“A History of Modern Chinese Fiction” by CT Hsia

Eileen Chang Eileen Chang

Those with an academic interest in Chinese literature are undoubtedly aware of the CT Hsia classic History of Modern Chinese Fiction which has just been reissued by the Chinese University Press. Those who aren’t might find the thought of a 600-page tome of literary criticism to be more than a little daunting; that would be a pity, for the volume is an example of erudition and clarity of expression.

A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, CT Hsia (Chinese University Press, September 2016)
A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, CT Hsia (Chinese University Press, September 2016)

Given that this edition follows the 1971 second edition, the “modern” in the title is a relative term. One won’t find here any of the recent flowering of Chinese fiction: there’s no Mo Yan, Yu Hua, Su Tong or Han Shaogong. Further, names are in the Wade-Giles transliteration, so a writer like Lu Hsün may not be immediately recognizable to those familiar with the more currently common spelling of Lu Xun. It was only when I read that Yü Ta-fu became a newspaper editor in Singapore in 1938 and fled to Sumatra in 1942 that I linked him to the Yu Dafu who figured in a number of Ng Kim Chew’s stories in Slow Boat to China.

Given that this edition follows the 1971 second edition, the “modern” in the title is a relative term.

This is as much a history as it is a work of literary criticism and analysis. Given the intermingling of literature and politics, everywhere but especially in China in the turbulent 40 years covered, it is inevitable that the book should itself been the subject of political analysis, a subject treated in detail in an introduction by Harvard’s David Der-wei Wang.

 

Yet while A History of Modern Chinese Fiction is targeted on the scholar, it remains eminently readable by those with only a passing familiarity with the subject and writers mentioned. The prose is clear and succinct. In a lead-in to praising Lo Hua-Sheng (1893-1941) and his story “Yü-Kuan” as “triumphant”, Hsia writes that

 

Most contemporary Chinese writers reserve their sympathies for the poor and downtrodden; the idea that any person, irrespective of class and position, is a fit subject for compassionate understanding is alien to them. This failure of sympathy accounts for the moral shallowness of the bulk of modern Chinese literature…

 

This is a survey, and so Hsia includes writers he doesn’t think much of. He doesn’t pull his punches, resulting in some agreeable schadenfreude at such passages as:

 

Kuo Mo-jo [Guo Moruo] was a prolific and indefatigable writer… His creative output, upon which his literary reputation must primarily rest, is of a very mediocre quality indeed.

 

The book abounds with lengthy translated passages many of which are several hundred words long. These are lucid, fluent and idiomatic and provide considerable inducement to seek out the entire works from which they are excerpted (although one fears that the excerpts are, in many cases, all that has actually been translated).

Eileen Chang is not only the best and most important writer in Chinese today; her short stories alone invite valid comparisons with, and in some respects claim superiority over, the work of serious modern women writers in English: Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.

 

It is probably the case that few lay readers will have read or even heard of many of the writers included in this book. The lengthy chapter on Eileen Chang, therefore, is one that perhaps has the most resonance with modern, i.e. 21st rather than mid-20th century, sensibilities. In his introduction, Wang notes that Hsia championed Chang’s writing and attributed much of her later celebrity to his promotion of her. Hsia writes that

 

Eileen Chang is not only the best and most important writer in Chinese today; her short stories alone invite valid comparisons with, and in some respects claim superiority over, the work of serious modern women writers in English: Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers.

 

This is high praise indeed.

The now somewhat anachronistic use of “modern” aside, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction seems to have aged very well. It is not all stuffy or mannered but clear, informative and enjoyably opinionated. While profound academic arguments undoubtedly lurk below its polished surface—Wang discusses some—these need not perturb those unaware of them.


Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.