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Epic aesthetics enrich Chinese culture, literature and national memory

ZHAO YANFANG | 2020-05-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
A poster of the epic TV series White Deer Plain, which was adapted from renowned novelist Chen Zhongshi’s eponymous book, with the plot revolving around the hardships and spiritual pursuits of several generations living on the White Deer Plain in Shaanxi Province  Photo: FILE


Epic as a genre and epic aesthetics as a concept were introduced to China in the early 20th century. Through efforts in theory and practice, Chinese scholars and writers have gradually fostered a national tradition of epic aesthetics. 
Coding for Chinese social patterns and living circumstances, a national epic aesthetics has developed widely in various literary and artistic forms. Its rhetorical reproduction of the width, depth and profoundness of life, exploration of national character, and solemn, lofty aesthetic effects are closely tied up with the construction of the self-cognition of the Chinese nation along with its national identity and spirit. 
Enriching cultural landscape
In the early 20th century, a heated debate on whether there were Chinese epics unfolded in Chinese academia. After more than a century of development, Chinese writers and artists have created new epic texts of different forms in different historical stages based on the historical practices of the Chinese nation. Chinese epic aesthetics has displayed its diversity in terms of type, medium and audience. 
In the history of modern literature, epic works used to be the most popular narrative genre to represent national narratives. A broad range of epic models emerged successively, such as renowned novelist Mao Dun’s Midnight model, popular epics by such authors as Ba Jin and Lao She, the land epics created by Xiao Hong, Xiao Jun and Duanmu Hongliang, and revolutionary epics narrating people’s awakening and struggles. 
Depicting national spirit, character and events while recording the history of the modernization drive in China, these works have the basic traits of epic novels in that they are objective, integral, panoramic and national. They are appealing symbols in the modern literary arena. 
The 1950s and 1960s saw a series of epic novels published, including Defending Yan’an (1954) by Du Pengcheng, The Builders (1959) by Liu Qing and Keep the Red Flag Flying (1957) by Liang Bin. These socialist epics, called “red epics” by later generations, focus on the grand themes of their times and mirror the national experience to evoke people’s approval of the new social system and a longing for the future. Idealist, romantic and lofty, the red epics eventually became an ideal form of revolutionary literature for their day.
In the 1980s, a movement of “cultural epics” arose in the world of poetry. A host of poets like Haizi gave full rein to their imagination regarding national history and traditions, and they observed the hidden national “cultural-psychological structure,” exploring the unique cultural and intellectual resources of the Chinese nation. They produced modern oriental epics featuring grand imagination and narratives alongside profound thinking. 
Since the 1980s and 1990s, the epic style has played an important role in Chinese novels. Many works of the Mao Dun Literary Prize winners have been epic in style, such as Lu Yao’s Ordinary World (1986), Chen Zhongshi’s White Deer Plain (1993), and After the Dust Settled (1998) by A Lai, a writer of Rgyalrong Tibetan descent. During this period, writers innovated constantly with the philosophy and technique of writing to further enrich epic works with cultural, human, life and folk histories, to highlight individuals in the framework of the national narrative and to fully present the complex and diverse landscapes of the Chinese nation. 
In the domain of film and TV, epic movies and TV dramas have provided richer literary and cultural texts to meet people’s strong and lasting aesthetic demands for epic elements such as historical flavor, grand and lofty settings, national character, and heroes, winning larger audiences.  
In recent years, more and more epic works have aired, such as the TV play White Deer Plain adapted from the eponymous book, The Begonia Still, which tells stories of the daily life of late Premier Zhou Enlai, and Brave Journey to the Northeast, which blends national history with legendary individual struggles. 
Forging literary ideals
Scholars identified this tradition of a Chinese epic aesthetics through a review of 20th century literature. The proposition of this tradition effectively explained what had been seen as scattered phenomena of epic aesthetics. At the same time it complemented the established lyrical tradition of Chinese literature. It can organically integrate lyrics and narratives, poetry and history, and aesthetics and thinking, further optimizing epic writing and forging richer and more perfect literary and aesthetic ideals. 
In the 1970s, overseas Sinologists advocated for the lyric tradition of Chinese literature. They argued that China is a nation of lyrics. A lyrical aesthetics was the mainstream of the Chinese literary world, while the depiction of the objective world and the narration of incidents were merely to serve lyrical writing. The lyric tradition theory captures the spiritual tradition and cultural ideal of ancient Chinese literature, but it also obscures the Chinese narrative tradition. 
Since the 20th century, Chinese society has undergone dramatic changes. Short and elegant lyrics are far from sufficient to depict it. Prominent poet and scholar Wen Yiduo noted that Chinese literature should never be confined to lyricism. Only by divorcing from lyricism and embracing narrative could Chinese literature progress. 
Earlier, famed historian and poet Wang Guowei expressed his expectation of future Chinese writers to make contributions to narrative literature despite deficiencies in this area. Czech Sinologist Jaroslav Průšek said that the basic logic for the modernity of Chinese literature is to shift from lyrics to epics; creating modern national epics is the direction of innovation when starting from traditional Chinese literary genres. Following their expectations, the epic writing style has accompanied the development of modern and contemporary Chinese literature and gradually developed into a stable aesthetic tradition.   
Certainly, lyrics and epics are not antagonistic. They are like a duet. It is biased to bury the epic tradition with lyrics or vice versa. Shishi (史诗), the Chinese word for epic, consists of the characters for history and poetry. While history requires faithful accounts of the broad picture of life, poetry stresses the literary and aesthetic attributes of works. Truly excellent epic writings should aspire to both lyricism and narrative, the individual and the collective, artistic form and factual content. 
Shaping national memory
The epic is not simply a literary form or style. It contains the spiritual codes of a nation and an era. As a kind of national narrative, epic works tell “our stories,” express “our emotions and values,” confirm “our identity,” and construct “our self-consciousness.” Epic aesthetics can shape the national identity through cultural memory and unite scattered individuals into an empathetic “us.”
Epic texts usually link the present and the past by presenting important historical events of the Chinese nation and by portraying common individual survival against historical backgrounds, mobilizing and connecting numerous characters to wake the public up to national virtues and inspiring them to think about the fate of the nation, thereby providing in-depth aesthetic experiences. 
Pursuing an integral aesthetic landscape, epic aesthetics not only integrates Chinese nation and society, economy, politics and daily life, but also covers all national spiritual values. Epic writings aim not to represent an episode or a section, nor to express individual feelings, but to strive to explain the totality of the living world linked up by fragments and to examine the totality of spiritual values with which a nation transcends experience and reality. 
On the one hand, epic aesthetics aims to objectively delineate national history and reality, from major historical events to scenes of daily life, and from historical personages to ordinary people. On the other hand, it artistically strives for remarkable structures, lively characters and expressive language to create models for national literature. 
Chinese epic aesthetics has become an integral part of the global epic aesthetics community. Deeply rooted in Chinese history and reality, it tells Chinese stories, interprets the Chinese spirit and builds China’s image. 
As Chinese President Xi Jinping said, vivid stories are not in short supply in China, but the key is to tell them well. There is no lack of epic deeds in China, but the key is to have the ambition to create epic works. Contemporary writers should translate the history and reality of the development of China into top-quality epic works to quench readers’ thirst for epic aesthetics and satisfy the yearning of the whole nation for works that showcase the overall spirit of the times and national spiritual traits. 
Zhao Yanfang is a professor from the College of Humanities at Yangzhou University. 
edited by CHEN MIRONG