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Consistency: Measure of contemporary literature

By Liu Jiye | 2015-03-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Inner serenity seems rare today
Writers scramble to be scholars
Paddling boat with pen upside down
One foot on a doctoral hat
Tied up to two boats
But not one step missed
He who is a writer also scholar
Hunting two hares both desirable
Dazzling the first title is
Doctoral tutor is the choice
Cultivating great minds 
Masters greater than Lu, Ba and Lao (see notes)
Following the flows, adrift
Chasing the fame, malposed
There are weeds among seedlings
Where shall the real classics be found?

Notes: Lu, Ba and Lao refer to Lu Xun (1881-1936), Ba Jin (1904-2005), and Lao She (1899-1966), three famous modern Chinese writers. Literary classics of these prestigious authors have been widely read by generations.During Lu Xun’s 10-year stay in Shanghai, he rejected several invitations from universities so he could write with no distractions. Lao She resigned from Shandong University in 1936 to concentrate on creating novels. Ba Jin was also wholeheartedly dedicated to thinking and writing all his life.

(Cartoon by Gou Ben; Poem by Long Yuan)



In the modern period of Chinese literature, multitudes of notable writers emerged, such as Lu Xun, Guo Moruo, Mao Dun, Ba Jin, Lao She, Shen Congwen, Cao Yu, Xiao Hong, Zhang Ailing, Qian Zhongshu, Xu Zhimo and others. It was an era of splendid literature, and the large number of Chinese writers it produced is worthy of respect from readers of vernacular literature. We may sometimes feel that even if we are not that familiar with certain works by some authors, for us, they are still trustworthy. This kind of feeling, subtle as it is, makes us feel assured, but the same feeling is not as easily found in the contemporary Chinese literature.

Test of time
In terms of readability, many modern literary classics are no better than their contemporary counterparts. For example, contemporary works like The Abandoned Capital, White Deer Plain (also translated as Two Families in Fifty Years), Shanghai Baby, Wolf Totem and Tseng Kuo-fan have gained a mass following and can be considered equal to such modern classics as The Family and Fortress Besieged.

While it can be acknowledged that some contemporary Chinese writers are more prolific than modern writers, their works may be no better than those of their predecessors in terms of literary weight. The fact that readers are fond of a certain writer is out of esteem for the author’s lasting dedication to literary creation and reverence for their unique personal charisma.  

From this point of view, though writers such as Lu Xun, Yu Dafu and Wang Zengqi do not have their own long novels, they seem to be unrivaled in the history of  contemporary Chinese literature. To readers, the amount and readability of a writer’s works and whether or not they have produced novels are not the factors that determine their fondness for a particular author.

The taste of readers in literature refers to their taste within the context of literary history. Literature is always the product of hard labor. In understanding literary works, readers tend to overlook the successes and failures of individual creations and examine the influence of a writer on literary history from the perspective of his long-term career and life.

Of course, there are writers who establish their literary status by virtue of a few great works. However, such cases are rare. For instance, Qian Zhongshu is famous for his three works The Marginalia of Life, Man-Beast-Ghost and Fortress Besieged. Though he did not produce many works, he has prestige in the history of modern Chinese literature. As a master engaged in literary research, Qian Zhongshu regards literary creation not as a career for the moment, but as a lifelong cause. His literary works are closely related to his academic achievements over the course of his lifespan. Fortress Besieged, together with Notes on Literature and Art, Essays on Ideas and Letters, make readers truly respect Qian.

To these writers who have widely won readers’ recognition, literature is a sort of lifelong occupation. It is such a studious pursuit that makes writers credible for readers. The reason why this topic is still of importance today is because some influential and productive writers eventually quit writing.

Works of some celebrated writers in the 1980s and 1990s are seldom read today. Of all the authors that came of age during that period, those who have never stopped writing are only a handful—Wang Anyi, A lai, Chi Zijian, Jia Pingwa, Zhang Wei and others.

To some younger writers, the intense zeal for writing cannot be sustained for long, which may fail to satisfy readers who expect a lot from them. Chen Ran, Wei Hui, Mian Mian are some of them. Needless to say, they could possibly be able to have an impact on the literary arena some day in the future with one or several pieces of writings. However, this unpredictable and haphazard style of literary creation is hardly something to be anticipated in sense of its significance to contemporary literature.

In the middle and late 1980s, Wang Meng popularized the notion of writers becoming scholars. To practice this, Wang Meng, Liu Xinwu and other famous Chinese writers led by example. But looking back on this phenomenon, it is not something that led to valuable contributions. For one thing, the transition of writers into academia is not likely to lead to substantial theoretical breakthroughs in researching Chinese classics like the Dream of the Red Chamber. Also, many will oppose such practices. These few literary classics that withstand the test of time are read to improve writers’ mastery of literature, but not studied as the target of research.

From the aforementioned point of view, it might be lopsided to say that for Ge Fei, a novelist with comprehensive academic training, his years of academic work could have a more positive effect, though his research on The Plum in the Golden Vase has received much attention.

Ma Yuan, a contemporary avant-garde Chinese writer, spends much of his time and energy interpreting the Western literary classics, which, however, can hardly contribute a lot to the history of scholarship. In recent years, Wang Anyi, Yan Lianke, Bai Hua, Yu Jian and Wang Xiaoni turned the emphasis of their careers to universities. About this, I myself am not that optimistic about the impact they will have on the history of both scholarship and literature.

The rationale is quite simple: one cannot run after two horses at the same time. He who hunts two hares leaves one and loses the other. The difference in profession makes one feel worlds apart. Lu Xun’ s writing A Brief History of Chinese Fiction summarizes the knowledge he accumulated for almost half of his life. But he knew that such hard work would not be sustainable. During his 10 years’ stay in Shanghai, he rejected several invitations from universities, preferring instead to write at home with no distractions. Lao She resigned from Shandong University in 1936 to concentrate on creating novels. Ba Jin was wholeheartedly dedicated to thinking and writing all his life, a state of mind that is unattainable for many contemporary Chinese writers.

Contemporary lifelong authors
Some contemporary authors quit writing for different reasons, but a few number of other writers are able to rival their modern predecessors in terms of staying power.


Years ago, when Jia Pingwa came to Beijing for the first time to receive a literary award, he saw quite a number of talented young writers, which he said illustrated the meaning of the famous saying, “Behind an able man, there are always other able men.” But 30 years later, few of those “able men” could compete with Jia Pingwa. It is far from sufficient for titans of literature to have just vision, talent and knowledge. The unwavering pursuit of a higher level and wider realm of literature is more important. Jia Pingwa does well in this. His large numbers of short stories, novellas, prose and poems created before the publishing of Turbulence had laid the groundwork for his important role in the field of 1980s Chinese literature. With each of his other works published, he gained greater prestige. Hence, Jia Pingwa has become a prominent novelist with artistic acuteness in the real sense.

Unlike the exquisite craftsmanship of Jia Pingwa, Mo Yan is both a sprinter and marathon runner when it comes to writing. After completing his more than 500,000-word book Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out in two months, he never lost his determination to realize a more far-sighted goal. Readers have every reason to expect more from Mo Yan.

Han Shaogong is another type of writer. In a career that has spanned three decades, he only has created three novels so far—A Dictionary of Maqiao published in 1996, Intimations in 2012, and Between Day and Night in 2013. With only these three, how did he emerge to the forefront of contemporary Chinese literary arena as the leader of the “search for roots” school? To answer this, we have to say that Han Shaogong’s works during the past over 16 years consistently conveyed his rational thinking, which has had a profound impact on his writing.

Unlike the others mentioned previously, Zhang Chengzhi, known for his History of Soul, wrote in the preface of the book: “This is the climax of my literary career.” In his view, the last 10 years of his literary career were just part of his training for writing, and the completion of the book means the fulfillment of his mission as a novelist. To him, there is no point in making more plans to produce novels.

The choice of Zhang Chengzhi is a personal one that is no doubt beyond reproach. But for the contemporary Chinese literature as a whole, it might be a loss. For those lifelong producers of literature, there should never be a climax of creation, which, even if there is, it is not a pretext for the writers to stop writing but rather a judgment that readers can make.

It is the lifelong authors that infuse confidence into contemporary Chinese literature, showing the way forward that will enable authors to match the achievements of their predecessors and their peers in world literature. This lays a solid foundation for the intellectual progress of the Chinese nation.  

Liu Jiye is from the School of Journalism and Communication at China Youth University of Political Studies.