Full Citation

  • Title China's Literary Revolution
  • Author Ch'ien, Hsiao Overseas Service
  • Publication Title The Listener
  • Collection The Listener
  • Date Thursday,  June 11, 1942
  • Volume 27
  • Issue Number 700
  • Page Number 756
  • Place of Publication London, England
  • Language English
  • Document Type Article
  • Publication Section News
  • Source Library British Broadcasting Corporation
  • Copyright Statement © BBC logo 1996; BBC & THE LISTENER are trademarks of the British Broadcasting Corporation and are used under licence.
China's Literary Revolution By HSIAO CH'IEN Dr. Hu Shih, now Chinese Ambassador in Wash¬ ington, who is ' the guiding spirit of the vernacular movement in modern Chinese literature '. He holds that the new language should be ' plain and collo¬ quial, lucid and intelligible ' Miss Ting Ling, novelist and dramatist. Her books deal with factory life. Her play ' Reunion', about the Japanese in occupied China, one of the first modern Chinese plays to be produced abroad, was staged in India last year Lu Hsun, ' China's Gorky ', intended to be a doctor, but turned to writing when ' he realised that there was more disease to be cured in the souls of his compatriots than in their bodies'. His first story was translated into English, French and Russian Photographs : E.N.A. THE greatest change in China in the last thirty years has been the awakening of the masses. During our five-thousand-year history, we have had plenty of upheaval. You have heard of our ' dynasties', such as the Tang, the Sung, the Yuan, die Ming and the Ch'ing Dynasty which gave way in 1911 to the present Republican government. In Europe, the change of dynasties often meant that one royal family had run out of heirs, but in China it nearly always meant a revolt either from inside the court or from among the peasants. The common people of China, as you know, are stoical and content. They never revolted until the tyranny of a regime became unbearable. And when they drove away the tyrant, they then returned to their fields, leaving the ruling of the country to the new and enlightened literati. In this way, the revolution of 1911 differed sub¬ stantially from all the past changes. In the first place, it involved an intruder—the influence and pressure of the West, for China could no longer remain a giant hermit in the family of the world. In the second place the masses were already vaguely awakened, as they had not been in the past. They were not willing to leave the country entirely to the scholars. Nor did the younger generation of the intelligentsia think it right to treat the masses as a herd. The literary revolution which took place in 1917 was a result of this fundamental change. Externally, it aimed at the simplification of the language so as to make room for die study of science. It was obviously an important step we took in order to adjust ourselves to the modern world, for the classical style required the greater part of one's lifetime to master. Internally, it was a natural course for a young republic to take, as it was not in keeping with democracy to leave the masses illiterate. It was therefore a drastic but necessary attempt to democratise the style. It started as a struggle against our traditional literary tool—an attempt to replace the classical style with the vernacular so that it could be accessible to the common people. But in changing the bottle, we found that the wine was no longer the same eitiier. For the literary revolution in China is inseparable from its social and political impact. The last thirty years have been the most dramatic period in Chinese history, a most dangerous period when our existence has been constantly threatened, and a most heroic period, in so far as we have successfully resisted for five years the hordes of a most ruthless foe. During this period, weaknesses of the last centuries were not only exposed but bore fruits, fruits of poverty, of disunity, and of danger of extinction. But it was also a period in which the young generation was most articulate. The intelUgentsia of Republican China were at first like young adolescents. For the first time they stepped into this immense world, very timid, very bewildered and very sceptical. But they were not just adolescents. Their environment was like a garment many centuries old. So there came the question as to whether they should shake off the garment altogether or patch it up. The old garment was by no means a comfortable one. It still cramped and confined. The revolt against convention was the keynote of modern Chinese literature : the revolt against marriage without consent, the revolt against government by the few, the revolt against opium smoking, foot-binding or anything that weakens the already weak race. The guiding spirit of the vernacular movement is Dr. Hu Shih, our present ambassador to America. His main thesis was that each age should have its own way of expressing itself and that posterity had no obligation to follow blindly in the footsteps of its ancestors. In his essays on Human Rights, Dr. Hu Shih wrote : ' The chief mission of the new movement is the emancipation of our thoughts. We criticise Confucius and Mencius ; we find fault with the philosophers Chwang and Chu, we oppose this and that ; all we aim to do is to abolish dogmatism and cultivate scepticism. The fundamental meaning of the new cultural movement is to acknowledge the fact that the traditional culture of- China does not suit oar modern environment and to advocate the acceptance of a new civilisation v/ith the rest of the world '. According to Dr. Hu, the new language should be ' plain and colloquial, lucid and intelligible '. But when I say the ' new ' language, you must not think that we have invented one artificially. It is just the ordinary language we have used for centuries in daily conversation. Only, in the days of Imperial China, a different sentence structure and a more sophisticated vocabulary were used officially, and were quite inaccessible to the man-in-the-street. This battle was indeed not easily won. The reformers faced quite a formid¬ able opposition. Mr. Wang Ching Hsuan, for instance, wrote that these youngsters were just like fickle women who, as soon as they fall into the arms of new lovers, cast away their husbands. The husband alluded to was, of course, China's traditional culture ; the intruder, European influence. Despite such antagonisms, the movement can still be called a sweep¬ ing victory. The major campaign started in 1917, when Dr. Hu was still studying in America. The next year, The New Youth, the earliest and the chief organ of the movement, was published. The whole year was full of quarrels throughout the country. In 1919 the first vernacular newspaper appeared in Peking, and in May of the same year the move¬ ment reached its climax in the outbreak of the student revolt against partial acceptance of the twenty-one demands made by Japan. In 1920, hundreds of magazines appeared in this popular style, and in die autumn the Ministry of Education decreed that textbooks for the first two grades of primary schools should be written in vernacular. This plan has since then been extended, allowing only a certain proportion of classical literature to be taught in the advanced classes. By 1921 over a hundred literary societies had been organised, which became centres for new writers, and which led to fresh movements. Chronologically, vernacular Chinese literature can be divided into three periods. The first period, roughly from 1916 to 1925, is known as the Literary Revolution. The battle was fought between the con¬ servative elements in China who upheld the classical style and the vernacular writers under the leadership of Dr. Hu. The latter's organ was The New Youth. During this period, the problem that confronted us was mainly linguistic and the achievement was also more linguistic than literary. Indeed, in the early 'twenties, young Chinese fought hard against social conventions with their ' emancipated brush'. When Mr. Rang Pai-ch'ing published The Pasture Ahead, a collection of his love lyrics, many ' gentlemen' in the country accused it of being immoral. But very soon after, Miss Juan Chun began to write short stories in the first person about the elopement of a girl with a man. Besides landscape descriptions, die themes in the early 'twenties were mainly love or social injustice. The writers of the Literary Society, which adopted the humanitarian attitude, wrote about child labourers, girl beggars and the rickshawmen's winter, while the Crescent Moon Society writers, then exponents of the romantic school, translated Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, Goethe's The Sorrows of the Young Werther, and wrote profusely emotional verses and prose, thus completely breaking the traditional taboo on amorous expressions. Right-Wing and Left-Wing Controversy While the vernacular style was making headway, the Shanghai Massacre of May, 1925, took place. Like the students' demonstrations in 1917, which resulted in the spreading of the vernacular movement, the nation-wide uprising in 1925 brought a distinct change in modern China In Uterature, it was the beginning of the Revolutionary Literature. For the first time, a split developed among the vernacular writers themselves, which in the following two years merged into the poUtical dissension between the Kuomintang and the Communists. The left-wing writers called themselves ' proletariat writers'. Heated quarrels in ideology raged, and the cleavage culminated in the formation of the League of Left-Wing Writers in 1930. Disregarding political events, the controversy between the right and the left wing was the age¬ long issue of whether art should be a servant of life or whether it should exist for its own sake. The proletariat writers regarded the ' ivory towerists' as decadent, while the ' independent writers' felt the dogmatism of the left-wing critics intolerable. Cheng Fang Wu, a leading critic of the left wing, wrote : ' A writer's love should be just as strong as his hatred, for literature is the conscience of die age. Writers themselves are the warriors of this conscience. We deem it our duty to attack all systems of injustice and the evils of convention'. This futile argument lasted for quite a long while. By the early 'thirties we hear quite different tones. The left wing themselves realised that to popularise proletariat literature, they had to produce samples worth reading. We had already Midnight by Mao Tun, a monumental novel about city exploitation and rural bankruptcy of China in 1930, the factory scenes of Miss Ting Ling, and Hsiao Chun's Village in August, which was about the guerrilla warriors in Manchuria. The author himself was with the guerrilla forces for some time after the Japanese occupation. With Japan's invasion of Manchuria, the new literature entered a fresh period. The Mukden Incident which served as a timely example for Hitler and Mussolini, was a great shock to the Chinese. The shock had lasting effects. For the first time, we realised that to survive we must unite, and that to unite we had to leave a number of minor differ¬ ences to be settled gradually. Politically also, the need for an internal solidarity was beginning to gain ground. In literature, the ideological quarrel was overshadowed by the popularity of the ' literature of national defence', a veiled anti-Japanese literary movement which became a nation-wide cry. The literary United Front came slowly but surely, just as the political one did. " In 1938, a National League of Writers was founded in Hankow with branches all over China, which really marked the beginning of our literary unity. There is no name for this happy period, but I should call it the period of maturity. Twenty years ago, the position of die vernacular style was well established. After that, we spent nearly ten years in arguments which led us nowhere. We discovered that Uterature is not just a question of doctrine. Just at die moment of diis realisation came the Japanese aggression. Writers at first threw away their pens and joined the army. But soon this was found to be a waste, for China was not short of man-power. What the country needed was political workers. As so many of our soldiers come from the ilUterate peasantry, writers organised themselves into political workers' corps operating at the front and behind the Japanese lines. What this will mean in post-war China no one can fail to appreciate. We had been talking of realism, when our writers had hardly seen a barn or met a real farmer. That is why much of the dialogue of our proletariat characters was so unconvincing. Now, Chinese writers are actually in die interior, tramping over the plains and scaling the mountains in the guerrilla areas. The war has brought the pedantic, the near-sighted, the writers who were ignorant of actual Ufe, into the vast hinterland of China. For the first time in the social history of China, the literati class and the farmers share the same sort of life. The horizon of our writers has been infinitely broadened, their knowledge of the country deepened. While becoming more con¬ scientious about their an, they have been enriched by participation in the grim reality of history. Can it be expecting too much to hope diat something solid will come, after the war, from those authors who have become so innately part of the people and part of the soil ? A Reform Movement I have often been asked why die atmosphere of modern Chinese fiction is so gloomy and depressing and the characters so very gruesome. One must remember that the vernacular movement has always remained part of a reform movement. As.reformers, the tendency has been to portray the seamy side of contemporary life Here, in fact, lies the basic difference in content between classical literature and the vernacular. With the exception of such authors as Tufu, Pai Chu-yi and many of our novehsts, Chinese writers in the past often composed in order to escape from life, while the vernacular writers write in order to improve it. So we have ruthlessly exposed the incongruous, ridiculed the stupid, and cursed all the social evils we could name. Not until the outbreak of the war did a constructive attitude emerge. In this respect, particu¬ larly, Chinese literature can be likened to Russian. Up to 1931, the bulk of Chinese fiction paints a gloomy picture very similar to Tsarist Russia. In fact, with all the floods, the senseless civil wars, and the foreign oppressions, life was perhaps not very much easier for us than the life depicted by Turgenev or Chekhov. But as in ' The Cherry Orchard', we never lost sight of an approaching dawn. You have heard of Lu Hsun, I believe. Some people call him China's Gorky. His Ah O has been translated into English, French and Russian. But as a matter of fact, his original ambition in life was to be a doctor. In the preface to his collection of short stories entitled Graveyard, Lu Hsun said he wanted to be a doctor to cure the diseases of his countrymen, who were then at the mercy of unscientific quacks. One day, when he was a student of medicine in Japan, his professor, in order to amuse him and his fellow pupils after a tedious lesson in anatomy, showed them some lantern slides of landscape. One of the lantern slides showed some Chinese who acted as spies for the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War. They were arrested and were beheaded by the Japanese in the street before a cheering crowd. Lu Hsun was more than hurt. He then realised that there was more disease to be cured in the souls of his compatriots than in their bodies. So his very first story, Ah O, was a merciless caricature of a typical Chinese, with all his psychological absurdities exaggerated. It was indeed devastating and effective. His second story, The Diary of a Mad Man, was on the same lines. Today, the spirit of self-criticism still prevails, such as that shown by Chang Tien-yi's story of Mr. Hwa Wei which appeared in New Writing last year, but writers have already changed their tone. They sing of the resistance and the reconstruction as the Soviet writers do of their Five Year Plan. Among the essays, one finds today sketches, full of hope and enthusiasm, about the guerrilla areas. There are portraits of heroes and martyrs of the war, both on land and in the air. Many such heroes are very ordinary men, such as the gunner in the 'Third Rate Gunner' and the very touching illiterate peasant in Yao Hsueh Hen's ' Half a cart of straw short', both of which appeared in New Writing.—Overseas Service