Modern facet of Chinese literature

By CHEN XIAOMING / 11-11-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Stage play “White Deer Plain” performed by the Shaanxi People’s Art Theatre Photo: CFP

For a century, Chinese literature has emphasized literature and art’s national character and their role in serving the people. The reason why the literary revolution, included in the May Fourth Movement in the late 1910s, spared no effort in promoting vernacular literature, was to enable the Chinese people to share culture and literature to the utmost, learn from them, and form a new cultural community. 

Literature for the people
In the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, Mao Zedong stated clearly that literature and art are for the workers, peasants, and soldiers. He also established the fundamental purpose of reflecting the people’s interests in the modern era, and endowed it with a modern connotation. This is based on the vast majority of working people, and raises the question of ‘literature and art for whom?’ to a fundamental level. Discussions on the cultivation of the “new socialist man” and “new heroes” highlighted in the “Seventeen-Year Literature” [Chinese literature between 1949–1966; characterized by revolution, modernity, and socialism] can all be attributed to the guidelines of reflecting the people’s interests. From the late 1980s to the 1990s, the popularization and consumerization of literature and art undoubtedly made literature and art more significant in expressing people’s thoughts and interests, but this trend is still somewhat different from the classic connotation of literature and art reflecting the people’s interests. The new era endows it with new connotations, which is to prioritize the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life, and attach importance to people’s demands for a cultural life.
The connotation of Chinese New Literature [vernacular literature that first appeared in the mid-1910s, which stood in contrast to the Old Literature written in classical Chinese] reflecting the people’s interests should include folk culture. It means that the simplest literary works that are passed down orally by the working people should be the literature with the working people as the main role. This is the full manifestation of the values of the New Literature, and will more likely enrich the new Chinese culture. Sometimes, however, the quick changes in modernization have difficulty integrating folk culture, and the collection and collation of folk literature and oral literature was affected by the clearing away of the traditions and habits of the Old Society. After the 1990s, with the revival of traditional culture in China, folk literature has also entered into a new stage of development.
In the final analysis, the affinity to the people and folk nature of literature is also the ethical value orientation of the New Literature. For more than a hundred years, Chinese literature has constantly touched on the boundaries of ethics. In general, it has greatly promoted the construction of a new ethics, providing people with greater freedom of thought and behavior, higher possibilities, and more diverse ways to obtain happiness. In these senses, the new ethical culture created by literature is the most effective social achievement of modernity.
A narrative about civilization
Another question worth thinking about is: Is there a narrative about civilization? We have noticed that in the process of China’s modernization and globalization, the influential literary works that mark the height of our literary achievements are novels on life in rural China. Why? Since the 1990s, influential Chinese writers, including Chen Zhongshi (1942–2016), have “returned to rural China” in their works, telling the history of China and the destiny of the nation. Their works reflect the great achievements of Chinese literature since the 1990s. Most of the writers who write about rural life in China came from the countryside. They wrote about the changes in China from the 20th century to the early 21st century. 
We can understand the “long 20th century” mentioned in their works based on the path of Chinese modernity in the 20th century. It involves the differences between culture and civilization. In general, the British school emphasizes that civilization is the sum of the achievements of a certain human society, while the German school emphasizes that culture is the beliefs, way of life, and other intellectual achievements of a certain group or nation. The most typical representatives of the two are Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. When trying to express that Chinese literature is a kind of literary narrative about civilization, we do not need to take the question of “Whether Western literature is a literature about culture” as a necessary logical premise, but only as a reference background. We can say that Western literature is a narrative of culture, and Chinese literature is a narrative of civilization, but it is not absolute. Rather, it sets up a hypothesis of a comparable binary relationship to highlight the characteristics of each. 
In the historical context at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, the return of realism became a necessary choice. China’s realism is naturally connected with China’s national ethos and traditional resources. It has enabled Chinese narrative literature since the 1990s to touch on the nation’s memories of those far-off days, shaping it step by step into a form of literary expression that is linked to our thousand-year-old traditions—we summarize this form of expression as a narrative about civilization.
In the 1980s, achieving the “Four Modernizations” [of agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology] was the priority in China. Correspondingly, the reflection and criticism of traditional Chinese culture grew and inherited the anti-traditional intellectual trend of the May Fourth Movement. 
When it came to the 1990s, Chinese culture reversed the attitude of the New Literature towards the traditional literature, and traditional culture was valued. For example, the well-known novel White Deer Plain, written by Chen Zhongshi, reflects the history of modern Chinese revolution and the traditional concepts of the way of heaven [the basic rule governing the existence and changes of all things between heaven and earth] and Confucian ethics and justice. It uses a “split” rural narrative to touch on the historical conflicts of the 20th century and people’s innermost feelings. Such a literary narrative that returns to the traditional Chinese civilization, way of heaven, and people’s inner world is a reflection of the history of human civilization against the grand background of natural history. Therefore, it shows the difference between Chinese literature and Western literature. 
Under the influence of China’s traditions of historical writing, the narrative content of Chinese literature dominated by realism is mainly about the deeds of the nation and the people, and it inevitably focuses on the important events of the nation. In other words, such Chinese literature is a macro-narrative about civilization. Chinese literature pioneers its own path in world literature. It turned to rural narrative after the 1990s. Chinese literature feels the pulse of our civilization and opens the door of literary language to our ancient civilization.
Chen Xiaoming is a researcher from the China Central Institute for Culture and History. This is an  excerpt from his paper submitted to The International Academic Forum in China 2021.