Books:The East is read

Olivier Burckhardt reviews two anthologies which chart the variety and scope of Chinese writing in the 20th century
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TO GRASP the import and vigour of the renewal that has taken place in the last two decades, it is worth remembering that the rise of modern Chinese literature, like the history of modern China, has been fraught with turbulent and tragic events. The onrush of outside influences, the ebullient phase of ideological reconstruction and subsequent shifts and purges which fettered literature to the service of the state, have left deep scars.

The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century by Bonnie S McDougal and Kam Louie (Hurst pounds 16.50, ISBN 1-85065-285-6) gives an excellent and detailed account of the development of modern Chinese literature. Three main chronological sections cover the key periods by giving a historical outline of the social and political events that have affected the literature of China and are followed by biographical sketches of key writers and accounts of their major works in poetry, fiction and drama.

At times the editors fall into the trap of generalisation, ultimately failing to do justice to the range and timbre of these authors, who are classified according to Western trends. However, the blending of historical overview, survey of genres and discussion of the individual authors and key works, redeems this volume, making it an indispensable companion for a fuller understanding of the literature of modern China.

The first period, 1900-1937, saw the most radical changes to the society and language. Not only did China have to re-define itself in the light of the humiliation it suffered at the hands of outside forces and the collapse of the empire, the written language also had to extricate itself from the shackles of prescribed modes of expression. The influence of Western literature on Chinese writers played a major role as a catalyst to revitalise the written language, which had become ossified by adhering to set forms.

Professors McDougall and Louie guide the reader through the various vicissitudes of conflict and revolution that characterised the second period, 1938- 1965, and led to literature being used as a powerful ideological and political tool. The literature of this period, under the instigation of Mao Zedong, was to be of and for the people and had to conform to the ideology of the party.

The concluding section opens with the dark years of the cultural revolution (1966-69) and runs on until the present. The book gives a fascinating account of how readily a literature fettered to the state becomes a pawn for political factions. With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the subsequent fall of the Gang of Four, a new era unfolded. In November 1979 Deng Xiaoping mirrored the prevailing mood by promising to end interference in artistic creation. 1980 ushered in both an influx of new influences and directions which is best defined by that oft-abused term, renaissance.

The work of the 19 authors collected in The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction, edited by Carolyn Choa and David Su Li-Qun (Picador pounds 15.99) date almost exclusively from the last two decades. Although any direct criticism of the party continued to be anathema, the priority of economic growth over ideology gave Chinese writers wider freedom. The early 1980s also saw a vast input of translations of Western literature which brought the Chinese public up to date with the developments of world literature that had taken place in the previous decades. Mrquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude had a tremendous impact and saw no less than three Chinese translations; it alone instigated an intense, albeit brief, fascination with magic realism.

The stories in the Picador collection attest the move away from social conformity. In Liu Xinwu's story "Black Walls", written in 1982, a gentle humour and a call for humanism merge. A new tenant, the shy and quiet Mr Zhou, causes pandemonium when he proceeds to paint his room black. The older tenants gather to decide what action to take in the face of this reactionary behaviour. Old habits, left over from the Cultural Revolution, die hard. Finally, the grandchild of one of the tenants snaps the absurd tangle of ideological deliberations by declaring "So that's settled! Uncle Zhou is spraying the walls of his own room, and it has nothing to do with us, so what are you all going on about?"

It is hard for Westerners to realise the import of the rise of the individual which we take for granted. Zhang Jie's "Love Must Not Be Forgotten" which brought her to celebrity, caused a sensation by championing the idea that marriage should be based on love rather than duty. After decades of conforming to the idea that an individual is a mere link in the social apparatus, Chinese literature is re-defining and challenging the accepted norms.

Wang Meng's 10 short tales "The Lovesick Crow and Other Fables", written in 1989, bring many strains of Chinese literature together. At once illustrative of the absurd aspects of party ideology and struggle of the individual, they recall to mind some of the Taoist tales of Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) that both affirm individuality and place it within a wider context where it is able to mock itself.

As with many of the stories gathered in the anthology, Llu Xinwu's, Zhang Jie's and Wang Meng's stories are told with a candour that often borders, to a Western ear, on the naive. The simplicity, however, has real power and directness and gives ample evidence of that stubborn instinct which characterises the individual's quest for creative spontaneity.