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The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers

January 29, 2010

Leo Ou-fan Lee. The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1973.

Jeremy Murray (2005)

Lee’s study recounts the lives and works of a generation of writers that spans mainly the decades before and after the May Fourth Movement. In many ways it is a pleasant and satisfying read, ranging in its content from the broadest of literary and historical trends to the minutia of the writers’ personal lives. Lee emphasizes the roles of the cosmopolitan treaty-port culture and Western literature in shaping the work of this generation of writers, in a movement towards romanticism. According to Lee, this generation was deeply infused with an often-muddled interpretation of Western romantic sentimentality that came out of both foreign influences and a reaction against the stringent rituals of traditional Chinese culture. Lee bluntly explains his perception of this cultural transaction: “It may not be too far-fetched to remark that the Western craze in China represented a zestful effort to squeeze the entire nineteenth century [of Western literature] into one decade” (279).

Lee runs a bit roughshod over the biographies of a handful of representative cases in the development of Chinese romanticism, but he narrates some memorable tales, from the time of the early unabashed acknowledgement of sentimentality by Lin Shu in his selection of works to translate, finally to Mao’s repression of romantic individualism. In Lee’s model, a group of naïve young men in between these moments attempts to graft literary romanticism onto Chinese traditional culture, finding in the latter “sentimental strains” (292). But even before Mao’s crackdown the experiment had shown signs of withering in Lee’s view as a result of “prejudiced and often erroneous interpretations” of the great Western traditions (239). Lee’s work is a rich source, which serves as an intimate introduction to some of the individuals who took part in the early literary institutions and movements of this period. He uses the publications, diaries, and correspondences to explain the anxieties of these writers who lived and worked in a what they perceived to be a barbaric world, bringing to bear his own excellent understanding of the historical moment.

But Lee’s final analysis is too narrow in its assessment of this handful of writers for him to claim relevance beyond the individuals themselves; it is after all the entire generation of writers that he claims this group represents. To emphasize the two influences of a foreign education and a claustrophobic reaction to emotional restrictions of tradition is to ignore the contemporary sociopolitical environment away from which these writers so dramatically turned their attention. Canton, the site of much political action, only appears momentarily in Lee’s narrative, mainly for the purpose of explaining that it was not a fertile environment for these romantic poets, memoirists, and novelists. Surely in Lee’s masterful understanding of the historical moment out of which these artists emerged he understands the urgency of the social crisis of nationalism that swept through the intellectual world. He loses some credibility from this reader with lines like, “Hsü [Chih-mo] was too involved with his new wife to hear the guns of war” (154). What then explains the characterization of a “philistine” or “barbarous” environment against which Lee acknowledges that the bulk of the romantic writings of Hsü and others were produced?

The narrative he chooses for contextualization is clearly not that of warlordism, national unification, and political turmoil, and it is obviously not Lee’s goal to give a clearer explanation of political and military maneuvering in this period. But even on his terms, in his explanation of this “literary scene” he assumes that he can turn down the volume of war in favor of recounting the details of an education spent lounging on the “backs’ of Cambridge and the intricacies of Japanese brothels.” But why were these writers at foreign universities, and why were they in the arms of Japanese prostitutes? The turmoil out of which these writers emerged, the violence from which they attempted to escape or against which they wrote with irony and satire, are perhaps considered to be “givens” in Lee’s analysis. But this is not effectively articulated, and the result is the privileging of treaty-port culture and Western influences as determining factors in the lives of his characters. Feelings of malaise, hypochondria, anxiety, or superfluity experienced by Lee’s writers were character traits not simply brought on by the puritanical traditionalism of Chinese culture converging with the vital modernity of the West; but rather, by their own words in this volume, they were caused by the urgency that nationalist intellectuals perceived in the disintegration of a coherent governing structure and strong, unified national polity. But as Lee points out, they indeed sometimes chose to vent their anxieties in the tradition of some Western sentimentalists of the nineteenth century.

© Copyright 2005. All rights reserved.

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