Revolutionary Literature in China: An Anthology

By John David Berninghausen; Ted Huters | Go to book overview

Introduction to Ye Sheng-tao's "On the Bridge'

Fiction in 20th century China has had a turbulent course marked by the brief or discontinuous careers of prominent authors. Some became famous, then wrote little new because the times had passed them by (Zeng Pu) or they seemed to lose interest (Yu Da-fu); they died of overwork ( Lu Xun), were executed (Rou Shi) or compelled to stop by illness (Zhang Tian-yi). The profession was poorly paid and often politically dangerous. It was difficult, even with the determination to proceed in the face of enormous swift changes in China's social order, to feel that from one decade to the next one still understood and still had something to say.

Ye Shao-jun ( 1894- ), also known since the '30s as Ye Sheng-tao, is unusual for the length of his creative career, which spanned the three decades that led to the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. Educator, essayist, author of one novel and initiator of children's literature in China, his preferred genre was the dominant one of the May Fourth period--the vernacular short story. The volume and the quality of his pieces (there are approximately 100) establish him as a major author, specifically of the '20s and '30s when most of his stories appeared.

Until late 1927, six themes pervade his work: the bourgeois family, the status of women, relations between children and society, the role of the educator, alienation of labour, and the experience of isolation. Though rural life is occasionally and powerfully observed, the majority of protagonists are intellectuals or urban dwellers, often people of modern views, and the world presented in the fiction is largely in relation to their experience. The earlier stories give sympathetic treatment to their views: of the nuclear family as a form of personal liberation and sincere feeling; of nature as a solace for suffering; of the child, symbol of a presocial self, as the hope of humane individual growth unwarped by society; and of education, which is to realize the hope, as the means of peaceful reform of society. These ideals presume a separation of the private and the social spheres. The inadequacy of the conception is clearest in the fate of women: here, the social formation of the individual is seen most directly and brutally, and the pressure to internalize even oppressive social values in order to remain human is almost inescapable.

Between his first two collections of short stories ( 1922, 1923) and his second two ( 1925, 1926), Ye Shao-jun's position has shifted. Domestic themes are eclipsed by social; the focus shifts, for example, from the child to the educator. The gap between self and society is now depicted as a socially conditioned process ultimately destructive of the personality. The new emphasis is realized in a more sophisticated art: protagonists are more fully and distinctively characterized while society, now shown in terms of struggle rather than the mere juxtaposition of classes, takes on a more complex and differentiated appearance.

With "Ye" (Night) in late 1927, the theme of political struggle becomes paramount. Whether it takes the form of revolution or (in the '30s) of patriotic resistance, the class nature of the goals is never obscured. In addition, a small group of stories focuses directly on the capitalist social order. The familiar themes of family and woman's status get little attention. The significant settings are more often neighborhoods and streets, and a striking use of crowd scenes becomes increasingly common.

The immense distance covered in the corpus of Ye Shao-jun's stories, from the May Fourth Movement to the resistance against Japan, represents the evolution of a Marxist perspective in the midst of fading bourgeois ideals, and of an art adequate to express the new vision of experience. The generally richer and artistically superior quality of the later work is already apparent in the 1925 collection, Xianxia (Under the Line), which contains "Qiaoshang" (On the Bridge). This story, from 1923, is an example of the author's transition to the more complex vision; he retains and develops the portrayal of inner life and is already a master of setting that reveals social and psychological conflicts simultaneously. This translation is of the text in Xianxia ( Shanghai: Commercial Press, 1935)

Donald Holoch

-20-

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