avant-garde/experimental literature

avant-garde/experimental literature
(xianfeng wenxue/shiyan wenxue)
The first examples of avant-garde literature appeared towards the middle of the 1980s in Shanghai magazines [Harvest (Shouhuo) and Shanghai Literature (Shanghai wenxue)] with the works of authors such as Ma Yuan, Gan Xue and Mo Yan. However, this tendency spread between 1987 and 1988 and established its reputation thanks to the publications of works by writers such as Su Tong, Ge Fei, Yu Hua, Hong Feng and Sun Ganlu who were born during the 1960s and with whom experimentation took on more definite connotations and major visibility, thanks also to the increased attention of the media. However, the emergence of the trend of avant-garde literature dates back to the thematic exploration and stylistic experimentation launched by the younger generation of so-called Misty poetry (menglong shi) (Bei Dao, Mang Ke) at the end of the 1970s.
The new narrative was initially defined by the Chinese critics as ‘new-trend literature’ (Xinchao-xiaoshuo). Some years later, when formal experimentation intensified and took on a more extreme and provoking stance, it was called ‘avant-garde literature’ (xianfeng wenxue) or ‘experimental literature’ (shiyan wenxue).
Various factors contributed to the emergence of this new narrative: on the one hand the changing social climate, resulting from the politics of overture and reform starting at the beginning of the 1980s that permitted the spread, throughout China, of modern Western theories of philosophy and aesthetics (psychoanalysis, structuralism, formalism, existentialism) and, above all European, American and Latin American literary works. On the other hand, the beginning of a cultural renewal process started a few years before with the previously mentioned Misty poetry, with the Root-seeking school (Xungen pai) (Han Shaogong, Ah Cheng) and, then with the ‘modernist narrative’ group (Xu Xing, Liu Suola, Wang Shuo).
The spirit of the avant-garde group expresses itself in strong experimental tension, in the search for stylistic forms and methods that release new expressive possibilities into the language, in the fragmentation and diversification of the positions and voices as a reaction to the unitary and disciplined vision of literature that had dominated the cultural scene in the preceding forty years under the so-called Socialist Realism. It is this diversification of style and expression that the young authors appear to be anxious to tackle, the element that will give vital birth to and feed all the literature of the period between 1985 and 1989. The reflection on, and experimentation with language respond to a dual requirement: the demand to overcome the schematic and standardized language used in political communication, made up of slogans and formulas, that in itself had, for decades, informed and saturated every aspect of daily life; and the renewed interest in the Chinese language and its expressive and suggestive possibilities. The creation of stories that develop on parallel planes through leaps in time and space (Mo Yan), of stories lacking a plot, a beginning or an end, where the narration appears fragmented, bordering between reality and imagination (Ma Yuan), the vision of mirages and enchanted worlds (Sun Ganlu) and of labyrinths of memories (Ge Fei, Bei Cun) have the challenging task of presenting works that escape traditional decoding methods, inducing the reader to think, not merely to accept the text passively but to investigate and discover alternative perspectives and the numerous possibilities of interpretation.
Unlike the preceding root-searching generation still solidly anchored to positive ideals, to a literature steeped in history and the vision of literary work as commitment, the avant-gardists refuse ideals and values they perceive as anachronistic and artificial. They refuse above all to play the role of social or political guides, a burden that writers have always taken on. Therefore in the avant-garde literature the great social themes disappear, attention shifts towards the discovery of individual experience and the emotional world, ignored for so long. This tendency will be developed to the extreme in the literature written in the 1990s. If history appears in the works of authors such as Mo Yan, Su Tong and Yu Hua, it takes on a subversive significance, suggesting a radical change in perspective, showing the desire to deconstruct the official history and offer new interpretation of the events, as they were experienced by the common people. In the avant-garde narrative works lacking a central core or intent appeared, where the representation and psychology of the characters are fragmented and deepened, thus overcoming the naïve Manichean vision in which the positive hero is to be emulated and ‘villains’ to be condemned. Often the characters and the plot no longer take on a central position in the story, but recede to the background, giving space to the story make-up, whereby its form and narrative style become the true basis and expressive values of the work.
Huot, Marie Claire (2000). ‘Literary Experiments: Six Files’. In Marie Claire Huot, China’s New Cultural Scene: A Handbook of Changes. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 7–48.
Jones, Andrew F. (2003). ‘Avant-Garde Fiction in China’. In Joshua Mostow (ed.) and Kirk A. Denton (China section, ed.), Columbia Companion to Modern East Asian Literatures. New York: Columbia University Press, 554–60.
Lu, Tonglin (1995). Misogyny, Cultural Nihilism, and Oppositional Politics: Contemporary Chinese Experimental Fiction. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Wang, Jing (ed.) (1998). China’s Avant-Garde Fiction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Yang, Xiaobin (2002). The Chinese Postmodern: Trauma and Irony in Chinese Avant-Garde Fiction. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Zhang, Xudong (1997). Chinese Modernism in the Era of Reforms: Culture Fever, Avant-Garde Fiction, and the New Chinese Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Zhao, Yiheng (1992). ‘The Rise of Metafiction in China’. Bulletin of African and Oriental Studies 55.1.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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