The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Baihua literature

BEFORE

1917 Hu Shi publishes “A Preliminary Discussion of Literature Reform” in New Youth magazine, calling for a new approach to literature that does not rely on old forms.

1918 Lu Xun publishes “Diary of a Madman”, considered the first modern Chinese story.

1921–22 Lu Xun’s “The True Story of Ah Q” (later included in Call to Arms) is serialized in Beijing Morning News.

AFTER

1931–32 “Turbulent Stream”, by Ba Jin, is published in serial form, later appearing as a single volume, The Family. A novel about the clash of old and new ways, it was hugely popular with Chinese youth.

1935 Lu Xun publishes Old Tales Retold, recasting popular Chinese myths.

The Baihua literary and cultural movement in China, initiated in 1917 by the scholar and intellectual Hu Shi, went hand in hand with the May Fourth Movement – a political and cultural crusade that grew out of a student uprising in Beijing in 1919 and spearheaded a new sense of Chinese nationalism.

Followers of the movement rejected traditional beliefs, and promoted a shift towards Western ideas of democracy and modern science. They also encouraged a move away from writing in classical Chinese (understood by only a tiny minority) and towards the use of “baihua”: a written vernacular language that was understood by everyone. Baihua language was soon used in Chinese newspapers and textbooks, revolutionizing the education of the peasantry.

New ways of thinking

Lu Xun (1881–1936) was the first modern author to write in the vernacular script. His work was championed by the Communist Party, which he supported, though he never became a member. Call to Arms is Lu Xun’s first collection of writing, and brings together his two earliest and most famous stories: “Diary of a Madman” and “The True Story of Ah Q”.

An ironic attack on traditional culture, “Diary of a Madman” tells of a villager – the “madman” – who believes that his friends and family are practising cannibalism, and also becomes convinced that the classic Confucian texts contain encouragement of the practice.

“The True Story of Ah Q” is a novella about an ignorant and deluded peasant who considers himself to be wise, and shows the backwardness and complacency of the old generation.

Both these stories mark the beginning of Baihua literature, embodying it not only in their use of vernacular language but also in addressing concerns of the May Fourth Movement, such as the outdated strictures of Confucian thought and the unthinking acceptance of rusty traditions.

See also: Quan Tangshi