Milestones for a history of modern Chinese literature

Wednesday February 22, 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 19nd 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 which will be inspired by Western literature and also that of Japan which has often served as an intermediary between the West and China. It started with a gradual abandonment of the literate language which is first simplified, then by the use of the vernacular of which Hu Shi (1891-1962) was the champion, writing novels and even poems in the spoken language. . Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) publishes "of the literary revolution" and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), in his work, 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 de Dumas, among others, were extremely successful. Two-thirds of fictional literary output at the end of the Qing Dynasty were translations! Jules Verne and Conan Doyle also knew a great interest on the part of the public for the romantic and extraordinary aspect of their novels. But this type of novel is supposed not only to entertain but also to teach the Chinese something. The translation responded to a precise pragmatic objective: to help the Chinese discover, through literature, the Western way of life and spirit. This sparked a movement of imitation on the part of Chinese authors and the Western detective novel was immediately imitated: one author even created a Chinese Arsene Lupine. More broadly, it is the romantic techniques of the West that have been imitated. In 1922, Mao Dun (1896-1981) wrote an article in which he strongly criticized the traditional Chinese novel and he was one of those whose works reflected the revolutionary struggle and disillusionment of the late 1920s.

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 19nd 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 20nd s. is its subservience to political power and its 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 language of the masses" (criticism of the language used by authors from the mainstream of May 4, considered too westernized). The writer should not describe society objectively, but he should 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, insisting on 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 1930s, communist zones had formed in China and some writers had gathered in Yan'an. Mao Zedong made two interventions at the talks in Yan'an, in 1942, and defined the course of action to be followed: literature as a weapon of combat, the ambiguous status of the intellectual, the questioning of "critical realism" (l praise and denunciation), a more selective opening 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 reinforced, after 1945, during the war between the nationalists and the communists. The "literature of the 17 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 May 4 are silenced (some have gone into exile, some have been forced to give up writing like Shen Congwen, and those who haven't. not been driven from the literary scene are unable to comply with the new guidelines). If we want to summarize the “literature of the 17 years”, there are the red novels which 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 launched economic reforms and a gradual opening up of the country. We see a rehabilitation of writers and the reopening of bookstores. In the literary currents of the 1980s we see that of “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 emerging, 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), to free oneself from the constraints of realism and to play on time, 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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