China Beat Archive



Sebastian Veg

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October 9, 2010 in The China Beat


Copyright 2010. Used by permission.


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.