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Post-1980 youth writers enter literary adulthood

ZHANG LIJUN and ZHANG XUAN | 2018-10-18 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Zhang Yueran and her 2017 collection I Came Towards the Flame Photo: FILE


Literary works authored by writers born in the 1980s, especially novels, constitute a significant part of contemporary Chinese literature.

Most writers of the generation were in adolescence when embarking upon their literary journeys. Based on their feelings and experiences, they wrote about campus, love, youth and rebellion, shedding light on the love and hatred of sensitive boys and girls, generally with a lost and sentimental tone.

Beginning in 2000 with the publication of Han Han’s novel Triple Door, post-1980 writers have been producing fiction for nearly 20 years. The generation, most of which consists of people now in their 30s, is no longer confined to youth literature. Instead, with the enrichment of their experience and thinking, they have reached out to reality and are transitioning to serious literature.

In recent years, post-1980 authors represented by Zhang Yueran, Lin Peiyuan and Jiang Feng have produced excellent pieces of writing one after another. Compared to earlier works of the generation, those of Zhang, Lin and Jiang have been much less commercialized and have broken away from simple youth writing. Featuring more mature writing techniques, they have built bridges to communicate with history, dug deep into reality and carried on the literary tradition of depicting the rural world, expressing deeper feelings and more profound thought.


Looking into the human predicament
While earlier works by post-1980 writers rested upon impractical youth ideals and the wild imagination of entangled sadness, Zhang Yueran consciously started to draw nourishment from reality and history and respond to it shrewdly, as exemplified in her work Cocoon published in 2016.


The 2017 collection I Came Towards the Flame includes novellas Zhang published in such magazines as Harvest and Newriting in the past decade. In these works, the author observes lonely men and women who are being tested by fate from a unique feminine perspective and through calm, delicate third-person narrative, while building a bridge to connect to human nature, reality and history. Dealing with questions of how to break out of oneself and realize radical mental changes, Zhang created a literary world of her own and found inner strength.

In the novel Home, Zhang unfolds a spiritual scroll in which young people in cities redeem themselves, presenting her deep thinking about reality. Qiu Luo, the heroin, and hero Gong Jingyu, live together in a petty-bourgeoisie fashion for six years but remain unmarried. Behind their affluent life, both of them are bothered by spiritual emptiness. Despite promotions, salary increases and relative ease, they are eager to escape from their mundane lives. Finally, they run away from home, heading to Sichuan Province as volunteers to aid in the rescue work of the Wenchuan Earthquake.

The author correlates their self-redemption with the times and society. From their small family to the historical scene of the earthquake, the protagonists reflect on their subjectivity and existence. Both of them seem to be reborn.

However, after this volunteer experience, can they do anything but return to the same tedious life? Will Xiaoju the part-time maid face the same predicament as the heroin does after becoming owner of the apartment? All is unknown. The only thing we can perceive is that all of the characters walk out of the “life circle” that once fettered them and try to seek breakthroughs and make a difference.

In the collection I Came Towards the Flame, Zhang Yueran pays attention not only to the yearning of frustrated people for freedom and emancipation, but also to how difficult it is for the subjects to redeem themselves and rebuild their inner worlds. In this way, Zhang has gradually abandoned the trend of centering on individual bewilderment and begun to delve deeper into life, human nature and society.


Reflecting on reality
During the growth of the post-1980s generation, history and life, the collective and the individual were sometimes separated. Nonetheless, responsible writers always look for connections to build up individual life in historical dimensions. Jiang Feng is such a writer attending to social reality and caring about those who are humble. Different from ordinary youth and growth fiction, Jiang’s works are filled with fragmented and legendary stories, in which literary skill and theme complement each other.

His 2015 novel Our Generation’s Bewilderment tells the dramatic and tragic stories of three generations. The writing about the growth and hardships of the characters is shocking. The six parts of the novel not only cover the six stages of the hero Xu Jiaming’s life, but also represent tremendous changes taking place in Chinese society over 30 years.

The author wove multiple threads through the 400,000-character work, skillfully integrating the destinies of the characters Yu Le, Xu Jiaming, Lao Xu, Lingling, Lin Sha and Lin Bao’er; the themes of loneliness, growth, rebellion and love; and the wide time span of the novel. Particularly in the first half, enchanting plots and the uncertain origins of the character make the novel a real page-turner. The social issues involved, such as the life of deaf-mutes, children’s education and the survival of psychopaths, also reflect the author’s serious thinking about reality and deep concern about marginalized groups.


Portraying the rural world
The rural world is an important object to write about for modern and contemporary writers. From Lu Xun, Shen Congwen and Xiao Hong to Sun Li, Jia Pingwa and Zhang Wei, rural literature has become a crucial component of the 20th-century Chinese literary tradition, mirroring the joys and sorrows unique to China.

Growing up amid rapid urbanization, writers of the 1980s generation have a weaker memory of the countryside; thus, few of them have been attentive to and keen on writing about rural development, urban-rural relations and the fate of rural people. Lin Peiyuan is one of the few. Regarding serious literature as his objective since the early days of his literary creation, he makes no secret of his love for traditional literature and always writes about his rural memory.

In the novel In the Name of the Father (2016), Lin touched upon individuals’ relations with the elder generation and the hometown, reflecting on traditional morals and ethics by traveling back to the countryside in the mind. The title “In the Name of the Father” not only refers to the relations between individuals and their fathers, but is also symbolic.

In the novel, the “fathers” of the characters are all absent. In the absence of the patriarchal culture, the rural world is out of order. “Father” symbolizes the hometown in the geographic and spiritual sense. Almost all characters in the novel, such as A Xi, Qiu Lan, A Xia, A Chuan, Xin De, and even including A Xi’s Vietnamese mother, are “strangers” alienated from their living environment. Whether fleeing the hometown to cities or staying in the small town, they are alone and adrift deep inside, unable to find a piece of spiritual homeland for themselves.

The novel exquisitely demonstrates the inner pain and exploration of marginalized individuals in the midst of social transformation. It is truly gripping. In the work, the rural world and the escape and redemption of the characters are closely tied, suggesting the author’s thinking about moral principles in the countryside and conveying his concern about “strangers” drifting in cities.

Most of the 1980s-generation writers, whether in terms of age or experience, are now facing the problems of how to transition and break through. Every age has its distinctive literature. Post-1980 writers should keep expressing themselves, presenting their thinking about society and the times. How to transition from youth writing to deeper, broader and more diversified mature creation is a serious issue.

Transition and breakthrough can’t be done overnight. They entail the accumulation of literary creation, the maturing of thinking and the burst of inspiration. As Zhang Yueran said, “changes to writing are slow, hence causing anxiety. I don’t think anxiety is a derogatory word, because it just indicates that the author is dissatisfied with himself/herself, uneasy in the environment and uncomfortable in life.”

Excellent works from the post-1980 writers have proven these authors’ great potential. Going through ups and downs, their creation has never stopped as the writers have explored and tried new ways of writing. As readers, we expect them to continue to produce works in this new stage of life, showcasing their profound thinking and mature creation.


Zhang Lijun and Zhang Xuan are from the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Shandong Normal University.

(edited by CHEN MIRONG)