China Literature

By | January 15, 2022

According to cancermatters, the most recent theories challenge the concept of Chinese literature by redefining it in linguistic-cultural rather than national terms: the boundaries of analysis are wider and vague and fade into the concept of ‘synophonic literature’, developed by Shu-mei Shih (2007, p. 4) in a centrifugal sense, including only phenomena of a marginal literary geography, such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and the diaspora (writers active in the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia), and antithetical to the monological discourse of the popular China. Rebalancing the margins of this ‘heteroglossy’, Jing Tsu and David Der-wei Wang (Global Chinese literature, 2010) analyze synophonic literature dialectically, as a plurality of transnational phenomena inclusive of all literary spaces connected in various ways to Sinic culture in a complex multi-ethnic and multi-cultural identity intertwining. To reconcile the two positions, the concept of ‘literary synoposphere’ is proposed, which intercepts both the synocentric drive, but in itself polyphonic, of China continental and the peripheral realities that interact or collide with it, including writers who are Chinese by origin and culture now write in English, French, Japanese (Ha Jin, Yang Yi etc.) or the authors of ethnic minorities. The tension between global and local, between marginal culture and Chinese neocentralism, redraws the value of the literature of the People’s Republic, placing it in a more interactive and global context. State and market interact in the same cultural perimeter in a more synergistic than competitive function, while the role of the individual as author and as a subject of investigation has expanded both in prose and in poetry. The government strategies of soft-power have turned both inwards and outwards, through prestigious international events such as participation as a guest country at the Frankfurt Book Fair (2009), film festivals, translation incentives and literary awards culminating in the Nobel Prize awarded to Mo Yan in 2012.

On the one hand, the hypertrophy of zhuxuanlü (leitmotiv) literature has been confirmed, national-popular works, often cross-media (already designed to land on the small and large screen, or the theater), which reflect new aspirations and trends in society by creating the ‘great national narrative’; on the other hand, the mainstream authors, largely recognized by the political system, but artistically independent, have preserved a space of influence by contributing, with distinct characteristics, to a narrative with a more local (Jia Pingwa, Chi Zijian) or international impact (Mo Yan, Yu Hua, Liu Zhenyun). The traditional realism that continues to characterize many scriptures has been joined by a style defined by Yan Lianke (b.1958shenshizhuyi (“Myth realism”), a grotesque and imaginative vision of reality. Examples are the novels of sociopolitical criticism by Yan himself, Dingzhuang meng (2005; trans. It. The dream of the Ding village, 2011), a corrosive denunciation of the AIDS epidemic caused by blood trafficking among Henan peasants, and Sishu (2010, The Four Books), who broke the silence about the persecution of intellectuals and the disastrous famine during the ‘Great Leap Forward’ (195961). Oscillating between the grotesque and the real is also Yu Hua (b. 1960) in Di qi tian (2013, Il seventh day), where a suggestive but alienating voice narrates the first seven days after his death. It seems the writer’s return to the beginnings of the avant-garde, although the irreverent tone refers to his most recent and controversial narrative tests, such as the two-volume satirical epic Xiongdi (2005-2006; trans. It. Brothers, 2008, and Getting rich is glorious, 2009). The complex architecture and sophisticated techniques of these works indicate the maturity of contemporary Chinese novel, definitely consecrated the allocation of the Nobel to ‘modern storytellers’ Mo Yan (v.), Which in Wa (2009; trans. It. The frogs, 2013), a historical retrospective on demographic politics in China, exhibits an amazing metanarrative and transgeneric versatility, touching on almost all the most gory themes of recent history. Ge Fei (b.1964), another author who emerged during the avant-garde season (eighties of the 20th century), completed the trilogy on the failed Chinese utopias of the twentieth century with Chunjin Jiangnan (2011, Late Spring in Jiangnan), has continued his reflection on the irreducible gap between the individual and society in the novel Yinshenyi (2012, The Cloak of Invisibility), adopting the point of view of the average Chinese in a painful critique of today’s development models.

More violent and political tones run through the novels of Ma Jian (b.1953), exiled in London: his ‘humiliated and offended’ are the helpless body of a survivor, epitome of the oblivion imposed on the tragic events in Tiananmen Square, in Zhiwuren (2008; trad. It. Beijing is in a coma, 2009), and the body, repressed and tortured in her ‘illegal’ maternity, of a peasant woman on the run with her husband because “transgressors of family planning” in Yin zhi dao (2012 ; trad. it. The dark way, 2015).

Works like these, still steeped in the ‘obsession with China’ typical of the twentieth-century writer, in good part ‘other’ than the Western novel for the stratified and uneven structure and the traditional lyrical grafts, are contrasted with more calm narrative trajectories: the psychological realism by Bi Feiyu (b. 1964), who with the blind masseurs of Tuina (2008; trans. it. I maestri di tuina, 2012) reinterprets the theme of disability as ironic and unexpected sensitivity towards a world in frenetic change; or the urban thrills of Paobu chuanguo Zhongguancun (2010; trad. it. Running through Beijing, 2014) between social hardship and survival, by the younger Xu Zechen (b. 1978). The legacy of the duanlie experience (“rupture”) is also placed in a more decentralized vision, with recent evidence by authors such as Han Dong, Li Er, Dongxi who attempt to elevate the individuality of the newspaper to the first object of literary discourse .

Similarly distant from media-political power and inclined to the essentiality of the ordinary, poetry has turned, as in the case of Yi Sha (b. 1966), towards a colloquial and anti-intellectualistic language. Despite the poor economic visibility, it maintains a strong symbolic capital by releasing instances extraneous both to the logic of the market and to political conditioning, in an existential grammar of the individual thus declined in ‘Xiang pi kongjian’ (2008, Spazio di rubber) by Zhai Yongming (n. 1955): “Life is quiet and the pure human world / the heart of a man cannot be saved / to the heart of the masses you cannot believe / the Other is like a swan in flight / who cannot get out from this space of impenetrable rubber ». Highly inspired author, Zhai confirms, together with the young Li Cheng’en (b. 1983),

In the face of these elite voices, there is a flourishing cultural production for the ‘masses’, understood more as a consumer subject than as an ideological object, a heterogeneous public of middle class and young age, which demands entertainment rather than education or moral elevation. It is a process triggered both from above, by the establishment to form and guide public opinion and from the market to determine their tastes, and from below as a variegated expression of hedonistic needs that manifest themselves through new channels, especially the web. Incomparable reality for its vastness and diffusion capillarity, for dynamism and interactivity, the wangluo wenxue it intertwines large commercial interests and authentic experiments, constituting a relatively free space in a country where editorial censorship remains decisive.

Fueled by the web, the market for magazines and literary awards, and typically cross-media, youth literature restores the competitive and materialistic world of adolescents, reflecting their anxieties and desires as in Guo Jingming’s (b. 1983) bestseller, Xiao shidai (2008, Small Times), later adapted for cinema (2013). At other coordinates of the literary synosphere, more reflective on the shipwreck of personal relationships is the original work of a young writer from Hong Kong, Han Lizhu (b.1978) who, in total contrast, has pushed herself into a terrain of pure fictional storytelling., between obese bodies and kite-women fleeing the cramped urban dimension. Ben embodies the global nature of Chinese literature Yan Geling (b.1958), who emigrated to the United States in 1989, whose novels and short stories, popular with both overseas Chinese and in the motherland and translated into several languages, interpret the condition of emigrant as a psychological and cultural rather than a geographical dislocation, a metaphor for a universal human disorientation.

Returning to the editorial labyrinths of China continental, the case of Hu Fayun (b.1949) is emblematic of the hybrid paths that the literary text has taken in the anxiety of expressive freedom: in 2007 his Ruyan@sars.come was first published in episodes on the net, then censored after the boom in print sales. Ruyan is a middle-aged widow who, thanks to the PC given to her by her son, discovers the most absurd and unspoken evils of today’s China in the parallel world of the network. A society divided between the cult of technology and the endemic backwardness of some sectors has favored genre literature both as a critical projection and as a pure escape, with a fantasy vein sometimes inspired by Japanese manga, the detective stories and, above all, science fiction, which interprets epochal and apocalyptic fears about the environment and the fate of a bulimic economy. Literary cases were Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 nian (2009; trans. It. The demon of prosperity, 2012) by Chen Guanzhong (b. 1952), dystopia on the dark side of Chinese economic success, as well as the mathematical thrillers of Mai Jia (pseud. by Jiang Benhu, b.1964).

An archipelago of contradictions, a linguistic-expressive platform that unites postmodernism, ethnicity and authorentalistic suggestions, the literary synosphere has a hybrid soul, stretched between tradition and globalization, typical of many Asian cultures.

China Literature