China Contemporary Literature (since 1949)

By | October 31, 2021

As of 1949, Chinese literature was divided into two obvious and two other less obvious camps. First there is the mainland and Taiwan, then there is Hong Kong and Macau and finally the overseas Chinese. An exodus took place in 1949, but those who went to Taiwan or Hong Kong often went on to America and wrote there in Chinese, but rarely in English. Since there are many writing Chinese in the whole of Southeast Asia who publish in the most varied of places, it is difficult today to decide who belongs to which literature in which country or area. Either way, the general interest of foreign countries and Sinology is more about what is happening on the mainland. Significant writers from elsewhere may have been translated into German and also introduced, but they are disproportionately little noticed. For example, one of them is Liang Bingjun (Leung Ping-kwan, * 1949, † 2013) from Hong Kong. Although he is one of the few authors who write in Chinese who could say of himself that he had been creatively active for almost fifty years, although he was perhaps the most cosmopolitan poet in the Chinese-speaking area, he is still better known than others from the mainland and sometimes less talented authors have to stand back.

1949 means the end of modern literature on the mainland, but also, to a certain extent, on Taiwan, where modernity was initially just as hostile. Both sides, the communist and the totalitarian, understood literature as a means of propaganda either for socialism or for so-called Free China, a country located in Asia according to Hong Kong and Macau stood in between as outposts, taking and still taking up ideas and publications from both camps, which were still not fully reconciled. A modern literature could not come back on the mainland until 1979, when the opening to the West was approved and the reform policy was initiated. The same applies to Taiwan: With the abolition of martial law in 1987 at the latest, literature gained a democratic basis that it still lacks on the mainland. At the same time, great literature was already emerging in the People’s Republic of China at the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). And in poetry. Later world famous poets like Bei Dao, Duo Duo (* 1951) orIn contact with modern literature translated before 1949, Gu Cheng began to write great verses, but these could not be published until 1979. The subject was always the state of mind of the human being in the real existing socialism. This Chinese version of hermetic poetry was so well received by the youth because it spoke the truth, which to this day can hardly be spoken.

The new literature after 1979 was initially bold poetry, then it was women’s literature, and finally it was a kind of lobby literature that caused a sensation. In contrast to lobby literature, which has critically reflected on history since 1949, but spoke for the party of the once ostracized authors, neither the new poetry with its call for political reform nor the narrative art of women writers like Zhang Jie conforms to the state with its criticism of the patriarchal status quo. From autumn 1983 to spring 1984 there was a campaign against undesirable authors. This campaign was also supported by older writers, who felt set back by the international success of the younger generation. The result was the end of women’s literature and, for a long time, poetry as politically explosive forces. Nevertheless, an exodus gradually set in in all areas of literature. This is particularly true of 1989, when the movement for more democracy was suppressed in Beijing. Since the beginning of the new century, however, most of the voluntary or involuntary exiles have returned and are now teaching at Chinese universities.

The real turning point in Chinese literature on the mainland is not so much the years 1983 or 1989, it is more the year 1992, which, in the context of accelerated economic development, made literature part of the market. The easy-to-read, easy-to-sell novel became the real subject of reading. The poetry, which is now striving for pure language, is marginalized, the theater, which was very big before 1949 with Cao Yu (* 1910, † 1996) or Ding Xilin (* 1893, † 1974), almost no longer exists, since then Gao Xingjian (* 1940), who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000 and left Beijing in 1987 in favor of Paris, critical essays are not written or, if they are, then censored. What remains is the storytelling that was developed in the 1980s with the author Wang Anyi (* 1954) or with Wang Meng had to show considerable success. How much literature was just a political business in order to achieve personal success is shown by the fact that many, sometimes very well-known authors seized the opportunity to earn big money and give up literature for it. This could take two forms: you either became a pure businessman and no longer wrote at all, or you wrote exclusively for the market. And since you are paid for the amount of Chinese characters, the long novel has become the preferred genre. Due to the large readership at home and abroad, authors who serve the market now earn at least one million euros per year in royalties. Literature has thus become pure business. Often the authors address themselves only to a certain audience or

The value of Chinese literature as world literature is undisputed until 1949. But since 1949 it has been difficult to determine for many reasons. There are individual representatives who are still among the best in the world and are honored accordingly, especially the poets who have a fixed status abroad and also win prizes. The majority of the authors, however, may celebrate great success internationally in terms of sales figures for translations, but they are not necessarily able to convince nationally. A striking example is Mo Yan, the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. Its illustrations of the horrors of China’s history from 1900 to the present day only find a few real readers in China because the narrator never comes up with an explanation for the unbelievable events, but only with new images. One wins here, as in many other cases, among other things. Yu Hua (* 1960) or Su Tong (* 1963), for example, gives the impression of scripts for the film industry. In fact, quite a few well-known authors have now hired themselves as writers for scripts.

A rescue of contemporary Chinese literature is hardly to be expected from overseas at the moment. Quite a few literarily gifted people who leave the country begin to write in foreign languages ​​after their arrival abroad and thus become part of the local literary history. The arts in Hong Kong receive little support from above due to material interests. Writing in Taiwan, apart from a few poets, has meanwhile become a provincial affair. The great ones of yore who went to America have more or less fallen silent or died. If the Chinese tradition has become alien to the authors on the mainland, then the authors overseas have become familiar with the Chinese modernity. Taiwan was anyway due to the Japanese occupation (1895–1945) and politics Guomindang, the National People’s Party, split off from the important May 4th legacy between 1949 and 1987. Another factor is the lack of knowledge of foreign languages ​​and the unwillingness to translate and convey foreign literatures. An independent, market-independent and significant literature could only come about through heritage, be it about the three thousand year old tradition or about the modernity of the West, which has already been received in an exemplary manner.

So far, a Chinese writer has received the Nobel Prize for Literature: Mo Yan (2012).

China Contemporary Literature (since 1949)