Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of the Love in China 1900-1950, Haiyan Lee’s post-structural analysis of a seismic shift in the emotional life of Modern China, seeks to reconceptualise the cultural construction of emotion. Lee references an exhaustive list of writers from the first half of the twentieth century, aggregating these texts and in doing so identifying a series of common tropes, scenes, stock characters, themes, and philosophies. As a result she is able to trace discourses on emotion, or rather, the fundamental essence of what emotion is, from the late Qing to the revolution, to the May the Fourth Movement in the late 1910s, up until the CCPs consolidation of power. That said, Lee focuses most closely on the effect of Romanticism on Chinese culture, and therefore hems in quite narrowly on the May Fourth and New Culture movements. Through this analytical focus, Lee formulates a framework by which one can effectively understand the astounding complexities of a ‘genealogy’ of emotional structures, by establishing three discrete ‘structures of feeling’, the confucian(native), enlightenment(western), and revolutionary(synthesis), and tracing points of emergence, appropriation, and interpretation between the three. This brief piece will attempt to familiarise the reader with the basics necessary to understand this framework.
Historiographically Lee’s framework disrupts a highly binary way of perceiving the Confucian and Romanticist construction of emotion, in referencing this Lee borrows from Sulamith Potter’s anthropological studies of Rural China. While this binary is, (as Lee argues), inaccurate, it is important to understand before deconstruction Lee’s framework. The ‘west’, or more specifically romanticism emphasizes the human being as being fundamentally differentiated from animals through its capacity to feel emotion. This notion, that one should principally be considered a ‘thinking feeling being’, has permeated fully throughout western culture. In this romanticist conceptualisation of the self, one places an innate value on being open an honest with ones emotions, as well as on emotions themselves, they view the expression of feeling as the means by which relationships are ‘created and renewed’, they therefore have an innate distrust of those who are not able to convince of their openness about their inner lives, because they have made one’s ‘emotions’ the experience of one’s inner life, the central legitimizing basis of all social relationships and actions. Simply put, the confucian construction of emotion does not ground the basis for social action in emotion, rather, it emphasizes the importance of meeting series of meeting a series of social expectations. It is not that the confucian construction of emotion fails to acknowledge the existence of an emotional inner life, but rather that within this context the “culturally shared code of expression and conduct” in the words of Lee, “does not have to be consistent with inner feeling” (Lee, 2006 pg.2). In essence, emotion was not thought of as a fundamental aspect of social life, the notion of ‘sincerity’, or clarity of intention, was therefore reserved for the proper enactment of a social expectation rather than the act of ‘baring one’s soul’.
In formulating her framework, Lee adopts the working assumption that discourses of sentiment, (i.e new conceptualizations of emotions and their legitimacy,) open the individual up to new experiences of inner life on the basis of these evolving expectations. This notion also grounds Raymond William’s concept of structures of feeling, which Lee relies on in her framework. The structure of feeling captures social consciousness as lived experience in process, or in solution, before it is “precipitated” and given fixed forms. It is essentially a cultural re-working of Marx’s base-superstructure idea, that changes in one’s material circumstance and lived experiences precipitate larger cultural and political changes, and generally not vice-versa.
With this in mind one can reasonably assert that Lee’s framework supposes that in the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of literati the very way in which emotion was capable of being perceived changed fundamentally over the course of the late 19th and early 20th century. This change was gradually integrated into the prevailing literary genres, then into the social action of the May Fourth Movement, and finally it manifested politically in the form of the abolition of arranged marriage.