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Realism lives on in contemporary Chinese literature

JIANG SHUZHUO | 2021-08-26 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Pictured above is Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, whose works are representative of hallucinatory realism in contemporary Chinese literature. Photo: CFP

Contemporary Chinese literature, generally, follows the path of realism. Main trends of literary development also suggest that realism has played a significant role, with its narrative traditions evolving.
Multiple forms of expression
Although realism has been a major current in contemporary Chinese literature for the last seven decades, in the most recent 40 years it was mingled with many modernist techniques and took on multiple forms of expression in narrative. 
The first form is revolutionary realism, spanning from 1949 to 1977. During this period, such writers as Zhao Shuli, Liu Qing, Zhou Libo, and Lu Di came to the fore. They were devoted to reflecting, as well as giving artistic expression to, people and things in contemporary reality. Their literary creation philosophy largely stemmed from the romantic component of revolutions. The writers observed the principle that literature and art should come from life yet go beyond it. This ideal was based on a speech by Chairman Mao Zedong at the 1942 forum on literature and art in Yan’an. When creating literary works, they also bore in mind the approach of combining revolutionary realism and romanticism that Mao put forward in 1958.
The sources for the writers’ literary creation signaled epic narrative construction and made it the hallmark of revolutionary realism. Literature of this period primarily demonstrated farmers’ private ownership mentality, particularly the conflict between the private land ownership mentality and public ownership in practice, as the Communist Party of China guided the people towards a socialist path.  
In terms of the narrative model, revolutionary realism of this stage was characterized by reflection and passion. It was committed to making sense of and mirroring principles in social reality, while attempting to reproduce the masses’ passion for revolutions on the path towards socialism. 
After 1978, revolutionary realism transitioned and diverged in several directions. The first fork stretched from rural literature represented by Lu Yao, Zhang Wei, and Jia Pingwa, all the way to neorealism led by Guan Renshan. Among other writers, Lu Yao was a dividing line, a Dantesque figure who brought an end to revolutionary realism and raised the curtain of neorealism. 
Another fork started from reform literature pioneered by Jiang Zilong and Zhang Kangkang, and extended to new factualism (xieshi zhuyi) represented by Liu Zhenyun and Chi Li, and further to neorealism with writers like Wang Anyi, Tie Ning, Chi Zijian, and Bi Feiyu as exponents. They stood for urban epic narrative.  
Neorealism in the above two paths focused on literary expression and contemplation, instead of reflecting reality, in order to convey the writers’ thinking. Adhering to the ideal of socialism and its principles, they turned from the previous passion-oriented narrative to a model of expression and contemplation.
The expression and contemplation features of the model does not mean that neorealism of the period had stopped being representational and reflective. In fact, according to the peculiarity of literature, expression is essentially another form of representation. Rather than focusing only on reflection, the narrative model stressed writers’ thinking and sentiments towards real life. Their imagination and thinking became necessary because the writers feared not being able to fully grasp the development of reality and the course of history. Even characters in their novels face dilemmas, which conveys a gloomy, tragic feel. The expressive-contemplative narrative is present in most works of neorealist writers.  
A third path of Chinese realism originated from the wave of seeking roots from culture. It was advocated by Han Shaogong, Zheng Yi, and Li Hangyu. They blazed trails on this path with a series of historical and cultural fiction stories featuring new historicism, bringing into being the phenomenon of cultural realism. Representatives of cultural realism also included Liu Xinwu, Feng Jicai, Chen Zhongshi, A Lai, and so forth. Their narrative unfolded in a model of analysis and exploration. More specifically, they had a strong awareness of analyzing and reflecting on history and culture, while exploring the fate of the nation. 
Realism in contemporary Chinese literature took a fourth path towards hallucinatory realism, represented by Mo Yan, Ge Fei, Su Tong, and Can Xue. They primarily adapted Western avant-garde literature and Latin American magical realism to actual conditions in China. Although they don’t constitute the main trend of Chinese realism, they can be seen as a manifestation of the multiple facets of Chinese realism. 
Hallucinatory realists established a narrative model of sarcasm and carnival, marked by absurdity, revelry, and paradoxes. Most critics attributed the model to modernist or post-modernist writing and narrative structure. However, it still cannot be divorced from Chinese reality, but that reality was transformed. It not only has features of Chinese realism, but was also subject to Chinese traditions. 
The above review of contemporary Chinese realism’s narrative traditions is based on its development vein and tenable literary facts. Over the seven decades of contemporary Chinese literature’s development, the creation principle of realism underwent dramatic changes. 
Theoretically, realism is not simply a method for literary creation, but more of a principle, a way for writers to view the world, a spirit of literature, and an aesthetic value orientation. From the old tradition of mimicking reality to the present day, the ways in which realistic writers access reality have also varied. 
In terms of the relationship between literature and reality, writers and theorists have an increasingly deep and clear understanding. The realistic nature of literature is not simply to copy or refer to reality. It lies in literature’s imagination and creation of reality, because the literary world and the real world are different. Literature always has to reconstruct realities based on real needs. 
From this perspective, literature is fundamentally about presumption and fiction. To realist authors, reality in literature must be envisioned and re-crafted. Therefore, measuring and evaluating the facticity of characters and narratives in literary works by probabilities in actual life is undoubtedly blurring the line between the literary and real worlds. 
In traditions of Chinese literature, realist narrative has never been about replicating reality. Characters in the Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, for example, have historical traces and prototypes, but they were artistically processed in light of the author’s stance and needs. The fox spirits and ghosts in Qing-Dynasty writer Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (Liaozhai Zhiyi) don’t exist in reality, but they are reflective of reality, with a humanistic touch and aesthetic interest. Ancient Chinese operas, a more typical example, enjoy a reputation at home and abroad exactly for their presumptive features. 
In this regard, contemporary Chinese writers, such as Jia Pingwa, Mo Yan, Zhang Wei, and Chen Yan, all tended to learn from and draw upon classical Chinese literature, folk operas, and folktales. They absorbed lots of artistic nourishment from these traditions, including artistic philosophy, narrative model, and skills. 
To the contemporary era, particularly after the 1980s, realism began to take on myriad looks, and even interweaved with modernism. This is not only the case with Chinese realism, but also with the development of realist literature around the world. Yet with more diverse literary forms, Chinese realism has maintained a complicated and profound relation with reality. 
Based on the essence of literature, on the inheritance and development of classical and modern Chinese literary traditions, and on multiple manifestations of Chinese realism, we can affirm that Chinese realism is the main current of contemporary Chinese literature and it is constructing its own narrative tradition. 
The constructive review of realism in contemporary Chinese literature is not only practically meaningful, but also has significance and value in literary history. 
First it can help grasp narrative traditions of contemporary Chinese literature more holistically, and deepen the understanding of the multiple facets and complicated nature of realism with Chinese characteristics. 
Second, it can advance the understanding of iconic authors, landmark works, and symbolic literary phenomena. The development of literature is not linear. There is a main trend and tributary trends, the part and the whole, multiple levels and the unity. 
In general, realism has been dominant in contemporary Chinese literature, but during some periods, it may have been concealed. For instance, during the decade of avant-garde literature’s high-profile development, realism was somewhat invisible. However, when looking back at the literary school, we can find realism everywhere. 
In addition, a review can provide answers to some controversial issues, such as the modernity of literary narrative. In the past, it was always held that realism assimilated the narrative philosophy and technique of modernism, so it belongs to modernism. This is also a misunderstanding. 
In the tide of international literature, the interweaving, mutual learning, and integration between realism and modernism were not unusual, so Chinese writers’ adoption of modernist narrative ideas and techniques to open up the path of realism should fall into the normal scope of literary reference. Viewing the seven decades of literary development as part of realism’s development, particularly regarding avant-garde literature as another side of realism, represents the construction of another dimension for the narrative tradition of realism. This is also the best response to the claim that realism must lack modernity. 
Naturally, the realist narrative tradition lives on in contemporary Chinese literature, and the big picture is clear. If we consciously build it through review and summarization, we can more clearly see the trend and vision of current literary development. 
Jiang Shuzhuo is a professor from the Chinese Language and Literature Department at Jinan University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.