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Modern Chinese novels show changing attitudes toward urban life

LIU ZHONG | 2018-03-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


So Young is a nostalgic tale of romance and rite of passage played out against the backdrop of university life in the 1990s. It embraces current trends in contemporary Chinese cinema to focus on personal stories in the country’s more recent past.


In the history of modern Chinese literature, the fates of villages and cities have always been intertwined. On the one hand, rural literature is quite prosperous, which has marginalized urban writing to a degree, so that depictions of urban life are rather insufficient. On the other hand, the city has changed people’s lifestyles and thought, producing perspectives that diverge from those of the countryside, drawing writers to depict the heterogeneity and pluralism of urban life.


From setting to themes
Modern China saw the prosperity of Chinese literature while lots of outstanding and influential Chinese writers emerged. Most of the first batch of advocates and practitioners of modern Chinese literature lived in cities and had Western educational backgrounds. Paradoxically, the sense of urgency of “saving fellow countrymen” and “saving the nation” at that time has deprived them of an appreciation of urban scenery. Instead, they were devoted to enlightenment and rural writing. 

Naturally, the logic behind “leaving villages” and “going to towns” should be a rejection of ignorance and a yearning for civilization. In reality, we see harsh criticism of the ignorance and barbarism of the patriarchal system prevalent in villages but also a lingering homesickness for the countryside rather than simply enthusiasm and love for urban life.

By the late-1920s, the cosmopolitan bourgeois pleasures of the modern city had begun to catch the attention of novelists, spawning a series of stories on popular romance, urban-rural antagonisms and class critique. As a result, the city has become integrated into the narratives of daily life, rather than providing a setting.

For example, there is the urban romantic style of writing represented by Zhang Henshui, a prolific popular novelist, who is best known for his A Family of Distinction and Tears and Laughter. Also, Shanghai, Spring 1930 by leftist female author Ling Ding is a story that centers on young, urban Chinese intellectuals confronting the dilemmas of romantic love, literary creation, and political commitment, as well as the contradictions between the pleasures of modern city life and harsh economic and political realities. Shen Congwen’s urban fiction Eight-horse Scroll satirizes the urbanite’s way of life while praising the natural and healthy lifestyle in the countryside. Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy portrays an orphan peasant protagonist who leaves for Beijing to earn a living.

Finally, there was the emergence of the New Sensationalist writers, such as Liu Naou, Mu Shiying and Shi Zhecun, who frequently focused on modern mores and sexuality in urban settings in 1930s, examining the pleasures of modernism in cities and complex human desires.

In the later period of the War of Resistance against Japan, matters of life and death became more severe than ever. Humble living and mundane life were the norm, so even the eternal theme of romance got trivial, dreary and full of loneliness in urban fictions. Love became a “fortress besieged,” as depicted by Qian Zhongshu in his work of the same name. 

A look back at the urban fiction in the 1930s and 1940s would reveal that the development of industry and commerce in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, together with the growing numbers of residents and working class, laid the foundation for the pluralism of urban discourse. In such a circumstance, works of urban fictions have gone beyond romantic narration to include the struggle against imperialism and feudalism as well as the modernist experiment of the New Sensualists. In addition to criticizing reality, some novels also started to ponder the roots of urban problems, which has enriched the expression of modern literature and the form of a multi-level urban-rural structure.

However, urban literature at this time had its shortcomings, which could be seen in its lopsided criticism of the greedy, corrupted urban lifestyle that neglected the positive value and leading role of the city.


Life in industrial era
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a number of urban-themed novels treated the city as a symbol of bourgeois pleasures and corruption, so industrial literature supplanted the earlier genre of urban literature as the new trend. Compared with plethora of rural works, industrial novels are rather scarce, due to the low level of industrialization, slow development of cities, lack of first-hand experience among authors, and unfavorable urban policies at that time.

Since the reform and opening up, literary work has begun to take on a realistic perspective, sketching a blueprint for an industrialized nation. Works such as Jiang Zilong’s Manager Qiao Assumes Office have mirrored the changes of the times as well as the ups and downs of various reform policies. However, on the whole, they have fallen short in their portrayal of the colorful side of the urban lifestyle and the complexity of human nature, so the public’s impression of urban life has mostly been acquired through the popular music, TV series and films of Hong Kong and Taiwan regions.

It is worth noting that the reform-themed novels have made progress in terms of choosing ordinary people rather than heroes as protagonists and using a writing technique that fuses realism and modernism, setting the groundwork for the later root-seeking literature, vanguard literature, and new realism.

However, due to the complexity of the urban historical background and the limited understanding of writers, most of the reform-themed novels focus on the conflicts between progressiveness and conservatism, while neglecting the exploration of modern industrial civilization and human nature. As a result, the aesthetic significance of these works is limited and the majority of them have more value for literary history.

Indeed, reform is a systematic project that goes beyond the conflicts between progressiveness and conservatism. Urban life is full of complex and changeable facets, which requires novelists to resort to multi-angle approaches to obtain a panorama.


Recognition of human desires
Since the mid and late-1980s, urbanization process speeds up, attracting a flock of people to leave villages for the city’s material abundance and freedom of competition. In turn, urban literature has also experienced an unprecedented boom, managing to avoid the old habit of pure criticism and returning to the depiction of daily life and secular humanity in cities.

In the 1990s, the rapid development of the market economy and popular culture altered the writer’s literary view and aesthetics, so the themes range from the relationship between society and man, man and man to the relationship between man and object, man and city. More often than not, multiple relationships are discussed in one novel. Well-known writers such as Jia Pingwa, Wang Anyi, Liu Zhenyun and Fan Xiaoqing abandon the stereotyped understanding of the city and portray the urban life from an individual perspective.

At the turn of the century, the description of human desires in urban writing is further enhanced, while incorporating elements such as consumerism, mass culture and network film and TV shows, which are well accepted within youth subculture. The rise of writers of the 70s and 80s generation not only enhances the presence of novels, but also attracts many young readers.

Tiny Times, which depicts the posh lifestyles of four fashionable college girls, and So Young, an examination of the tension between materialism and actual happiness, further explore themes of man and city, human desire and the inner self. This genre is widely described by as “new urban fiction,” with the “new” manifested in the recognition of human desires and the contradictions of man and city, rather than man and morality as past works did.

In addition to criticism or affirmation of human desires, some novelists have begun to focus on urban-rural interaction and their mutual influence, such as the rural decay and moral decline brought about by urbanization, attempting to explain the sadness of villages and reflections on urbanization. In their eyes, any traditional “desire-morality” or “city-humanity” criticism is rather one-sided because the process of urbanization is destined to be long and painful. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out a two-way reflection on the issues of urban and rural development.

The new urban fiction has diversified the depiction of city life, but some works are at risk of one-sided narration, ambiguous attitude toward desire and a lack of breadth and depth. Others seem to overemphasize delicacy and entertainment, appealing to only a niche audience. The root, though, lies in that neither simple criticism nor praise of human desires reflects the truth of urban life, so it is important to dig into the fundamentals and adopt a two-way mode of thinking.

At this point, urban fiction has become an important force in the literary circle after nearly a century of development. From the treatment of the city as merely a setting to the conceptualization of “urban” as a motif of daily life, from criticism to tolerance, and from singleness to pluralism, the growth of urban discourse has not only established its own heterogeneous and pluralistic character by recording the physical form and temperament of cities as well as people’s way of life in it, but also plays witness to the urbanization and socialization of China.

Whether it is criticism or recognition or tolerance, people’s perceptions of the city are growing increasingly rational. What we need to do is to follow the pattern of pluralism in cities to maximize the positive urban discourse and to weaken its negative elements, thus telling urban stories better and more vividly.


Liu Zhong is from the College of Humanities and Communications at Shanghai Normal University.

(edited by YANG XUE)