A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature

By Hong Zicheng
Translated by Michael M. Day

Reviewed by Edward Gunn
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2008)

Hong Zicheng. A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature.  Leiden: Brill, 2007. xx + 646 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-15754-5 (cloth)

Hong Zicheng. A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature. Leiden: Brill, 2007. xx + 646 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-15754-5 (cloth)

The 1999 edition of Hong Zicheng’s Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi (A history of contemporary Chinese literature) was reprinted over twenty times prior to the appearance of a revised edition in 2008. It is one of several surveys of “contemporary literature” appearing during the past decade that have sought to reframe the period from 1949 to the present as a field distinct from pre-1949 “modern literature” or “twentieth-century literature.” Another well-known history, Chen Sihe’sZhongguo dangdai wenxue shi jiaocheng (A textbook for contemporary Chinese literary history, 1999) emphasizes the arenas of neglected texts of “invisible writing” (qianzai wenxue) and folk culture (minjian wenhua) as sources that draw attention to a fuller picture of the Maoist period than the literary canons of affirmation and dissent alone might provide. More recently, the Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi xin’gao: xiuding ben (New draft history of contemporary Chinese literature: revised edition, 2006) edited by Dong Jian, Ding Fan, and Wang Binbin, introduces literature from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao together with mainland literature by arguing that the existing framework of polity for the field of contemporary literature that restricted it to mainland China actually traces its heritage to the Yan’an “Liberated Zone” in the era of the War of Resistance to Japan, and, given that heritage, the literature of Taiwan should be included in the field as a perpetuation of the “Nationalist Zone” during the War of Resistance and the literature of Hong Kong and Macao included as an extension of the Japanese “Occupied Zone” of the War era. Moreover, both Chen Sihe’s and Dong Jian’s texts explicitly open up attention to film, through its adaptations of print literature, while Dong Jian’s text makes implicit links to television by not only introducing such authors as Jin Yong, Qiong Yao, and Wang Shuo, but also the historical novelists Ling Li and Eryuehe, who have provided so many narratives for the small screen. Although these three histories disagree over when and where a monolithic policy for literature originated, they share that vision of the Maoist era, with Chen Sihe and Dong Jian, Ding Fan, and Wang Binbin introducing or emphasizing texts that broaden the scope of the field. By comparison, Hong Zicheng’s History of Contemporary Chinese Literature is conservatively centered on mainland institutions and print literature. The advantage of this approach is in providing fuller and much more systematic coverage of both, while sharing the general position of the others that the literary record of the Maoist period is not one to evoke nostalgia.

Given the framework of Hong’s history, its significance is the scope of its overview of mainland Chinese fiction, poetry, prose, and aspects of theater through the mid-1990s in their documented institutional and critical contexts. There are areas that are lacking, notably in limiting discussion of theater to the 1950s and early 1960s only, and in citing a critical consensus to exclude reportage literature in the post-Mao era, even though numerous important texts of this genre appeared in literary magazines. Thus, coverage of theater and reportage literature and other genres, such as ethnic minority literature, children’s literature, and music theater, are more complete in other surveys published to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the PRC, Xin Zhongguo wenxue wushi nian (Fifty years of the literature of new China), edited by Zhang Jiong, and Gongheguo wenxue wushi nian (Fifty years of the literature of the republic), edited by Yang Kuanghan.

Overall, Hong’s story is a dramatic one of the attempt to build a monolithic literary establishment that produced many victims and eventually overtook its own architects. Leaders who persecuted writers like Hu Feng in the 1950s found themselves adopting the very fundamental views of literature for which they had purged him, before they themselves lost their positions to the Cultural Revolution group that, in turn, created their model performances by adapting works that they had banned. In the post-Mao market era that followed, Hong stresses the diversity that has arisen and does not advance arguments about globalized homogeneity as some new form of monolithic culture. However, he does stress that the writers seeking freedoms found that they were no more prepared for the consequences of these reforms than their elders struggling for Liberation had been prepared for the results of that revolution. Throughout, Hong endeavors to balance attention to both the most exemplary and celebrated writers and texts and those that have been neglected, although he is intent largely on providing a coherent account of and commentary on what is already known but not necessarily well understood. Hong’s history is well documented, with annotated citations of both criticisms from the time the works were published and from more recent scholars of the contemporary period, especially Huang Ziping and Zhu Zhai. There is welcome attention to a range of valuable topics, from institutional structures, biographical notes, translations of foreign literature and other texts available through the restricted “internal distribution” (neibu) system of publication, unofficial, underground texts of the Cultural Revolution era, and so forth.

Michael M. Day’s translation greatly enhances the value of Hong’s book as a reference text by adding a bibliography, glossary, and index and by shifting Hong’s endnotes to footnotes. The quality of Day’s translation is overwhelmingly good, a task made more daunting by the huge quantity of titles that required translation, many available through existing sources, but many more not. Although Day states in his Introduction that where possible he has followed translations of titles provided in The Literature of China in the Twentieth Century by Bonnie S. MacDougall and Kam Louie, he also makes his own bid for plurality in translating terminology rather than follow older conventions: “workers, peasants, and soldiers” appears as “workers, farmers, and soldiers”; “China Federation of Literary and Art Circles” appears as “China [or “National”] Literary Federation”; “Chinese Writers Association” as “China Writers Association”; “women writers” as “woman writers,” Wenhui bao (Mercury) appears as Literary Confluence Daily, and so on.

Day is largely a careful translator, handles many passages with great skill, and rarely overlooks a word or passage (as on Day 60; Hong 49). An occasional glitch in the translation has been overlooked, the most significant perhaps being the obvious problem in the passage: “Zhou [Libo] received the ‘Stalin Prize in Literature and the Arts’ and a high reputation in the early 1950s for his 1948 novel Hurricane about the land reform movement in the Northeast, and for the earlier works The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River and ‘The White-Haired Girl'” (Day 107; Hong 94). Given that Day is fully aware that Zhou Libo was not the author of Ding Ling’s novel or He Jingzhi’s opera, such an error in dealing with the structure of the Chinese sentence might have been spotted easily. Far more often, Day does follow as much as possible the structures and connotations of words in the original and shows resourcefulness in finding le mot juste. Again, there are places where the critical reader might wish to intervene on behalf of readers unable to consult the Chinese text. For Hong’s use of the term chuanqixing, Day is careful to distinguish it from Hong’s use of langman, both of which have been frequently translated elsewhere as “romantic.” Day reserves “romantic” for phrases using langman, but settles on “picaresque” for chuanqixing (Day 147, 148; Hong 128, 129), a choice that could be confusing to the English-language reader when “quality of fabled legend” might spell out the sense of romance and avoid the features of picaresque not relevant. In the same vein, “contemporary fiction” (Day 100) might confuse a reader when Hong is referring to “modern fiction” or xiandai xiaoshuo (Hong 87). Hong Zicheng spices his prose with metaphorical expressions that Day delivers with skill in the English text. There is the rediscovery in the 1980s of the Nine Leaves group of poets in the 1940s that amounted to “unearthing literary fossils” (Day 73; Hong 62), and the “major surgery of revolution” for the reform of urban centers (Day 150; Hong 130). At one point, at least, Hong’s own metaphors become ambiguous when he refers to the fate of writers purged in the 1950s with the word linan, “to suffer untimely death” (Hong 29). Apparently, Hong is referring metaphorically to the writers’ careers meeting an untimely end, but this is not altogether clear, and Day chooses a constructive explanation that campaigns “led to their expulsion from literary circles, and often to imprisonment or even death” (36).

Perhaps the ultimate challenge for the translator derives from Hong Zicheng’s sustained use of terms for some form of “unity” that, in their varied contexts and variant morphemes, create ambiguity and uncertainty for the reader. There seems little question that Hong shares with other historians of literature a sense of the monolithic for the vision of literature emanating from the political center of China during the Maoist era. “Unitary” is Day’s first translation of the term yitihua that Hong uses to frame the literary scene on the eve of the Maoist Liberation of 1949: “Dating from the latter half of the 1920s, the efforts of left-wing literature to select the most idealistic literary forms and advance ‘unitary’ literary goals entered a new stage” (Day 3; Hong 3). That the literary historian Chen Sihe shares a similar view is evident in his drawing attention to neglected or unpublished texts of “invisible writing” and elements of folk culture in eras dominated by a “shared denominator” (or convergent terms, gongming) in order to allow scholarship to overcome the record of a monolithic policy and “literary poverty.” (See Chen Sihe, “On “Invisible Writing” in the History of Contemporary Chinese Literature, 1949-1976,” translated by Hongbing Zhang). Dong Jian et al. find diversity through adding other polities and genres.

This tension between the uniform and the diverse played itself out within the Mao era. So it does in the text of Hong Zicheng’s history and its translation. “Unitary” as yitihua (Hong 3) becomes “integration” (Day 57, 156; Hong 32, 137), while tong3yi becomes “unitary” (Hong 63, 75, 87; Day 75, 87, 100), and wanzheng (Hong 96) is translated “integrated” (Day 109), as is jiehe (Hong 93; Day 105). On the same page the words danyixing and yi1zhixing (Hong 87) both denote “unity” (Day 100); likewise, both tong3yixin g and yitihua (Hong 137) are rendered “integrated” (Day 156). Danyixing reappears (Hong 303, 329, 361) as “unitary” (Day 349, 377, 411). Finally, tong2yi is rendered “equivalence” (Hong 93, 97; Day 105, 110), then also serves as “unitary” (Hong 113; Day 129). On the one hand, the variety of terms Hong employs raises the question whether they denote the same or similar states. For example, it is interesting to note that the term yi4zhi “heterogeneous” (Hong 231; Day 266) appears in the context of discussing the role of foreign literature in stimulating Chinese literature of the 1980s, but the converse “homogeneity” or tongzhi does not find a place in Hong’s text. Does this suggest that the various terms cited above do not imply a unity as homogeneity? On the other hand, Day works to contain the variety of terms in translation (unitary, unity, integrated), steadily avoiding “uniform,” “unified,” “monolithic,” or, for that matter, “homogeneous.” But to argue that Hong Zicheng and Michael Day have left readers with an elusive concept is not to overlook the great contribution that their scholarship has made in providing a solid and comprehensive survey that will stand as an important reference and source for new scholarship. On the contrary, such a text could provide a centerpiece for an engaging and productive course on the field.

Edward Gunn
Cornell University