Book Excerpt: “Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture” by Hongjian Wang

European Decadence, a controversial artistic movement that flourished mainly in late-nineteenth-century France and Britain, has inspired several generations of Chinese writers and literary scholars since it was introduced to China in the early 1920s. Translated into Chinese as tuifei, which has strong hedonistic and pessimistic connotations, the concept of Decadence has proven instrumental in multiple waves of cultural rebellion, but has also become susceptible to moralistic criticism. Below, Hongjian Wang discusses the Decadent movement’s influence on Chiese culture:

Brief yet extremely controversial, the Decadent movement that flourished in late nineteenth-century France and Britain has generated lasting fascinations even till this day. Marked by the work of prominent figures like Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), J. K. Huysmans (1848–1907), Arthur Symons (1865–1945), and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), the rebellious movement in art and literature was intriguingly contradictory. It featured characters, real and fictional, who chased sensuous, sexual highs and eccentric indulgences but seemingly suffered from endless apathy and boredom. At the same time, beneath the surface of sensual excitement, European Decadents sought intellectual pleasure. Under the guise of apathy and boredom, they harbored a keen interest in their audience’s responses to their works and had a proud sense of triumph. Despite the movement’s energy and rigor, it essentially came to a hasty end with Wilde’s death in 1900.

Despite its short life, the Decadent movement has influenced Chinese literature and culture since its introduction to the country in the early 1920s. Many writers and scholars have noticed the similarities between twentieth-century Chinese literature and European Decadence, but they tend to focus on the obsession with hedonism and pessimism while neglecting contradictions within the movement as well as the intellectual nature of Decadent pleasure. As a result, some Chinese writers considered “Decadent” are in fact quite different from European Decadent writers. By contrast, some other Chinese writers are closer in spirit to their European counterparts without being recognized as such.

This book reexamines Decadence in Chinese literature since the early twentieth century by recognizing its innate contradictions and reconnecting it with the pursuit of intellectual pleasure. By doing so, it sheds light on the sociocultural conditions that fostered Chinese Decadent literature. More specifically, the present scholarly expedition first revisits European Decadence at its origins to answer a few key questions: what did a Decadent experience entail? What kind of cultural soil allowed Decadence to emerge and thrive? What caused the contradictions in Decadence and why was the Decadent movement so short-lived? It then uses these Decadent notions as a lens to reanalyze modern Chinese literature. When some Chinese writers and scholars creatively “misinterpreted” European Decadence, what historical circumstances were influencing their choices, and what objectives were they trying to accomplish? And if some other Chinese writers did share their European counterparts’ provocative and contradictory traits, what does it say about the social environment and cultural dynamics of the historical periods they worked in?

Decadence in Modern Chinese Literature and Culture is in the Cambria Sinophone World Series headed by Victor H. Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

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