It would be a presumption on my part were I to wish to remind this esteemed gathering of the immense dimensions of the changes which are taking place today everywhere in countries outside Europe and, indeed, also in Western countries. I should only, too, be repeating a well-worn phrase were I to add that human history has not so far recorded such a tremendous revolution, both as regards its geographical extent and in respect of its depth and intensity, and that there is no critical investigator who does not feel that his powers and also the traditional methods of study are inadequate to the task of understanding and describing the process unfolding before our eyes. We shall, then, not be so lacking in modesty as to suppose that we could make some substantial comment on this world phenomenon, but confine ourselves to documenting its problems by means of an almost microscopically small section on which we have done some research, namely, the problems connected with the rise of a modern Chinese literature.
There can be no doubt that the rise of a new Chinese literature after the first World War was one of the reflexes of the revolutionary ferment that made itself felt throughout the whole of Asia and is, at the same time, also a part of this world-wide phenomenon, so that through an analysis of it we can augment and give some precision to our ideas about the causes and forces which set the process in motion. In China, the rapidity and thoroughness of the transformation of the literary structure have earned it the designation of a “literary revolution” and it is perhaps truly the only epoch in the history of literature to which the term can, in full justice, be applied.
It seems to us that hitherto—insofar as scholars have made a study of this process—they have been content more with the registration of the external aspects and we may even say with the accompanying phenomena; they have studied the political and philosophical trends influencing the literature of the given epoch, they have sought the connections with the social and economic life of the time, and so on. On the other hand, they have devoted little attention to changes in the actual structure of the literature, to what are the differences between works which are the product of the literary revolution and those of the preceding epoch. Seldom, too, has the question been raised as to what actually brought about the observed changes in the structure of the works; whether we are to seek for the causes in the realities of life, in the milieu in which the literature arose, or in the state and character of the literary legacy, or whether we must, perhaps, also take into consideration the influence of foreign literatures. We are faced with a nexus of problems which may be summed up in the dichotomy: development from within, changes brought about by the tension arising between the individual components of the literary structure, and, on the other hand, changes evoked by external causes, such as national and class conflicts, economic changes, and the like.
I shall not repeat here the results of certain previous studies. I think today we may accept as a proved fact that the new literature could not have arisen without a new artistic sensibility, generated by a new way of life, a new mental atmosphere, the product of a new technical and scientific civilization. The new literature could only be created by new artists endowed with this new sensibility and so it arose suddenly as the fruit of it. But this general statement does not enable us to explain the specific quality of individual literary works or the differences between the creative output of various authors; nor does it explain why the work of Lu Hsün is the antipode to the work of Mao Tun or Lao She. It is clear that here, at work, alongside more general causes, must have been causes of a more special kind and to discover these should be the foremost task of the literary historian. On the other hand, it is almost a banality to affirm that no work exists in a vacuum, that it inevitably shows similarities and affinities with both contemporary and past works and that it cannot be regarded as an isolated product of its author, to be explained only on the basis of his individual disposition. We believe that a work of art can only be fully comprehended if we look upon it as part of a certain context, with which it has certain traits in common; these traits it is our business to ascertain and describe and then attempt an explanation of them.
Under the term, ‘literary revolution,’ we must understand, above all, certain radical changes in the traditional literary structure. Our primary aim will be to establish whether the changes we discover are the result of tensions in the traditional literary structure or whether they were induced by contacts with foreign literary structures, or even whether the influence of extraliterary reality was of decisive significance. Our task must be the precise analysis of mutually interacting influences, of the individual elements operative in the literary process.
I deal in one of my more recent studies with some aspects of the revolutionary changes comprehended in the term ‘literary revolution,’ as observed by us in the opus of one of the greatest names in the new Chinese literature, that of Lu Hsün.1 There I stated, too, that one of the principal attributes of one branch of the new narrative prose, as compared with the narrative prose of the preceding period, was the attenuated role of the sujet: the plot or story as such loses its significance to the point of vanishing entirely, its place being taken by the straightforward record of a certain segment of reality. I noted also a certain analogy to this phenomenon in European literature, but did not seek to discover its deeper roots.
I think that certain questions which occurred to us in our study of the work of Lu Hsün might be clarified by the study of the work of one of Lu Hsün’s contemporaries—Yeh Shao-chün , otherwise known as Yeh Sheng-t’ao . This writer is little known in Europe, no more than a few short stories and his autobiographical novel Ni Huan-Chih (Yeh Sheng-t’ao wen-chi , Jen-min wen-hsüeh ch’u-pan-sheh, Peking 1958, Vol. 3, pp. 119ff.), so named after the principal character), having, to my knowledge, been so far translated. In China, however, Yeh Shao-chün is among the foremost personalities in new Chinese literature and his work has always been rated very high. He also took part in the founding meeting of the Society for the Study of Literature—Wen-hsüeh yen-chiu hui—in 1921, when the new writers made their first appearance as an organized group, and later he contributed to various literary periodicals and collaborated with important publishing houses, such as Commercial Press and K’ai-ming shu-chü. Yeh Shao-chün was somewhat younger than Lu Hsün, his birth-year being 1893 or 1894, whereas Lu Hsün was born in 1881. Nevertheless, both belong to the same group that aimed to give its hallmark to the first products of the new Chinese literature, and, indeed, their works show striking similarities. And so Yeh Shao-chün’s work, like the work of Lu Hsün, offers a suitable opportunity for tracing more precisely what the literary revolution really signified and what new features not present in the old literature characterize the products of the literary revolution.
In the same way as Lu Hsün makes his literary début with a short story in the written language, entitled “A Recollection”—Huai-chiu, which we analyzed in the above-mentioned study, Yeh Shao-chün also writes his first surviving tale in the written language. It is the short story Ch’iung-ch’ou , “The Sorrow of the Poor,” dating from 1914 (Wen-chi, Vol. 3, pp. 110). It is obvious that the old traditional education, which consisted mainly in acquiring a knowledge of classical writings in the written language, determined the first literary attempts also of the new literary generation. Even in the later productions of Yeh Shao-chün, already composed in the colloquial language, we still feel the strong influence of the written language, tending always toward a parallelism of expressions and a rhythmic balance between the individual sentence clauses.
At this point, however, we must pose the question of whether the influence of literature in the written language was only involuntary and whether the authors wrote in a style which long training had made second nature to them, or whether the old hierarchy of literary genres and styles also played a part. “High” literature, as opposed to folk or popular literature, was always composed in the written language, and now, when writers aim to create literary works they hope will be regarded as “high” literature, they make use of elements, clichés and a style traditionally associated with high literature, quite overlooking the fact that the old novel and short story were always written in the colloquial language. But, of course, in the eyes of the literati that was not “real literature.”
Links with the old prose are apparent both in our author’s above-mentioned earliest extant short story, and especially in his first collection, published in 1922, entitled Ko-mo “Barrier” (“Misunderstanding,” Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 103-109), with a hint at the author’s program, but also indicating the new Lebensgefühl with which the new authors are filled, namely, the feeling of loneliness. Nevertheless we can trace connections with the old literature alike in the lyrical sketches—the genre closest to the old literature—and in stories from life such as w as his above-cited first short story. In his lyrical sketches, we find affinities with the old literature even in the choice of theme, on reading, for example, his sketch, Han-hsiao-ti ch’in-ko “Song of a Lute on a Cold Morning,” (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 84-85), we instantly are reminded of the well-known poem by Po Chü-i, P’i-p’a Hsing “Song of a Lute” (Pai-shih ch’ang-ch’ing chi , Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 103-109, ed. Wen-hsüeh ku-chi k’an-hsing she 1955, Pt. 2. ch. 12, pp. 56a-57a), describing the poet’s meeting with a girl singer, who tells him the story of her life. It is interesting that in a modern writer’s sketch there is no longer any story; there is only the description of a melancholy mood when the narrator—the short story is written in the first person—takes an early morning walk through a poor quarter of shabby little houses mostly, so it was said, inhabited by singers. The sketch records the feelings of the narrator on listening to the sad sound of a lute falteringly played and the singing of, it would seem, a very young girl, who is evidently, despite cold and weariness, trying to practice her song. We realize that the modern prose writer can do quite well without any story, all he needs is to explain the social significance of the observed phenomenon, in which he sees the reflection of the unhappy fate of certain groups of population. Here a definite shift is perceptible toward the capturing of reality, achieved not by the recording of facts, but alone through emotional coloring.
A close link with the old literature is apparent also in those prose pieces which are a kind of record of the fate of some individual. It should be remembered that the life-stories of interesting individuals, formerly, of course, belonging mostly to the gentry-class, used to be a favorite theme for literary pi-chi, “notes” or “jottings.” We find very clear links with the old prose style in our author’s earliest known short story in the colloquial language, I-sheng “A Single Life” (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 3-6), strongly reminiscent of Lu Hsün’s story, “New Year’s Sacrifice.” Yeh Shao Chün’s story is, however, much earlier, for it was written on February 14, 1919, not long after the publication of Lu Hsün’s “Mad-man’s Diary.” Here, especially the opening paragraph, with its parallelphrases—“She was born in a peasant’s family, she did not enjoy the luck of calling the servants and ordering the maids . . . putting on powder and applying the lipstick . . .”—at once recalls the style of the old classical literature. The tragic story of a girl who is bartered, beaten, dragged here and there, shows how the Chinese writer had the literary resources to picture the life of a wretched human being without trying to make his relation more interesting by contriving some artificial plot. He is content to give his narration the simple form of a report on the cruel fate of an individual. Although the traditional, narrative style sometimes erred on the side of baldness, the tales being sometimes more like police reports than literature, it led the writer, on the other hand, to exactness of factual description and to the expression of only relevant matter. Like the older authors, Yeh Shao-chün keeps strictly to the facts—for him, as for the old authors, creative fantasy was, we may suppose, “empty” and “void.”
As we saw in our study of Lu Hsün, also the work of Yeh Shao-chün shows close links with the old written literature. Though the new writers strove to discard the old written literature of the gentry, the chief characteristic of which was the special language in which it was written, they did not link up with the popular literature written in the colloquial language, but with this “high” literature. That is one insight. Another is that in Yeh Shao-chün’s early work we find no trace of the influence of European literature, except perhaps a general sensibility stimulating interest in “the downtrodden and oppressed,” in the cruel aspects of life. Undoubtedly the work of Yeh Shao-chün is a good example of “literature for life,” literature aiming to serve life, as proclaimed in 1921 by the Society for the Study of Literature, referred to above and of which Yeh Shao-chün was a founding member.
On the evidence of the above-mentioned prose pieces, we could characterize Yeh Shao-chün’s early production as growing out of the soil of traditional literature, but already permeated with a new spirit. But in his second collection of short stories, of 1923, entitled after the hero of one of the pieces, Huo-tsai “Conflagration” (Wen-chi, Vol. 2) we come across certain short stories which are strikingly different in character from anything in the old literature and, on the other hand, call to mind Lu Hsün’s short story “Reminiscence,” which we analyzed in the study cited above. As the principal new feature in Lu Hsün’s story I regard, as I pointed out in that same study, the almost complete lack of a plot and the fact that the dialogue has become practically autonomous, not even serving the purpose of more precise characterization. It is simply a form of presentation of a certain atmosphere, a certain situation, or a set of human relationships, such as we frequently meet with in the works of such modern writers in the West as Hemingway, Joyce or Faulkner. Fragments of conversation bring the character before us with-out any direct description, indicating relationships that could not otherwise be described, and revealing the mind of the person, his vacillations and indefinable nuances of feeling in a way straightforward description could never do.
The author endeavors to approach reality directly and render it without any artificially contrived context. The reader’s impression should be that the author is just noting down a piece of reality, some real happening, or—more frequently—a casual conversation he chances to overhear. The collection Huo-tsai contains three pieces not in the form of short stories, but simply presenting certain segments of life. The simplest of these is the sketch Hsiao-hsing “The Morning Walk” (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 113-121), written on November 6, 1921. It still has the traditional form of personal notes or jottings and is related in the first person. It describes a walk in the vicinity of Western Lake, Hsi-hu, near Hang-chou, a famous beauty spot. But besides the usual descriptions of the enchanting scenery—the author recalls, too, a previous visit to the Lake—he weaves into his descriptions conversations with the peasants he meets on his walk. Gradually the personal experience of a pleasant excursion changes into a series of scenes from the life of the peasants. The narrator describes two peasants working together at an irrigating wheel and notes that his compatriots, even when working together, pay no heed to each other, but concentrate on their individual tasks as if working entirely on their own. He reports a conversation about a plague of insects two years before; the peasants admit that it need not have been nearly so bad if they had been able to join forces in combating it. In the scraps of conversation, we get a glimpse of the cruel realities of the Chinese peasant’s life in the old society: the landowner comes into the village to collect his rents—and not even drowning saves a poor man from the persecution of his family. The author’s picture gradually fills in with miniature shots of the peasants’ life, till finally we have before us a lifelike, complex picture of country life.
More ambitious is the story Pei-ai ti chung-tsai “A Heavy Load of Grief” (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 122-191), written on June 26, 1921. The form is again of notes in which the narrator recalls his trip on a local boat, hauled by a small steamer somewhere in his native countryside, in the basin of the Yang-tzu. The boat could carry about forty persons, but “incomparably bigger was the load of grief it was wont to carry,” is the author’s comment. Distracted by the lovely riverside scenery and the noise of the engines, the narrator and his friend are unable to pass the time in reading and so observe the people around them and listen to their conversation. A middle-aged woman, “on whom seems to rest all the sadness of mankind,” is telling how her children, afflicted by an hereditary disease, probably tuberculosis, passed away one after the other. Now her son is in hospital with no hope of recovery. He is looked after by his wife, whom he married during a short period of improvement. The narrator’s field of vision is occupied successively by a rich man quarreling with an attendant about three coppers for a hot face-cloth, a vulgar young servant-woman from Shanghai, full of praise of the interesting and lucrative service offered by the Shanghai ladies who play ma-jong most of the day and of contempt for life in the country to which her husband is now calling her back. These film-like sequences of shots from real life are not related to any sujet. We are reminded of the assertion of the Russian literary theoretician and critic V. Šklovskij who condemned traditional subject-matter because “it spoils and deforms the literary material,” and suggests substituting for it, among other things, travel notes. A Chinese author succeeded in realizing this thought even before it was expressed.
The best of these travel sequences is called Lü-lu-ti pan-lü “Travel companions” (Wen-chi, Vol. 2, pp. 170-181). A boat again provides the setting and a group of passengers the cast. But what reaches our ears is not this time a chain of loosely connected episodes—it is a profound and carefully built up picture presenting the fate and character of a queer human group. The chief narrators are two women, one older, with bloodshot eyes, and the other middle-aged; between them sits the girl called Chu-erh . The girl is silent for the most part and the whole story is told by the two older women, especially the one with bloodshot eyes. They are taking the girl to an older relative in Shanghai, not as a servant, but as a help. From the conversation it is apparent that the girl left her home without saying anything to her father, telling only her mother. She evidently has not much respect for her father who, as we learn from scraps of conversation, is an incorrigible waster, opium-smoker and gambler, who has squandered his whole property, including house and boat. The family of six is dependent solely on the earnings of the mother, who sews for a livelihood. One day her husband, still in his bed, hears that his wife is finishing a piece of work for which she is to get the money. The husband gets up, goes to the customer and collects the payment, as if his wife had sent him. But in the evening he comes home and gives back the greater part of the money to Chu-erh; he had evidently won back something at cards. Nor does he treat his children badly: when he occasionally wins he brings them peanuts and oranges, but never does he bring anything to his wife. Nevertheless, a certain intimacy must exist between them, for although they have four children, she is again in the family way. Little by little, fragments of the women’s conversation give us an insight into the psychology of a very strange group of people, such as we seldom meet with in the new literature and practically never in the old.
What is particularly new in Yeh Shao-chün’s presentation is that we make direct acquaintance with these characters in the women’s conversation, that we see them as their partners see them, that there is no attempt here at any description or commentary by the author. It is the same method as we find employed by Lu Hsün, but exploited for much more exacting aims, for the documenting of a certain general situation in the countryside, for the portrayal of various types of people and especially those who are the victims of a crushing fate, and, finally, this method is used to reveal the inner mind and relations of people who are clearly not normal. The circumstance that the author informs us of all these things solely through the reports of other speakers, without himself adding a word of comment, creates an absolutely objective approach to the reality he wishes to bring to our notice and so gives a sharper edge to the facts he records.
These methods, which we find adopted by Lu Hsün and Yeh Shao-chün, are not, as we pointed out above, at all uncommon among a number of Western authors. A very close analogy exists, for instance, in the works of Hemingway, but the writings of the Chinese author are, of course, much earlier than the writings of any of these Western authors. Are we to suppose then that Yeh Shao-chün himself created this method, without having any pattern or even impulse in the preceding literature? It seems to me that in one of his short stories we find at least a hint of where we might look for such an impulse. Yeh Shao-chün’s third collection of short stories Hsien-hsia , “Below the Horizon” (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 251ff.), contains the piece entitled I-ko ch’ing-nien (Wen-chi, Vol. 3, pp. 342-362), written on January 31, 1924, in which the principal character is a young man who wishes to become a writer. We have no special reason to regard this story as autobiographical, but there is one detail that seemed to us significant. On the wall of this apprentice-author hang the portraits of three writers: Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Hans Christian Andersen. I have not the impression that we should find in the exclusively short-story production of Yeh Shao-chün any obvious traces of the influence of Tolstoy, even though we might find points in common in the religious bias of both authors—Yeh Shao-chün has a marked interest in Buddhism. But undoubtedly one of the authors whose portraits hang on the young writer’s wall deeply influenced one domain of Yeh Shao-chün’s production: that author is Hans Andersen, who served Yeh as a model for the writing of fairytales and stories for children; the name of one of his fairytales, Huang-ti-ti hsin-i “The Emperor’s New Robes,” speaks for itself.
We must ask ourselves whether the third of the writers for whom Yeh Shao-chün’s hero had evidently a special esteem was not of some significance for the author of our short tales. We pointed out above that a striking feature of the narrative prose pieces of both Lu Hsün and Yeh Shao-chün, which we have here described, is the dominating importance of the dialogue, in which the characters appearing in the story introduce themselves, explain their mutual relations, indicate their living circumstances and situation, and so on. We need only call to mind one of Chekhov’s well-known longer tales V bane, “At the Turkish Baths,” where both episodes consist only of dialogues and the author’s direct part in the narration is limited to several observations. It is possible that examples such as these, where the core of the story is embodied in the brisk dialogue, acted as a stimulus upon both Lu Hsün and Yeh Shao-chün, prompting them to try and present the characters in their narrative and express certain human relations through the medium of the conversations of the persons involved and so dispense with an author’s introduction and commentary. Our hypothesis then gains in credibility when we discover other links between the works of Yeh Shao-chün and Chekhov.
It must, however, also be emphasized that between Chekhov’s approach and that of Yeh Shao-chün there are certain basic differences. It is especially Chekhov’s short stories, which make use of dialogue as the main structural element, that come closest to the genre out of which Chekhov’s art evolved, namely, the humorous short story written designedly for humorous magazines. Naturally this led to the stressing of certain details at the expense of others and to a certain shift in their scale of values; figuratively speaking, these stories are not a normal mirror held up to life, but a distorted mirror, whose purpose it is to ridicule and caricature the phenomena it reflects. This is not so in the case of the Chinese artist who, trained in the strict traditions of Chinese “high” literature, which required first and foremost accuracy and veracity, endeavors to present a certain reality with the greatest possible exactness and authenticity. Thus the dialogue-based short stories of Yeh Shao-chün approach most closely the similarly constructed short stories of Hemingway, with their stubborn endeavor to render as objectively and truthfully as possible a given segment of reality. And so Yeh Shao-chün’s compositions have far sharper contours and he carves, with firm, unhesitating hand, out of the hardest reality around him, the portion he has chosen to present.
I believe, however, that in the work of Yeh Shao-chün we find other traits showing affinities with the work of Anton Chekhov, so that our hypothesis that the dialogue form of Yeh Shao-chün’s, and eventually that of Lu Hsün’s stories was, in fact, inspired by Chekhov’s short stories is not just an empty conjecture. The two authors even work up similar themes: Chekhov, in the short story Damy, “Ladies,” tells how the Director of National Schools in a certain government, is obliged to discharge a poor teacher who has lost his voice, but promises him a vacancy as secretary in a social institution. This good intention, however, is frustrated by the pressure of ladies, who fall over each other in recommending a certain young man who, though far from prepossessing, has succeeded in insinuating himself into the good graces of the local ladies. Naturally, in face of such competition, the deserving teacher has no chance. Yeh Shao-chün, in his story, Ta pan tzu “Shaping a Team” (Collection Ch’eng-chung , “In the City,” Wen-chi, Vol. 2, pp. 203-213), describes the dreams of an idealistic pedagogue who has just been appointed headmaster of a school and now plans to call onto his staff friends whom he knows as persons of learning and culture. But soon one outside recommendation after another make it clear that all his plans are mere illusion. Of course, a similarity of themes may be a pure coincidence, especially when we remember that Yeh Shao-chün was a pedagogue and that the situation in Chinese schools was not so very different from that at the schools of Tsarist Russia. Nevertheless, this identity of themes, as well as a similar conception and approach, points to a certain parallelism between the works of the Chinese and the Russian author, which is not likely to be purely accidental.
Common to both authors, for example, is a special kind of “bitter humour.” It would be superfluous to cite examples from Chekhov, as these are readily accessible in any handbook; we shall give here only the most drastic example from the works of Yeh Shao-chün, which at the same time will illustrate the more tragic disposition of the Chinese author.
Positively demonic is the sharpness of the impact made by the mixture of sardonic humor with the most terrible tragedy in Yeh Shao-chün’s short story Fan , “Rice” (Collection Huo-tsai, Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 132-140, written on September 24, 1921), localized in a village in a flooded area, where the young crops are rotting, which for the inhabitants is the presage of famine. An inspector comes to visit the school and reprimands the teacher who is not at his post, because he has gone to buy groceries for his family. The teacher humbly promises never to go again to buy groceries for his family. The children make fun of him: If his family has no groceries, they will have nothing to eat and will die of hunger. For the children, too, there is in it a kind of devilish humor, because they know from the grown-ups that they are all on the brink of starvation. The teacher’s family is now in a still more precarious situation, for the inspector has imposed a fine on him equal to the greater part of his salary. One might say that here Yeh Shao-chün’s humor penetrates to regions even more tragic and dehumanized than those explored by Chekhov.
It seems to me, however, that the main parallels between the two authors’ works must be sought in two more general spheres: The first is a certain attitude to life, which led both writers to draw upon a similar group of themes and to regard them in a similar way; the second is the special free form which predominates in their short story production and which we find already in Lu Hsün. There we defined it as an attenuation, eventually a suppression, of the function of a sujet in the compositional structure.
Chekhov described very accurately his thematic bias and the purpose of his work in the short story Kryžkovnik, “Gooseberries”: “But look at life: the baseness and sloth of the strong, the ignorance and brutality of the weak, everywhere indescribable misery, hardship, degeneracy, drunkenness, hypocrisy and mendacity . . . And yet, in the streets and in the houses, all is peace and quiet; of the fifty thousand people living in the town not a single person who would shout out a protest against it. We see those who go to the market to buy, who eat during the day and sleep at night, speak about their trivialities, get married, grow old and respectfully accompany their dead to the grave; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life takes place behind the scenes. Everything is quiet and peaceful—only the dumb statistics protest: so and so many people have lost their reason, so and so many barrels have been drunk, so and so many children have died of undernourishment . . . Such a state of affairs is evidently necessary—a happy man feels happy only because the unhappy bear their burden in silence, for without this silence happiness would not be possible. Behind the door of every contented and happy man, somebody would need to stand with a hammer and by constant knocking remind him that there are unhappy people and that, no matter how happy he is, life will sooner or later show its claws, that there will come upon him evil, sickness, poverty and losses, and nobody will see or hear him, just as he now does not see and hear the others . . .”
Six of Yeh Shao-chün’s collections of short stories are written in this key, though among them are not lacking pieces of a sunnier character. Let us note here, for example, the above-mentioned cruelly realistic story, I-sheng, “A Single Life,” or the tale entitled Ch’ien-yin-ti ai “The Hidden Love,” contained in the first of Yeh Shao-chün’s collections (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 93-103), about the similarly wasted life of a woman, or the still more heartbreaking piece, Ch’un-kuang pu shih t’a-ti , “The Glory of Spring Is Not for Her” (Collection Hsien-hsia, Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 363-387). The last-mentioned tells of the brave struggle of a woman to acquire education and independence when her husband drives her away, but who after all her striving sees that “the glory of spring is not for her.” Yeh Shao-chün is able to paint in, like Chekhov, the hopeless greyness, misery and dreariness of Chinese life, very much the same in these respects as life in Russia. We could document this in dozens of examples. In certain instances, however, I should say that Yeh Shao-chün goes farther than his Russian predecessor—that he creates pictures that could well find a place in the gallery of the most anguishing existentialist visions of hopeless despair and human loneliness—of a human being rotting away in the dark and cold, all around him the indifference and apathy of his fellow creatures. I think a story far overstepping the bounds of place and time within which it arose is that entitled Ku-tu “Lonely,” or better, “Deserted” (Collection Hsien-hsia, Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 251-268, written on January 28, 1923), describing the gradual loss of all human contacts and the sinking into endless darkness and loneliness of an old man. After a vain attempt to find a little human warmth beside his only relative, he fails, too, in his endeavor to evoke from the little boy of his landlady any affectionate response. The child does, indeed, snatch the orange he has bought with his few coppers out of his hand, but at once he turns away from him and the landlady drives the old man back into his dark hole, among dirty rags covered with dust and soot, because his cough irritates her. It is a penetrating vision of a human being driven to the limits of the last attributes of existence. It is a work of great formal perfection, too, unified and highly organized. In it the reminiscences of the old man and his gradual decline are projected in a kind of flashback in the last stage on his path to nothingness. Not even Lu Hsün succeeded in rendering so suggestively the greyness and hopelessness of a great part of Chinese life.
In Chekhov, too, we find a short story with a subject and mood very close to Yeh Shao-chün. It is the piece called Nachlebniki, “The Parasites,” also telling the story of a lonely old man who wishes to set out and visit his practically unknown granddaughter, in the uncertain hope that she will take him in. In order not to be hampered in any way on his journey, he gets the knacker to put down his horse and his dog, the last creatures to feel any attachment to him. And when the animals fall, he is ready himself to face the slaughterer’s death-blow. The story reveals with superlative art the confused, pitiful brutality of the old man, but cannot compare with the terrifying picture of humanity drawn by the Chinese artist. It is difficult to say whether there is any thematic connection between the short story of Yeh Shao-chün and that of Chekhov, it is not even particularly likely, but it is a further proof of how the works of both authors grow out of the same attitude to life that permeates their art.
Chekhov surprised his contemporaries with the novelty of his form, or rather with the fact that his short stories seemed to lack any kind of form. The Russian literary theoretician Viktor Šklovskij cites in his Zametky o proze russkich klasikov, “Notes on the Prose of Russian Classics,” a critical notice that appeared in 1886, in the periodical Nov, by the critic Zmijev, where he writes: “Short stories such as ‘Conversation with a Dog,’ Jeger, ‘The Huntsman’ . . . and many others are more like delirious ravings or babbling for the sake of babbling about terrible stupidities than the telling with even the slightest precision of a properly thought-out tale” I think that here is expressed in other—somewhat harsh—words, what we observed in connection with Lu Hsün’s short story, namely, the weakening of the significance of the sujet.
The special and new feature of Chekhov’s work is excellently defined by L. N. Tolstoy, who, himself a great artist, grasped exactly what was the essence of his contemporary’s work: “It is not possible to make a comparison between Chekhov and earlier Russian writers—say Turgenev, Dostojevskij, or even myself. Chekhov has his own form, like the Impressionists. You look—he seems to be smearing on without thinking the colors that come to his hand, and seemingly there is no mutual connection between these strokes of color. But when you step back a little and take another look, you experience a surprising impression: in front of you is a sparkling, fascinating picture” (cited in D. J. Raichin, V. J. Stražkev and others, History of Russian Literature, Czech translation, Praha 1948, pp. 402-403).
Tolstoy expresses the simple fact that the old artists painted a theme, a story, an episode, a reminiscence—such as “The Birth of Venus,” whereas the Impressionist artist painted a part of reality—what he saw and how he saw it, and rejected any kind of “story.” We find the same attitude in Chekhov’s short stories. The artist renders a certain segment of reality and does not subordinate it to any previously thought out plot. Many such prose pieces, with a sujet, are to be found in Chekhov’s literary production; we have only to open any collection of his short stories. Let us take, for instance, the piece entitled Archijerej, “The Bishop,” which records the last days of Bishop Peter, his officiation in the Easter rites of the Church, a visit of his mother, conversations, recollections, emotions—a sequence of pictures registering the last hours of an ordinary old man. The short story, Na podvode, “On the Wagon,” is merely the noting down of the simple experiences of a woman teacher returning on a wagon from the district town where she has been for money. In Yeh Shao-chün’s output, such stories without a plot, or with only a very slight one, comprise the largest part of his work. Belonging to this category are the short stories we have described, those constructed out of fragments of conversation overheard on a boat, those describing the sad fate of various persons, mostly women, for instance, the piece entitled Ah Feng contained in Yeh Shao-chün’s first collection of short stories (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 70-74) and giving a picture of a little girl, bearing with courage and humor the hard lot of a child-bride in the family of a headservant, and, finally, those stories relating various experiences of the author. Among them is the very charming piece, Μa-ling kua (the name of an excellent kind of melon); the story is contained in the author’s third Collection Hsien-hsia, “Below the Horizon” (Wen-chi, Vol. 1, pp. 323-341) and tells how the author, as a boy, sat for the first State examination.
It is interesting that neither European students of Chinese literature, nor Chinese literary critics, should see in the face character of Yeh Shao-chün’s short stories any innovation; rather did they see a departure from established procedures in the works of those among his contemporaries who imitated European prose of the nineteenth century. I think that the reasons for this are not far to seek. All the prose production of the old literati, insofar as it was written in wen-yen—the old written language—was essentially without a plot; on the contrary, a plot or story was rejected as “empty fantasy,” “fanciful invention.” The main part of their prosaic output consisted of various sketches, notes or jottings, often of a lyrical character, and we should find in this production a number of parallels to both the work of Yeh Shao-chün and various examples of Chekhov’s art and, in general, to the modern prose arising in Europe after the first World War. The links between modern Chinese and European writers are not due so much to the direct influence of the new European literature on the Chinese, as to the closeness of traditional Chinese writing to modern European production. The tradition which determined the work of Yeh Shao-chün and Lu Hsün also explains certain traits that make the work of Chinese authors seem, in a number of respects, more modern than the work of the Russian author. One of these features is the stress on the role of the narrator in the work of Lu Hsün and also in that of Yeh Shao-chün. The greater part of their short stories is in the form of the relation of a certain narrator and is in the first person. A certain intimacy is thereby achieved which we often find lacking in Chekhov, but which is strikingly manifest in Hemingway. Again the reason for this is to be found in tradition—the notes of the literati were composed for the most part as Ich-Erzählungen in keeping with the predominantly lyrical character of Old Chinese literature as a whole.
In concluding my address, I should like to draw attention to one fact which, should it be confirmed, might afford a further proof of the links between the work of Yeh Shao-chün and the work of Anton Chekhov. It is the prose piece Ch’iu “Autumn,” included in the third volume of his collected works (Wen-chi, Vol. 3, pp. 34-42). It is my impression that this short story is actually nothing else than a certain parallel to Chekhov’s famous play Višntevyj sad, “The Cherry Orchard.” The theme is transposed into a Chinese context, but the basic situation remains the same. The heroine is, for Chinese conditions, somewhat unusual. Though she is already in her thirties, she is not married and earns her living as an independent woman; she is a midwife, but obviously is of higher intellectual standing. She returns from Shanghai to the country for the spring festival of the dead, to visit the graves of her family, and is immediately approached by his sister-in-law, who offers her an excellent match with an older banker. Soon, however, the young woman finds out that behind it is a very definite ulterior motive: the family wish to sell their old family house and dispossess her of the twenty mou of land left her by her father. The excursion to the graves, the recollection of the charm of her early life, provide the lyrical background to the tale. Confused and unhappy at the breaking-up of the home where she spent the first sixteen years of her life, the young woman returns to Shanghai. Again it would be difficult to prove that Chekhov’s play did, indeed, inspire Yeh Sheng-t’ao’s prose piece, but the correspondences in theme, the uncommon character of the heroine, and other parallels which we have discovered between the short-story genre of the Chinese and the Russian author make this connection probable. Nevertheless, it must be noted that Yeh Shao-chün’s story is very different in tendency from Chekhov’s play.
It would be an interesting contribution to the tracing of the roots of modern Chinese literature and, especially of the literary origins of the work of Yeh Shao-chün and, possibly, also of Lu Hsün. On the other hand, we must stress that, despite the parallels with the European works which we have pointed out, it seems to me that much more important for the rise of the new Chinese literature is the influence of the Old Chinese literature, especially that written in the classical language. It was necessary only to permeate the old traditions with the new artistic sensibility for them to become the fertile soil for new creations. It is worth considering whether this example of ours might not shed light also upon other domains of Chinese cultural, economic and political life.
Lecture delivered at Stockholm University in December 1969 on the occasion of receiving the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa. Published in Archiv Orientální 38 (1970), 437-452.
1Lu Hsün’s "Huai Chiu," A Precursor of Modern Chinese Literature, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 29, 1969, pp. 169-176.