Eileen Chang’s Fiction and
C. T. Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction

By Liu Zaifu
Translated by Yunzhong Shu
Part I / Part II

Copyright MCLC Resource Center (July 2009)

Part II: The Biases in C. T. Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction–A Response to C. T. Hsia’s Response


Liu Zaifu

Liu Zaifu

Right after I made a speech at the international conference “Eileen Chang and Modern Literature in Chinese” at Lingnan University in Hong Kong (Part One of the present article), C. T. Hsia made some comments on my speech. His comments centered on two points:

(1) A comparison between Eileen Chang and Lu Xun. C. T. Hsia believed that Lu Xun’s failure was bigger than Eileen Chang’s. Eileen Chang failed to utilize her talent because she had to change her direction to make a living. However, it was improper for Lu Xun to let the League of Left-Wing Writers take advantage of him and to serve as the leader of leftist writers. He went as far as calling Lu Xun a “running dog for the Communists” in an interview with a reporter from Asia Weekly after the conference. He said:

Lu Xun was also a writer who failed to put his talent to full use. We are justified to say that in terms of personal character and the quality of their works Lu Xun was not as good as Eileen Chang. When he was in Peking, Lu Xun, like Hu Shi, was a decent man of letters. But later he surrendered to the Communists and became the leader of the League of Left-Wing Writers. You might regard him as a great writer. But if you change your point of view you can also see him as a running dog.[8]

C. T. Hsia believed that “Eileen Chang was the most dignified Chinese person of the last few decades” and that “her anti-Communist stand came from her support for humanism, justice, and her sympathy for the people. A person often makes compromises when he/she is in a difficult situation. . . . Probably because of the financial difficulties she had when she was in Hong Kong, Eileen Chang received some support from the United States Information Agency when she wrote Love in Redland according to a ‘predetermined outline.’ For that she would always feel unhappy. Yet the novel is still an outstanding work. In comparison, Lu Xun’s compromise was worse. Among the liberal men of letters of the time, including Lu Xun, Hu Shi, Xu Zhimo, Ye Gongchao, and Chen Yuan, Lu Xun was the only one who made this compromise.” C. T. Hsia also criticized me by saying that “Mr. Liu seems to imply that male writers are always superior to female writers since he said that as a man Lu Xun was a better writer than Eileen Chang.” [9]

(2) A comparison between Eileen Chang and Ding Ling. In his comments, C. T. Hsia faulted me for equating Eileen Chang’s tragedy with Ding Ling’s tragedy. He said that “Ding Ling is a different kind of writer. None of her works is good. Her style, for example, the style of “The Diary of Miss Sophia,” is terrible. With such a clumsy style, Ding Ling really does not amount to anything.” [10]

I did not expect that C. T. Hsia would be so harsh in his criticism of Lu Xun and Ding Ling. C. T. Hsia has proved that he is even more biased against leftist writers such as Lu Xun and Ding Ling than he was more than forty years ago, when he wrote A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. Back then, instead of simply dismissing Ding Ling out of hand, as he does now, he admitted that Ding Ling adhered to her own beliefs early in her career and that her representative work “The Diary of Miss Sophia” had its own value. In Chapter 11 of his book, titled “Communist Fiction, I,” we see the following comments on Ding Ling:

Unlike Chiang Kuang-tz’u, Ting Ling began her career as a highly personal author rather than a dedicated propagandist. In her first phase (1926-29) she was primarily interested in probing the meaning of life in unabashedly feminine and autobiographical terms: the stories in her first collection, In the Darkness (1928), notably “Meng K’o” and “The Diary of Miss Sophia,” all flaunt the sexual restiveness and impotent fury of a warm-hearted girl in the sinister powers of the city. Apparently lonely and confused, Ting Ling pours all her resentments and exasperations in the diary mold of her fiction. (262-63)

This statement is exactly the same as the one I made about Ding Ling’s tragedy of giving up her early personal approach. It contradicts the statements that “none of Ding Ling’s works is good” and that “Ding Ling really does not amount to anything.” While confirming the value of Ding Ling’s early works, A History of Modern Chinese Fictiontreats Ding Ling’s joining the Communist Party in 1931 as a watershed and sees Ding Ling’s post-1931 works as “trite propaganda,” completely disregarding good works such as “When I Was in Hsia Village.” As can be seen in the statements I have made so far, I am also critical of the class hatred and the vindictiveness in Ding Ling’s The Sun Shines on the Sanggan River. However, I do not want to simply dismiss Ding Ling as a “Communist writer” without any analysis. A writer should have his/her freedom to choose his/her political stand. To dismiss a writer because of his/her political stand is not literary criticism but political criticism. I am critical of The Sun Shines on the Sanggan River and Love in Redland not because of their “pro-Communist” or “anti-Communist” political viewpoints but because of their failure to keep an aesthetic distance in the exploration of their subject matter and the resultant loss of aesthetic sensibility as they use a political approach rather than an aesthetic one to deal with their subject matter. Whether or not a writer joins the Communist Party does not determine his/her success or failure as a writer. Shólokhov, a Communist writer, wrote And Quiet Flows the Don and Virgin Soil Upturned, but they are universally acknowledged masterpieces. That is because Shólokhov portrays war and revolution from a transcendental viewpoint, a viewpoint drastically different from the vulgar viewpoints in The Sun Shines on the Sanggan River andLove in Redland (two novels that discover their arch villains in the landlord class and the Communist Party, respectively). C. T. Hsia’s judgments on Ding Ling and Lu Xun (and his judgment on Zhao Shuli, which I discuss below) indicate a determinist bias: a writer is certainly a failed writer if he/she leans toward Communism.

It is from this naïve deterministic viewpoint that C. T. Hsia evaluates Lu Xun. As a result, he completely overlooks the criticism of the collective unconscious of the Chinese (the national character of the Chinese, in other words) that Lu Xun engaged in throughout his life. He also fails to realize that this criticism remained the same after Lu Xun joined the League of Left-Wing Writers. Lu Xun even saw the weaknesses of the national character of the Chinese in some Communists (for instance, the so-called “four gentlemen”). From the day he wrote “Diary of a Madman” to his death, Lu Xun spent about twenty years exploring the soul of the Chinese and trying to find a cure for the spiritual flaws of the nation. At no time in his writing career did he ever stop his exploration or give up his tenacious struggle against the feeling of despair. In other words, he never failed to fully utilize his talent. Summarizing the agonies the Chinese nation went through during its transition from tradition to modernity, the corpus of his works can be seen as an all-inclusive symbol of such agonies. In terms of spiritual richness and depth, no other writer can match Lu Xun, and Eileen Chang is no exception. To be more exact, Eileen Chang’s works fall far short of Lu Xun’s works in spiritual depth, and the distance between the two resembles the distance between Bunin and Tolstoy rather than the distance between Bunin and Chekhov. Elegant and philosophical, Bunin’s works have an air of nobility and are characterized by pathos, but they fall far short of Tolstoy’s works in spiritual richness and depth.

Here we are dealing with the issue of criteria in literary criticism. In evaluating a literary work, a critic should examine the spiritual content and depth of the work in addition to its style. In a speech titled “May Fourth and Fin de Siècle Literature” delivered at Lingnan University in the spring of 1999, Bai Xianyong made an argument that in the twentieth century China had produced no great writers–even Lu Xun could not be included in that rank.[11] He also argued that Eileen Chang was the most accomplished writer, because her style was the most elegant. What was the criterion for Bai Xianyong’s judgments? He offered the following explanation: “With regard to a writer’s accomplishments, we should realize that literature is, after all, an art of language. In terms of content, the influence of contemporary politics and society might give rise to social awareness and revolutionary awareness in literature. These things might seem to be very important, but in the final analysis literature is an art for which the use of language is very important.”[12] For all my admiration for Bai Xianyong and appreciation of his accomplishments as a writer, I criticized his criterion in the following statement in a short article “A Discussion with Professor Bai Xianyong,” which I published right after his speech:

Bai Xianyong believes that Eileen Chang’s elegant style makes her the most accomplished writer. In making this assertion, Bai Xianyong regards the use of language as the ultimate reality in literature and linguistic skill as the ultimate criterion for the evaluation of literature. In so doing, he refuses to acknowledge that spiritual content is also part of the ultimate reality in literature and one of the ultimate criteria for judging the quality of literature. It was certainly wrong for mainland Chinese critics in the past to regard social awareness and revolutionary awareness as the most important elements in literature. However, it is essential for outstanding literary works to have rich spiritual content (including psychological content, concern for its era and for humanity, and aesthetic content). Tao Yuanming’s linguistic style is not necessarily the most beautiful, but his poems stand out for their unique yearnings for a life uncontaminated by a vulgar world. As stylists, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky probably do not match Turgenev, but their works, rich in spiritual content, surpass Turgenev’s works and became unparalleled masterpieces. Could these two masters’ works still remain great works if they only had meager spiritual content?[13]

Even if we limit our attention to the issue of style, we have to say that Lu Xun’s style is more elegant, colorful, and adept than Eileen Chang’s. A pioneer in twentieth-century Chinese literature, Lu Xun was the first writer to use vernacular Chinese to write fiction and won instant success with “Diary of a Madman.” Indeed, he was the first experimenter in modern Chinese fiction, just like the legendary hero who courageously ate a crab before anyone else. Being the first to conduct an experiment is hard, but, surprisingly, Lu Xun’s style was already very mature when he began his experiment, a style that would become uniquely personal. Concise and humorous, Lu Xun’s highly personalized style adopts the form of modern vernacular Chinese, yet it still retains the flavor of classical Chinese. What is more remarkable is that Lu Xun experimented with different styles and the style of his essays is especially peerless. Liang Qichao achieved an enduring success when he called for a revolution in fiction and changed people’s habit of regarding poetry as the mainstream of Chinese literature and fiction and drama as secondary branches. But as time went on critics in China went to another extreme, an extreme of “Eurocentrism,” and forgot the value of prose, including Lu Xun’s essays. As he devoted his life to the writing of essays and was fully aware of the artistic value of essays, Lu Xun produced masterpieces with high artistic value, such as those in Wild Grass and Morning Flowers Plucked at Dusk. In contrast, Eileen Chang only took essay writing as a sideline, as Wang Anyi has pointed out in her comments on Eileen Chang’s essays. Consequently, her essays do not match Lu Xun’s essays in artistic value. In “A Miracle and a Tragedy in Chinese Literature,” an article I wrote two or three months ago for the one hundred and twentieth anniversary of Lu Xun’s birth, I argued that Lu Xun was a miracle. To me the miracle of Lu Xun lay first of all in the maturity and brilliance he demonstrated in his style as he began to write in a new way.

C. T. Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction obviously shows many biases in its evaluation of Lu Xun. Its treatment of The True Story of Ah Q is an example. The True Story of Ah Q is the best work in modern Chinese fiction in the eyes of all literary historians, and scholars have never stopped discussing the spiritual content of this work. That a novella could so incisively describe the collective unconscious of the Chinese is just a miracle. With China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, Chinese intellectuals and some foreign Sinologists began exploring the problems in Chinese people’s national character, but they could not pinpoint them in spite of their realization of their existence. Lu Xun, however, managed to capture the unhealthy collective unconscious of the Chinese with his creation of Ah Q as a reflection of the nation. In particular, his portrayal of Ah Q’s “spiritual victories” encapsulated the numb soul of the Chinese. An expression both of a significant intellectual discovery and of a significant artistic approach, Lu Xun’s work became an enduring contribution to Chinese literature. It was very difficult to discover and capture the core of the flaws in the national character; it was also very difficult to describe it artistically. Yet Lu Xun overcame both difficulties and succeeded in coming up with an insightful and vivid portrayal. C. T. Hsia, however, dismisses this marvelous work with the following sarcastic remarks:

The major work in The Outcry is, of course, “The True Story of Ah Q,” the only modern Chinese story to have attained an international reputation. But as a work of art it has surely been overpraised: it is mechanical in structure and facetious in tone. The circumstances of its composition may help explain these defects. Lu Hsün had agreed to write a humor serial for the literary supplement of the PekingMorning Gazette (Ch’en Pao), providing in each issue a comic episode illustrative of the character of Ah Q. When eventually the assignment proved irksome, Lu Hsün changed his original plan and thrust upon his hero a tragic destiny. But he apparently never bothered to correct the resultant incongruity of tone in his story. (37)

C. T. Hsia is excessively harsh when he describes the organic structure of the story as “mechanical,” the commonly acknowledged humor in the story as “facetious,” and calls the tragic ending that defies the convention of happy ending “incongruity in tone.” He even dislikes the name Ah Q, saying that “the name was shortened to Ah Q after the author facetiously confessed to his inability to determine which Chinese character should be adopted to designate the sound ‘quei.'” Obviously C. T. Hsia’s attitude is an emotional one, an attitude stemming from the belief that Lu Xun was a Communist writer. At the very beginning of the chapter on Lu Xun (Chapter 2) in A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, we see the following political verdict:

The earliest practitioner of Western-style fiction, Lu Hsün has also been generally regarded as the greatest modern Chinese writer. During the last six years of his life he was the prominent cultural hero to a large public nurtured on leftist opinions; since his death in 1936, his fame has turned positively legendary. The immediate posthumous publication of his twenty-volume Complete Works was an unprecedented literary event in modern China, but even more impressive has been the unabated growth of a Lu Hsün literature: memoirs and biographies, studies of his works and ideas, and countless magazine articles commemorating the anniversary of his death for over the past two decades. No other modern Chinese writer has received comparable adulation. This adulation, of course, was a Communist enterprise. During the period of the Communist struggle for power, Lu Hsün was immensely useful as the beloved spokesman for the cause of antigovernment patriotism. Even Mao Tse-tung, rarely generous in his appraisal of his Chinese contemporaries, felt justified in paying this author the highest tribute in The New Democracy (1940). (28)

During his lifetime, Lu Xun indeed showed sympathy for the Communist revolution in China and pinned his hopes on it. After he died, he was indeed used as a pawn (especially during the Cultural Revolution) by different political forces in their struggles for power. This is Lu Xun’s tragedy. However, a writer should only take responsibility for the artistic creation of his/her own works and should not, and cannot, take responsibility for the unexpected aftermaths of his/her works. The value of a literary work is different from its social effects, just as the Bible is different from the Inquisition in the Middle Ages and, consequently, Jesus should not take responsibility for the persecution of heresy. A serious literary history should abide by literary and aesthetic standards and provide fair-minded evaluations of literary works. It should acknowledge the existence of literature as an art and should not be swayed by a writer’s political standpoint in its evaluation of the writer’s works. Unfortunately, C. T. Hsia apparently abides by a set of political standards in A History of Modern Chinese Fiction. As he criticizes mainland Chinese critics for using ideological principles to dismiss a group of writers, he himself is trapped by a different set of ideological principles. Politically he separates writers into “Communist writers” and “non-Communist writers,” which impairs his artistic evaluations. He tries his best to elevate non-Communist writers, and he also goes to extremes in his mockery of Communist writers. Lu Xun and Ding Ling have the misfortune of being defined as Communist writers and dismissed. Similarly, other writers defined as Communist writers are mocked mercilessly.

Of all the mocked writers, Zhao Shuli suffers the most. C. T. Hsia even uses words such as “clumsy” and “clownish,” inappropriate for a literary critic, in his comments on Zhao Shuli:

It is almost impossible to discover any merit in Chao Shuli’s early stories, unless one takes as positive virtues their facetious tone (which passes for humor) and their colloquial style (which makes the stories somewhat more enjoyable when read aloud). As a matter of fact, “The Marriage of Hsiao Erh-hei” and “The Verses of Li Yu-ts’ai,” which first prompted Chou Yang’s glowing praise of their author, are about two of the feeblest stories ever to have been thrust upon public attention. . . . Chao Shu-li’s clumsy and clownish style is utterly incompetent to serve the purposes of narration, and his so-called new subject matter is merely a rehash of the familiar themes of antifeudalism and Communist benevolence. (482)

Zhao Shuli is certainly not beyond reproach and critics will certainly continue to debate the value of his works. I, for example, have written some articles about Zhao Shuli in which I acknowledge his success and, at the same time, criticize him for unnatural characterization in The Changes in Li Village. However, it is hard for one to accept C. T. Hsia’s condescending, sarcastic attitude toward Zhao Shuli and his insulting description of Zhao Shuli as a writer with a “clumsy and clownish style.” A serious literary critic should neither overpraise any writer willfully nor belittle any writer willfully. In other words, a serious critic should not exaggerate a writer’s strengths or weaknesses. As a result of his condescending attitude, C. T. Hsia’s comments on Zhao Shuli are obviously lacking in fairness and seriousness.

An unbiased reading of Zhao Shuli’s works will show that C. T. Hsia’s comments are wide of the truth. Is it true that Zhao Shuli’s works are among the “feeblest stories” and that his style is “clumsy and clownish”? Probably not.

In a speech delivered at Yale and Harvard in 1987, the late well-known Chinese writer Wang Zengqi used the following words to describe Zhao Shuli’s style:

Aside from the literati culture there is a popular, oral culture. Some writers did not have the opportunity to receive a good education. During times of war, some writers’ educations were interrupted. Some, such as Zhao Shuli and Li Ji, came from peasant backgrounds and were very familiar with oral literature. Zhao Shuli was a talented peasant writer who could stage a performance at a temple fair all by himself, singing, performing, and mimicking the tune of the trumpet and the sound of the gong without making any mistake. His fiction was deeply influenced by popular drama and traditional storytelling. (Zhao Shuli was also a very decent person who died in the Cultural Revolution. I still miss him very much.)[14]

Wang Zengqi was Shen Congwen’s most outstanding student and a highly accomplished writer. Twenty years after Zhao Shuli’s death he still admired him, missed him greatly, and called him a “very decent person.” I believe that, like Wang Zengqi, many Chinese writers and critics still miss Zhao Shuli and consider him an upright, intelligent, and dignified writer. The title of Wang Zengqi’s speech at Yale and Harvard was “The Issue of Language in Chinese Literature.” As he dealt with this issue, he praised Lu Xun’s style as the best example of literary language and Zhao Shuli’s style as the best example of popular language. Wang Zengqi’s view represents a consensus among those writers and scholars who truly understand fiction. It is precisely because of Zhao Shuli’s unique, lively style that his works are still admired by many Chinese writers. After May Fourth literature emerged on the literary scene, many works were written about peasants and the countryside. Lu Xun and Jian Xian’ai represent this trend. However, these writers looked at the peasants and wrote about them from the intellectual’s point of view. In addition, they also used the intellectual’s language in their works. Zhao Shuli caused a significant change–namely, he began to look at the peasants from the peasant’s point of view and to describe the peasants with their language. As a result, his style became devoid of the triteness in the language of the intellectual and, as a lively, down-to-earth style, it breathed new life into literature. In world literature, it is hard to find another writer who has created such authentic peasant literature with such a refreshing peasant style.

Given that some young readers might not be very familiar with Zhao Shuli’s works, let us take a look at his style in “Young Blacky Gets Married” (The Marriage of Hsaio Erh-hei), a style praised by Zhou Yang and denigrated by C. T. Hsia, to see whether it is truly “clumsy and clownish.” Zhao Shuli uses the following words to describe how handsome Young Blacky is:

Young Blacky is the second son of Second Kongming. In an anti-mopping-up battle he killed two enemy soldiers and was awarded for being an excellent marksman. He is known as a handsome young man not just in Liu Village. In the first month of every year, when he acts in plays, every woman’s eyes follow him closely in every village he tours in.

He describes Little Qin in a similar way:

Little Qin is eighteen now. Those frivolous people in the village say she is far more beautiful than her mother at that age. Whether they have an excuse or not, young men of the village always want to exchange a few words with her. When Little Qin goes to the river to wash clothes, they all follow suit; when she goes to the mountain to gather wild herbs, they all do the same.

The most remarkable description appears in the passage about a trip to the district government made by Third Fairy, Little Qin’s mother:

The girl who had been ordered to play outside soon spread the news that there was an elderly woman in the district administrative office who still had powdered face and wore embroidered shoes, although she was over forty-five years old. All the women nearby came to see her, filling up half of the courtyard of the office. They whispered to each other:

“What a forty-five-year-old woman!”

“Look at that pair of trousers!”

“Look at her embroidered shoes!”

Third Fairy, who had never blushed before, was now very embarrassed indeed for the first time in her life and her face became hot and wet with sweat. Then the contact officer came in with Little Qin and said deliberately loudly for everyone to hear:

“What are you staring at? She is just a human being like any of you. Don’t tell me you haven’t seen anybody like her before. Get away!”

This caused everybody to burst out laughing. The mayor then asked Third Fairy: “You can now ask your daughter whether she wishes to marry the man you have chosen for her.”

At this moment Third Fairy could only hear voices in the courtyard saying “forty-five . . . wearing embroidered shoes . . .” Feeling so ashamed, she had to wipe away sweat from her face continually and totally lost the ability to utter a single word. Suddenly the people in the courtyard changed the subject of their conversation and commented:

“That’s her daughter. . . . But the daughter is not as good at beautifying herself as the mother…. It is said that she also knows how to invoke goddesses.”

Now Third Fairy wished she had killed herself by butting her head against the wall.

These are the passages Zhou Yang cited for praise from “Young Black Gets Married.” In addition, Zhou Yang also cited two passages for praise from “The Verses of Li Youcai.” The first one is about the relationship between Xiao Yuan, an activist in the Land Reform Movement, and other young peasants in his village. Friendly with his buddies at first, Xiao Yuan changes his attitude once he has become a director with the help of his young friends. When he orders two friends to hoe his field, the two friends make the following comments:

“The first time we hoed his field voluntarily. Now he orders us to do it!”

“The first time was different. Then we all saw him off, and were glad to help him. Now he’s an ‘official’! He doesn’t want to hoe his land, and orders us around. If we had known he was going to turn out this way, we would not have helped him. It would have been better to spend the time sleeping!”

The second passage is about Old Qin, a peasant who “had been poor all his life, and squeezed by the landlord so much that he’s afraid to open his mouth, yet he looks down on anyone else who’s poor.” But Old Qin has one good point. “He never argued when a young man crossed him.”

The passages cited above are examples of a style dismissed by C. T. Hsia as “clumsy and clownish.” Surprisingly, this unembellished style can offer a succinct depiction of a character’s personality. Take the description of Old Qin as an example. The sentence “He has been poor all his life, but he looks down on poor people” summarizes Old Qin’s worldliness and snobbery in just one sentence, while the next sentence, which describes how he falls silent as soon as a youngster gets angry with him, shows his kindness and reluctance to hurt others. Having read this passage, one will never forget this image of a peasant created by Zhao Shuli. It is a rare talent to be able to portray the soul of a peasant living in poverty with such a plain peasant style, a style uncontaminated by pedantry. For all its plain appearance, it is in fact very difficult to master this style. The well-known critic Kang Zhuo once remarked that, “in addition to its simplicity, sincerity, wit, and humorous optimism, Zhao Shuli’s fiction is also characterized by its vivid depiction of Chinese peasants’ lives, attitudes, ideals and spirit.” “Clear and simple, its language is the purified language of the masses and this clear and sonorous language is used naturally in narration, description, and dialogue.” “Moreover, none of these characteristics is in any way detached from the life of the masses or the life in the countryside, because they all stemmed from the author’s intimate relationship with the peasants.” In short, “Zhao Shuli himself came from a peasant background and his outstanding talent was naturally rooted in the culture of the countryside.”[15] In general, Kang Zhuo’s remarks are accurate.

In contrast to Zhao Shuli, a writer who based his works on his rich experience in the countryside, Eileen Chang resorted to using news dispatches and rumors to write Rice-sprout Song. In her afterword to Rice-sprout Song, she admitted that her novel was based on a writer’s self-criticism published in People’s Literature during the Three-Antis Campaign and on a story, told by a girl she knew who had worked in the countryside near Nanchang, about how the girl and the peasants lived on thin rice soup mixed with inch-long blades of grass. The central event in the novel came from A Faraway Village, a Communist movie. “Seeing the granary being set on fire in the movie, I began to think. If it was not a complete fabrication, it must be an act of revenge by the peasants distorted by the Communists.” In other words, the idea for setting the granary on fire in Rice-sprout Song came from a movie and the author did nothing more than flip the movie’s political stand. As a result of Eileen Chang’s unfamiliarity with the peasants and the countryside, for all its humor, its elegant style, and its touching descriptions of the poverty and hunger in the Chinese countryside, descriptions that won Hu Shi’s praise, the novel still makes us feel that all its characters–from the protagonist Tan Jingen, a model peasant, and his wife Yuxiang to Comrade Wang (Wang Lin), a district cadre, and Gu Gang, a playwright going to the countryside to gather material for a script–remain mere illustrations for Eileen Chang’s abstract ideas and, as such, they become devoid of their own individual life, personalities, or language. With its close-knit plotline, the novel is highly readable, but the basic plot and the protagonist’s personality and behavior can hardly bear scrutiny. It is totally unbelievable that a land reform activist and model peasant (Tan Jingen) would become a “reactionary” who leads the peasants to sack a granary before setting it on fire simply because he cannot stand poverty and, in particular, the government policy of aiding military families (half a pig and forty pounds of rice cake). Why would he revolt at the risk of his life? Why does he still hate the Communists so much after he has received some land and a vase from them? What is the cause of his poverty and the hunger the whole village suffers, the old regime or the new regime? In short, the author fails to show what drives him into rebellion. It is also not quite clear whether he is an innocent peasant or a manipulator, a revolutionary or an counterrevolutionary, because he is just a pawn Eileen Chang uses for her political purposes. The peasants in Rice-sprout Song are entirely different from those in Zhao Shuli’s fiction: they are fake peasants, whereas those in Zhao Shuli’s fiction are genuine peasants full of life. Eileen Chang was familiar with the city, not the countryside. So she knew very little about the rural society or the minds of the peasants. Of course it would be impossible for her to succeed when she chose to write about things she was unfamiliar with; with all her linguistic skills, she could still only produce a weak novel.

It is not that difficult to compare Zhao Shuli’s peasant characters with Eileen Chang’s. What we should use is not political standards but artistic standards. If we use artistic standards in our evaluation, we cannot argue that Eileen Chang achieved a glorious success where Zhao Shuli failed miserably. In A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, C. T. Hsia spends twelve pages praising Rice-sprout Song to the skies. His point of view, however, is a political one. He calls Rice-sprout Song “a tragic record of the trials of human body and spirit under a brutal system.” He also makes the following statement:

It is because, in the perspective of the humane tradition, Communism is so monstrously unreal, so much of an evil to be exorcised, that fables and myths enjoy such an ironic relevance in the scheme of the novel. Gods and ghosts in the Chinese tradition are most beneficent, and unlike Comrade Wong torturing innocent peasants, even the infernal judges mete out punishments in a most scrupulous fashion. But Communism exceeds in cruelty the most sanguinary melodrama, confirms the worst fears about Hell. In investing the Communist world with an eerie kind of unreality so as to render with full justice the kind of reality insupportable to the human imagination, Eileen Chang has fashioned not merely a tale of suffering but a tragedy instinct with all the human aspirations and dreams against which Communism has always marshaled all its diabolic resources. (426-27)

Here C. T. Hsia uses extreme political standards in his evaluation, believing that a writer can only reveal the reality of Communism when he/she portrays Communists as monsters, just as Eileen Chang does in Rice-sprout Song. However, he does not realize that a writer will lose his/her perspective and objectivity and turn the characters into caricatures when he/she regards the characters as monsters. Gu Gang and Wang Lin, two characters in Rice-sprout Song, are such caricatures, and C. T. Hsia’s impression of Wang Lin as a character worse than the “infernal judges” is precisely a result of such caricaturization. If we put aside political standards, we will find that both Eileen Chang’s caricaturization of the Communist cadres and Ding Ling’s caricaturization of the landlords in The Sun Shines on the Sanggan River are artistic failures. Compared with the characters of cadres, peasants, and landlords created by Eileen Chang and Ding Ling, those created by Zhao Shuli are much more vivid and lifelike. If a critic is not influenced by his political prejudices, he will never conclude that Zhao Shuli’s style is “clumsy and clownish.”

It is not an exaggeration to call Zhao Shuli a “decent” writer. Anybody who knows anything about Zhao Shuli would know that he was not the kind of incompetent writer who blindly praised Communist benevolence as C. T. Hsia makes him out to be. Instead, he was very talented and independent. When he wrote “Young Blacky Gets Married” he was not aware of Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art.” The story was well received in the Communist-controlled area in the Taihang mountains, and more than thirty thousand copies were sold before it caught Zhou Yang’s attention. In 1946 Zhou Yang, then in charge of the cultural affairs in Yan’an, published an article “A Discussion of Zhao Shuli’s Works” in the Communist Party newspaper Liberation Daily and praised Zhao Shuli’s achievement as a “victory” for Mao’s “Talks.” Afterward, Zhao Shuli naturally became a role model for those engaged in producing revolutionary literature for workers, peasants, and soldiers. However, his independent personality and literary taste prevented him from fulfilling the duties of such a role model. In the 1950s, he was criticized for writing works such as Sanliwan Village and “Selling Tobacco Leaves.” Zhao Shuli’s literary taste typically represented the folk taste that came into being after May Fourth. He was not well educated, but he was not an uneducated peasant either. As a rural intellectual, he was nurtured by two kinds of cultures: the new culture and new ideas of May Fourth, on the one hand, and the folk culture rooted in the countryside, on the other hand. Unlike those elite writers who approached folk culture from the outside, he was born into a folk culture environment and became deeply influenced by the folk taste and keenly aware of the riches of folk culture. Instead of making efforts to acquire a folk taste and a folk style, he simply inherited them from his environment. As a result, his style was naturally humorous and showed no traces of artificiality. Unfortunately, for political purposes he was later set up as a model writer who carried out the decrees in Mao’s “Talks,” and his career was described as the correct direction for writers to follow. His example was used to reform other writers, and a new interpretation was imposed on his career (that writers must go among the workers, peasants and soldiers and must reform themselves). During the Cultural Revolution Zhao Shuli was accused of clinging to his folk taste and failing to serve as a model. For that he was subjected to inhuman tortures. His experience was indeed very tragic. In the meantime, C. T. Hsia, an overseas scholar, made Zhao Shuli’s fate even more unfortunate by simplistically labeling him a Communist writer and a clumsy propagandist who gave praise to Communist benevolence. Zhao Shuli was attacked by extreme political forces from opposing directions.


With my discussions of Eileen Chang, Lu Xun, Ding Ling, and Zhao Shuli, I intend to show that C. T. Hsia’s A History of Modern Chinese Fiction is premised on the sharp division of modern Chinese writers into “Communist writers” and “non-Communist writers” and the conflict between the two groups. Hsia overpraises non-Communist writers and mocks and denigrates Communist writers with remarks inappropriate for a critic. The use of political standards in place of literary standards leads him to disregard the reality of literary texts. This kind of simplistic and biased approach reflects the influence of the Cold War on literary criticism as well as the influence of the political conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists. It is, therefore, a product of a specific era. As literary historians in mainland China adopted a radical political viewpoint and overlooked non-leftist writers such as Eileen Chang, Shen Congwen, and Qian Zhongshu for political, ideological reasons, C. T. Hsia adopted an opposite viewpoint and discounted the Communist writers and pro-Communist writers for a different set of political, ideological reasons. Lu Xun, Ding Ling, and Zhao Shuli were victims of this approach. C. T. Hsia certainly did the right thing in rediscovering writers like Eileen Chang and Shen Congwen. His intentional denigration of writers like Lu Xun, Ding Ling, and Zhao Shuli, however, was wrong. In its evaluations of modern Chinese writers A History of Modern Chinese Fiction differs greatly from the highly politicized literary histories published in mainland China in the 1960s and the 1970s, but it shares the latter’s way of thinking and standards (and attitude). Similar to mainland Chinese critics, C. T. Hsia remains unable to shake off the restraints imposed on literary criticism by politics. Political standards lurk behind his aesthetic evaluations. In other words, for him literary criticism is ultimately based on political standards. This can be seen as a problem shared by critics on both sides of the Taiwan Straits at the time.

In the late 1980s, some mainland Chinese literary historians brought up the issue of rewriting the literary history of modern China. What motivated these scholars was a desire to reexamine the literary histories written between the 1950s and the 1970s so that scholars could reject the dualistic mentality that had dominated the writing of literary histories with its emphasis on the conflict between good and evil. In fact in the 1980s scholars had already begun to reexamine the politicized approach to literary history before the issue was brought up. As scholars made serious efforts in this area, non-Communist writers such as Hu Shi, Zhou Zuoren, Liang Shiqiu, Lin Yutang, and Shen Congwen, writers who had been ignored, were reevaluated fairly. However, as mainland Chinese critics examined their own prejudices, it never occurred to C. T. Hsia that he should examine the prejudices in A History of Modern Chinese Fiction, make adjustments to his statements and reject the political sentiments and the political terms in his artistic evaluations. Unfortunately, instead of conducting this needed self-examination and self-criticism, C. T. Hsia went further astray in his response to my speech and article and labeled Lu Xun “a running dog for the Communists” and Ding Ling “a writer who really does not amount to anything.” For those of us who study modern Chinese literature, it is perhaps our duty now to give up this simplistic approach and Cold War mentality, free ourselves from political, ideological restraints, broaden our horizons, and make literary criticism more scientific, more objective, and more mindful of aesthetic standards.

Qian Mu’s approach and attitude to the study of history come to my mind. Qian Mu believes that a historian should show respect and sympathy for what happened in the history of his nation (which includes, of course, the history of literature and culture). This means that a historian should not try to lay the blame on somebody, should not get too emotional, and should not go to extremes in his praise or censure. Respect for history will result in calmness and humility on our part, which will enable us to evaluate our predecessors’ intellectual creations objectively. In the 1980s, many scholars in mainland China had learned from the lessons of the Cultural Revolution the importance of overcoming the animosity and other mental obstacles left by endless political struggles. In other words, they learned that a critic should treat the author(s) he studies with respect and love, not animosity. A critic could study any author, no matter what kind of political stand the author chose to adopt in the past. But the critic must be sympathetic, understanding, and must adhere to aesthetic standards. It seems that in the 1990s this way of thinking went out of fashion. Some writers and scholars in mainland China went out of their way to denigrate Lu Xun and the leftist literature in China. In the meantime, they also tried their best to create myths about non-leftist writers. Consequently, they revived the simplistic approach in literary criticism that emphasized the conflict between two literary camps. Now it is time for us to take a critical look at the literary criticism and the writing of literary history in China in the 1990s.


[8]. See “The Reappearance of the Remarkable Story of Eileen Chang in a New Century,” Yazhou zhoukan (Oct 30-Nov. 5, 2000).

[9]. See C. T. Hsia’s article “Eileen Chang and I” in Mingbao yuekan (Nov. 12, 2000) and Xu Zidong’s report “Sidelights on the international conference ‘Eileen Chang and Modern Literature in Chinese'” in “The Reappearance of the Remarkable Story of Eileen Chang in a New Century,”Yazhou zhoukan (Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 2000).

[10]. See C. T. Hsia’s article “Eileen Chang and I” cited above.

[11]. See Mingbao yuekan (May, 2000).

[12]. Ibid.

[13].See Mingbao supplement (May 20, 1999).

[14]. See Wang Zengqi quanji (Complete works of Wang Zengqi) (Beijing: Beijing shifan daxue, 1998), vol. 8, p. 219.

[15]. Kang Zhuo, “Afterword,” in Zhao Shuli wenji (Collected works of Zhao Shuli) (Beijing: Gongren, 1980), vol. 4, pp. 1964-1965.