Scholars now tend to agree that modern Chinese literature did not erupt suddenly in the New Culture Movement (1917-23). Instead, they trace its origins back at least to the late Qing period (1895-1911). The late Qing was a period of intellectual ferment sparked by a sense of national crisis.
Intellectuals began to seek solutions to China’s problems outside of its own tradition. They translated works of Western expository writing and literature, which enthralled readers with new ideas and opened up windows onto new exotic cultures. Most outstanding were the translations of Yan Fu (严复) (1864-1921) and Lin Shu (林纾) (1852-1924). In this climate, a boom in the writing of fiction occurred, especially after the 1905 abolishment of the civil service examination when literati struggled to fill new social and cultural roles for themselves. Stylistically, this fiction shows signs of both the Chinese novelistic traditional and Western narrative modes. In subject matter, it is strikingly concerned with the contemporary: social problems, historical upheavel, changing ethical values, etc. In this sense, late Qing fiction is modern. important novelists include Wo Woyao (吴沃尧) (1866–1910), Li Boyuan (李伯元) (1867–1906), Liu E (刘鹗) (1857–1909), and Zeng Pu (曾朴) (1872–1935).
The late Qing also saw a "revolution in poetry" (诗界革命), which promoted experimentation with new forms and the incorporation of new registers of language. Yet the poetry scene was still dominated by the adherents to the Tongguang School (named after the Tongzhi and Guangxu reigns of the Qing), whose leaders — Chen Yan (陈衍), Chen Sanli (陈三立), Zheng Xiaoxu (郑孝胥), and Shen Zengzhi (沈曾植) — promoted a Song style in the manner of Huang Tingjian. These poets would become the objects of scorn by New Culturalists like Hu Shi, who saw their work as overly allusive, artificial, and divorced from contemporary reality.
In drama, the late Qing saw the emergence of the new "civilized drama" (文明戏), a hybrid of Chinese operatic drama with Western-style spoken drama. Peking opera and "reformed Peking opera" were also popular at the time.
Republican Era (1911-1949)
The literary scene in the first few years after the collapse of the Qing in 1911 was dominated by popular love stories, some written in the classical language and some in the vernacular. This entertainment fiction would later be labeled "Mandarin Ducks and Butterfly" fiction by New Culturalists, who despised its lack of social engagement. Throughout much of the Republican era, Butterfly fiction would reach many more readers than its "progressive" counterpart.
In the course of the New Culture Movement (1917-23), the vernacular language largely displace the classical in all areas of literature and writing. Literary reformers Hu Shi (胡适) (1891-1962) and Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) (1880-1942) declared the classical language "dead" and promoted the vibrant vernacular in its stead. Hu Shi once said : " A dead language can never produce a living literature". It should be said, however, that Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu were not the first to promote the vernacular, which had its proponents in the late Qing. In terms of literary practice, Lu Xun (1881-1936) is usually said to be the first major stylist in the new vernacular prose that Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu were promoting.
Though often said to be less successful than their counterparts in fiction writing, poets also experimented with the new vernacular in new poetic forms, such as free verse and the sonnet. Given that there was no tradition of writing poetry in the vernacular, these experiments were more radical than those in fiction writing and also less easily accepted by the reading public. Modern poetry flourishes especially in the 1930s, in the hands of poets like Zhu Xiang (朱湘), Dai Wangshu (戴望舒), Li Jinfa (李金发), Wen Yiduo (闻一多), etc. Other poets, even some of the May Fourth radicals (e.g., Yu Dafu), continued to write poetry in classical styles.
May Fourth radicalism, as well as changes in the education system, made possible the emergence of a large group of women writers. To be sure, there were women writers in the late imperial period and in the late Qing, but nowher near on the scale as during the May Fourth. These writers generally tackled "domestic" issues, such as relations between the sexes, family, and friendship, but they were revolutionary in giving direct expression to female subjectivity. Ding Ling’s (丁玲) story "Diary of Miss Sophie" (莎菲女士日记) exposes the thoughts and feelings of its female diarist in all their complexity.
The late 1920s and 1930s were years of creativity in Chinese fiction, and literary journals and societies espousing various artistic theories proliferated. Among the major writers of the period were Guo Moruo (郭沫若) (1892-1978), a poet, historian, essayist, and critic; Mao Dun (茅盾) (1896-1981), the first of the novelists to emerge from the "League of Left-Wing Writers" and one whose work reflected the revolutionary struggle and disillusionment of the late 1920s; and Ba Jin (巴金) (1904-2005), a novelist whose work was influenced by Ivan Turgenev and other Russian writers. In the 1930s Ba Jin produced a trilogy that depicted the struggle of modern youth against the ageold dominance of the Confucian family system. Comparison often is made between Jia (Family), one of the novels in the trilogy, and Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦). Another writer of the period was the gifted satirist and novelist Lao She (老舍) (1899-1966). Many of these writers became important as administrators of artistic and literary policy after 1949. Most of those authors who were still alive during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) were either purged or forced to submit to public humiliation.
The 1920s and 1930s also saw the emergence of spoken drama. Most outstanding among playwrights of the day are Ouyuang Yuqian (欧阳予倩), Hong Shen (洪深), Tian Han (田汉), and Cao Yu (曹禺). More popular than this Western-style drama, however, was Peking Opera, raised to new artistic heights by the likes of Mei Lanfang (梅兰芳).
The League of Left-Wing Writers was founded in 1930 and included Lu Xun (鲁迅) in its leadership. By 1932 it had adopted the Soviet doctrine of socialist realism, that is, the insistence that art must concentrate on contemporary events in a realistic way, exposing the ills of nonsocialist society and promoting the glorious future under communism.
Though it might have liked to, the League did not control the entire literary field in the 1930s. Indeed, there were many styles of literature at odds with the highly political literature being promoted by the League. The "New Sensationsists" (新感觉派) – a group of writers based in Shanghai who were influenced, to varying degrees, by Western and Japanese modernism–wrote fiction that was more concerned with the unconscious and with aesthetics than politics or social problems. Most important among these writers were Mu Shiying (穆时英), Liu Na’ou (刘呐鸥), and Shi Zhecun (施蛰存). Other writers, most famously Shen Congwen (沈从文) and Fei Ming (废名), balked at the utilitarian role for literature by writing lyrical, almost nostalgic, depictions of the countryside.
The Communist Party of China had established a base after the Long March in Yan’an. The literary ideals of the League were being simplified and enforced on writers and "cultural workers." In 1942, Mao Zedong gave a series of lectures called "Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Art and Literature" that clearly made literature subservient to politics via the Yan’an Rectification Movement. This document would become the national guideline for culture after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
Maoist Era (1949-1976)
After coming to power in 1949, the Communist gradually nationalized the publishing industry, centralized the book distribution system, and brought writers under institutional control through the Writers unio. A system of strict censorship was implemented, with Mao’s "Yan’an Talks" as the guiding force. Periodic literary campaigns (e.g., against Hu Shi, Hu Feng (胡风) targeted certain literary figures who did not toe the Party line on literature. Socialist realism became the uniform style. Conflict, however, soon developed between the government and the writers. The ability to satirize and expose the evils in contemporary society that had made writers useful to the Communist Party of China before its accession to power was no longer welcomed. Even more unwelcome to the party was the persistence among writers of what was deplored as "petty bourgeois idealism," "humanitarianism," and an insistence on freedom to choose subject matter. This conflict came to a head in the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956-57). Mao Zedong encouraged writers to speak out against problems in the new society. Having learned the lessons of the anti-Hu Feng campaign, they were initially reluctant; soon, however, a flurry of newspaper articles, films, and literary works drew attention to such problems as bureaucratism and authoritarianism within the ranks of the party. Now aware of the level of discontent toward the new regime by intellectuals, Mao decided to reverse the Hundred Flowers liberalization to crack down. This crackdown is referred to as the Anti-Rightist Movement (反右运动). Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were attacked.
At the time of the Great Leap Forward, the government increased its insistence on the use of socialist realism and combined with it so-called revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism. Authors were permitted to write about contemporary China, as well as other times during China’s modern period–as long as it was accomplished with the desired socialist revolutionary realism. One of the most outstanding examples of this new socialist literature is Song of Youth (青春之歌), a novel that continues to be popular among young readers in China today. Despite the draconian measures instituted by the new regime to instill literary uniformity, novels of some quality were produced. And it cannot be said that these novels were without pleasures for readers. Nonetheless, the political restrictions discouraged many writers. Although authors were encouraged to write, production of literature fell off to the point that in 1962 only 42 novels were published.
During the Cultural Revolution, the repression and intimidation led by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, succeeded in drying up all cultural activity except a few "model" operas and heroic novels, such as as those by Hao Ran (浩然). Although it has since been learned that some writers continued to produce in secret, during that period no significant literary work was published.
The arrest of Jiang Qing and the other members of the Gang of Four in 1976, and especially the reforms initiated at the Third Plenum of the Eleventh National Party Congress Central Committee in December 1978, led more and more older writers and some younger writers to take up their pens again. Much of the literature in what would be called the "new era" (新时期) discussed the serious abuses of power that had taken place at both the national and the local levels during the Cultural Revolution. The writers decried the waste of time and talent during that decade and bemoaned abuses that had held China back. At the same time, the writers expressed eagerness to make a contribution to building Chinese society. This literature, often called "the literature of the wounded," contained some disquieting views of the party and the political system. Intensely patriotic, these authors wrote cynically of the political leadership that gave rise to the extreme chaos and disorder of the Cultural Revolution. Some of them extended the blame to the entire generation of leaders and to the political system itself. The political authorities were faced with a serious problem: how could they encourage writers to criticize and discredit the abuses of the Cultural Revolution without allowing that criticism to go beyond what they considered tolerable limits?
During this period, a large number of novels and short stories were published. Literary magazines from before the Cultural Revolution were revived, and new ones were added to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite of the reading public. There was a special interest in foreign works. Linguists were commissioned to translate recently published foreign literature, often without carefully considering its interest for the Chinese reader. Literary magazines specializing in translations of foreign short stories became very popular, especially among the young.
It is not surprising that such dramatic changes brought objections from some leaders in the government, literary and art circles, who feared it was happening too fast. The first reaction came in 1980 with calls to combat "bourgeois liberalism," a campaign that was repeated in 1981. These two difficult periods were followed by the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign in late 1983.
At the same time, writers were more free than ever before to write in unconventional styles and to treat sensitive subject matter. A spirit of literary experimentation flourished, especially in the second half of the 1980s. Fiction writers, such as Wang Meng (王蒙), Zhang Xinxin (张辛欣), and Zong Pu (宗璞), and dramatists, such as Gao Xingjian 高行健, experimented in modernist language and narrative modes. Another group of writers–collectively said to constitute the Roots (寻根) movement sought to reconnect literature and culture to Chinese traditions, from which a century of modernization and cultural and political iconoclasm had severed them. Han Shaogong (韩少功), Mo Yan, and A Cheng (阿城) are exemplary. Other writers (e.g., Yu Hua (余华), Ge Fei (格非), Su Tong (苏童) experimented in a more avant-garde (先锋) mode of writing that was daring in form and language and showed a complete loss of faith in ideals of any sort.
In the wake of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 and with the intensification of the market reforms, literature and culture turned commercial and escapist. Wang Shuo (王朔), the so-called "hooligan" (痞子) writer, is the most obvious manifestation of this commercial shift, though his fiction is not without serious intent. Though not all writing in China today is commercial. Yan Lianke 阎连科, for example, takes seriously the role of literature in exposing social problems, such as the plight of HIV-AIDS victims in his novel Dreams of Ding Village (丁庄梦). As in the May Fourth, women writers flourish in present-day China. Many of them, such as Chen Ran (陈然), Wei Hui (卫慧), Wang Anyi (王安忆), and Hong Ying (虹影), explore female subjectivity in a radically changing society. Neo-realism (e.g., Liu Heng (刘恒), Chi Li (池莉), Fang Fang (方方), He Dun (何顿), and Zhu Wen (朱文) is another important current in post-Tian’anmen fiction. In short, contemporary literature in the PRC is multifarious and cannot be reduced to any single school or trend.
Chinese language literature also flourishes in the diaspora–in South East Asia, the United States, and Europe. China is the largest publisher of books, magazines and newspapers in the world. In book publishing alone, some 128,800 new titles of books were published in 2005, according to the General Administration of Press and Publication. There are more than 600 literary journals across the country. Living and writing in France but continuing to write primarily in Chinese, Gao Xingjian became the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. Chinese writers on the mainland felt Gao did not authentically represent China.