A particularly important subject of study for general literary history and theory is the birth of the new Asian literatures which have arisen as the result of revolutionary changes in the countries of Asia. Their common distinguishing characteristic is the manner and degree in which they measure up with contemporary European literature and draw upon European literary achievements to help them solve the problems with which these literatures are faced in their own environment. We shall not touch here upon the historical perspectives of the rebirth of Asian cultures, of which the history of the rise of these modern literatures is an essential part and, at the same time, a reflection—and this undoubtedly is one of the most significant historical processes in the history of mankind—but concentrate our thoughts directly on what the study of this process can contribute to literary history and, mainly, to literary theory. I think that the knowledge gained from such a study relates above all to two domains: on the one hand there are the questions connected with literary dynamics, that is, the investigation of what is the driving and determining force in literary development; the speed of this process and its relatively narrow time limits offer an especially favorable opportunity for ascertaining whether the main causes of changes in literature are chiefly to be sought within literature itself, that is, in the interplay of tensions between the various components of the literary structure, or whether they are more frequently attributable to extra-literary impulses, especially the relations to social reality; on the other hand a unique chance is here presented to study the character of different literary complexes. In the conflict which forms the substance of the history of the birth of the new literatures stand opposed the very strongly traditional Oriental literature and the new literature which has drawn upon the experience of European literature. By comparing them we can grasp more precisely the character of each and even evaluate the importance of the individual components in these contrary structures; such an evaluation, based on the study of only a single literary complex, as, for instance, modern European literature, is often inadequate, as it fails to bring out clearly the essential qualities in which it differs from the literature of preceding ages, from the literature of antiquity and from that of medieval times. We may assume with a large degree of probability that Asian writers will select from the European literatures what is of greatest value to them in solving the problems and completing the tasks posed by the new reality, and such selective tendencies will then appear in all or the majority of Asian literatures, whereas elements which have no substantial contribution to make will appear only sporadically, or not at all. Here then certain objective criteria will arise for the evaluation of the different components of modern European literature. It would be possible to generalize and say that all the new Asian literatures will have closer affinities with European literatures—with what we call world literature—than with their own literatures of the preceding period. This fact is so evident that when—years ago—I made my first acquaintance with the new Chinese literature, I wrote that the differences between the literature of Old China and that which arose after the first World War are so deep, that it is difficult for us to realize that they are the product of one and the same nation.1 The significance of this fact comes out the more clearly when we consider that these so widely differing worlds are separated by the amazingly short time of less than a decade. In this connection, we are fully entitled to speak of a literary revolution, as the Chinese call the period culminating in the May Fourth Movement of 1919.
Let us attempt now to define at least some of the features which characterize the birth of the new literature and differentiate it from that of the preceding period. As regards the process of the birth of a new literature, a study of the Chinese material would lead us to conclude that certain changes which it is possible to explain as the result of contact with European literature are to be found in works preceding the literary revolution. A closer examination, however, would show that these changes in the traditional literary patterns do not in reality imply any true departure from the general character of the older literature. All such works belong, in character and substance, to the old literary complex. New works do not arise as the end-product of successive changes in the traditional structure, but all at once, as new and complete structures qualitatively different from the works of the preceding period. Here I shall cite at least two examples to clarify my thesis. The novel, Chiu ming ch’i yüan , “A Strange Revenge for Nine Lives,” by the writer Wu Wo-yao , written sometime at the beginning of this century, opens with a very impressive scene describing the attack of a band of ruffians on the abode of their enemies, in the course of which nine persons were burnt to death. It would appear that the author was seeking to substitute for the earlier loosely-linked succession of episodes forming a simple chronological continuity a more complex structure in which the action is conceived as the logical outcome of the workings of the law of cause and effect. We gain the impression that here, perhaps, the example of European literature has basically influenced the whole structure of the work. But the following chapters show that this is not so. The opening episode is nothing else than the traditional prologue and in its further course the novel does not differ in any way from all earlier criminal stories. The author did no more than decorate his work with a certain compositional element borrowed from European literature—the transfer of the high-point of the story to the beginning of the work—but otherwise everything remained as before. A merely formal change left the essential character of the work unaffected. A somewhat different example is furnished in the well-known work Lao Ts՝an yu-chi , dating from the same time.2 In this book the author, Liu O , presents a more or less independent psychological short novel describing the love-story and contemplative casting-off of the world by the nun, I-yün. This is, on the whole, new material for the Chinese novel, but the formal treatment remains traditional. The story is told by the nun in the first person and is inserted into the main stream of narrative presented in the traditional story-telling structure. As the nun introduces the utterances of other persons, there arises a complicated structure of quotations within quotations demonstrating a clear clash between the new tendency and content of the story, on the one hand, and traditional form, on the other.
In contrast to this, another work also originating in the pre-revolutionary period (1911), Lu Hsün’s story, Huai-chiu , “The Past,”3 has all the characteristics of a work belonging to the new literature, although unlike the two works mentioned above it is still written in the old literary language. These examples, which we could multiply at will, show that the substance of a literary revolution does not lie in some gradual change in individual elements, but in a sudden leap, when a completely new artistic structure springs into being.
This very important observation probably explains, too, the striking fact that in the course of the literary revolution in China a completely new generation of writers entered the stage. None of the authors belonging to the pre-revolutionary generation had any active part in the shaping of the new literature, though some of them were still alive. At the same time it provides an important clue to the character of the literary work. If changes in the individual elements do not necessarily imply any basic change, it is clear that what is decisive for the character of a work is what kneads all these elements into a homogeneous whole, that is, the primary organizing force, the way in which the author masters his material and shapes it to his design and purpose. A work is more than the sum of its component parts, its quality lies in the manner and purpose which these elements serve; the character of a work is, in fact, determined by its fundamental and guiding conception.
Let us try now to indicate wherein lie, in our view, the main differences between this new literature and the traditional literature. Expressed very generally, every work of art is the product of three mutually interdependent factors: the artist’s personality, reality in the broadest sense of the term and the artistic tradition. It seems to us that we can best characterize the revolutionary process within which the new literature arose as a revolutionary transformation in the relations between these factors—a change in their relative importance and also, of course, in their essential quality. Thus we suggest that the first two factors have greatly increased in importance, in the new literature, whereas the third has very much diminished, besides which its character has substantially changed.
Let us now consider this last aspect of the revolutionary changes in the literature. It is surely unnecessary to elaborate on the normative character of the Chinese literary tradition. In every history of Chinese literature lengthy descriptions are to be found of the immense catalogue of rules and regulations governing especially the classical literature, of the complex canon ruling the intonation in verse, the arrangement of the rhymes, the number of syllables, as well as the length of the stanza, the distribution of poetic images, etc. Equally strict were the rules to which the structure of the dominant prose genre—the essay—had to conform, the whole being based on a scheme of eight precisely prescribed parts (hence the term “the eight-legged essay”). Finally, the written language itself was a norm, it was an exclusively book language, which had to be acquired in long years of exhausting study. The goal of study in China, which was to pass the State Examinations with credit, was in substance the acquiring of a mastery of literary norms, and for that a lifetime was not too long. It must be borne in mind, too, that not only the literary form was normalized, but also the subject-matter—as an extreme example we may cite the prescribing of themes for poetic contests, but of greater weight for the general character of literary production is the unusually small measure of individuality and originality present in Chinese poetry. Although we are dealing here almost exclusively with the strongly subjective lyric, an altogether stereotyped expression of quite general feelings everywhere predominates. Only seldom do we come across a flash of uniquely personal experience. A very interesting example of this normative tendency is furnished by popular literature, which stood somewhat apart from the interest of the literati and so was subjected to less rigorous codification. And yet, there, too, we find very characteristic proof of the strength of the literary tradition. A certain popular theme is worked up again and again in the literary form in fashion at the time. Thus we have here, on the one hand, a succession of certain literary forms (we might almost say models), and, on the other, a certain number of popular subjects rewritten to fit in with them. In these recastings, the author is not interested, as a rule, in presenting the conflict which forms the substance of the story in a new light, but only in exploiting it for the new form. It is natural that in such cases the link with reality is very weak and the scope for creative originality greatly limited.
The main aim of a literary revolution is thus the abolition of a great part of these norms, eventually their replacement by others. The traditional themes disappear completely or, if they are used, a new approach is made to them, a re-evaluation is attempted or their essential substance is presented in a new light. In addition, a small number of themes have survived offering certain possibilities for realizing the new literary intentions. Such subjects were suited to new literary tendencies and, at the same time, they had a certain emotional potential; they were popular and their new treatment was all the more interesting for the opportunity it offered of comparison with older versions. A good illustration of this is the attempt to paint a broad social fresco, a feature shared by both the old socially critical novel (Wu Ching-tzu, Li Po-yüan) and the new realistic novel (Mao Tun, Ting Ling and others). The situation is similar in the recording of personal experience, which has provided the basis for a wide range of literary forms, in the old literature as also in the new.
Above all, the revolution made a clean sweep of the old stock of literary forms. The more crystallized the form and the more categorical the adherence to it demanded, the more complete was its disappearance. In poetry, practically all the old forms have been done away with, because here norms were enforced most rigidly of all. Indeed, the revulsion against any kind of restrictions is reflected in the abundant use of free verse, where it is often very difficult to say whether any organizing principles are still present, or whether the new verse exists only as an antithesis to the old. In prose, the old essays and other related forms disappear, and similarly the old forms of narrative prose. A quite special significance in this process of the liquidation of old norms attaches not only to their disappearance from the old written language but to the fact that old styles in the vernacular, such as the old narrative style of novels and tales, too, have been pushed into the background. A new literary language is taking shape, stratified according to the different functions—social and literary—it must fulfil, and not on a normative basis.
It is noteworthy that in this general abolition of norms, only those forms survive which are free enough to allow of their being used for new aims and given a new content, such as, for instance, the diary, letter, personal notes—forms enabling authors to give spontaneous expression to their thoughts. Similarly, as far as the novel is concerned, that form has a certain attraction in which relatively free episodes may be linked up, thus allowing of the introduction of a wide range of material. On the other hand, a traditional attitude as regards literary forms may have the opposite affect, for not only a strict adherence to norms may be a retarding element, but equally negative in its influence may be an inadequately developed tradition. For instance, in the new Chinese literature, it is only with the greatest difficulty that the more complex and large-scale epic forms (for instance, the counterpart to the European nineteenth-century novel) are being evolved. Here an inadequate tradition in the artistic mastery of a complicated thematic plan on a large scale is evident.
The jettisoning of a retarding tradition is the main reason why the new literature differs so much in externals from that of the preceding period—the most striking traditional traits of literary production have disappeared and links with the past appear, if at all, more in the internal orientation and structure. It is natural that, under these circumstances, those artistic forms have the greatest attraction for writers which are least bound by norms, so that a re-evaluation of all the traditional genres takes place and a new hierarchy of genres is established. First place is given to forms which appear at least superficially to be fairly free—the short story and the novel, forms which, with certain exceptions, were traditionally excluded from classical literature. On the other hand, poetry which had a dominating position in Old China, not only in literature, but in the whole sphere of creative art, is now demoted to a subordinate place. The literary history of the first twenty years of the new Chinese literature is, above all, the history of narrative prose, and perhaps even drama has greater significance than poesy. Not till almost the end of this period does there appear in China the first great modern poet—Ai Ch’ing. It must, however, be pointed out that the literary revolution only codified a situation which had existed for a very long time, perhaps even from the end of the middle ages, at the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Thus we see that the literary revolution is not merely an impact from outside, but at the same time is the outcome of a tendency to resolve certain tensions existing in the organism of the literature in question. Further, it should be noted that the suppression of certain traditional norms does not mean their eradication, so much as their suspension. Thus, for instance, all the popular epic forms which were excluded from literature by the literary revolution play a strongly normative role in the literature which arose during the War, that is, in the years 1937-45. It then became apparent that these forms were a part of the aesthetic sensibility of the broad masses and that if the writer wished to make his work widely accessible and acceptable, he could not afford to disregard this broadly-based aesthetic codex. I think that it is clear from this example that the influence of the consumer may be regarded as a norm-forming factor and that certain general notions about art can at certain junctures stimulate or, on the contrary, retard, the literary development, the latter especially when there is too marked a difference between the artistic and ideological level of a literary work and the general level of the reading public. We may note, too, that even a foreign literature, serving as a model, can in its turn assume the character of a literary norm; here we shall not elaborate on this thesis as it has been adequately demonstrated by the majority of literary historians.
We shall now seek to evaluate the new significance of the other two factors operative in the sphere of literary creation. As regards reality in the broadest sense of the term, the setting aside of traditional norms greatly widens the domain of potential literary subject-matter. Indeed, the areas which were affected by a literary taboo have practically disappeared or are substantially reduced. Almost every fact of the external world, and likewise of the author’s personal life, can become a fit subject for literary treatment. That is more or less self-evident and it would be wholly unnecessary to enumerate the quite new domains it has opened up for Chinese literature. Of greater significance is the fact that writers have acquired a new attitude to reality. They stress the intellectual value of literary works as a means of gaining a deeper understanding of the world and often rate it higher than the aesthetic value. It is natural that such a new attitude to reality must exercise a deep influence on literary production, and not only in respect of content—the author must have a thorough knowledge of his reality and the demand for the scientific and philosophical grasp of the relevant material is actually postulated. The mastery of a wide variety of domains of the external world or the ability to analyze the complexities of one’s own psyche require, however, at the same time, a new adaptation of literary means, the search for ever new artistic methods better suited to the authors’ aims. Already this unprecedented attitude to reality leads to a growing differentiation and perpetual recasting of all the artistic means and precludes any attempt to create rigid norms. This is the meaning of all modern struggles for freedom of artistic creation and the inevitability of the negation of any uniform style, as the expression of some kind of norm. But reality in the new literature acquires a new significance, too, as a criterion, as a kind of measure and evaluation of a work of art, replacing the earlier evaluation for which the yardstick was a certain traditional aesthetic norm. We do not, however, equate this evaluating relation to reality with the demand for the conformity of the artist’s picture to reality. An artist is fully entitled, if he so wishes, to deform reality in his work in accordance with his artistic principles—here I stress in accordance with certain principles, but he may not distort it, falsify it or give inadequate expression to it from a lack of knowledge or artistic ability. As an example, we may cite the work of Salvador Dali, where no difference exists between the “proper,” “perfect” and “truthful” rendering of the real or purely imaginative components of the picture. An example of a contrary approach to reality in the earlier art is the closing scene of one of the chapters of the novel Lao Ts’an yu-chi, of which we made mention above. In this scene the author describes a tremendous bang, in order to achieve the tension required at the end of the chapter by the old compositional scheme of the novel. Only at the beginning of the next chapter do we learn that somewhere in the hills an avalanche had started to descend. Such an irrelevant intrusion of an unconnected motif would be admissable in the new literature only in a grotesque sense, as the creation of a conscious antithesis to the laws of probability. Here we have a clear illustration of the inherent differences between the old literature and the new in the attitude to reality. This confrontation with reality conceived as a system subject to inherent laws is present in every artistic act, as well as its evaluation, and is the basis of all contemporary aesthetics, even where the work of art wishes consciously to deny reality and put in its place a completely subjective system of elements. The interdependence between reality and art remains, even though it may be a negative one, but any kind of traditional norm has disappeared.
All that we have said so far shows that the new art is characterized by a rich diversity of artistic methods and that, naturally, in it the artist’s individuality comes prominently into the foreground, as the sole agent who determines in his own way, in the creative act, the mutual relations between the three factors of which we have spoken above. Nevertheless, the artist is not an altogether free and independent agent. Indeed, Chinese literature after the literary revolution testifies to how the artist can never seal himself off from the reality surrounding him and that this reality determines to a very considerable extent the nature of his art. Instructive for the understanding of this question is the difference between Chinese and Japanese literature. Whereas in Japanese literature various European literary trends were quickly taken up which stressed just this independence of reality and the individuality of artistic expression (actually such foreign influences may create a temporary artistic norm), in Chinese literature all artistic effort is dominated by the attitude to reality, even though the artist chooses a very individual form in which to channel it, for he was always compelled by circumstances to say something about reality and to try somehow to influence it.
And yet the new attitude to reality and the postulate of creative individuality and originality led to a widely differentiated literary production, this being perhaps the basic trait in which the new literature differs from the old.
Should we wish to indicate, at least very briefly, wherein the originality of the new literary output lies, as compared with both the old tradition and European influences, we should undoubtedly have to stress the fact that though the new Chinese production was influenced to a very significant degree by European literature of the nineteenth century—as it could not fail to be considering the natural time-lag in the operation of every literary influence—what then arose in China was certainly in its essence closer to modern European literature after the first World War than to the literature of the nineteenth century.
We can demonstrate this by means of several examples: there can be no doubt that the dominating form in nineteenth-century European literature was the widely ramified psychological novel as created by French, English, Russian and American novelists. In China, though this form was attempted, it did not mature and its place was taken by the social novel-fresco, as we noted above, somewhat reminiscent in structure of the best novels of Dos Passos. Besides certain circumstances limiting literary production (unsettled conditions and a lack of time), we must seek the main reasons for this in social requirements, on the one hand, and in the influence of tradition, on the other. The situation in China required that the writer devote all his attention to social questions and not to the problems of individual being. Here, too, the influence of literary tradition makes itself no less strongly felt. In old Chinese literature, we can observe a marked tendency to present the whole broad area of the social stage rather than give a detailed description of an individual fate.4
The most characteristic feature of Chinese literature after the literary revolution was the larger proportion of subjective elements. This would seem to be connected with the growing significance of the writer’s personality, liberated from the fetters of tradition, which we have already referred to above; operating in the same direction, however, was the old literary tradition, as well as contemporary European literature. The new consciousness of the significance of the human personality, in sharp opposition to the old social order, which so consistently hampered all expressions of personality and individuality, led the writer to come out into the open in his work and, indeed, to make of his work a personal confession and manifesto. This tendency, moreover, was able to link up, on a new level and in a new context, with the fact that the old literature, as we pointed out above, was predominantly subjective, being often the record of personal experiences and emotions, though subjected to strict censorship and regimentation. The main literary stream in Old China was that of lyric poetry, and this predilection runs through the new literary production as well, so that subjective feeling dominates and often breaks up the epic forms. A similar wave of lyricism flooded European literature, too, after the first World War, and had the same disintegrating influence on traditional objective forms, as was particularly evident in the break-up of the form of the classical nineteenth-century novel. Taking the place of the strict epic structure is a free grouping of purely lyrical or lyrico-epic elements. In this point, there was a convergence of the old Chinese tradition with contemporary European moods. In China, this led to an investigation of the intricacies of the human psyche, not along the lines of an objective study of a wide range of human characters, but predominantly by means of intospective observation and analytical description of the author’s inner life. An analogy to the recording of the stream of spontaneously generated emotions, eminently attempted by J. Joyce and his various successors, is to be found in the early works of Yü Ta-fu, Kuo Mo-jo and others. More important still is that this working up of the personal experience led to the most perfect form in the new Chinese literature—that of the psychological and also of the social short story. The psychological short story creates a complex composition by a skilful stratification of various experiences and emotions relating to different times and places; and although it embodies a number of heterogeneous elements it is yet absolutely homogenous in its spiritual atmosphere. Such are the best short stories of Yü Ta-fu. The social short story recasts some personal experience of the author, so that its facets reflect the most fundamental problems of human existence and of the social situation of the time. This is the basic creative principle of the best tales by Lu Hsün. These apparently new forms in Chinese literature have also their roots deep in the literary tradition. Common to both is the typical lyrical attitude—the perception of a certain characteristic phenomenon or situation. In the old times the poet’s attention was directed for the most part toward Nature, but when the poet turned his exceptionally sensitive powers of observation to the social scene, he was able to single out a situation in which the whole essence of the conflicts of the time in question is summed up, as, for instance, in the work of the poet Tu Fu. This power of reflecting the whole cosmos in a single detail is a legacy which has been taken over from Chinese poetry by modern literature, especially in its concentrated form of the short story. I think that with this example, showing how both the native tradition and European influences share in the shaping of the new literature, but only to the extent in which they help to solve the new tasks of literature, we may close our reflections on the great historical collision of two different cultural worlds, which we call the Chinese literary revolution.
Published in Archiv Orientálni 32 (1964), 365-375.
1Das Neue China, 6. Jhg., 39, April 1940. p. 456.
2Translated into English by H. Shadick under the title, The Travels of Lao Ts’an, New York 1952.
3Lu Hsün ch’üan-chi (6), Jen-min wen-hsüeh ch’u-pan-she, Peking 1956, Vol. 7, p. 257 et seq.
4I have dealt at some length with this problem in the study, L’histoire et l’épopée en Chine et dans le monde occidental, Diogène, No. 42, 1963, pp. 22-47.