LI JIEREN (1891—1962)
LI JIEREN (1891—1962). Novelist and translator of French literature. For his love of French literature and its influence on his writings, Li Jieren was called the “Chinese Zola” and the “Oriental Flaubert.” Like his fellow Sichuanese writer, Sha Ting, he made extensive use of his native dialect, also earning him the reputation as a chronicler of the city of Chengdu.
From 1915 to 1919, when the May Fourth New Culture Movement was gaining momentum, Li worked as an editor and chief commentator for newspapers and did his part in assaulting the old Chinese traditions and spreading progressive ideas in provincial Chengdu. He wrote a great number of editorials and essays and published about one hundred stories written in both classical and vernacular Chinese, brief sketches that expose corruption in the government. In these early works, Li’s gift as a storyteller is already evident. His presentation of realistic characters and events by making skillful use of the vernacular, his ability to create a biting political satire, and his drawing on the elements both of classical Chinese and foreign literature made Li a unique talent in the early days of modern Chinese literature.
In 1919, Li went to France to study French literature and began translating works by French writers, including Gustave Flaubert and Guy de Maupassant, into Chinese. During his stay in France he wrote one novella, Tongqing (Sympathy), based on his stay in a hospital for the poor in Paris. After he returned to China in 1924, Li wrote more short stories, most of them satirical pieces that poke fun at local warlords. His main accomplishment, however, is his historical trilogy based on major historical events before and after the 1911 Revolution. Si shui wei lan (Ripples across a Stagnant Water), part 1 of the trilogy, encompasses the years between 1894 and 1901. The story takes place in Tianhui, the northern suburb of Chengdu, a sleepy town stirred up by the Boxer Rebellion. For its grand scale, its sophisticated artistry, its successful portrayal of characters, and its creative use of colorful local language, Si shui wei lan is arguably the best early modern Chinese novel. Another work, Baofengyu qian (Before the Storm), continues to trace the history from 1901 to the eve of the 1911 Revolution. Moving the stage from a small town to the provincial capital, the author describes the intensification of social problems that threaten the tottering Manchu dynasty and the changes of intellectualism in the impending storm of the revolution. A third historical work, Da bo (The Great Wave) centers on the 1911 Revolution. With the Railroad Protection movement as the key event, the novel focuses on the political and military affairs and important historical figures of that period. In all three novels, Li takes pains to situate historical events in a richly described social life, because he recognizes that there is a strong correlation between historical changes and human activities, between what happens on the national stage and what happens in a person’s private life.
Despite his deep entrenchment in Western literature, Li does not show the usual Europeanized tendency found in many of the works of his contemporaries, including those of Lu Xun. For all the various comparisons and analogies between his work and European fiction, all made on reasonable grounds, his characters are quintessentially Chinese. In his novels, there is a perfect fusion of Western and Chinese traditions, resulting in an art entirely of Li’s unique style. After the founding of the People’s Republic, Li held many posts in the government, including deputy mayor of Chengdu and vice president of the Association of Sichuan Writers and Artists. During this time he revised his trilogy to make it more in tune with the new society, a move driven by ideological reasons instead of artistic vision.