Harvard professor David Der-wei Wang visits UBC to speak on writing history in contemporary Chinese fiction
Modern Chinese history has often been talked about in terms of major turning points, such as the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, and the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. However, Harvard University Chinese literature professor David Der-wei Wang argues that following the Cultural Revolution, contemporary Chinese fiction writers began questioning Chinese history and thinking of different possibilities, which he calls “post-history”.
“The traditional kind of history represented by revolution, enlightenment, and Maoist apocalypse all collapsed in the massacre at Tiananmen Square,” Wang told the Straight by phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “As a result, in response to the ongoing intellectual dynamics in the western world, this kind of post-history, in a way, tries to question the validity of history to subvert all that which has been sanctioned as unshakable in the definition and practice of history.”
Wang is this year’s Yip So Man Wat Memorial lecturer at UBC’s department of Asian studies. He will be presenting a lecture titled “Writing History After ”˜Post-History’: On Contemporary Chinese Fiction” on Wednesday (March 9) at 7 p.m. The lecture will take place at the UBC Asian Centre Auditorium (1871 West Mall), and will be preceded by a reception in the Asian Centre foyer at 6 p.m.
Wang, who has also taught at National Taiwan University and Columbia University, is among the world’s leading scholars of modern Chinese fiction. He is also widely acknowledged to have expanded the study of modern Chinese literature beyond authors who are born and raised in the People’s Republic of China.
“He’s influenced a lot of scholars and the general public that modern Chinese literature extends not only to Taiwan and Hong Kong, but also to places like Vancouver and to a larger population of writers, which he refers to as sinophone, like francophone, but essentially for Chinese language,” Christopher Rea, assistant professor of modern Chinese literature at UBC told the Straight. “This is a way of trying to depoliticize Chinese literature in some ways, or at least acknowledge that what constitutes as Chinese literature is not based on geography. It may seem self-evident in some ways, but there’s a big undertow from traditional scholars that says you have to be born and raised in the centre of China in order to carry on the tradition of Chinese literature. A lot of his work is to explode that notion.”
Wang will also speak about enlightenment versus enchantment, and socialist utopia. Wang argues that enlightenment has been the primary contributor to Chinese modernity; however, the enlightenment campaign, which was epitomized by the founding of the PRC in 1949, could not have taken place without a state of enchantment, namely Chinese fascination with the charisma of Mao Zedong.
“I think enchantment and enlightenment are actually mutually implicating each other, yielding the best and the worst of the modern Chinese experience,” Wang said. “I argue that post-1949, the PRC history is a history about enlightenment, but at the same time is also a history about enchantment with new mythologies about Communism revolution, proletariat paradise, and above all, this incredible charismatic power of Chairman Mao.”
This sparks questions on what contemporary Chinese literature entails. “One thing that could be safely generalized about modern Chinese literature is that for most of the 20th century there has been a significant investment into the discourse of suffering,” Rea said. “I think there is a notion that China’s current accomplishments are based on this collective suffering.”
Wang echoes this. “Revolution, particularly for Chinese writers and readers, is really inborn and a deeply rooted theme,” he says. “Even in terms of form, the whole narrative of what revolution is and should be is part of contemporary Chinese social and political consciousness, so writers and readers, in a way, have to rely upon this red legacy in reinventing their future.”
Visit the UBC Asian studies department website for more details and to RSVP to the lecture’s organizers.
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