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Modernism in Chinese Short Stories

Literary and cultural productions from the late 19th century and early 20th century are referred to as ‘modernist’. Modernist writings are driven by a conscious attempt to break free of the archaic style of writing and express new sensibilities, which represent the traditions of their time. This period is marked by the widespread influence of American and European authors and artists, especially the Avant-garde. Modernism in China marked the beginning of a new thought and a break from tradition, which was brought forth by the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. Until recently modernism was studied as an imported phenomenon in China, however, scholars in the field are now saying, that China underwent a metamorphosis of its own that led to the emergence of modernism in the region. Modernism in China did not emerge as an autonomous aesthetic movement, it was a corollary to the historical modernity in China. Also, commonly known as the May Fourth Movement in China, the modernist writers took an anti-imperialist and anti-establishment cultural stance. 


The societal visions of modernism in China manifested the appearance of a new mass culture and women’s emancipation. It also led to the increased use of the vernacular language - the simplified Chinese, also known as the language of the masses, instead of the traditional Chinese, which was viewed as the language of the oppressors.  The aim of the movement was to move away from all forms of tradition and subjugation and embrace a new anti-Confucian society.

A Madman's Diary, 1918

Lu Xun

This short story is considered as a canonical text while talking about the modernist movement in China. This short story, as quintessential to any modernist text, is deeply political and heavily comments on the representation of the then social reality. The story is an illustration of the social protests and a criticism of Chinese culture and literature. 


Set in an ordinary village, the story presents a fragmented and a deranged narrative. The narrator, possibly a madman, evokes feelings of disgust and distrust in the reader. However, through his skilful narration, Xun leaves the reader questioning their judgement and trusting the madman, instead of the other supposedly sane characters in the story. Throughout the diary entries, if one looks for it keenly, Xun’s mad narrator repeatedly illustrates signs of intellect, examples of this include his quest to conduct a thorough investigation, his accounts of criticising the virtuous and rehabilitating the villainous, his (even though questionable), sound and unfragmented recollection of historical events, conversations, and readings. 


With this story, Xun aims for the readers to understand the oppressive reality of Chinese culture. He wishes for his reader to start questioning figures of authority and think beyond the societal structures, in order to bring about change. With a thick layer of metaphors, Xun leaves his readers confused and yearning for more. 


Sinking, 1921


Yu Dafu

Yu Dafu was an important and prolific writer of the modernist movement in China. Written as a representation of the Romantic style, Sinking is one of the first psychological stories in modern Chinese fiction. The story is a narration of a fictional landscape drawn from the mind of a modern Chinese man struggling with his ethnic identity, traditional morals, loneliness, and a fragmented psyche. 


In his story Sinking, the protagonist is a young Chinese student who is sent to Japan to study. The third person omnipresent narrator gives the reader an insight into the protagonist’s deepest and darkest thoughts. The protagonist is ashamed of himself and his Chinese culture. He feels hostility towards the Japanese and often feels humiliated. However, throughout the text, he exaggerates his own emotions, his sexual desires, his relationships with the other Chinese and Japanese students, and his relationship with his brother. Through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, the reader gets a picture of a hypochondriac adolescent who narrates a tale of coming of age. According to the author, the protagonist’s over-driven sexual appetite is a conflict between his soul and his desires. 


The story reveals discernible similarities between the protagonist’s and the author’s life. Dafu believed that literature reflects life. Through a faithfully realist imagery and a compelling narrative, Dafu presents the reader with a portrayal of human suffering through an illustration of a young man’s sexual desires, his moral conflict, and his troubled resolution. Dafu leaves the reader sympathetic to the protagonist and whilst questioning the rigidity of traditions.

A Scarecrow, 1999

Ye Shengtao

Famous for his children’s literature, Ye Shengtao, viewed it as an antidote to the obedience and conformity taught to the children during the Confucian times. It was important for Chinese modernists to write for a young audience in order to groom them into critical thinking and rational adults who would question the establishment, instead of abiding by it blindly. Such stories were created by the Chinese modernists in their attempt to rebuild the nation. Shengtao’s stories weaved together the Romantic imagery of childhood along with the darkness of the then contemporary society. 


Shengtao’s short story Scarecrow is a story of suffering and poverty. The story aims to evoke a feeling of sympathy towards the poor, among young readers. His protagonist is a scarecrow who witnesses the plight of the poor but is unable to help them. Since the scarecrow is denied the opportunity to be able to help the destitute, he chooses to end his existence. Through this narrative, Shengtao intends to arouse feelings of consideration and compassion for the less fortunate, he also uses such stories to redefine acts of heroism; he convinces his reader that the act of helping the proletariat is heroic. 


Wild Roses, 1929


Mao Dun 

The namesake of the Mao Dun Literature Prize, Dun was twice elected as the chairman of the China Literary Arts Representative Assembly.  He is famous for his heroines. Dun’s heroines represent the modern Chinese woman. They are naïve and innocent in the beginning but often in the course of the story or novel, they transform into independent women with strong political beliefs. 


His anthology of short stories titled Wild Roses is a collection of stories exploring the lives of 5 young women living in China in the 1920s. Each woman’s character is different and like every Dun heroine, they each undergo a transformation. The women tackle problems like abandonment, unwed pregnancy, revolution, suicide, that were considered taboo in Chinese society. Each story maps their journey and tells the reader how they stood up to traditional values. After its release, Wild Roses was accused of being a provocative text with pornographic and unfeminine depictions. Eventually, Dun’s depictions of women were believed to be emancipatory and ahead of their times with a deep understanding of womanhood. However, with the recent development in women’s studies, this claim has been refuted. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that Dun pioneered the writings of the modern, new age Chinese woman.

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