Liu Zaifu

Liu Zaifu
b. 1941, Nan’an, Fujian
Literary, culture critic
Liu graduated from Xiamen University in 1963 with a degree in Chinese literature and immediately joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Years and a great number of jarring political campaigns later, he became the director of the Academy’s Literature Research Unit. He also served as editor in chief of Wenxue pinglun [Literary Review] and suffered the political excesses of the Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (1983–4) and the Campaign against Bourgeois Liberalization (1986–7), the last of which precipitated his departure from China and compromised, perhaps fatally, a wider dissemination of his message of national rejuvenation through literary reform. Over the last decade he has generated a great many works: essays (Shuyuan sixu), prose (Du canghai), commentary (Fangzhu zhu shen), aphorism (Duyu tianya), and scholarly dialogue (with Li Zehou in Gaobie geming, and with Gao Xingjian in Lun Gao Xingjian zhuangtai) while becoming a literary citizen of the world, nominally residing in Boulder, Colorado, where he shares a house with his daughter, Liulian, but also at the University of Chicago, the University of Colorado, and the University of Stockholm and the City University of Hong Kong, where he is serving as Honorary Professor in 2004.
Although a Party member for most of his life, Liu was a Marxist of curious stripe, one devoted to a proper accounting of the Chinese Communist Party’s deviance from its original revolutionary message. His creative reading of Chinese ‘Marxoid’ thought, in which he recuperated the revolutionary agency of the subject, as well as his call to Party intellectuals to assume a zishen yishi (self-critical attitude) constituted an immanent critique of contemporary politics and art, especially the violent excesses of the Cultural Revolution. This eccentricity earned him government harassment throughout the mid 1980s, and by the time of the ‘anti-bourgelib’ crackdown in 1986, his residence had been ransacked and Liu was placed under house arrest. He was expelled from the Communist Party in 1987. Still, it wasn’t until the government savagery at Tiananmen (after which Liu was placed on the government’s most wanted list), and another six months of political refuge in peasants’ homes in the south before Liu Zaifu left China and delivered his valedictory in ‘Farewell to the Ancestors’ (Gaobie zhushen).
Liu is now an expatriate, itinerant Marxist cultural critic and romantic modernist writer who came to prominence as the ‘phenomenon’ (Liu Zaifu xianxiang) of a literary cult in a precious, abbreviated interval of the middle decade. This was the period of qimeng (enlightenment) and wenhua re (culture fever), when intellectual enthusiasts focused on the problem of the ‘subject’ with a vigour provoked by the unexpected aesthetic intervention of the translations of Barthes, Croce, Jauss, Heidegger, Lukács, Marcuse and the 1844 Manuscripts of Marx. Indeed, in this heady interval of literary experiment and political liberalization, Liu’s literary criticism, with its obsessive emphasis on aesthetic subjectivity (zhuti) as a site of resistance to state administered ideology, inspired a new generation of writers to rebel against the sterile, exhausted socialist realism of Party-approved literature. His reputation was made from a string of influential meditations on literature and the prospect of authentic recovery of the aesthetic subject that appeared between 1984 and 1986, most notably Xing ge zuhe lun [On the Composition of Literary Personality], which defined the subjectivity of the writer as a unique position of moral authority whose intrinsic duty was to engineer his society’s ‘return to humanity’.
Since 1989, Liu, along with other exiled former Party members and intellectuals who constitute the 1980s intellectual diaspora—Su Xiaozhi, Liu Binyan, Bei Dao and Gao Xingjian (who remains Liu’s close friend)—has lived and travelled abroad. From this culturally disadvantageous vantage, he has continued to write and lecture on the full variety of themes of subjectivity, literature and human character, that brought him disfavour and persecution at home in large part because his conception of national responsibility moves him to conceive of China’s political crises as solvable only through the inspired intervention of the intellectual—a May Fourth era inheritance. But, unlike his predecessors, Liu is cannily aware of his complicity in his own domination.
Referring to China’s deported literary pantheon Liu recently claimed that ‘displacement and exile has set our minds free’; however, the emancipatory impulse to resurrect the true, revolutionary subject through a dialectical process of self-negation (wuwo) cannot be satisfied under such circumstances. Free to speculate, but not to effect change in the morally authoritative subjectivity of their countrymen, so it is that Liu and his cohort bear the scars of youhuan yishi (anxiety and crisis consciousness) and remain in a state of perpetual longing for home (xiangjia). Exile has removed him from the very audience his writing aims to provoke, so that with time, his message for Chinese has become, ipso facto, harmless. In the contemporary moment of Chinese fiction, with its post-adolescent narcissism and mindless devotion to the commercial gods of self-gratification, as exemplified in the stupendous popular success of Beijing Wawa and Shanghai Baobei, Liu Zaifu’s cry for cultural self-interrogation as a basis for a ‘human revolution’ seems cloyingly self-indulgent. Subjectivity is no longer a site for literary experiment, much less a harbinger of liberation. Rather, it is a reservoir for hedonistic accumulation.
For more than a decade Liu has been barred from returning to China, although recently he has visited the country and even been offered a teaching appointment at Xiamen University. However, with his work readily published from the literary émigré nexus of Taiwan and Hong Kong, he has conducted an ongoing confessional literary tour, lecturing and writing on the predicament of the Chinese intellectual, specifically his/her incapacity to politicize aesthetics for social good and, recently going so far as to affirm a vision of a repressed common humanity shared with Daisaku Ikeda, President of Japan’s fundamentalist Sokka Gakai Institute. Thus, he remains, at heart, a romantic or a frustrated utopian, whose valorizing of the subject, once radical, is now passé, perhaps because it was never effectively detached from the Promethean premises of revolutionary literature wherein the intellectual was the sole conductor of the symphony of the larger public’s education in the recovery of their original human nature (huigui).
With these last years of exile and of the receding of the waters of zealous self-criticism and literary experiment, Liu Zaifu sits on the distant island of Chinese consciousness devoting his scholarly energies to the literature of exile. Yet his message of national rescue through cultural regeneration is perhaps more important today than it was two decades ago when his writings on the aesthetic of subjectivity made him a national celebrity. In today’s China it seems very clear that art can no longer influence the world, but it is Liu’s unreasonable, but necessary, contention that the intellectual cannot stop believing in art’s capacity to effect politics, national identity and fate. In the political struggles of Chinese literary figures to exhort resistance through writing and declamation, the heart is all too often only half a prophet, and so it is that the responsibility for political and cultural reform through art has passed with the twentieth century in China and, thus, it is likely that Liu Zaifu will be for ever an exile. However, it is his nation’s loss that his message of self and cultural transformation is no longer audible amidst the din of rapacious commercialism and urban hedonism.
Li, Zehou and Liu, Zaifu (1997). Gaobie geming [Farewell to Revolution]. Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi chubanshe.
Liu, Zaifu (1986). Xingge zuhe lun [On the Composition of Literary Personality]. Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe.
——(1993). Piaoliu shouji [Wandering Notes]. Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi.
——(1994). Fangzhu zhushen [Deporting the Gods]. Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi.
——(1999). Du canghai: Liu Zaifu san wen [Reading the Blue Sea: The Prose of Liu Zaifu]. Anhui: Anhui wenyi chubanshe.
——(1999). Duyu tianya [Soliloquy (for) the Far Corners of the Earth], Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi.
——(2000). Lun Gao Xingjian zhuangtai [On the Condition of Gao Xingjian]. Hong Kong: Minbao chubanshe.
Liu, Zaifu and Yang, Chunshi (2002). Shuyuan sixu [Thoughts in the Garden of Letters]. Hong Kong: Tiandi tushu youxian gongsi.
Barmé, Geremie R. (1999). In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lee, Mabel (1996). ‘Walking Out of Other People’s Prisons: Liu Zaifu and Gao Xingjian on Chinese Literature in the 1990s’. Journal of Asian and African Studies 5.1:98–112.
Liu, Kang (1993). ‘Subjectivity, Marxism, and Cultural Theory in China’. In Liu Kang and Xiaobing Tang (eds), Politics, Ideology and Literary Discourse in Modern China. Durham: Duke University Press, 23–55.
Wang, Jing (1996). High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ideology in Deng’s China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 201–6 and passim.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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