Heaven and Earth were in turmoil • Red Sorghum, Mo Yan - Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present

The Literature Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained - James Canton 2016

Heaven and Earth were in turmoil • Red Sorghum, Mo Yan
Contemporary Literature • 1970–Present




“Roots-seeking” (xungen) movement


1981 “A Preliminary Enquiry into the Techniques of Modern Fiction”, an essay by future Nobel Prize-winner Gao Xingjian, lays the groundwork for the xungen movement.

1985 Lhasa-based Zhaxi (Tashi) Dawa’s story “Tibet: A Soul Knotted on a Leather Thong” draws upon Tibetan folk culture and traditions.

1985 Wang Anyi’s novella Bao Town minutely depicts harsh village life in northern China.

1985 Beijing writer Ah Cheng publishes Romances of the Landscape, describing border areas far from “civilization”.


1996 In A Dictionary of Maqiao Han Shaogong uses etymology and vignettes to examine life in the Cultural Revolution.

In the xungen, or “roots-seeking”, movement that arose in Chinese literature during the mid-1980s, writers tried to reconnect with folk culture. The movement took its name from a 1985 essay by Han Shaogong, “The Roots of Literature”, which called on writers to seek out forgotten sources of creativity. While some xungen authors examined China’s ethnic minorities, others took a fresh look at the indigenous values within Daoism and Confucianism.

For decades, Chinese writing had been on a strict diet of realism. In harking back to folk influences, the xungen authors also introduced elements of the supernatural. The new work brought Chinese writers to the attention of the literary world again for the first time in decades.

Redefining modernity

One of the movement’s most famous books is Red Sorghum by Guan Moye (1955—), better known by his pen name Mo Yan (“Don’t Speak”). Red Sorghum is named after a rare wheat crop, whose colour symbolizes vitality, bloodshed, and stability. Set in northwest China’s rural Shandong Province, the book follows one family from 1923 to 1976, through the Japanese occupation, the Communist Revolution, and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

As a true “roots-seeking” novel, Red Sorghum incorporates mythical and folkloric elements, and its break with the chronological structures that accompanied the realistic tradition gave new energy to Chinese literary modernism.

"Lines of scarlet figures shuttled along the sorghum stalks to weave a vast human tapestry."

Red Sorghum

See also: Romance of the Three KingdomsCall to ArmsPlaying for Thrills