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Faith in world a source of truth in literature

By Wang Guangdong | 2015-05-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Jia Pingwa

Shaanxi Opera (Qin Qiang)

Wang Anyi

Growing Caltrop in the Upper Layer and Lotus at the Bottom of a Pond

You Fengwei

Loach (Ni Qiu)


The creation of a literary work and the form it takes are closely tied to a writer’s inner self, or in other words, what the writer feels about the world.

If there is faith, it means that a writer believes in the world and aspires to convey what is good and kind. In this case, no matter how poverty, misery, cruelty and violence are depicted, his or her work will be filled with a spirit of warmth bred by trust and positive motifs which are vital for contemporary literature.

Some might argue that modernistic Western writers usually express despair and negativity about reality, but their works still turn out to be quite classic. But even as writers confront the harsh truths of the world, reading carefully between the lines will reveal the glimmer of an indomitable spirit that reflects a strong faith in religion and the fundamental goodness of mankind.

Sadly, Chinese literature shows a tendency to be alienated from reality, and there is a dearth of fine pieces that truly reflect the changes in social life. This is why literary works need to build a profound, trusting relationship with the world in which we live. Only through such a solid relationship can literature embrace reality with sincerity and enthusiasm and make the people in stories come alive.

Interacting with oneself, society
To establish a trusting relationship, writers need to explore the living world and accumulate life experience in the process of interacting with the inner self as well as society rather than sinking in one’s own world.


In the 1980s, literary circles put forward the “internal” and “external” problems to call for literature to be what it is in order to serve its purpose, prompting its development so as to create a splendid era of literary success. Looking back, when we reflect on the history of literature at that time, we have to consider this: Does the success brought by “pure literature” mean that literature should be divorced from society? Apparently not.

Basically, social life determines the development of literature. Therefore, “pure literature” is in fact a powerful intervention of social life in the form of literature.

If we agree on this interpretation, then there will not be “internal” or “external” problems, so literature will become intertwined with society, politics, culture, structure, language and narratives to form an inseparable whole.

The “internal” or “external” problems refer to two aspects of literature that are interdependent, which leads to an open aesthetic relationship between literary works and the living world. The powerful strength of literature is unleashed in the process of embracing social life.

Spiritual enlightenment
Writers should empower themselves with spiritual strength, which can mean a couple of things, but in the literary sense, it means the pursuit of what is good and kind. Chinese writer Jia pingwa once said: “Writers are on the forefront of suffering and criticism because their profession is destined to have friction with society, though their intention is never premeditated or vicious.”


In my understanding, it spells out the role of literature in social life, that is, to maintain the dignity of what is good and kind. As an American writer said: “For writers, it is their undertaking to make the human soul noble and filled with courage, honor, hope, self-respect, compassion and a spirit of sacrifice.”

Spiritual strength will certainly come into conflict with the prevailing climate of consumerism, which focuses on personal material wealth and neglects public interest. In light of this, writers must keep a clear head when facing the series of problems that arise in the turbulence of social life. In analyzing literary works, these problems can be summarized as follow: the livelihood of farmers in urbanization; the gap between the rich and the poor in the context of globalization and marketization; human rights, dignity and social fairness; ecology and economic development; and the ethos of lacking morality and a sense of justice.

Despite these challenges, writers with spiritual strength will not hide in history or indulge in delusion and self-satisfaction. Rather, they shall penetrate the false, superficial phenomena with harsh critiques to delve into the suffering of mankind and explore the true, the good and the beautiful in spiritual power.

The richness and complexity of life are vividly conveyed through the interactions between man and man, man and society, and man and history in You Fengwei’s Loach (Ni Qiu), Jia Pingwa’s Shaanxi Opera (Qin Qiang), Wang Anyi’s Growing Caltrop in the Upper Layer and Lotus at the Bottom of a Pond.

Not following market rules
A trusting relationship also means that writers need to have an eye for the goodness in the human spirit and not simply comply with the rules of market economy. In the contemporary era, we must bear in mind that literature is not a commodity for sale, and sales figures are not necessarily an indicator of the quality of a work.


Recently, Fan Xiaoqing’s My Father Still at Yu Yin Street reminds me further of the importance of what is good and kind in social life. The book praises the warmth in human nature. In the volatile world, population flow between urban and rural areas has caused many social problems, which is why love and kindness in people are so precious in our time. Though they seem abstract, they are indeed the powerful substance that makes the world a better place.

In literary creation, it is important that writers probe into their inner selves and include realistic scenarios in artistic imagination. Only when one trusts someone will he open up, while only when one trusts the world will he put himself into it and make heart-to-heart connections with various souls.

Therefore, it is crucial to apply the logic of social life to literature. For example, in Jia’s Shaanxi Opera, he faithfully depicted the transformation of traditional lifestyle as farmers left the village to seek a living in the cities. The characters in his works have various personalities and each one brings a lifelike atmosphere to the times, which makes the imaginable world more social and compelling. True literary value takes place when writers build a trusting relationship with the world.

Wang Guangdong is from the College of Liberal Arts at Shanghai University.





Jia Pingwa, born in 1952, is a Chinese novelist and short story writer. His novels include Shang State (Shang Zhou), White Night, and the autobiographical I Am a Farmer. His most famous novel is Shaanxi Opera, which won the distinguished Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2008.

From a unique perspective, Jia’s works accurately and profoundly portray the process of modernization that occurred from the latter half of the 20th century to the beginning of the 21st century, during which China underwent painful and tragic social transformation.

Jia’s works mix tradition and modernity, realism and idealism. The language is simple and honest, yet still capable of taking readers’ breath away.

Shaanxi Opera, a subtle detailed narrative, precisely portrays the daily life and offers a full interpretation of the changes experienced by local Chinese in times of confusion and contradictory.


Born in Nanjing in 1954, Wang Anyi began to publish short stories in 1976.

Her most famous novel, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, traces the life story of a young Shanghainese girl from the 1940s all the way until her death after the Cultural Revolution. Although the book was published in 1995, it is already considered by many as a modern classic.

A novella and six of her stories have been translated and collected in the anthology Lapse of Time. In his preface to that collection, Jeffrey Kinkley notes that Wang is a realist whose stories “are about everyday urban life” and that the author “does not stint in describing the brutalising density, the rude jostling, the interminable and often futile waiting in line that accompany life in the Chinese big city.”


You Fengwei was born in 1944 and his works contain his recognition of hardship and sympathy in a difficult era in China.


He put a great emphasis on truthfully reflecting history without deviation or assumption and drawing upon the daily life to set the background and major plots for a story. He once said: “I understand that truth is not the only parameter in literature, but hopefully my account of the past will shed some light on the shadows of history.”