Since the argument started, writers, critics and scholars have vented their fury in literary journals and newspapers. They have insulted each other's motives, ethics and writing, quoting anyone from Socrates to Confucius. They accuse each other of being either shamelessly commercial or naively attached to outmoded ideals.
But behind the spleen and erudition is a deep-rooted disagreement over the role of literature in a fast-changing society where old values have quickly been undermined by a new individualism and cynicism, especially among the young.
Membership of the two groups cannot be categorised by age or by political colour; nor is the debate a political campaign, as literary criticism so often has been in China's past. The argument "is quite different from anything that has been seen in the last 40 years", said China Focus, published by the Princeton China Initiative.
In the "pragmatist" corner is a group of writers and critics, including Wang Meng, a former Minister of Culture, and in the opposition camp is Professor Xie Mian of Peking University and authors including Zhang Chengzhi and the critic Wang Binbin. The dispute was kindled by the two groups' very different reactions to a young "punk" writer, Wang Shuo, whose books are peopled by a new generation of disillusioned and alienated Peking youth. Written in raw local slang, Wang Shuo's stories have proved extremely popular with China's young readers. To his detractors' annoyance, they also have been very successful commercially.
Zhang Chengzhi, however, was not impressed. He and others quickly accused Wang Shuo of "vulgar" writing symptomatic of declining moral standards, and of publishing with an eye on sales figures rather than with responsibility towards society. Wang Meng criticised the critics for lack of tolerance. For some it was a matter of freedom of expression. One elderly writer, who was persecuted in past political campaigns, said: "We should let the young writers try their ways. If the work is justified it will last; if it is not, it will peter out. I do not agree with attacking young writers."
In late 1994, the critic Wang Binbin fuelled the debate by publishing an article, Chinese Writers who are Too Clever by Half. He alleged that "too clever" writers, such as Wang Meng and Xiao Qian, were working within the Communist system with the aim of producing work that did well in the new market economy. Wang Meng hit back, sneering at Wang Binbin for seeking the spotlight by attacking famous writers, and at critics for misunderstanding Wang Shuo's motives.
The ideological battle gained weight this year when, in the spring, Professor Xie Mian hosted seminars at Peking University on "literature and idealism" which attacked both Wang Shuo's writing and also the Wang Meng grouping. The seminar's protagonists argued that literature should present admirable ideals and be a constructive force in society; the participants subscribe to a style of humanism, which they say is being lost amid China's reforms. Such humanists want less emphasis on the market economy, hanker after a clear, old-fashioned value system and resent writers who ply their craft for commercial motives.
Wang Meng's argument has been that China never did embrace a true humanism - "so how can we lose it if we never possessed it?" - and that, often, such "lofty" ideals turn out to be a sham, as was the case in the Cultural Revolution.
Moral standards have not declined, Wang Meng said, unless one adopts an unrealistic view of morality in pre-reform Communist China. "Our target is not to establish a society where everybody is a selfless gentleman, but to build a rather regulated world where every person can enjoy a fair chance to develop with honest working and competition," he added. Social ills would improve as the economy continued to develop.
At the heart of the argument, for many Chinese writers, is the problem of writing within the political confines set by a hardline government. Xiao Qian, the eminent writer and translator, incurred the wrath of the opposition when he advised: "Try to speak truth, but never speak lies."Reuse content