Chinese literature alive and kicking, says author

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2007, 12:00am

Chinese literature has evolved into a diverse entity, comprising anything from highbrow epics to populist forms of internet culture, according to the new chairwoman of the China Writers' Association.

Tie Ning , who was visiting the city for the week-long annual Hong Kong Book Fair that ends tomorrow, is eager to defend the mainland's literary scene against criticism that it is unimpressive at best.

The 'golden era' of contemporary Chinese literature, a period during the 1980s in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, may have died out, she said. But its end was actually just the end of the beginning of a longer literary evolution, she said.

'Chinese literature isn't what is used to be,' she said. 'It might have lost the privileged position in society it enjoyed 20 years ago. But it's evolving into an interesting complexity that is layered, stratified and marbled. I see vitality and hope from it.'

The artistic and literary fervour that characterised the 1980s, when a generation of writers sprang up and were worshipped as rock stars, was actually something of an abnormality, she said.

'It emerged from a unique social and political background. People were repressed during the Cultural Revolution and were looking for an emotional outlet, and they found it in literature,' she said.

Back then, tens of thousands of people of all ages and educational levels would queue outside bookstores trying to snap up a Kafka, a Freud or a Max Weber. There were even reports that avid readers hand-copied The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas to circulate among friends.

This collective passion for reading, which Ms Tie described as 'passionately naive', proved to be unsustainable.

It has been replaced by a much lighter and more pragmatic attitude as China gradually transforms itself into a consumer society. What sells now is not innovative or polemic new literature.

Readers are reading for fun and for practical ends. Books on personal finance, travel, and formerly taboo subjects like sexuality frequently land on the best-seller list.

'Reading doesn't carry much spiritual heaviness these days, and literature has lost favour in society,' Ms Tie said.

This was normal to some extent, she said, although she still believed that a society's level of 'intimacy with great literature' was an accurate barometer of the quality of its culture.

Some critics lament the lack of depth of today's Chinese literary scene, where the most active players are young so-called 'post-80s' writers who detail their dysfunctional school lives and troubled existences, the so-called 'beauty writers' who explore personal sexual experiences and a vast pool of 'internet hacks'.

One of the voices most critical of the mainland's literary scene has come from Germany, where the sinologist Wolfgang Kubin has recently commented that most contemporary works are trash.

His sentiments were well shared by Zhu Dake , the mainland's leading literary critic, who said in an interview last week that Chinese literature had 'hollowed out' and was becoming 'a huge trash bin'.

Ms Tie, who at 49 became the first woman and youngest president elected in the writers' association's 57-year history last November, rejected such criticism as 'gross oversimplification'.

'Literature today is not monolithic any more: it's got everything - the experimental, the avant-garde, or the plain weird - and all those established writers from the 1980s are still able to turn in high-quality works,' she said.

It just needs to find its place in the new China, she adds.