Book Review of Yi Li's Republican China as a Method
Li Yi’s book The Republic of China as a Method (Zuowei fangfa de minguo) serves as an innovative research method to deeply understand modern Chinese literature. It emphasizes the interaction between the materialistic social and cultural mechanism and the spiritual and personal creativity of literary creation. This paper initiates a new theoretical paradigm, in a brave attempt by a Mainland Chinese scholar to pursue subjective research.
Keywords: Republic of China, mechanism, Yi Li, research paradigm, interaction
Few people outside China know or understand the tremendous efforts Mainland intellectuals such as Li Yi have made to jump out of the Western discursive paradigm to gradually establish a self-hewn subjectivity of research. What Li tries to do in this book is to provide a new research paradigm for modern Chinese literary history. His subversive brilliance shines in debate regarding “localization” and “nationalization” of modern Chinese literature, taking the “mechanism of the Republic of China” as research methodology.
What Li calls the “Republic of China as method” is actually a paradigm to rediscover the occurrence and development of modern Chinese literature, from the last years of the Qing dynasty, through the years of the Republic founded by Sun Yat-sen 孫中山 in 1911, and up through the 1950s. The early twentieth century in China was a significant period for the production and the study of modern Chinese literature. Intellectuals produced works from both the ancient Chinese tradition and Western cultures and tried to uncover the uniqueness of “Chinese modernity.” It is difficult to break away from dominant modes of thought trapped in colonial structures of academic institutions. Thus, Li Yi has written an important and timely book that does just this.
Li Yi is an outstanding thinker and critic of modern Chinese literature in China. He has long studied the 100-year development of modern Chinese literature. His reflection and exploration of academic traditions of modern Chinese literature focus mainly on the following three aspects: studies on modern Chinese poetry and literary trends; studies on the methodology of comparative literature research in modern Chinese literature; and reflections on “modernity” and other terminology used in study of modern Chinese literature. Based on all these studies, he proposes a novel methodology with which to explain the occurrence and development of modern Chinese literature throughout historical viccissitudes defined by specific national and social conditions of the Republic of China.
He first raised the concept of the “mechanism (jizhi 機制)” of Republican China in the West Sichuan Forum (Xichuan luntan 西川論壇) in 2012 and further developed this paradigm in Republican China as Method.
Li’s concept of subjective research is his most important contribution to solving the problem of how Chinese Studies defines the Chinese voice. Takeuchi Yoshimi 竹内好 and Yuzo Mizoguchi 溝口雄三, two leading thinkers in postwar Japan, proposed the method of “returning to China” and “taking China as method and the world as goal” to emphasize a cultural consciousness equal to European and American civilizations in their books Overcoming Modernity and Asia as Method. While the Chinese voice is still silenced, Sinology and Chinese Studies remain confined to a marginal status in Western civilization.
As the development of Chinese modern literature is so different from Western modern literature, Li calls for attention to the specific socio-historical forces which produce uniquely subjective research. Take, for instance, the concepts of “anti-feudalism (fan fengjian 反封建)” and “modernism (xiandai guaannian 現代觀念).” Unlike medieval European feudalism, Chinese feudalism formed 2000 years ago in the Qin Dynasty, continuing through the late Qing Dynasty. In the Republican Period, feudalism still made a profound impact on autocratic, centralized rule and thinking in modern China. Li argues that if we talk about “anti-feudalism” in China, we should definitely take Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles and Constitutional Ideals into account, as well as struggles against dictatorship and oppression of the Kuomintang. The content of “anti-feudalism” does not map accurately to the same word in English.
“Modernism” is another example of the importance of Li’s pursuit of subjectivity. The abstract concept of modernity, used by Western critics, might conceal information regarding the social situation in China’s Republican Period. One element of modernism which had a great impact on the spirit of modern China is Yu Dafu’s (郁達夫, 1896-1945) discovery of individuals. While modern Western writers base their spiritual identity on the basis of transcending secular culture, modern Chinese writers reconstruct their secular culture through based upon individual reflections of spiritual identity. Thus, using China’s own modern experience and ideas to show changes within the Chinese national spirit serves as a powerful way to uncover unique feelings within the history of modern Chinese literature. Since value, cultural ideas, and resources cannot be provided by Western concepts and theories, it is necessary for Chinese scholars to develop a cultural subjectivity-based research methodology. How is it possible to jump out of traditional discourses of literary criticism and cultural colonization of Western discourse? This cannot be done through classical percepts of literary reading, mainstream ideological criticism of Westernization, Western postmodernism, or even Western Marxism. Li sets out to build a rational framework for studies in modern Chinese literature. That is to say, scholars should follow and refine their research findings according to the social history of Republican China. Their ideas and methods must be tested by historical facts. Only theories and methods corresponding to historical facts of Republican China authentically inform the research path for Chinese scholars.
Li intends that by using his method, historical details and human experience described in literature can be integrated into a rational platform. While a great many concepts are too narrow to summarize and integrate characteristics of the development of modern Chinese literature over the past 100 years, Republican China as a Method might provide a more effective comprehensive historical platform.
Chinese literature in the 20th Century (二十世紀中國文学) is a natural outcome of Chinese scholars’ efforts to get rid of Soviet revolutionary influence in views of history, seeking to find their own pattern of literary development. The new style of writing in late-Qing has already been questioned by American scholars, such as David Der-wei Wang, who tries to explore other literary sources suppressed by the May Fourth Movement. Furthermore, New Literature (xin wenxue 新文學), a conventional term for vernacular literature in the past century, is unable to convey rich literary patterns, such as popular literature and traditional rhyme poetry. Hence, the advantage of Li’s paradigm is its broad inclusiveness.
Republican China as Method not only points to a time period, but also to literary patterns that appear chronotypes. Within this paradigm, May Fourth New Literature can exist in context with the literature of Japanese-occupied areas, such as we see in The Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School (Yuanyang hudie pai 鴛鴦蝴蝶派). Republican China as a Method aims at not only constructing a complete and systematic literary history of Republican China, but also carries out cross-strait dialogue between Mainland, China and Taiwan on modern Chinese literature research. At present, the depth and breadth of discourse and exchange between scholars on both sides are inadequate. If we use this new paradigm, it can help us avoid nonacademic, ideological biases, establishing effective modes of communication. Scholars will be able to carry out research on contemporary memories of literature in Republican China, providing insights to analyze and explain the survival of contemporary Chinese cultural circles.
In addition, this paradigm includes a variety of cultural and political perspectives. It opens the possibility of observing literature from different disciplines. Firstly, it requires the understanding of national political structures in Republican China. Political structures affect living environments, providing important context for works of literature. Secondly, we can explore various forms of social and historical development, re-constituting sites of literary activity as basis and driving force of literary creation. In short, Republican China as a Method asks Chinese scholars to use a multidisciplinary approach to form a Chinese discourse system, gradually implementing it as a way of self-expression in writing and study.
In Li’s view, this paradigm contains two parts, namely the external, sociocultural system, and internal, individual, spiritual pursuit. These two parts interact with each other. This novel perspective looks at the interaction between structuring forces of society and culture. It helps carry out investigations of spiritual interaction between modern writers and different social patterns within the period of the Republic of China. If we treat Republican China as a static historical time and space, the paradigm then focuses more on the order formed by the interaction between cultural participants and historical time and space. As a system, we might call it a “literary production mechanism.” This mechanism is a flexible one, reducing the barrier between literature and literary interpretation.
From the perspective discussed above, we observe how an intricate system in intellectual development continues to exert strong and positive effects on the history of modern Chinese culture and literature. This discursive system divulges internal tensions manifesting in interesting social phenomena. For example, even though material conditions for survival in Republican China were at times extremely harsh, literature maintained a fairly stable creativity. This mechanism is composed of various factors such as modern laws and decrees that guaranteed some civil rights, as well as market demand leading to a private publishing sector. As well, three educational institutions of state, private, and religious schools constituted an effective restriction on the autocratic dictatorship of the KMT. After the KMT’s terrorist-cleansing campaign, left-wing culture remained on the rise through the late 1920s. It developed in unprecedented ways and struggled to expand to the majority of society, showing tenacious vitality and resisting the rule of autocratic dictatorship. Additionally, during World War II, different literary ideological divisions appeared between KMT-controlled areas and areas controlled by the Communists. These cases give us examples of a positive mechanism of interaction. It helps to widen social and cultural tolerance, allowing opposing literary thoughts to survive and develop in continual communication and dialogue. The ideal of cultural enlightenment (qimeng 啟蒙) shared by Chinese intellectuals from the Late Qing Dynasty to the May Fourth Movement proved very important. Within this mechanism, although communist writers had their own political pursuits and beliefs, they shared with other writers the same ideal of cultural enlightenment. During World War II, even in Communist-controlled areas, enlightenment was a driving engine for national salvation, thriving as the “New Enlightenment Movement (Xin qimeng yundong 新啟動運動)” in the latter part of the war.
There are, however, potential drawbacks. This mechanism had a negative impact on the development of literature. Specific social structures allowed rule-by-people to remain at the center of society, sacrificing rule-by-law. The ruling ideology of the KMT distorted and suppressed the natural development of literature. Rights and interests of writers were not guaranteed. Therefore, spectacles such as “twisted writing (qubi 曲筆)” appeared in modern Chinese literature. As well, the continuous confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution has strengthened dualistic thinking in literature, hindering the multi-dimensional development of modern Chinese thought.
At a time when studies of modern Chinese literature are increasingly relevant worldwide, this book contributes to ongoing critical reflections on previous research, particularly in terms of methodology, and as well to a renewed understanding of productive interactions between objective conditions—such as political and economic situations—and a writer’s creativity. This serves to re-open dialogue and search for a new cross-strait understanding between the Mainland and Taiwan.
Li Yi’s paradigm “taking Republican China as a Method” plans to create a foundation for future academic patterns of research on modern Chinese literature. It insists on the study of the socio-historical conditions of literature, the discovery of a large amount of original material, and the analysis of details of deep cultural history. Additionally, in this paradigm we must recognize that the significances of literature as national history and as individual creation are interrelated but different. The spiritual temperament of an individual writer can be explained by historical mechanisms, but an explanation based on historical mechanism cannot give complete insight into the mystery of individual creativity. Hence, the interpretation of literature both transcends and returns to the individual. That is to say, when using this paradigm to study literature, we must be wary of the limitations of this perspective.
On the whole, Li Yi’s attempt to establish a platform for future research still does not escape the anxiety of modern Chinese scholars and, as such, appears to play with concepts. However, his attempt is full of humanistic feelings, emphasizing interactions between vivid individual experience and socio-cultural mechanisms. This represents the maturity of research into modern Chinese literature on the Mainland, scholars’ sincere reflection, and the spirit of respecting history. In short, this book shows Mainland scholars’ tremendous effort to develop an academic space for their own voice, and their ambition to build a community with a shared future for humanity across the Taiwan Strait. One must admire Li’s courage and applaud his endeavor, which initiates a new research paradigm. Scholars and students looking to undertake work on modern Chinese literature would do well to start with Li’s book and to carefully explore the interaction between socio-historical mechanisms of literature and the human spirit.
 Yuasa, Yasuo, Shigenori Nagatomo, and John W. M. Krummel. Overcoming modernity: Synchronicity and Image-Thinking. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2008. Mizoguchi, Yuzo. “China as Method.” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2016, pp. 513-518.
 David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction,1849-1911, Standford: Standford University Press, 1997.
David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-Siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction,1849-1911, Standford: Standford University Press, 1997.
Mizoguchi, Yuzo. “China as Method.” Inter- Asia Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 4, 2016.
Yuasa, Yasuo, Shigenori Nagatomo, and John W. M. Krummel.Overcoming modernity: Synchronicity and Image- Thinking. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2008.