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The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature

Julia Lovell

978 0 8248 3018 2
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Publication date:
31 December 2006

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In the 1980s China's politicians, writers, and academics began to raise an increasingly urgent question: why had a Chinese writer never won a Nobel Prize for literature? Promoted to the level of official policy issue and national complex, Nobel anxiety generated articles, conferences, and official delegations to Sweden. Exiled writer Gao Xingjian's win in 2000 failed to satisfactorily end the matter, and the controversy surrounding the Nobel committee's choice has continued to simmer.

Julia Lovell's comprehensive study of China's obsession spans the twentieth century and taps directly into the key themes of modern Chinese culture: national identity, international status, and the relationship between intellectuals and politics. The intellectual preoccupation with the Nobel literature prize expresses tensions inherent in China's move toward a global culture after the collapse of the Confucian world-view at the start of the twentieth century, and particularly since China's re-entry into the world economy in the post-Mao era. Attitudes toward the prize reveal the same contradictory mix of admiration, resentment, and anxiety that intellectuals and writers have long felt toward Western values as they struggled to shape a modern Chinese identity. In short, the Nobel complex reveals the pressure points in an intellectual community not entirely sure of itself.

Making use of extensive original research, including interviews with leading contemporary Chinese authors and critics, The Politics of Cultural Capital is a comprehensive, up-to-date treatment of an issue that cuts to the heart of modern and contemporary Chinese thought and culture. It will be essential reading for scholars of modern Chinese literature and culture, globalization, post-colonialism, and comparative and world literature.


Julia Lovell is research fellow in Chinese literature and history at Queen's College, Cambridge.





Reviewer: Kerry Brown

Back in the mid-1990's, I was based in Inner Mongolia in China. In a medium-sized book shop in a small provincial town, I remember coming across a multi-volume edition of the main works of all of those awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, translated into Chinese. The series fascinated me because, even with the English version supplied, I was unable to work out who many of the Laureates were. Julie Lovell's study of China's particular experience of aspiring to, and winning, Nobel Prizes, makes clear that, especially in the field of Literature, the decisions of the Stockholm-based committee have sometimes been palpably political - choosing Winston Churchill as Nobel Laureate in Literature in 1953 - or deliberately strategic. Exiled playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian was awarded the prize in 2000. As Lovell explains, he ticked a number of useful boxes: he was Chinese; wrote experimental, obscure literature; he was an émigré and had attracted a small but devoted band of academic followers in the West who vouched for his intellectual authenticity. Despite his relative obscurity, Gao Xingjian was to become China's first, and so far only, winner of the Prize.


New Asia Books is an initiative of the International Insitute for Asian Studies