> topics > Literature

Nostalgic Creation Society writers built new image of homeland

LIU WANMING | 2019-06-06 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Pictured above are members of the Creation Society, namely Wang Duqing, Guo Moruo, Yu Dafu and Cheng Fangwu from left to right. Photo: FILE


The Creation Society, or Chuangzao She in pinyin, was a literary coterie founded in 1921 by Chinese students then studying in Japan, including Guo Moruo, Yu Dafu and Cheng Fangwu. It gained ground during the New Culture Movement. The narrative of the writers was chiefly based on their experiences after returning to their homeland in the 1920s, which included their perspectives on reality and their visions for the future. Works of the Creation Society writers were characterized by nostalgia, Romanticism and national sentiment.


Disappointed after return
Members of the Creation Society started out writing about their nostalgia during their study abroad. Their works featured loneliness and the tepidity of their life in a foreign country in contrast with their lively memories of home. Intriguingly, their expressions of nostalgia didn’t end after going back to China but became increasingly frequent.

To those writers, returning to the homeland was supposed to be a pilgrimage on the path towards their preset goals, but Shanghai, the very first station they arrived in, disillusioned them.

According to their description, Shanghai was a horrible world where “a host of demons danced in riotous revelry.” What shocked and agonized them were not the neon lights that could be found everywhere in the city, but huge discrepancies between reality and what they had imagined.

Reviewing their experiences of returning to China, Zheng Boqi, a member of the Creation Society, summed up a pattern of opposites between foreign countries (capitalism) and China (semi-colony), which was thereafter used by other members of the Creation Society to explain their experiences of returning.

Through repeated explanation, retelling and recollection, the Creation Society writers gradually put the blame on the West for turning their homeland into a hell, censuring Western colonists for the decadence of Shanghai.

Zhang Pingjin, an associate professor of Chinese language and literature at Tongji University, regarded the astonishing Shanghai experience as an important cause of the Creation Society’s self-conscious positioning. She argued that they entertained high hopes for their return, only to find their splendid homeland in extreme misery due to imperialism. Thus the Creation Society writers displayed a strong sense of loss through their treatment of how they positioned themselves and their homeland: They set “I” against “you,” the nation represented by Shanghai.

The pilgrimage was unable to proceed in reality, and the romantic ceremony of returning was reduced to a painful cross-border journey. However, the Creation Society writers didn’t give up. They attempted to repair the shattered native land in their works. The portrayal of their nostalgia turned from reminiscent and realistic depictions of life details into the building of a complete, surreal motherland. Moreover, they didn’t tell stories of homecoming individually but quoted and inspired each other to construct an ideal China collaboratively.


Rural, dreamlike and exotic
Disappointed by the reality in Shanghai, the Creation Society writers resorted to a fictional China of the past, a rural, dreamlike and exotic land.

Before he went back home, Guo recalled his hometown as a place where clean camellia could be steamed, birds could fly freely in the blue sky and fish could swim freely in the river. His expectations, though dashed in Shanghai, were answered during his subsequent trip to the West Lake in Hangzhou, as he finally found his fellow countrymen in the farmers hoeing near the Leifeng Pagoda, according to his poem “At the Leifeng Pagoda.”

In “A Verse From Changsha to Guo Moruo,” Cheng Fangwu looked back upon what happened when he and Guo returned to China in 1921. They longed to see a hometown with “vast rivers and bluish yellow champagne,” he wrote.

In 1923, Yu Dafu sat on a train from Shanghai to Hangzhou, overlooking the premodern landscape of rural China as a modern sightseer, and he convinced himself that he had “discovered” a romantic rural fairy tale world in his essay “Notes on the Return of the Native.”

“Dream” was another word that they often used to describe the ideal China. Guo described his expectation of his hometown as “dreamlike” in the poem “The Mouth of the Huangpujiang.” He found the dream world in “At the Leifeng Pagoda” and felt its serenity in “At the Zhaogong Temple.”

Cheng said in his verse addressed to Guo that before returning he had yearned for the “hometown in our dreams,” while lamenting over the real China as a wasteland filled with walking corpses, villains and filthiness. The beautiful vision was simply “dreamlike happiness.”
In the novel Nostalgia Patients, Yu wrote that reminiscing of a hometown is like pursuing “a life in a dream.” Tian Han, another member of the Creation Society, claimed in the essay “From the Kingdom of Sorrow” that the hometown in reality couldn’t relieve his nostalgia, so he was determined to pursue the “brighter and warmer homeland of his dreams.”

The motherland in the fantasy of the Creation Society writers also had an exotic touch. In Guo’s novel Yet to End, the dream hometown of the protagonist Aimou was akin to “a medieval city floating in the fog.” In Nostalgia Patients, Yu enabled the hero to travel into the past and seek “a life in a dream.” Like Guo, he borrowed the image of a medieval old castle from Western Romantic legends and incorporated ancient Chinese classical anecdotes to build a dream castle for the purpose of representing how he missed his first love.

Tian Han went even further. He said that only the hometown in his dreams could cure his nostalgia, and the one in reality was unsatisfying. The home he dreamed of didn’t come from reality, but from English Romantic poetry that he was deeply acquainted with. In 1925, when he left his hometown Changsha, he recited Lord Byron’s “My Native Land,” and the hometown he dreamed of going back to was modeled after an island John Keats created in his poetry.


Romantic tinge
Although the writers of the Creation Society purported to be nostalgic of their real homeland, the metaphorical objects they used were a far cry from real images in their hometowns and tinged with Western Romantic nostalgia.

In her 2001 work The Future of Nostalgia, Russian-American literary critic Svetlana Boym said that nostalgia in Western literature was carried forward in Romanticism, and became “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed.” The object of nostalgia differs markedly from that of real life, and nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship, she said.

Given the resources for literary creation at the hand of the Creation Society writers, they indeed consciously applied the nostalgia of Romanticism to their homecoming narratives. They suspended time, blurred space and unfolded the dream, apparently borrowing various Romantic images they had collected from Western literature to decorate their ideal China. They didn’t aim to represent the real image of their native place, but to portray the image a homeland should have: an object of nostalgia aligning with the scenery in their mind.

As a reaction against the Enlightenment, Romanticism stresses particularity, which goes in line with the emphasis of nationalism. Thus nostalgia, a new product of Romanticism, quickly became central to romantic nationalist metaphor.

The yearning of the Creation Society for an ideal China was not simply nostalgic. It also opened a path to envision a national community.

Tao Jingsun, another member of the Creation Society, pointed out that nostalgia was the source of the coterie’s Romanticism, and the Romanticism carried a strong national consciousness. Years of living abroad provided them with sufficient space for imagination, but the sentiment of displacement after returning made them feel that they were banished from their motherland. They resented the fractured nation, comparing it to what it should have been.

Zheng Boqi attributed the Creation Society’s turn to Romanticism to the psychological gap between the nostalgia of being in a foreign country to the indignant disappointment after their return. The gap led the narrative of the Creation Society writers to split into two images of China: one based on realistic description of the disordered, idle and sordid Shanghai and the other on romantic fantasy, rural, natural and dreamlike.

It was this split that gave rise to a new image of China, one which didn’t rest just in their personal imaginations. They quickly projected their individual longings onto national history, in an effort to rebuild the ideal China by digging into national traditions.


Liu Wanming is from the College of Chinese Language and Culture at Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

​edited by CHEN MIRONG