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A desire to fit in with needs of urban society expressed in literature

LIU WEIWEI and ZHANG NI | 2019-01-03
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The symposium “Urban New Migration Literature during China’s Forty Years’ Reform and Opening up” and the concurrent workshop for the publication of the book Studies on the Literary Writing of Urban New Migration since the Reform and Opening up recently took place in Beijing. Photo: FILE


A genre of literature, known as “urban new migration,” which focuses on the lives of migrants in cities, has undergone profound development over the last 40 years. Recently, an academic symposium titled “Urban New Migration Literature during China’s Forty Years’ Reform and Opening up” was held in Beijing.

Guangdong is a strong case study for this kind of literature. Yu Qing, deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Publishing House, said many elements of the reform and opening up started in Guangdong. When a large number of people chasing dreams migrated to Guangdong Province, the open Guangdong culture accepted and tolerated people from all around the country and formed a large literary community. This was where an easily ignored literary form—new migration literature—emerged. Yu suggested that more attention should be paid to the spiritual world of the urban new migration community. University students and migrant workers have a substantial desire to blend in local culture. They used literature to express themselves and recorded their process of spiritual evolution from the feeling in an alien land to feeling like they are in “their home city,” Yu said.   

Xie Zhenze, executive vice-president of Guangdong South Institute of Soft Power, said that a host of new migrants with high literacy brought literary phenomena including migrant labor literature and grassroots literature, and attracted extensive attention from all circles of society. At the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up, diachronically and synchronically reviewing the evolution track of new migration literature in Guangdong will  provide references which future literary creation may use. This will also help gain new understanding of the interactive relationship between elements of new migration literature, modern urban culture and local culture, Xie said.

Liu Weiguo, a professor of Chinese literature from Sun Yet-sen University, said that since the reform and opening up, Guangdong has had great achievements and gained a lot of experience in terms of not only political and economic development, but also in cultural development, literature in particular. The book Studies on the Literary Writing of Urban New Migration since the Reform and Opening up reviews in detail the cultural trends that emerged in Guangdong since the reform and opening up and gives penetrating comments on and precise labels for these trends. It depicts a vivid historical picture of the cultural development in Guangdong since the reform and opening up, Liu said.

Ji Yaya, director of the Editorial Department of the literary magazine October, agreed on the idea of dividing migrants into migrant workers and migrant intellectuals in the book. Su Shali, an associate research fellow from the Guangdong South Institute of Soft Power, said that the intellectual elites and the migrant workers together formed the new urban citizen community. The fact that their identities changed from inland to coastal areas, from rural areas to cities and from outsiders to urban citizens promoted the development of new urban citizen literature and urban literature, Su said.

Lu Yu, deputy director of the Guangdong Institute of Arts, said that the migration phenomenon and literary phenomenon form an inter-textual relationship against the backdrop of economic globalization, and migration literature should also have a global vision. More should be explored in defining new urban citizen literature in the age of mobile internet as well as paying attention to the theoretical studies on the online literature creation, Lu suggested.

Xie suggested that new migrants in cities have changed their situation of wandering at the margins of cities, and now they live a stable life in cities and formed a new urban citizen group. Hence, new migration literature has become outdated and new urban citizen literature will become mainstream of literature in the New Era, he said. 

Li Mingjun, a professor of literature from Inner Mongolia University, said that one question that deserves more attention relates to whether nomadic culture, farming culture, urban culture and marine culture transformed and integrated with each other. Scholars should also conduct a deep investigation of the relationship between urban new migration literature and the overseas immigration that happened in China in the 1980s and 1990s, he said.


​(edited by CHEN ALONG)