981, p. 51.

[27] By ‘internalisation’, Cai means the subjective habitus whereby the ‘new socialist person’ as ‘master’ will internalise craftsperson ideals, knowledge and know-how necessary for modernisation, and dignity of labour. ‘Objectification’ refers to elements left out of this process of subjective expansion, reified as class enemies or oppressors.