Guo Moruo and the Chinese Revolution


A review of The Phenomenology of “Zeitgeist”: Guo Moruo and the Chinese Revolution, by Pu Wang.

When I began studying Chinese, a young learner but interested in the as yet closed off world of literature from China, I remember our textbook introducing the figures Guo Moruo 郭沫若 (1892 – 1978) and Lu Xun 鲁迅 (1881 – 1936). While Lu Xun has now entered the realm of international hypercanonicity, though, the work of Guo Moruo—poet, translator, revolutionary, philologist, bureaucrat—is all but remaindered to the literary historical dustbin of Communist orthodoxy: I am aware of only two book-length studies of Guo published in English, one of which is from 1971. All the more reason for Pu Wang’s insightful, incisive dissertation, The Phenomenology of “Zeitgeist”: Guo Moruo and the Chinese Revolution (New York University, 2012).

Wang aims to read the works of Guo Moruo for what comprehension they offer of the “spirit of the times” as imagined through twentieth-century China’s political, cultural, and social revolutions. To do this, he pays particular attention to both Guo’s “practice of translation, especially his decades-long engagement in the translation of Goethe’s Faust,” as well as to “his rewriting of Chinese antiquity in lyrical, dramatic, and historical-archeological-philological forms”; by superimposing these discussions on top of each other—the first half of the dissertation deals with the former, the second the latter—Wang’s argument is that “Guo’s literary inventions, trans-lingual practice, and intellectual innovations … [constituted] creative ‘translations’ or transmutations of Western modernity and China’s own traditions into a politically visionary configuration of the ‘now’” (2). The significance, then, is not only to re-found scholarly discussion on Guo Moruo, but to do so in a way that ties together anew the broader fields of comparative literature, translation studies, Chinese poetry, and the large corpus of scholarly considerations of Chinese modernity.

As many commentators have acknowledged and discussed, China’s experience since the nineteenth century has been one of “translated modernity,” which is to say that modernity in China is inextricable form its interactions with the rest of the world. Wang’s Part I, then, “‘Zeitgeist’ and Translation,” begins at that nexus, its first chapter titled “The Formation of Guo’s Lyrical Mode: Poetry, Translation, and the Mutability of the ‘Creative Spirit.’” Reading Guo’s early, seminal works of poetry, The Goddesses 女神 (1921) and The Starry Sky 星空 (1923), alongside his translations from this era, the chapter shows “how the translingual network composed of Guo’s reading or translation of Shelley, Goethe, and Whitman (among many others) shapes the ‘mutability’ … of his lyricism”; together, this international and translingual lyricism builds what Wang calls Guo’s “apostrophic politics,” which “ultimately broadens and demarcates the ideological cosmos of the May Fourth Movement as an imaginary domain of the Chinese Revolution” (31-32). On this foundation, Wang not only sets the tone for the rest of his dissertation’s detailed and multilingual readings, he furthermore specifies a methodology for reading the translations that instituted and defined China’s translated modernity.

Among the brilliant readings in The Phenomenology of “Zeitgeist” is where Wang posits translation not as something that happens to a source text, but rather as something that takes place, as it were, all the way down. Discussing Guo’s translation of Goethe’s Faust in the aforementioned chapter, for instance, Wang notes that Goethe’s play “is itself deeply related to the theme of translation in the first place, as exemplified by the famous early scene” of Faust translating and re-translating the Greek “Logos” of John 1:1 (“In the beginning was the Word [Logos]”) (82). This then becomes for Wang “a re-enactment of Guo’s own translation scene, in which he as a poet is searching for his own spiritual orientation” (83). In chapter two, “Aofuhebian, ‘Reconvalescence,’ and ‘the Rhine Wine’: The Unconscious of ‘Revolutionary Literature,’” we see that spiritual orientation transform from Anglo-European literary romanticism to committed proponent of scientific socialism. By “transformation,” Wang explains, he means “something more profound than the mere change of ideological outlook on a personal, intellectual or psychological level,” but rather a shift that encapsulated the “deeper social change” of literary youths becoming political youths. Wang places this change in “the transitory moment from late 1927 to early 1928,” in which the revolution was at a “standstill” that in turn produced “various modes of textual production” of an “idiosyncratic nature” (103). One of the idiosyncrasies was Guo’s Creation Society’s transliteration of Aufheben (“to lift up,” “to abolish,” “to sublate”) into aofuhebian 奥伏赫变, the controversy over which forms the core of the chapter, alongside readings of Guo’s diary from this period and his book of poems Reconvalescence 恢复 (1928)—as well as his completion of the translation of Faust, Part I (109-110). Upon these readings, Wang reaches the conclusion that Guo’s “mode of translation ultimately entails a self-referentiality in the collective experience of revolutionary crisis” (149).

Focusing in greater depth on “Guo’s Translation of Faust: Poetics and Thematics,” chapter three presents the act of translation itself as something of a deal with the devil: if Faust by Goethe is “an allegory of Western modernity,” Wang states, then “Faust in Chinese”—that is, in Guo’s Chinese—“embodies the thematic configuration of the Chinese Revolution” (155). To accomplish this, Wang compares Guo’s translation, which embodies his reading of Faust as the “development of Zeitgeist,” to competing interpretations by aesthetician Zong Baihua宗白华 (1897 – 1986), non-partisan quasi-Marxist Hu Qiuyuan 胡秋原 (1910 – 2004), Heidelberg-trained poet Feng Zhi 冯至 (1905 – 1993), and Hungarian literary historian György Lukács (1885 – 1971)—whose notion it was that Goethe’s oeuvre allegorizes Western modernity in the first place (154). This chapter is I think the most intricate of the dissertation, not only theoretically but also philologically, as it draws on extensive knowledge of Chinese and German in its eruditely yet clearly written English. Its conclusion is also the most penetrating: not only that “Faust is inscribed into modern Chinese literature,” but that “Guo’s translation—as a text, as a long journey, and as an allegory—becomes part of the Revolution”; we go beyond, then, “our conventional understanding of twentieth-century China as a ‘translated modernity,’” toward a mode of translation that “embodies the social experience and political agency of translating between different temporalities, between different moments of crisis, between different forms of non-synchronism in that state of exception which is China’s continuous revolution and incomplete modernization. The political subjectivity in translation resides in a creative sensitivity to the new experience of historicity and its transmutability” (213-214).

Part II of Wang’s dissertation, “Revolution and History,” re-conceptualizes the translation under discussion in the previous section into a discussion of Guo Moruo’s writing of history and his sense-making of the Chinese past in the context of its present. Chapter four considers Guo’s autobiography in light of such history-writing—as indicated by the title, “Autobiography and Historiography: The Variations of Self-fashioning”—dealing in particular “with the theme of sex within the hermeneutic and specular network composed of both Guo’s autobiographical self-fashioning and his socio-anthropo-historical view of Chinese history” (217). Within months after completing, in exile in Japan (1928 – 1937), the autobiographical record of his childhood, Guo wrote an essay re-interpreting the Chinese classics against Marxist conceptions of historical stages, embarking, Wang writes, “a long and controversial career as a subversive pioneer Marxist historian, an archeological philologist, a leftist interpreter of national ancient legacy, and eventually a leader of ‘historical science’ in socialist China until his death” (217-218). While the historical record of Guo writing these two works in direct succession has been available since it happened, the reading of them together for mutual insight is, to my knowledge, new—as is Wang’s conclusion: “Guo’s autobiography and historiography constitute a hermeneutic matrix or mechanism that constantly reproduces and rearranges the narratives of selfhood and social history into a diachronic lineage and a synchronic mosaic” (270). We have moved beyond the limited purview of Chinese Revolution, or indeed modernity, and onto the dialectics of self and society shaping each other’s visions.

Chapter five, “Guo’s Anti-historical Historicism: The Historical Tragedy, the Warring States Period, and the People’s Democracy,” expands further on this conceptual zoom-out even as it zooms back in on questions of the Chinese Revolution. “I will situate Guo’s historical plays” about the Warring States (475 – 221 BCE), Wang writes, “not only in the development of the historical drama as a genre, but also in the larger context of the cultural politics of the Chinese Revolution” (276). Just as his readings of Guo reading and translating nineteenth-century European and American literature requires Wang to re-read the European and American literature itself, Wang also re-reads Marxist literary theory as he reads Guo’s readings of such theory: “the issue of literary representation of history, central as it was to Guo’s composition of historical plays and the ensuing debates, also leads us to the basic poetic problems of historical drama, including the Marxist theory of literary representation of history. We should bear in mind that Marx and Engels’s classic statements about literary realism are actually based on their criticism of a historical play [which] made historical characters the mouthpieces of modern ideas” (277). In Guo’s work, Wang concludes, we have an anachronism and allegory whose intensification provides a “final translation,” that of the ancient into the present, which reconfirms how “Guo’s lifework encodes the compressed and contested historicity of the Revolution” (339).

Wang ends his dissertation with the claim that it is an “attempt to revive the contestation” of the legacy of both the historicity of the Revolution and of Guo’s lifework (339). Reviving the contestation of Guo’s legacy is perhaps the harder task: the historicity of what Wang calls the “long revolution” of China’s “short twentieth century” (16) has been contested numerous times by many scholars in recent memory. Guo, however, is remembered if at all as a hack. And yet if The Phenomenology of “Zeitgeist” reaches an appropriately wide audience (which would probably require book publication, as of course it should), then, in its focus on Guo Moruo’s work and contributions to Chinese literature and thought before his descent into hackdom, it will not only achieve its goal, it will also convey great insight into the spirit of the times and the translations and transformations it embodied.

Lucas Klein
Assistant Professor
School of Chinese
University of Hong Kong

Primary Sources
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Texte. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 2005.
——. Fushide 浮士德. Trans. Guo Moruo. Shanghai: Xiandai shuju 1930 [1928].
——. Fushide: di er bu浮士德:第二部. Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 1978 [1947].
Guo Moruo 郭沫若. Guo Moruo quan ji 郭沫若全集. Wenxuebian 文学编. 20 vols. Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 1982.
——. Guo Moruo quan ji郭沫若全集. Lishibian 历史编. 8 vols. Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1982.
——. Guo Moruo quan ji郭沫若全集. Kaogubian 考古编. 10 vols. Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1982.

Dissertation Information
New York University. May 2012. 348 pp. Primary Advisor: Xudong Zhang.

Image: Guo Moruo in his final years, ca. 1974, taken at his Beijing Residence, now Guo Moruo Memorial Museum.

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