China Literature in the 20th Century

By | January 19, 2022

The fall of the empire and the advent of the republic in 1912 were followed by a profound cultural upheaval, which was first called the Literary Revolution but which, after the student demonstration of May 4, 1919, ended up identifying itself with the May 4 Movement (wusi yundong). One of the main aspects of the movement was to promote the adoption in literature of the spoken language (baihua, literally “white language”) against the classical language (wenyan) now understandable only by a small circle of scholars. Promoters of this movement were Hu Shi, who had trained in the USA at the school of T. Dewey, and Chen Duxiu. In 1920, the government obtained the adoption in schools of the spoken language (also known as the national language, or guo yu) based roughly on the language spoken to the North of the Chang Jiang. The 1920s were characterized by the avid reading and translation of the works of Western literature, which young Chinese writers drew on to experiment with new forms of expression. Corresponding to this moment is a whole fervor of cultural initiatives, the birth of magazines, the formation of literary circles. Central figure of the time was Lu Xun, not only for his work as a narrator, poet, essayist and translator, but above all for the clarity and modernity of his judgments. Another prominent figure is Guo Moruo, poet, translator, scholar of vast knowledge. The repression of the left by the Guomindang in 1927 then opened a rift in the intellectual front.

According to getzipcodes, the model of Chinese society proposed after the long march by Mao Zedong envisaged the recovery of the national popular tradition (emblematic of the spread of the yangge, or song-show for the transplant of rice) and a literature “at the service of the people”. In the 1950s social narrative developed, which found, among others, in Zhao Shuli a polite and colorful author of peasant life scenes, while the writer Ding Ling stood out for the robust quality of her choral frescoes. Coinciding with the Great Leap Forward, the phenomenon of mass poetry appeared, referring to the oral tradition, enhancing the creative and productive resources of the people. With the cultural revolution, mass literary production became generalized and ended up fixing itself in repetitive forms, also due to the cultural and political eclipse of many intellectuals. In fiction, however, the peasant-based novels of Hao Ran. Great attention, including for propaganda purposes, was given to the theater, with the production of “revolutionary model works”, such as Hongdeng ji (“The Red Lantern”) and Zhiqu wei Hushan (“The strategic conquest of the tiger mountain”).

From the end of the 1970s there was a general renewal of the cultural landscape. The great names of the older generations still in business (such as Ba Jin, Ai Qing, Cao Yu) were joined by younger authors, such as the novelist Wang Meng, appointed Minister of Culture in 1985. The narrative, especially in the form of the short novel and short story, after a phase of bitter criticism of the conditions of the intellectuals during the cultural revolution (the so-called “scar literature” or shangba), has explored various aspects of the social life of the country and, newer phenomenon, psychological aspects of individual relationships. In poetry, the movement known as Menglong, free in form and often allusive or deliberately obscure in content, has aroused discussions and enthusiastic acclaim. Even the theater has presented new forms in which the assimilation of Western experiences is felt (expressionist, intimist theater). The flowering of the literatures of national minorities which, after the advent of the People’s Republic, were able to dispose of,

The cultural renewal of the late 1970s gave its fruits in the following decades, bringing out new authors and interesting lines of research both in the field of poetry and in the field of prose. In poetry, the movement known as menlong shi (“obscure, indistinct poetry”) has brought to light poets of great formal originality and strong individuality. Worthy of note are the new independent magazines such as Jushi niandai (“Nineties”), directed since 1989 in Chengdu by Xiao Kaiyu, and Xiandai huashi (“Contemporary Chinese poetry”). Among the widely popular authors, Ye Yanbin, poet of the urban landscape, and Li Xiaoyu, who expresses female feelings often sacrificed to the laws of society in a bittersweet autobiographical vein. Among the poets of national minorities, Jidi Majia of the Yi minority was highlighted,

The narrative, after the bitter phase of denouncing the distortions of the cultural revolution, found a source of inspiration in the search for the most authentic, less scholastic and official characters of the Chinese tradition (xungen “search for roots”). Acheng, Mo Yan, author, among other things, of Hong gaoliang jiazu (1987; trans. It. Sorghum red, 1994) can be ascribed to this trend, who inspired a refined cinematographic transposition by director Zhang Yimou, Feng Jikai, Jia Pingwa. Even Lingshan (“The mountain of the soul”, 1990), the most important novel by Gao Xingjian, Nobel laureate in 2000, is a search deep into memory, but its formal and intertwining complexity make it a work that is difficult to classify. Wang Meng (Minister of Culture from 1986 to 1989), after the novel Huodong bian renxing (1988; trans. It. Interchangeable figures, 1989), which reflects the changes of half a century of Chinese history, has published a book between prose poetry and fantastic-visionary tale, Shizijie shan (“On the cross”, 1988), inspired by the theme of the Apocalypse. Of the same generation is Zhang Xianliang, author of the largely autobiographical novel Nanren de ban shi nuren (“Half a man is a woman”, 1985). A successful novel, nourished by the authentic popular spirit of Peking in the early twentieth century, is Yanhu (1985; trad. it. Tobacconist, 1995) by Deng Youmei, who revives the tradition of oral teahouse narrators with a picaresque air. The writer Can Xue has been noted for the originality of the style between the surreal and the philosophical of Taoist derivation with her Tiantanlide duihua (1988; transl. It. Dialoghi in cielo, 1991). Noteworthy is the short novel Jinse (1993; trad. It. La zetra inarsiata, 2000) by Ge Fei. Among the minority narrators, the Tibetan Tashi Dawa wrote stories set in his land, in search of a torn identity, relived through the presence of magical and fantastic elements. The peculiar intertwining of literature and cinema has had considerable international resonance,

The dramatic events of June 1989 created a rift and a sense of disorientation among Chinese intellectuals, some of whom, such as Bei Dao, Acheng, Yang Lian, Duo Duo, Gao Xingjian, who were abroad, chose to stay there. However, the massive economic development, the reassumption of Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, the spread of the means of communication, relations with the communities of the Chinese diaspora create an evolving landscape that cannot fail to reflect on the developments of literary creativity, also stimulated by an enormous work of translation of foreign works and the spread of the English language as an international communication language. The publishing production, which amounts to over 100,000 titles a year, has created a diversified landscape in which widely popular and often short-term narrative works find their place. The most aware and committed writers have to deal not only with the persistent influence of political directives disseminated through official cultural organizations and magazines, but also with the laws of the market that impose language and themes that are immediately appealing to the public. Parallel to the formal research, of which both the introduction into the literary language of the fragmented and slang language of the city suburbs and a rarefied sophistication in the traditional sense, we are witnessing an expansion of narrative themes, with a resumption, after the season of subjectivism almost obsessive, of a new objectivity which is defined xiu xianshi (“new realism”). In this vein the countryside finds its narrative space in contrast with the arrogant domination of the city,

China Literature in the 20th Century