BooksWeekend

The Past and Future of China’s Socialist Literature

The story Nicolai Volland tells will surprise those who believe communist China was closed to the world, and anyone who thinks communist literature is dull or irrelevant.

Socialist Cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945-1965, by Penn State professor Nicolai Volland, will not find its way onto many bedside tables — which is too bad. Although peppered with academic tics and Heideggerian terms, it’s nevertheless an engaging study of Chinese communist literature. The story he tells will surprise those who believe communist China was closed to the world, and anyone who thinks communist literature is dull or irrelevant. Volland’s thesis — that voices in Chinese literature from 1945 to 1965 were aware of, participated in, and helped shape international literary conversations — bucks notions that communist China was an intellectual police state and literary backwater.

Volland’s narrative goes something like this: During the nominally democratic period immediately preceding the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, foreign literature was frequently translated. Two major writers of the period, Lu Xun and Mao Dun, helped found Yiwen (Translations), a magazine devoted to translation and poetics. During that time, Chinese literature drew widely from Western, as well as other models of modern literature for inspiration, as did Yiwen, promoting internationalism in letters and leftism in politics. The magazine was published for a year.

After 1949, the Communist Party guided literary production, deploying literature to help develop patriotic sentiments, promote the economic underclass, and document struggles against invaders and capitalists. A group of writers, again including Mao Dun, founded China’s first state-sponsored journal of translation to promote these ideals, also called Yiwen. This time the editorial board emphasized translation from Russia and other socialist states, as well as countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. American and Western European literature were downplayed.

In 1959, following a literary conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, the editorial board broadened Yiwen’s selections, with translations from the poet Feng Zhi, an expert in German Romanticism, and Ji Xianlin, an expert in Sanskrit, changed the journal’s name to World Literature, de-emphasized Soviet work, and “affirm[ed] China’s position on the literary world map.” When World Literature folded in 1964, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, it had translated and published a truly international group, including many authors from the communist bloc, as well as fellow travelers Nâzim Hikmet, Pablo Neruda, and Paul Éluard. It also published outside official tastes, translating “decadent” authors like Charles Baudelaire.

Following the decade-long Cultural Revolution, World Literature attempted a relaunch. But coinciding with China’s political and economic reform didn’t help — people were distrustful of official institutions, and so many new cultural forces were in play that there was no longer a place for a journal like World Literature. During the 1980s, art forms inspired by European modernism and popular culture once again appeared on the scene. The avant-garde “Misty Poets” and their journal Jintian (Today) were immensely popular during those years. But for reasons including an accelerated free-market economy, as well as the introduction of new tools of political control, by the 1990s popular zeal for international literature was again on the wane.

These shifts inform Volland’s larger discussion. As with Yiwen and World Literature, nearly all literature in China during the period under discussion was outwardly political, with an international focus; it was not “local color” or simple propaganda. But this form of internationalism was an inversion of capitalist cosmopolitanism — more like what we’d call globalism today. Volland explains,

[Socialists] subscribed to the same concerns and aims, to expectations of a common future. … [T]heir claims of this new culture were universal: Once space turned into time, the Other (the West, capitalism) became the past, both their own past, now left behind, and that of global history. Socialism, in turn, became present as much as future. Not just the future, but the only future. And socialist literature became the literature of the future, shared by all forward-looking people.

Socialist literature consisted of the popular land-reform novel and the industrial-workplace novel — exactly what one can expect from a government that officially sanctioned socialist realism as a style — but also science fiction and children’s literature.

Nicolai Volland (photo courtesy Pennsylvania State University)

Volland looks at these genres, as well as the structure of international literary or cultural formations, which depend on both creative output and quality, and, more importantly, dissemination across national borders. Many authors, readers, and officials at the time hoped that socialist literature would reach a post-national, internationalist stage — not by covering up regional traits or identities, but by pointing them toward something much greater: world socialism.

Volland successfully portrays these hopes, and how intertwined the literature of socialism was with its politics. Yet, aside from his discussion of Yiwen’s first incarnation, he does not suggest how socialist politics and literature might have developed beyond, or against, official endorsement. Although this wasn’t the scope of his study, I can’t help but wonder how current socialist literature — as a literature without popular or Party endorsement — can continue to inspire, broaden vistas and tear down borders.

Considering this question also means considering how intellectuals in China during the years Volland focuses on suffered horribly at the hands of the Party — and why socialists today need to be able to write without ideological supervision. In the past, those who strayed too far from official ideology were punished; for example, the author Wang Meng spent over a decade exiled to northwestern China because of a single story that was critical of Party apparatchiks. While this was not a period of free expression, no matter what policies were or were not in place, its literature embodied ideals that succeeded far beyond official policy.

Even today it’s rare to meet intellectuals in China who don’t have some fondness for the early days of international cooperation, like Wang Meng, who, after his punishment and “rehabilitation,” achieved official endorsement and commercial success. Although many have called him a Party apologist, he continues to call for literature that promotes socialism and internationalism. If he and others can find the strength to continue as socialist writers, then there may be a future for what Volland calls “socialist cosmopolitanism.”

Socialist Cosmopolitanism: The Chinese Literary Universe, 1945-1965 by Nicolai Volland (2017) is published by Columbia University Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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