Just as premodern Chinese fiction was closely linked to the narrative conventions of traditional historiography, so the twentieth-century Chinese short story has been, and to a great extent still is, heavily influenced by the writers' involvement in the catastrophic events of modern Chinese history. Modern Chinese writers of serious fiction have called upon themselves as committed intellectuals to play a problematic role in China's historical travails from the late 1890s to the present day. Ever since Liang Qichao (1873-1929) fled into exile in Japan after the failure of the Hundred Days' Reform of 1898 and discovered the "political novel," most serious Chinese writers have believed, in the words of Lu Xun (1881-1936), that "the best way for spiritual transformation [of the Chinese people and nation] is through literature." Much of their fiction was written as part of their overall attempt to "save the nation."
The writers of the May Fourth, New Culture, and Vernacular Literature movements in the first decades of this century achieved two extremely important literary triumphs. They created a new vernacular language based on the Peking (Mandarin) dialect and enriched with vocabulary and stylistic elements from European languages. Combining traditional prose styles and the conventions of late Qing dynasty novels of social exposure with various Western influences, they completed a tendency begun in the Ming dynasty and established narrative fiction as the dominant form of modern Chinese literature. Early May Fourth writers created the modern Chinese short story in the 1920s by integrating lyrical elements from traditional Chinese poetry and essay forms with Western-style social and psychological analysis and expression.
At first their short stories, whether romantic and individualistic or realistic and socially oriented, were chiefly concerned with urban phenomena and spoke primarily for urban intellectuals. This lyrical and urban character of the modern Chinese short story did not, however, continue with the emergence of the modern Chinese novel in the 1930s. The modern Chinese novel became an increasingly rural-based panorama of social realism in which humanistic and ideologically engagé writers attempted to depict the desperate problems of poverty, ignorance, cruelty, and backwardness that cried out for solution at the time. This shift from individual to social concern and from urban to rural setting was one symptom of a striking urban-rural polarity that emerged for the first time in . . .