Chinese Literature - Li-hua Ying 2010


Modern Chinese literature has been flourishing for over a century, with varying degrees of intensity and energy at different junctures of history and points of locale. It is solidly an integral part of world literature, for from the moment it was born, it has been in dialogue with its counterparts from the rest of the world. As it has been challenged and enriched by external influences, it has contributed to the wealth of literary culture of the world. Gone are the days when a Western reader picked up a book of modern Chinese literature for nonliterary reasons and when Chinese novels or poems were treated as sociopolitical documents. Nowadays, it is more likely that readers appreciate a Chinese novel because it is a great piece of art, not simply because it provides knowledge and information about Chinese society and politics. Indeed, the best literature written in Chinese is on a par with the best literature written in any other language; this has been especially true during the past three decades, which have given us some internationally recognized names, even a Nobel laureate. In terms of themes and styles, modern Chinese literature is rich and varied: from the revolutionary to the pastoral, from romanticism to feminism, from modernism to postmodernism, critical realism, psychological realism, socialist realism, and magic realism, you name it. Indeed, it encompasses a full range of ideological and aesthetic concerns.

In some ways, what gives modern Chinese literature its vibrant diversity is its geographic range. Here the term Chinese literature should not be mistaken for “literature of China”—although the People’s Republic of China (PRC) itself is already a mind-boggling size—for its creators and readers are widely spread all over the globe. It is not an exaggeration to say that where there are Chinese communities, there is Chinese literature being read and written. Beyond the borders of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, there is a whole population of Chinese writers scattered throughout Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America who are connected in their love of the Chinese language as the medium of artistic expression. This is the landscape of Chinese literature today.

In the study of Chinese history, modern China is generally divided into three periods: jindai (the recent era), 1840—1911; xiandai (the modern era), 1911—1949; and dangdai (the present era), 1949 to the present. The curtains of the jindai era were forced open by guns and cannons of Western forces in the mid-19th century. During the next six decades, the Qing dynasty (1644—1911) lost the Opium Wars to Great Britain, its navy was soundly defeated by Japan, and its territories were ceded to the Europeans, Russians, and Japanese. Although the Republican Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen succeeded in overthrowing the feeble and corrupt Qing empire and established the Republic of China in 1911, civil wars put the young republic in grave danger and the country continued to be dominated by foreign powers. Popular discontent reached a boiling point in 1919, when the Versailles Conference transferred the German concessions in Shandong to Japan, instead of returning them to Chinese sovereignty, causing widespread protests that later developed into a full-blown cultural crusade known as the May Fourth Movement. A nationwide soul-searching ensued, led by progressive intellectuals who blamed China’s weakened state on its fundamental cultural institutions that in their view had become obsolete and incapable of dealing with the modern world. For the survival of the Chinese nation, they argued, Western ideas and practices, including literature, had to be imported. In this Westward-looking environment, science and democracy became coded terms that represented modernity, progress, and hope for a national salvation.

Prior to the 1980s, most literary scholars tended to adopt the same categories established by historians and saw the May Fourth Movement, which dominated Chinese intellectual discourse in the 20th century, as the force behind the emergence and development of China’s literary revolution. The term widely used to describe the literature born out the May Fourth Movement is xin wenxue (new literature). Wang Yao in his Zhongguo xin wenxue shi gao (A History of Chinese New Literature) emphasized the umbilical relationship between the new literature and the May Fourth Movement and puts “anti-imperialism” and “anti-feudalism” at the forefront of not only the political and cultural but also the literary agenda.1 Agreeing with Wang, Qian Liqun, Tang Tao, and Yan Jiayan also regarded 1949, when the PRC was established as a watershed, but they preferred the more evocative term xiandai wenxue (modern literature).2 Most scholars in Taiwan, however, do not see 1949 as such a defining moment. Zhou Jin, in his book Zhongguo xin wenxue jian shi (A Brief History of Chinese New Literature), which was published in 1980, used the term xin wenxue but expanded it to cover works written in the 1970s by writers in Taiwan and Hong Kong.3 In the mainland, the term dangdai wenxue was used widely in the period since 1949. To account for the new trends of literary creativity since the late 1970s made possible by Deng Xiaoping’s reform policies, another category xin shiqi wenxue (literature of the new era) has also been widely circulated.

Since the 1980s, however, various attempts have been made to bypass these fragmenting periodizations. Huang Xiuji and his colleagues chose a calendarian term that not only expands the historical but also the geographical scope to include literature published outside the mainland.4 Following a similar model, Chen Liao and Cao Huimin take one step further to argue that the inception of modern Chinese literature should be traced to the end of the 19th century.5 They consider the publication of an article by Qiu Tingliang (1857—1943) in 1898 a seminal event. Qiu’s article, entitled “lun baihua wei weixin zhi ben” (The Vernacular Language as the Basis of the Reform Movement), called for a radical change in the use of language, a proposal echoed by social reform advocates such as Liang Qichao (1873—1929), who promoted the genre of fiction, elevating its status to that of poetry and prose, the privileged forms in classical Chinese literary tradition, and Huang Zunxian (1848—1905), who campaigned for a new kind of poetry that favored wo shou xie wo kou (direct expression). Chen and Cao contend that the work of these forerunners who had pushed for a new kind of language and literature eventually led to the full-blown literary revolution resulting in the publications in 1918 of the first significant modern Chinese short story “Kuangren riji” (Diary of a Mad Man) by Lu Xun, and vernacular poems by Hu Shi, Liu Bannong, and others, ushering in a new era of cultural and literary reform. Helping to shift the attention from political and social factors to the intrinsic nature of literature are Rene Welleck and Austin Warren, whose work A Theory of Literature has influenced the thinking of many Chinese literary historians.6 As early as 1985, Chen Sihe called for a redirection in the study of the history of modern Chinese literature,7 setting off a new round of debates in Chinese scholarly circles. Conceptualized in such a framework, the term xiandai wenxue has found traction, pushing out xin wenxue and dangdai wenxue.

Outside the Chinese-speaking world, the term modern has been used widely and loosely. C. T. Hsia, in his groundbreaking book published in 1971, A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, examines works from 1917 to 1957 and in the epilogue deals with works that were published through the 1970s.8 The English anthology edited by Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt published in 1995 defines modern as 1919 to the end of the 20th century.9 Relatively removed from the China-centric view held by most literary historians in China, scholars outside the mainland tend to regard the production of Chinese literature as a global affair that resulted from migration and immigration. Recent years have seen major efforts to rewrite the history of modern Chinese literature to take into account authors in the Chinese diaspora beyond the three major regions of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Leading the group that attempts to grapple with the complexity of the field are Dominic Cheung, David Der-wei Wang, and Shu-mei Shih, who have proposed, each with his or her own emphasis, a new conceptualizing framework and terminology: Huawen wenxue (Chinese-language literature) or Sinophone literature.10

Regardless of the differences in opinion held by literary scholars, all agree that modern Chinese literature emerged in the midst of grave anxieties as a result of China’s encounters with the West, whose advanced technology and superior weaponry forced Chinese intellectuals to reflect on their own venerated traditions, both social and literary, and to seek changes that would meet the needs of a new society. In this campaign for comprehensive social transformation, literature was at the forefront. Modern Chinese writers abandoned wen yan (literary Chinese), the lingua franca of Chinese writing, and replaced it with bai hua (vernacular Chinese) as the language of both prose and poetry. Free verse instead of regulated verse was the preferred form; an interest in critical realism gave modern fiction writing its new style and subject matter that was firmly rooted in the present; and hua ju (spoken drama) made its debut, carving an important niche in the Chinese theater traditionally monopolized by the operatic variety.

As educated Chinese wrestled with problems concerning social, political, linguistic, and literary reforms, the introduction of Western literature into the intellectual and popular discourses played a crucial role in fundamentally changing the direction of modern Chinese literary development. Translations of Western writings, including philosophical, scientific, and literary texts, influenced a whole generation of Chinese writers, giving rise to a new literature characterized by its use of the vernacular language as the medium of expression and its humanistic focus on contemporary social issues. Painfully aware of China’s reduced status, the May Fourth intellectuals located the roots of their country’s plight in the Chinese traditions, particularly Confucianism, which, in their view, had run its course and become a repressive yoke to the nation, preventing it from competing in the modern world. The bankruptcy of traditional values thus created a vacuum, making Western concepts of individualism and personal emancipation a welcome replacement in a culture eager to shed the burdens of its own past. With its devotion to the cause of national salvation, Chinese literature during the first half of the 20th century actively engaged itself with various social and political causes, as China underwent devastating turmoil, including civil wars and the Japanese invasion. While critical realism, which was perceived as best equipped to address contemporary sociopolitical problems, dominated the field, other trends also prevailed. Shen Congwen’s pastoral representations of his hometown, a natural society indifferent to moralistic restrictions of Confucian ethics and modern urban materialism, Zhang Ailing’s stylized prose that probes the dark side of the human psyche, Shi Zhecun’s introspective narratives, Li Jinfa’s symbolist poems, and Zhang Henshui’s romantic novels coexisted with mainstream writings by Lu Xun, Mao Dun, Ba Jin, and a cohort of socially conscious writers.

In 1949, when the Nationalist government retreated to Taiwan and the mainland was taken over by the Communists, the May Fourth literary tradition branched off in several directions. Although Taiwan under Japanese occupation had seen some Chinese literary activities, it was the arrival of the Nationalist government that turned the island into a bastion and center of Chinese literary creation. With its close ties to the West, the government tolerated a certain degree of creative latitude, provided that writers stayed within the boundary of aesthetics. In this environment, the modernist movement that had flowered on the mainland from the 1920s to the early 1940s was resuscitated in Taiwan. Acting as a link between the two eras were veteran poets such as Ji Xian, a passionate proponent of modern poetry in the mainland, who became a principal player in modernizing the field of poetry making in Taiwan. Pumping new blood into the modernist movement was a younger generation of writers associated with the literary journal Xiandai wenxue (Modern Literature), which Bai Xianyong and his friends founded in 1960 on the campus of National Taiwan University. Challenging this Western-inspired trend, the xiangtu (nativist) literature, which rose from the south of the island, insisted on local experience and the realist mode of expression.

Hong Kong, with its unique geopolitical position and the sudden influx of talents fleeing Communist China, developed its own brand of literature that reflects the realities of the British colony. Representing the continued experiment with Western modernism was Liu Yichang, who drew on the stream of consciousness technique to bring to life the sense of rootlessness and uncertainty in a city living on borrowed time. At the other end of the spectrum, popular forms of literature thrived; prominent among them were the martial arts novels of Liang Yusheng and Jin Yong, and Ni Kuang’s science fiction, which met the needs of readers looking for escape from the pressures of life in a fast-paced modern city. Meanwhile, in the PRC, a monolithic literary establishment pursued its strictly ideological agendas, suppressing creative autonomy in favor of propagandist literature. From 1949 to the end of 1970s, the best of literature written in Chinese came out of Taiwan and Hong Kong, providing a critical link in the chain of modern Chinese literary development since the May Fourth Movement.

As China began its economic reform in the late 1970s, the government’s political grip on literature loosened and along with it came the dramatic decline of the influence wielded by Maoist doctrinarians. Closely behind the opening of national borders followed what has been called “the second surge” of importing of Western literature. Chinese writers showed an intense curiosity about authors from the West, as well as those from Latin America, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. A great variety of literary trends, from symbolism to postmodernism, was enthusiastically embraced and appropriated by Chinese writers, resulting in an output impressive both in quantity and quality. A burst of radical experiments with language, narrative techniques, themes, and subject matters were met with great interest. What united this polyphony of voices was a commitment to the sanctity of art, a fundamental departure from the Maoist era. In Taiwan, after the modernist and nativist influences declined in the wake of three decades of remarkable innovation, the literary scene began to diversify in the 1980s. While the more radical faction of the early realist nativist movement turned to a militant nationalist platform, a new generation, well educated and well read, rose to address contemporary Taiwan issues while tapping into the rich resources of Chinese culture. Latin American magic realism, which was received with great enthusiasm in the PRC, was also appropriated by Taiwan and Hong Kong writers. Since the 1990s, a flurry of literary and cultural trends, including postmodernism, neofeminism, and pop culture, have taken root in the postindustrialized societies of Taiwan and Hong Kong. In the PRC, the crackdown on the Tian’anmen Prodemocracy Movement (1989) forced a number of writers abroad as the government tightened its control of literary production. The life in exile, with its attached freedom and anxiety, has provided a new source and venue for their work, and more important, their presence in the West has strengthened a Chinese diasporic literature already star-studded with such prominent names as Bai Xianyong, Yu Lihua, Nie Hualing, and Yang Mu, who had emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s. As a result, Chinese literary production and readership are more than ever pluralistic and global.

Looking back on the development of nearly a century of literary history, one is struck by the degree of relevancy the past still holds for the present. The critical realist tradition established by writers such as Lu Xun and Mao Dun finds its voice in the works of Han Shaogong, Yu Hua, and others. The spirit of experimentalism in the poems of modernist Li Jinfa is embraced by not only the Misty poets such as Bei Dao and Yang Lian but also the fourth generation poets, including Zhang Zao and Zang Di. The romantic sentimentalism of Xu Zhimo and Dai Wangshu has its followers, such as the tragic poets Gu Cheng and Hai Zi. The rural landscape explored by Shen Congwen is revisited in the nativist movement in Taiwan and the pervasive root-seeking movement in the PRC. Zhang Ailing, who now enjoys the status of a literary icon, has many progenies in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the PRC, while the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school has its reincarnations in popular urban literature. What has come and gone is the brand of revolutionary literature that emphasizes the utilitarian role of literature for ideological purposes.

Like the economy, the literary publishing and marketing industry in the 21st century is increasingly globalized. A book by a Chinese writer residing in London can be simultaneously published in the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Canada and marketed worldwide. A politically sensitive work written by a mainlander may not be printed in the PRC but should have no trouble getting the attention of a publisher in Taiwan and eventually finding its way to the shelf of a mainland reader. This fluidity of literary and cultural transmission has given writers an unprecedented opportunity and challenge to be truly innovative, resulting in an impressive and diverse output. What originally grew out of a reaction to Western domination a century ago has proven itself to be capable of holding on to its rich cultural heritage while transcending national and ideological boundaries in search of universal truths about the human condition.


1. Wang Yao. Zhongguo xin wenxue shi gao (A History of Chinese New Literature). Vol. I: Beijing: Kaiming, 1951; Vol. II: Beijing: Xin wenyi, 1958.

2. Qian Liqun et al. Zhongguo xiandai wenxue sanshi nian (Thirty Years of Modern Chinese Literature). Beijing: Beijing daxue, 1998; Tang Tao and Yan Jiayan. Zhongguo xiandai wenxue shi (A History of Modern Chinese Literature). 3 vols. Beijing: Renmin wenxue, 1979—1980.

3. Zhou Jin. Zhongguo xin wenxue jian shi (A Brief History of Chinese New Literature). Taipei: Chengwen, 1980.

4. Huang Xiuji et al. Ershi shiji Zhongguo wenxue shi (A History of Twentieth-Century Chinese Literature). Guangzhou: Zhongshan daxue, 1998.

5. Chen Liao and Cao Huimin, eds. Bai nian Zhonghua wenxue shi lun (History of Chinese Literature 1898—1999). Shanghai: Huadong shifan daxue, 1999.

6. Rene Welleck and Austin Warren. A Theory of Literature. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949; Wenxue lilun, trs., Liu Xiangyu et al. Beijing: Sanlian shudian, 1984.

7. Chen Sihe. “Xin wenxue shi yanjiu zhong de zhengti guan” (A Comprehensive View in the Study of the History of New Literature). Fudan xue bao (Fudan University Journal) 3 (1985).

8. C. T. Hsia. History of Modern Chinese Fiction. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971.

9. Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt, eds. The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

10. Dominic Cheung, “Lisan yu chonghe: huawen wenxue neihan tansuo—jianlun Chen Yingzhen, Zhu Tianxin de ’lihe’ zhuti” (Dispersing and Superposition: the Meaning of Sinophone Literature—A Study of the Theme of “Separation and Reunion” in the Works of Chen Yinzhen and Zhu Tianxin). Sixiang wenzong 9: 18—25; David Der-wei Wang, “Huayu yuxi wenxue: bianjie xiangxiang yu yuejie jiangou” (Chinese-Language Literature: Imaginary Border and Cross-Border Construct). Zhongshan daxue xuebao 5 (2006); Shu-mei Shih, Visuality and Identity: Sinophone Articulations across the Pacific. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.