China & Inner Asia: Table of Contents
Organizer: Jian Guo, University of Wisconsin, Whitewater
Chair: Rolf J. Goebel, University of Alabama, Huntsville
Discussant: Wendy Larson, University of Oregon
Since various theoretical positions under the general category of the postmodern share a common ground in revolting against the modernity of the Enlightenment and in acknowledging the postmodern (as a condition, a cultural logic, etc.) as the defining characteristic or cultural dominant of the current epoch beyond the modern, postmodernism has posed a severe challenge to Chinas on-going movement toward modernization, and especially to the Chinese understanding of modernity as defined by the May Fourth New Cultural Movement of 1919. The issue is further complicated by readings of the Cultural Revolution of the late 60s and early 70s as an ambitious endeavor to resist and transcend modernity; such popular versions of Maoism in the West have had a profound influence on postmodernist discourse. As postmodernist studies marked a "new theoretical trend" in the China of the 90s, it has become all the more urgent to assess the values of postmodernism in a Chinese context and to reassess the Cultural Revolution from the vantage point of the postmodern. The panel proposes to examine this issue from both theoretical and historical perspectives and offer diverse views on the political implications of postmodernism in contemporary China.
Henry Y. H. Zhao, University of London
When Fredric Jameson and other exponents of postmodernism lecture-toured China in late 1980s and continue to do it in the 1990s, they have passed, inadvertently perhaps, to Chinese intellectuals an inspiring idea: China does not have to materialize all the essential aspects of the modernist project, since in a post-modern society those aspects are outmoded and unnecessary. One of the "skippable" parts is cultural criticism exercised by an independent intelligentsia, because, it is alleged, the wholesale commercialization creates sufficient "social space," even a sort of "civic society," where the will of the common people applies pressure to balance state power, and also because the overpowering rise of popular, entertainment culture washes away the official ideology. In this way, intellectuals are freed from the responsibility of social conscience and conscious cultural opposition is not only superfluous but counter-productive that delays the process of "postmodernization" in China.
All Chinese intellectuals may not subscribe to postmodernism, but the postmodernist proposition that cultural criticism could be disposed of has provided much support to the introversive tendency that started after 1989 and became dominant after the "economic take-off" in China. The call for "Professionalization" of intellectuals (which was hailed as the "maturing" of Chinese intelligentsia) is an ostensible example. The almost spontaneous popular fever of nationalism in 199697 is another. Judging from the development of Chinese culture in recent years, the postmodernistic abstention from cultural criticism on the part of Chinese intellectuals is now an issue that demands urgent attention.
Xiaobin Yang, Fairfield University
As the question of Chinese postmodernism/ postmodernity has triggered more and more debates over its connotation, I attempt to define the concept of Chinese postmodernity by contextualizing it within the domain of historical experience and discursive modes. My main thesis can be summarized as an inquiry into the traumatic experience deeply inherent in the cultural psychology in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, which incapacitates any rational, holistic way of understanding history, and thus disrupts the legitimacy of both historical modernity (teleological temporality) and literary modernity (metarepresentational subjectivity). My paper will cover the following aspects: (1) Chinese modernity lies both in the conviction of an emancipatory national history, and in the paradigm of subject-centered metarepresentation. Both aspects culminate in the Cultural Revolution; (2) The traumatic memory-trace from the Cultural Revolution affects post-Cultural Revolution writers, especially avant-garde writers in the mid- and late eighties, in a belated way. Their writings linger in the impossibility, inadequacy or absurdity of the act of representing history; (3) If the Mao-Deng political discourse is a particular discursive form of modernity in 20th-century China, post-Cultural Revolution avant-garde literature, by challenging the literary paradigm of modernity, also challenges the political mode that is based on the same discursive ground. A postmodern literature can be defined at the same time as post-Mao-Deng; (4) The attempt to define postmodernity as a reaction to the western hegemony risks, ironically, returning to the official discourse of national modernity.
Ben Xu, St. Marys College, California
In answering the question "Is modernity-democracy still valid in China?" it is better to treat postmodernism as an issue of practice rather than one of pure theory. Postmodernism has emerged in China as a post-Cultural Revolution trend because it promises to replace the model of "class struggle" and "liberation of the proletariat" developed by Marxism-Maoism, with a pluralism of power/discourse functions that cannot be judged in terms of orthodoxly defined validity. However, the postmodernist attempt to legitimate the subjugated, the silenced, and the marginalized is beset with severe political risks in the present Chinese context. The obsession of differences and attempt to insurrect cultures and knowledge of the Other run the danger of echoing fervent parochialism and xenophobia; the decentering of the subject may lead to a subject with no responsibilities of agency; and the rejection of totalizing discourses could render all relative. I want to suggest that we must retain modernist ideas of agency, rationality, civic norms, and a notion of Existentialist totality (as a heuristic rather than ontological category) to avoid a rupture between postmodernist critique and the urgent task of social and political democratization in China.
Jian Guo, University of Wisconsin, Whitewater
In the wake of the democracy movement and its suppression by the government in 1989, a critical assessment was in order from the Chinese intellectuals strongly interested in postmodernism. They considered the "Tiananmen Incident" to be the tragic end of a misguided quest for the Enlightenment modernity that dominated Chinas cultural scene in the entire 1980s. In this view, 1989 signified at once a drastic break from the "cultural fever" of the past decade and a celebrated outset of the "Post-New Era" liberated from modernist illusions, and the significance of the year was compared to that of 1968 in the West, the moment of inception for various postmodernist theories.
In my presentation I intend to question this postmodernist assessment of 1989, especially in regard to the repressed political memory in the current "new theoretical trend": the tremendous influence of Chinas Cultural Revolution on Western postmodernist theories in the late 1960s seems to be conveniently forgotten, and the fact that Chinese intellectuals renewed interest in the Enlightenment ideals in the 1980s was part and parcel of a critical reaction to the Cultural Revolution is almost completely ignored. I will argue that a genuine critique of the Cultural Revolution will help us recognize the values of modernity (as defined in the May Fourth New Cultural Movement of 1919 and reflected upon in the 1980s) in contemporary China and that considering the connection of Western postmodernism with Chinas Cultural Revolution, an uncritical reception of postmodernist theories may lead to unexpected and undesired conclusions.