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Tsu, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937, 2005

James Leibold reviews the book for H-Nationalism, December 2008.
January 1, 2005

Jing Tsu, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937. Stanford  Stanford University Press, 2005.

Reviewed by: James Leibold
Published by H-Nationalism (December, 2008)

There is a long and rich history of self-loathing in modern Chinese literature and society. This masochistic self-obsession with uncovering and picking at the wounds of a deeply flawed and vulnerable Chinese national character has taken a variety of forms: Sun Yat-sen’s attack on the belching and spitting habits of the "Chinaman" who foreigners considered more base than dogs; Lu Xun’s caricature of the servile dimwit Ah Q who finds hollow moral victories over those who beat him; Su Xiaokang’s highly influential critique of the backward and decrepit peasant culture of the Yellow River in River Elegy (Heshang) which helped spark the Tiananmen Square bloodshed of June 4, 1989; the more recent image of the docile and helpless Han Chinese “sheep” in Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng); and the widely circulated list of “Chinese Grievances,” with its desperate cry of “why do you hate us so much,” which has widely circulated the Internet following the recent kerfuffle over the Olympic torch. Even in the face of China’s $40 billion “Olympic moment,” its citizens seem reluctant to let go of failure--unable and unwilling to allow the perceived injuries of the never-ending “century of humiliation” (bainian guochi) to heal and pass.

How do we begin to make sense of this conundrum of self-flagellating national pride: the way in which nations like China seek redemption in the failures of the past, and renewal and unity in the fragile and fractured souls of the modern individual? Jing Tsu’s provocative and innovative book, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature, opens up new critical spaces for us to explore the modalities of failure in the construction of narratives of national identity.

In seeking to evaluate cultural narratives of nation-building during China’s tumultuous transition from empire to nation-state, the author trods on well-trammeled academic ground. She makes good use of previous works by John Fitzgerald, Rebecca Karl, Lydia Liu, Frank Dikotter, Sun Lung-kee, and others, while sharply shifting the focus from resistance and marginality to defeat and narcissism. Instead of viewing victimhood (or what she terms the “drama of social suffering”) as an inauthentic derivative or strategic form of identity construction, Jing Tsu argues that “failure achieves that distinct prerequisite of nationalism that perhaps no other positivistic definition can compel, the recognition of a singular destiny that is the foundation of sovereign thinking” (p. 222). The author, an assistant professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University, proposes a new “interdisciplinary approach” for exploring nationalism in modern China, one that combines history, political science, and international relations with literature, psychology, and even biology to broaden our understanding of the enduring emotive appeal of narratives of national identity and meaning.

Jing Tsu’s eclectic (if not always particularly lucid) approach leads her to explore the discursive “promiscuity” and “versatility” of failure across a vast range of literary texts from late Qing (1895-1911) and early Republican China (1912-37). In narratives about the yellow race and peril, eugenics and racial renewal, beauty and femininity, and masculinity and masochism, the author explores different manifestations of this trope of failure. Here the fear of racial ruination so clearly articulated by Lin Shu’s translation and commentary on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) sits beside the racial vengeance of the yellow peril depicted in the 1909 futuristic novella “Electrical World” (Dian shijie); and the racial flaws identified in Pan Guangdan’s writing on eugenics and Lu Xun’s highly influential literature become rallying points for the defense of the nation against real and imaginary enemies, reflecting the “embeddedness” of failure in the cultural life of Republican China. In the works of female writers like Xiao Hong and Ding Ling and male authors like Yu Dafu and Guo Murou, the author seeks to excavate the ambivalent “psychic topography” in which narratives of beauty (both masculine and feminine) come to desire suffering, defilement, and sacrifice in order to seek a sort of Freudian release, redemption, and even “ticklish pleasure.”

Yet, the boldness and roaming nature of the author’s literary gaze is also one of the book’s chief shortcomings, for in places it tends to flatten the complex political and social contexts in which these texts were composed and in which their authors operated. For example, the “yellow race” that Liang Qichao and other late Qing intellectuals spoke of came to compete with other categories of identity--such as Chinese (Zhongguoren); Han (Hanzu or Han minzu), and the Chinese race (Zhonghua minzu)--as Chinese intellectuals struggled to delineate the contours and contents of the nation. In the dynamic context of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century China, narratives of humiliation and injury at the hands of the alien Others interacted in complex ways with alternative narratives of moral stewardship and ethnic chauvinism over the familiar Other of China’s vast Inner Asian frontiers. On the steppes, or even in the countryside, the debased “Chinaman” of the Foreign Concessions became revolutionary cadres of progress and civilization. As Peter Hays Gries has rightfully pointed out, narratives of “China as victor” and “China as victim” have co-existed and fed off one another throughout the last century and continue to play a central role in defining Chinese identity.[1]

As a historian, the real contribution of this book for me lies less in its literary analysis than in the new interpretative framework it suggests for thinking more broadly about the dynamics of nationalist sentiment. For Jing Tsu, the passion and meaning of nationalism can be found in the perpetual yet unobtainable desire to right past wrongs both personally as well as collectively. Here, nationalism is viewed as a cultural pattern or psychological process rather than a political movement or ideological abstraction. In seeking to decouple nationalism as a personal emotion from the nation as a political movement, Jing Tsu argues that “nationalistic subjects often endorse the sentiment of nationalism without agreeing on a coherent vision of the nation” (p. 23). Thus framed, the author provides a powerful critique of the vast literature on nationalism as false consciousness or fictive identity, convincingly demonstrating how “the embrace of failure belies not a mentality of submission but a strategy of negotiation” (p. 21). In other words, the author’s work uncovers a mode of being in which the modern self finds psychic meaning and purpose not in allegiance to some abstract “imagined community” but rather in the longing for and comfort of a future state of personal renewal and collective redemption.

Despite the book’s focus on China, one finds parallels throughout the modern world. In the mythologies of Hiroshima, the Holocaust, ANZAC Cove, and 9/11, we encounter different inflections of kumen (“suffering,” “agony,” and “mental anguish”) which continue to shape national identity formation in Japan, Israel, Australia, and the United States just as it does in China. Thus, even though Chinese athletes won more gold medals than the Americans at the Beijing Olympics, we would be naïve to expect the idiom of failure to disappear from Chinese discourse. As Jing Tsu reminds us, failure is a mode of modern being rather than an end point, meaning that there are always new hurdles (as China’s Olympic poster-boy Liu Xiang knows all too well) to overcome.


[1]. Peter Hats Gries, China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), 69-85.
Citation: James Leibold. Review of Tsu, Jing, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895-1937. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. December, 2008. URL: 
Republished with permission from H-Nationalism.