The latest issue of China Perspectives focuses on the topic of “Gao Xingjian and the Role of Chinese Literature Today.” Below appears a slightly modified version of the issue’s editorial essay, written by journal editor Sebastian Veg. It is posted here with permission
By Sebastian Veg
Chinese literature and its significance or insignificance is a continued subject of heated debate in China. From May Fourth, when anti-traditionalist thinkers called on literature to assume a pioneering role in transforming subjects into citizens, to its use as propaganda during World War Two and on both sides of the Strait after 1949, it was seen as a crucial vector of political ideas. During the “Enlightenment” of the 1980s, literature was again called upon to play a central – though politically very different – role in helping society come to terms with the officially still taboo traumas of the Cultural Revolution. However, “Enlightenment” this time was not only synonymous with anti-traditionalism: critical reflection on the iconoclasm of the Cultural Revolution, emphasizing literature’s role as a moral conscience, also led to an enthusiastic rediscovery of cultural tradition, often against May Fourth ideals, among the writers of the “roots” (xungen) movement. It was only in the aftermath of the failed Tiananmen protests of 1989 that younger writers began to substantially question the need for literature to play a central role in society and in intellectual debate.
Perhaps inevitably, while its significant social role was extolled, debates about Chinese literature were routinely accompanied by anguished doubts about its intrinsic, aesthetic, or intellectual value, whether because of its alleged break (voluntary or as the result of an irresistible historical trend) with Chinese tradition or, on the contrary, because of its continued subordination of aesthetic autonomy – viewed as a defining aspect of the “high modernism” that ensures writers international recognition – to socio-political concerns. Soul-searching about why Chinese writers did or did not deserve a Nobel Prize for Literature took place throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, with official organs such as the Writers’ Association actively lobbying on behalf of members such as Ba Jin and Ai Qing. Liu Xiaobo on the other hand, then the “angry young man” of Chinese literary criticism, in a talk at the literature Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (chaired by Liu Zaifu) in 1986 and several subsequent articles attacking “scar literature” and the roots writers, also called for an end to Chinese writers’ “childish” obsession with the Nobel Prize. 
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