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Constructing Chinese literary criticism criteria

CHEN XINRU | 2022-01-28 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Chinese and foreign scholars attend an international conference on aesthetics, society, and the travels of critical theory, which was held by Beijing Normal University. Dialogue between China and the West is still an important channel for constructing literary criticism criteria in the new era. Photo: Zhang Yunan/CSST

In China, modern literature has a short history of just over a century, but critical and theoretical works centered on literature have been voluminous. In analysis of the works, literary criticism criteria have been mentioned and discussed again and again. Are there objective criteria in literary criticism? Who is eligible to propose and construct these criteria? What do these criteria include? Can they withstand the test of history? These are core issues concerning literary criticism criteria in contemporary literary theory, and also major problems in the Chinese literary criticism community today. To answer these questions, it is essential to examine how literary criticism criteria were gradually constructed in different historical periods and cultural contexts within the scope of the development history of Chinese and Western literary theory. 

Debates in the West
Since the early 20th century, with the scientific orientation of literary criticism in the Western disciplinary system, a major shift occurred in mainstream criticism criteria, from impression-based criteria dominated by critics’ personal experiences and ideas in the 19th century to more general and normative scientific standards. 
However, different critical schools hold significantly varied views toward criteria in literary criticism. Formalist criticism and New Criticism advocate for building ontological paradigms, limiting critical criteria to texts. They not only exclude all social and historical factors outside of literature, but even reject internal literary elements such as authors and readers. From these perspectives, literary texts alone provide enough information to grasp the correct method for textual evaluation, thus establishing objective formalist criticism criteria beyond time and space.
Structural and archetypal critics focus on the generation of literary meaning in texts, avoiding the direct building of criticism criteria. However, they usually interpret classical works, so they have unconsciously transferred the eligibility of criteria building to the canonization process of literary works. 
Phenomenology and hermeneutics assess literary value based on dynamic relations among authors’ awareness, textual meaning, and readers’ interpretation. They deny the existence of a purely objective literary criticism criterion, and call for a more relative criticism criterion, believing that the criterion will be permanently effective in evaluating internal literary factors. Their views, however, pose risks of widespread relativism in criticism criteria. 
In comparison, Western Marxism, psychoanalytic criticism, and ethical criticism start from factors external to literature and construct literary criticism criteria from there. They mainly study the degrees to which literary pieces reflect the historical realities of specific periods, present the unconscious structure of culture or society, and reveal the nature of moral ideology, in efforts to build reasonable criticism criteria in their terms. 
Although these schools of criticism work to redress the text-centric criterion, they have unavoidably gone a bit too far because they regard literature, which has its independent value and meaning, as a background or footnote of other fields. 
Particularly since the 1970s, criticism theories which sprung up due to the influence of deconstructivism and postmodernism generally believe that the “cage” of discourse itself has isolated truth from the scope of our knowledge. 
These criticism theories attempt to overturn existing literary values by destroying fixed textual meaning, which not only annuls the objectivity and authority of all previous criticism criteria, but also obstructs the construction of new criteria, and even calls the justifiability of literary criticism criteria per se into question. 
Many scholars worry that these “post” theories’ prioritization of axiology to literature, by deconstructing and subverting literary classics, might deprive literary studies of the basis for evaluation and eventually lead to the decline and demise of literature. Whether and how literary criticism criteria should exist in the current diversified theoretical context remains a bone of contention among Western literary theorists. 
Reflections by Chinese academics
Starting from the New Culture Movement, the introduction of Western learning to China exerted a far-reaching influence on the modernization of Chinese literary theory. Chinese literary theorists explored the much-debated issue of criteria in literary criticism based on China’s national conditions, and contexts of thought in different historical stages, thus advancing the development of Chinese literary theory. 
Academic discussions in China during the May-Fourth Period centered around whether “beauty” (artistic criterion) or “truth” (realistic criterion) should be the predominant criterion in literary criticism. Truth-seeking scholars, while inheriting traditional literary theories that held “writings are for conveying truth,” absorbed Marxist literary theory reformed by Russian-Soviet realism and paid greater attention to literature’s role in mirroring and criticizing social phenomena. When building literary criticism criteria, they emphasized the degree to which literature intervened in reality. 
The beauty-seeking school drew upon New Criticism and other formalist literary theories, attaching more importance to literature’s surreal aesthetic meaning and expression of emotions. 
The debate between the two schools lasted for more than two decades. It didn’t come to an end until Chairman Mao Zedong called for scholars to “put the political criterion first and the artistic criterion second” during the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942. 
Since reform and opening up, as translation and aesthetics caught on as a result of the emancipation of the mind, building new literary criticism criteria was again brought into the spotlight in academic circles. In the 1990s, Chinese scholars began to consciously construct original Chinese literary criticism discourse, discussing the issue of building criticism criteria more comprehensively and deeply. A series of emerging concepts, such as “subjectivity of literature,” “aphasia of Chinese literary theory,” “rewriting of literary history,” and “aestheticization of everyday life” sparked one wave of discussion after another. 
On the basis of reexamining Western literary theory, academics put forward many propositions and views with Chinese characteristics on literary criticism criteria. It also evolved from a sheer theoretical issue into ongoing critical practices of Chinese literary experience. 
In recent years, Chinese scholars have been investigating topics such as “imposed interpretation,” “ontological interpretation,” and “public interpretation.” They not only question and reflect on the applicability and limitations of contemporary Western literary criticism criteria, but have also constantly advanced Chinese literary research theory and practice. 
Fostering Chinese characteristics
Nowadays, unprecedented changes have taken place to works and phenomena facing literary criticism. Globalization, popularization, and booming new media have become new trends in literary development, presenting both challenges and opportunities to literary criticism. Building criteria with Chinese characteristics in literary criticism has become a key issue for art and literature in the new era. 
To this end, it is first vital to adhere to the guidance of Marxist literary criticism. In 1859, Freidrich Engels brought forth an “aesthetic and historical point of view” from which to judge literary works. The application of his concept left researchers of later generations plenty of room for interpretation, and it remains the highest standard for Chinese literary criticism today. 
During his speech at the Forum on Literature and Art in October 2014, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping urged writers and artists to “take the people as the central subject of their creation.” “A good work is ideologically and artistically successful and well received by the market as well,” he said, adding that works should be able to spread contemporary Chinese values, parse the spirit of Chinese culture, and exhibit Chinese people’s aesthetic pursuits. This is not only a new interpretation of Engels’s aesthetic and historical point of view based on Chinese artistic and literary creation, but also provides guidelines for building literary criticism criteria with Chinese characteristics. 
Second, dialogue between China and the West is still an important channel to construct literary criticism criteria in the new era. Amid the irresistible trends of media convergence and globalization, China-West dialogue should not be merely about translating, introducing, or simply explaining foreign academic views as in the past. Instead, it should involve two-way communication with greater breadth and depth. Specific paths include, but are not limited to, inviting foreign scholars to give lectures in China frequently on a long-term basis, sending Chinese scholars abroad to communicate with Western academics face to face, and publishing foreign-language papers to engage in direct theoretical dialogue with Western scholars, while actively showcasing the latest ideas and achievements from Chinese academia. 
Last but not least, it is necessary to explore a system of literary criticism criteria with Chinese characteristics based on local literary practices. History has repeatedly proved that it is infeasible to directly tailor Western theoretical discourse to Chinese literary practices. Against the contemporary Chinese cultural backdrop, literature needs new criticism criteria to conduct systemized evaluation, and criticism criteria should have different foci for different literary genres. 
In this regard, online literature is a case in point. Online literature is developing rapidly in China, and has preliminarily produced global clout through translation, which underscores the urgent need to build criticism criteria for Chinese online literature. Reflections on this issue should obviously consider many factors, such as culture, readers, the market, and media. Only considering the market or cultural criterion is inadequate. 
The suggestion and construction of criteria in literary criticism should not be divorced from specific social and historical contexts. Under the guidance of Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, it is believed that the clichéd issue of building literary criticism criteria will unleash new vitality, and become organic components of “Chinese wisdom” and “Chinese solutions,” thereby contributing to the development of the humanities across the world.  
Chen Xinru is from the College of Chinese Language and Literature at Fujian Normal University.