Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture: A Comparative and Literary-Historical Reevaluation

by Hongjian Wang


This book is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series headed by Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

European Decadence, a controversial artistic movement that flourished mainly in late-nineteenth-century France and Britain, has inspired several generations of Chinese writers and literary scholars since it was introduced to China in the early 1920s. Translated into Chinese as tuifei, which has strong hedonistic and pessimistic connotations, the concept of Decadence has proven instrumental in multiple waves of cultural rebellion, but has also become susceptible to moralistic criticism. Many contemporary scholars have sought to rehabilitate Chinese Decadence but have found it difficult to dissociate it from the negative connotations of tuifei. More importantly, few have reconnected Decadence with its steadfast pursuit of intellectual pleasure and unique paradoxes or explored the specific socio-historical conditions and cultural dynamics that gave rise to Decadence.

This is the first comprehensive study of decadence in Chinese literature since the early twentieth century. Standing at the intersection of comparative literature and cultural history, it transcends the framework of tuifei by locating European Decadence in its sociocultural context and uses it as a critical lens to examine Chinese Decadent literature and Chinese society. Its in-depth analysis reveals that some Chinese writers and literary scholars creatively appropriated the concept of Decadence for enlightenment purposes or to bid farewell to revolution. Meanwhile, the socialist system, by first fostering strong senses of elitism among certain privileged groups and then rescinding its ideological endorsement and material support, played a crucial role in the emergence of Chinese Decadent literature in the European sense.

This study is also the first to offer a holistic understanding of European Decadence, uncovering both its internal logic and external circumstances, hence excavating its distinct explanatory power. It also sheds fresh light on modern Chinese literature and culture. By examining the careers of seven prominent writers—Yu Dafu, Shao Xunmei, Yu Hua, Su Tong, Wang Shuo, Wang Xiaobo, and Yin Lichuan—this study disentangles apparent contradictions in their writing and reveals the nuances in the changing status of China’s modern cultural elite. Last but not least, the book significantly expands the scope of comparative literary studies beyond influence studies and cultural translation by effectively adopting a literary-historical approach—a literary phenomenon is seen at once as a product and an indicator of certain sociocultural conditions, so similar literary phenomena can illuminate comparable contexts.

Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture is an important book for scholars and students interested in Decadence, modern Chinese literature and cultural history, Asian studies, and comparative literature.


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