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Hongjian Wang, Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture: A Comparative and Literary-Historical Reevaluation, Cambria Press, 2020. pgs. 252.
The modern notion of decadence developed from Montesquieu’s use of the term to describe the Roman Empire’s decline. After Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier adopted with pride what had been a term of abuse, decadence emerged as an artistic trend. Central to the trend was a new type of artist, the dandy, as described by Baudelaire in The Painter of Modern Life (1853). A flâneur afflicted by ennui, the decadent artist or character was one who lived by aestheticism, aristocratic superiority of intellect, and a core of melancholy over the decaying “corpse time” and its beauty.
Baudelaire’s poem “Enivrez-vous” (1864) inaugurated a decadent commitment to carpe diem: “In order not to be the martyred slaves of time, get drunk . . . On wine, on poetry, on virtue, as you wish.” His call crossed the Channel when the don of aestheticism Walter Pater issued an invitation to live by seeking pleasure from fleeting moments. “To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world . . .” (Studies of the History of the Renaissance, 1873).
Denounced as potentially corrupting, Pater’s injunction nonetheless became a mantra among a loose collection of British writers inspired by Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and other writers turning from romanticism toward new forms of aestheticism, symbolism, and ultimately modernism. The poet-critic Arthur Symons crystallised the trend in his essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature” (1893). For Symons, decadence was “a new and beautiful and interesting disease”. After Oscar Wilde became the standard bearer for British decadence in the 1890s, his conviction for “offences against public decency”—resulting in two years of hard labour—furthered the movement’s association with transgression. Decadence was also an invective aimed in particular at Jews and homosexuals, both of whom were vilified and blamed for social and cultural decline.
The concept thus coalesced as an avant-garde literary and artistic trend characterised by self-conscious artifice, material excess, philosophical pessimism, sensual pleasure, and subversion of moral, political and sexual norms. Perhaps best viewed as a cluster of overlapping impulses, themes, and postures, decadence was central to the aesthetics of modernity. Many readers hear its resonance, from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855, 1892) to Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) and beyond. Offshoots in Russia and Italy continued into the 1910s and 1920s. More recently, Jacques Barzun has tackled a longstanding enduring fascination with decadence (From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 2000), and Ross Douthat has applied it to contemporary “economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion” (The Decadent Society, 2020).
With Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, Hongjian Wang focuses on Decadence with a capital D and its career in China. In her introduction, titled “Decadence Versus Tuifei”, she acknowledges but puts aside traditional Chinese conceptions of tuifei (頹廢 “decadent” or “decadence”) in order to “move beyond the negative connotations that tainted Decadence when it was first introduced to China” (p. 29). After dismissing analyses by Leo Ou-fan Lee, Xie Zhixi, Shih Shu-mei, and Liu Jianmei, it takes her just two paragraphs to dispense with tuifei in the erotic tradition in seventeenth-century fiction (as studied by Keith McMahon or Patrick Hanan) and in poetry from the late-Ming through the Republican era (as studied by Xiaorong Li). “While acknowledging the critical value of the concept of tuifei, this book examines twentieth-century Chinese literature through the lens of European Decadence” (p. 29).
Wang goes on to discuss seven Chinese writers whom she sees as having appropriated and often “misinterpreted” European Decadence. (She cites French and British sources, omitting Italians, Russians, Spanish, and others.) Her examples bookend the twentieth century, from Yu Dafu 郁達夫 and Shao Xunmei 邵洵美 in the 1920s and 1930s (Part 1), to writings from the late 1980s through the early 2000s by Yu Hua 余华 and Su Tong 苏童 (Part 2); and Wang Shuo 王朔, Wang Xiaobo 王小波, and Yin Lichuan 尹丽川 (Part 3).
Wang’s goal is to probe the rise of Decadence in Chinese literature in terms of specific socio-political and cultural dynamics similar to those that sparked fin-de-siècle decadence in France and England. Her method, she explains, proceeds as one might compare Southern California and the Iberian Peninsula.
“ . . . since they are both on the west coast of a continent in the northern hemisphere . . . they have very similar climate, which produces similar vegetation . . . If we can find a climate in twentieth-century Chinese literature that is of the same nature as European Decadence––a rebellion that follows the logic of Decadence—we may better understand the Chinese society that gave rise to Decadence.” (pp. 30-31)
In Part 1, Wang treats two writers that many critics discuss as decadent but who, she argues, do not qualify in the “European” sense that interests her. Although she recognises Yu Dafu (1896-1945) and Shao Xunmei (1906-1968) for their pioneering introduction of European decadence, ultimately, she judges neither to be a Decadent writer. In her readings, Yu was ultimately too much a humanist devoted to Confucian moral codes, and Shao too much “a Romantic at heart” (p. 32). Confidence in their moral and cultural authority, she posits, meant these writers “chose to ignore European Decadents’ efforts to brandish their individual willpower and flaunt their spiritual superiority over the middle class” (p. 208).
Yu Dafu might be the first writer to come to mind for many readers seeking modern Chinese examples of decadence. The poet, non-fiction writer and publisher Shao Xunmei might be a second, were he not so unknown outside China. In terms of literary history, Wang’s inclusion of them makes sense. Given that she disagrees with calling them decadent, however, why not briefly mention and then lay them aside in favour of chapters on writers who would demonstrate her paradigm? “To do Shao justice,” she concludes, “it is necessary [to] recognise him as a Romantic who contributed to the development of modern Chinese print culture and whose iconoclastic poems celebrated earthly pleasures” (p. 80). To do her argument justice, it would help to recognise seven authors that exemplify her thesis.
In Part 2 Wang re-evaluates scholarship that engages with decadence in the works of Yu Hua (b. 1960) and Su Tong (b. 1963). In these chapters she argues against critics that she claims “have deemed them high-profile ‘Decadents’” (p. 32). As in Part 1, Wang acknowledges decadent subject matter in these writers’ works, yet sees neither as Decadent in the European sense. She argues that Chen Sihe 陈思和 and other critics incorrectly “fin-de-siècle-ize” these writers ever since Chen’s influential essay on Yu Hua’s fiction and fin-de-siècle awareness (世纪末意识).
Wang situates interest in decadence—or post-humanism for one critic—as linked to the popularity of post-modernism after Fredric Jameson’s 1985 visit and Tang Xiaobing’s translation of Jameson’s writings in《后现代主义与文化理论》(Postmodernism and Cultural Theories, 1987). Wang links critics’ interest in countering discourses of progress and modernity with their desire to bid “farewell to revolution” (告别革命), as theorized by Li Zehou 李泽厚 and Liu Zaifu 刘再复. She sees Yu Hua as sharing this desire, but as reconnecting with the May Fourth tradition of humanism rather than as working within a posthuman framework. For her, even in his early stories, Yu Hua “aestheticizes not for the sake of aestheticization, . . . but to critique people’s apathy toward violence” (p. 101). “All in all,” she concludes, “Yu is a humanist who happens to be obsessed with evil” (p. 108).
Because Wang sees Su Tong’s characters as showing “no real willpower”, she hears him as echoing Nietzsche’s critique of decadence but not Decadence in the European sense she pursues. “In fact, none of Su Tong’s characters cares about their individual free will or their spiritual superiority, which sets Su Tong apart from the European Decadent writers” (p. 128). This chapter too sets out to correct earlier scholars who, she claims, “consider him to be a decadent writer” (p. 112). It would help to distinguish between classifying an author as decadent and engaging with decadent elements in his works. My 1998 article, on which Wang draws repeatedly, analysed a dialectic of decadence and revolution as a heuristic, neither to classify Su Tong nor to presume to voice his intentions. Wang, by contrast, imputes Su Tong’s beliefs and concerns. “Su Tong believes in a hopeless, evil human nature,” she avers, “. . . and that the revolution built on mobilising the decadent masses can only fail” (p. 126).
Part 3 treats three writers whom Wang sees as the most Decadent in the European sense: Wang Shuo (b. 1958), Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997), and Yin Lichuan (b. 1973). Her strongest analyses lie in these chapters. True to her presentation of European decadence, she stresses the importance of artifice, rebellion, and transgression to a cultural elite anxious to maintain their distinction in the face of “the levelling effect of money” (p. 8). Here she clarifies what she calls the logic of decadence through her analysis of contradictions in these writers’ works. Like their European counterparts, these writers evince disdain for and indifference to the public, yet simultaneously bespeak a craving for attention. Their works manifest vigour, but also languor, as well as—in at least two of three cases––paradoxical commitments to causes that deny commitment.
Wang Shuo’s novels, novellas, and films seem to best exemplify her argument about rebellion’s propensity to reinforce the norms it contests. In works such as Half Flame, Half Sea《一半是火焰，一半是海水》(1986, elsewhere translated Hot and Cold: Measure for Measure), and “The Master of Mischief”《顽主》(1987), the thrill-seeking characters engage in crime or indolence, savagely mocking intellectuals and their ideals. Yet their defiance, she explains, is a pretence belied by their embrace of friendship, optimism, and revolutionary heroism. “They have no intention of overthrowing mainstream values; they are merely posing as hooligans to stand out from the crowd, as heroes do” (p. 152).
She attributes this preoccupation with status to Wang Shuo’s anxiety over the decline of the military elite of his Mao-era upbringing in a military compound. No longer celebrated as revolutionary heroes, Wang Shuo and his characters, she reasons, turned to decadence to assert superiority over the masses. Yet unlike citizens at the margins, his deviant characters’ machinations depend on connections.
As with Wang Shuo, Hongjian Wang sees Wang Xiaobo as driven by existential anxiety about a fall in status, in his case that of intellectuals. “It was the pain over the decline in the elite status of the intellectuals that prompted Wang to resort to Decadent rebellion in his writing to reclaim his cultural authority and spiritual superiority” (p. 176). Wang Xiaobo’s essays and his fictional characters’ discourse privilege reason and intellectual freedom, but these same characters often act against their own desires and interests.
Once again Wang disputes earlier critics’ analyses, particularly those who probe Wang Xiaobo’s characters’ irrationality in psychoanalytic terms—Ai Xiaoming, Michael Berry, Dai Jinhu, Fang Wei, Yibing Huang, Wendy Larson, Jianmei Liu, and Sebastian Veg. Reading sexually charged novellas such as “The Golden Age”《黄金时代》(1991), “Time Flows by Like Water” 《似水流年》(1992) and “Love in the Time of Revolution”《革命时期的爱情》(1994), these scholars interpret the power exchanges between the lovers and with the authorities as complex explorations of Cultural Revolution trauma. In re-imagining that violence, Wang Xiaobo’s black humour unleashes portrayals of absurd obsessive aggressions, perverse fixations, fears of castration, masochism, sadism, and sadomasochistic struggle sessions. Seeing such interpretations as “strained” (p. 165) and as “miss[ing] other important [aspects]” (p. 169), Hongjian Wang argues that Wang Xiaobo “switched his focus to Decadent-style rebellion” (p. 173) such that “to these Decadent characters, reason and intellectual freedom are not ends-in-themselves . . . but tools that help them to address their ultimate concerns––unique individuality and free will” (p. 174).
Wang turns last to Yin Lichuan, a leading figure of the “lower-body writing” (下半身写作) popular in the early 2000s. Whereas the group is known for seeking to downplay “upper-body” factors in order to privilege the “real, concrete, tangible, exciting, wild, sexy unimpeded” lower body (p. 193), Wang interprets Yin’s early poetry as turning above all on her resentment of the routines of daily life. “To Yin, daily life is familiar, comfortable, and heart-warming but unoriginal, unreflective and hence not genuine” (p. 183). Despite her attachment to simple pleasures, Yin “must rebel against the norms in which she believes if she is to preserve her individual free will” (p. 188).
Wang speaks of Yin’s “journey into and out of Decadent rebellion” (p. 203) because Yin came to see the paradox that “in order to assert their unique individuality and free will, Decadents must rebel in fleeting and unrepeatable ways” (p. 195). Yin dramatised the problem of rebellion instituting new norms with her novel The Despicable《贱人》(2002). As a group of friends pursue “theft for art’s sake,” Wang sees them as seeking “not a freedom from moral values they uphold, but from the insignificant social status that has held them down” (p. 197). Like the editor who rejects class differentiation in Yin’s film Sleepless Fashion《与时尚同居》(2011), Yin herself “comes to accept and even welcome the natural death of her Decadence” (p. 203).
Wang titles her conclusion “Decadence or Not?” The question brings some needed relief to the reader who may be puzzled after so many negative examples. Here Wang considers the rise of Decadence in the mid 1980s as the result of China’s post-socialist commercialisation of literature. As the market’s dominance reduced the prestige and cultural authority of writers, Wang Shuo and Wang Xiaobo, fostered by the socialist system, resorted to Decadence “to sooth the pain of their traumatic losses” (p. 219). “Decadence was only a phase in both Wangs’ writings,” she clarifies, “because of its internal and eternal paradoxes” (p. 219). Too young to expect automatic prestige, Yin Lichuan nonetheless engaged in Decadent rebellion in her “self-indulgent poems” but produced fiction and a film that confront head-on the paradoxes of decadence.
Decadence names a condition that has changed for the worse, associating artifice, deviant sexuality and other transgressions with societal decline. At a time when humanity faces serious existential perils, Hongjian Wang’s study inspires further reflection on the enduring fascination with decadent artistic responses.
How to cite: Knight, Sabina. “Through the Lens of European Decadence: Hongjian Wang’s Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 19 May 2023, chajournal.blog/2023/05/19/decadence
Sabina Knight 桑稟華 is author of Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction (2012, translated into three languages) and The Heart of Time: Moral Agency in Twentieth-Century Chinese Fiction (2006). She is Professor of Chinese and World Literatures at Smith College, a research associate at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and a fellow in the NCUSCR’s Public Intellectuals Program. Her current projects consider the politics of translation, non-Han literatures, and media of dissent. [All contributions by Sabina Knight.]