Milestones for a history of modern Chinese literature

Wednesday 22 February 2017: Milestones for a history of modern Chinese literature by Isabelle Rabut, Professor at the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations, Director of the ASIES team.

By the end of 19st century appeared in China a movement for the renewal of literature. Ancient Chinese literature was criticized for being written in the language of the literati, incomprehensible and remote from the vernacular, of transmitting values ​​which did not respect the rights of the individual, of following ancient patterns which were no longer in line with reality and not to describe the everyday life of ordinary people.
The renovation of Chinese literature will go through a stage that will be inspired by Western literature and also that of Japan, which has often served as an intermediary between the West and China. It began with a gradual abandonment of the literate language that was first simplified, then through the use of the vernacular language of which Hu Shi (1891-1962) was the champion, writing novels and even poems in the spoken language . Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) publishes "Literary Revolution" and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), in his book, On the novel and the government of the masses, is a good reflection of the ideology that literature should have a role in the evolution of society. In fact, novels written in the vernacular had a greater influence than essays or philosophical writings. Parallel to the publication of novels, a great translation movement will develop that will give models to follow. Lin Shu (1852-1924) was the most prolific translator, although he knew no foreign language (he worked in pairs with someone who knew the language), and his translations of David Copperfield of Dickens and the Lady of the Camellias Dumas, among others, had immense success. Two-thirds of literary fiction production at the end of the Qing Dynasty were translations! Jules Verne and Conan Doyle also enjoyed a great deal of public interest in the novelistic and extraordinary aspect of their novels. But this type of novels is supposed to not only distract but also teach something to the Chinese. The translation fulfilled a precise pragmatic objective: to introduce the Chinese, through literature, to the Western way of life and spirit. This led to an imitation movement by Chinese writers, and the Western detective novel was immediately imitated: an author even created a Chinese Lupine Arsene. More generally, it is the Romanesque techniques of the West that have been imitated. In 1922, Mao Dun (1896-1981) wrote an article in which he strongly criticizes the traditional Chinese novel and was one of those whose works reflect the revolutionary struggle and disillusionment of the late 1920.

Hu Shi in 1922.

Chen Duxiu and the magazine Nouvelle Jeunesse. 1915.

Lin Shu.

After the movement of 4 May 1919, Chinese literature will enter a new phase. We can see that, instead of starting by describing the main character of a novel, we immediately return to action, the descriptions are less stereotyped and an abstract psychological description appears. This leads to another way of writing, with more complex sentences than in the traditional novel. For Chinese writers, the goal is to get into the mainstream of world literature.
At the beginning of the 1920 years a romantic current appears influenced by the western currents of the 19st s. and especially English writers of the Victorian period but also by Japanese literature. Yu Dafu (1896-1945) is one of the characteristic authors. There was also a realistic current imitating Tolstoy, Maupassant or Zola, and a modernist current that was given the name of neo-sensationalism, inspired by the futuristic expressionism and writing of Paul Morand.
Another aspect of modern Chinese literature from the first half of 20st s. is his infeodation to political power and his obsession with the salvation of China. The League of Left Writers, founded in 1930, studies Marxist theory, translates Soviet authors and raises the question of the popularization of literature and the "mass language" (criticism of the language used by authors from the mainstream 4 May, considered too Westernized). The writer must not describe society objectively, but must work for the transformation of society and prepare for the advent of the society of tomorrow. Under this pressure, many writers will turn to a revolutionary romanticism like Guo Moruo (1892-1978). Realistic writers will adopt a Marxist reading of society, emphasizing economic problems and class relations, such as the novel Midnight of Mao Dun (1896-1981) which is a top of the realistic literature of the 1930 years.
By the 1930 years communist zones had formed in China and some writers had gathered in Yan'an. Mao Zedong made two interventions at the Yan'an talks in 1942, and set the course of action: literature as a weapon of battle, the ambiguous status of the intellectual, the questioning of "critical realism" (l praise and denunciation), a more selective openness to the foreigner.

Yu Dafu, Cheng Fangwu and Guo Moruo.

Cover of Midnight by Mao Dun edited by Robert Laffont. 1979.

Cover of Zhang Xianlang's half man is a woman. © huitao.net.

Han Shaogong Maoqiao Dictionary Cover. 1995.

The political pressure on the writers will be strengthened, after 1945, during the war between the nationalists and the communists. The "17 Literature Years", from 1946 to the Cultural Revolution, is forced to follow the principles imposed on Yan'an. A new generation of writers will occupy the literary scene and the big names of the 4 may be silenced (some have been exiled, some have been forced to give up writing such as Shen Congwen, and those who have not not been driven out of the literary scene are unable to comply with the new guidelines). If we want to summarize the "literature of 17 years", there are the red novels that evoke the Maoist epic and affirm the legitimacy of communist power (the red line, published in 1981 in foreign language editions, Beijing), the novels that describe the campaign from a political perspective, evoking the life of cooperatives, extolling the new type of peasants fully devoted to the community (Sanliwan of Zhao Shuli).
The Cultural Revolution was daunting for the intellectuals who were sent to the laogai (labor camps) or deported to the countryside (Zhang Xianlang (1936-2014) will write about his experience in re-education camp).
After the death of Mao Zedong, in 1976, Deng Xiaoping launches economic reforms and a gradual opening of the country. We see a rehabilitation of writers and the reopening of bookstores. In the literary currents of the 1980 years one sees that of the "educated young people" who seek their roots and advocate a return to traditions, those of the countryside with their popular culture (Han Shaogong, A. Cheng, Zhang Chengzhi). A current of avant-garde literature is also born, whose authors, who were children during the Cultural Revolution, will express their feelings of horror and absurdity by relying on the techniques of the modern novel (Yu Hua , Ge Fei), overcome the constraints of realism and play on time, on space and deconstruct the text. Finally, a neo-realistic current (xin xieshizhuyi) attaches to the everyday, the trivial.
1989 sees a break with access to social networks that leads to the desecration of the figure of the writer and the disappearance of the humanist spirit. Great literature is swallowed up in a mass of popular literature with the law of the market and the power will use literature to spread its ideas. However, some repoliticization of literature is emerging with Yu Hua, Mo Yan, Yan Lianke or Li Er.

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