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Reviewing Literature from a Broader Perspective

Luan Meijian

On the threshold of the new century, Chinese literary critics look back at the 20th century, reviewing the development of Chinese literature through the century from broader perspectives covering politics and economics as well as social and cultural movements. The following article, translated from the latest issue of the Literary Review, tries to explore, from some leading writers' perspective, the influences of their educational background and personal experiences on their works.

Two literary monuments created by two groups of Chinese writers were established in the 20th century as China strode into modernity.

They were set up during two major Chinese literary movements, namely New Literature (1917-27) around the time of the May 4th Movement and the New Period Literature (1979-89) right after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

Comparing the two groups of writers, we discover that their literary differences lie in their upbringing and personal and social experiences.

Writers who rose to literary prominence during and after the New Literature movement, early this century, still command a lot of respect from younger generations because their broad range of knowledge and education bridges both traditional Chinese and modern Western learning.

"How learned Lu Xun (1881-1936), Mao Dun (1896-1981) and their generation of writers were," Lu Wenfu, 72, a Jiangsu-based writer, remarked in 1987, "Home and abroad, past and present, astronomy and geography, they were able to write, to translate and to create novels as well as to do research."

With representatives including Lu Xun, Guo Moruo (1892-1978) and Mao Dun, these writers were the last generation of Chinese intellectuals to go through strict traditional training in classic Chinese literature and history, but also the first Chinese exposed to Western encyclopaedic thoughts and learning.

Their literary creations were largely based on their rich learning.

"My writing of novels largely relies on my having read more than 100 foreign works of literature and medical knowledge," Lu Xun said in his essay, "How I Started Writing Novels."

"I got in touch with Tagore, Shelley, Shakespeare, Heine, Goethe, Schiller and also had the chance to experience North European literature and Russian literature," Guo Moruo recalled. "Those works took root and formed my literary foundation and twigs grew without me being aware."

"If I hadn't read English, if I had not got in touch with literature in English, I wouldn't have written novels," recalled Ye Shengtao (1894-1988), who was best known for his children's stories.

In contrast, writers of the New Period Literature movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s did not have the opportunity to be exposed to the same wide range of classic Chinese as well as modern Western literature as Lu Xun and Guo Moruo's generation.

Gao Xiaosheng, who produced a series of novellas featuring a peasant's experiences during the dramatic social and economic changes of the past 20 years, once talked about his literary upbringing:

"There were three periods in my life when I had contact with literature," Gao, who was born in 1928, wrote in an article published in 1987. "The first period was when I was a teenager at home; the second period was when I was working at the office of the local Jiangsu federation of writers and artists between 1950-56; the third period was after the 'cultural revolution (1966-76).'

"By comparison, I read well during the second period when I knew what I was reading and still had a good memory.

"But it was the dozens of books at home that made me interested in literature, and inspired me to write and make it my career," Gao wrote.

Gu Hua, 58 and best-known for his novel "The Hibiscus Town," which describes the ups and downs of the lives of common people during a series of political movements, once recalled that his first introduction to literature was kungfu novels and classic Chinese mysteries.

The younger writers of this period, most of whom had to go to the countryside to work in the fields as part of their re-education after graduating from middle school, were able to improve their knowledge after the "cultural revolution." They read a lot and went abroad to exchange ideas with international colleagues.

But many of them still felt it inadequate.

"I didn't do well during the third period when I tried to take in more literature because my memory was failing," Gao recalled.

Although they lacked a broad range of literary exposure, this group of writers who rose to literary fame after the "cultural revolution" had personal experiences filled with far more twists and turns than many early modern Chinese writers could imagine.

During the succession of political movements between the 1950s-70s, these writers endured a lot of physical as well as psychological hardships.

Gao Xiaosheng, who had to toil in the fields for 22 years after he had been labelled "rightist" in 1957, recalled, "During those years, I was no longer a writer experiencing the life of a peasant. I really was a peasant. I thought what peasants thought."

Chen Jiangong, a Beijing-based writer, once worked underground in a mine for 10 years. Scenes of his life among the miners kept recurring in his head so he put them down in a short story "Eyes of the Phoenix," which lifted Chen to literary popularity.

"Our generation of writers started our literary careers by writing about social issues," said Feng Jicai, 58, a Tianjin-based writer. "It was not because we wanted to write about these problems; It was because the social problems that had piled up during the traumatic 10 years of the 'cultural revolution' forced every writer of conscience, a sense of responsibility and passion to take up his pen."

By comparison, most of the writers of the New Literature era began their literary careers without much experience of hardships. Their lives revolved around schools and their social circles were restricted to a small number of intellectuals. Before 1949, more than 90 percent of the population in China was illiterate.

As a result, the common people portrayed in many of their works were pale and lacked distinctive characterization.

"Those who were interested in new literature were, more or less, the young," Mao Dun recalled in his memoir "The Road I've Taken," published in 1981. "Society demanded they pay attention to social issues, be sympathetic to the 'victimized' and the 'humiliated,' and consequently they tried to input these ideas into their creations.

"But, no matter how skillful their methods were, they always got things wrong and their writing always felt untrue, because they were not familiar with the real lives of these people and they could not portray the lives of people unknown to them..." Mao Dun said.

The writers of the New Literature period were also concerned with social problems, such as the rickshaw business, freedom in marriage, women's employment, labor, children, family and religion, all hot topics at the time.

Some of them, filled with confidence and a sense of responsibility, saw themselves as saviors.

Others shared with the reader the tragic feeling of helplessness, lamenting the fact that their cares and ideas were lost on an old society.

Thus, as early as 1921, Zheng Zhenduo (1898-1958), a literary critic as well as an archaeologist, pointed out that "Naivety and a lack of individuality are common defects of the contemporary writers."

Writers in the post-cultural revolution era however, took pride in their rich life experiences. But in much of their works, they forget to distance themselves from the heroes and heroines they portray. They fail to analyze the protagonists' complicated personalities and psychological being.

Especially in works featuring the Chinese countryside, writers often moralize the foibles of their protagonists. As a result, they lack the philosophical and theoretical depth that their predecessors in the New Literature movement attained.

Whatever their shortcomings, the two groups of writers have built two literary landmarks in 20th century in China, which will continue to win admiration from future generations.

The author, a professor of Chinese at Suzhou University, is currently a visiting professor at Tungwu University in Taiwan.

(China Daily 11/06/2000)

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