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Shijing novels depict ordinary life in 21st century

DING QI | 2017-06-23 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Daily-life charm yet to be explored


Cartoon by Gou Ben; Poem by Long Yuan

Firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar and tea to begin a day,
Clothing, food, housing, transportation and marriage—no one can stay away.
Lives of ordinary people are in transformation,
Stories of them offer low and high value orientation.
Justice and progress have also been touched upon,
Chores and trifles of urban life should not be a single tongue.
Geographical locations of the genre lack variety.
Authors should improve the depiction of mass society.

Shijing novels focus on trivial and worldly lives of ordinary people, who are usually grassroots residents of urban areas, paying attention to their daily necessities, shelter and food as well as marriages and families.

In the 21st century, a series of popular shijing novels characterized by themes of cultural reflection have been written by Chinese authors that focus on changes in the lives of townsfolk.

These novels include Life Show by Chi Li, The Neck of a Beauty by Song Anna and Whatever Zhang Damin’s Happy Life by Liu Heng, which all inherit the traditional tastes of shijing novels, highlighting the values of worldly people and aesthetic tastes of elegance within worldliness.     

New worldly values
The shijing novels of the current century are quite different from the new-era novels that were created last century in the wake of China’s reform and opening up. First, the influence of regional culture in shijing novels has weakened while problems of the times are emerging as cities rapidly develop. Regional differentiations in novel writing are no longer obvious. Instead, house demolitions and ethical conflicts brought by urban transformation have become the new focus of narratives.

In addition, the profundity and insightfulness of new century shijing novels has improved. Some  new-era shijing novels intentionally pursue elegant cultural and aesthetic tastes, manifesting the refined tastes of intellectuals in descriptions of the arts and other native customs. But the focus of new-century shijing novels has shifted downward, paying more attention to the existential predicament and spiritual metamorphoses of ordinary people during China’s urbanization. These new novels stress a realistic reflection of issues through value conflicts and clashing cultures.

Generally speaking, this century’s shijing novels present the changes in the lives of ordinary townsfolk, and portray and explain the thoughts and values of residents in a realistic way.

Shijing novels explore in depth the economic rationality rising in cities. Cunning and materialistic characters in the novels who do everything possible to get rich embody these utilitarian values.


Lai Shuangyang in Life Show and Li Liu in The Neck of a Beauty are typical economic rationalists. For example, the actions of Lai Shuangyang, when dealing with Zhuo Xiongzhou and struggling against her siblings for ancestral properties, contradict traditional ideal female images and also subvert the traditional ideas about the supremacy of family harmony and sharing wealth. All these explain the laws of survival and ethical concepts in an interest-based commercial society.

The 21st century shijing novels show a very complicated attitude toward the values of economic rationality. On the one hand, writers see economic rationality as a vital means by which townsfolk confront traditional constraints. They are embodiments of the natural and healthy survival philosophy of grassroots society, radiating vigorous and strong natural beauty.

On the other hand, writers show strong concern and helplessness in the face of this capitalist ideology. The speculation at the initial stage of China market economy has added irrationality to economic rationality, constantly threatening the social values of justice, order and civilization.

Illusion of purification
Due to ethical concerns about the value of economic rationality, when shaping a character, the authors tend to perfect his personality and purify his morality. The authors generally try to compensate for the personality defects by resorting to traditional interpersonal relationship and advocating that “A man of virtue makes money in a virtuous way.” In most shijing novels, the virtuous ways are based on a morality that combines the ideas of the self-sufficient farming economy in traditional China and modern civil society.

For example, in Life Show, Lai Shuangyang uses all kinds of schemes to fight for ownership of ancestral houses. However, everything she does is intended to maintain the prosperity and integrity of the family. Because of her pure motivations, people also are sympathetic to her materialistic and realistic approach to survive and struggle.         

The illusion in shijing novels that worldly lives should be morally pure and the personality of citizens should be perfect reflects the writers’ ideas about the living conditions of townspeople amid social transformation and future development of urban civilization.

Some works are full of cultural reflection and criticism of the moral corruption brought about by an excess of materialistic desires in commercial society. However, the authors try to correct the affluenza in commercial society by advocating the ideal personality that is commonly glorified in agricultural civilization, which falls into another kind of conservative regression and unrealism.


In addition, the works have a narrow-minded understanding about the moralities of townsfolk life, simplifying morality as traditional family morality and ignoring public social virtues. All these contribute to the flat characters in the works, and the image of the ordinary people in daily life does not really change.

For example, Zhang Damin from the novel Whatever Zhang Damin’s Happy Life, is the pillar of the family. But in the public sphere, he seems to be garrulous, flippant and even villainous. He is uncooperative in the government house demolition and stalks his wife when he suspects she is having an affair. All these details show us a figure who is far from a mature citizen in a civil society. Zhang is designed by the author to be an ordinary people and a character of traditional Chinese shijing life.

The conflicts between worldly pursuits and elite culture hide behind the conflicts between the sisters of Lai Shuangyang and Lai Shuangyuan in Life Show, which could have strong cultural metaphors. However, the values of worldly life are simplified. The author shows strong sarcasm toward the Lai Shuangyuan’s actions of maintaining social justice and virtue, which does not reveal the social connotations and meaning of the conflicts between the sisters. On the contrary, the characterization devolves into cliché.

Vitality of shijing culture
The characterization defects in shijing novels originate from the authors’ emphasis on expanding traditional culture to worldly life and ignoring the possibility of transitioning townsfolk life to modern urban culture. Once problems arise, the authors always turn to tradition and resort to the rise of virtues.

According to the theories of Antonio Gramsci and Jürgen Habermas, modern civil society is a pluralistic “cultural community” capable of cultural reproduction. The cultural community is not based on kingship, geographical location, religious feelings or moral concepts but rather a complex system bonded by commodity contracts. Correspondingly, the entire set of modern ideas formed at the value system level lay the basic driving forces for social progress.

The ideas of exchange of equal value and fair competition possess the revolutionary power to break the shackles of feudal autocracy. The positive attitudes toward selfish desires and the realization of self-value also show characters of enlightenment and individual liberation. All these ideas, both Oriental and Occidental, on shijing culture could lay a basis for the creation of shijing literature in China.

It is good news that the epic style of narration in recent creations reflects new changes in shijing literature. Blossoming Flowers by Jin Yucheng and the Pearl Shirt by Ye Guangqin are representatives of epic narratives of long period of worldly life, outlining the historical ups and downs of civil society as well as the social customs and picture of townsfolk life in a city of a particular time.

The authors also reveal the materialistic pursuits in the physical worldly life of the characters, providing insights into the sorrows deep inside the souls of these townspeople along with their truest and purest temperaments.

Combining panoramic narration that covers a long time span with the artistic pursuit of deep exploration into the souls of townsfolk lives generates epic-alike artistic effects for shijing literature. These narrative techniques differ from the micro-narration used in shijing literature at the beginning of 21st century, which focused on the impact of materialism in commercial society on people’s minds.

The Blossoming Flowers focuses on daily trivial lives of three characters: Hu Sheng, Abao and Xiao Mao. The author’s experience of the paradoxical development of material-spiritual relationship as well as his personal feeling of “prosperity is nihil” is seen in his narrative about the ages of 1960s and 1990s. Without long-term narration and contrast of townsfolk life and the ups and downs of fates of the characters, it would be difficult to convey this deep and profound philosophy of worldly life. The Pearl Shirt by Ye Guangqin presents to us the decline of a noble family into grassroots society, during which the family members still hold onto their noble spiritual pursuits even as they struggle.

The definition of shijing literature was formerly reduced to a focus on concerns about daily necessities and trivial desires of townspeople. However, as we can see from the aforementioned two novels, struggling souls and noble spiritual pursuits also exist in worldly daily life. Townsfolk life has its own unique emotional forms and spiritual way of development, which should be included into the vision of shijing literature and form the core of a worldly value system. Shijing literary creation should originate from the worldly life and go deep into the souls of the masses.

Ding Qi is from the Institute of Literature, Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.