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the Complete Review
the complete review - literature

The Chinese Political Novel

Catherine Vance Yeh

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To purchase The Chinese Political Novel

Title: The Chinese Political Novel
Author: Catherine Vance Yeh
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2015
Length: 356 pages
Availability: The Chinese Political Novel - US
The Chinese Political Novel - UK
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The Chinese Political Novel - India
  • Migration of a World Genre

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Our Assessment:

B : thorough, informative

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       While The Chinese Political Novel does focus on ... the Chinese political novel (and, more narrowly, on its flowering around the early twentieth century) Yeh begins by considering the 'political novel'-genre more broadly, as well as charting, as her subtitle has it, the Migration of a World Genre (in the nineteenth and early twentieth century).
       The definition of 'political novel' is fairly narrow here: Yeh focuses on fiction in which the subject matter is the nation -- the nation in (domestic) crisis, its institutions and leadership unable or unwilling to address the issues, the protagonist (and/or author) suggesting or trying to guide the nation on a path of reform and political and institutional change.
       As Yeh suggests: "The genre offers an instrument of public advocacy for political activists without the backing of state power"; it is, in nature and purpose, anti-establishment -- differentiating itself from, for example, the Soviet or Communist Chinese ideological novel, even as both genres rely on similar tropes -- in particular, of an idealistic lone hero-protagonist trying to effect change and in conflict with the entrenched powers that be. (A study of how the genre was coöpted and altered by the state in the Soviet Union and Communist China would make an interesting follow-up to this volume, which does not proceed to those times.)
       The political novel -- certainly as Yeh means it -- began, as she discusses, with Benjamin Disraeli but moved quickly across Europe (especially to Italy) and to Asia. Especially in countries where government was not responding quickly to changes in the global air the political novel became both outlet and forum for criticism as well as prescription -- flourishing in the fertile ground of mid-nineteenth century Italy, for example,
       The nation-in-crisis subject-matter meant that the political novel was, while inward-looking, not traditionally nationalist; as Yeh notes, the author/narrator is able to see (and relate): "his nation in the context of other nations", receptive to foreign positives that might find domestic application. As such, the genre lent itself to adaptation and rapid diffusion abroad, and Yeh's account of the movement of the genre is particularly interesting. José Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo are the most notable early Asian examples of the genre (and still among its highpoints), but the political novel was also quickly and widely adopted in a Japan that was in the process of adjusting to its opening to the West and the cultural, social, and economic changes accompanying that, and then moved onwards from Japan to China. (It is particularly interesting to learn how, after centuries in which the movement of literature was overwhelmingly from China to Japan, there was a change of course, as Japan suddenly lead the way.)
       Yeh provides a useful broad survey of the movement of examples of the European political novel to Japan and China, and then the rise of local writing in the genre, including a veritable explosion of Chinese political novels in the first decade of the twentieth century. The conditions were ripe for it, a sclerotic government no longer capable of addressing the pressing issues of the day:

     Chinese writers had given up the earlier practice of reaching the court through high-ranking patrons, as they assumed that these internal channels were clogged. Instead, they chose the very public form of a novel published in newly opened newspapers and journals outside the court's control.
       In The Chinese Political Novel Yeh also introduces readers to many examples of the genre -- untranslated and (now) obscure, and hence inaccessible to most -- providing a fascinating glimpse of that slice of relatively modern Chinese literature. Specific Chinese features of the novel-form, and how they were adapted in the context of political novels (including in translations of foreign works), are also discussed -- most notably the introductory 'wedge'-section, a summing-up and generally allegorical preamble of sorts.
       It is also interesting to consider, as Yeh does, how foreign texts -- from Disraeli to Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea -- were translated and seen in Japan and China, adapted, in text or interpretation, to local situations.
       The Chinese Political Novel does ultimately narrow to a study of a localized example of the genre, but Yeh offers a great deal of material that can serve as a jumping-off point in considering the genre more broadly. Her detailed discussion of the Chinese texts, and their backgrounds, is interesting -- though the inaccessibility of almost all the texts under discussion can be frustrating, requiring complete reliance on what information she provides. The study is also a fascinating look at the movement of literary genres across cultures, especially the movement from Europe to Asia.
       The one shortcoming of the book is an inadequate Index -- missing a vast number of author- and title-references in the text proper. A thorough Index would be very welcome; as the fact that there are more than fifty pages of Bibliography suggests, Yeh refers to an awful lot of texts, and it would be helpful to more easily find references to them using the Index.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 June 2015

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The Chinese Political Novel: Reviews: Catherine Vance Yeh: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Catherine Vance Yeh teaches at Boston University.

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© 2015-2022 the complete review

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