The Field of Life and Death and Tales of Hulan River
Literature of the People's Republic of China
The Dragon's Village
Chinese Stories from Taiwan: 1960-1970
A central crisis in modern Chinese letters has been caused by the need to take account of Western forms. Some writers adjusted eagerly to Western literature out of a sincere admiration for Western culture; some grudgingly, out of a total rejection of China’s own “feudal” past; some out of a deeply ambiguous attitude, in which admiration for the West blended with the desire to preserve what was culturally valuable and historically charged in the Chinese tradition.
In no case was adaptation easy. Bombarded, within the few years between 1895 and 1910, by a range of works that included Rousseau, Byron and Goethe, Gogol, Ibsen, Zola and Dickens, Wilde, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and Dumas, Huxley, Spencer and John Stuart Mill (to name only a few of the more popular ones) Chinese intellectuals struggled to create valid and accessible literary forms while they reassessed their own heritage. In traditional poetry, the rules of meter, tone, and rhyme were rigorous and tied to the structures of classical Chinese; in the novel and the drama, though there was more openness to the cadences of everyday speech, there were conventions of plot, characterization, and dialogue that precluded a variety of nuance in the narrator’s voice and discouraged passages of prolonged introspection. In the short story, the indigenous tradition contained heavy elements of the magical, along with stylized treatments of the sensual and the violent, that were a far cry from the goals of Western realism.
It is not surprising that some Chinese, newly introduced to the world of Western literature through translation, found their own literature stifling; but they responded to the challenge, and the result was an almost unparalleled burst of creativity in the 1920s. By the 1930s, however, as even vaster reaches appeared to be opening up, and more and more Chinese intellectuals came, through study at home or abroad, to read at least one Western language fluently, the intellectuals were once again circumscribed either by the political and moral censorship of the Kuomintang, or by the demands of socialist realism and the “correct” anti-imperialist position advanced by the literary cadres of the Communist Party, both of which were justified by the exigencies of the protracted anti-Japanese war. Rare indeed were those who could still find their own voice.
One of these rare ones was Ch’ien Chung-shu, whose novel Fortress Besieged (Wei-ch’eng), set in 1937, was written during and after the Second World War and published in China in 1947. Ch’ien was born to a prosperous literary family in the exquisite Kiangsu city of Wuhsi and his precocity and linguistic brilliance were nurtured at the best local schools, at Tsinghua University, at Oxford (where he took a B-Litt), and in Paris. For the last decade nobody was quite sure how he had fared in the People’s Republic and for many scholars in the United States the greatest surprise and delight of the 1979 visit to the US of a delegation from the Chinese academy of social sciences was the fact that…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.