Constructing a Neo-Realist Reality:
Petty Urbanites, Mundaneness, and Chi Li’s Fiction

By Haoming Gong

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 59-95

This essay investigates the problematics of neo-realism through a case study of Chi Li. The author examines the following issues: the dynamics of the socio-historical juncture in which neo-realism arose; its definition, both theoretical and historical, in relation to other forms of writing; and the ways in which its tenuous ideological character reflects the unevenness of both the social and the cultural situation of postsocialist China. The essay begins with an examination of the term “neo-realism” in its relationship with realism and avant-gardism, which, as the two most immediate predecessors of Neo-Realism, directly shape the latter’s formal and ideological characters. Attempting to define neo-realism in terms of ideological reconsolidation in postsocialist China, the author analyzes Chi Li’s novella “Lailai wangwang” (Coming and going) and investigates how the Chi Li constructs a new kind of reality in her writing, paying close attention to the formulation of two crucial concepts: xiao shimin (petty urbanites) and the shisu (the mundane). Both are specially foregrounded and ideologized in her works, so as to fabricate a “non-typical” reality that had been written off by realism. Through the fabrication of petty urbanites in the mundane city of Wuhan, Chi Li constructs a decidedly unheroic neo-realist world, which, in defying all grand causes and discourses, reflects a postsocialist distrust of “transcendent” values in China.