The Man-Heaven Relationship and the Modern Transition of Chinese Literature

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.11, 2013


The Man-Heaven Relationship and the Modern Transition of Chinese Literature



Geng Chuanming


In the traditional cultural context of man-heaven unity, heaven referred not merely to the natural heaven, but also to the divine heaven and the ethical heaven as well. It was the source for value and meaning, and the idea that heaven predominated over man was generally recognized. Man’s subordination to heaven and the unity of virtue in heaven and man served as the cultural soil for the emergence of classical Chinese literature. From the 19th century onward, the predominance of heaven began to be replaced by that of man, and the divine and ethical senses of heaven dropped out of use in the dualistic opposition between the subjective and the objective. As a result, “heaven” became purely natural and materialized, the subjectivity of man was established and advocated, and the idea of man predominating and ruling nature catalyzed the emergence and prosperity of humanist culture. These constituted the cultural ecology for the emergence of modern Chinese literature. The changes in the man-nature relationship established the subjective role of man in the world and liberated humanism tremendously. Nevertheless, they also highlighted the contradictions and problems inherent in modernity. By overturning the heavenman relations, modern man facilitated the changing attitude towards his basic survival and advanced the transition of literature from tradition to modernity in the modernization of transforming human life and the world. Modern Chinese literature forged social consensus with literary consensus, and led the times with its call and remolding of “new man” and a “new world.” This reflects not only man’s pursuit for modernity but also his response to and reflection on the predicament arising from modernity. It provides an important point of reference for us to understand modernity and the survival and existence of modern man.