Profile picture of Wendy Larson

Wendy Larson

Professor Emerita, Chinese Literature
Asian Studies, East Asian Languages
Phone: 541-346-4012
Office: 301 Friendly Hall



Below is a summary of my single-authored books, including the project I am working on right now.

  1. Global Good Cheer: Optimism Under Capitalism and Socialism in China and the West (in progress)

Socialist and capitalist societies had similar—if not identical—strategic reasons for promoting, building, and constructing happiness as the most acceptable public emotion. Both emerged from the Enlightenment and embodied the modern ideals of progress and improvement characteristic of scientific rationalism. In the United States and Europe, two major and connected areas in which optimism was promoted were within commerce, and within popular psychology. In business, the idea that the salesman should always wear a smile became ubiquitous. Positive thinking helped sales, but it also encouraged workers and customers to be satisfied with their lives, and, if they were not, to seek remedies in self-help therapy rather than in social transformation. When Chinese revolutionary culture reached its zenith in the 1950s and 1960s, revolutionary optimism, or geming leguan zhuyi, became a strongly encouraged emotional perspective, attitude, and form of expression. It was touted through literature, film, images, and virtually every aspect of daily life. Unhappiness, especially if publicly expressed, signaled personal and social dysfunction, which could easily become mental illness in need of a cure. Although revolutionary China—as opposed to the Soviet Union—rejected psychoanalysis, a range of techniques and strategies were developed to encourage happiness and cure (or penalize) unhappiness. 1950s novels and films often featured the conversion of a bystander into an enthusiastic participant in society’s forward movement, and heroism on behalf of revolutionary goals in the face of terrible obstacles. The theory of revolutionary optimism eventually medicalized the absence of happiness as an illness. Exhibited and encouraged in all spheres, happiness became a mandatory political goal, and revolutionary optimism—or the infusion of present-day happiness with the imaginary of the future—was the most valued state of mind.

This comparative book project will bring together the work of writers, filmmakers, and intellectuals, as well as contexts and thought trajectories, in China and the West, comparing the socialist and capitalist emphasis on progress, the future, and self-transformation.

2.       Zhang Yimou: Globalization and the Subject of Culture (Cambria Press, 2017)

This book is a study of the films of one of China’s most well-known and controversial directors. I argue that a subset of Zhang’s films examine the possibilities and limitations of culture, itself a multifaceted concept that can range from obvious signs of cultural difference such as literary or architectural styles, to the subtle lived experience of relational positioning or a sense of time and space. Zhang’s work is cognizant of the developing conditions of globalization as well as to national claims on culture, and yet the perspective of the films is not a simple issue of cultural nationalism or the promotion of unthinking patriotism. Although Zhang has been criticized for flattering Western audiences, I find that his films do not appease so much as they incorporate within themselves an understanding of how culture is changing under globalization. Performance under coercion, the duplicity of display, and action under constraint appear in many guises and aesthetic forms in Zhang’s films. These topos are interwoven with attention to the formation of subjectivity: how gazing and being gazed upon alters ethics and affect, and how the mind and behavior are formed under duress. Concerns about power relations, as well as modernizing forces in post-socialist China, also figure prominently.

The films contribute not only to an in-depth understanding of transformation in China, but also to a broader creative field that examines the relationship between the nation-state and culture under globalization. It is this critical mix of aesthetics, subjectivity, and geo-political positioning—rather than the Orientalism and cultural nationalism that some critics find in Zhang’s films—that became foundational to my argument. Zhang’s films begin with hope for the transformative potential of culture, and end up recognizing the inevitable transformation of culture in our contemporary environment, as well as its limitations.

  1. From Ah Q to Lei Feng: Freud and Revolutionary Spirit in 20th Century China (Stanford University Press 2009)

When Freudian sexual theory hit China in the early 20th century, it ran up against competing models of the mind from both Chinese tradition and the new revolutionary culture. Chinese theorists of the mind—both traditional intellectuals and revolutionary psychologists—steadily put forward the anti-Freud: a mind shaped not by deep interiority that must be excavated by professionals, but shaped instead by social and cultural interactions. Chinese novelists and film directors understood this focus and its relationship to Mao’s revolutionary ethos, and much of the literature of twentieth-century China engages—often from a critical perspective, but with a continual recognition of its importance—with the spiritual qualities of the revolutionary mind. From Ah Q to Lei Feng investigates the continual clash of these contrasting models of the mind provided by Freud and revolutionary Chinese culture, and explores how writers and filmmakers negotiated with the implications of each model. Investigating the work of directors He Jianjun and Jiang Wen, and writers Anchee Min, Wang Xiaobo, and Mang Ke, I analyze their grappling with the continuing legacy of the revolutionary mind and its implications.

This research is based on several principles: that aesthetic artifacts, including literature and film, warrant deep critical reading as well as historical contextualization (the concluding chapter of this book is an essay on this topic); that cultural influence is uncanny and cannot be analyzed simplistically; and that fundamental genealogies of time, space, and conception can differ radically from place to place and time to time. I also take seriously the ways in which Chinese intellectuals conceived of the mind under revolutionary culture, recognizing its widespread influence.

  1. Women and Writing in Modern China (Stanford University Press, 1998)

The relationship between the xin nüxing (new woman) and the xin wenxue (new literature), both concepts of early 20th-century China, is at the root of this project. First looking at scholarship on Ming and Qing dynasty debates that place the categories of woman (nüxing, funü, nüzi, nü) and literature together, I examine the well-known phrase nüren wucai bian shi de (for women, lack of literary talent is a virtue), where the concepts of cai, or literary talent, and de, or virtue, are placed together oppositionally. A wide range of practices and debates shows that increasingly throughout the Ming and Qing, women’s virtue and literary talent were exclusive, gendered, and diachotomous ideas and realms of social life. In the 20th century, I found among male intellectuals in China—as across the developing world—early staunch support for the concept of a radically new women’s writing. In the fiction of women writers such as Ding Ling, Ling Shuhua, Bing Xin, Lü Yin, Xiao Hong and others, however, as well as in the writing of their male colleagues, the two ideas of woman and writing did not fit together well, suggesting that although like male writers, female writers accepted many modernizing ideologies (such as women’s liberation and the autonomous aesthetic), Chinese cultural tradition made it difficult for them to actualize themselves as writers and to portray women who write positively. Working through this research is my conviction that although cultural modernity is formed through local interaction with globally similar concepts, such as women’s liberation, the autonomous aesthetic, democracy, and science, each culture’s modern form is not simply the adoption of certain beliefs, structures, and institutions, but is dependent on historically developed ideologies and their interaction with the new.

  1. Literary Authority and the Chinese Writer: Ambivalence and Autobiography (Duke University Press, 1991)

In the early 20th century, Chinese writers experienced a crisis in authority: they wanted to write, but in their theoretical articles and autobiographies, expressed doubt about the ability of literature to influence social life. In the essays and autobiographies of Guo Moruo, Shen Congwen, Lu Xun, Hu Shi, and Ba Jin, confusion about and disbelief in the efficacy of literary works or textual scholarship to maintain a valid social function within Chinese society caused the authors to criticize and even overtly abandon textual work.As an alternative, the authors proposed the seemingly more tangible options of revolutionary work, military work, and manual labor, all of which appear more viable simply because they are based on a physical component. Because the writers cannot remove themselves from writing, however, some eventually try to redefine the practice as closer to or part of material production.

Proposing two poles of existence, the writers imagine first a code of action: positive and socially effective acts that include various kinds of productive, physical work. Science demands investigation of material phenomena and thus falls within this realm, despite its mathematical foundations. Revolutionary work and manual labor also are included. The opposite pole is a textual arena in which writing and textual scholarship exist and are of limited or no social value. These “codes,” like the impressionistic and circumstantial autobiographies of the premodern tradition, are ideologically opposite poles and do not always represent concrete manifestations.

Throughout the 20th century, Chinese writers have wrestled with the problem of how to create a new literary tradition. The conflict between literary authority and socio-material authority is part of this struggle.