Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010

The Dictionary

ROOT-SEEKING LITERATURE (XUNGEN WENXUE). A literary movement that began in the early 1980s, root-seeking has been the most pervasive and influential literary trend in post-Mao Chinese literature. The poet Yang Lian was perhaps the first to express the need for Chinese literature to come to terms with China’s cultural heritage. In his poems written around 1982, such as “Banpo” (Banpo: the Neolithic Age) and “Dunhuang” (The Dunhuang Caves), Yang sets out to discover the nation’s past buried deep in the ancient lands and to examine its implications for the Chinese literary imagination. At around the same time, Wang Meng published his Xingjiang stories Zai Yili (In Yili), which, while recounting his experience in exile in the remote northwest, introduces the unique cultures of the Uygurs and the Kazaks. Wang Zengqi creates in “Da nao jishi” (Notes about the Great Mire) a pastoral world steeped in Chinese traditional virtues. Soon after, many writers, particularly those who had spent years during the Cultural Revolution in rural China as educated youths, eagerly joined the movement. Jia Pingwa’s “Shangzhou chu lu” (Stories of Shangzhou), Zhang Chengzhi’s Beifang de he (The River in the North), Ah Cheng’s Qi qang (The King of Chess), Wang Anyi’s Xiao Bao zhuang (Bao Town), Li Hangyu’s “Zuihou yige yulao’r” (The Last Fisherman), and many other works all came out at once, creating a phenomenon that caught the immediate attention of literary critics. A conference was held in Hangzhou in 1984 to discuss the significance of this cultural and literary phenomenon and explore new methods in fiction writing. In the following year, several writers, including Ah Cheng, Zheng Yi, Han Shaogong, Zheng Wanlong, and Li Hangyu, published their “root-seeking proclamations.” Among them, Han’s article, “Wenxue de gen” (Roots of Literature), which gave the movement its name, was the most influential and widely regarded as the unofficial “manifesto” of root-seeking literature. Using the example of the rich ancient Chu culture known for its highly imaginative and mystical shamanistic traditions, Han urged his fellow writers to “transcend reality” and to explore “the mysteries that define the development of a nation and of human existence.” In the view of Han and his colleagues, there was a gap between the ancient past and the present, and in the 20th century, China had experienced a period of amnesia, in which the nation’s rich past was erased from the collective memory of the Chinese. The responsibility of a writer, they believed, was to help the nation reconnect to its past, to “sort out,” in the words of Li Hangyu, the cultural roots. Only by doing so, they argued, would Chinese literature be able to “dialogue” with the rest of the world. The goal of the root-seekers, therefore, was to search for authentic Chinese national roots in order to claim a spot in the global literary scene.

The primary locus of root-seeking literature is the Chinese countryside, where the political winds that swept China during the past century had only limited success. Agrarian society is thought to be the heart of Chinese culture, uncorrupted by Western influences and therefore retaining the primordial energies of humanity. Unlike the earlier nativists (xiangtu pai), the root-seekers were not satisfied with realistic representations of rural life and regional customs. Influenced by a wealth of literary traditions from the West and particularly by Latin American magic realism, they identified ancient Chinese traditions as a source of a new literature that addressed profound, universal issues while expressing a subjective vision of art and life. Mo Yan’s Gaomi stories celebrate the exuberant primordial energies and affirm the masculine vigor as opposed to the physical inferiority of the meek and “civilized” Confucian tradition; Tashi Dawa’s Tibetan tales unfold a world of mysteries and religious practices, and Han Shaogong’s Bababa (Pa pa pa) depicts an isolated community in the remote mountains of Hunan where the villagers’ behavior is controlled by irrational, superstitious beliefs, unaffected by the events in the outside world. Although the ancient roots that inspired the root-seekers were most often found in remote rural China, they also existed in the cities and were uncovered by “the urban root-seekers.” Deng Youmei of Beijing and Lu Wenfu of Suzhou were the most representative of the group. Deng’s portraits of the Manchu descendents and Lu Wenfu’s stories about the history and customs of Suzhou not only record in vivid detail the vanishing or vanished cultures but also examine their impact on the people and the society they left behind.

Although the root-seeking movement reached the height of popularity in the 1980s, its impact is still felt at present. From its ranks have emerged some of the best writers in China today and the ancient cultures that inspired the root-seekers to continue to provide inspiration for Chinese writers. See also CHEN ZHONGSHI; LI RUI; LIN JINLAN; FENG JICAI; JIA PINGWA; LIU HENG; SU TONG; NATIVISTS; YU HUA; YE ZHAOYAN; ZHENG CHENGZHI; ZHANG WEI.