Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Chinese Department

Magazine article Chinese Literature Today

The Chinese Department

Article excerpt

Shijiang Li. The Chinese Department. Fiction. Beijing. People's Literature Publishing House. 2010. 339 pages. CNY 33. ISBN 9787020083183

More than a decade after graduating from college, Shijiang Li looks back on his college life in his autobiographical novel The Chinese Department. Li's vivid first-person account of the lives of college students is set during the mid 1990s in the Chinese literature department of an unnamed university in mainland China.

As a representative writer and poet of the post-1970s generation, Shijiang Li received wide acclaim in 2005 for his novel The Carefree Excursion, a "youthful outpouring of passionate emotions." At that time, his style was simple, candid, and natural, yet also keenly perceptive-and totally absorbing. However, in 2007 his style transformed in his novel Blessing Longevity Spring, which turned to a language of tolerance, tranquility, sympathy, and reason.

In his newest novel, The Chinese Department, however, he turns back to his earlier youthful style reminiscent of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. The Chinese Department candidly and vividly recalls the lives of college students in the mid 1990s, characterized by youthful emotional outbursts and social discontent. While idealism, nihilism, and anarchism pervaded this period, such ideals faded out over time and materialism prevailed as a social reality. These idealistic and ambitious students continuously complained, raged, and debated the ever-changing politics and ideals holding sway during this time in their university department. These trivial yet cruel realities and the exquisitely detailed descriptions of the students' lives bring the story sharply into focus, especially for readers with similar life experiences.

Irony, sarcasm, and satire characterize much of the dialogue and action throughout The Chinese Department, as Li sorts through the disparity between his heroic idealism and actual life experiences. The author's recollections form a coming-of-age story that explores the increasingly porous walls between what is true and what is false, and between ideals and memories while distinctions slowly crumble under the homogenizing forces of the real world.

On its surface The Chinese Department reveals the sweet and bitter flavors of its youthful consciousness, while at deeper levels it explores the inevitable conflict and struggle between idealism and the real world that young people often encounter when first entering society and romance. …

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