A Renaissance in Modern Chinese Literature

Ragan, a poet and playwright, is currently traveling in China, where one of his plays is being produced.

Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, a new revolutionary rationale has infiltrated an old-culture consciousness. China is in transition--economically, socially, and politically--but nowhere are the changes more dramatic than in its literature. Reconstruction of old artistic forms and spiritual values battles to be the norm, while modernism as defined by Western sensibilities incubates on the brink of creation. Ezra Pound's and Deng Xiaoping's visions of progress appear to share one view in common--make it new.

Chinese modernism is only partially based on Western influences, however. Only in form and techniques are influences visible. In subject matter Western themes of nihilism and pessimism, now explored by experimentalist Chinese writers, are politely endured. Mainly, the Chinese modernist's mandate "to make it new" is to counter the literature lionized by the 1957 Anti-Rightist Movement and later by the repressive Cultural Revolution, which from 1966 to 1976 enforced Chairman Mao's directive to make literature serve political ends.

To appreciate the radically paced changes of the last 10 years, one might make an analogy with the Olympic athletes who in 60 years have gone from baggy shorts to flesh-hugging catskins. So too, Chinese prose, poetry and drama have been refashioned from traditionally discreet tones and styles to reflect the bold and saucy nature of openness that has writers blushing over barely protected souls.

Ever since journalist Liu Binyan of the Communist Party organ People's Daily in a 1979 speech, called for literature to become the "mirror of reality" through which art must "interfere in life," writers have seized the opportunity to criticize Communist Party policies and to address social contradictions. More importantly, several schools of experimental writing have developed, inspiring what many call a literary renaissance.

Indeed, while internationally distinguished authors Ba Jin, poet Ai Qing, and playwright Cao Yu, now nearing their 80s, are firmly entrenched as Chinese cultural treasures, middle-aged writers spawned from the post-1979 period are quietly guiding the arts in quantum leaps through the open door of freer expression. Cao Yu, China's pre-eminent playwright, characterizes the "wound literature" movement after the Cultural Revolution as "a period of healing cultural scars."

According to Chen Danchen, editor of the Literary Gazette, writers 10 years ago "could not express their own evaluations of Chinese experience but instead adopted a literature closely linked with politics." Playwright Zhong Jieying of Beijing's Experimental Spoken Drama Theater feels that owing to foreign influences, writers now express free choice in their subjects.

Zhong, labeled a "rightist" in 1957, was like Cao Yu arrested and silenced for his artistic views, then forced to leave the university to become a machinery worker. Since 1982 his experimental dramas, celebrated for their depiction of the common worker and exhibiting the Liu Binyan influence to "interfere in life," have been staged and filmed throughout China.

So rapidly has theater progressed and so tenuous is the ever-shifting literary landscape on which it plays that Shakespeare was banned during the Cultural Revolution for being "bourgeois." However, in April 1986, China celebrated its first Shakespeare Festival in Beijing and Shanghai where 26 productions of 16 plays were presented in English and Chinese by 13 Chinese theater groups. Currently, masques are standard in the Chinese experimental theater as are O'Neill, Expressionism, and the radical forms of Beckett and Brecht.

Liu Zhanqiu, editor of Poetry Magazine, believes that poetry also is experiencing its "highest times" in the last 80 years. Characteristic of most healthy transitional literatures, a quarrel involving literary ideologies simmers between younger poets seeking to reflect more individuality and emotion and veterans seeking to exact a collective social conscience as detached "mirrors of reality."

Liu Zhanqiu, author of seven books and a leading prose-poem theorist, says the gap between experimentalists and traditionalists is deep. Younger poets in their 40s are adopting "self-expressive modes" reminiscent of the confessionals of Lowell and Plath along with "stream of life" techniques, loosely resembling Olson's Projectivism, while poets in their 20s favor the anti-culture themes of the Beats. Bai Dao, Man Ke, and Shu Ting occupy the surrealistic-styled "Misty Poetry" camp, which the revered Ai Qing describes as the "smash-and-grab" group for its "incomprehensibility" and insubordination in "serving the people."

Not all older poets subscribe to social realism. Zeng Min and Juan Kejia, spiritually akin to the experimentalists, write of anti-hero themes in modernist forms. Not surprisingly, old and young alike move freely between traditional rhymes, sonnets and free verse.

In fiction the stirrings of a renaissance are, perhaps, most defined. According to Miao Junjie of People's Daily, four schools--Deep Realism, Symbolist-Impression ism, Cultural Roots, and Absurdist-Magical Realism--have emerged. This is most remarkable according to Wu Ningkun of Beijing's Institute of International Relations because as late as 1980, "D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf were still taboo in China."

Deep Realism, in advocating the truthful reflection of life's contradictions, combats the pseudo-realism written before 1979. Jiang Zilong's "Pathbreakers" heeds Liu Binyan's call for "expose," while Ke Yunlu, Liu Zhun, Feng Jicai and Liu Xinwu, a strong critic of Mao, explore the cultural and moral inclinations of Chinese life.

Challenging the Deep Realists, the Symbolist-Expressionists reject the "leftist yoke" in favor of narrative techniques associated with Joyce or Faulkner. Though resisting Western-bred nihilism, the "open realists" Wang Meng, Shen Rong and Zhong Chengzhi reflect the "aesthetics of man's inner world" through stream of consciousness. Deng Geng's "Lure of the Sea" echoes Hemingway in symbol and metaphor, devices Zong Pu employs in her psychological novella "Melody in Dreams."

"Roots Literature," as popular in style as John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" and Alex Haley's "Roots," according to novelist Acheng, has revived "the national aesthetic of the ancient culture of the regions." The late Shen Congwen, Deng Youmei and Lu Wenfu "lane figure" stories portray pawnbrokers, policemen, intellectuals, or descendants of Manchu, thus broadening the scope of Chinese folk literature.

Attracting only a scattered readership are the Absurdist-Magical Realists, influenced by Joseph Heller's black-humor style, the French Absurdists and Latin American writers. Novelist Liu Suola's modernist manifesto "You Don't Have Any Option" has fueled tensions between conservatives and radicals, a tension also reflected in current Chinese culture. Critics describe her story's "recklessly, presented, restless world" as "far adrift" from actual Chinese social reality.

Gao Xinjian's "Railway Station" and Xu Xing's "A Themeless Variation," exploring Beckett's Absurdist theme of waiting are labeled "imitative" in content and form. Chen Danchen feels that experimentalists "bite off more foreign inspiration than they can chew. Creation, rather than imitation, is the goal of a literature in transition."

Whatever the mold or model, modern Chinese literature is attracting cultural commerce through its experimentation, competition, and renewed advocacy of pluralism. As Wu Ningkun says, "To ban modernist literature in post-Cultural-Revolution China seems an absurd anachronism."

Recently, a China Cultural Gazette article called for Chinese political culture to undergo changes similar to those in Europe during the Renaissance, a period of reason's triumph over medieval religious culture. Just as current Chinese political dogma begins to yield to reason, so also literature begins to experience a secularization of Chinese literary thinking. Dostoevski once rejoiced, " I want to give the world a new word." Chinese renaissance writers want to give the word, in this case "modernism," a new world.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°