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Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies

January 30, 2010

Perry Link. Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: Popular Fiction in Early Twentieth Century Chinese Cities. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Matthew Johnson (2003)

This important work of literary and social history addresses the ignored world of post-May Fourth Chinese popular fiction, previously marginalized by the social radical and nationalists of that era who had little use for its sentimental content (hence the use of “mandarin ducks and butterflies” – symbols of devoted lovers typically found in classical Chinese literature – as a term of disparagement). Specifically, it illuminates the important role of fiction as a medium of negotiation between a modernizing urban culture and the ‘classical’ culture that preceded it, as well as the ambivalent perspective within which that negotiation was typically framed. Publication figures for the time indicate that these fictional works were widely read. Link’s central claim is that they reflect the attitudes of their numerous consumers, and therefore constitute an urban, Chinese perspective upon incipient modernity.

The fiction to which Link devotes much of his attention was thus a product of turbulent social change. Its popular nature was grounded in transformation of mass printing techniques, the spread of vernacular literature and literacy among urban residents, and the emergence of a new, urban class of ‘petty urbanites’ (xiao shimin) for whom reading such works was considered a gratifying form of entertainment. A form of fiction is aesthetically defined as ‘popular’ insofar as it is distinct from elite or high art, and socially defined as such insofar as it is mass-produced and widely-read (the large publication figures of the late 1930s bolster this latter claim). Link argues that the significance of popular fiction is that its perspective is shared by its consumers. Specifically, the popular fiction of this period significant in that it reflects an overwhelming ambivalence toward the introduction of modern lifestyles and mores, which had spread from ‘Westernized’ concession ports into urban Chinese environments. It is furthermore conservative in that it reflects a sentimental yearning for the affirmation of enduring truth beneath the spectacle of modern change, taking the themes of classical Chinese literature as its precedent.

Following the revolution of 1911, semi-classical love fiction experienced a similar wave of popularity, whose ‘classicism’ might be seen as a frustrated retreat from the reformist attitudes that suffered under Yuan Shikai’s authoritarian regime. This psychological approach to popularity places the mass-produced magazines, journals, and short stories that arose thereafter within a context of production and demand based on the mental needs of individual readership. Revealingly, the mass publishing houses that emerged in around 1900 created a modern newspaper industry that incorporated increasingly diverse subject matter concerning literature, roles and behavior in changing urban society, and education appropriate to the new ‘modern’ nation. This growing colonization of reformism by entertainment culture (many popular fiction works were serialized in news publications, whose reporting took a socially voyeuristic focus) indicates, to Link, both a growing commercial interest on the part of press owners and a growing preference for entertainment in place of national ideology among readers.

In the chapter “Authors and Readers,” Link thus attempts to locate both groups in a rapidly-changing urban environment tending toward commercialization, commodified forms of entertainment and voyeurism, and juxtapositions of new and old (or ‘Western’ and ‘Chinese’) culture. While the recognizably urbane biographies of many popular authors support this conclusion, statements about readership remain difficult insofar as publication figures fail to reveal who is reading. The chapter “Fiction for Comfort” contains Link’s provocative, though not unproblematic claim that early twentieth-century Chinese popular fiction was, both in form and content, appropriate to an increasingly modernized society (in which entertainment played a vital role as part of the new practice of leisure) whose dislocations produced a psychological need for the mediations provided by a new form of fiction, targeted at one particular social class – the ‘petty urbanites’.

Reviewers praised Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies as an “indispensable” history of modern Chinese culture, and for the incisiveness of Link’s argument against the perspectives of May Fourth ideologues and in favor of the view that popular literature serves as a legitimate object of social reflection and inquiry (Journal of Asian Studies, 42,2:394-5). Some took Link to task, however, for the “theoretical weaknesses” surrounding his definition of popular literature (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 44,2:578-86). The problem is not surprising, however, when one considers the various historical and literary fields that converge in this classic study.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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