Requisites for the New Literature

By Zhou Zuoren

Tr. by Kirk A. Denton

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright 2000)

zhouzuorenIt is truly a great honor to have been invited here today by your esteemed association. I would like at this time to say a few words about the requisites for the new literature. It seems we have always been able to divide literature into two schools, the art-for-art school and the art-for-life school. The art-for-art school proposes that art have an independent value that need not be connected to the practical and that can exist above all utilitarian functions. The mind of this kind of artist is devoted entirely to making a pure work of art that need not touch on the various problems in human society. The role of the cloisonne maker or the jade carver, for example, is complete once he can make a beautiful and exquisite objet d’art, and he need not concern himself with whether it has any use for anyone. This “for whose sake” attitude has certainly contributed to the development of knowledge; but in literature, emphasizing technique to the neglect of thought and feeling, hinders one’s expression and may even lead to the state in which life exists solely for the sake of art. The art-for-life school says that art should be interconnected with life and does not accept that art can be disconnected from life. The problem with this school is that it can lead easily to utility, where art becomes a tool of ethics or a sermon from some altar. A proper explanation is that literature is still the ultimate goal, but that it first should pass through the feelings and thoughts of the writer and come into contact with life. In other words, the writer should use artistic means to express his thoughts and feelings toward life, offering the reader artistic pleasure and elucidation about life. As such, what we are asking for is, of course, a human art-for-art literature.

Those who study the development of literary thought should look fairly on each school of each period and allow each its due. But those of us who wish to write or those who gain spiritual sustenance from literature cannot afford not to take sides, or there will be nothing to guide us. So from these two schools we have adopted “human art-for-art” school. But there are no absolute truths in the world; the proposals of these two schools resulted from specific environmental and dispositional factors and in selecting or rejecting aspects of these schools we cannot escape the effects of these two factors. This we must recognize. In nineteenth-century Europe, for example, literature went through a great transformation from romanticism (传奇主义) to realism (写实主义), while in Russia literature was always a kind of idealistic realism (理想的写实主义). This is because the relationship between the environment and the disposition of the Russian people determined that they could not discard social problems or lean toward either of the two extremes of subjectivism or objectivism. My own expression of support for a literature of humanity is, I feel, scientifically grounded, but in fact there is perhaps also an unconscious factor: our backs turned to the history of the past, born in the present conditions, naturally we cannot have too much sympathy for aestheticism or hedonism. This emotional factor is able to strengthen rational critique. So I believe that this literature of humanity is really the only thing required in China today.

What is literature of humanity? In my view it can be divided into two explanations:

1. It is a literature of human nature, not bestial, nor supernatural.
2. It is a literature of mankind, of individuals, not races, nations, regions or clans.

On the first point, I have written an essay entitled “Literature of Humanity”[2] in which I made a few sketchy comments. The main idea, borrowing from the field of biology, determined that since mankind is an evolved animal, a literature of humanity should also be humanistic (人间本位主义的). Because man was originally an animal, all his common life-instincts are proper, beautiful, and good. Everything outside of the realm of human emotions and human power (i.e. divine attributes) belongs not among the requisites we seek for literature. But because man has evolved, everything that has already been eradicated from his original nature or that could not adapt to human life (e.g., bestial attributes) we do not wish to be resurrected or preserved, which would impede mankind’s journey forward. In sum, we want to return to man the humanity due him, nothing more and nothing less.

From this human nature with literature in a central position, we have devised our first requisite. From the essence of literature itself, we devise the second. Human self-consciousness (人间的自觉) is a recent phenomenon, so a literature of humanity has developed only over the last one hundred years and is reaching its apogee at the present time. The tendency toward a literature of humanity is a historical fact. In the process it has passed through several transformations, from a literature of many classes it has come to rest on the collective of the common people, though it has also been colored with individualism. This is a natural result of literary development and herein lies its difference from primitive literature.

On the subject of the significance of literature, though there are some discrepancies in the discussions of various schools, when we look at its essence (from the perspective of its origins), I think we can point to the expression of the writer’s emotions. There is a section from the “Great Preface” of the Book of Odes, though it is speaking solely of the origins of poetry, that can offer an explanation for what we have mentioned above:

Feelings come from within and are shaped through language. If language be insufficient to express one’s feelings, then one may sigh; if sighing be insufficient, then one may chant or sing; if chanting or singing be insufficient, then one may dance with one’s hands or feet.

I feel, in examining the development and history of ancient Greek hymn, epic, or drama, that they all belong to this type. The life of prehistoric times was very simple; men’s thoughts and emotions were basically alike and did not go beyond those necessary to the preservation of life. At that time the individual was dispersed in the clan, without an opportunity for independent expression. So all primitive literature is works that express the emotions of a single collective. Drama, for example, has its origins in religious sacrifice, like China’s “Greeting Spring” sacrifice of old. At that time everyone’s emotion was concentrated on the single expectation of the renewal of spring. The reason for this expectation was their anxiety about the lack of life’s necessities. This anxiety and expectation were felt most urgently and, as a matter of course, were expressed through words and movements. In terms of ceremony, it can be seen as a kind of concrete expression of hope, and also an invocation of substance; in terms of literature, it was the earliest meaning behind song and dance.

Later men made song and dance into something for amusement and play and no longer knew of its origins in a kind of religious expression of mankind’s relational life. We cannot, of course, say for sure what the primitive meaning of things were, nor give them precise definitions, for this would be like using principles of modern chemistry for Taoist alchemy. In terms of their art, however, I feel the meaning must be basically unchanged; not only have we not removed ourselves from the primitive, we seem to be returning to our origins. So we should pay particular attention in this retrospective look at literary history, but with several thousands of years inserted in between there are, of course, many differences between these two similar tendencies. Today’s communal life, for example, is no longer the well-field (井田) system of old. The ancient literature of humanity became a class literature, then this class scope was gradually shed, resulting in the literature of the individual which is our present literature of humanity. Mozi’s phrase “the self is included in love for others” explains it best and allows us to understand the meaning of the above. More superficially we could put it thus: I am part of humanity; if I want happiness, I must first make mankind happy and then receive my due. At a more profound level, we could say that “I am mankind.” There is then no inherent conflict between the two different characteristics of an individual and mankind, indeed they create each other. The individual in ancient times was dispersed into the clan, and the simple desires of the individual were shared by the group. The clan, then, represented the individual. Though the modern individual is still a member of the clan, his progressive desires often make their appearance before those of the clan as a whole, so that he comes to represent the clan. For example, fear of death. This is a natural state of mind shared by all mankind. Poems about this feeling, whether they describe that of the mass of humanity or of an individual, are understandable to all and the one may represent the other and vice-versa. This is what we call a literature of humanity. Yet, though the love of freedom and the pursuit of happiness are also shared by all of mankind, they often remain suppressed in the mass of humanity who does not feel them with great urgency. Those who feel things first, though, will cry out; and though they are expressing their own feelings and desires, they are actually expressing the feelings and desires that humanity has yet to feel or lacked the ability to understand and speak out. There is another level at which there is a difference with ancient times and that is that ancient literature put feelings at the center, while modern literature has added so much reason into the formula. So many important issues have gone through the baptismal waters of modern science and can, theoretically, find resolutions. The definitions of race and nation, for example, used to be absolute truths, but now we know they are nothing but idols. So now the views of the new enlightened man are generally as follows: The only truth I acknowledge is that on the large side there is humanity and on the small side there is me. Within humanity there are tributaries of different skin color and different customs, just as there are biological and psychological elements of difference in nationality, locality, and clan, but this cannot be taken as ironclad proof of their alienness (异类). I feel that each of these kinds of boundaries is due to relations of mutual interest and interconnected feelings of a mysterious life force. Men used to believe that you could not benefit yourself without harming others, so those who were connected by close relationships organized alliances. Now that we know that mankind is conjoined by mutual interests and is not limited to a single people or nation and that it is possible to benefiting self and others at once, these alliances have become a question mankind’s relationship with nature. Men of the past went from the “totemic” thinking of tribal times to the recent rise in concepts of nationalism, all of which are based in blood relations. Today things have been pushed forward and we have now confirmed that everyone came from this totem man (anthropos), though later he came to live in different places, speak different languages and wear different clothes and felt that there were barriers between them, when in fact they were all part of the same clan. This great humanism is the product of the harmonious union of reason and emotion and it is the foundation of our requisites for a new humanist literature.

This humanist literature, formerly called “literature for life,” has also been called idealist literature. Even if the names be different, the essence is in the end the same: it is a literature in which the individual, as a qualified member of humanity, uses artistic methods to express his individual feelings, represent the will of humanity, and bring about happiness in human life. The phrase human will might seem to involve ideals, but I believe that there is no conflict with modern scientific research. As for its content, that was discussed in the two points above and there is no need to elaborate. Writers of this new epoch are iconoclasts, but they still have their new religion: humanist ideals are their doctrine and the will of humanity is their god.


[1] First published as “Xin wenxue de yaoqiu” 新文学的要求 Xin qingnian 1 (1920).

[2] “Humane Literature.” Tr. Ernst Wolfe. In Wolfe, ed., Chou Tso-jen (NY: Twayne, 1971), 97-105; rpt. in Denton, ed., Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945 (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996), 151-61.