The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years

by Lingchei Letty Chen


“Letty Chen has done magnificent work in looking into the art and politics of remembering, and re-membering, the Maoist era—its fanatic causes, its violent episodes, and its traumatic consequences. With sources drawn from fictional and biographical narratives, she identifies ideological and affective contestations, and ponders the possibilities of inscribing the immemorial and unthinkable. Both historically engaged and theoretically provocative, Chen’s book is a timely intervention with the prevailing narrative of the Chinese Dream. The Great Leap Backward is a compelling reference for anyone interested in memory studies, Chinese and comparative literature, and cultural and political history.” —David Der-wei Wang, Edward C. Henderson Professor of Chinese Literature, Harvard University

“A resounding call to read literature about what life was like during the Mao years as testimony, this truly first-rate book is impressive for its erudition, ingenuity, and readability. The image and memory of Mao Zedong still hold a powerful totemic sway over the Chinese populace. Wary of how the passage of time and the passing of witnesses may prompt history to accede to nostalgia with rose-tinted glasses, Letty Chen recalls and investigates situations where many fear to tread. Despite the heaviness of such subject matters as the Great Famine and the Cultural Revolution, Chen’s triangulation of personal memories, official accounts, testimonies, and theories is admirably balanced, deft, and steadyhanded. The field of modern Chinese literary studies has been waiting for a book like this. The Great Leap Backward will add an indispensable perspective to modern Chinese literature (as testimony) and the relations it has to historical events drenched in blood and tears. When put into words, memories of life during the Mao era have a better chance of surviving erasure; and with this book, the chances of their survival increase multifold. The Great Leap Backward will attract a wide variety of readers from comparative literature, Sinophone studies, modern Chinese literature, historical and memory studies—and for many years to come.” —Chien-hsin Tsai, Director of World Languages, City University of Seattle; and author of A Passage to China and coeditor of Sinophone Studies

“The first three decades of the People’s Republic of China’s history was dominated by a series of incessant and often violent political movements: from the Land Reform movement to the Anti-Rightist Campaign and from the Great Leap Forward to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. However, as Letty Chen demonstrates in The Great Leap Backward: Forgetting and Representing the Mao Years, this crucial page in China’s history has been repeatedly downplayed, whitewashed, or even erased in official narratives and discourse. Chen’s study involves piecing together the remnants of this history as told through a rich cross-section of contemporary fiction. Through her readings of writers like Mo Yan, Su Tong, Can Xue, Dai Houying, Yu Hua, and Yan Lianke, Chen not only excavates the underbelly of national history but also shines a bright light on some of contemporary China’s most brilliant literary voices.” —Michael Berry, Director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies; and author of A History of Pain and Speaking in Image

The Great Leap Backward provides illuminating new interpretations of canonical and popular literary representations of the Mao era, ranging from avant-garde and allegorical fiction to reportage and memoirs, as unsanctioned memories and testimonies. Drawing inspiration from Holocaust studies and its theoretical methodology, this book’s critical reflections on generational memory, victimhood, perpetration, guilt, and redemption make an important contribution to working through China’s traumatic past amidst state-sponsored amnesia.” —Jie Li, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University


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