MAO DUN, A.K.A. MAO TUN, PEN NAME OF SHEN DERONG (1896—1981) - The Dictionary

Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

MAO DUN, A.K.A. MAO TUN, PEN NAME OF SHEN DERONG (1896—1981). Fiction writer and literary critic. A forerunner in the New Culture Movement in early 20th-century China and a proponent of literary realism, Mao Dun made significant contributions to the development of modern Chinese literature. Through his own writings and his work as a translator, editor, and publisher, as a literary critic and theoretician, and finally as the minister of culture from 1949 to 1964, he left indelible marks in nearly every aspect of the literary and artistic endeavors of modern China.

Like the rest of his generation, Mao Dun received an education in a mixture of classics and modern thought. After graduating from Beijing University in 1916, Mao took a job as a translator and editor at the Commercial Press, where he stayed until 1925. His main achievement there was the transformation of the journal Xiaoshuo yuebao (Fiction Monthly), making it a major force in promoting a “literature for life,” in direct opposition to what was advocated by the members of the Mandarin Duck and Butterflies school and the Saturday school, who held the view that the main purpose of literature was to entertain. Mao Dun’s essay “On Proletarian Art,” published serially in Wenxue zhoukan (Literature Weekly) in 1925, established his reputation as a Marxist theoretician. It asserts that art must faithfully reflect reality and meet the needs of its time. In a class-based society, a proletarian writer must identify with the lot of the common people, to educate and inspire them in their struggle for social justice and national independence. He or she must understand the unity of form and content, which requires that new ideas be expressed in new forms, an example of which is Maxim Gorky, whose works, Mao Dun believes, perfectly combine aesthetics and the aspirations of the proletariat. In this essay, Mao Dun delineates a form of realism for modern Chinese literature and art that influenced a whole generation of Chinese writers.

The trilogy Mao Dun wrote in the late 1920s, Huanmei (Disillusionment), Dongyao (Wavering), and Zhuiqiu (Aspirations), describes the experience of Chinese youth during the different stages of the revolution that aimed to unify a China ravaged by civil wars among its warlords. The 1930s saw the best of Mao Dun’s writings, including Ziye (Midnight), a milestone in his literary career. The story takes place in 1930 when Chinese industrialists found themselves in direct conflict not only with foreign imperialist interests but also with workers’ strikes and peasants’ riots. The broad scope of the work, with its numerous characters from a wide spectrum of social classes and several plot lines, makes the novel Mao Dun’s most ambitious undertaking. Mao Dun is noted for his skill at depicting the psychological depth of his characters with a few strokes. This baimiao style is reminiscent of the classical novels the author was extremely fond of as a child. In the same year, Mao Dun published Linjia puzi (The Lin Family Shop), “Chun can” (Spring Silkworms), “Qiushou” (Autumn Harvest), and “Can dong” (The Last of Winter), all conceived to show sympathy for the oppressed and to cry for social justice. Linjia puzi, a tightly structured story, is about the bankruptcy of a small shop in a small town. Mr. Lin, an honest, hardworking man, is forced out of business by corrupt government officials and greedy creditors. “Chuncan,” “Qiushou,” and “Candong” are three independent but consecutive short stories about village life. They portray a family of silkworm raisers headed by Old Tongbao and trace their fall from financial stability to bankruptcy, from self-sufficient peasants to poor farmhands. The stories present a vivid picture of economic distress and unrest in rural Chinese communities. “Chuncan,” which focuses on the tragic lot of Old Tongbao, is a flawlessly crafted story. The moving descriptions of the family tending silkworms from hatching eggs to harvesting cocoons are some of the finest moments of the story.

Mao Dun’s most influential work during the Sino-Japanese War is Fushi (Corruption). The political novel is severely critical of the Nationalist government, exposing the maliciousness and cunning of the special agents working for the government who suppress the democratic movement while indulging in a depraved lifestyle. Despite its overtly political tone, Fushi contains some interesting formalistic innovations. It is written in diary form, narrated by a minor female secret agent of the government. This unique perspective allows the author to concentrate on psychological exploration rather than the minute descriptions and plot expositions commonly found in his writings. Mao Dun also employs the narrative style of stream of consciousness with its characteristics of free association, inverted time order, and dreams or hallucinations. These techniques enrich the psychological realism of the novel.

After his death, a memorial fund in Mao Dun’s honor was established to recognize notable achievements in Chinese literature. It is the most prestigious literary prize in China.