Chinese literature faces a century of failure

Lu Xun once said: "I think there is nobody truly deserving the Nobel Prize in China. It would be better for Sweden to ignore us. It would only encourage Chinese egotism, causing them to believe they could really parallel those great foreign writers if yellow-skinned people were given preferential consideration. The result would not be good at all."

By Cao Chang-Ching 曹长青
The Taipei Times
Sunday, December 12th, 1999

The chairman of the Nobel Committee handed the last Nobel Prize for literature of the century to the German writer Gunter Grass on Friday, marking a period to the century's great literary works. Among all the messages it sends out, one quiet note heard probably not by many people but certainly by the Chinese: their authors are totally absent during the first hundred years since the establishment of the honor.

With one fifth of the world's population and a long and profound cultural and literary tradition, there might be more people who love and undertake the drudgery of writing in China than in any other country in the world.

So why has no Chinese author ever been honored with the award of the prize? Among the possible reasons, the following are worthy of consideration:

Politics has corroded literature

If the Nobel Prize for literature began this century, so did Chinese political literature. Beginning in the early 1920s, authors and scholars such as Hu Shi (胡适) advocated the modernization of the Chinese language, intending to promote a literary revolution. This however quickly turned into a political movement intent on "saving and strengthening the nation." Before long, the patriotic crusade was subsumed by the anti-Japanese war. Consequently, "oppose the Japanese and save the nation" became the slogan of most authors and the so-called "literature of national defense" (国防文学) became fashionable for a time. The civil war between the KMT and the communists, which immediately followed the anti-Japanese war, took the relay baton to dominate literature. Most authors were willingly involved in politicized writing.

After the communists took over China, authors were not only totally deprived of their freedom of creativity, but were also remodeled to suit the Communist ideology. Those modern classics of China, such as The Tempest (暴风骤雨), The Red Flag (红旗谱) and A Tale of Youth (青春之歌), characterized China's literature of the last fifty years: they are social messages and literary propagators of communist ideology. Writers were required to be servants of the party and to subjugate art to politics. In this carefully policed intellectual atmosphere, authors gradually lost their individualism, humanity and sensibility. During the Mao era almost all literary works promoted revolutionary spirit instead of human values. Although the revolutionary character in Chinese writing has abated over the past 20 years, the long period of dominance of political "revolutionary " themes has stunted Chinese writers' ability to deal with the "foul rag and bone shop of the heart" which is, universally, the stuff of great literature.

The Chinese writers themselves don't seem to understand this. The late author and translator of Ulysses, Xiao Qian (萧乾), complained that the Nobel Committee did not understand the heroic images of workers and peasants in Chinese literature. A young writer of the new generation, Wang Anyi (王安忆), commented on Zhang Ailing (张爱玲) recently saying she wrote only petty-bourgeois sentiment. It is peculiar that two well-known authors of two different generations seemed to be ignorant of the meaning and purpose of literature. If subjects of imaginary writing must be confined to certain social groups or display certain values, then literature has metamorphosed to politics.

The bondage of traditional Chinese culture

But politics should not be the sole matter to blame for China's failure to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Otherwise why did five authors and poets from the former communist Soviet Union -- a system just as politicized and just as culturally policed -- receive the accolade? And why has Taiwan, with a population of 22 million and without communist rule, not produced a Nobel Laureate while Australia, with a smaller population, has?

In fact, not only in the last 100 years but in the last 2,000 years China has failed to produce any great literary art that was recognized universally. Therefore, simply to blame communism is not enough; there must be more deep-rooted problems that need to be addressed.

Throughout the 2,000 years of Chinese history, culture preference has always put the concepts of country, nationality and collective thinking above the value of life, dignity and individual freedom. This kind of value preference conflicts with the essential quest of the art of literature: the meaning of living, the value of individual life, love, suffering and compassion, etc. When a culture's principal value is not focused on individual human beings, then there is no individual, and every person is simply part of an amorphous mass. It is hard to imagine that any literary work with individuality could emerge from a culture without individualism. Undeniably no universality is likely to be found in the suppression of individuality. Therefore, such a culture is doomed to be unable to produce unique literary characters that reflect part of the universal common condition.

The lack of literary cultivation

Most writers learn their craft by the reading of others. This necessitates both that they live in an environment where literature is obtainable and, in order to hone their skills, they need to see how others use their native language and address their cultural and social issues, they need access primarily to the classics of their own culture.

Unfortunately, Chinese authors suffer from an inherent shortage of literature. Most classic Chinese works were written in classical Chinese (文言文), which could hardly benefit modern writers who neither read nor write in such language. Since classical Chinese is hugely different from today's modern language, the author Lin Yutang (林语堂) asserted: "Psychologically, learning classical Chinese is almost like learning a foreign language."

The only few readable, half-classical, half-modern language Chinese works, such as A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦), Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国演义) and All Men Are Brothers (水浒传), have proved to provide little literary nutrition to modern writers. For A Dream of Red Mansions, the best of all, lacks any in-depth probing of human feelings despite its excellent description of characters and situations; Romance of the Three Kingdoms and All Men Are Brothers are merely popular fiction for the masses and have nothing to do with art of literature. Therefore, the modern Chinese literary heritage is extremely scanty, both in quantity and quality.

While the Soviet Union might have shared China's bleak communist politics and forced adaptation of literature for socio-political goals, this did not stop the emergence of five Nobel Literature laureates. Without a doubt, the rich literary tradition of Russia was the reason for this. Russian authors inherited an abundant legacy from their great classical writers -- Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. Russia's literature is appreciated universally, but Chinese literature has been acknowledged merely in China. One may occasionally see a copy of an English translation of A Dream of Red Mansions, in US bookstores, but nobody knows who Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) is.

This scanty heritage of literature has handicapped the development of Chinese authors' humanity and sense of art.

Besides their own culture heritage, another primary resource for writers is foreign literature. However, Chinese translations of western classics only began in this century. Not only was the quantity limited, the selection of literary works approved in communist China was mostly of second- or third-rate so called proletarian writers. The Chinese translation of Ulysses was published in China only in 1994, and Lolita 30 years after its original publication. Most of the 100 best English novels this century as selected by Random House have not yet been translated into Chinese, let alone the numerous great literary achievements of the 18th and 19th century.

Nevertheless, even if all of the great Western works were translated into Chinese, "translations are but reflections in a tarnished mirror," as the French translator of Ulysses stated. Language is essential for authors such as Joyce and Nabokov. Unfortunately, one could see almost nothing at all of the masterful language usage of Ulysses and the beautiful prose style of Lolita from the Chinese translations. In fact, no matter how the translators racked their brains, not even half of the original works' richness was brought out in the Chinese translations.

Lack of knowledge of foreign languages is another defect of today's Chinese authors. Again, dissimilarly, most good Russian writers know at least one or two foreign languages. For example, all of the above mentioned Russian authors understood French. Doubtless, French literature is one of the world's greatest (wining 12 Nobel Prizes for literature, far more than any other single country, is no accident). Imbibing directly the quintessence of France's splendid literature while utilizing their own rich resources, it is no wonder that Russia should have produced so many fine writers.

Obviously, it is too hard for Chinese writers to produce great literary art when they can neither receive nourishment from their own cultural legacy nor acquire directly the cream of the world's classic literature.

Modern Chinese language history is too short

Despite China's 2,000 years of cultural history, the language being used today is less than 100 years old. In today's China, few can appreciate the language that was used throughout China's history and was called by Lu Xun (鲁迅) "the dead language." Lin Yutang also commented, "Classical Chinese cannot express precise meanings. As a result, everything was said in generalities or in vague terms."

Of all Chinese literature, the poems of the Tang and Song dynasties are generally agreed to be the finest flowering. However, since the rules for such poems were extremely strict, the poet Wen Yiduo (闻一多) described the writing of such poems as "dancing with shackles." And the shackles certainly crippled Chinese expression.

The reform and modernization of the Chinese language began only in the 1920s. Today, the use of classical Chinese has been almost totally abandoned, but the new vernacular has never had a chance to really develop, dogged as it has been by political struggles, trammeled as it has been by political ideology and sloganeering. When a language itself is still in a primitive stage of development, little good writing can emerge from it. It is not easy to point to any contemporary Chinese author whose prose style is truly beautiful. The phraseology of good writers such as Lu Xun was extraordinarily dreadful.

The limitation of characters

Although Chinese characters may help one's visual impression in a certain sense, the limitation on imagination and abstract thinking they impose is a greater deficiency. Compared with English, Chinese has some fatal flaws. It does not take a linguist to realize the differences; anyone with a high-school level ability in both languages could easily point out the impotency of the latter. For example, the lack of words to express abstract concepts leads to indefinite and imprecise expressions, the scarcity of verbs results in boring descriptions of human actions, the paucity of adjectives and adverbs contributes to dull narration in stories, the deficiency of synonyms makes explanations of any kind not only difficult but also repetitious. Besides all of these, loose grammar and floppy logical requirements of Chinese encourage innumerable senseless compositions. No wonder Lin Yutang claimed "Chinese language was ruled by men and English by law."

Based on this writer's own reading experience, the best distinction of the advantage and disadvantage of English and Chinese languages might be this: almost all English translations of Chinese works, except poetry, are either more precise, or more beautiful, or more powerful than the originals; while at the same time, all, not almost, Chinese translations of English works are either more obscure, coarser or weaker than the originals.

It certainly needs many books to discuss such a big subject as Chinese language and literature, but at least, the above mentioned reasons can be seen as having something to do with Chinese authors' failure to win the Nobel Prize or any other degree of international appreciation.

It was rumored in the 1930s that the Nobel Committee had considered awarding Lu Xun the prize, upon which Lu Xun wrote to a friend: "I think there is nobody truly deserving the Nobel Prize in China. It would be better for Sweden to ignore us. It would only encourage Chinese egotism, causing them to believe they could really parallel those great foreign writers if yellow-skinned people were given preferential considerations. The result would not be good at all."

Nearly 70 years later, nothing has changed.

Translated by Francis Huang


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