A common subject of discussion in the field of Chinese literature is the relation of literature to reality, so that it might seem superfluous to return to this theme. If I nevertheless venture to do so, it is because I should like to discuss the matter from a somewhat different standpoint than has so far been usual.
It may be said that the whole history of Chinese literature from the time of the literary revolution culminating in the May Fourth Movement of 1919 up to the beginning of the war with Japan was essentially a struggle for a completely unimpeded approach to reality and for the conquest of the widest possible area of reality. Under “reality,” I do not mean, of course, only “outward” reality, but take it to comprehend equally the whole region of man’s spiritual life. The purpose of the revolution in literature was to jettison all the old norms and rules with which tradition bound creative art, whether in the realm of composition or of language; and even choice of theme was subject to strict censorship. A large part of the old literary production had consequently very little relation to reality, being a mere form of intellectual exercise, in contrast with a smaller body of literature, of which we shall speak later on, where the connection was, on the contrary, too close. In the light of the ideas under the banner of which the literary revolution was waged, the impression was created that the sole obstacle to the flourishing development of literary art was traditional regimentation, and that its abolition was the main condition for the thriving of literature and the arts in general.
There can be no doubt that, in its relation to reality, the new Chinese literature has made considerable strides, especially—and here, at the very beginning of my paper, I should like to stress the point—in the opening up of whole new regions of literary subject-matter. This is a generally acknowledged fact and one treated of in every work devoted to no matter what aspect of the new Chinese literature.
On the other hand, very little attention has been paid to the question of the means and methods employed by the new authors in expressing and organizing that reality. In this respect there is little to choose between literary historians and scholars—both Chinese and European—whether in dealing with the new literature in its historical development, or with individual authors and their works, on the one hand, and between literary and other theoreticians, whose task it is to set and define the aims of the new literature. In a number of my critiques, I have been obliged to express regret at how little even scholars of repute have to say about the artistic methods and creative processes of the authors who are the subject of their studies and how they sometimes express judgments which are complete misjudgments. Thus many such researches are able to give a careful and on the whole accurate portrayal of the intellectual development of their author, but of his art they have, as a rule, very little to say. Similarly, various appeals addressed to Chinese writers, insofar as they touch on the relation of their creative production to reality, usually call upon authors to make themselves thoroughly familiar with the milieu which they wish to describe. In doing so, they stress the perceptive function of literature; the writer’s work is to give as accurate a picture as possible of a specific reality, of a specific social context.
This special function of literature is further emphasized by authors themselves in their views of the subject, in confirmation of which we could cite a wide variety of authors, including Mao Tun, Lu Hsün, Kuo Mo-jo, and others. On the other hand, we learn very little about how this reality should be artistically worked up and presented.
Undoubtedly, these two facts are related. Artists think too little about their work (honorable exceptions in this respect are Lu Hsün and Mao Tun) and so provide literary critics with too few points on which to base their analyses. And, on the other hand, theoreticians, whether literary or political, look upon all studies of artistic form unfavorably, seeing in them a kind of l’art pour l’artisme, which they feel obliged continually to warn against. It is the view of many theoreticians that it suffices to work up accurately observed reality and a good literary work will be produced, of course on condition that the author gives it a proper bias.
The fact remains, however, that hitherto sinology has done pitifully little in the way of investigating the aesthetic and theoretical views of Chinese artists. We know something of the aesthetic ideas of Lu Hsün, a little has been written about Mao Tun, there exists a study of Ch’ü Ch’iu-pai, but these are no more than fractions of the immense work performed by Chinese literary critics in supplanting old views in the realm of the theory of art. It would be of the greatest importance to publish in some European language, for instance, in German, a systematic anthology showing the development of literary views and contending trends from the beginnings of the May Fourth Movement.
This is a situation with which even we are not unfamiliar. In Europe, too, many authors decline to discuss their literary methods, regarding such questions with a certain contempt, nor is an unwarranted fear of l’art pour l’artisme altogether unknown among us, such as led to a distrust of the study of the artistic aspect of a work. The pre-War epoch, on the other hand, with its strongly experimental character, was marked by a particularly intensive study of the problems of artistic method.
We must not, however, overlook the existence of one basic factor operating negatively in all considerations relating to the artistic forms of modern literature. The jettisoning of traditional norms resulted in each author having, to some extent, to work out his own individual creative method, and then every new reality which the author approaches requires a modification of his method. We are thus faced with what seems to be a complete chaos of widely varying forms, which at first glance would appear to have nothing in common and which do not lend themselves to definition, description and classification. To this, too, must be attributed at least in part the reason why the old normative literary aesthetic, with its codification of literary forms and its prescribed formulas, was replaced in the period of capitalism by individualistic, impressionistic criticism, which gave a subjective interpretation and evaluation of the work under review, and insofar as it passes judgment at all, claims only a present validity, such judgments being based on subjective feeling and not on any generally recognized norms or standard of values.
Nevertheless, the question of artistic form, the question of artistic method, is no less important, and possibly much more important, in the new literature than it was in the old. It is, indeed, just this direct and unimpeded approach to reality which obliges the artist ever and again to face up to the problem of how to express and come to terms, on the artistic level, with this new reality. It was the outstanding Soviet literary theoretician V. Shklovski who, in his analysis of the great classical Russian novels, conclusively demonstrated that the creation of the modern realistic novel was, above all, a matter of the creation of a new and individual artistic structure. Perhaps even more evident is the example of the new poetry which, with its altogether new, original and highly complicated forms, and their ever new variants, has cut itself completely adrift from the old poetry.
We see now, in all our countries, how the scrapping of a dogmatic attitude in literature has called forth exceptionally lively discussion of the question of new literary forms; it is being realized that the question of how to create a work that is completely truthful is, in the first place, a question of how to create a work that is completely artistic, that is artistically adequate to the task of expressing the new reality. This has always been the question and, with this in mind, we must also evaluate the whole body of new Chinese literature. Further, it is necessary to point out that the new literary criticism is seeking to find a method whereby order may be introduced into this seeming chaos and making it possible to describe accurately the individual artistic structures, discover their basic elements and so work out a basis for their comparison and classification. It is already clear that these artistic structures are not mutually so unconnected as they seem, but that certain principles are operative in them which it is possible to define, from which it is only a step toward finding the relation between the various elements of the artistic structure and ascertaining the extent to which these structures are identical or related.
The Chinese experience would seem to prove that the attitude to reality may influence art in two different ways: this attitude is the main driving power in literature in the measure that the artist seeks new forms in which to express that reality. I would even go so far as to say that the more active the artist’s approach to reality, the more he tries to make clear and win us for his view of reality, the more original will be the form of his work, on condition, of course, that he is at the same time a true artist. I think that especially the example of Lu Hsün confirms the view that the beginnings of what is called avant-garde art are manifest, above all, in this striving to express a new evaluation of the reality portrayed, to draw attention to those features which seem to the artist to be particularly significant and to pass a certain verdict on that reality. This naturally leads to a stressing of some aspects and the exclusion or minimizing of others, the relations between the constituent elements as compared with those in the traditional and “naively realistic” grasp of reality, undergo a change and may even be actually distorted, giving rise to a picture which is deformed but full of new meaning. This deformation has its artistic justification, for such a picture of reality may tell us much more about the nature of the reality described than a so-called faithful representation, where the sense is buried beneath a mass of insignificant detail. If such a distorted picture becomes a mere end in itself, in which, on the contrary, the unimportant is arbitrarily projected into the foreground at the expense of what is really important and stress is laid on relations playing only a minor role, then such art has no more value than any other intellectual toy. I have spoken of these aspects on other occasions and it would be superfluous to elaborate them now.
A too great dependence on reality, however, may act as a curb on creative activity to as great an extent as tradition. In fact, we see that in the new Chinese literature a close link with reality may be actually a part of tradition, that it is also a kind of literary manner, a cliché. Whereas in the case of Lu Hsün it may be observed to what degree he recasts even autobiographical material, giving prominence to and elaborating certain elements, suppressing others and even introducing fictional material—he himself always stressed the fact that autobiographical subject-matter in his work is subjected to the same creative formative processes as any other material—other authors cling closely to it. We see that a great part of the early prosaic work of Kuo Mo-jo and of Yü Ta-fu, remains on the whole the unworked-up record of personal experiences, and that even Lu Hsün has, alongside highly artistic short stories and other art forms, notes, extracts from a diary, presented as literature, letters, and so on. Such productions do not differ greatly from the general run of the literary output of the old literati, notes in the form of pi-chi, diaries, sketches of personal interest, letters and lyrical essays. The basis of all these literary products is the record of some single fact or experience, accurately observed and documented, the literary aesthetic value being as a rule limited to the art style—such works are written exclusively in the literary language—and to a certain lyrical coloring and treatment. Such lyrical treatment of autobiographical records is to be found in the works of the above-named authors: in those of Kuo Mo-jo it is usually the expression of the author’s romantic moods, with Yü Ta-fu, more frequently of the author’s despair. But the underlying structure is always a kind of factography, as in the whole of the old literature.
It is important to note that it is, in most cases, a mere recording and not a real description of a given reality. This is an extremely important distinction, to which it would be necessary to devote a special study. In the process of recording, the aesthetic element is, of necessity, limited to style, to linguistic expression in its narrowest sense. In description, the detailed and plastic rendering of various characteristics of the phenomenon described constitutes a new aesthetic quality. Such descriptions may even become an end in themselves, as often in the storyteller’s art. In this respect, too, as we may here note, there is a difference between the production of the literati and the storyteller’s verbal art.
I have already drawn attention, in my Introduction to the volume of Studies in Modern Chinese Literature, to the fact that the new literature which arose after the May Fourth Movement links up, in spite of the vigorous campaign against the production of the old literati in wen-yen, more often with that tradition than with the folk tradition. I think that this clinging to the fact, this unwillingness to get away from the specific, individual reality, is perhaps the most striking, and, at the same time, the most noteworthy feature of the new Chinese literature linking it with the old. Here, undoubtedly, we have confirmation of what was said above, namely, that a certain attitude to reality may itself be part of a literary tradition—and that outside the domain of aeshetics. What was always most highly valued in Chinese literary works was “truthfulness,” that is, the accurate recording of facts, for which the term shih “fullness,” “completeness,” was employed, whereas fantasy was rejected, as something “empty,” existing only in the imagination hsü. The old literature in wen-yen constituted in fact an immense archive of facts, elegantly recorded, but not as a rule worked up into a higher artistic unity. It lacked, for the most part, epic character, what Goethe called Lust zum fabulieren, which links up, thanks to its inner dynamism, interesting facts to a higher organic whole, unifies and elaborates them in a new, artistic structure.
On the other hand, I think it would not be right to evaluate this love of fact, of truth, of reality, altogether or predominantly as a negative quality. Undoubtedly it was this respect for reality and truthfulness which prevented Chinese literature from falling into the morass of unbridled fantasy, which instilled in Chinese authors their exceptionally sober, conscientious and responsible attitude to literary production and gave to the majority of their works a high moral ethos. Not even from the moral point of view was the author permitted to deform the truth, to turn a literary work into a prostitute avid for gain and fame, as was the case with a number of other literatures. Nevertheless, it is equally true that this sobriety often kept art literature too earth-bound and prevented its full flowering in the realm of imaginative storytelling.
It seems to me that this attitude of guarded reserve toward the imaginative element in the creative process is manifest in the new literature in the clinging to individual facts, then in the lack of courage which would enable the author to cut himself free from the factual groundwork of the tale and, finally, in a certain distrust of and reserved attitude toward the purely aesthetic aspects of the literary art. I see the main influence of this tradition, however, in the excessive underlining of the perceptive, intellectual function of literature, as compared with the aesthetic function, of which we spoke above.
Yü Ta-fu, for instance, considered it incompatible with the “truthfulness” of a literary work should the author put his thoughts and feelings into the mouth of a third person, and the undoubted reason for a certain artistic weakness in the autobiographical novel “Ni Huan-chih” (name of the hero), by Yeh Sheng-tao, is the inability of the author to cut himself loose from the chronicle of his life.
We may further add that this clinging to reality, as a sum of individual facts, makes it difficult for new authors to create typical characters and plots, and draw general conclusions from their observation of specific individuals and their behavior. In the work of Mao Tun, this reserved attitude to all purely aesthetic elements is apparent in the way in which he limits his choice of phenomena strictly to those necessary for the buildup and comprehension of the plot, and expunges from his work not only himself, his feelings and judgments, but also all elements whose function it is to evoke merely aesthetic effects such as descriptions of Nature (insofar as they do not underline the mood of certain scenes), or work on the reader’s emotions.
This “intellectual” orientation, as we have called it, this liking for facts and rejection of the elements of fantasy, which acts as a check on lesser writers, may nevertheless provide a firm structural basis for a great writer who, thanks to his philosophical conceptions and to his pathos, is able to weld this accumulation of facts into a single whole, without either distorting or violating them. I would stress that for this two things are, above all, necessary: First, a certain moral pathos, which in evaluating these facts gives them a new significance and creates a homogeneous atmosphere in which all have their appropriate place. And then a certain philosophical or philosophico-scientific conception, which, instead of welding these facts through the power of pure poetic imagination, explains them and links them up in their proper sequence of cause and effect. This Mao Tun undoubtedly succeeded in doing. His novel Tzu-yeh, “Twilight,” with its scientifically worked out system of episodes, mirroring all the essential components of contemporary Chinese society and its basic contradictions and problems, along with a group of tales dating from the same time, is probably the most exact portrayal of the social situation at the time in question, and one that, in this respect, no other writer could measure up to. In this work, Mao Tun created as true a picture of China in the 1930s, but of course with a much greater fund of scientific knowledge, as Balzac’s, a century earlier, of France at the time of the July Monarchy. But what this picture gained in scientific accuracy was offset, to a certain extent, by its loss of artistic effectiveness.
As I said above, Mao Tun systematically expunged from his work purely aesthetic elements and directed all his attention to identifying and presenting all the main forces and laws determining social existence. This led to a certain schematization of the characters; his heroes do not actively shape the social situation, but for the most part merely illustrate it; here, besides the difference in artistic method, the social situation itself had a certain influence, too, the individual being a mere straw in what was one of the most terrible storms in the history of humanity.
I also said that to make a complete break with the factographic tradition of the literati and to create a truly great work of art, two things are necessary: deep emotional engagement and a scientifically founded grasp of social processes. In the case of Mao lun, a rational command of the material and its interpretation is vouchsafed by his Marxism, which enables him to see the world as the logically necessary clash between various social forces. Nor is he lacking the great moral and emotional pathos which equally derives from his philosophical interpretation of the world. The struggle which he describes is not only a clash of blind forces, but a struggle for the highest human justice and humanity, and the works of his pen are his contribution to this struggle.
This basic combination of essential elements for this literary trend is even more clearly evident in the work of genius which stands at the beginning of this stream in Chinese literature, namely, Wu Ching-tzu’s Ju-lin wai shih, “Unofficial Chronicle of the Literati.” The intellectual tendency of the work is already apparent in the title: the author wishes to write a history, a chronicle, and not a work of entertainment.
The feature distinguishing this book from other satirical works directed against certain social groups, works which are not rare even in the older European literature, is the systematic and almost scientific accuracy with which the author portrays a wide range of types belonging to the class against which his work is aimed.
Taking as his starting-point the traditions of the storyteller’s novel, to which we shall return in a different connection, the author—like Mao Tun—removes from the traditional stock of literary requisites all exclusively aesthetic appurtenances, as, for instance, traditional lyrical elements, subtle complexities of plot, appeals to human emotions such as eroticism, horror, and so on, and his style is straightforward and unadorned. Moreover, particularly noticeable is the diminished dramatic character of the plot, the muted quality of the conflicts described. In all these respects we should find direct affinities between this work and Mao Tun’s novels, even to the complex system of episodes which is designed to provide the whole broad canvas on which the selected area of social reality is to be portrayed. The work of Mao Tun vibrates, however, with the gigantic struggle being waged at the time it arose and of which it is the culminating expression—and in this respect it differs from its older model.
On the other hand, however, Ju-lin wai shih, like the work of Mao Tun, is the fruit of deep feeling, of the author’s moral indignation at the class to which he belongs. His book is not merely an objective record of certain indifferent facts, but above all accusatory material in the form of stories so selected that on the groundwork of their evidence he may pass his verdict of “Guilty” on the class here pilloried. This then is the organizing force unifying what otherwise would be a mere agglomeration of facts. But just the lack of a scientific viewpoint, which naturally Wu Ching-tzu could not have in his day, prevented him from building up with the material at his disposal that logically articulated picture of contemporary life such as is represented by the novel of Mao Tun, the linking up of the individual episodes remaining more or less mechanical and accidental.
Nevertheless we must say that, as with Mao Tun, the sharp focusing of attention on reality, combined with the striving to evaluate that reality and pass judgment upon it, led to a re-evaluation of traditional expressive means and to the creation of a new kind of literary genre—a very special form of the social novel, which still exists in China today, its last important offshoot being the notable novel by Ting Ling, from the period of post-War reconstruction of rural life.
This type of novel became very popular in China in the first years of the present century, when this art form was favored by writers from the ranks of the rising bourgeoisie in works criticizing the imperial bureaucracy. In imitation of Ju-lin wai shih arose the works of Li Po-yüan, Wu Wo-yao, and others. But here is apparent the danger of this whole genre, with its predominantly intellectual and, one might almost say, anti-aesthetic tendency. The works of these authors cease to be carefully thought-out and artistically designed structures, in which reality is, though soberly, yet artistically recast, and become merely an amorphous mass of carelessly and haphazardly linked-up material, a tangle of stories, anecdotes, isolated facts and incidents, heard or read somewhere or even invented, where all that remains of the traditional respect for fact is the disinclination or inability to weld these facts into an artistic whole of a higher order. Here the aversion of the literati to the creation of more complex artistic structures, which always presumes some measure of distortion of facts, goes hand in hand with the traditional dilettantism of the Chinese literati, who always rated higher spontaneous, impulsive production than a carefully thought-out work of art, based on the mastery of certain professional methods and procedures. And so the author allows himself to be carried away by his feelings, especially by his moral indignation, and, without a pre-conceived plan, without detailed study, he pens a series of pictures, as they rise associatively in his mind. It is clear that such a method will not produce good literature, and this is evident in the low artistic level of a great part of the works by novelists writing at the beginning of this century. But not even modern literature is safe from this unhealthy spontaneity. The early works of Yü Ta-fu and of Kuo Mo-jo suffer from it and, especially, the whole œuvre of Pa Chin and Shen Ts’ung-wen.
I said above that in the production of the literati the recording of facts is very often accompanied by their lyrical evaluation and exploitation. The author aims at raising the facts from the common rut of everyday reality into the realm of poesy, into the realm of aesthetic experience. And so we might look upon that intellectualizing tendency which gave rise to the Chinese social novel and which obliterates from its pictures all aesthetic elements, striving only to achieve an accurate rendering of reality, as an extreme tendency, as a kind of deviation, alongside of which must naturally exist other trends of development.
It is an extreme tendency also in respect of its relation to purely epic literature, to that verbal art which has its roots in the storytelling tradition, of which we made mention above. A number of studies have been written on it and a large body of examples from it have been translated into European languages, so that it would be quite superfluous to attempt any characterization of it here. I shall only draw attention to several aspects which are basically relevant to our present subject. As the main point of difference noted above I posed, in contrast to the reservations and restrictions always present in the production of the literati, to the fear of cutting loose from the basis of fact and the terra firma of reality, Goethe’s Lust zum fabulieren, which most aptly characterizes the storyteller’s art. In the popular love of storytelling, in the free play of fantasy, the oral narrative tradition has its origins and an innate narrative sense is its essential driving force.
There can be no doubt that at the heart of this antithesis between the production of the literati and the storyteller’s epic is the inherent difference between the written language of art literature, which had to be laboriously learned, for which reason it could serve only to communicate reality at second-hand, reality already expressed and formulated—in the written language we have what is substantially a system of ready-made formulas—and the living language of everyday speech, which continually adapts itself to every new reality, never remains quiescent, but is constantly undergoing change and rejuvenation.
As opposed to the static precision of the language and production of the literati, there is in the spoken language an ever-present tendency toward dynamism, deformation, exaggeration, inventiveness, liveliness of expression, and so on. This freedom, which may end in complete imaginative license, leads, in respect of the attitude to reality, to the narrative absorbing uninhibitedly ever new aspects of reality, and to an expansive tendency, not only in the sphere of fantasy, but also in the sphere of reality. Where the littérateur’s inner voice constantly warned him not to use this or that fact, as being unsuitable for a serious work of art, the storyteller had no such inhibitions. We know from our own experience that in narration realities and words that are anything but aesthetic may be much more effective than those which are. Thus the storyteller’s narrations were notable from the very beginning of their development for the way in which they penetrated into the broad sphere of social life, overlooked by the writers of art literature as too vulgar for their consideration, and made it the subject of their tales. This greater freedom in the choice of subject and in the range of artistic expression (the use of grotesque, caricature, etc.) gives this stream of Chinese prose the advantage over the prose of the literati. And even when the lack of restraints and the free play of the imagination in the storyteller’s epic led to purely fantastic productions, where the artist moved in a purely imaginary world, as, for instance, in the novel Hsi yu chi, “Pilgrimage to the West,” this fantasy retains as its basic matter empiric elements (as cannot be otherwise in any human creation), but altogether recast, in a different context and deformed. It is, however, just this deformation of experience, its fantastic caricature, that can often tell us more about reality than its literal reproduction. In monstrous dimensions we see traits scarcely perceptible in reality and a certain shift in the angle of observation can throw new light on a relation which we had always considered perfectly natural, but which now appears grotesque, stupid or whatever. Here the possibility is opened up of quite a new vision of the world, which no mere reproduction of facts can achieve. Such a possibility, fully exploited by the storytellers, was on the whole closed to the literature of the literati.
Yet another advantage lay in the fact that the folk artist striving to heighten the aesthetic effect of his narrative was able to experiment and introduce into his work, without any feeling of embarrassment, all or any of the artistic means available in his day, and so they created works of a synthetic character, in which epic, dramatic scenes and lyrical passages are linked up to form a single whole. In this respect, their works undoubtedly signify an important stage in the advance toward modern literary art.
One aspect of this storytellers’ production, however, suffered from a certain handicap which prevented it from becoming the main expressive medium for the newer literature. Apart from its too popular character, which was an obstacle to its serving as a vehicle for the expression of a deeper, philosophical evaluation of the world—tradition had made it above all a means of entertainment for the masses. But a far more serious impediment was that every work in this literary genre was conceived as the work of a professional storyteller, in which respect this literature was true for the whole duration of its existence to its storytelling origins. The professional storyteller—formerly in fact and later at least formally—was not the author and the author was never completely identical with him. The storyteller was merely the fictive organizer and commentator of the narrative who expressed by far not so much the author’s views and feelings as rather general moral judgments and evaluations. Hence the lack in this literary genre of what is the most important thing in modern literature, namely, the direct expression of the author’s feelings, the direct confrontation of the projected reality with his view of the world, the contradictions between the world of the hero or the objective world and the subjective world of the author, the expression of his personal visions and moods. Here, it seems to me, we are at the root of why only in exceptional cases the storyteller’s narrative could become the vehicle of higher artistic expression, and, at the same time, we see what a synthesis was necessary in Chinese literature before a truly great modern work of literary art could arise. It was essential that the subjective, often lyrical and, at times, intellectual attitude to the world, which was proper to the production of the literati, should merge with the flexible, lively, adaptable form of traditional epic for which every aspect of reality was grist to its mill. That was the necessary premise for the new literature. This synthesis was achieved in the eighteenth century in the best works of the old Chinese novelists: In Ju-lin wai shih and its author, Wu Ching-tzu, the intellectual attitude came out uppermost, associated with which was a certain aversion to the imaginative elements, this combination then giving rise to an imposing work of great intellectual power, encompassing reality to a greater breadth and depth than any earlier work, but losing in the process something of the colorfulness, spontaneity and emotional vitality which was an inherent part of the storyteller’s production. Alongside of this novel, there arose another work which is perhaps the happiest combination of all the elements reviewed above.
We have already noted that, in the old literature, factography was always saved from the dull uniformity of everyday reality by the insertion of lyrical passages which served to invest it with the aesthetic qualities of a work of art. It would seem that for the literati the only way to overcome the grey mass of isolated and unorganized facts of life, the only way to their artistic working-up and welding into a new and higher order of living unity, to recreating from the elements into which the world disintegrates in the process of its intellectual analysis and cataloguing a new and artistically unified image of the world, was a personal gesture, personal empiricism and experience, as providing the new force capable of organizing all the components of a work of art. The path leading, by way of personal experience, to reality, to the correlation of the outer world of isolated facts with the inner world of their absorption, is the only path to success for the Chinese artist striving to create a new art, adequate in form to the new vision of reality.
And so, somewhat later than Ju-lin wai shih, arose the greatest Chinese prose work, Hung-lou meng “Dream of the Red Chamber” In it, personal experience, the tragedy of the author’s life, becomes the organizing force welding the immense quantity of facts, personal and general, into unity, so that we have in this novel the most perfect picture of Chinese feudal society as it existed shortly before its break-up. Here lyrical sensibility, which inspired the greatest works of Chinese literature, permeates the epic structure, giving to it that soaring quality, that weightlessness in which the gravitational drag of life’s grey uniformity is no longer operative, possessed by only the greatest achievements of world literature. The personal character of the tragedy narrated by the writer intensifies the dramatic character of the work—it is not a tragic play presented by a cast of disinterested actors, but the heartrending cry of personal misfortune and despair. At the same time the old epic tradition made it possible for the author to give his pictures the greatest plasticity, along with monumental breadth and force. And it was just this Proteus-like freedom and adaptability of traditional epic to incorporate in his work any part of the contemporary scene and freely link up his own experiences with stories told by his relatives and friends. The ability freely to reshape facts is testified to, for instance, in the way he would take over a certain episode or story, as it actually happened, and then change it, at the request of his friends, should it, e.g., seem to them too cruel. Moreover, the stressing of the imaginatively inventive element, as opposed to the emphasis on the noetic, intellectual values more commonly associated with the production of the literati, and which is also evident in Ju-lin wai shih, is observable already in the introduction to this novel, the author presenting his story as a mythological fable, although we know that at least a considerable part of the story is autobiographical and many details besides are based on actual fact. The writer thus exalts the “empty” as compared with the “full,” to return to the distinction made above, clearly showing his preference for the traditions of imaginative folk literature and having no use for the “truthfulness” of the literati. It is clear that he was well aware of what is necessary for the creation of a true work of art.
I think that it is very significant for Chinese literature that the greatest work of the pre-revolutionary era arose out of this linking of personal experience with the storytelling traditions. It is a pointer to where we must seek the main trend of development of the new Chinese literature and, at the same time, it helps us to understand how it is that modern Chinese literature has so quickly mastered all the achievements of contemporary European literature. In my previous studies I have repeatedly drawn attention to the high level of artistic maturity which is so notable a feature of the new Chinese literature. Nor, as I have shown above, is it an accidental phenomenon. Contemporary European literature differs from that of the nineteenth century in the exceptional stress it lays upon the author as the dominating factor in literary production. It is not a matter—to use a comparison from painting—of depicting a certain reality as anybody in my place might see it (which in any case is nonsense), but to emphasize the way in which I see it, as being different from the way anybody else has seen it before me. Personal experience, personal vision, self-confession and judgment, are held to be the only approach to reality, the only criteria of value, in the assessment of a work of art. Here Chinese literature was able in many respects to link up with the accumulated experience of its traditional literature, even though in its initial phases it often failed to realize it. Certainly the fact cannot be disputed that just as the shaping of personal experience gave rise to the greatest work in the old literature, the same is true of the new literature. Lu Hsün found his way to reality along the same path of personal experience as did the author of “Dream of the Red Chamber” and created an immortal work. The literary situation of the time and, perhaps, a certain native disposition prevented him from making full use of the traditions of the storytellers’ literature, which may also explain certain limitations in his work. So far the traditions of the storytellers’ literature have been exploited in the new literature in a novel and original fashion only in the work of Lao She and then in the works arising during the war in the Liberated Areas, such as the earlier works of Chao Shu-li. But even then, and especially after the Liberation, the storytelling tradition often becomes a mere mannerism, rather hindering than facilitating the adequate expression of the new reality.
I hope that my contribution may at least have thrown some light on the complex antinomy between reality and its artistic expression. A stressing of the factographical aspect of a work and even an overrating of the perceptive function of literature may prove as great an obstacle in the development of literary production as may, on the other hand, too little experience of life and knowledge of the facts of life, or a disregard for the objective laws governing reality. A proper balance between the mass of facts and their proper interpretation, evaluation and artistic presentation, can alone provide a firm foundation for realistic art. The smallest deviation in the one or other direction may spell disaster for a work of art. It is natural that every critical and historical work dealing with literature must investigate both these aspects of the literary work of art which is neither a mere documentation of reality nor an irresponsible toying with linguistic material. And our literary scholarship must prove itself equal to the task.
Published in Archiv Onentální 32 (1964), 605-618. No Chinese characters are supplied in the original article, but the reader can easily locate most of them in other articles in this collection.—Ed.