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Corruption and Realism in Late Socialist ChinaThe Return of the Political Novel$

Jeffrey Kinkley

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780804754859

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9780804754859.001.0001

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Chinese Realism, Popular Culture, and the Critics

Chinese Realism, Popular Culture, and the Critics

(p.144) 7 Chinese Realism, Popular Culture, and the Critics
Corruption and Realism in Late Socialist China
Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines realism as a coherent and valuable modern Chinese tradition. It shows that realism in Chinese anticorruption fiction was a critical realism of some depth, not just a schlock realism which justified the critics' neglect. The chapter discusses the place of Chinese realism in theory and history, and contends that most fiction about corruption and officialdom does not fit the high theorists' idea of China as postsocialist, postpolitical, or postbureaucratic. It argues that the main problem with anticorruption fiction is its not being part of mass culture, and being part of purely nonofficial culture.

Keywords:   Chinese realism, anticorruption fiction, officialdom, mass culture, nonofficial culture

Chinese anticorruption fiction at the millennium hardly figured in China's high-level literary and cultural debates. Despite the desire of some to collapse binary oppositions, nearly all critics in fact drew hard and fast lines between serious elite culture (by which they usually meant avant-garde culture) and popular “mass” culture. At the time, realism's position was downshifting from the serious realm; often it was simply ignored. This suggests to me a ternary opposition: among the serious, the popular, and the realistic.1 To elite intellectuals, who tended to be unsympathetic to it, realism was an orthodox mainstream mode not just outside serious and mass culture, but left behind by both of them. That surprising view was predicated on a reversal of mass culture's traditionally low valuation. China's mass culture was now, according to some critics, cutting-edge—a second Chinese avant-garde. China's internationally acclaimed films, for instance, were a national triumph of serious and mass culture. Conversely, anticorruption fiction and film were not valued as either serious or popular. Perhaps they were in fact a realist mode of expression outside the common literary and mass media trends of the times. My burden of proof is to show that the realism of China's works about corruption was a critical realism of some depth, not just a schlock realism that justified the critics' neglect. Hard-hitting criticism of China, however, would still offend some elite critics' budding national pride.

Anticorruption fiction and film need not be judged as monumental or (p.145) innovative art, even in their best moments. They are, however, well situated to illuminate the ambivalences and paradoxes of China's cultural debates, for they can, in truth, lay claim to being popular, realistic, and serious—though seldom avant-garde, apart from avant-garde gestures such as the minimalist opening chapters of Heaven Above.2 The elite Chinese critics of which this chapter speaks are celebrity and academic cultural critics and intellectuals who regularly publish in China's national literary journals, work at nationally prominent universities and research academies, and are in contact with China's expatriate academics overseas.3 Realism, in theory and in practice, is still esteemed by China's readers, workaday scholars, and book reviewers. Realism also retains high regard in the party and state apparatuses and among their sympathizers. That support is part of realism's “problem,” as the intellectual elite sees it. This chapter will explore realism as a coherent and valuable modern Chinese tradition, but not as a fixed or a superior one—for one focus of this book up to now has been, after all, the limits of realism in practice.

Chinese Realism in Theory and in History

Realism was the most prestigious mode of writing from the 1920s until the communist revolution in 1949 and again during the first few years after Mao's death in 1976. In name, it has been the orthodox Chinese literary mode in modern times, even since Mao's revolution. Realism underwent a sharp reversal of prestige in the 1980s, before China's mass culture did, though in the opposite direction. Elite Chinese critics at first came to see experimentalism or literary difficulty as the only true counterweight to “popular,” down-market tastes they deemed unworthy and threatening to “art.” That left realism as a backward, schlock means of “naive” representationalism, like the “realism” of paintings sold in American hotels as advertised on late-night television. This view of literary realism is hardly peculiar to China, but it was reinforced by the term's orthodox political past. The avant-garde was seen as the only counterweight to official discourse. Xudong Zhang feels that realism “degenerated into a label for literary convention and political orthodoxy within the state apparatus.”4

Certainly China does have a strong official discourse of realism. According to official propaganda and education even today, realism is a unitary trend, the socially responsible and politically correct mainstream tendency passed down from Lu Xun and other leftist writers of the 1930s to the better communist writers of the 1950s (it is acknowledged to have (p.146) died during the Cultural Revolution), down to today (the “New Era”), when widely published writers supposedly have regained the conscience and perspicacity of Lu Xun. But as virtually all critics and scholars, even those who champion realism, know, this idea of Chinese fiction as a unified trend is a fantasy. However, those who view realism favorably still link post-Mao realism to the May Fourth realism that followed the vernacular literary revolution after 1917. In those days, realism was a positive term among China's elite. This chapter will argue that Chinese realism, though hardly unified, is today an eclectic but discrete literary practice, drawing on precedents from all the presocialist and socialist periods.

In the West, major theoretical reassessments of realism in Chinese literature by Marston Anderson in 1990 and David Der-wei Wang in 1992 focused on the May Fourth period. Michael Duke, Perry Link, Bonnie McDougall, and Kam Louie, by contrast, addressed contemporary Chinese realism and its links to socialist literary practice.5 Few analysts today would rule out the application of the term “realism” to earlier Chinese fiction as well, including some late Qing fiction. Wang's subsequent monographs push evidence of Chinese realism backward, from late Qing to late Ming fiction.6 Previously Jaroslav Průšek, followed by Milena Doleželová-Velingerová and her students,7 and also Joseph Levenson, Benjamin I. Schwartz, and their students in intellectual history, exemplified a trend that was general in Western sinology by the 1970s, of seeing Chinese modernity as beginning in the late Qing. Průšek pointed to a birth of subjectivism in the nineteenth century, by which he meant a liberating confessional and individualistic turn among Chinese writers that spurred them to write of their own personal thoughts.8 This subjective blow at classical models, paradoxically (or perhaps not, since the Western sequence was in theory similar) set the stage for the realistic emphasis on objectivity, or at least the kind of impassive narration favored by nineteenth-century Western novelists such as Flaubert and Zola. It was in the twentieth century that Chinese writers acquired—beyond subjectivism, individualism, and doctrinal realism—the hubris, already present in some Western writers, to think that they could fully inhabit and represent the innermost thinking of other people. This is a major characteristic of realism, romanticism, and other modern literary trends. It is what Liu Zaifu referred to, in the 1980s, as the “subjectivity” of literary characters themselves, beyond the “subjectivity” of the writer and the reader.9 China's May Fourth and post-Mao realistic movements were not so much reactions against romanticism as against formulaic writing or utopian “classicism.”

(p.147) Anderson confirms the consensus view, well documented long ago by Bonnie McDougall,10 that the doctrine of realism came to China from the West and Japan, along with a flood of translated works representing everything Western literature had to offer, and that Chinese writers took up all of it with alacrity as a tool for transforming China and its literary culture.11 This was followed, Anderson says, by Chinese writers' “gradual discovery of the true nature of realism and their eventual relinquishment of the mode.”12 Anderson argues that Western realism, by calling for authorial detachment, clashed both with Chinese authors' traditional views of creativity (he deemphasizes the authors' modern excitement about individualism and subjectivity) and their modern insistence that literary works arouse readers to undertake social transformation. Realism's preference for imitation of nature seemed insufficient to these writers. To them, the limits of realism were the limits of its power to stir readers to action and inner transformation. Anderson takes mimesis and detachment to be realism's necessary characteristics, yet he sees reader reception of Western realism as not very detached. Like catharsis in tragedy as explained by Aristotle, realism “performs a ritualistic purgation of the reader's emotion, specifically sympathetic identification with the figures portrayed (pity) and revulsion from the events represented (terror).”13 We may add that catharsis outside of realism has also been valued by Westernized Chinese critics, such as Wang Guowei.

Certainly many Chinese writers, by fiat in the 1950s if not already from their own conscience in the 1930s, viewed mimetic literature as inadequate and limited in its social power. But did realism, or even the doctrine of realism, have a “true nature”? And is all realism simply mimetic, even in theory? Then there is the problem of catharsis. Although Aristotle's theory of catharsis pertains to drama and character flaws of the sort seldom seen in May Fourth's stereotyped heroes and villains, reader identification with characters clearly pertains to realistic fiction. It is often on those grounds that such fiction has been considered “bourgeois,” and not just in China. Chinese readers are famous for identifying with characters in The Dream of the Red Chamber, which few (at least after the demise of Li Xifan's Cultural Revolution views) would call a mainly realistic work or bourgeois. Current criticism sometimes calls reader empathy with characters and immersion in the story “romantic,” as when talking of viewer reception of Hollywood films. An old debate ponders whether realism operates intellectually, by distancing the reader or viewer from the text or performance (in a Brechtian way, or perhaps even by creating discomfort), or emotionally, by simulating reality and getting the audience (p.148) to identify with the simulation. Most emotionally engaging visual and print narratives, except perhaps experimental ones, reward the reader with catharsis at the end, if only because when the words or images end, the viewer realizes that the narrative has not in fact occurred in “the real world.”14 Yet, a major problem of much canonical May Fourth fiction, McDougall points out, is that its elite male writers were in effect writing about their own social frustrations; to that extent, their heroes are not easy to identify with.15

The manipulation of particularly intense pity, terror, and other strong emotions in fiction is usually associated now with melodrama, by yet another transfer of theory from drama to fiction. Studies of melodrama in May Fourth films have paved the way for us to identify pervasive melodramatic aspects in May Fourth fiction, epitomized in its “tragic” stories of women, on which many films were based. Much May Fourth realism is a mix of devices from the Chinese traditions of realism and melodrama. Catharsis is also commonly used to explain the nonrealistic generic appeal of detective fiction (a frequent plot form in today's anticorruption fiction, as it was in late Qing fiction) as a purgation of social dread of injustice or the reader's own feelings of guilt and fear. Western critics have spun out many theories about reader identification or non-identification with the role of murderer and relief at the general social or personal exculpation that comes with discovery of who is the guilty party. Chinese editors insist that their readers, like the readers of cowboy Westerns and melodramatic tales everywhere, love to see justice win in the end.

Perhaps the chief objection to Anderson's view of realism as detached is that a good deal of Western realistic fiction was itself written to have a transformative social impact, and major Chinese critics knew this, as Theodore Huters points out.16 Moreover, many classics of realism, by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, and Stendhal, continuing down to Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, and Maxim Gorky, are conventionally viewed as having themes of corruption. If realism has a “true nature,” it is not necessarily one of disengagement. One can still agree with Anderson that by the 1930s many (though not all) Chinese authors, including most self-styled realists, changed their theories and styles away from classic justifications and practices of realism under the influence of a new sense of urgency about the need to transform society, and also under political pressure. Even their later works, however, can still be encompassed under the capacious theory of realism. And so they were in China. The theory was stretched to include “socialist realism,” the envisioning of a glorious (p.149) future existing in the present—a “reality” that was as often romantic as gritty.17 Pessimistic it was not.

David Der-wei Wang has taken a more pluralistic view of realism in the May Fourth period that I find more congenial. He analyzes authors of such diverse styles as Mao Dun, Lao She, and Shen Congwen as realists. Each author wrote in varying styles that might or might not be considered predominantly realist, but Wang's approach avoids the dogmatism of seeing Chinese realism as having one true tradition, embodied in Lu Xun's works, as mainland Chinese critics used to argue.18 However, even Wang puts Lu Xun ontologically at the center. He writes of Mao Dun, Lao She, and Shen Congwen as “dialogical voices arising within the discursive paradigm set by Lu Xun, voices that valorize Lu Xun's position by questioning and even transgressing its boundaries…. The limits reached by Lu Xun's realism are also the limits of realism for some subsequent writers, but are the boundaries where the realisms of Mao Dun, Lao She, and Shen Congwen begin.”19 Further, “We should ask how [Lu Xun's] discourse generated the conditions of writing and reading Chinese reality, and how subsequent writers tried to break away from his conditions.”20 Modern Chinese authors were a learned group, in dialogue with numerous foreign writers, if only through translations. One could in fact question that Lu Xun was a realist, except in philosophy and attitude, particularly given Wang's view of Lu Xun as a metafictional writer concerned more with literary codes than “the real,” even composing allegories of the “real.”

Wang also argues that “Melodrama and farce … should be regarded not as the opposites of an authentic realist narrative but, rather, as its ironic approximations.”21 In Auerbach's classic, if narrow, formulation, satire and comedy, like didacticism, are antithetical to realism.22 But most of the novels in this book are melodramatic to one degree or another, and somewhat realistic, too. While denying the existence of an “authentic” realist narrative, I would agree that realism and melodrama are not entirely incompatible, though they need not be seen as proximate. Following Anderson, I even see shared ground with tragedy because all three modes can lead to catharsis. But melodrama and realism in ordinary parlance can still be differentiated, along at least two different spectrums: that of histrionic effects and that of moral clarity as opposed to moral ambiguity. Melodramatic elements in the novels analyzed above, at least, are not ironic.

In a later work, Fin-de-siècle Splendor, Wang analyzes, among other novels, the epics of the very late Qing commonly called qianze xiaoshuo (p.150) (novels of exposure, or castigatory fiction). Masterworks by Li Boyuan and Wu Jianren (Woyao) are often cited as precedents for the anticorruption fiction of the 1990s, as when Wang Yuewen's National Portrait (1999) is called a latter-day Guanchang xianxing ji (Exposure of officialdom, which is the title of Li Boyuan's 1903 magnum opus). The relevant novels of both eras expose the dark side of society and social manners with a cornucopia of clever, unethical, and hypocritical schemes for getting ahead socially and economically, often portrayed with exaggeration, even burlesque. The 1990s generic concept of guanchang xiaoshuo (novels about officialdom) also has late Qing overtones. Novels from both ends of the twentieth century are political, topical, partial to the roman-à-clef conceit, and, in Wang's general sense, they have a fin-de-siècle character (the late Qing works come at the end of a dynasty). One cannot quite agree with the view once stated by the eminent scholar Chen Pingyuan that the late Qing was obsessed, as the current age is, with exposing corruption in officialdom almost to the exclusion of other trades. I believe that all professions were depicted as hypocritical and corrupt in the late Qing, as Lu Xun indicated. However, official corruption surely has primacy in both eras, at least in the now canonical novels.23

Most critics now trace the origins of both Chinese realism and urban commercial popular culture to the late Qing. The late Qing and late twentieth-century works exposing corruption shared this dual nature: serious in purpose because of their social criticism, but popular in form, often compromising with traditional forms and tastes. These novels of both the late Qing and the 1990s have been criticized as popular, commercial, and inferior as art—too close to the journalism of current events, which was the trade of some of the exposure writers of both the late Qing and the 1990s. All the works were written hurriedly, as is sometimes all too apparent. Furthermore, although the authors wrote their exposure novels in a relatively low idiom of their respective eras, they could and sometimes did write other works in a more literary register. Novels by the major authors of both eras also inspired inferior imitations from which the original models were sometimes at pains to distinguish themselves. Many of these qualities, except for the use of a low, vernacular idiom, also characterize Jia Ping'ao's 1993 novel about moral corruption in all walks of life, Fei du (Capital in ruins), and yet that novel is seldom grouped with the novels of the 1990s that this book is about. But then it is not usually called realistic, either. Capital in Ruins, with its references to the old classic Jin ping mei (The golden lotus; or, The plum in the golden vase), reminds us, as do critics from Robert E. Hegel to David Der-wei Wang, (p.151) that novels with themes of corruption can be found in the late Ming, and of course earlier than that.24

Wang in his later work revisits the idea of farce as an “ironic approximation” of realism in the late Qing novels, which he says use farce and “grotesque exposé” to create a “grotesque realism.” Clearly the exaggerations of farce can serve critical realistic ends, and they can be mixed with realistic prose. So can the grotesque (it is not always comic), which mimics realistic technique as a kind of surrealism, as critics have noted in Dickens, Carlyle, Forster—and Mo Yan.25 Yet Wang sees Li Boyuan and Wu Jianren as lacking a contrastive sense of normalcy (whereas their model, Wu Jingzi, eighteenth-century author of Rulin waishi, or The Scholars, embraces Confucian normalcy). Instead, Wang imagines Li Boyuan and Wu Jianren as having a “phantom axiology” unique to the turn of the twentieth century, in which values once considered aberrant have become normal.26 The Chinese discourse of corruption has anciently taken note of that predicament; it is simply the late-stage or end-game corruption mentioned in chapter 1, in which corrupt practices have become the new ethical standard. However, it is hard to be sure that any age is secure in its values in the eyes of perceptive authors. That is one of the difficulties of the utterly relative term “modernity”; in which recent century did authors see themselves as not living within modernity? One could argue that Wu as a failed examinee felt axiological confusion, too (only not due to Western influences), but if one accepts the divide between Wu and his late Qing followers as key, then our novels of the 1990s must be on the Wu Jingzi side of the line, for they still judge immoral behavior, even if it is now the norm, as immoral from the “old” socialist/Confucian viewpoint. Yet in form, mode, technique, and even content, the 1990s novels seem more akin to their late Qing counterparts. Cataloging immoral behavior is part of the spectatorial pleasure.27 Their lack of humor (except in National Portrait) is the chief difference from the late Qing works. Or are laughter and condemnation two sides of the same coin, based, of necessity, on a sense of moral incongruity?

The writers of the 1990s on the one hand uphold old hierarchical socialist and quasi-Confucian morality above the raw power of money values, and yet they also uphold, for purposes of reform and national self-strengthening, the money values of a market economy. The authors write quickly and journalistically, for money, and then hasten to write a sequel. Wang makes much of such behavior on the part of his late Qing exposure authors, who in fact were journalists, often wrote quickly for money, and, unlike the authors of the 1990s (or at least the major authors discussed (p.152) in this book), stand accused of letting others finish some of their works and even plagiarizing. Accommodations to the age's commercialism has had a devastating effect on the literary prestige of exposure literature in both eras, and I do not doubt that the authors of both ages felt ideological ambivalence, but I think we can also grant that writers can be hypocrites, compromisers, or at least compartmentalizers of their values, as of their careers. Authors of both eras wrote works in other genres that did not do them as proud as their epics of officialdom. Zhang Ping, the cynosure of 1990s anticorruption fiction, has written no late-Qing-style comic ghost fiction,28 but he has written popular books about the supernatural. This does not contradict David Wang's insights into the ways that comic novels may have influenced Li Boyuan and Wu Jianren, as English comic novels influenced Dickens. Our novels of the 1990s, having come out of a different, “realistic” tradition or movement, may not be so like the late Qing novels after all. That leads back, full circle, to the question of whether “realism” is the most noteworthy thing that subsequent authors saw in the late Qing castigatory novels.

The Notion of China's “Classic Tradition of Realism” in Post-Mao Times

As it happened, Chinese theories and practices of realism were transformed and reified during the Mao decades. Mao's culture bureaucrats did not oppose the name “realism,” but they rejected its pessimism and any visions of reality that contradicted the current party line, including dissident, subjective, and self-questioning accretions to realist writing during the twentieth-century age of modernism. The bureaucrats embraced realism's supposed transformative power, which by Marston Anderson's analysis most May Fourth writers felt they had already seen through.

In the post-Mao era, realism's politically critical and pessimistic edge came back with a vengeance, becoming the very hallmark of realism, as it had been in the May Fourth era. (Contributions to realism from modernism did not stage a comeback.) The transformation of Chinese realism, which was more political than technical, did not come all at once. Even before plain “realism” replaced Maoist “revolutionary realism,” the latter had to overcome the orthodox formulation of “the combination of revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism.”29 Another reaction against Maoism among writers in the post-Mao era was a repudiation of realism. In general parlance, amid the flood of experimental, fantastic, (p.153) and sensational popular works, “realist” came to refer to nearly any work that was neither avant-garde (for the eggheads) nor popular (catering to down-market tastes).

I believe that Chinese realism can still be defined as a more discrete realm that is not simply “mainstream,” and certainly not just politically orthodox. The “mainstream,” after all, includes relatively experimental writers such as Mo Yan and critically acclaimed writers such as Wang Anyi and Li Rui. Continuities exist in Chinese concepts of realism through the 1920s, 1950s, and 1990s. The classic Chinese realism that all those eras supposedly inherited from the May Fourth period is defined not just against romantic conceits, tyranny, and injustice, but also against modernist difficulty—which is to say that modernism was not unknown in early twentieth-century China. In fact, Chinese writers and critics realized that there was and is nothing extraordinary about the limits of realism's transformative power compared to the limits of other literary forms. The Chinese exception may have been to expect so much of literature. China's experimental writers of the 1980s, too, thought that their new discourses could transform Chinese culture in the broadest sense, much as their predecessors in the 1920s hoped for such an outcome by overthrowing classical Chinese. Disillusionment was the result in both cases.

Post-Mao realism with a critical and pessimistic edge owes no overt allegiance to state discourse or even necessarily to Lu Xun. It is intent on exposing the lies of all official propaganda, including that propaganda's would-be realist fiction. Chinese writers and critics began debating the nature of “true realism” and its need to tell the truth in the early 1980s. Scholars outside China articulated the notion that Chinese realism had been reborn in a guise more continuous with May Fourth realism than Mao's revolutionary realism. Li Yi and Bi Hua of Hong Kong called it “China's new realism” or “neo-realism,” but political pressure led to a rejection of that concept and many of the works to which it pointed. Michael S. Duke spoke of a new Chinese “critical realism,” adopting a term from Georg Lukács, but the overtones of this term also were too dissident for China in the early eighties.30 Biting literary works continued to be written even so. One could call this combative and accusatory advocacy of antibureaucratic “honesty” the fansi discourse (“thought-provoking,” after a 1979 trend in literature). Or call it the engaged, Liu Binyan discourse of realism,31 which by the late 1990s was still nonofficial yet was mainstream (prestigious and not underground), even though innocuous realistic works still constituted the majority of Chinese fictional publications.

(p.154) The thought-provoking style of realism inherits much from China's pre-Maoist tradition of realism, particularly as that has been reconceived in later years as a pre-Marxist-Leninist practice, and therefore even the biting contemporary realists think of their own practice as within a “classic tradition of realism” dating from the 1920s. In fact, contemporary realists, including anticorruption writers of the 1990s, are influenced not only by China's old vernacular and late Qing fiction, but also by populist, indeed Maoist, conceptions of realism, morality, social order, literary “mission,” and literary instrumentality. Tensions abound within this realism, but the tension between subjectivity and objectivity is not necessarily the major one. One question is whether realism has to be pessimistic, as it typically was in the late Qing and the 1920s, or whether it can have a happy ending, as was the rule in Maoist times. Still today, official control of literature mandates that literature about corruption must have a happy ending if it is to be openly published, though literature about many other topics need not. The contradiction between the existence of corruption and a happy ending is universal in the novels analyzed above.

I believe that a Liu Binyan discourse of realism (in theory, though not always in practice) is now not only mainstream, but practically de rigueur in nonofficial writing circles devoted to realism, including anticorruption fiction. This realism retains characteristics or expectations from both the Mao and post-Mao periods, as outlined below, and it is itself now often conceived (or misconceived) as China's “classic tradition of realism”—its “real” tradition, with Maoist doctrine being aberrant. Ironically, China's classic realism needs a lying bureaucracy as its foil. Variant expectations of realism, rosier and more Maoist, have not died out, but the following ones, which add up to a “critical realism with Chinese characteristics,” have become dominant in post-Mao realism, and above all in anticorruption novels.

  1. (1) Realism “tells the truth.” Further, it “speaks truth to power.” Truth is, of course, subjective, but now the general Chinese presumption is that China remains a bureaucratic society and its officials lie. The precepts they circulate in all forms of propaganda, therefore, also lie. China's ancient and late Qing muckraking similarly countered the lies of a centrally organized society having a doctrine-fixing bureaucracy at its core. Lu Xun's canonical realism in May Fourth times countered alleged lies of Chinese society, politics, and culture. Even his generation, when central power was in decline, thought of itself as opposing the lies of a centrally coordinated nation that denied the class nature of society. Today, China has as many writers concerned with the deeper epistemological and cosmological (p.155) questions of what is “real” as any other country (most of them have joined the avant-garde), but others want to postpone such abstract questions because they see reality in the first instance still boxed in by the raw power of a unitary bureaucracy. Directly confronting lies through realism is not, of course, the only way of rebuking bureaucratic authoritarianism. Allegory is another strategy. One may, for instance, depict the corruption of the present within a setting that seems to be the past. Great May Fourth writers such as Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, and Mao Dun have been read both as realists and as allegorists, as have Wu Jingzi and Cao Xueqin before them. However, such depth is seldom credited to the late Qing or late twentieth-century realists, and humor is seldom seen in the late twentieth-century works. They are accusatory.

  2. (2) Bureaucracies tend to paint a rosy picture of the society of which they are stewards. Therefore, by way of telling the “truth,” realism exposes the dark side of society, the bad things about it. It has the unprettified subject matter and pessimistic attitude characteristic of Western realism. Wellek notes that nineteenth-century realism often implied “rejection and revulsion against society.”32 Social criticism of society's dark side (Maoist society officially almost denied that there was a dark side) has for decades been codified in official Chinese criticism as the realistic literary mission of the great cultural icon Lu Xun and his followers, appropriate to their dark times. Realism is still a literature meant to transform society. The pessimism of this realism, to be sure, clashes with the optimism necessary to effect transformations, as well as the dictates of socialist realism. It also clashes with epiphanies about the speed and dynamism of post-modernity, including literature that conveys, often proudly, and perhaps nationalistically, real facets of China's bright and shiny postmodern culture using realistic techniques.

  3. (3) Realism depicts major social trends of modern, contemporary society. Great social forces are not a mere backdrop for individual life stories and romances; individuals live amid and within the social movements of their time, though their lives need not be wholly determined by them, as they would be in naturalism. This tendency toward articulating social trends in the Chinese novel can be traced back to the Qing.33 The charge so often leveled against Taiwan literature by mainland critics in the 1980s was that its canvas was narrow; it described quotidian domestic dramas instead of the big picture and major historical themes. When mainland literature was enriched with more works about lifestyles and concerns of personal happiness in the 1990s, these works, too, were criticized as trivial (xiao qi) fiction and excluded from the great national tradition of realism, (p.156) which is da qi (grand).34 As Perry Link has noted, this fits an ancient Chinese classification of fiction as “xiaoshuo, or writing about ‘small’ affairs, which traditionally meant stories about love, family life, and the passions and problems in ordinary people's lives, which stood in implicit contrast to dashu, or the ‘great’ stories about emperors, ministers, generals, and the other events that were worthy of historical records.”35 Cognitive dissonance originally arose because xiaoshuo became the term for modern-style, including Western, fiction, including notably the nineteenth-century novels about great social upheavals so loved by twentieth-century Chinese. But the connotations of words change. Today, xiaoshuo means fiction period, including the nineteenth-century kind with grand themes. By these lights, good fiction, or certainly realistic fiction, must be dashu. Avoidance of fundamental concerns of the people in fiction is considered an evasion of reality, and even of literature's mission (as conceived by the realists). China's more avant-garde fiction is pervaded with a sense of post-traumatic stress, but it does not point to history itself, and psychological trauma in principle can originate within the family or indeed the individual psyche; it need not come from war, revolution, or social conflict. China's fiction about corruption typically evokes social conflict with very high stakes. The employment and prosperity of thousands in giant factories and of hundreds of thousands or millions in cities are on the line when the power elite make off with millions of yuan or bankrupt whole industries.

    A corollary is that while short fiction can be realistic, epic realistic novels best provide the broad canvas necessary to convey social trends in all their magnitude. Another frequent corollary, which is not so necessary, is that outer social structures will take precedence over inner psychological phenomena. This is of course a latent source of tension between realism and modernism, which is known for its obsession with the private self.

    Yet modern literature is about individuals. Individuals embody the great social forces and the clashes among them in China's realistic novels. Since the time of Mao, the realistic novel has been popular, didactic, moral, and political (politics being conflated with morality), and thus the characters of the novel may well be heroes and villains. It does not follow, however, that a realistic writer must believe in a telos of history or a “grand narrative.” Even when writing about small folk and their everyday concerns, Shen Congwen, for instance, wrote “serious” dashu, like the Marxists Mao Dun and Guo Moruo.

  4. (4) Realism speaks for the lower orders of society, the forgotten and the (p.157) oppressed. This is a trait of Western realism. Mao reinforced it, in theory, by calling for Chinese literature to be by, of, and for workers, peasants, and soldiers. New groups of oppressed peoples are a favorite subject of post-Mao realism in principle, and yet in practice contemporary realistic novels, like May Fourth novels, still detail mostly the behavior of the oppressors. Human flaws are simply more intriguing than righteousness.

  5. (5) The principle that realism requires typicality, an early opinion voiced by Engels (realism implying “the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances”),36 was interpreted quantitatively in the Mao era, and it has lingering effects in the theory of post-Mao realism, though less so in its practice.37 It is no longer necessary to concentrate on the social classes and types who are most numerous in society (ideally, if society were 70 percent of peasant origin, 70 percent of a novel's characters would be of peasant origin), although Chinese realism retains the aforementioned mandate to describe great social trends and those who make them. Today an analogous discourse of proportionality can still arise unexpectedly. The dark side of society is acknowledged and no longer blamed on remnants of capitalism, but still it must not take up a “disproportionate” number of pages. This sense of proportion is subjective, and yet is still conceived mathematically. For instance, crime fiction necessarily has murders—more than in life—but the plot must not have “too many” murders. The same goes for cadre corruption cases. A former head of the Qunzhong, or Masses' Press (the publishing arm of the Ministry of Public Security), evoked a proportionality discourse in regard to its own sales of anticorruption fiction: “We hope for hot sales, but not to win an extremely large share of the market. It would not be a good thing for society if everybody took an interest in these cases.”38

  6. (6) Realism uses the techniques associated with it in history, namely those of classic works of nineteenth-century Western and twentieth-century May Fourth realism. The newer literary techniques of modernism and the avant-garde, being fantastic or “magical,” are “not realistic,” except in some cases when they have been rationalized as advanced techniques of getting at “reality.” Hence the identification of realism with the mainstream, though the mainstream can of course evolve.

  7. (7) Realism eschews “difficult” and experimental narrative structures. Realistic works have a standard directional narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. Though nineteenth-century realism was capable of many complications and plot deviations, and even a lack of a feeling of closure at the end (Bakhtin considered the novel in principle “dialogic”) no more than the nineteenth-century classics does China's “classic” or (p.158) even dissident realism cast doubt on its own master narrative or its relatively positivist metaphysics. The realistic novel is not given to modernist-style analysis of the nature of truth itself or of history. Even the most dissident novels have strong social ideologies. That is how didacticism and, notably, the hoary conceit of corruption can be accommodated within realism. Cinema and television about real social problems cling even more obviously to clear directional narratives. They are relatively unilinear and invariably provide a strong sense of closure at the end.

  8. (8) The turn away from modernism, experimentalism, and conceptual or existential uncertainty at both the sentence and larger structural levels (from a twentieth- or twenty-first-century perspective) leads to another premise of Chinese realism, though it has its own historical roots in China's early twentieth-century ferment: realism is accessible, easy-to-read “mass” literature. (A Chinese Henry James might pose a problem of classification—though James's works have been adapted for the silver screen.) This is not so strange. Speaking of Western reading material, Peter Brooks observes that “The novel in the airport newsstand will tend to be written from a repertory of narrative and descriptive tools that come from the nineteenth-century realists.”39 Mass values were supreme in Mao's era, when all literature was required to be accessible to readers without elite education. Chinese realism remains in tension with the elitism of the old classical literature (which for modern educated Chinese is harder to read than ever) and the difficult and obscure works of the new 1980s avant-garde. (Some of the 1980s avant-garde works are as vulnerable as popular works to charges of being “kitsch”—aesthetically horrible, though they “took a lot of trouble to make.”)40 If “popular” means easy-to-read, then to some extent all Chinese literature since 1949, except for the 1980s avant-garde works, are popular.41 That includes works that imitate the rhythms of classical Chinese in a simpler vocabulary, such as the martial arts novels of Jin Yong, novels with archaic vernacular vocabulary from Ming novels that were “low” in their time, and even fiction in semiclassical language with “base” subject matter, such as Jia Ping'ao's Capital in Ruins. Still, different levels or registers of style exist among novels and within novels.

  9. (9) The best realistic literature is not only about social trends; it also has political implications. Some writers, in their continuing hope that realistic literature will promote action, expect realistic works to focus on the main social needs and trends of the time, as society's leaders and intellectuals define them, so that the works can be harbingers of social change. The 1980s and 1990s, for instance, were a time of economic reform, so there (p.159) was a perceived need for “reform literature,” particularly in the absence of unfettered journalism. To put it benignly, realism ought to be topical, or if historical, then relevant to contemporary society. And one can in fact be quite independent in proposing how reforms should be done. The political mission of realistic novels and the primacy of political corruption (rather than more figurative or moral kinds) in novels “about corruption” may explain why The Capital in Ruins is seldom viewed as realistic or “about corruption,” despite its dwelling on fallen sexual morality, which could be taken as an exposure of moral corruption. Many Chinese critics judge the novel as diverted from its social satire by the preponderance of romantic and sexual subplots in the text. For other critics, the primacy of sexual corruption in the novel overshadows the nonsexual corruption that seems to be seen as the proper focus of both realism and exposures of corruption.

  10. (10) Realistic fiction is instructive. It may even teach facts, particularly about how the world works and the nature of society, or what might be called sociology. And it may teach moral lessons; like China's great traditional fiction, it may be didactic. This contradicts Auerbach's classic vision of Western realism, but implicit or explicit lessons are frequent in canonical novels of Western realism. In China, combative realism that speaks truth to power has even been combined, convincingly to many readers, with didactic Marxism, as it was by Hu Feng and Liu Binyan.

A provocative distinction might be that fiction about corruption belongs to “true Chinese realism” (in the Liu Binyan spirit), whereas “fiction about officialdom,” with its psychological realism, fine but innocuous portraits of social manners, and “deep” (yet, by the same token, somehow rationalizing) explanations of corruption, is not. Anticorruption fiction, as a kind of realism, must take on the bureaucracy dramatically and combatively, pointing a finger of responsibility at real policy choices made by power holders. This fiction must be critical, willing to embrace fundamental doubts about the direction in which society is heading. And since its didacticism is more social than psychological, the life blood of the plot is “information” about how society really works: how money is skimmed, how the public and the state are kept in the dark, how guanxi circles are formed, how the money is hidden or spent. The proof that this is the realism that counts—that “hurts”—is that when this kind of realism is under bureaucratic attack, as it was in July 2002, the main weapon against it is the elevation discourse. This discourse maintains that novels about society should aim higher and delve deeper into psychology, into more abstract historical, social, and cultural (p.160) factors, and be more nuanced and subtle—instead of combative, accusatory, and deeply invested in nitty-gritty details about concrete injustices (which might make the public anxious to turn the situation around).42

The mass appeal of this finger-pointing realism is no mystery. It accommodates social conflict and drama (often melodrama), featuring struggles between good and bad. It provides the pleasures not so much of the comedy of manners as of the technothriller, both in its “information quotient” about what goes on behind the scenes and in its plot, which tends toward unmasking conspiracies (guanxi circles).43 And although it usually has an upbeat ending, it also unlocks social anger about injustice. It is more political than nuanced. The combativeness does finally suggest a link to Lu Xun—to the myth, more than the reality, of Lu Xun as a “fighter.”

The above distillation of China's putatively “classic” tradition of realism ignores numerous internal contradictions within the discourse and the tradition's own inheritance. It is in some ways a narrowed vision of realism's techniques, philosophy, and content, and thus its potential—as became apparent in 1982, when Liu Xinwu and other creditable realist novelists defended realism against the challenge of modernism; the latter had been theoretically defended in a book by Gao Xingjian.44 The enrichment of realistic writing by modernist and, by implication, “non-Chinese” techniques was ruled out.45 Liu Xinwu considered “critical realism” to be China's mainstream style, though the more official line took pains to argue that China's mainstream (here meaning “correct”) realism was not critical realism. Yet, because the CCP joined in attacking modernism, realism was once more identified with party oppression, as Xudong Zhang noted above, even though Liu Binyan, Liu Xinwu, and others had transformed it.

The reading public continues to prefer popular modes of writing, realism included, that attribute blame to concrete causes in prose that goes down relatively easily. This ratifies the divorcement of “high” intellectual and critical circles from the “masses” and their taste. As interest in realistic (here meaning no-holds-barred) writing about social themes increased in the late 1980s, primarily due to a revival of investigative journalism (reportage and documentary literature), realism and modernism became increasingly viewed as polar tendencies, with realism the favorite of the masses and modernism the cause of the critics.46 Then, realism as politically critical as Liu Binyan's became taboo for a few years after the 1989 massacre, leaving the field of mass taste exclusively to popular fiction and nonfiction (notably, lifestyle magazines and stories about famous leaders).47 (p.161) Yet realism remained a bugaboo of the increasingly isolated progressive intellectuals, as modernist creativity for a time dried up quite as fully as critical realism.


Much of the popular appeal of China's anticorruption fiction naturally comes not just from its “information” or even apparent realism, but its indulgence of fantasy. We have mentioned sentiment and melodrama in the novels, luxury and decadence as eye candy and a source of the readers' or viewers' feelings of superiority (particularly in film adaptations), and the catharsis of the detective story plots—the rush one gets from seeing justice winning in the end, even if that achievement probably seems unrealistic to most readers when intellectually considered. An anti-corruption novel may be enjoyed as a means of vicarious public protest. As critics of the movies point out, even when a film (or novel) has a formally unhappy ending, we typically leave the theater (or armchair) on an upbeat note, if not because of the hint of possible amelioration of the situation in the future, then because we realize that what we have just seen or read is fiction and has not actually happened to us (and, if the work is historical, the events have already happened). Furthermore, our personal narrative of reading the work, and usually the narrative of the work itself, occurs within a modern conceit of moral progress.48

One can even see the anticorruption novel as a Chinese “mafia novel,” or a more topical and partly inverted variation of the martial arts or chivalric novel. (This genre is often conceived as a Chinese form of the historical novel, though surely it is a fantasy variation in which heroes fight evil.) The chief protagonists in the anticorruption novel are evil, and yet they form an honor-bound clique of co-conspirators, a guanxi circle like a brotherhood. This circle has its own code of ethics, reflecting a counterculture that is nationwide and challenges current regime ethics. When society is thoroughly corrupt, “to rebel is justified.” Rebellion might be called, by postmodern critics, a form of resistance. Moreover, the conspirators have secrets and techniques, not in using weapons but in moving around money, and these techniques (bribery, privatization, embezzlement, and development projects instead of swords, arrows, darts, and fists) have their generic attractions, as “information” for the reader. The schemes function as a sort of local color, even martial arts “magic,” equivalent to jumping over rooftops in a swordfight. The plot of Chen Fang's Municipal Crisis turns on a quest for a coded book that will solve (p.162) all mysteries of payoffs and other financial interrelations, reminiscent of the quest for a secret book of martial arts techniques that motivates many a plot in the other genre.49

The corrupt kingpins are larger than life, and so are their appetites and skills. The eschewal of marriage and male-female relations in the chivalric novels and earlier classics such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin are arguably as countercultural as the promiscuity of the corrupt 1990s municipal party bosses. Martial arts novels now are repositories of neotraditionalist pride—pride that China has a great past, whatever its content. Novels about newfangled forms of corruption are repositories of pride in China's modernization. Great is the current level of development, great enough for large sums to be skimmed off without even derailing future development. In Liu Ping's Dossier on Smuggling, the corrupt development in Xiamen is still development, a regional economic achievement.

Critics and China's Popular or Mass Culture

The status of China's turn-of-the-century fiction about corruption was and is problematic. Its quality did not improve over the years, and its status remained ambiguous and presumptively low even as its popularity rose. Lu Tianming's pathbreaking Heaven Above (1995) was originally read and reviewed as serious, realistic fiction and won a literary prize.50 Zhang Ping's Choice (1997) won a Mao Dun prize in 2000 after the success of its film adaptation. Certain anticorruption novels were dignified with critical prefaces lauding them as masterpieces of realism. Even so, it was clear that many novels about corruption were written in a middlebrow style and appealed to a mass audience. Public focus on the novels' “bravery” because of their subject matter (the authors risked not just official retaliation, but also lawsuits by parties who might see themselves accused in the work)51 was a very mixed blessing. Chinese critics like to classify even mainstream literary authors by the subject matter of their works, but in China as in the West, any hint that a work is classifiable lowers its social and critical status.52

Workaday criticism gathered steam in the daily press and on the Internet after 2000, as the genre began to prosper without further overt political interference.53 Commentary ran the gamut from simple book promotion to a priori wariness of the novels' negativism and alleged appeals to low-grade tastes for sex and violence, a charge that is from time to time leveled at nearly all fiction about crime, detection, and the law, (p.163) and which may have had its origins in a criticism of traditional Chinese fiction made by Liang Qichao a century earlier.54 Some positive commentary recognized anticorruption fiction as a successor to the politically engaged “literature of the wounded” and praised the new works accordingly, as “delving into life [to make a political impact].”55 When anticorruption fiction's “exposure” of wrongdoing became suspect as the political winds changed in 2002, minor critics and ideologists got the message and heaped criticism onto the fiction's many weak links.56 However, the reviewing of individual novels continues, and the term “anticorruption fiction” remains in play. Some bookstores still have shelves implicitly dedicated to anticorruption fiction and nonfiction.

The reaction of China's elite cultural critics and intellectuals and their expatriate colleagues is more interesting. Most of them ignored the works.57 (A major exception was Chen Sihe of Fudan University, to whom brief positive comments on the literature were attributed on the Internet.)58 One can imagine why the elite critics, as guardians of cultural standards, and particularly the celebrities, many of whom view themselves as cultural radicals, may have pooh-poohed novels with corruption themes as middlebrow, melodramatic, too commercially successful, and too tepid in their social criticism. Some critics might have written off such fiction simply because Zhang Ping remained loyal to the Masses' Press,59 Lu Tianming was a China Central Television producer, and Chen Fang wrote fast and must have had protection to keep out of jail.

The paradox is that, in the late 1990s, many of China's elite wanted to stand with China's workers, pensioners, and unemployed. They also expressed a “critical affirmation of mass culture.”60 Some were mesmerized by the opulence of China's new consumerist visual culture, a topic of research in the West's cultural studies. They delighted in fiction reflecting China's new levels of consumption and dynamic lifestyles.61 There were even intimations that a new avant-garde might be stimulated by consumerism.62 Such critics ignored more traditional social fiction.

China's socially critical intellectuals, steeped in Western and Marxist criticism, shared many of the critical views of mass culture held by the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci, American critics such as Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, and Milan Kundera, who had savaged capitalist and communist mass culture as kitsch. It was a commonplace that mass culture was a manipulative engine mass-produced for the masses under the false premise that it was of or by the masses, or “folk.” Already in the 1980s, China's elite critics, like their May Fourth predecessors, disdained the flood of new “popular” (tongsu) literature in their (p.164) time. In truth, not all popular literature was commercially successful, as serious writers who went slumming by writing trashy novels for cash discovered;63 government organs published and often had to subsidize popular fiction in the 1980s, on the grounds that the “masses” needed socially harmless material to fill their leisure time.64“Clean” popular fiction would divert them from sex, violence, and politics. In the 1990s, private commercial interests had acquired a bigger share of the pie, and sex and violence were everywhere. The bread and circuses strategy of the party and state still put China's authorities on the side of anything that “diverted” the masses, in both senses of the term.65 Foreign capital was not so welcome in the making of “circuses” (entertainment), though it was a key ingredient in the CCP's profitable recipe for “bread” (manufactures). And there was already an exception to the intellectuals' disdain of popular fiction: the martial arts novels of Hong Kong writer Jin Yong, whose works were appreciated by many as a unique, national Chinese contribution to world popular literature.

The 1989 Beijing Massacre and subsequent harassment of intellectuals, the near desertification of new cultural production, and the endangerment of the reforms themselves rendered Chinese critics powerless and irrelevant. They found themselves outflanked by critics subservient to the party and state who, co-opting the cultural elite's radical Western theories of postmodernism and postcolonialism, mixed them with a potent brew of nationalism to justify the stable postmassacre status quo, question the good sense of the “divisive” democracy advocates and their foreign supporters, and get intellectuals back behind the party and government's agenda of unfettered economic growth and political aggrandizement, conceived as “the rise of China.” Legions of expatriate PRC graduate students in North America, Europe, and Australia pursued the study of Chinese corruption in social science departments abroad, joined by a few writers at home such as He Qinglian (who, just a few steps ahead of the police, exiled herself to America in June 2001) and He Zengke, but the topic got little play in Dushu (Reading) and major PRC journals of literary and cultural criticism, or even international forums that published China's elite intellectuals' essays in Chinese (such as Ershiyi shiji, or Twenty-first Century). In this age of resurgent Chinese nationalism, some intellectuals may disdain not only fiction with corruption themes but the very problematic of corruption.66

The conversion in the 1990s, in principle, of China's elite intellectuals to a positive idea of popular culture (tongsu wenhua, as some called it) or mass culture (dazhong wenhua) was ironic and surely conflicted.67 Western (p.165) cultural studies encouraged sympathy for pop culture. So did national pride in China's new international prestige and economic ascendancy. Finding the avant-garde to have collapsed and realism old-fashioned, many intellectuals espoused, faute de mieux, China's vigorous new pop culture. Some critics went so far as to kiss elite culture goodbye.68 Others were attracted to the “postpolitical” and “nonlogocentric” visual aspects of culture popular in the marketplace because they thought that these developments indicated China's liberation from the tyranny of politics.69 Critic Dai Jinhua, known for her studies of Chinese advertisements and shopping centers as well as of movies, reminds us that much of China's popular reading matter in the 1990s was actually nonfiction and political—about international affairs, leaders, entertainers, and entrepreneurs.70

In revolutionary China, the terms “mass literature” and “mass culture” had in fact enjoyed positive, populist connotations from the time of Yu Dafu in the 1920s through the Mao era. The return to a positive idea of mass culture, at a time when all works still had to have the blessing of the CCP Central Propaganda Department to be sold or aired in China, even if they were produced by the capitalist West, opened a door to the revival of Maoism. A minority, including Liu Kang (who called mass culture qunzhong wenyi), did mythologize China's new 1990s mass culture as a non-Western, collectivist culture with a folk genius rooted in Maoism.71 Most other elite critics preferred to see China's mass culture as part of a transnational, more-modern-than-modern cultural epiphany not centered in the West but fully conversant with and transcendent of the West. And yet, Liu's position in a way supported the old-style leftists (or conservatives) who in the 1997 debates on Chinese realism bemoaned the fact that Chinese literature had lost ground in society because it was no longer “close to the masses.”72 Liu Kang explained the patriotic basis of elite opinion. At a time when China's reputation for cultural production no longer equaled its reputation in the 1980s, or its current economic prowess, China's elite critics took comfort in the international prestige of films made by Chinese directors and what seemed to them a revival of China studies abroad.73 Also important in the 1990s was pride in pan-Chinese culture (from Greater China).

One can thus postulate why fiction with themes of official corruption was not championed even by proponents of Chinese mass culture, despite anticorruption fiction's production within China, its potentially radical (even revolutionary) nature, its China-centered focus, its concern with familiar collective categories such as state workers, cadres, and intellectuals, (p.166) and its concern for China's losers in the economic transformation. (1) Fiction about corruption is political. Some critics may avoid the topic of corruption out of caution, whereas others feel antipathy toward politics because of where it has led China in the past and out of a sense of personal exclusion from political decision making. Similarly, cultural radicals in China generally are immune to calls for revolution, which to them signify China's twentieth-century past. (2) The concept of corruption implies a state of social health before the corruption took place, a premise that radical critics may be unwilling to concede. (3) Fiction about corruption offends Chinese nationalism by focusing on the dark side of China's economic miracle and by taking an implicitly pessimistic view of the future.74 Media productions of corruption are to that extent a negative mirror image of the popular soaps about Chinese emperors of the High Qing, when Chinese power was at its height.75 Anticorruption fiction is typically set amid the decaying, old-fashioned state-owned economy. When it is set amid vibrant commercial enterprises (created by smuggling, for instance), the novels make those activities appear phony. Anticorruption fiction is not filled with the names of the era's pop stars or consumerist fads of young people. (4) Anticorruption fiction does not fit the postmodern theory that China's mass culture is a product of the postsocialist market or of a globalizing postmodern trend linked to international cutting-edge culture and technology. Although it is commercially viable, the fiction's popularity comes from realism's old “sacred mission” of social comment and denunciation.76 Realism, particularly realism with a clear, directional narrative that does not problematize its own conclusions, is not fashionable among critics or literary scholars in the West. Further, Chinese anticorruption fiction does not have an obvious counterpart in the West,77 and the Chinese works are unknown in the West. Many Chinese artistic circles regard realism not just as old-fashioned, but crypto-socialist. (6) Withal, realistic and popular anticorruption fiction suggests that China is not being transformed as fast as many might hope. The fiction uses old socialist and presocialist kinds of realism to attack aspects of China that are not postsocialist, postmodern, postcolonial, or postpolitical. And the fiction's champions are mostly outside of China's cultural elite and its younger, trendsetting generations. (7) The fact that “corruption” and “anticorruption,” too, remain state discourses may in time cause intellectual elites to reject even these terms, as elites already have turned away from the terms “realism” and even “intellectual.”78

However, even though the intellectual stronghold of culture with anti-corruption (p.167) themes is fiction, even serious fiction, it is distributed by new media. All of the novels discussed at length in this book have been posted in their entirety on the Internet. There are websites devoted specifically to corruption, some borrowing graphic designs from the novel Heaven's Wrath. Corruption is a topic of conversation in Chinese chat rooms. And the Chinese people are most familiar with the narratives about corruption through television series based on the novels, though TV productions have greatly watered down the discourse, as viewers are quick to point out.79

One part of the postmodern ethos that fiction about corruption in the old socialist and bureaucratic sectors did not fit was the critics' ambivalent vision of the new China as consumerist. Although that concept may have come to Chinese critics from theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and Mike Featherstone, to stress the impact of consumerism is chiefly to emphasize how fast China has moved from an economy of scarcity to one of plentitude—for the fortunate—and how seldom materialist values (in the colloquial, non-Marxist sense) are countered by ideologies and religion, now that faith in communism is largely dead. Even more suddenly than in the “age of realism,” when Europe moved from aristocratic to mercantile values, the cash nexus and property of all kinds have emerged in China as determinants of social relations.80 State propaganda has adopted techniques of commercial advertising and uses the pursuit of consumer goods to divert citizens from the pursuit of political power outside the party. China does appear more consumerist than postsocialist.81 But critics' denunciations of Chinese consumerism are seldom put in global comparative terms.82 Anticorruption novels and media productions show the masses more “realistically” than do portraits of them as consumers: as producers for consumers abroad, as employees spending much of their lives in China's factories, and as prodigious savers of their scarce wages. The CCP encourages getting rich, but spending for its own sake contradicts “socialist spiritual civilization,” the CCP's last pretense that it is entitled to monopoly power because of its superior morality. The party is aware that a continued high rate of citizen savings is essential for the economy, the welfare system, state investment, and the solvency of the banking system. As China's more audacious anticorruption novels remind us, even sybaritic corrupt officials save much of their pelf—in foreign bank accounts and real estate investments—in preparation for retirement and/or emigration before or after the fall of communism. Balzac and Dickens knew that pursuit of money could be an end in itself, regardless of what it could buy. International corporate logos, advertisements, (p.168) and entertainment products are everywhere in broadcasting and in most of the visual fields that confront urbanized Chinese, but so are they also in Abidjan and Dhaka. A country's elite can enjoy postmodernity before its society is postindustrial.

Anticorruption novels remind readers that consumer goods and services within the vast public sector, whether obtained as perks of office or through graft—notably cars, housing, and the service personnel to operate and maintain them—are old socialist markers of status and power. The novels detail each bureaucrat's vehicular perquisites as carefully as his facial expressions and his manners. Relative financial status or consumer savvy is not the chief reason why it matters whether a cadre is driven in a Mercedes-Benz, Audi, or Volkswagen Santana: a cadre's wheels are the chief metonym of his official rank. In feel-good anticorruption movies, consumption by the bureaucrats functions as eye candy and indicates modernization—the fact that China's officials are not “backward.” Conspicuous consumption by the upper classes has since ancient times been required by Chinese society, as an emblem of rank and the prestige of the imperium. Peter Brooks tells us that attention to accumulated “things” is the sine qua non of the realistic novel.83 That characteristic of the novel, in the age of Balzac and Dickens, came before postmodern consumerism. China's anticorruption novels likewise belong to an age not yet beholden to full-throttle consumerism.

Most fiction about corruption and officialdom does not, then, fit the high theorists' idea of China as postsocialist, postpolitical, or postbu-reaucratic. In a nationalistic environment still relatively uneasy with markets, self-support in the arts, lowbrow taste, and consumer choice, particularly as a form of power, China's elite critics have been quick to blame the faults of Chinese culture on the market and even international capital instead of domestic policies.84 This has led Jing Wang to raise “the state question in Chinese popular cultural studies” in reaction.85 China's anticorruption novels clearly uphold Wang's view that political power remains as important as money power, which is itself often linked to political privilege. But beyond the “state question” lies a “party question.”86 Many anticorruption novels call for a strong state, but one that is free of the hegemony of the Communist Party. That the party's ideological authority, social control, and internal discipline have grown weak simply makes its oppression more unbearable.

In an environment that celebrates mass culture, fault could, perhaps, be found with anticorruption novels for not being mass culture or purely nonofficial culture (some are published by the Masses' Press). The novels (p.169) might instead be categorized as failed realism or average melodrama. Each novel is a different case; its faults do not inhere in its nature as popular or mass fiction, realistic fiction, “post” or inadequately “post” this or that, or its commercial viability. Will the novels still be widely read fifty years from now? Perhaps not. The same may be true of works by Chi Li, Jia Ping'ao, Tie Ning, Shi Tiesheng, Zhang Jie, and even Wang Meng, Wang Anyi, and Gao Xingjian, not to mention Wang Shuo, Weihui, and the (once) “later-born” lifestyle authors. Will Grisham, Turow, Ludlum, Crichton, and Clancy be read fifty years from now, or Louis Auchincloss and Tom Wolfe? Perhaps as historical documents revealing popular thinking about the Cold War, civil rights struggles, and urban mores, as Ian Fleming, Harper Lee, and Gay Talese are already. If so, their Chinese counterparts can hope at least for that.


(1.) In fact Zhang Yiwu, “Zhongguo baixing lanpishu,” points out, rightly I think, that there has been further polarization of mass versus avant-garde literature. Dai Jinhua, in “Huo de zhishi”, maintains the distinction between elite and mass culture. In works that mix the two, she speaks of one having compromised with the other. However, collapsing binary distinctions is otherwise fashionable; see Jing Wang's “Guest Editor's Introduction,” 1–7. Another dichotomy seldom collapsed is that of modernism/postmodernism. Words beginning with “post” typically refer to concepts that are historicist and teleological; “postmodernism” is rarely argued to exist without “modernism” before it.

(2.) Lu Tianming, a little fed up with the greater attention paid his three anticorruption novels than his other three, nevertheless told an interviewer that the former were “closer to reality” and yet also more like mass literature (dazhonghua, “massified,” made for the masses, and pingminhua, suitable for common people). Hou Xiaoqiang. He Zhiyun calls Zhang Ping's Shimian maifu a “massified social novel, a political novel.”

(3.) “Modern Chinese literary practice in the 1920s, but also in later decades, is characterised by collectivity.” Hockx, “Playing the Field,” 76. My conception of China's elite intellectuals is indebted to Hockx and, before him, to the many writings of the late Helmut Martin.

(4.) Xudong Zhang, Chinese Modernism, 112. It is unclear whether Zhang means that it was in the state apparatus that the term degenerated or that the term was a label for orthodoxy in the state apparatus.

(5.) Anderson, The Limits of Realism; David Der-wei Wang, Fictional Realism. Duke and Link address the post-Mao period, when realism's prestige was about to wane. McDougall and Louie also take post-Mao realism seriously, while finding in it continuities with Maoism.

(6.) David Der-wei Wang, The Monster That Is History, 209. However, at 272–73 he seems to see “a modern realist discourse” as a late Qing project and a holistic cultural one, not so pluralist. He cites Yü-sheng Lin's evocation of holistic cultural change; Lin took the New Culture Movement of the early republic as the turning point, unlike his mentor Benjamin Schwartz. At 279, Wang writes of a “phantasmagoric realism” of the late twentieth century and possibly of the end of the previous century, too.

(7.) Another example is Huters's research to this end, beginning with “A New Way of Writing.”

(8.) Průšek, 1–28. Doleželová-Velingerová and her pupils, in The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century, saw modernity's arrival more in terms of literary structures than ideological ones.

(9.) For an excellent exposition of this aspect of Liu's thought, see Rong Cai, 38.

(10.) McDougall, The Introduction of Western Literary Theories into Modern China.

(11.) See Denton, 36–41.

(12.) Anderson, 25.

(13.) Ibid., 18.

(14.) Rosenstone, 39.

(15.) This is a general theme of McDougall, Fictional Authors, notably chapter 7.

(16.) Huters, “Ideologies,” 154, adds that realism was appealing in China precisely because of its identification with social reform movements of nineteenthcentury Europe. See Wellek, 242, on this “contradiction” in the theory of realism.

(17.) Unlike Anderson, 202, I believe that socialist realism at its best (though in its melodramatic, not its realistic, aspects) did inspire audience identification with heroes against the villains, and catharsis.

(18.) As pointed out by Xiaobing Tang, 51–52, who prefers not to emphasize Lu Xun as a realist.

(19.) Wang, Fictional Realism, 1–2.

(20.) Ibid., 10.

(21.) Ibid., 16.

(22.) As noted by Wellek, 234, 236. See Auerbach, e.g., 24–26.

(23.) Chen Pingyuan, Ershi shiji Zhongguo, 192–99. I believe he has revised this view in more recent writings. Lu Xun, Zhongguo xiaoshuo shilüe, chapter 28.

(24.) Hegel; David Der-wei Wang, The Monster That Is History, 200–223.

(25.) David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-siècle Splendor, 183–251, takes a Bakhtinian view of a “grotesque realism” that dates back to the Renaissance and ancient times, which Wang values positively.

(26.) In The Monster That Is History, 218, Wang indicates that the late Qing writers projected a “complacency” about the moral changes and a feeling that they were “palatable.”

(27.) As noted in regard to a late Qing Li Boyuan novel, by David Der-wei Wang in his The Monster That Is History, 50.

(28.) David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-siècle Splendor, 205.

(29.) Duke, Blooming and Contending, chapter 2 (and its opening notes), provides a guide to the debates.

(30.) See Li Yi; Bi Hua; Duke, “Chinese Literature.” Duke, Blooming and Contending, esp. 29–97, discusses the debates, here adopting the term “neorealism” instead of “critical realism.” As Duke notes, the term “critical realist” was too hot for Chinese writers to apply to themselves. For instance, Jie Min, 55, takes the orthodox class stand that critical realism belongs to capitalist society. The combination of “new” and “realism” happens periodically in many cultures, of course, and it did so previously in China, to connote proletarian writing. See David Der-wei Wang, The Monster That Is History, 83.

(31.) Epitomized by the title essay in Liu Binyan's People or Monsters?

(32.) Wellek, 242.

(33.) Huters, in Bringing Home the World, 135, points out Wu Jingzi's dismissal of famous scholars who were not given to “serious concerns.”

(34.) Lu Tianming calls literature about big social themes “Great China literature,” which is unlike sirenhua xiezuo, or “self-absorbed writing.” Bu Changwei. Lu Tianming and Liu Zhenyun have used the idea that “main melody” literature embodies the major trends of the times to dissociate the main melody concept from government propaganda. Instead they emphasize that the main melody amounts to a focus on major trends (as defined independently by authors).

(35.) Link, “Introduction to the Revised Edition,” xxii.

(36.) Friedrich Engels, Letter to Margaret Harkness, retitled “On Socialist Realism,” in Becker, ed., 484.

(37.) The phrase from Engels is still cited by Wang Xiangdong in regard to novels about officialdom.

(38.) Wu Xiaoming, quoted in Zhu Xiuliang. The same editor noted these taboos in the press's popular publications: “Don't put criminals and bloody scenes on the cover; Don't go into details of investigative procedures; Don't write anything that would encourage crime; Don't diminish readers' sense of security; Don't puff up the arrogance of criminals; Don't display the details of crime or try to shock readers.” Another application of the notion of proportionality is broached in chapter 3 of this book, at note 84.

(39.) Brooks, 5.

(40.) Highet, 211.

(41.) Kinkley, Chinese Justice, 267. Zhang Yiwu, in Chen Xiaoming and Zhang Yiwu, “Shichanghua,” J3, 6, backs this view with his judgment that “literature of the wounded” was a branch of “mass literature.” The difference arrived with the avant-garde in 1985–86, in works by Yu Hua and Ge Fei, for example.

(42.) See, for instance, Hao Yu, “Guanchang zuowei ren de yizhong chujing”; Li Yuntuan, “Guanchang xiaoshuo”; Wen Bo. I thank Helen Xiaoyan Wu for these references.

(43.) Wang Lixiong's Huang huo, analyzed in Kinkley, “Modernity and Apocalypse,” is a popular novel about global apocalypse. It is a thriller, yet it was also written to exemplify and promote Wang's new conception of democracy, later adumbrated in his nonfiction book Rongjie quanli.

(44.) Gao Xingjian.

(45.) Jing Wang, High Culture Fever, 145–47. Bao Chang, for one, wrote an article to show that China had never had much interest in modernism; realism was modern Chinese literature's “law of development.”

(46.) Ibid., 162–69.

(47.) These included books about exemplary bad political leaders such as the Gang of Four, but seldom corrupt leaders, like those featured in the nondissident book by Ling Fei, Xia yi ge shi shui?

(48.) Rosenstone, 55–56, 61–62.

(49.) Hamm provides superb description and analysis of the martial arts novel.

(50.) Second prize in the 1994–95 Shanghai municipal competition for midlength and full-length novels. I thank Hua Jian for this information.

(51.) Among the major anticorruption authors, not just Zhang Ping was sued, as related in chapter 4, but also Zhou Meisen. Forty Jiangsu officials sued him for defamation in his novel Renjian zhengdao (1996). McGregor (date of novel amended).

(52.) Chi Li, called “a writer for the commoners” in a symposium pamphlet (the phrase was intended as praise), blew up over the categorization of writers by subject matter (“rural writers, city writers, military writers and even anticorruption writers”) and “whether they write about the lives of commoners or of intellectuals, etc.” (quoted from the rapporteur's paraphrase); see “Hot Debate in Literary Circles.” See also Guoguo.

(53.) Positive comments are typified by the opinions of He Hong; Hu Zihong, “Fanfu xiaoshuo”; Li Yuntuan, “Lun xin shiqi wenxue.” Chen Meilan's 2002 retrospective on diverse novels of the 1990s gives an important and positive role to Cangtian zai shang and Jueze. Positive retrospectives on literature of officialdom come from Shen Jiada and Zhang Zhizhong. Fang Xuesong sees a positive start followed by a decline, as I do.

(54.) Cited in Chen Pingyuan, “Literature High and Low,” 119.

(55.) Zhang Lei, Han Kuancheng.

(56.) See Jiang Hu; Lu Mei, “Fanfu xiaoshuo”; Jian Lushi.

(57.) Lu Tianming was particularly stung by the refusal of critics to review his works, perhaps because of the initial positive reception of Cangtian zai shang. Miao Chun.

(58.) Chen Sihe is widely cited on the web as having made positive remarks about anticorruption fiction, as in “Caifu yu renxing tixian fantan xiaoshuo xin tese,” and Yu Xiaoshi, “Naqi wenxue de wuqi.” In print, Fu Qingxuan cites Chen Sihe as praising the TV series Hongse kangnaixin at a conference. In literary journals, one saw Tang Zhesheng favorably analyzing novels with corruption themes as popular fiction, and Gu Fengwei and Wu Yumin praising them as a “shock wave of literary realism.” In 1999, Zhang Yiwu, in “Quanqiuhua,” J3, 20, noted themes of “layoffs, corruption, transnational capital investment behavior, and inequalities of wealth” in novels that he considered optimistic because they showed new opportunities for group identity. These seem not to be the more pessimistic anticorruption works. Lu Tianming and Zhou Meisen voiced resentment at critics' refusal to take them seriously; see Yu Kai. Celebrity creative writer Mo Yan also speaks favorably of “literature about officialdom” in Wang Jun.

(59.) Qunzhong chubanshe also publishes Zhang Chenggong. It previously published “bad boy” Wang Shuo.

(60.) Dirlik and Zhang, 14. See also Fu Ping; Zhang Yiwu, “Zhongguo baixing lanpishu.” China's academic critics were actually rather diverse in their opinions; see Dong Zhilin. Rong Cai, 181, offers the theory that intellectuals in the late 1990s, as opposed to the early 1990s, were resigned to the new commercialization of culture.

(61.) Chen Xiaoming, “Wufa shenhua”; also “Wugen de ku'nan.”

(62.) Chen Xiaoming, “Nuoyong, fankang.”

(63.) Lin Jianfa.

(64.) Jing Wang, “Guest Editor's Introduction,” 8–9, also reminds us that best-sellers in China may not fit the stereotype of “popular culture,” but may reflect momentary trends, distribution, and practical needs—such as the need for cadre manuals.

(65.) I was pleased to find the “bread and circuses” figure of speech in Kraus, 225; I used it about the same time, for Ken Klinkner's 2002 conference on China Pop.

(66.) The volumes edited by Gloria Davies, Chaohua Wang, and Xudong Zhang (Whither China?) well represent elite intellectual thought in general and their lack of engagement with the corruption discourse in particular. “Corruption” does not even appear in the indexes of these books, nor that of Liu Kang's Globalization and Cultural Trends. Dushu printed articles on corruption by Feng Xiang, Fu Ping, and Zheng Yefu, with a rebuttal by Zhang Shuguang, in 1993–2003, but I consider this treatment limited.

(67.) Jing Wang, “Guest Editor's Introduction,” 5–6, discusses the distinction between “popular” and “mass,” opting for the latter.

(68.) See Henry Y. H. Zhao, “Post-Isms,” 36–37; Zhao convincingly argues that nationalism and a knowing “postist” “transcendence” of 1980s democratic and liberal “follies” have turned many of China's would-be radical elite intellectuals into cultural conservatives. Chen Xiaoming, in “Xianfengpai zhi hou” (1997), viewed the fall of the old avant-garde as if it were a historical necessity, but found in new young authors' self-absorbed enmeshment with China's new market-driven urban culture a new serious literature for China.

(69.) Zhang Yiwu, in Chen Xiaoming and Zhang Yiwu, “Shichanghua shidai,” J3, 3. My view is that reticence about politics is in this case caused by CCP political control. I question the argument, which the Chinese critics attribute to influence from Derrida, that visual culture is more liberating than written culture.

(70.) Dai Jinhua, “Behind Global Spectacle,” 164.

(71.) Liu Kang, “Popular Culture and the Culture of the Masses.” Works by Zhang Xudong describe other viewpoints that oppose local culture to global culture.

(72.) Li Zimu, 54.

(73.) Liu Kang, “The Short-Lived Avant-Garde,” 101. China and other area studies were actually under attack in the 1990s, from the left, the postmodernists, and the new globalizers.

(74.) On 1990s Chinese nationalism, see Dai Jinhua, “Behind Global Spectacle.”

(75.) The TV dramas about the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong reigns, however, depicted corrupt official behavior that could be appreciated as allegories of current times.

(76.) “Defended by the official criticism as the backbone of the architecture of the literature of the New Era, realism was viewed by the newly emerging subject positions as a restored and lingering bureaucratic formula of representation.” Xudong Zhang, Chinese Modernism, 111. This well captures the “subject positions'” dismissive attitude.

(77.) The United States had a made-for-TV movie about the Enron scandal, but that seems to be the exception.

(78.) Huters, Bringing the World Home, 307n28.

(79.) Ma Yutao; Zhou Mingjie.

(80.) On Europe, see Brooks, 14.

(81.) Barmé; Jing Wang, “Culture as Leisure.”

(82.) Chen Xiaoming, “Nuoyong, fankang.”

(83.) Brooks, 16.

(84.) Hence Dai Jinhua, cited in “How about China's Hollywood,” argues for protectionism to keep Hollywood blockbusters from overwhelming China's domestic film industry.

(85.) Jing Wang, “The State Question in Chinese Popular Culture Studies.” (p.224) See also Jing Wang, “Culture as Leisure.” David S. G. Goodman supports Wang, and brings the focus closer to mine, by discussing the bureaucratic cultural capitalism (if I may coin a phrase) of not just the state but the “partystate.”

(86.) Kraus's recent book on the visual arts concurs with my emphasis on party, not state, hegemony.