Deux comptes rendus par Sebastian Veg

Texte intégral du compte rendu par Sebastian Veg, dans The China Quarterly (2017, n° 230), de deux ouvrages sur la vie intellectuelle et sociale à Chengdu durant la période républicaine.

Sebastian Veg. [Book review of] Kristin Stapleton, Fact in Fiction: 1920s China and Ba Jin’s Family (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2016) ; Kenny Kwok-Kwan Ng, The Lost Geopoetic Horizon of Li Jieren: The Crisis of Writing Chengdu in Revolutionary China (Leiden, Brill, 2015). The China Quarterly, vol. 230, June 2017, pp. 550-553. DOI: (consulté le 10 juillet 2017)

Taken together, the two books under review provide the best possible overview of literary and intellectual, but also more broadly social, life in Chengdu during the Republican era (1912–1949). Each study focuses on one writer, while at the same time presenting an engaging portrait of New Culture Chengdu, and questioning connections between social, intellectual and literary history. Ba Jin (born Li Yaotang, 1904–2005) and Li Jieren (1891–1962), both Chengdu natives, were undoubtedly Sichuan’s greatest novelists of the Republican era. Both spent time in France, Li Jieren as part of the “Diligent Work, Frugal Study” programme in 1920–1924, Ba Jin more briefly as a student in 1927–1928, and both acknowledged a debt to the French 19th-century novel. Both largely fell silent as writers after 1949, and devoted themselves to reworking their earlier novels. Li Jieren came under particular political pressure during the Anti-Rightist movement in 1957 (for his involvement with the poet Liushahe), while Ba Jin was subjected to reeducation and lost his wife to an untreated cancer in the Cultural Revolution. Both had heterodox leanings, Ba Jin towards anarchism, and Li Jieren towards Sichuan nativism, as Kenny Ng argues. Despite this blemish, Ba Jin went on to be enshrined in the PRC writers’ canon (summed up in the ditty Lu-Guo-Mao, Ba-Lao-Cao 魯郭茅巴老曹, which includes another Sichuanese, Li Jieren’s classmate Guo Moruo) and became president of the Writers’ Association in the 1980s. By contrast, Li Jieren’s contribution was consistently downplayed as that of a regionalist writer, and his Collected Works in 17 volumes (probably still not entirely complete) were first published only in 2011.

Ng’s book, a reworked version of his doctoral dissertation defended in 2004 at Harvard, represents the most engaging kind of doctoral research: each footnote is brimming with rich theoretical and comparative material, as is the bibliography. Stapleton’s book, reworking many of the themes of her earlier landmark study of urban reform in Chengdu (Civilizing Chengdu, Harvard University Press, 2000), adopts a looser but equally engaging structure, taking each of the main characters of Ba Jin’s trilogy in turn and confronting them with the social context as we understand it now, thus productively questioning the gap between social history and literature. Just like in Ng’s book, the erudition deployed by Stapleton (see for example the fascinating discussion of a contract concluded for the sale a slave-girl, pp. 27–31) is always lively and thoughtful.

Li Jieren aspired to be a “novelist historian” and his works tend to be studied as social history more than literature, while Ba Jin’s Family was celebrated as a great literary achievement of the New Culture movement; these approaches are very productively turned upside-down in the studies at hand: Stapleton attempts to tease out the social reality under Ba Jin’s literary myth of a “backward Sichuan,” while Ng sets out to restore Li Jieren’s place as a unique non-aligned writer in the highly politicized environment of the 1930s and 1940s. Both are famous for trilogies. In 1936, when Li was 45, he finished three novels in rapid succession spanning the history of Sichuan from 1894 to 1911. While the first one, Ripples on Dead Water (Sishui weilan) enjoys some degree of recognition, it is the third one, The Great Wave (Dabo), covering events leading up to the 1911 Revolution, that Ng singles out as the most rewarding read, a faraway echo of Flaubert’s depiction of the 1848 Revolution in L’Éducation sentimentale. Ba Jin’s Family, a novel with strong autobiographical flavour, was first serialized in the Shanghai Eastern Times (Shibao) in 1931, when Ba Jin was 27, and became a bestseller. Together with its two sequels, it forms the Turbulent Stream trilogy, which was instrumental in shaping the myth of May Fourth, and attacking old Chinese culture and Confucian values. Stapleton notes that Ba Jin’s May Fourth writing “conceals as much as it reveals” (p. 3), thus justifying her endeavour to use the historical record to probe his “misrepresentation” (p. 4) of traditional China.

Both studies productively engage with the question of how literature contributes to writing historical narratives, and how to read it as a historical narrative. Stapleton’s reading is focused on many of the things Ba Jin leaves out. While life for women, poor or rich, was indeed hard in Republican Chengdu (although Stapleton nuances this portrait by bringing in prominent modern women like Hu Lanqi), the gentry played a far more complex role than suggested by the evil patriarch in Ba Jin’s novel, in particular in the events of 1911. Stapleton amusingly points out how Ba Jin’s mocking disapproval of Sichuan opera and general diffidence of enjoyments, along with his disapproval of “empty rituals” and emphasis on sincerity, actually brings him closer to Confucian critics of formulaic rites like the arch-conservative Xu Zixiu (p. 81). This is certainly a typical trait of the May Fourth cultural rigorists, who were so convinced of their avant-garde role that they became as intolerant as the Confucians they criticized. The literary supplement Amusing Accounts (Yu xian lu), in which Li Jieren and Wu Yu crossed paths, with its gossip columns and discussion of actors like the famous female impersonator Zhang Bixiu (who appears in the novel as a favourite of one of the Gao uncles), had a unique flavour which was obviously lost on Ba Jin. While some anarchist references remain in Family, Stapleton places them within a fuller picture of various anarchist and Marxist student groups, and underlines that despite the stifling impression created by Ba Jin, cultural debates flourished in the 1920s. Most importantly, as demonstrated at length in her earlier study, Chengdu was not “murky and grim” in the 1920s (p. 216), but a laboratory for urban reforms, which many progressives saw as a more powerful tool for progress than cultural revolution.

Conversely, Ng interprets Li Jieren’s practice of literature as microhistory, conveying local pasts as haphazard and polyphonic configurations, and emphasizing the vernacular, the quotidian, the personal. The history of the 1911 Railroad Protection movement constructed in The Great Wave is a direct rebuttal of Wu Yuzhang and Guo Moruo’s ideological downplaying of the movement’s constitutionalist claims and their attempts to make it into a class uprising. Li Jieren, by contrast, demystifies the historical aura of the mass movement and tries to capture the “mentalité” of Chengdu people rather than celebrating the agency of the masses (p. 115). In this sense, Li is unwilling to change local memory into national allegory (p. 36), which puts him at odds with May Fourth and later revolutionary trends.

On a second level, literature as a public intervention is not only a historical narrative, but also always a political act. Ba Jin’s Family was a manifesto and indictment of old China, which constructed the myth of Chengdu as a place of backwardness for generations of readers. In an interesting spiral of canon-making, Ba Jin’s view of New Culture activism became canonical, which ensured that the novel Family that constructed this view, in turn entered the literary canon. Li Jieren on the other hand, used his fiction to express deep-felt ambiguities about the nation, to which Ng attributes his hesitant reception in China. Ng persuasively argues that the main reason why Li has been ignored by the mainstream “lies in his powerful representation of the regionalist movement stirred up by the Sichuan Railroad Company and local political elites against both the Qing court and the European powers” (p. 34). On a deeper level, Ng believes that Li Jieren valued space over time: “Li’s articulation of locality as the site of everydayness and multiple past experiences … challenges the May Fourth idea of history as a singular, universal time of telos and destiny” (p. 13). While May Fourth writers viewed time as the decisive aspect of modernity, Li Jieren constructed a spatial narrative of history.

Both Ba Jin and Li Jieren rewrote their novels after 1949 to “keep up with the times.” Stapleton notes that Ba Jin removed references to anarchism and played up the role of student activists (pp. 11–12). This is a point that might have been further elaborated: after all, the novel’s story does not end at the same time as its plot. Li Jieren also clarified class relationships among characters and toned down the sexual aspects of The Big Wave (pp. 220–26). But Ng argues that at the same time Li continued to resist grand narratives of revolutionary utopianism, highlighting local dynamics and personal feuds (p. 223). In particular, he inserted a whole new part on Duan Fang, the last Qing viceroy sent in to pacify Chengdu in October 1911, who was executed by the revolutionaries on 27 November 1911. In Li’s narrative, Duan Fang becomes a tragic figure, whose expedition showcases how “the imperial subjugation of the locality is frustrated” by the very geography of Sichuan (p. 240), a conclusion that does not bode well for future attempts to pacify the province from the centre. In this way, Ng argues, Li used literature as a form of “public memory” to preserve a sense of contingency and openness against the teleological view of history imposed after 1949. Thus, in some ways, the reworked version of Dabo comes across as a more tragic and confusing vision of historical events than the first (pp. 244–45).

All in all, these are two inspiring reads, which complicate the simple dichotomy of fiction and history. Kristin Stapleton aptly and elegantly questions the anti-traditionalist myth-making of May Fourth activists, highlighting the many evolutions underway beneath the surface of “dead water.” Stapleton commends Li Jieren for depicting Chengdu society “more realistically and sympathetically” (p. 152), while Ba Jin sometimes simply indicts it. However, Li Jieren also had his agenda. Kenny Ng shows that the historical narratives he constructed were crafted no less intricately than Ba Jin’s, but with the goal of resisting those very historical forces that Ba Jin strived to showcase. Both books contain a wealth of useful material in the appendixes, bibliographies and indexes. It is regrettable that Stapleton’s book has no list of Chinese characters. Ng’s chapter titles are also sometimes overly playful and hence ambiguous. Finally, both books contain some beautiful illustrations taken from period magazines and journals (especially the drawings from Tongsu Huabao in Ng’s study). Both studies will be of great interest to scholars of Republican history and literature, but also to simple readers of Ba Jin’s much-loved and Li Jieren’s still insufficiently recognized fiction.

Texte du compte rendu reproduit avec l’aimable autorisation de The China Quarterly et de Sebastian Veg.

Citer ce billet
Monique Abud (2017, 13 juillet). Deux comptes rendus par Sebastian Veg. Carnets du Centre Chine (CNRS/EHESS). Consulté le 20 mai 2024, à l’adresse

Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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Monique Abud

Centre d'études sur la Chine moderne et contemporaine, EHESS, Paris, France

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