positions: east asia cultures critique 14.2 (2006) 449-466
After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the field of literary research in China became invigorated. While scholars favorably evaluated May Fourth and New Era literature, they basically rejected 1930s left-wing literature (including resistance war literature and literature from the liberated areas). They thought New Era literature was the only true inheritor of the May Fourth literary tradition. In this appraisal, 1930s left-wing literature was seen as breaking with the May Fourth literary tradition because it was thought to be merely political and artistically lacking. This is the source of what has been referred to as the theory of the void (kongbai lun).
I do not believe this is a fair appraisal of left-wing literature, nor does it fit with the developmental history of Chinese literature. There are objective reasons for this viewpoint; for example, left-wing literature often overemphasizes its service to politics, at times overlooking artistic creation. It can even be seen as a weapon for class struggle, which gave rise to the tragedies of the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution. While this may be true, I believe the current rejection of 1930s left-wing literature goes too far in trying to correct past wrongs; it throws out the baby with the bath water.
I believe the development of left-wing literature is intimately related to May Fourth literature. First, left-wing literature inherited the spirit of May Fourth literature. May Fourth literature was also political, written in the service of concrete social politics. The most obvious example of this is the "Ibsen fever" that appeared during the May Fourth period, when Henrik Ibsen's plays were frequently adapted into Chinese while those of another great playwright, William Shakespeare, were virtually ignored. Why was this so? Because the topics Ibsen wrote about, individual liberation, women's liberation, and freedom in marriage, fit well with the goals of the May Fourth New Culture Movement. Therefore, at that time many plays imitating Ibsen's A Doll's House appeared, such as Hu Shi's Marriage (Zhongshen dashi), Ouyang Yuqing's The Shrew (Pofu), Ding Xilin's A Wasp (Yizhi mayi), Tian Han's One Night in a Café (Kafeidian zhi yiye), and so on. It is apparent from this brief look that Ibsenism was in accordance with the pursuits and thinking of contemporary Chinese people.
Second, left-wing literature developed the May Fourth spirit. Chinese left-wing literature (including resistance war literature and literature from the liberated areas) did not break with the May Fourth literary tradition; rather, it continued along the path it created. Moreover, it solved a problem May Fourth literature could never find a solution to—namely, the problem of popularization.
In his work "On Literary Revolution" ("Wenxue geming lun"), Chen Duxiu spelled out three important principles of revolutionary literature: "(1) Down with the ornate, sycophantic literature of the aristocracy; up with the plain, expressive literature of the people! (2) Down with stale, pompous classical literature; up with fresh, sincere realist literature! (3) Down with obscure, abstruse eremitic literature; up with comprehensible, popularized social literature!" The manifesto of the Literary Research Association proclaimed: "The time for seeing literature as a game to play when we are happy or as a diversion for when we are frustrated is now past. We believe literature is work, and it is work vital to life." Their goals were for literary creation to reflect reality in social life and to serve the needs of the broad reading populace. The May Fourth period set literature down a good path, but in its developmental process it did not accomplish its goals of going to the people; its influence remained limited to the circle of the intellectuals. It is said that at the time Lu Xun asked his mother to read his story "Diary of a Madman" ("Kuangren riji") and when she did she said, "This is fiction (xiaoshuo)?" Lu Xun's mother obviously believed fiction should...