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Why did May Fourth writers favour realism? What are “the limits of realism”? (practice essay)

_This is an attempt at a response to the essay question ‘Why did May Fourth writers favour realism? What are “the limits of realism”?’ that might appear on a Modern Chinese Literature exam. The question is taken from the 2010 exam for the C17 module at Cambridge._

I’m posting this here not because I think it’s good, but because it might be useful as a point of comparison for other people taking Modern Chinese Literature courses. I would have found it useful to see other people’s essays, even if they’re bad, to get some sense of what’s required.

The reasons May Fourth intellectuals favoured realism can be divided into three themes. Firstly, in the perceived cultural emergency in early twentieth century China, realism seemed to offer value in effecting urgent reforms, both as as an iconoclastic methodology in opposition to traditional Chinese literature and as a means of changing people’s consciousness. Secondly, it can be seen that realism offered May Fourth intellectuals a way to fulfil their elitist tendencies by placing themselves above popular literature at the time. Thirdly, some of the roots of early twentieth century Chinese realism can be found in late Qing fiction. The second part of this essay looks at Marston Anderson description of how the “limits of realism” were later reached when reformist intellectuals returned to certain elements of Chinese tradition in their efforts for reform.

In early Republican China, following Yan Fu’s translations of works such as Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, China’s repeated humiliation by foreign powers, and the fragmentation of political power, the idea that China faced a cultural emergency and required drastic reform was firmly established in the minds of intellectuals. Chinese tradition was seen as a key target for this reform, and in literature, realism appeared to offer a revolutionary literary methodology in direct contrast to traditional literary aesthetics. Chen Duxiu’s essay “On a Revolution in Literature” in the liberal journal New Youth, following Hu Shi’s earlier piece on the same theme, called for the destruction of traditional literature and its replacement with “the fresh and sincere literature of realism”, thus establishing the May Fourth dichotomy between realism and traditional fiction.

Similarly, Chen Duxiu contrasted emblems of tradition with those of modernity with his Mr Confucius, Mr Science and Mr Democracy. Chen’s use of the Western terms ‘science’ and ‘democracy’ can be linked to another appeal of realism to May Fourth writers: its origins in Europe. May Fourth intellectuals operated not just in terms of “new vs old” but also “Western modernity vs Chinese tradition”. Wang Der-wei points out that Chen Duxiu’s interest in realism was more for what he perceived as the iconoclastic ideology behind it than for its literary methodology. European romanticism was at least as modern or opposed to tradition as realism, yet it was realism that Chen Duxiu chose to promote over romanticism.

Besides appealing to May Fourth writers’ iconoclasm, realism also seemed to offer a method for bringing about national reform - the core aim of May Fourth intellectuals -  through literature. This attitude is captured in Lu Xun’s preface to the collection Call to Arms, in which he describes how, upon seeing his countrymen’s indifference to the execution of one of their own, he decided that literature would be more effective than medicine in reforming the nation. Lu Xun’s realist writing in the collection reflected the society of the time and offered sharp criticism, for example the portrayal of what Lu Xun perceived as a weak and deluded national psyche in The True Story of Ah-Q, or a destructive and violent national tradition in Diary of a Madman and Medicine.

Whilst realism did offer practical advantages to May Fourth writers in their promotion of reform, it also offered a means of taking an elite position over popular literature at the time. May Fourth writers actually replaced an old elite, the traditional literati produced by imperial exams, with a new one: those with access to foreign languages and education. They created the disparaging term “Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies” to describe what they saw as romantic, sentimental fiction of no political value and that mired readers in traditional values, with Xu Zhenya’s Jade Pear Spirit being a standard example. Similarly, Zhou Zuoren made a clear distinction between popular (tongsu) literature which May Fourth writers saw as vulgar and detrimental to reform, and common people’s  (pingmin) literature, which was about ‘common people’ but not by or for them. Realism formed part of this distinction: May Fourth writers’ claimed to accurately present social realities (literature about the people) with realist writing, whilst claiming that Butterfly literature (literature for the people) only gave sentimental, romanticised stories without any realist criticism.

Previous historical narratives describe how Chen Duxiu and other early May Fourth reformers were inspired by European realism and promoted it for its revolutionary value. However, the roots of Chinese realism might also be seen in developments in late Qing fiction. In Fin de Siecle Splendour, Wang Der-wei describes “repressed modernities” in late Qing fiction which were previously not considered in histories of modern Chinese fiction and criticises an approach that sees Chinese literary modernity as being derived entirely from foreign influence. Some of Chinese realism’s roots might also be included amongst these repressed modernities - Wang describes Han Banqing’s attempt at realism in the novel Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai. Thus whilst Chinese realism was largely developed by May Fourth writers, their selection of this approach was not entirely without roots in earlier Chinese fiction.

Marston Anderson argues that May Fourth realism was not an import from European literature but a creative misunderstanding by early reformers such as Chen Duxiu who were attracted to what they saw as its ideological background than its methodology. According to Anderson, May Fourth writers put a political demand on realism that it had not borne in its European incarnation: that it’s depictions of real life should also be a tool for social reform. However, by the 1930s it became apparent to some May Fourth intellectuals that realism was not able to achieve this aim. Qu Qiubai’s essays from the period describe realism as directly obstructive to the initial goals of May Fourth because it required the author’s moral perspective to retreat from the text. From the start, Lu Xun’s introspective examinations of the role and possible inefficacy of the writer, for example in Hometown, in which the intellectual narrator finds himself unable to engage with former friends or bring home his modern reality, deviate from the emotional detachment that might be expected of realism. Further, realism seemed to alienate the general reading public; Lu Xun’s own mother preferred to read the entertainment fiction of Zhang Henshui and found her son’s work inaccessible. Anderson argues that, because realism failed to effect the positive social it had promised, May Fourth writers moved away from a realist approach of objective observations of society. Instead, lyrical writing that sprung from the author’s feelings in observing and the moral perspective gained in doing so came to be promoted by authors such as Ye Shengtao, Lu Xun and Mao Dun.

In conclusion, May Fourth writers favoured realism less for the literary methodology that it stood for in Europe and more for their perception of it as an ideological tool that would serve them in social reform. Realism was adopted because it initially seemed to offer a means of critiquing social norms through depictions of ‘real life’. Besides this, by standing in contrast to romanticism and sentimentalism, realism offered a means for May Fourth writers to distinguish themselves from the entertainment fiction of the time and present themselves as a literary elite. However, as Anderson argues, May Fourth writer’s early misapprehension of realism led to the later re-inclusion of traditional aesthetics because realism came to be seen as limiting in its requirement that the author stay emotionally detached from their presentation of real life.

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