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‘In transition, literature will develop more refined aesthetics’

By Wu Yong | 2016-07-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Liu Sifen is a Chinese novelist, painter and the former president of the Guangdong Literature and Art Association. He was born in Wuzhou, Guangxi Province, in January 1944. In 1981, he began writing the novel White Gate Willow, which took him 16 years to finish and won the fourth Mao Dun Literature Prize in 1997.


One day in April, CSST visited the home of Liu Sifen. The easy-going Liu possesses exceptional talent and perseverance in literature and drawing. But he once said in a modest tone that “in the eyes of litterateurs, I am the one who goes in for politics. In the eyes of painters, I am a novel writer. In the eyes of politicians, I am an author and painter. This is quite like how a bat is described—bird-like but not a bird; beast-like but not a beast.” Humorously, he calls his living room the “bat cave” and thus he calls himself a “bat.”

When Liu Sifen was young, he was particularly fond of painting. But after being admitted to the Department of Chinese at Sun-Yat-Sen University, he devoted himself to literature. Liu said that he had never considered becoming an author until the acquaintance of an editor stirred his interest in it. Liu once said that “I approached writing novels the same way one would write poems, only writing 500 or 1,000 words a day. Three thousand words could be considered quite prolific.”

Those who are familiar with Liu Sifen may know that his father is Liu Yisheng, a notable scholar of classic Chinese literature. Speaking of the scholarly tradition in his family, he said: “That I began to engage in literature was serendipitous. My father has never given me special training in this area. It was out of my interest, which is in line with the modern thinking that personality needs to be respected.”

Liu still follows trends in literature and art sector. In 2010, he called for the regulation of academic climate and reform of writing style together with other celebrities of literature and art. As a writer, he showed his concern for the preservation of traditional Chinese culture.


CSST: Post-modern narratives and fragmented writing dominate today’s literature, resulting in a mistrust of grand narratives. What are your thoughts on this trend?


Liu Sifen: There has been alternation between grand narrative and fragmented or individualized writing throughout literary history, which is closely related with the changes of the times and the social norms. It has been difficult for writers to keep pace with the rapid development of Chinese society in the recent decades in terms of ideas and literary perceptions. Now that some scholars have outgrown their need for a grand narrative, it is natural and understandable that they are shifting toward adopting post-modern and fragmented narratives.

Since the times have undergone radical transformations, a transition of literature is to be expected sooner or later. We are now living in an era that has much in common with the early years of the Tang Dynasty (618-907)—an era of change alteration and transition—but for the grand narrative, the flush of dawn will reappear.

In terms of literary creation, this is no doubt an era when great works can emerge. If our writers aspire to achieve it and are willing to contribute their intellect and efforts, it would be a great delight.


CSST: The world is becoming increasingly familiar with Chinese literature as the national economy gains in strength. At the same time, this interaction creates the potential for misunderstandings between cultures. From the perspective of literary exchanges, what do you think is the mission of Chinese literature?


Liu Sifen: China boasts a history of splendid and brilliant civilization, but it fell into the pit of humiliation and was bullied by the foreign powers during the Opium Wars. Poverty, ignorance and backwardness became the stereotyped impression that the world has of Chinese culture. Foreign readers are somewhat drawn to those works that reflect the dominant cultural stereotype, which hinders normal literary communication. But I believe that as China rises and draws greater attention from the world, the situation will improve. We need to be optimistic about this.

It is no easy job for a foreigner who grows up in the context of a diametrically different cultural system to fully understand and grasp the refinement of Chinese civilization. But it does not matter, because culture is something with complicated landscape, and thus ways to communicate may vary according to different cultures. For Chinese intellectuals, what is important is that a sense of inferiority should be rejected.


CSST: What changes of cultural tradition have taken place in modern times in regard to how legacies are passed down to future generations? Could you please talk about your own experience?


Liu Sifen: A scholarly aristocratic family, in some sense, is what the agricultural civilization produced, since the supreme goal for a traditional family in feudal society was to succeed in the imperial examination. In feudal society, excelling in schooling and examinations was the only way to uphold the family honor, achieve fame and fortune, and secure official positions. But the collapse of the feudal system and the drastic social changes that followed made new life paths possible for individuals, who were no longer confined to official careers. This also partly made scholarly aristocratic families less motivated. Today,  scholarly aristocratic families in the traditional sense are rare.


CSST: The new media that has arisen in recent years seems to have brought changes to domestic literature and the cultural environment. Mass culture seems to be following a trend of “amusing ourselves to death.” What are your thoughts on this cultural phenomena?


Liu Sifen: The impact that the Internet has had on our era is unprecedented, profoundly altering people’s modes of production, lifestyles and even thinking pattern. Definitely, the way that literature is created and transmitted has also been altered. In the past, literary works were mainly published by newspapers, journals and publishing houses. But today, the Internet is being increasingly used because it has made it much easier to publish works.

Such a shift leads to unprecedented growth in the amount of literary works. Those who harbor the “dream of literature” scramble to satisfy their craving. At present, free from traditional constraints, Internet literature is in a state of jubilation. What has emerged is a more popular literary style, the expansion and inundation of which will inevitably impact or even dilute the “elite effect.” Some online writers cater to the vulgar and coarse taste of some readers to pursue market popularity. This results in indulgence in sensual pleasure. At the same time, we should also be aware that the prevalence of vulgarity, in the short term, is unavoidable, but readers will not be immersed in and contented with it in the long run. As time goes on, the pulp reading materials will provoke boredom and repugnance. Refined and elevated enjoyment will become the demand for most people.


CSST: In what areas do you think contemporary literature should be improved?


Liu Sifen: Some talented authors have come to the fore with their excellent works. On the whole, there are three aspects in which contemporary literature can be improved. First, the understanding of traditional culture needs to be deepened. The fine cultural tradition that Chinese nation has is the intellectual foundation that nurtures literary creation. The doctrine of moderation is one example of what makes Chinese culture distinct. To fully grasp this, the only way is in-depth reading of traditional Chinese works for edification.

Some writers have rich life experience, but they could only stay on the surface of things. They are unable to perceive the intrinsic quality of life that lay underneath much less to explore the law of social development. The ability to think is important. An outstanding writer must also be a thinker. This has been proven by both Chinese and foreign literary history.

Moreover, aesthetic sensibility is essential for a writer. The aesthetic level of a work determines its value as art. The kaleidoscope of social life of human beings is itself a splendid epic—peace and serenity, happiness and joy, contradiction and conflict, hardship and death. An author, therefore, needs the insight, sensitivity and feelings of a poet has in order to portray life and human nature, from which, readers can have the artistic enjoyment that is exquisite and understated.


Wu Yong is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.