The Role of the Author in China

The Role of the Author in China

by Dylan Levi King

Perhaps the best way to get at what being a writer has meant and might now mean in contemporary Chinese society is to pull a few names out of the pantheon and figure out why their busts are on the mantle.

What is a guide, but an aid to a visitor to an unfamiliar land? The ‘unfamiliar land’ in this case is Chinese literature, in its English translation; the visitor is the curious reader; and the guide is The Paper Republic Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature.

Paper Republic was founded by a group of translators in Beijing in 2007 as an online forum. It is now a non-profit, registered as a charity in the UK and with a global reach. The organization is independent, and is run by volunteers who, between them, have a fund of knowledge about contemporary Chinese writers and translation. Our goals are to tell readers what’s good and available to read, and to encourage the highest standards of literary translation. In short, we identify the very best new Chinese writing – and promote it in translation to the English-speaking world.

In recent years, the field of translated Chinese fiction has begun to blossom. And so the Paper Republic team, together with other friends, created The Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature.

The Guide consists of biographies of nearly a hundred writers from the Sinophone world, as well as essays by writers and translators on topics such as Chinese women writers, science fiction and Hong Kong writers. And to start off, ‘The Role of the Author in China’, in which Dylan Levi King examines the social and political 
roles Chinese authors have taken on since the May Fourth Movement of 1919, which marked the beginning of modern Chinese literature.

The Paper Republic Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature is out now and available in both paperback and digital editions. Visit for more information.

In China, books are considered worth banning because the ideas they contain are powerful. From the birth of modern Chinese literature in the New Culture Movement of the early 20th century, writers staked out a role as polemicists and social critics – even the choice to write in an accessible vernacular language was a political decision. Chairman Mao was careful to lay out rules for writers at the Yan’an Forum in 1942, emphasizing that art should serve politics. The Cultural Revolution was started indirectly by a squabble over a play. The Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign of the 1980s took aim at writers for promoting humanism and existentialism. The Nationalist government in Taiwan banned most of the writers celebrated on the Mainland, including Lu Xun. Writers wield the power of literature and therefore have obligations – in China, to even attempt to deny that could be seen as inflammatory.

This belief in the political power of literature has led to the dominance of certain literary forms. In the West, the long tradition of social novels is mostly seen as a relic of the past. But modern Chinese literature remains deeply influenced by the realist writers of the 19th century – Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Ivan Turgenev, and Honoré de Balzac – whose hold over Western literature has weakened. Postmodern literature and discourse emerged in China in the 1990s but has never threatened the supremacy of social realism. Whereas it would be unthinkable for a contemporary American writer to produce a sincere update of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, these forms are still popular with Chinese writers. The modern Chinese novel usually carries an explicit social critique or ideological message – and the absence of a critique or message is often seen as 
a major failing by the literary establishment, bureaucratic busybodies, state newspaper op-ed writers, as well as critics and readers. Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby, for example, a novel about a Shanghai waitress juggling affairs, is rarely criticized for the quality of the writing but for its ideological failings.

Perhaps the best way to get at what being a writer has meant and might now mean in contemporary Chinese society is to pull a few names out of the pantheon and figure out why their busts are on the mantle.

We can start with Lu Xun (1881–1936). Everyone
 starts with Lu Xun – with good reason. A democratizer of language, Lu Xun was considered one of the early masters of the vernacular, rather than the classical style that was used to compose the most serious literature in China up until 
the early 20th century. More than the literary quality of his work, Lu Xun has remained important for the message of national salvation that he brought to the masses. Literature was seen by Lu Xun and his peers as a tool to address injustices. Writers and intellectuals in China were deeply involved in the project of rebuilding the nation in the 20th century and Lu Xun is the model of the author as national conscience, and of the author as instructor.

Eileen Chang (a.k.a. Zhang Ailing, 1920–1995), on the other hand, is remembered for the beauty of her writing, for her genius, and for her meditations on human nature. Liu Zaifu (1941– ), one of the preeminent thinkers on modern Chinese literature, called Eileen Chang one of 
the most important philosophical writers. He writes, ‘She sees a wilderness where other people see civilization, the powerlessness of human emotion where other people see emotional strength, and possibilities where other people see impossibilities.’ Reading Eileen Chang is an aesthetic and emotional pleasure and she is rarely – in her better work, at least – didactic. But it is precisely because she defied any political labels, and seemed uninterested in engaging directly with the rebuilding of the nation, that Eileen Chang was so long denied her place in the history of Chinese literature by critics and academics who wrote her off as a lightweight. Eileen Chang is the chronicler of minor human tragedy, and was seen as a conceited, self-romanticizing aesthete.

It is debatable whether or not Hao Ran (1932–2008) would actually have a bust on the mantelpiece of 20th century Chinese literature, but I am using him here as a stand-in for the now mostly-forgotten writers who answered the call of the Party. Hao Ran came from a peasant family and got his start as an author by writing a skit for a district Party committee event. He climbed his way through literary bureaucracy and eventually earned a job editing a Party journal. He is often remembered for his statement that he was not a writer at all, but rather a ‘full-time worker in the field of literature and art.’ There is a misconception
 that Chinese literature of the Maoist period was marching in lockstep with Soviet literary theory. In fact, writer- theoreticians like Hao Ran – following the direction of the Chairman and other top leaders, of course – were debating, formulating, and putting into practice new ideas. The home-grown literary theories of ‘revolutionary realism’ and ‘revolutionary romanticism’ were a step beyond what was practiced in Soviet literature: they built on ideas from the May Fourth Movement of 1919, on Mao’s belief that culture had far more power than Marxist-Leninist intellectuals would credit it with, and also on a desire on the part of the leadership to break away from their Russian big brother. Writing with all the required revolutionary heroics and Maoist symbolism, Hao Ran was one of the few authors in China allowed to publish new work during the Cultural Revolution. Despite his passion for the project of Chinese socialism and his position in the literary bureaucracy, 
Hao Ran was occasionally at odds with the leadership for perceived ideological errors in his work. This meant that some of his works appeared in dramatically different forms over the years, the result of extensive rewriting to keep up with developments in literary and political theories. He cleaved closely enough to the official line, but careful reading gives a more nuanced impression. When he wrote about, say, land reforms, he was speaking from personal experience and observations in the countryside. Hao Ran is the model of the author as part-time bureaucrat, part-time cultural worker, and occasional – perhaps unintentional – critic, and of the author as rural artist, wedded to the rustic masses and the soil.

And a fourth model: Wang Shuo (1958– ). A Beijing writer who roared to nationwide fame in 1987, he gives us another perspective on the role of the author. He was not a revolutionary or didactic writer; he never wrote on theory or ideology; it’s tough to call him either a supporter or critic of the government; and there’s none of Eileen Chang’s purity in him. He wrote what Geremie Barmé calls ‘a literature
 of escape and sublimation.’ Wang Shuo belonged to the 
first generation of writers who could – and were at least superficially encouraged to – disengage from politics, enjoy the benefits of a new cultural permissiveness, and make
 a ton of money doing it. As he remarked in an interview: 
‘If you think I should be doing something for others… I reckon about the only thing I could manage to do in that department is to polish their shoes.’[1] Does Wang Shuo as entrepreneur undermine the central thesis that literature 
in China is deadly important? Maybe so; maybe not. Wang Shuo, who has published little over the past decade or so, might be remembered for his churlish TV interviews and bratty behavior, but he’s also been studied, discussed at all levels of society, hotly debated, and theorized about. You can’t say he’s not taken seriously – even if he claims not
to take himself that seriously. Wang Shuo is our author as outsider, whose stance of cynical irony is partially his own invention, partially a result of being shut out of politics.

I present these four models as a sort of spectrum, providing, I hope, a way of understanding the role of the author – past, present, and even future.

An example: Yan Lianke’s didactic, horrifying stories of modern life make for an easy comparison to Lu Xun, but understanding his delicate position in institutional literature – at once inside and outside the system – requires knowing figures like Hao Ran. Meanwhile, Chu T’ien-wen’s florid language and her focus on the quiet cruelties of modern life have earned her comparisons to Eileen Chang, but, like Wang Shuo, she is a cultural entrepreneur who has worked in multiple media.

Some writers, of course, fit less neatly into this heuristic model. I am thinking of Can Xue (1953– ) and her sui generis experimental fiction, her pure dedication to literature, and her seeming unwillingness to play along with the rules of the establishment. I am thinking of Zhang Chengzhi (1948– ), who liberated himself from the literary bureaucracy in
the 1980s, decamped to Japan, and pursued a suddenly outmoded project of global liberation, writing about Che Guevara, Japanese ultra-leftist terrorists, and international Islam, and donated the proceeds of a novel to Palestinian refugees. I am thinking about Guo Jingming (1983– ), the well-compensated, hedonistic author of online escapist urban fantasy and other genres usually deemed outside the bounds of serious literature. Even if a writer doesn’t fit neatly into one of these models, it can still be used to explain the reactions that they can expect to receive. A 2015 China Daily story on Guo Jingming, for example, was headlined ‘Guo doesn’t care.’ The story quoted a film critic named Li Xingwen, who accused Guo of promoting ‘vanity and material desires, not the self-claimed theme of true friendship.’ This criticism
 of Guo Jingming’s hedonism is hard to understand without knowing something of the roles authors are expected to fulfil in China.

The life-and-death stakes of Chinese literature can be hard for writers to bear. Many fine writers have had their best work banned or suppressed, or have been forced to publish it overseas. One wonders how many great works have been held back and consigned to collections of unpublishable ‘desk-drawer literature’ (抽屉文学) over the decades. In digital times, this is more likely to circulate among Douban contacts, for example, than be consigned to a drawer. Nevertheless, compared with the West, where literature has continuously slipped in importance, there’s something almost heartening about the continuously charged significance of Chinese literature. 


[1] Translated by Geremie Barmé in In the Red: On Contemporary Chinese Culture (Columbia University Press, 1999).

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based writer and translator. His most recent translation is Cai Chongda’s Vessel (HarperCollins, 2021); his co-translation (with Nicky Harman) of Jia Pingwa’s The Shaanxi Opera (AmazonCrossing) will be published in 2023. 

“The Role of the Author in China” is published as a part of The Paper Republic Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature. Republished on Hopscotch Translation with permission on Tuesday, March 8, 2022.

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