Introduction to Chinese Literature

China possesses one of the world's major literary traditions. Its texts have been preserved for over 3,000 years. Reverence for the past has influenced the preservation of these cultural sources, and may have influenced the invention of woodblock printing in the 9th century and moveable type printing in the 12th century. The practice of collecting and reproducing libraries has also played a major role in the transmission of literary tradition. Most important, China can boast an unbroken cultural tradition based on the Chinese script as a language — a written medium — independent of spoken dialectic difference. As literary language became increasingly removed from spoken language, it became less vital and literature took a natural turn toward imitation. Indeed, after the formative classical period that began with Confucius, the literary history of China becomes one of imitation-with-variations of different models. Literature also thus becomes more elitist, for an understanding or appreciation of a text may require familiarity with the models being alluded to.

The principal genre of Chinese literature is poetry; early folk songs established the shi (shih) form that crystallized during the Han dynasty and dominated for the next 1,200 years. Beginning with the simple complaints and longings expressed in rhymed couplets of folk songs, this form gradually became more and more complex, or "regulated," until it took years of study to master its formal rules of composition.

The short story, which began to develop during the Tang dynasty, at first emphasized either historical events or supernatural happenings which could not be related in a formal historical work. The notion of fiction as connected to history persisted, yet more imaginative and rationally inexplicable, culminating in China's greatest novel, The Dream of the Red Chamber or The Story of the Stone, which is at once autobiographical and realistic, and at the same time imaginative and mystical.

Drama, one of China's least well-developed genres, had its origins also in popular entertainment. The high point of elite drama was during the Yuan dynasty, when intellectuals dispossessed by the Mongol invaders turned to the composition of drama both to productively employ their taste and erudition and also to covertly criticize the foreign government. During the following centuries, dramas tended to become longer, and the opera dominated. Spoken drama was not generally conspicuous until the 20th century.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the movement to modernize and westernize China's literature became very popular. The formal classical language, which by then survived only in written texts, was replaced by the vernacular spoken language as a literary medium. Experiments with free verse and sonnet forms, short autobiographical stories and interior monologues, spoken drama and radio or film scripts were influenced by western models rather than by classical Chinese tradition. However, the theme of China's plight dominated 20th-century Chinese literature, and for the past six decades the pendulum has frequently swung back and forth between western imitation and modernized styles versus Chinese foundation and conservative techniques. Whereas classical Chinese literature was often valued for its craft and erudition, post-1919 Chinese literature has been evaluated largely in terms of its social and political relevance.

Much Chinese literature of the 1920s and 1930s both exposed national social problems and also expressed writers' doubts about finding viable solutions to these problems.

In 1942 Mao Zedong, in his "Talks at Yenan on Literature and Art," emphasized to his fellow communist revolutionaries that the goal of literature was neither to reflect the dark side of society nor to express the author's own private feelings or artistic inspirations. Instead, he said, literature and art should inspire the masses by presenting positive examples of heroism and socialist idealism. It should also be written in the public voice and style of the workers, peasants, and soldiers, not of the elite intellectuals.

During the Cultural Revolution period (1966-76), Mao's principle that literature and art should serve the people and promote socialism was most rigidly adhered to. The fiction of Hao Ran (Hao Jan) constitutes an excellent example of this tendency.

Literature After 1976

With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 came the official end of the Cultural Revolution period, and with it increased freedom for writers. During the subsequent decade, Chinese fiction tended to fall into the following five (necessarily overlapping) categories:

1. Literature of the Wounded

The initial impulse of writers was to begin, tentatively at first, to express the profound suffering of the previous decades. Chen Roxi's stories in The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories offer an example of very well-crafted fiction which reveals the physical, psychological and spiritual pain the Chinese people endured under Mao. But finally, Chen Roxi must be considered a foreigner, though she is Chinese and she lived in China during the Cultural Revolution era.

Within China, the "literature of the wounded" movement began in the summer of 1977 when Lu Xinhua, a 23-year-old student at Fudan University, presented a story entitled "The Wounded" as a big-character poster on the walls of the campus. The story was soon published, and it inspired hundreds of others. Another one which became equally famous was Liu Xinwu's "Class Counselor," published in November 1977. In Liu's story, the young girl fails to achieve a reconciliation with her mother, whom she had been forced to denounce during the Cultural Revolution. An open-minded class advisor recognizes that there is still hope for the generation of youth who suffered at the hands of the Gang of Four. For several years, story after story poured out the guilt, regret, and pain over lost lives and ruined careers, betrayal of friends and family members, and the need to seek restitution. Within the "wounded" tradition, though not literature per se, a number of Chinese have written accounts of this tragic period for Western audiences.

2. Humanistic Literature

A related literary trend which began in the late 1970s and early 1980s was fiction which treated the problems of recreating the whole person after the constricting movements of the Cultural Revolution. A large number of women writers predominate in this category.

Since personal feelings were supposed to be subordinate to political action during the Cultural Revolution, writers who reacted in the opposite direction after the death of Mao used the rally cry, "Love Must Not Be Forgotten" — the title of one of Zhang Jie's short stories advocating marriage based only on love and private desire.

3. Social Criticism

Finally allowed once again to treat in fiction the darker side of Chinese society, many writers composed works which addressed post-Cultural Revolution social problems: alienated youth, the loneliness of the elderly and the divorced, the housing shortage, government corruption, dissatisfaction with the system of job assignments, etc. In a bold social indictment, Bai Hua in his screenplay, "Unrequited Love," has the protagonist's daughter ask the fundamental question: "Dad, you love our country. Through bitter frustration you go on loving her . . . But, Dad, does this country love you?" This script first appeared in 1979, and by 1980 it was banned.

4. Seeking Roots

Some writers, especially those who live outside the main cities, have turned to local themes and subject matter in their recent fiction. For example, Lu Wenfu describes the customs of the Suzhou region and Gao Xiaosheng depicts agricultural life in his native Hunan province. These people are seeking a meaning in life separate from political movements and urban upward mobility.

5. Reportage

Some writers feel that the most important contribution they can make is to record the facts of Chinese life in a way that illuminates both the problems and strengths of the Chinese people. The most famous journalist who exposes corruption in his sophisticated reporting style is Liu Binyan, whose "People or Monsters?" was acclaimed for its unflinching honesty in confronting deeply rooted government corruption.

In a different tone, Chinese Profiles, compiled by Zhang Xinxin and Sang Ye, presents interviews with 100 Chinese citizens who tell about their lives in a way similar to people interviewed by Studs Terkel. Their stories are poignant and surprising as individual accounts. They illuminate the rich social fabric of China and indirectly point out major social and political issues implicit in the individual accounts.

Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Marsha Wagner, Columbia University.

Discussion Questions

  1. How have poetry, drama, and the short story each been used for purposes other than entertainment?
  2. How is the literature of the 1920s and 1930s similar to literature after 1976?
  3. During Mao's rule, what was the function of literature?
  4. How did the "literature of the wounded" movement begin?
  5. Can you think of a period or event in the history of America that spawned much literature? (Hint: the Great Depression, Vietnam, the death of John F. Kennedy, the Watergate scandal ...)

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