The years 1960-1975 see China engaged in a great political-ideological struggle; this determines, unlike the previous period, a lesser creative activity from a strictly quantitative point of view. During the so-called “Great Leap Forward” movement, for example, there was talk of mass literary production and Mao Tun, one of the greatest living writers, claimed, in 1960, that the number of writers was incalculable and that they constituted “a powerful reservoir of literary strength”.
Contemporary Chinese literature refers to the aesthetic-political directives established by Mao Tse-tung in the famous Conversations of Yenanof 1942; this does not mean that the literature has not diversified or has slavishly followed these directives. From a careful reading of the Chinese literary production of the last period and from the criticisms made of the new writers, the reflection of various trends is evident, as well as the clash between ideological positions, as has happened in the political field. But one phenomenon should be underlined: the figure of the professional writer, the full-time artist, is disappearing in China When Mao Tun spoke of “an incalculable number” of authors, he added that “in offices, schools, the army, factories, mines, villages, streets, wherever the masses are, there are the writers of the time free”. The new Chinese literature therefore presents itself, but as the expression, sometimes individual and sometimes choral, of large sections of the population.
According to CALCULATORINC, the graphic form of the Chinese language and the use of a courtly language up to the first twenty years of the current century had necessarily reserved the knowledge of writing to a minority. The fight against illiteracy and the replacement of complex ideograms with some hundreds of other simplified ideograms, have contributed, in the last decades, to the diffusion of a written language that makes use of colloquial expressions; this has allowed an overwhelming number of people to be able to express themselves and create, obviously at different levels, a new literature.
Examining the poem first, it will be necessary to remember that the phenomenon of mass poetry is common to the Far East and that, for example, Japan, a country that does not know illiteracy, has experienced it on more than one occasion. Furthermore, in agricultural economies such as China, an oral tradition of folk songs, poems and refrains has always been very lively, which were handed down from generation to generation, with local variations. Finally, China is not inhabited exclusively by Chinese, or Han, as they define themselves: tens and tens of millions, belonging to non-Chinese ethnic minorities, each with its own folkloric heritage, live in the borders of the People’s Republic of China and have preserved an abundant material that, not infrequently, finds today for the first time its written version.
It is evident that, in most of the most recent poetic compositions, what often appears, and sometimes is, political propaganda of a contingent movement of ideological criticism; but what is positively surprising is the continuity of certain themes, the fresh simplicity of some idiomatic expressions, the richness of images that remind us of the first anthology of Chinese poems: the Shih – ching (“Classical book of poems”), written in 6th century a. China, whose first part, according to tradition, is none other than the reworking of popular songs from various parts of China feudale.
If poetry is the literary genre for which China has always been celebrated, another genre, since its rise in the Mongolian Yüan dynasty, has been extremely popular, theater. Classical theater, sometimes improperly defined as the “Peking Opera”, has had a wide audience over the centuries even among the illiterate masses and the attempts, between 1920 and 1949, to replace it with a Western-inspired prose theater have remained almost always at the level of experiment. With the advent of the so-called “Great proletarian cultural revolution”, however, classical theater is abandoned and replaced with some works that are defined as “revolutionary”. The best known among them are The Red Female Detachment, The Port,Strategically occupy the Tiger Mountain, The Red Lantern, Sha – chia – peng. Instead of the typical characters of classical opera (sovereigns, generals, ministers, writers, spirits and monsters) there are peasants, workers, soldiers, bourgeois, Japanese collaborationists, people of the world of yesterday or today in the “revolutionary” works; the theme is always didactically politicized. Chinese theater has always had a musical accompaniment and made use of mimed and danced parts and even acrobatic parts. This has remained of the ancient theater, even if the musical part combines the sound of traditional instruments with that of modern Western instruments. The official criticism repeats, with regard to the theater, a phrase of Mao: “make the past serve the present and that foreign things serve China”.
Prose theater has not completely disappeared; it too deals with topical issues, but does not reach the popularity of the work. Most of the time, both “revolutionary” works and prose theater are not the work of a single author, but written by a collective and, very often, appear in revised editions corrected by suggestions from the public.
The narrative also follows the aesthetic dictates and the theme of the current moment. But, in addition to the new literary production, the re-examination of traditional literature is important in contemporary China; if, until 1960, every work of the past was evaluated or not according to whether it could be framed generically or from a materialist or idealist point of view, today this re-examination takes place considering whether the work can be defined as “Confucian” or “legalist”. The anti-Confucian controversy that began in 1973 and the re-evaluation of the legalist philosophical school (fa – chia) meant that the label of “legalist” was often extended to works that simply opposed the Confucian system. Whatever conclusion one may want to draw, it is interesting to note that no longer reasoning in terms of materialism or idealism, but of Confucianism or legalism, is basically a more authentically Chinese solution; a rejection of Western terminology and a predilection for a national one.
Recent controversy arose in 1975 against a famous novel, the Shui – hu – chuan (“Story on the water’s edge”), whose characters, once very popular in China, are controversially criticized for their behavior as pseudo-revolutionaries and capitulationists. Literature is exclusively didactic.
It should not be forgotten, speaking of literature in a socialist country like China, the importance of a genre that our literary stories ignore: comics. The Chinese comic is different from the Western one; first of all, it is aimed at everyone and not just children, and is considered, due to a certain greater ease of the means of expression, an exceptional educational dissemination tool. It does not only serve to disseminate current affairs, but also passages from famous novels of the past, chosen according to a specific socio-political criterion.