Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China

David Der-wei Wang

Contemporary discussions of China tend to focus on politics and economics, giving Chinese culture little if any attention. Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China offers a corrective, revealing the crucial role that fiction plays in helping contemporary Chinese citizens understand themselves and their nation. Where history fails to address the consequences of man-made and natural atrocities, David Der-Wei Wang argues, fiction arises to bear witness to the immemorial and unforeseeable. Beginning by examining President Xi Jinping’s call in 2013 to “tell the good China story,” Wang illuminates how contemporary Chinese cultural politics have taken a “fictional turn,” which can trace its genealogy to early modern times. He does so by addressing a series of discourses by critics within China, including Liang Qichao, Lu Xun, and Shen Congwen, as well as critics from the West such as Arendt, Benjamin, and Deleuze. Wang highlights the variety and vitality of fictional works from China as well as the larger Sinophone world, ranging from science fiction to political allegory, erotic escapade to utopia and dystopia. The result is an insightful account of contemporary China, one that affords countless new insights and avenues for understanding.

Paper: $35 | Cloth: $90 | E-book: $35
ISBN-13: 9781684580279
Pages: 232 | Size: 6 in. x 9 in.
Date Published: October 1, 2020

Wang serves up another intellectual tour de force… Essential. 
–J. C. Kinkley, CHOICE Review


  • Essays in this volume are themselves elegantly wrought, beautifully told narratives, conceived to assist readers in making sense of, and concomitantly to take delight in, distinctive forms of storytelling in modern China. Insightful, informative, intellectually stimulating — and above all, inspiring.

    Sung-sheng Yvonne Chang
    Professor, The University of Texas at Austin
  • The work of Sinophone writers… significant amounts of it readily available in English, deserves far closer engagement than it currently receives. Wang’s study, elegantly written in its own right, is a masterful guide with which to start.

    China Books Review
  • Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China offers profound reflections on the poetics and politics, ethics and aesthetics of writing fiction in China's "new epoch" when state ideology and literary imagination contest and conflict. David Der-wei Wang shows us that storytelling, as transgression, transmigration, and transillumination, can speak back to and subvert the state's mandate for "telling [only] a good story of China." This book is a timely observation on contemporary China and its literature. It is necessary, and it inspires.

    Mingwei Song
    Associate Professor of Chinese Literature, Wellesley College
  • As people spend more time online consuming “tweets,” flipping through “posts,” and scrolling through “threads,” it is easy today to underestimate the power of a novel, the weight of a poem, or the impact of a story. In Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China, David Der-wei Wang brilliantly illustrates the impact, relevance, and power of storytelling for both the nation and people’s everyday lives in China today. This is a hard-hitting and probing book that excavates the complex relationship between politics and narration, the national imperative and the cultural imagination. If I had to recommend a single book on contemporary Chinese literature, this would be it.

    Michael Berry
    Director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, translator of "Wuhan Diary"
  • Fiction provides one of the most polemical ways to engage with Chinese realities. David Wang, in this masterly study, shows how fiction has come to step in whenever history failed to address the horrors of human experience in China.

    There is an intricate relationship between the arts and politics in China that provides the artist with a lot more—at least potential—power (and responsibility) than in other systems. In the Great Preface to the ancient Book of Songs already, the poet is called upon, by way of his art, to criticize not just those below but those above as well. The Chinese, then, is a system that provokes engaged art, so to speak—both for and against dominant political Truth. In times of political closure, this power of the artistic world comes to play even more significantly. In Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China, David Wang illustrates that poetic allusion and ambiguity are ways of offering alternative Truths. Even during the most coercive years of the Maoist era, when official propaganda proliferated with red heroes, they would take on entirely different colours in stories circulated underground. In China, then, fiction matters as an alternative way of and a response to speaking Truth—dark as it is, Chinese fiction begets hope and light.

    One of the most prolific scholars of sinophone fictional realism in China’s long modernity 20th century, David Wang traces, in this book, some of the important gestures of what he calls the “storytelling turn” in modern China, elaborating different positions from Liang Qichao to Xi Jinping and by reading them (and their different ways of dealing with China as obsession) through the eyes of important (post)modernist thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, Mikhail Bakhtin and Gilles Deleuze, opening up a new horizon for dialogues between China and the world. His book serves to decenter the discourse of storytelling by showing that, in China and far beyond, fiction may be taken not so much as simulacrum but as social communication, a carnivalistic enterprise, between mythmaking, fabrication and fabulation, a path to finding alternative Truths—an “anomalous form of historiography.”

    Barbara Mittler
    Center for Asian and Transcultural Studies (CATS), Heidelberg University
  • Taking inspiration from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent call for leaders to “tell the good China story” (jianghao Zhongguo de gushi), David Wang examines the function of fictional narrative in contemporary China. At the same time, however, Wang offers two twists on Xi’s call. First, whereas Xi refers to China in the singular, Wang is instead interested in China as a plurality, offering detailed analyses of contemporary authors from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Sinophone Southeast Asia, and beyond, even as the stories of “China” that these authors tell cover an even broader spectrum. Second, whereas Xi is interested in “good” stories about China, Wang emphasizes that, for many authors, the process of telling “the good China story” often yields detailed explorations of deviance, perversity, monstrosity, death, and the demonic. As Wang explains, paraphrasing author Yan Lianke, it is sometimes only by “shin[ing] his light into the darkness” that an author can thereby help others to see the “light.”

    At its heart, Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China is both a testament to the inexhaustible energy and innovation with which contemporary authors have approached the task of “telling the good China story,” and also product of Wang’s own long-time and similarly irrepressible dedication to “telling the good story” about the relationship between modern Chinese literature and the social orders that inspire and are shaped by it.

    Carlos Rojas
  • Wang serves up another intellectual tour de force... Essential

    J. C. Kinkley
    Portland State University, CHOICE Review

About the Author

David Der-Wei Wang

David Der-wei Wang is the Edward C. Henderson Professor in Chinese and Comparative Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of The Lyrical in Epic Time: Modern Chinese Intellectuals and Artists Through the 1949 Crisis and the editor of A New Literary History of Modern China, among other books.

Table Of Contents