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
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
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.
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.