Revolutionary Literature in China: An Anthology

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

his disillusionment with revolution and many of the revolutionaries at that time. They probe into the psychology of the bourgeois intellectuals and young students, exposing the ambivalence and angst of modern youth in the urban areas, especially Shanghai. Although vehemently criticized by some Communist and radical literary figures, Mao Dun's early novels and short stories were immediately recognized as an important and successful step forward in the development of a more 'modern' Chinese literature. Mao Dun was proclaimed the leading chronicler of his times as well as the leading practitioner of realism.

By the spring of 1930 when he returned to Shanghai from Japan, Mao Dun had regained his revolutionary spirit and enthusiasm sufficiently to take an active role in the newly organized League of Leftwing Writers which was attempting to promote a more militant and proletarian revolutionary literature.3 Led by members of the Chinese Communist Party, the League of Leftwing Writers advocated struggling for the emancipation of the proletariat and upheld explicitly Marxist theories on art and literature such as were being promulgated in Moscow. Interestingly, the League was opposed, among other things, to fiction which emphasized a contradiction between love (personal liberation) and political activism (collective or class struggle).4 This particular contradiction just happened to be a distinct feature in several of Mao Dun's earliest works.5 His basic orientation had certainly veered away from depicting bourgeois alienation, however, and he was now veering toward a more empirical, sociological and economically analytical approach to writing. He spent several months during 1930 observing the Shanghai Stock Exchange in order to gather material for his longest and most ambitious piece of writing, Ziye (Midnight), which was not completed until the end of 1932. Having come to grips with the fact that the largest and most oppressed segment of China's population was the peasantry and that a main goal for the revolutionary writer was to better acquaint his middle class readers with the suffering of the rural poor, Mao Dun was now confronted with the problem of how a writer committed to realism was to write about things which he had not personally witnessed or experienced. How could he, the bourgeois intellectual and sometime revolutionary who had been living in big cities for more than fifteen years, fulfill his revolutionary obligation without abandoning his artistic practice of realist writing and his increasing emphasis on sociological investigation as the basis of his realism? The resolution to this quandary was provided by an unexpected catastrophe: In January 1932 the Japanese bombarded the Chinese districts of Shanghai with extensive loss of Chinese lives and great damage. Mao Dun left to return to his native town in Zhejiang for a few months and it was from the experience and insights encountered during his stay in that once-familiar area that he obtained much of the material used in the stories he now began to write with a rural setting, "Dangpuqian" (In Front of The Pawnshop) among them.

In the subtle yet vivid descriptions in this particular story there may be found a model for a more artfully didactic style than was fashionable among the proletarian writers of the day. At the same time, it must be admitted that the very extensive vocabulary and quite ornate syntax employed by Mao Dun was difficult for all but the highly educated to read. As in many of Lu Xun's short stories, Mao Dun is content to point out the evils and social injustices of the time without affirming any explicit solution.

After the fiction, essays and one play produced in the next dozen years, Mao Dun's literary activity as a creative writer began to decrease. With the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, he moved from Hong Kong up to the capital, where he assumed a high position in the new government as Minister of Culture and simultaneously served as one of the leading editors and literary celebrities. Mao Dun dropped from public view with the advent of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and has only recently reappeared in the role of Vice-Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. And as has been the case since he stopped writing fiction, he is using his real name, Shen Yan-bing, instead of his better known pen name.

John Berninghausen

Chang Kuo-t'ao, The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party/1921-1927, Volume One of the Autobiography of Chang Kuo-t'ao ( University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1971), pp. 104-108, p. 224.
For a biographical sketch of Mao Dun's life, see Ye Zi-ming, Lun Mao Dun Sishinian de Wenxue Daolu (Discussing Mao Dun's Forty-Year Literary Path) ( Shanghai Wenyi Chubanshe, Shanghai, 1959), pp. 3-6.
Ting Yi, A Short History of Modern Chinese Literature (republished by Kennikat Press, Port Washington, N.Y., 1970), Chapter 2; also see Marian Galik, Mao Tun and Modern Chinese Literary Criticism ( Franz Steiner Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1969), tenth chapter.
Galik, p. 113.
See John Berninghausen, "The Central Contradiction in Mao Dun's Earliest Fiction," in Merle Goldman, ed., Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era, forthcoming.


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