Dreamers and Nightmares

By Wang, Chaohua | China Perspectives, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

Dreamers and Nightmares


Wang, Chaohua, China Perspectives


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Political novels by Wang Lixiong and ChanKoonchung

Introduction

Politically, the twentieth century in China has been seen as a century of wars and revolutions, except, perhaps, the last decade. Correspondingly, modern Chinese literature channelling the deep-rooted human desires and anxieties of the century created richly variegated and imaginative works of fiction, of which realism was long regarded as the dominant genre and style by literary historians inside China and abroad. This view has been challenged since scholars endeavoured to break the rigid political barrier demarcating the May Fourth period from its immediately preceding decades. Perry Link is a pioneer in this direction, publishing his study on early twentieth century urban literature in 1981.(1)The studies on modern Chinese narratology by Chen Pingyuan and Henry Y. H. Zhao, Xiaobing Tang's work on Liang Qichao, and David Der-wei Wang's literary excavation of the late Qing splendour all contributed to renewing scholarly interest beyond the discourse of realism.(2)Since then, one work that used to be dismissively regarded but can no longer be ignored by anyone working in the modern Chinese literature field is Liang Qichao's unfinished futuristic novel, Future of New China(Xin Zhongguo weilai ji ??????, 1902). Its global scope and nationalistic optimism pioneered the signature spirit that infused much of the revolutionary and developmental decades up to the present time. Political, utopian, and science-fictional, the novel is now viewed as a prototype of the non-realistic schools in the modern Chinese narrative tradition.

On the other hand, considering historical context in a global setting, we must admit that Liang's novel belongs specifically to his own age. Before the Great War in Europe in the late 1910s, there was a period of rapid industrialisation stimulated by scientific discoveries, technological innovations, and world-wide competitive expansion of capitalism. This was accompanied by increasing nationalism around the world, and ambitious aspirations fuelled by confidence in humanity's ability to master both nature and human affairs. In the West, a leading representative writer of this conviction is Jules Verne, whose numerous works of science fiction, adventurers' tales, and nationalistic thrillers were permeated with confidence in humanity. An equally imaginative while somewhat sceptical voice was H. G. Wells, but his critical edge was not perceptively appreciated in China. Fictional works imagining a future reality in the late Qing period are generally set in positive tones and usually with tangible fascination with future scientific potential, as clearly manifested in Liang's novel as well as in, for example, NewYear's Dream(Xinnian meng ???, 1904) by Cai Yuanpei, and New Story of the Stone(Xin shitou ji ????, 1908) by Wu Woyao.

The worldwide trend suffered an abrupt setback in the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s. Confidence in the ethical value of scientific knowledge and human social design was seriously challenged in works such as the early Soviet writerYevgeny Zamyatin's We(1921) and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and in the post-war period by George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four(1949), all regarded as classics in the broadly defined genre of dystopia literature with some science fiction features. In China, Liang Qichao himself became disillusioned with the blind worship of science and nationalism when he visited Europe at the end of the WWI, which led him into the famous debate of "Science versus Metaphysics" in 1923.(3) But by now Liang expressed himself through travelogues and commentaries and was no longer writing novels. In fictional form, it was Lao She's The City of Cats (Mao cheng ji ..., 1932) that satirised fake confidence carrying ubiquitous banners promoting all things "new." The Cat City's final demise in an almost self-inflicted disastrous military confrontation was so dark that the theme was not revisited by mainland Chinese writers until the early 1990s. …

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