"Creating the Old" in Literature

By Shaogong, Han | Chinese Literature Today, July 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

"Creating the Old" in Literature


Shaogong, Han, Chinese Literature Today


(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

It is not novelty, but quality, that should hold the greatest import for a literary work, because most works striving for novelty are not actually good, and most of those conforming to conventions are dross. However, this point is hard for modern readers to accept, as during the twentieth century, Chinese writers and readers have become accustomed to worshiping the "new": from new literature and art, new life, new trends at the start of the century, to new feelings, new realism, and new experiences. Literary movements always use the watchword "new" to advertise their value and to affirm their advanced, open, and civilized attitudes. Most of the time, "new" or "not new" is interpreted to mean "good" or "not good." Many writers have taken great pains to track and create the newest expressions. Chinese literary critic Huang Ziping ... once commented, " 'Innovation' is a dog, chasing after writers, and pushing them out of breath."

It is in this environment that tradition has always been construed as the antithesis of modernity, as something to be disdained and spurned. In 1985 I published the article "The Root of Literature" ("Wenxue de gen" ... ). It provoked criticism from all sides because it concerned tradition. The ruling left-wing critics thought that the "root" of literature should be found in the Cultural Revolution's holy land of Yan'an in this century, instead of in the Qin Kingdom of two thousand years ago, so they said that my idea to search for the root is to seek feudalistic culture and to go against the fine tradition of socialistic realism. The opposing right-wing critics thought that Chinese cultural tradition was rot- ten to the core, and for Chinese literature to redeem itself it had to be totally Westernized. To them, my idea of searching for the root was conservative, nationalistic, and against modernization. It is apparent that although both critiques sprang out of different political and cultural backgrounds, they both reasoned along the same line of the logic of cultural radicalism; they were two dutiful sons of China's May Fourth New Cultural Movement. Both sons abhorred tradition. They tried avidly to forget and distance themselves from the reality of China prior to the twentieth century. The only difference between them was that one intended for socialistic Yan'an to be the new world while the other intended for capitalistic New York or Paris to be an even newer world. In fact, socialism, just like capitalism, was once shrouded in the halo of the modern and the new. It, too, once stirred and thrilled generations of young men and women.

I stopped responding to these critiques in 1985, as I do not particularly adore tradition. If history does advance linearly, and if it has to be under the premise that tradition should be rejected in order for Chinese people to have a good life, so be it. It is not necessary for us to live as cultural preservationists for the ancients. But the problem is, in the years since I spoke out, Chinese literature hasn't broken away from so-called tradition. Having experienced many literary waves from realism to modernism to post-modernism, and finally to the interpretation of post-modernism as secularization and commercialization, Chinese literature has locked itself into an embrace with money. Be it avant-garde or conservative, everything seems to be commercialized overnight. Prostitutes, mahjong, horoscopes, aristocracy, and on and on appear everywhere as novelties in Chinese social life, and become stimulating hotspots for many writers. A reputed post-modern writer actually dedicated half of his poetry anthology to delineating and savoring his enjoyment of erotic services in Shenzhen and Guangzhou. This is certainly confusing. What is new about money after all? Aren't prostitutes, mahjong, horoscopes, and the aristocracy the most conventional stuff in China? When have those apostates of cultural radicalism achieved a regression so imperceptibly and swiftly, and so absolute that it sweeps all the way from their lifestyle down to their moral views? …

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