From the beginning of the 20th century till now, Chinese rural society has undergone tremendous changes. Whether it’s literacy rates, the modernization of industry and agriculture, average living standards or social security levels, significant improvements are self-evident.
Nonetheless, some longstanding problems remain, such as a widening gap between urban and rural areas, old-fashioned customs, and a few farmers’ lagging acceptance of modernization.
These issues are also historical. They have existed, implicitly and explicitly, since the beginning of the 20th century. Modern writers of rural literature, represented by Lu Xun (1881–1936), reflected deeply on these issues and integrated their thinking into literary creation, thus establishing traditions for modern Chinese rural literature.
Literature for life
The traditions of modern Chinese rural literature are rich. They include the thinking and exploration of major literary issues by generations of writers, such as the purpose of literary creation, how to properly handle the relationship between literature and reality, and writers’ basic moral stances. Among these, the moral stances of writers are most important.
In the cultural context of modern China, writers of rural literature held basically consistent moral stances. From Lu Xun and the young writers influenced by him to Fei Ming (1901–67) and Shen Congwen (1902–88), they all believed in democracy and science, pursued national modernization and actively strived for the greater good. Thus their works feature a deep practical concern and strong appeal for modernity.
Fiction is the major genre of rural literature, which can directly be attributed to fiction’s rapid development since modern times. In 1902, Liang Qichao (1873–1929) published the essay “On the Relationship Between Fiction and the Government of the People” in the inaugural issue of the journal New Fiction, lifting the function of fiction to an unprecedented height. Shortly after, however, fiction written by such writers as Liang Qichao and Wu Woyao (1866–1910), though mirroring reality, was artistically immature. Their works were either tedious and difficult to understand or got stuck in the ruts of old conventions. A dozen years of “New Fiction” experiments failed to change the image of fiction in the mind of the people.
Not until Lu Xun’s works came out did Chinese fiction achieve breakthroughs in thought and art. The short story “A Madman’s Dairy,” upon publication, drew wide attention for its perfect form, brilliant skills and creative language. It set off a wave of rural literature creation in the 1920s.
Rural literature as represented by Lu Xun’s fiction was especially charming, featuring innovation in form, skill and language, along with a sense of purpose.
When summing up the purpose of modern rural literature, Lu Xun said that literature must serve life, and moreover, change life. In the preface to his first collection of stories Outcry, or Call to Arms, he claimed that he created those works to change the spirit of Chinese nationals.
In Lu Xun’s terms, “serving life” and “changing life” meant to emancipate the Chinese people from outdated culture and thought, which was an enlightening message in China in the early 20th century. Hence his works generated a great impact across the nation.
After 1840, China faced domestic strife and foreign aggression. It was extraordinarily poor and weak. Farmers, handicraftsmen and peddlers were not only trapped in backward productivity and modes of production but suffered a great deal from intellectual ignorance. The purpose of serving and changing life advocated by rural literature conformed to the need of the times, while reflecting writers’ patriotism and consciousness of hardship. The purpose of writing was afterwards upheld by writers of rural literature generation after generation and became the soul of rural literature.
Adhering to realism
Modern values and the purpose of writing for life equipped writers of rural literature with a sober realist consciousness when dealing with the relationship between literature and reality.
In “The True Story of Ah Q,” a short story by Lu Xun, we can see how pitiful and helpless Ah Q is: He has no assets to live on, not even a surname. Meanwhile, he is pathetic and shameless: He deludes himself into believing he is the victor every time he is bullied and humiliated, and he even delights himself with the fantasized victory. However, he tends to wantonly provoke and tease those weaker, such as Xiao D and a young nun. To create such a pitiful yet pathetic, helpless yet shameless soul necessitates huge courage and consciousness, because the target is not only the outside world, but also the general mentality of the Chinese people at that time.
Lu Xun maintained that only by facing up to reality and revealing its deficiency can remedial attention be drawn, so he satirized those escapists poignantly. The short story “A Storm in a Teacup” sneered at those scholars who eulogize the pastoral life but have no idea of the real life in the countryside. The story starts with a portrayal of smoke curling up from kitchen chimneys in the sunset, when men of letters on the boat sing praise of villages by the river, “What a carefree pastoral life!” Then it continues with the daily life between the protagonist Qijin and his wife, their neighborhood and economic status, revealing the intellectual ignorance and material shortage in rural society and deconstructing the illusory “pastoral life.”
Other short stories like “A Madman’s Dairy,” “Medicine,” “Tomorrow” and “Hometown” also realistically depict the backward culture and distressed life in rural areas and probe into the relationship between the two. “Exposing sufferings” is not the ultimate goal of Lu Xun’s literary creation. Instead, he intended to explore a happy, rational new life that Ah Qs and Qijins deserve.
Realism in Lu Xun’s fiction contains his deepest and most burning love for the Chinese nation and people, and it represents modern Chinese writers’ sense of mission and responsibility. Enlightened by Lu Xun, excellent rural literature writers of later generations have grounded themselves in reality and paid attention to practical issues to distinguish their hometowns.
Xu Qinwen (1897–1984) painted a historical picture in which old mores and deficient scientific knowledge led to the decline of mountain villages in eastern Zhejiang Province. Rou Shi (1902–31) was devoted to describing the musty atmosphere and ideas in villages and small towns, indicating how they stifled new ideas, new things and new characters. Tai Jingnong (1903–90) examined the sharp contrast between the rich and the poor in the countryside of central China. While poor people sold their wives and children for survival and were imprisoned or killed for arrears of debt and rent, the wealthy acted recklessly and stole others’ wives and daughters. Peng Jiahuang (1898–1933) told tragic and ridiculous stories happening in the countryside.
Shen Congwen was different from Lu Xun. Compared with incisive and sober Lu Xun, Shen seemed to be much more sweet and romantic. However, he confessed many times that his fiction about western Hunan Province was created under the influence of Lu Xun’s works. Actually, the sweetness and romance in Shen’s fiction were sorrow and grief in disguise.
In the short novel Border Town, love, affection and friendship are all unsophisticated; the root cause of the tragedy is that the heroin Cuicui was born in a penniless family while the daughter of the head of the local armed forces has a large dowry. In the novel Long River, a security corps robs and even blackmails villagers.
Shen Congwen’s fiction about western Hunan was neither sweet nor romantic. He was essentially identical with Lu Xun, squarely facing all kinds of ignorance and backwardness in rural society and calling for the happy, rational life that rural people deserved.
In the following decades, the rural literature frenzy persisted despite dramatic changes in Chinese society. For one century, it remained one of the hottest genres for writing, attracting talented young writers generation after generation.
Over the past century, earthshaking changes have taken place in Chinese rural society, and remarkable achievements have also been realized in rural construction. To reinforce the construction of the beautiful countryside and create a better life for the majority of farmers, contemporary Chinese rural literature writers should carry forward modern traditions in the genre and inherit the realist spirit and purpose of writing for life to create excellent works that truly reflect developments and changes in the socialist countryside as well as the spirit of farmers in the new era.
Yu Ronghu is a professor of literature from the College of Liberal Arts at Nanjing Xiaozhuang University.