New Chinese Literature

The New York Times has published three reviews of new Chinese works in translation: Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong (pen name for Lu Jiamin) and Mo Yan, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out. What binds these works together, in particular, is that all three are — at least in part — about the experience of the Cultural Revolution.

I just got done, over the last few weeks, talking with my 20c China students about the degree to which the Cultural Revolution was something of a hole in the national memory of China1 , and how it seemed like the time had come for more open discussion. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (which I used last time I taught 20c) and Ye and Ma, Growing Up In The People’s Republic: Conversations between Two Daughters of China’s Revolution (which I used this year) are part of the slow tide of memoirs and documentaries coming out which cover the traumas and tribulations.2 Jonathan Spence, reviewing Mo Yan, writes that “It seems that novels in China are coming into their own, that new freedoms of expression are being claimed by their authors. Mao has become a handy villain. One wonders how much longer his successors will be immune from similar treatment.” This is a dramatic shift, it seems to me; not an unexpected one, really,3 as economic liberalization begins to include more cultural production, and Mao’s presence becomes more distant.4

The books being reviewed are quite the motley crew: Mo Yan’s features a reincarnating rarely-human protagonist and broad, cynical, humanistic humor, and sounds like the book I’d most like to read. Jiang Rong’s sounds like a cross between Victor Davis Hanson5 and Dances with Wolves, and sounds like the book most likely to be assigned by people who have no sense of humor. Wang Anyi’s novel of private lives tossed by unseen historical sources is the kind of thing I might assign if I didn’t prefer more primary sources; having students work through the history paralleling the story would be a decent exercise, it sounds like.

Taken as a whole, which I’m sure was the NYT‘s point, they indicate two things: first, that Chinese literature is an increasingly interesting body of work, both for people interested in China and people who like literature; second, that the standard narrative of economic liberalization without political liberalization needs refining.


  1. See here for some discussion of the Japanese analogues  

  2. They’re also reading Hesller’s Oracle Bones, with its chilling slow recovering of Cultural Revolution memories  

  3. Actually, I was telling my students that I thought it would be a long, slow discussion, mostly from expatriate sources. I’ll fix it Tuesday.  

  4. Whether this is the result of declining fear, increasing perspective, contrast with Deng/Jiang/Hu’s economic stewardship, or an actual relaxation of control on political speech which was always simmering below the surface….  

  5. or Donald Kagan or Frederick Kagan or Harvey Mansfield, etc.  

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