Compte rendu : Socialist cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945–1965

Sebastian Veg. [Compte rendu de] Nicolai Volland. Socialist cosmopolitanism : the Chinese literary universe, 1945–1965 (Columbia University Press, 2017). The China Quarterly, vol. 234, June 2018, pp. 585-587. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0305741018000759.

Texte intégral du compte rendu de Sebastian Veg

Within the growing body of scholarship reassessing the early years of the PRC in the bottom-up perspective of everyday history, Nicolai Volland’s study of the post-1949 literary system represents a valuable contribution. It provides new answers to questions about what ordinary people were commonly reading, how Chinese literature fitted into the new international cultural system centred on Moscow, and how Chinese writers were encouraged to contribute to building the new state.

The central argument revolves around the notion of “socialist cosmopolitanism.” He persuasively argues that the socialist literary system that was established in 1949 inherited some distinctive traits from the tradition of modern Chinese literature since May Fourth, and in particular its attachment to the cosmopolitan connections that blossomed in the 1930s. Soviet literature and works from socialist brother-states now replaced the “decadent” Western classics, as positive “internationalism” was contrasted with the individualism of the Kantian “world citizen.” Culture in those days, Volland argues, was a conduit for the Sino-Soviet alliance, by contrast with the revival of “red classics” in post-reform China, when the “transnational context, with its allegories of solidarity and intertextual references, collapsed into monistic nationalism” (p. 7). In his conceptual elaboration of “socialist cosmopolitanism,” he points out three defining traits: the valorization of the collective, the role of the national within the transnational, and the emancipatory ideal of egalitarianism, which challenges the prevalent global cultural hegemony (p. 13).

Chapter one retraces the institutionalization of cultural diplomacy in the PRC, through a dense network of exchanges, translations, film weeks, congresses, all centralized under elaborate work plans produced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Volland particularly dwells on the poet Feng Zhi as a cultural broker between China and East Germany (where he established contacts with Bertolt Brecht and Anna Seghers), underlining that the PRC never embraced cultural isolation, but rather redirected and reorganized existing transnational networks. Chapter two compares two land reform novels, Zhou Libo’s Hurricane and his translation of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned (as well as the North Korean novel Land by Yi Ki-yong). The Chinese novel deals with land reform, while the Soviet one is dedicated to collectivization: their simultaneous reception places them at different points along a shared chronology (collectivization represents China’s future) as well as within a shared geography of the socialist universe (with Yi’s novel). Chapter three examines some of China’s rare industrial novels, Despair (1937) and The Moving Force (1948) by Cao Ming, also considered with reference to Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement (1925). This genre was neither a popular success in China, nor did it receive international recognition in the form of the Stalin prize, as Zhou Libo or Ding Ling’s rural novels did. By contrast, the science fiction novels of the 1950s discussed in chapter four, which Volland views as successors to the middle-brow entertainment fiction of the 1930s and 1940s, sold excellently, and Russian works were eventually emulated by Chinese writers like Zheng Wenguang. While science-fiction novels were clearly didactic and aimed at firmly establishing the place of science as the law of Marxist societies, they are strangely unpolitical: for this reason, Volland labels them as “socialist entertainment.” Children’s literature, examined in chapter five, was a typical Soviet invention, received with enthusiasm in Chinese translation, with a view to educating the generation of “successors of communism.” Soviet novels like Son of the Regiment and Zoya and Shura extol qualities like martyrdom, sacrifice for the nation, and the value of the collective surrogate family (represented by the revolution, with Stalin at its pinnacle); however, depictions of a free-wheeling childhood in the latter novel were offensive to Chinese propagandists, who edited them out of the abridged versions they promoted (unabridged versions sold equally well). Finally, the journal Yiwen (Translations), established in 1953 to explain the new literary geography of the Cold War world to Chinese readers, is examined in chapter six. Originally placed under the editorship of Mao Dun and the symbolic patronage of Lu Xun, who had established a journal by the same name in 1934, it was reorganized in 1959–1960 as a result of growing Sino-Soviet tensions. Whereas its first title emphasized its role in bringing authoritative (Soviet) texts to (Chinese) readers, its new title Shijie wenxue suggested that “the project of one-way translation” had become “problematic” (p. 166) and was to make way for a more China-centred approach to world literature, “spearhead[ing] a cultural anti-imperialist insurgency from the south” (p. 188). It eventually had to stop publication (in 1964) and, when it resurrected in 1978, was crowded out by the many new venues for translations, even as socialist cosmopolitanism faded under the bright lights of the Reform and Opening up policy.

In the conclusion, Volland argues that the socialist appropriation of cosmopolitanism came with its own specific traits: its reliance on the state rather than civil society “in a statist approach to governance that sees government itself as an extension, even incarnation of popular agency,” and its break with the “privilege and arrogance of a cosmopolitan idealism born out of an age of colonialism, imperialism, racism, and gendered exclusion” (p. 191). Here the reader cannot help wondering if double standards are not being applied to the two “types” of cosmopolitanism. It is one thing to rescue the idealism of writers in the early PRC who tried to salvage and reframe their May Fourth ideals in the framework of the new geopolitical reality. It is another to accept their contention that the PRC state was an “incarnation of popular agency,” without discussing the status of “enemies of the people” (see for example Yang Kuisong, “Reconsidering the campaign to suppress counterrevolutionaries,” China Quarterly 193, 2008). Just as 1930s’ cosmopolitanism is sometimes embellished by critics who ignore the economic and symbolic hegemonies embedded in it, “socialist cosmopolitanism” is sometimes idealized in Volland’s study as a disinterested, purely ethical pursuit. Discussion of Perry Link’s conceptualization of China’s “literary system” in The Uses of Literature (Princeton, 2000) might have shed further light on how it not only enabled new forms of intellectual exchange, but also created new types of “privilege and arrogance” among cultural luminaries within it, and interrupted as well as enabled international exchanges. Finally, Volland’s study does not directly address questions of vocabulary: one wonders whether the same Chinese terms were used when Chinese writers professed “cosmopolitanism” in the 1930s and in the 1950s.

The close readings of literary works (both Chinese originals and Soviet or other works translated into Chinese) are rich and persuasive, complemented by careful studies of literary and cultural institutions (journals, cultural diplomacy bureaucracies, literary prizes). The propaganda and prestige functions of socialist cosmopolitanism are thus also well documented throughout the book. Of particular interest is how Volland’s study captures what ordinary people – adults and children – enjoyed reading, which was the least politically inflected propaganda available, in the form of science-fiction and “middle-brow” socialist entertainment. Both historians and literature scholars will therefore find Volland’s study of great value in providing a richer, more nuanced picture of cultural production in the early PRC.

Texte du compte rendu reproduit avec l’aimable autorisation de The China Quarterly et de Sebastian Veg (CCJ-CECMC).

Fiche du livre sur le site de Columbia University Press


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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