Best of times for Chinese books?

By Yang Guang and Mei Jia (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-04-23 08:54
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Best of times for Chinese books?

Opinion is divided on the state of contemporary literature. Yang Guang and Mei Jia report

Chinese writers are enjoying the best time for writing and living, declared former Culture Minister Wang Meng in a speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October.

He said that the country now has some 100 literary journals and that more than 1,000 novels are published each year.

"Works by writers who were once severely criticized, such as Liang Shiqiu and Eileen Chang, are not only published, but also bestsellers," Wang said.

The veteran writer probably never expected his optimistic evaluation of the state of Chinese literature to cause such a stir among both literary insiders and readers.

A dozen noted Chinese literary critics have published articles or voiced their concern in media reports, and the debate has evolved from the original dispute over whether or not Chinese literature is enjoying a golden age, to an evaluation of contemporary Chinese literature, and more importantly, the reasons behind the controversy.

A similar debate occurred a few years ago, after German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin called the works of "pretty girl writers", such as Mian Mian and Wei Hui, "trash".

"The Chinese novelist is an utter ignoramus: He has no literary culture, no mastery of his language, doesn't know a word of English, and hasn't the slightest knowledge of foreign literature," said Kubin in an interview with the French magazine, Books.

Many literary insiders took issue with Kubin. British literary translator Nicky Harman, for example, disputes Kubin's view.

"[Chinese writer] Han Dong writes in his blog knowledgeably about Garcia Marquez, Murakami and Kafka And I defy anyone to say that Han Dong and many others like him don't write beautifully in Chinese," she wrote on the Chinese literature website, paper-republic.org.

But many readers seem to share Kubin's criticism. In a recent survey conducted by ifeng.com, 89.9 percent of the 4,242 responding netizens disagreed with Wang's optimism and expressed dissatisfaction with current literary works.

And like their foreign counterparts, domestic literary insiders are divided in their opinions.

Peking University literature professor Chen Xiaoming and Tsinghua University aesthetics professor Xiao Ying have been the leaders of two opposing camps involving a dozen university professors, literary researchers and critics.

Agreeing with Wang that Chinese literature is doing well, Chen highlights the native Chinese cultural experience and the special features of the Chinese language, while recognizing foreign literature as a vital and complementary inspiration.

He cites four writers and their works in his defense: The Joy of Living (Shou Huo, 2003) by Yan Lianke, Qin Opera (Qin Qiang, 2005) by Jia Pingwa, A Sentence is Worth Thousands (Yi Ju Ding Yiwan Ju, 2009) by Liu Zhenyun, and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (Sheng Si Pi lao, 2006) by Mo Yan.

"Yan's inimitable contribution lies in his treatment of the socialist legacy; Jia and Liu display the heterogeneity of the Chinese language and narrative; Mo is able to knit together skills learned from Western modernist literature with his mastery of Chinese classics and knowledge of his native Gaomi regional culture," Chen argues.

However, Xiao Ying, argues that: "Traditional literature has been marginalized by electronic media and the commercialized market. Some writers have divorced themselves from real life and done nothing but repeat themselves; the independence of criticism has been lost, with the discourse power held by a clique of so-called authoritative critics."

Best of times for Chinese books?

Other critics believe that the diversity and complexity of contemporary Chinese writing have complicated the issue. Zhang Ning, literature professor with Beijing Normal University, compares contemporary Chinese literature to the human body.

"On the one hand, he has muscles - the language and narrative are quite something; on the other, he is short of a heart - the free spirit," Zhang says.

He believes that compared to the 1980s, Chinese literature tends to be less original, but he also says that readers are partly to be blamed as they are easily distracted from old-fashioned books.

"Though presented with more options, the mass of the country is facing a spiritual landslide. Fortunately, the persisting voices from serious writers give us reason to be hopeful and optimistic," Zhang says.

Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) researcher Chen Fumin attributes the dispute to the growing divide between the long-accepted standards for evaluating literature and the rapidly changing social and cultural context.

He points out that previous literary modes based on tradition have been transformed by pop culture and business marketing logic, making it more diverse and free. However, he warns that a new commercialized hegemony is starting to rule.

While most commentators agree on the necessity of establishing new literary standards, opinions vary on how that can best be achieved.

Xiao insists that the best way to develop such standards is through a dialogue and interaction with foreign literature.

"Discrepancies in understandings and interpretations (between domestic and foreign researchers) should be respected and valued," he says.

Chen Zhongyi, director of the Foreign Literature Research Institute at CASS, believes that only a few works will stand the test of time and become classics.

He suggests that both Chinese literary history and world literature should be the reference for any evaluation of contemporary literature.

"I find that Chinese literature, as one part of a running stream of world literature, is no exception in changing from the high to the low, the outer to the inner, the wide to the narrow, and the whole to the one," Chen says.

Whatever the outcome of the dispute, Chen Fumin says that it is important to have such debates. "The debate shows intellectuals' concern about understanding the current issues facing China and its interaction with the West."