Labor Romanticism against Modernity:
The Creation Society as Socialist Avant-Garde

By Benjamin Kindler

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 32, no.2  (Fall 2020), pp. 43-99

This essay examines the cultural and theoretical development of the 1920s Creation Society (创造社) in order to shed new light on Chinese radical discourses around questions of labor and art, and to further emphasize the central role of the Creation Society in the development of Chinese revolutionary culture. It does so by situating the Creationists in relation to the complex intersection between a romanticist critique of imperialist capitalism and the historical formation of a socialist avant-garde. The leading members of the Creation Society, including Tian Han, Guo Moruo, Zheng Boqi and others, were closely attentive to the thought of the Japanese literary and aesthetic theorist Kuriyagwa Hakuson, whose extended discussions of the “mechanical” (机械) character of contemporary society offered the Creationists a conceptual vocabulary through which to think the problems of abstraction and alienation under capitalist modernity. The terms in which they did so offered a novel alternative to the discourses of civilization and modernity that otherwise structured much of Chinese and global intellectual production during this period. In the early phases of their development, the Creationists counterpoised the mechanical character of contemporary society to the compensatory possibilities offered by art, whereby an embrace of the aesthetic might generate a sphere of creative experience not wholly incorporated by the demands of capital.

By the mid 1920s, however, the Creationists had shifted beyond any orientation towards the aesthetic as compensation and instead sought to develop visions in which labor itself would be transformed in the image of the aesthetic as the basis of a new form of creative practice, one no longer cut off from a larger social totality. This transition marked not a sudden rupture or embrace of Marxism but a deepening and expansion of their romanticist critique in the direction of the socialist avant-garde. The path by which the Creationists made this transition involved a series of theoretical encounters with major figures in the Victorian socialist avant-garde, including Edward Carpenter and Willian Morris, whose influence on the Creationists and modern Chinese thought has yet to be understood. The place of creative labor in the intellectual development of the Creationist requires that we re-assess the intellectual richness of Chinese revolutionary thought and culture, with attention to the ways that lines of critique developed in the 1920s passed into the cultural experiments of the socialist period itself, offering a vision of emancipated labor that remains relevant and necessary today.