"To be worthy of the suffering and survival" : Chinese memoirs and the politics of writing

by Hung, Yu-yui

Abstract (Summary)
(Uncorrected OCR) Abstract of thesis entitled

"To be Worthy of the Suffering and Survival":

Chinese Memoirs and the Politics of Writing

Submitted by

Ruth Y. Y. Hung

for the degree of Master of Philosophy at The University of Hong Kong

in August 2003

This thesis is a theoretical study of the Chinese memoirs in English and explores the political and ethical implications of writing in the post-Cold-War era and within the context of global capitalism. Around the mid 1980s a substantial number of Chinese authors started to write, beyond national and linguistic boundaries, about their traumatic experience during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and have since accumulated a significant repertoire of Chinese writing in English abroad. Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai (1986) and Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1991) are the best-known titles in this emergent literary formation.

By tracing the cultural and political topicality of the Cultural Revolution as a subject for popular history writing in the west, this study argues that the memoirs, though penned by the Chinese authors, are actually "written" in large measure by the geo-political conditions under which their authors are firmly situated. Insofar as these memoirs are collectively consumed in and by the west, they must work against a common set of constraints that they would not have if written in Chinese and published in mainland China: first, they are all written in English; second, they present their protagonists as victims of the Communist Party; and third, their popularity is secured through a total acceptance of the recognized political virtues such as liberal humanism and the established protocols of story telling such as the Bildungsroman.


The production and circulation of the Chinese memoirs on a global scale are, first and foremost, made possible by English as the de facto international language. The memoirists, who write in a "foreign" place, are often anxious about how they might adapt to it, and their western readers do not merely consume the memoirs - they are themselves part of the creative and writing process. While the linguistic situation in late capitalism serves as the condition of possibility for the mass production of the Chinese memoirs in the west, the practice of the American culture of political sympathy constitutes an important basis of their phenomenal success. As immigrants in the west, the memoirists describe violence and cruelty during the Cultural Revolution for specific effects, literary and political. For the western reader, the significance of the memoirs lies often in their "critical potential." Details of the brutalities of the Revolution presented in the memoirs resonate with the western cultural imagination of Maoist China. Whether the memoirs are narrated by a former PLA soldier, or a Red Guard, or an innocent subject being drawn into the political vortex of the Revolution, their authors all assume the role of victims who bear witness to a China collapsing into an administered "national madness" during the time.

In dealing with four main issues: global capitalism, politics of English, culture of sympathy, and practice of historiography, this thesis attempts to show that writing is occasioned and enabled by a specific set of conditions, whose temporal and spatial materiality both defines and governs the use and pertinence of the Chinese memoirs.

(492 words)

Bibliographical Information:


School:The University of Hong Kong

School Location:China - Hong Kong SAR

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:cheng nien 1915 life and death in shanghai zhang rong 1952 wild swans three daughters of china autobiography


Date of Publication:01/01/2004

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