Divorcing the Rural
Miss Science and Marital Crisis in the Reform Era
Members of the May Fourth generation often found themselves caught between the old “feudal consciousness” and the new “modern consciousness” when they struggled to modernize family life by practicing free love and free marriage/divorce. Decades later, during the post-revolutionary period, a renewed discourse of modernization replaced the Maoist rhetoric of class struggle and “continuous revolution” to reconfigure the entanglements between individual, state, and family. As a result of the shifting ideological and institutional environments, the male intellectual's moral quandary and identity crisis caused by the gaps between the traditional and the modern as well as between the rural and the urban once again became the essential subject of fiction about divorce and marital strife.
Breaking the political and moral constraints imposed by socialist ideology, the intellectual discourses centering on romantic love and Enlightenment humanism in the early 1980s redefined the form and meaning of love, marriage, and divorce. This chapter pays a critical visit to the very starting point of China's reform era through a close reading of two influential, award-winning stories about the marital crisis of Shi Ping, a peasant-turned-intellectual, and his extramarital affair with Qiu Fei, a woman scientist in Shanghai. In recontextualizing and reexamining the texts on social cultural conditions since the 1980s, this chapter is as much about the past decades as it is about current social problems, particularly the widening gap between the urban and the rural and the increasing tension between the educated elites and the masses in post-revolutionary China.
In the face of radical marketization and global consumerism, a wave of nostalgia for the 1980s is sweeping across China's cultural landscape. That period is often commemorated as a “euphoric decade,” when Chinese intellectuals were idealistic iconoclasts who stood at the center of the cultural transformation that was believed to be a precondition for China's modernization.1
Viewed through such a nostalgic lens, the 1980s intellectual-led “new enlightenment movement” (xin qimeng yundong
) is comparable to the earlier May Fourth movement in terms of their allegedly common agenda of bringing Enlightenment thoughts, humanism, scientific knowledge, and modern consciousness to China. In the past few decades, many scholars have written critical works on the 1980s,2
yet none of these studies considers the interaction between the dominant intellectual discourse of the decade and the drastically changing social life in the rural areas, particularly in the private sphere of the domestic interior.
Outside of the field of literary and cultural studies, Susan Greenhalgh provides an ethnographic account of Dengist China's turn to scientism in the 1980s, revealing the ways in which a group of cyberneticists “scientized” the one-child policy and how this radical policy affected Chinese society, particularly peasant family life.3
However, this groundbreaking work focuses on the policymaking process, not on the day-to-day lives of the Chinese peasantry. Furthermore, Greenhalgh emphasizes the natural scientists' crucial role in the 1980s “scientizing moment” without taking into account the interaction, cooperation, and contestation between scientists and humanists in this transitional period. As a result, many pressing questions have been left unanswered: What structures of classification and domination were built up and sentimentalized in the process of institutionalizing scientific knowledge production and dissemination? What role did literary representations play in legitimizing 1980s intellectual discourse centered on the “emancipatory capacity of knowledge”? In what ways does an alliance of scientific modernity and literary representation affect the reimagination of private life in the domestic interior?
Two controversial short stories written jointly by Chen Kexiong and Ma Ming in the 1980s are illuminating in this regard. In both pieces, the power of scientific knowledge is constantly invoked to naturalize strategies of political domination and to intrude in people's marital life. The first story is “Return, Cries the Cuckoo” (Dujuan tigui). First published in the literary magazine Youth
(Qingchun) in 1980, it won the national Youth Literary Prize and aroused a heated
debate regarding the tension between “feudal” tradition and scientific modernity, a common theme of intellectual debate at this historical moment.
The story is narrated mainly from the point of view of Shi Ping, the male protagonist, a married peasant from a remote village. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Shi is admitted into college for his literary talent. There, he falls in love with a girl studying nuclear physics, stirring up a deep dissatisfaction with his rural lifestyle. When graduation approaches, he is forced to make a choice between staying with the well-educated girl in the big city or going back to his peasant wife and young daughter in the countryside. After a long, bitter internal struggle, he finally decides to return to his peasant wife's side.
Discussing their motivation for composing such a morally ambivalent story, Chen and Ma revealed that they had witnessed many similar divorce cases when they attended Fudan University in Shanghai. Some of their fellow students came from the countryside, while many others had been “sent-down” youths (xiaxiang zhishi qingnian) during the Cultural Revolution. These students had gotten married and had children in their rural homes before leaving to attend university in a big city. Chen and Ma wrote this story to expose their marital problems and internal agonies.
One year later, in 1981, Chen and Ma wrote a widely acclaimed sequel, “Flying Afar” (Feixiang yuanfang), to their first story. As the title indicates, the second piece resonates with the Chinese intellectuals' desire to “march toward the world” (zouxiang shijie) and to reconnect with the global metropolitan modernity lurking on the distant horizon. Almost an allegory of this new global imaginary, “Flying Afar” completely rewrites the ending of “Return, Cries the Cuckoo”: the male protagonist finally divorces his peasant wife and chooses to dwell permanently in the city in the hope of pursuing free love, individual development, and a modern lifestyle. Although the central plot about a man's difficult choice between his peasant wife and city girlfriend is reminiscent of some 1950s divorce narratives, the sequel revises the typical happy ending of those earlier works, such as Xiao Yemu's “Between the Two of Us” (1950) and Bu Wen's “Divorce” (1957), which favor the peasant wife and reunite the alienated couple.
This ideology of rural favoritism changed in the reform era. As sent-down youths returned to the city, the city itself also returned to the center stage of modernization. Here, the word “city” does not
refer to any specific city but to a deterritorialized space of modernity in which the modern subjectivity and the values of modernity can be imagined and materialized. In addition, what is especially interesting in this new narrative of modernity is the explicit evocation of the power of modern science, mediated through poetic aesthetics, to resolve the protagonist's marital problems and internal conflicts.
It has been noted that the reconfiguration of the social stratification and power structure caused an “epistemological reorientation” in the 1980s.4
This insightful analysis captures well the spirit of a historic moment marked by a dramatic paradigm shift. However, complementary to this “epistemological reorientation” that was thought to have taken place mainly on the rational level and in the public sphere, there was also a pervasive reconfiguration of the structure of feeling in the domestic and psychic interior, as a close reading of these two short stories reveals.
During the Cultural Revolution, intellectuals were labeled “stinky old ninth” (chou lao jiu
) who were politically untrustworthy and romantically “unsuitable as lovers or husbands.”5
In the years after the Cultural Revolution, educated elites not only rose to dominate the emerging “technocratic class order”6
but also reconstructed the familial order in which domestic power and affective value are reassigned based on access to scientific knowledge and urban civilization. Moreover, literary representations played a central pedagogical role in the process of romanticizing scientific modernity, replacing the “revolution plus love” formula with a new “science plus love” convention at the onset of the reform era. Even as it denounces the socialist state's intrusion into the domestic sphere, the early 1980s alliance of science and literature subjects the private realm to regulation through a new party-state ideology of scientific modernity.
ALLIANCE OF SCIENCE AND LITERATURE
A national craving for the scientific development and a fever for knowledge marked the early 1980s. As the Maoist ideology of class struggle and “continuous revolution” lost its appeal, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) turned to science to regain its legitimacy as a ruling entity and to reorganize the political and economic order.7
As a result of this policy reorientation, disenchantment with the Maoist revolutionary ideology and political idealism went hand in hand with the new enchantment with scientific modernity and the development mentality.
In the late 1970s, a large amount of Euro-American scientific writings were translated and published in China. “New industrial revolution,” “information revolution,” “fourth industrial revolution,” and “third wave” (the title of a best-selling Chinese translation of Alvin Toffler's book) were all cultural buzzwords in the discourse surrounding the global technological revolution.8
Laments over China's backwardness in this “third wave” of development could often be heard among Chinese intellectuals. The famous question once raised by Joseph Needham resurfaced and haunted Chinese intellectuals: “Why didn't China develop its own system of modern science?”
In 1978, a national science conference was held in Beijing, intended to serve “as a forum to promote…rapid and sustained development and technology.”9
In his opening remarks at the conference, Deng Xiaoping put forth the political tenet that “science and technology are the first productive force” (kexue jishu shi diyi shengchan li
). In 1983, Zhao Ziyang, premier at the time, emphasized anew the notion that developing science and technology would be instrumental in narrowing the gap between China and developed countries.10
As a result, social progress was equated with technological and material progress; rapid economic development would, so the discourse went, resolve all social problems.
Because technological expertise occupied the central position in economic transformation, scientists, and intellectuals more generally, were expected to be leading agents in the state's modernization program.11
In 1977, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences was founded to give institutional support to this program, referred to as the “Four Modernizations.”12
The new political slogan “without intellectuals there will be no modernization” (meiyou zhishifenzi jiu meiyou xiandaihua
) gained popular currency.13
An increasing number of technocrats were incorporated into the Party leadership or placed “in positions of authority.”14
New party members were drawn from an enlarging pool of college graduates instead of from peasants and workers, as had been the case in the early stages of the Party's history. Hence, the Party was transformed into “a party of technocratic officials.”15
Abandoning radical Maoist educational policies aimed at leveling class distinctions, the government restored the national meritocratic “college entrance examination” (gaokao
) system in 1977, and the educational system was reorganized to stress only academic success.16
With all these institutional changes, the gap between a college
student's social status and that of a peasant grew. As a result, the lure of the urban became more tempting. Sent-down youths were not the only ones who chose to return to the cities where their families resided; educated peasant youths also made great efforts to leave the rural areas using the entrance examinations. This universal pattern of migration from the rural to the urban through command of scientific knowledge and cultural power gave birth to an increasingly popular slogan, “Knowledge changes one's fate” (Zhishi gaibian mingyun
), which associated individual success with a university degree and marked the path to social mobility and self-realization in post-revolutionary Chinese society.
This overhaul of the educational institution and social value system helped establish a unified linguistic market in which a new kind of knowledge could realize its exchange value, like a commodity. Formation and “integration into the same ‘linguistic community’” is a necessary condition for establishing and consolidating such “relations of linguistic domination.”17
Once marginalized and mistreated by the Mao-era proletarian dictatorship, post-Mao Chinese intellectuals reversed the discursive hierarchy in which scientific knowledge—closely associated with modernization, development, industrial urbanity, and the vision of historic progress—became the legitimate and universal language that prioritized mental over manual labor and the industrial over the agrarian mode of production.
Numerous literary works and cultural debates further fueled the enthusiasm for scientific modernity. The prominent poet Guo Moruo made a landmark speech hailing the coming of “springtime for science” (kexue de chuntian
) at the National Science Conference in 1978. Following this, the cultural and literary elite forged a strong alliance with scientific workers, as illustrated by the mutual attraction and admiration felt by the characters Shi Ping and Qiu Fei in “Return, Cries the Cuckoo” and “Flying Afar.” These characters' intimate emotional ties best illustrate Li Zehou's philosophical speculation, which was influential among 1980s Chinese intellectuals, that a holistic modern subjectivity can be established only by a new knowledge system of “science plus poetry” (kexue jia
Along the same lines, Lin Xingzhai, a literary critic, labeled “the unity of poetry and mathematics” (shi yu shuxue de tongyi
) as the “ultimate realm of human civilization” (wenming de
In the spirit of this new alliance of science and poetry, the mental labor of creative writing was regarded as equivalent to scientific research,
because both propelled the modernization of the nation and thus shared an interchangeable cultural value and symbolic power. The best humanistic study is regarded as a result of “the synthesization of poetry and mathematics” (shi yu shuxue de tongyi
Li Zehou traces this alliance of humanists and scientists back to Hu Shih's ideas of “scientism,” which placed equal value on deciphering an ancient character and discovering a constellation.21
An English literary critic, I. A. Richards, who taught at Tsinghua University between 1929 and 1930 and whose Science and Poetry
has been translated into various Chinese versions since 1929, also influenced Chinese scholars of Hu Shih's generation. Richards advocated that literary studies, like other modern disciplines, should be done in a more systematic manner by incorporating methodologies from social sciences such as psychology and linguistics.
The intellectual discourse of the 1980s inherited this scientific spirit. Not only was scientific discourse incorporated into literary practices and social criticism; literary phenomena and historical events were also studied as sciences. In his preface to Gao Xingjian's influential book A Preliminary Study of Modernist Fiction Techniques
(Xiandai xiaoshuo jiqiao chutan; 1981), Ye Junjian, a veteran Chinese writer, establishes a science-inspired correlation between the development of literary techniques and the evolution of technology that has brought human society from the age of craftsmanship, to the age of the steam engine, and finally to the age of electrons and atoms.22
By the same token, Jin Guantao and Liu Qingfeng's seminal work Prosperity and Crisis
(Xingsheng yu weiji) studies Chinese feudal society as an “ultra-stable structure” (chao wending jiegou
) using natural scientific models such as control theory and systems theory. Their book has had a wide and long-lasting influence among college students, scientific workers, and humanist intellectuals since its publication. It was listed as one of “the most influential twenty books in the last twenty years of the twentieth century.”23
Meanwhile, literary writers endowed their scientist characters with a humanistic interior world. The best-known works include Xu Chi's reportage literature, such as “The Light of Geology” (Dizhi zhi guang; 1977) and “Goldbach's Conjecture” (Gedebahe caixiang; 1978). These pieces popularized the notion of scientific rationality among general readers by highlighting the sublime figures of Li Siguang and Chen Jingrun, a geologist and a mathematician, as the
national heroes of a new era who unswervingly dedicate themselves
to the advancement of human knowledge and the development of scientific research despite economic difficulties and political adversity. Xu's works were lauded as “harbingers of the coming spring of the flourishing of scientific and cultural endeavors” and “glorious odes expressing the masses' yearning for the Four Modernizations.”24
Another significant cultural event combining literature and science was the staging of Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo
in 1979. This play portrays “a giant of science” who challenged authority in order to seek a universal scientific truth and free the modern humanistic spirit.25
By the same token, the book Adversities · Resolution · Success
(Nijing · lizhi · chengcai) put together dozens of biographical accounts featuring scientists such as Marie Curie and Alexander Graham Bell, artists such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert, filmmakers such as Chen Kaige, and many other Western and Chinese intellectuals. In these accounts, these prominent cultural ...