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College-themed novels capture changing face of campus life

DAI HAIGUANG | 2017-10-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Fortress Besieged by renowned Chinese writer Qian Zhongshu is a scathing satire, a comedy of manners, and even a love story, both of its time and ahead of its time. (PHOTO: CHINA DAILY)

Colleges and universities are important venues for knowledge acquisition, exploration of truth and cultivation of talent. Set apart from everyday settings, the campus life is inspiring a new generation of writers to create a variety of memoirs and fictional accounts of college life, giving rise to a genre of literature known as “college-themed writing.”

The 1990s brought a boom in college-themed novels, and the prosperity of the genre has attracted attention from all walks of life. Hence, it is necessary to delve into its production context and narrative strategies for further reference.


Legacy of the past
A glimpse at the history of college-themed works of fiction reveals that a torch has indeed been passed down for nearly a century starting with the May Fourth period. If we were to examine campus-themed writing throughout the 20th century, we would find that works created over such a prolonged period of time could not be divorced from the literary traditions of their respective eras.

In the college-themed novels created after the 1990s, some writers either described the present or recalled the past campus life in flowing prose, revealing the lofty moral quality and rigorous academic spirit of the university teachers and students in that era. Campuses were full of the positive energy of humanity and morality, as well as poetic ideals.

Others adopt a seemingly cold and objective tone to sardonically depict the chaos on campuses in the market context. They aim to capture the attention of readers while presenting satire and criticism.

Whether college-themed novels are evaluated based on characters, artistic skill or humanistic value and aesthetics, the works created after the 1990s echoed and inherited the two main literary traditions of satirical and pastoral poetic narratives that formed in the 1930s and 1940s in such works as Fortress Besieged and Song Never Ends.

As Fang Xijin, a renowned professor of Chinese modern literature once said: “The development of literature and art has its specific origin. Only when a writer collects the artistic essence of his predecessors can he create a new literature that belongs to his own time.”
The aesthetic paradigm of college-themed fiction in the 1930s and 1940s provi

des artistic experience and inspiration for the prosperity of the theme after the 1990s. Drawing on the traditions of their predecessors, authors who seek to write college-themed novels in later times are able to dig deep into college and vividly portray the colorful campus life, so readers can gain an authentic and enjoyable experience.


Rise of academic writers
The college-themed novels generally require writers to have personal experience of campus life. Otherwise, the experience for the reader would be like eating a half-cooked meal. In an era when China’s higher education lagged behind, college oncr was a privilege of the minority and the majority without first-hand experience found it hard to dabble in the theme.

Consequently, compared with other genres, college-themed novels are few in number and are of relatively low quality. The genre is trapped in a marginalized position and has traditionally received little attention from society or literary historians.

This began to change in the mid-1980s and even more so after the 1990s, when the rapid development of higher education ushered in a golden period for college-themed novels. Therefore, from the perspective of literature production, the popularity of the theme is by no means an accident. Rather, it is the inevitable outcome of the rise of college writers.

When we examine the knowledge structure and professional profiles of college-themed writers, we will find that they show the following similarities: First, they mostly received higher education and had personal experience with college life. Zong Pu, the author of Note of Hiding in the East, studied foreign languages at Tsinghua University. Zhang Zhe, the author of the “College Trilogy”—Tao Li, Tao Hua and Tao Yao—studied Chinese at Southwest Normal University and law at Peking University. Nan Feiyang, who wrote A Road to the Sky, studied at Zhengzhou University as well. The list goes on and on.

Second, most writers of college fiction are scholars who are both educators and authors. Ge Fei, author of Flag of Desire, teaches at Tsinghua University. Wang Hongtu, author of Prime time, and Liao Mei, author of The Ivory Tower, are from Fudan University. Li Yu, author of Liwa River, and Zhu Xiaolin, author of Clusters of Colleges, teach at East China Normal University.

These writers not only have sound theoretical foundations and writing skills but are also familiar with the rich and colorful university campus life and understand the way the university system works, which equips them with a unique advantage when writing college-themed literature.

Playing an important role as intellectuals, writers also show a strong awareness of the various crises affecting society and have a sense of responsibility. When they observe some harmful phenomena like materialism, they share their insights and values through the adept use of language. From 1990 onward, it has been common for authors in the genre to write about materialism and it has been an important reason why college-themed narratives resonated.


Commercial interest
After the 1990s, the fluctuations of the market economy disturbed the formerly tranquil university campus, creating a noisy and turbulent campus ecology. Higher education institutions proactively promoted system and mechanism reform to conform to the national strategy of the industrialization of higher education. At the same time, colleges and universities evaluated their own educational resources in pursuit of commercial interests under market principles.

As a result, colleges and universities, as providers of educational services for society and the public, gained some use value and exchange value like general commodities.

In fact, the production process of college-themed novels paralleled the changing mode of production of literature and art in the era of the market economy. To be specific, the old pattern in which authors dictated the tastes of readers was replaced by a new one in which writers tended to create works tailored to the demands of readers as expressed through the market.

In this light, the dominant position of authors and works gave way to the market and readers, who in turn have become decisive factors in the chain of literature production. In other words, the flourishing of college-themed narratives is closely related to the market-oriented operation of publishers. In particular, in the market economy era, the author’s literary production is no longer an independent individual behavior but one link in the integrated market operation of production, distribution, exchange and consumption. That said, the writer’s work needs to conform to the market interests of the publishing houses or distributors.

Publishers have keenly noticed the great commercial potential of college-themed novels and thus have carefully planned a variety of related books and encouraged a large number of writers to work on college-themed fiction creation. For example, Shi Shengrong, Zhang Zhe, Ge Fei, Tang Jifu and Ma Ruifang have all been quite productive in recent years and could be called full-time college-themed writers. While having achieved notoriety among readers, they have also generated economic benefits for publishers.

At the same time, the revenue made by authors and publishers has made authors enthusiastic about writing college-themed works, and publishers are increasingly confident about greenlighting works in the genre. Thus, a relatively stable interest partnership between the authors and publishers has been formed, driving the college-themed frenzy and making the theme a popular literary phenomenon in China.


Dai Haiguang is from the College of Literature and Journalism at Xiangtan University.