China and New Left Visions:
Political and Cultural Interventions

Edited by Ban Wang and Jie Lu

Reviewed by Xiaobing Tang

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August 2013)

Ban Wang and Jie Lu, editors. China and New Left Visions: Political and Cultural Interventions.. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. 255 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7391-6518-8 (eBook); ISBN-13: 978-0-7391-6516-4 (hardback)

Amid growing media and scholarly attention to the Chinese New Left, the present volume is no doubt a welcome contribution to a deepening understanding of the topic. That The Wall Street Journal should have of late reported on the vociferous New Left in Chinese politics attests to the timeliness and far-reaching implications of issues addressed by a coalition of academics, activists, and politicians. The essays collected in this volume edited by Ban Wang and Jie Lu are not, however, narrowly concerned either with political intrigue or raw power struggles. Rather, these are academic studies of a range of debates, narratives, and cultural expressions from contemporary China, studies that to varying degrees reflect and rely on arguments and perspectives generally identified as constituting a New Left position in Chinese intellectual life since the 1990s. The eleven chapters, authored by as many contributors, are grouped into three sections. The chapters are diverse in focus and approach, if also uneven in intellectual depth and analytical rigor. Readers interested in the topic will appreciate the rich potential of critical thinking that the volume as a whole demonstrates with regard to “New Left visions,” and will likely be inspired to inquire further into the issues explored here. Readers less familiar with this line of inquiry will likely find the collection to be a broad and often provocative introduction to New Left discourse and its pertinence, local as well as global.

According to the editors, the Chinese New Leftists may adopt various theoretical frameworks and approaches, but they “share an intellectual consensus based on their fundamental concerns with social inequality, justice, and China’s neoliberal model of developmentalism. They take a critical stance against global capitalism and search for a Chinese model of development” (x). The present anthology, for the editors, is but “a preliminary attempt at connecting a global left perspective with Chinese social and cultural developments” that have taken place since the inception in the late 1970s of the Reform era, which, in David Harvey’s oft-quoted A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism (2005), is narrated as an integral part of a worldwide neoliberal embrace of market ideology in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The point of making this connection, for Wang and Lu, is to keep alive “the New Left’s legacy bequeathed by its Chinese and Western predecessors and use it as a weapon to critique social, economic, and cultural damage caused by global capitalism” (xvi).

With critical interventions as their stated objective, the editors organize the chapters under three subheadings: “Geopolitics and New Left Perspectives,” “New Left Literature in China,” and “Rethinking Socialism and Market Reform.” They also include in their introduction a summary of the individual essays, all of them by scholars based either in the US or Hong Kong. In the first section, which considers Chinese socialism and the New Left position in different global contexts, essays by Arif Dirlik and Daniel Vukovich are particularly illuminating. Dirlik’s reflections on China in the twenty-first century begin with a highly perceptive and prophetic analysis that he wrote in 1981 on the fate of socialism in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. It is humbling to see how this renowned historian of socialism in China predicted the central issues, from ideological to economic, that the Reform era was to encounter. His deep and sympathetic knowledge also leads to this astute observation about the present: “The insistence on ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ often sounds quite vacuous, and yet it is a constant reminder of the Chinese resistance to dissolution into capitalism and the continued reaffirmation of one kind of socialist past in the search for another kind of socialist future” (37).

This statement lays out, in my view, a fundamental commitment of the Chinese New Left. Granted, the formulation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is part of the CCP’s official platform, but the relationship between the New Left and the governing party is by no means one of collaboration or mutual support. What the New Left insists on, against the grain of programmatic marketization and globalization that the government has pursued in earnest since the 1990s, is an inclusive and capacious historical narrative that does not deny or reduce the relevance and aspirations of the Chinese revolution. Such a narrative is necessary not merely for nostalgia’s sake. It will help reaffirm and clarify the goals of the socialist past in light of current socio-economic, political, and cultural developments; it will also enable the envisioning of China as a global presence with a fresh and refreshingly critical perspective on the existing world order and human condition.

This is how Daniel Vukovich understands the efforts of a representative New Left thinker such as Wang Hui at sorting out the intellectual resources accumulated in China’s tortuous search for modernity. In considering how the Chinese experience of modernity sets China apart from “most Western knowledge templates or theories about politics, history, and development,” Vukovich emphasizes that it is an experience inseparable from a “history of modernization that refused capitalism and imperialism” at different points. The Chinese revolution, he further observes, may have ultimately failed in its radical Maoist mode, but it was “an inspired and noble failure that remains an important part of Chinese political culture” (72).[1]

The New Left in Vukovich’s account therefore amounts to a “reactivation of Maoist discourse and the Chinese leftist perspective” (75) within the globalized knowledge production that shapes our contemporary world and limits its future directions. It is a reactivation with a political thrust against the reigning neoliberal sensibility and ideology. This political thrust, moreover, derives its force less from ideological faith than from a knowledge of, and respect for, historical experiences and, indeed, differences. The “transnational critique of capitalism” associated with the Chinese New Left, as Lisa Rofel’s contribution to the first section demonstrates, invariably begins with the narration of a past informed by different visions. (Both Dirlik and Rofel call our attention to Lin Chun’s important 2006 book The Transformation of Chinese Socialism.)

The same interest in retrieving an historical alternative underlies Ban Wang’s consideration of what constitutes “political theater” and his critique of the “tunnel vision” of a self-expressive or self-fashioning subject endorsed in performance studies in Western academia. His description of life in Yan’an, a crucial period in the Chinese revolution, as enacting a communal political theater, through which a “creative, open-ended temporality” was formed and experienced by all participants (95), is evocative and deserves to be further elaborated.

While the four essays in the first section of the volume explore the Chinese New Left as a critical legacy with broad relevance in our contemporary world, the following two sections focus on various cultural products from contemporary China. We find more specific information, more concrete discussions, and more extended textual analyses in the remaining essays. We may also find it increasingly harder, as did this reader, to discern a sustained understanding of the New Left as either a critical concept or intellectual movement.

I hasten to add, however, that Xueping Zhong’s study of Cao Zhenglu’s 2004 novella There, which opens the second section on “New Left literature,” is both rigorous and stimulating. Her discussion of the discourse on “subaltern literature” (diceng wenxue 底层文学), with references to postcolonial studies, makes meaningful connections and breaks new ground. Zhong makes an excellent case for reading works of “subaltern literature” as documentation of the steady subalternization of the working class in Chinese society. Poignant also is her lament over the steady disappearance of such concepts as “the laboring masses” and “the proletariat” from Chinese political and scholarly discourse.

In the following chapter, Jie Lu continues to engage with Cao Zhenglu’s narratives, which she treats as emblematic texts of New Left literature in China, even though she does not consider the latter a unified or coherent literary movement.[2] These two successive chapters give extraordinary recognition to Cao’s work, but it is clear that larger and more conceptual issues are driving the investigations undertaken by the two critics. Lu likewise foregrounds the term diceng wenxue in her discussion, but she insists on transliterating it rather than offering a translation. The same term is rendered less felicitously, in my view, as “lower literature” by Haomin Gong in his essay on reading migrant workers’ poetry as ecopoetry, an essay with many fascinating suggestions but perhaps also an overly ambitious agenda. The concern with disenfranchised social strata is further diminished in Aili Mu’s study of the rise of the short-short genre, or miniature short stories, the author’s preamble with references to a New Left belief in social justice notwithstanding.

The story of the growing popularity of short-shorts as a literary genre in recent decades is as much about individual efforts as it is about institutional support and formal innovations. In her narrative, Mu affirms a “desire for truth, goodness, and beauty” shared among writers and their reading public (160). She also makes it clear that government funding, often intended to promote the local cultural industry, has served as a “safety cushion” for organizations willing to foster the new genre. When we realize that practically all the migrant-worker poetry analyzed by Gong in his essay was published or anthologized by elite and prestigious presses in Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, and that the two novellas by Cao Zhenglu, hailed as pioneering a “subaltern literature,” were first introduced in Contemporary (当代), an award-winning mainstream journal housed at the People’s Literature Press, we get a glimpse of the complex dynamics of literary production today. In an age of consumerism and sensation-seeking social media, serious or issue-oriented literature is often declared as marginalized, but marginalization seems to have provided the space for more daring literary explorations, in style as well as in content. Moreover, cultural institutions as well as literary discourse from the socialist era, transformed as they are by market mechanisms, may still be pressed into service for the promotion of a “people’s literature,” or for representing the disenfranchised and the down-trodden.

This enabling condition of production reminds us that the New Left within China is far more complex than an oppositional, or so-called underground, discourse or program. It can draw on many resources, intellectual as well as institutional, and it ought to be understood not solely in terms of resistance to—or cooptation by—government policies or the CCP. Rather, the New Left is best appreciated as a discourse of cultural critique, insistent on interjecting the social and the collective into our vision of the future; it is a cultural critique that challenges the forgetfulness as well as myopia of a postrevolutionary society all too eager to equate development with fulfillment, reasserted class division with newfound self affirmation. In this sense, the ultimate task of the New Left is to challenge social mentality or the ideology of everyday life, to engage, in other words, in a cultural transformation.

It would be a mistake, in this context, to assume that only the New Left is passionate about change, or that Chinese society is stagnant or conservative. On the contrary, China in the last thirty years has been caught in a maelstrom of rapid development few other contemporary societies have ever experienced. The New Left asserts its critical relevance by raising questions about the nature of proposed changes, who will benefit from them, and what their consequences, from social to ecological, may be.

The three chapters in the final section of the volume do foreground the condition of production, but meaningful references to the New Left are comparatively few and far between. Through a scene-by-scene account of The Road to Revival, a spectacular performance produced on the 6oth anniversary of the PRC, Xiaomei Chen reveals the artistic creativity as well as conceptual ingenuity at work in the grand and necessarily contrived staging of national history. Megan Ferry introduces two relatively understudied topics in her compelling essay: Chinese television, on the one hand, and Chinese representations of Africa, on the other. The paradox she sees in the employment by contemporary media of “existing epistemologies of othering to free China from its marginal, othered position” (212) cuts to the heart of the matter and brings home the urgency of articulating (or reaffirming) a different global consciousness that challenges a hegemonic “inegalitarian rhetoric of difference.” The two television shows Ferry analyzes are part of mainstream culture, and yet her critical inquiry shows how much we can learn from them about “the perceptions of China abroad and its own internal struggles with development” (221). Here is an essay that illustrates the intellectual force of a New Left intervention.

Finally, Hai Ren’s detailed study of the production of Jia Zhangke’s 24 City (2008) in collaboration with China Resources Land, a transnational developer that turned Factory 420 in Chengdu into real estate properties, casts the famed director’s emotionally wrenching film in a complex light. This essay should be indispensable to any further discussions of the film in question, although its “redistribution of the sensible” framework à la Rancière strikes me as somewhat extraneous.

In his 2006 review of Chaohua Wang’s edited volume One China, Many Paths (2003), a collection of essays and interviews on contemporary Chinese politics and intellectual debates, Ban Wang, reflecting on his own tendency to “express suspicion toward the gospel of the neoliberal market,” had a “small confession” to make. “The complex array of views expressed in this book,” he wrote, “push me somewhat toward the liberal side of the spectrum, because the liberal view is not necessarily the natural ally of the market and often utters the strongest call for social justice, equality, and moral responsibility in economic development. Very often one cannot tell a liberal from a left-leaning writer.” He also observed that “The rise of China is a remarkable fact that has been debated hotly by U.S. observers, but in China it has yet to be scrutinized through reasoned discourse and intellectual debate. A sequel to this valuable collection might fill the gap.”

Ban Wang’s “small confession” suggests an excellent intellectual agenda still to be acted upon. The present volume would be a more useful introduction to the Chinese New Left if a sustained and patient dialogue was maintained with the various other positions it contends with, its neoliberal opponent in particular. Such a dialogue would take us to a much more concrete and complex discursive field, in which lines of alignment and differentiation might easily shift and overlap, and through which social consensus would hopefully emerge. This dialogue would also need to consider two increasingly prevalent and yet seemingly contradictory narratives simultaneously, rather than separately or surreptitiously subjugating one to another: that of China’s rising as an economic powerhouse, and that of “a polarized society of extreme wealth and poverty” (ix), as Ban Wang and Jie Lu put it in their introduction to the volume.

A valuable contribution China and New Left Visions certainly is, as it opens up a vast terrain yet to be covered and it inspires our desire for a sequel. One modest (if hopelessly pedantic) wish that I have for this future volume, if it is to materialize, is that it will undergo more professional and more careful copy-editing than did its predecessor.

Xiaobing Tang
University of Michigan


[1] For a full presentation of Vukovich’s arguments, interested readers should consult his 2012 book, China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C, which has been expertly reviewed by Maggie Clinton for MCLC.)

[2] The following assertion made by Jie Lu may come across as rather startling, given the context: “The subject position of workers in the socialist period was in essence a false consciousness based on an ideological myth constructed and nurtured by Mao’s political discourse and movements” (133).