YellowBridge Chinese Language & Culture
Chinese Language Center

Chinese Literature Modern Fiction: 1900s-1940s

The first half of the twentieth century was a very tumultuous period in Chinese history. The century started with a very weak Qing dynasty, which suffered an unending string of humiliations at the hands of Western countries. The overthrow of the monarchy and establishment of the Republic of China in 1911 sparked new hope. It was in this spirit of reform and renaissance that one group of intellectuals, led by an American-educated scholar, Hu Shi, proposed a major new direction for Chinese literature and language in 1917. Up to that time, all respectable literature was written in the classical language, a stylized language that was far removed from the everyday spoken language and hence an obvious impediment to widespread literacy. The new movement called for using the vernacular language (bai hua ) as the written language. The movement quickly took root among the writers. Lu Xun, now considered the father of modern Chinese literature, wrote "Diary of a Madman", the first short story written in the vernacular language. Many of the writings of the period were modeled after Western writers, especially Russians. In 1919, the vernacular language of Beijing would be adopted as the national language (guo yu).

Any idealistic hope in the new republic, however, was shattered by May 4, 1919. On this day Beijing students rioted violently against the poor performance of the Chinese representatives to the Versailles peace conference, which awarded the former German concessions of Shandong to Japan instead of returning them to China. Writers became more active in politics, many producing critical realist works with a strong social commentary. Although a few writer still supported art-for-art's-sake, the momentum was toward art-for-society's sake . Critical realism would dominate modern Chinese fiction until the late 1940s when it would be eventually replaced by proletarian work after the establishment of the People's Republic. This reformist movement came to be known as the May Fourth Movement, which was characterized by its attack on Confucian tradition and adoption of Western ideals. Some of the intellectuals in the left wing of the movement would eventually form the Communist Party in admiration of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the situation worsened. The central government was trying to reunify the country, which had broken up into fiefdoms controlled by various warlords. But now it also had to battle Communist insurgents and Japanese invaders. Many writers turned to the left, forming the "League of Leftist Writers", lead by Lu Xun.

The chaos, hopelessness, and desire for change are readily apparent in the major novels of this era. These works are no day brighteners but their realist style gives us a "you are there" feeling from authors who actually lived through a painful transitional time.

  Title Mini Review
Diary of a Madman and Other Stories
Written by Lu Xun (1881-1936)
Translated by William Lyell
University of Hawaii Press, 1990
432 pages
Lu Xun is considered the father of modern Chinese literature.  Although Lu Xun never formally joined the Communist Party, he is considered a communist hero for his support of leftist ideas. "Diary of a Madman", in which a madman suspects that he is the only sane person and everyone else is mad, condemned Confucian culture. The other stories in the collection of twenty-six include his most celebrated short story, "The True Story of Ah Q", a commentary on the negative traits of the Chinese character.
Rickshaw: The Novel Lo-T'o Hsiang Tzu (Luo Tuo Xiang Zi)
Written by Lao She (1899-1966)
Translated by Jean M. James
University of Hawaii Press, 1979
260 pages
Lao She was an author, humorist, and playwright. After the founding of the PRC in 1949, he took on various government posts but fell out of favor during the Cultural Revolution, when he died at the hands of the Red Guards. Rickshaw, his most famous novel, was written in 1936. It portrays the life of a young Beijing rickshaw puller and his descent into physical and moral destruction, an outcome that is blamed on society's individualistic tendencies. This translation is a faithful translation of the original, unlike a bowdlerized translation titled Rickshaw Boy that became a bestseller in 1945.
Blades of Grass: The Stories of Lao She
Written by Lao She (1899-1966)
Translated by William Lyell
University of Hawaii Press, 2000
320 pages
A collection of fifteen short stories set in 1930s China. The stories run the gamut from funny to bitter, satire to tragedy, but always have a strong focus on human relationships.
Midnight (Ziye)
Written by Mao Dun (1896-1981)
Fredonia Books, 2001
588 pages
Mao Dun was an author, editor, and founding member of the Communist Party. After the founding of the PRC, he became its Minister of Culture, a post he held until 1964, when he was dismissed in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Midnight, Mao Dun's most widely read novel, pioneered the  "realist" style.  Midnight is set in 1930s and details the business dealings and cruelty of Shanghai industrialists.
Written by Mao Dun (1896-1981)
Translated by Madeleine Zelin
University of California Press, 1992
252 pages
Rainbow tells the story of Mei, a young woman who leaves her tradition-bound (i.e., bourgeois) family to go to Shanghai, where she encounters the turbulent environment of the big city.
I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling
Written by Ding Ling
Edited by Tani Barlow and Gary Bjorge
Beacon Press, 1990
361 pages
Ding Ling was China's leading left-wing, feminist writer in the 1930s. This collection of eleven stories and two essays were written over a fifty year period.  One of the better known stories here is "Miss Sophia's Diary", which relates the strong feelings by a woman for one of the gentlemen who come to visit her at the hospital where she lies bedridden.  Ding Ling's later writing would adhere closely to the Communist party line and wrote "The Sun Shines Over the San-Kang River", a model of the "socialist realist" novel.

Modern Chinese Fiction