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'Urban complex'and cultural reflex of modern Chinese writers

By Liu Yong | 2014-03-21 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

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                                                                                                                               Fudan University

The urban landscape of modern Shanghai became a fixation of modern Chinese writers.

The city is an important theme in modern Chinese literature, as evidenced by recurring urban imagery in works of the time period. What cities meant to modern Chinese writers went far beyond the cities themselves as geographic entities and physical landscapes, extending to the kaleidoscope of human experience brought together in one location.
 
Urban through rural literature: contrasts and imprints
Although a considerable portion of modern Chinese writers lived in and wrote about cities, descriptions of Chinese urban life during the modern period are notably lacking if not altogether absent when compared with contemporaneous rural and local literature. In spite of residing in Beijing and Shanghai, respectively, during the primes of their literary careers, both Lu Xun and Shen Congwen preferred and excelled at depictions of the Chinese countryside, a setting that better allowed them to portray characters and build a fictional world. However, although the characters and other elements of their stories may have been largely drawn from rural settings, this does not mean Lu Xun and Sheng Congwen’s stories had nothing to do with cities. On the contrary, the bucolic landscapes and local customs that dominate modern Chinese literature are often allegorical tools through which these authors allude to the upheavals of modern Chinese society occurring in the cities.
 
Two common approaches are typified by Mao Dun and Sheng Congwen’s works. The former often juxtaposed the city and the village to portray their contrasts and commonalities more vividly. Shen Congwen preferred to treat cities and villages separately in his fiction and essays, but the city was still imprinted in his mind every time he wrote about the Hunan countryside.
The spiritual origins of rural literature were not immune to, but were in fact defined by the culture shock brought about by modern urban civilization. Though born and raised in the countryside, Shen Congwen, Fei Ming and other Chinese writers take cities as the point of departure from which to reexamine Chinese rural life. Their re-envisioning of the Chinese countryside in fact comes to them from the modern Chinese city.
 
What one might call the “urbancomplex” of writers who positively portray the urban landscape and mechanized factories comes from their longing for and idealization of China’s modernization. However, these writers often became dejected, disappointed by the imbalances and overall warped state of development in China’s cities. Though their pens described villages, their spirit described the soul of the city.
 
Exotic urban experiences as objects of reference
If rural literature stands in stark contrast to modern Chinese writers’ preoccupation with the city, then the exotic urban experience is a direct factor in this preoccupation. Many modern Chinese writers studied or traveled overseas, especially in developed regions like Europe and America. Both the material advancements and the ideological and cultural sophistication of Western civilization inspired these writers and influenced their writing styles for the rest of their lives.
 
Like works set in the countryside, works related to the urban experience overseas naturally allude to China’s own urban civilization. After coming into contact with Western cities, they began to reflect their own country’s urban culture and national character, generally having two simultaneous reactions: envy of the advanced material and cultural civilization of Western cities, and anxiety and shame for China’s then backward economy and national character.
 
These two reactions drove them to turn around and contemplate the relationship between China’s own cities and urban citizenry, as well as that between its cities and civilization. The criticisms of writers who wrote directly about modern Chinese cities came from preoccupations deeply rooted in their individual beings. Their disappointment and resentment toward enduring traditional social mores and simultaneous moral decay in China’s cities often emerged in the reminiscences and narratives in their essays and fiction. In contrast to the writers who use village life to draw comparisons, these writers chose their exotic urban experiences as their objects of reference. Their urban complex, broadly stationed at the intersections of a global, historical, cultural and national perspective, brought all the more psychological impact to these writers.
 
Origins and evolution of the urban complex
Urban literature slowly emerged in synchronicity with the evolution of modern Chinese society. Works dating from as early as the late 19th and early 20th centuries like Han Bang qing’s Flowers of Shanghai and the popular fiction of Bao Tianxiao and Zhu Shouju addressed the changes and development of Chinese cities. However, these works did not push or break the boundaries of landscape and character delineation. One does not detect the deep, inward appeal to the “Chinese city”; in this early writing, the urban complex is still in its infancy.
 
Authors belonging to the New Sensationalist school were perhaps closest to the city itself. Their writing immerses itself in depictions of the unchecked hedonism and hustle and bustle of modern cities like Shanghai, but often it is merely an outlet for the expression of their feelings toward the urban experience. Unlike the distance between the city and residents, the gap between city and the psyche is relatively wider.
 
It also stands in contrast to the works of writers in traditional Chinese rural society, whose stories stayed close to the land and the people. The intricate social order and numerous ideals defining social life and the relationships between acquaintances in the countryside, not to mention the modes of literary expression produced by this environment, gave these writers principles by which to live and even rules for writing. However, in the collision of Eastern and Western civilization and the dramatic social fluctuations that occurred in modern China, these rules and principles, unfortunately, all failed.
 
Modern civilization, patterned after the centrality of the city as the embodiment of modernity in the West, pervaded the visions and lives of modern Chinese writers from every avenue. From the vicissitudes of daily life for the urban lower class to the transmutations of human nature within this new societal form, from the shift in the urban landscape to the rapid socioeconomic advances, modern Chinese writers were in a completely new world. Set against the placidness, serenity, and simplicity of the rural world, the rapidity, volatility and complexity of urban life brought forth the complicated and conflicting attitudes that these writers held toward cities. Modern civilization is, in some sense, embodied in these writers’ urban complex.
 
Liu Yong is from the School of Chinese Language and Literature at Beijing Normal University. 
 
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Digest, December, 2013 
 
                                                                                                                      Translated by Bai Le 
                                                                                                                                                            Revised by Charles Horne