YE SHENGTAO, PEN NAME OF YE SHAOJUN (1894—1988)
YE SHENGTAO, PEN NAME OF YE SHAOJUN (1894—1988). Fiction writer, editor, and educator. Ye Shengtao was one of the few from the first generation of modern Chinese writers whose careers began in the early 20th century and continued through the 1980s. His main creative accomplishments are short stories and a novel, Ni Huanzhi (Ni Huanzhi the Schoolteacher), as well as children’s literature. Best remembered as a consummate stylist, he composed unpretentious but richly textured prose.
Born in Suzhou, Ye grew up in a family supported by his father’s meager income as a bookkeeper. At the age of 11, he took the very last civil service exam the Qing dynasty ever administered. Ye wrote his first stories, more than 20 in total, in classical Chinese. Some of these stories are in imitation of Washington Irving, whose short stories Ye admired. The May Fourth Movement of 1919 changed his outlook as well as the language he wrote in. As a key member of the Literary Research Society, working closely with Mao Dun and others, Ye became one of the pioneers of the New Literature movement, which advocated realism and vernacular language. In 1919, he wrote his first vernacular poem, “Chunyu” (Spring Rain), and published his first vernacular story, “Zhe ye shi yige ren” (Is This a Human Being?), about the misfortunes of a country woman, which echoes the theme of Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” published nine months earlier. Gemo (Barrier), published in 1922, is the second collection of short stories of the New Literature, after Chenlun (Sinking) by Yu Dafu. Huo zai (Fire), his second collection of short stories, was published in 1923, followed closely by four more collections of short stories and one novel.
Ye is best known for his portrayals of schools and teachers in his short stories with which he expresses his views on education, shaped during his many years of teaching under the influence of the May Fourth Movement with its emphasis on science and democracy. These stories expose the ills of the traditional system of education. The characters, mostly teachers, are ridiculed either because they muddle through life like Mr. Wu in “Fan” (Meals) or because they are cruel and abusive, as the English teacher in “Yi er” (Adopted Son) and the history teacher in “Fengchao” (Agitation). Some of his characters, such as those in “Yunyi” (Dark Clouds), are empty-headed and idle away their time by filling their minds with silly love letters. Others degenerate into gamblers and engage in promiscuous activities, like those in “Xiaozhang” (The Headmaster). By attacking the old system, Ye advocates a new educational philosophy that instead of cramming students’ heads with useless knowledge provides an environment conducive to the free development of children’s intellects. To that end, the subservient role the student plays in the traditional system must be replaced by an equal and fair relationship between the teacher and the student, as advocated and carried out by the protagonist in Ye’s novel Ni Huanzhi (Ni Huanzhi the Schoolteacher).
Ni Huanzhi, completed in 1928, is the author’s only novel and one of the few full-length novels in early modern Chinese literature. In the May Fourth era the short story was the predominant genre while the novel, because of the technical difficulties demanded by its length, was not a popular choice for most writers. By the time Ni Huanzhi came out, there had been a dozen or so novels written, mostly medium-length texts, the most notable of which was Lu Xun’s Ah Q zhengzhuan (The True Story of Ah Q). With the exception of Lu Xun’s work, the other novels, in the words of Mao Dun, only touched “a tiny corner of a person’s life.” In Ni Huanzhi, the author places the protagonist in the midst of the major events of a turbulent era and depicts a significant historical period from 1911 to 1927. Ni Huanzhi is an idealistic, reform-minded educator. Convinced that education is the hope of all hopes, he, together with the headmaster, experiments with new methodologies despite strong resistance from the staff and the parents. They teach practical knowledge and allow the students to develop their personalities in an open environment. Ni is a modern man living in a world still governed by traditional values. Neither his educational reform nor his marriage can succeed in such an environment. He dies, still young but already broken, longing for the bright day when “there must be people different from us.”
In the field of children’s literature, the short stories, fairy tales, and songs Ye wrote for children are still widely used in schools across the nation. Modern Chinese fairy tales, before Ye, were either rewritings of traditional mythical tales or translations from foreign texts. Daocao ren (Scarecrow), published in 1923, opened a new direction for the writing of fairy tales. Ye’s fairy tales create a fantasy world imagined and perceived from the innocent perspectives of children. Nature and animals dominate these tales, and the morals of “beauty” and “love” are conveyed subtly.
As editor for literary journals, most notably Xiaoshuo yuebao (Fiction Monthly), Ye discovered and nurtured many new poets and novelists, and many prominent writers were his frequent contributors. During his tenure as editor of several influential journals and publishing houses, he helped publish some of the most prominent writings of modern Chinese literature.