An Ancient and Yet Ever-Fresh Topic
Notes on Literature as Reflection of Life
As a beginning student of literary criticism, one would learn this old and famous saying: literature is a mirror to life. This metaphorical statement vividly expresses the close relationship between literature and everyday life. Especially in country like ours, which has had thousands of years of cultural tradition rooted in the idea "writing is to express Tao," such a relationship is viewed as something that borders on a blood relationship.
However, no matter how close such a relationship may be, if it is overly emphasized and enforced, a backlash will result, evoking a psychological revolt from the writer. This revolt has become evident in recent literary works, which show an obvious departure from being faithful reflections of reality. Consequently, there have arisen many loud cries calling writers to face reality and to depict the social transformation currently taking place in our country in their works with great enthusiasm.
These voices of concern should be viewed positively as being good-willed. But it also has to be recognized at the same time that in reality, even at the height of the period regarded by many to be one in which literature was slipping away from social reality, there were still many writers who watched the social change closely and tried to reflect this change in their works with great interest. Literature was not cut off from reality, but emerged with a new face of realism. Two features characterize this new realism:
(1) the literary scene has become multi-faceted with a hundred flowers on display instead of being dominated by one flower;
(2) the modes, angles, and techniques employed by writers to portray reality have become more various. Therefore, to judge whether a literary work fails or succeeds in reflecting reality against this backdrop of new realism would become more meaningful and prudent than simply to argue whether a literary work should reflect reality or not.
Before we continue to demonstrate the soundness of this new approach, a review of our literary movements since the last years of the seventies seems in order. In the beginning of the new era, our literary circle was occupied with assessment of the "cultural revolution" and its damage on society and people's lives. Since literary works created in this period examined wounds inflicted in people's heart and soul by the "cultural revolution," they were called the "wound literature." Then China adopted the policy of reform and opening up to the outside world, and this social change brought about our "Reform Literature." The flesh and blood tie of the Reform Literature with social reality is self-evident, and there is no lack of fine works of realism written in this tradition. However, regrettably, there are also some works produced in this period that strayed into the old rut that "the future will be bright, yet the path will be treacherous," affecting their epistemological and aesthetic values. Then came the "Root-Search Literature," which explores the impact of traditional Chinese culture on contemporary Chinese society and people's ideology, and the "New Wave Literature," which deals with young Chinese's rebellion against custom and tradition. This last period is often regarded by many to be one in which literature has severed itself from reality. As a matter of fact, there are only a few that advocate extreme ideas of returning to primitivism and indulge themselves in word games. There are many fine root-search and new wave works that have not forgotten the tie of literature to life. Their realism has become only more indirect and more implicit. In the meantime, we do also find many realistic works written in a direct and explicit manner.
Through this brief review of our new-era literature, we can find that realistic works have dominated the literary scene and have exerted a tremendous influence among readers. Works such as "Manager Qiao Assumes Office" (Chinese Literature, 1980, Vol. 2), "Chen Huansheng's Adventure in Town" (Chinese Literature, 1980, Vol. 12), and Heavy Wings by our veteran writers Jiang Zilong, Gao Xiaosheng, and Zhang Jie, are fine examples that look at life's problems squarely. Works of New Realism by young writers Chi Li, Fang Fang, and Liu Zhenyun explore life and society under great social transition from different angles and with unique perspectives. The emergence of the "Three Carriages" (Hebei writers Dan Ge, He Sheng, Guan Renshan) in recent years has brought another shock wave of realism. Their works such as "A Large Factory" and "A Destitute Village," though different in setting, all closely observe and deal with important events taking place in Chinese society, including the reform of large and medium-sized state enterprises, layoffs, and the share-holding system. Their works follow the pulse of the time and are much valued as witness to China's new era of great social transformation.The four works selected from publication in this volume of Chinese Literature represent recent looks of Chinese literature. They deal with different subject matters. From these works, readers can feel the pulses of Chinese society and the Chinese people under great social reform.
"When the Evening Lights Are On" by Liu Ji'an targets the most sensitive issue now facing Chinese cities ? workers "leaving the posts" (layoffs). The reform of large and medium-sized state enterprises, internal restructuring, and merges result in massive layoffs of workers, especially of female workers. Their survival has become a serious social problem. Although there are many literary works touching this sensitive subject, "When the Evening Lights Are On" is unique in presenting the fierce competition occurring in our city life and the hardships laid-off female workers are experiencing. The protagonist in this story, Qin Yun, is an experienced accountant and cashier. Her ten years of experience, outstanding accounting skills, and utmost loyalty and commitment to the factory are not enough to save her from being laid off. However, although she is out of work, she does not lose her conscience and love for others. In order to look for her old housekeeper, who has left because she does not want to become her burden, Qin Yun relinquishes an opportunity to have a new job that pays well. For a divorced mother with a daughter of nine, life is not easy. The author does not attempt to paint a rosy future for her heroine, but simply portrays her as a kind-hearted, strong, and independent woman with great sympathy and respect. Qin Yun's fate will be typical of that of many city people for some time to come. There are going to be more layoffs as the reform deepens. How to deal with unemployment and how to deal with life in unemployment realistically will become a major problem many Chinese have to face.
Works by Fang Fang, a female writer, are concerned with the state of Chinese intellectuals as well as the condition under which ordinary city people at the lower rung of the society ladder. Her works are characterized by objectivity, poise, and profundity. Her novel Predestined selected for this publication is no exception. It quietly weaves the life of an intellectual with that of ordinary citizens that live at the bottom of society. The protagonist Xiao Jidong is a university teacher who turns into a taxi driver and then returns to teaching. Each move is a thoughtful decision made by Xiao himself. Nevertheless, in the eyes of beholders, it looks different. Xiao's return to academic life expresses a philosophy of life: each person has his/her own way of life and each way of life has its own rules to follow. If Xiao's attitude and action represent a virtue held dearly by Chinese intellectuals, other people's attitudes towards Xiao's behavior reflect the current mood of the society. This mood is well dramatized through various treatments Xiao has received from his patrons while he is driving his taxi. The author treats Xiao's story with artistic subtlety and taste.
What to Hope for is a recent work by another female writer Zhang Xin. It relates a difficult journey on which modern city youths have embarked in pursuit of their dreams. The novel traces Tian You's life journey from "worshipping stars" to becoming a star himself. The author exposes a grim reality behind the scene in the modern entertainment industry of China and shows the demonic power of money and the ostentatious mood of the time. In addition, through depiction of Tian You's serious examination of his life after he has become a star and of his falling a victim to melancholy and dejection, the author expresses her strong reservation of life's material pursuit. Chi Zijian's work Silver Plates tells the story of a country girl Ji Ai who leaves home to find work in the city. Through this story, the author explores the conflict between the innocence of the country and the sophistication of the city.
From these four works and other works not mentioned here that aim at reflecting real life, we can see that life has become more and more multifarious for the Chinese people. Not only life itself has become more colorful, but also the assessment of life has burned more complex and uncertain. The complexity and uncertainty of life have imposed a serious challenge upon writers. When life becomes more complex, there is more for a writer to chew and taste. There is more room for a writer to maneuver. So far the attitudes toward life expressed in realistic literary works are still quite standard: sympathy, criticism, and approval. However, reality provides us with more avenues for thought and evaluation than those three. Life is not one-dimensional, clear-cut, but multi-dimensional and fluid. It is like a web. A simple condemnation or praise of life can not do justice to the complexity of life. A different angle of observation and evaluation will yield a different conclusion. Life is ever changing and contains many variables; for a writer, changes and mysteries of life are enchanting.
Our literature has gone through a twisted journey in reflecting social reality. We have overworked on some subjects, but neglected some others because of historical reasons. Now time has changed. Our writers have no reason to be indifferent to our society and life, which are going through stormy transformation. They will be amply rewarded if they take pains to cultivate this vast, fertile, virgin land of new social reality.
Translated by Jianer Lin
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