More than 10 years ago, a new literature movement flourished in China.
For a few years, almost all literary magazines in China celebrated the young Chinese writers of this new literary movement, calling them the avant-garde of modern literature.
But as swift as the movement came, many of these writers have disappeared from the literary scene altogether. Meanwhile many new young writers try to imitate them, without much success. What happened to those writers? Where are they now? And how have they changed?
Avant-garde vs realism
Until the late 1980s, the realistic style dominated the modern Chinese literature landscape ever since vernacular Chinese replaced the archaic written Chinese language after the New Culture Movement in 1919.
In fact, it was deemed the "correct" style of writing literature to portray the dramatic social and political changes in China in the early part of the last century, especially during the first 27 years of the history of New China when political movements dominated people's lives.
A variety of modern and avant-garde literary ideas and styles were introduced to China following the country's reforms and opening-up in 1979.
Soon many young Chinese writers in the late 1980s began writing novels and short stories and paid more attention to the themes of human existence, describing individual experiences, and above all, emphasizing their narrative style.
The early works of these avant-garde writers, with their sophisticated narrative and fresh language, invigorated contemporary Chinese literature.
However, although their works received close attention from literary circles, they didn't have much public appeal.
From the very start, they paid too much attention to the form of the text, experts said. The focus was on how to tell a story rather than on what the story is about. Many took this writing experiment to an extreme, experts have said, making the movement short-lived.
This is what led Yu Hua to break away from this group in the early 1990s. He has achieved enormous success through his novels "Huozhe (To Live)" and "Xu Sanguan Maixue Ji (Xu Sanguan Sells Blood)." Both are written using extremely plain and simple language and a realistic style.
"When a writer becomes unsatisfied and bored with a long-familiar writing style, he or she will be motivated to change," Yu said in an interview in 1990.
Yu and other writers had become more aware of the limits to form-centred writing long before critics and readers.
They were unwilling to be labeled avant-garde in the late 80s and still feel the label is limiting.
What is modern?
Since many of the writers disappeared from the literary scene, Chinese literary critics have become somewhat critical.
According to critics, these writers in the 1980s were hugely influenced by Kafka, Borges, Robbe-Grillet, Proust - all modern Western writers.
While Ma Yuan, Yu Hua and Ge Fei are still enthusiastic readers of Western literature, they say they are showing more respect to traditional Western canons. They talk with more zeal about the skills and elements of traditional novel writing, at the same time, giving less credit to modern writing.
"The practice of modernism, with its interest centering on ideas and concepts, has inevitably hurt some other essential virtues of the novel, and limited the potential of Chinese writers," Ge Fei said.
Ma agreed. "They fail to provide the joy of reading," Ma said in a telephone interview from Shanghai. "A great novel must first be attractive. I stopped admiring such novels as 'In Search of Lost Time' by Ulysses 10 years ago because it is fodder for critics."
Yu also admits to changing tastes.
"I find myself unable to finish Kafka's 'Castle,' which I ardently adored when I was young," Yu said.
Though Yu stopped writing novels in 1995, he has remained active in literary circles by publishing a series of very striking and original works about creative writing, such as theories about verse and simple styles and the emphasis on story and character in novels.
It's a much different attitude from what Yu held in the past.
All of these writers have devoted years studying modernist writing, which benefited their narrative skills and language.
Critics said the early works of Yu, Ma and Ge Fei were heavily influenced by Western masters. They were in essence first attempts, the writers are trainees, no matter how much they helped change contemporary Chinese literature.
This is why their decision to leave this genre of writing is so significant, critics said.
Just as Hong Zicheng, a famous scholar in Chinese contemporary literature who works with Peking University, commented: "Perhaps the most fortunate thing for the avant-garde writers is they extricated themselves in time from the unconscious state of learning and imitation, and entered a dormant phase. It is very crucial for a writer to brood on the possibilities of their own national literature."
In a commercial society
As these writers lay dormant, Chinese society began to undergo dramatic changes.
A market-orientated cultural industry rapidly infiltrated the country. Serious literature is giving way to cultural products catering to consumer needs. The younger generation eats fast food and talks about the WTO.
Now in their early 40s, these writers are looking at how they can adjust themselves to survive in the changing environment.
Ge Fei contemplates seriously this present dilemma as he begins to write again with a more independent spirit.
"We live in an unprecedented age which first blessed some young people to sing 10 years ago and then made them impotent," he said.
In his article, "Experience, truth, and imagination - literary writing under the background of globalization," Ge Fei presents keen penetration skills and a grave critical spirit when examining commercialized society.
"But 'critical spirit' can be sold as commodity too," Ge Fei added, "Writers with critical spirits are able to participate in the cultural re-construction of modern society. This is the irony that today's writers have to deal with."
Though all the avant-garde writers have said they will never give up their literary standards to cater to the superficial appetites of the free market, they all think it better to work with the market machinery than to defy it.
Bei Cun's approach is to be a novelist and a screen writer at the same time. "The former is my enterprise, the latter is my job," he said.
The adaptation to movie of Yu Hua's "To Live" by famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou best demonstrates the incorporation of serious literature and commercial culture.
Despite the reevaluation of their earlier modern works, the writers do care about whether they are accepted and whether they influence literary history.
"The popularity machinery has become more and more unpredictable in modern society, where the market interferes more powerfully than ever," Yu said.
While Yu had said in a letter to the critic Wang Ning in 1990 that he was "willing to endure loneliness in one's own age like Kafka and Joyce," apparently such a decision did not last long.
"Literary heroes such as Kafka, who take a thorough rejecting posture to the world, will take the risk of remaining unknown not only in his own age, but forever. The rejecting posture, commonly exhibited by 20th-century modernists, will be proved invalid and naive in our age, for the world will discard you first before you discard it," Ge Fei said.
The four writers interviewed all agree that good works of literature will eventually be acknowledged by the readers.
"If the readers don't like my work, I'll consider it a failure," Ma said. "One important criterion to tell whether a book is great or not, is whether it could be widely read and loved."
(China Daily December 18, 2002)