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Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Su Tong and Yu Hua: Coming of Age in Troubled Times

Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Su Tong and Yu Hua: Coming of Age in Troubled Times

Martin Lavicka06 Mar 2014Leave a comment

Written by Kamila Hladíková

Li, Hua. Contemporary Chinese Fiction by Su Tong and Yu Hua. Coming of Age in Troubled Times. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2011. 227 pp.; ISBN: 9789004202269 (Sinica Leidensia ISSN: 01699563, vol. 102); 92 EUR (hardback)

            Not many recent studies from the limited number of works produced on contemporary Chinese literature focus on fiction by Su Tong and Yu Hua, and those that do, usually do not go beyond their most popular works. Scholars often pay attention to the “avant-garde” (xianfeng 先锋) features of Su Tong’s and Yu Hua’s works, which confirm the novelty of the “new era” literature in comparison with the Maoist era (i.e. Braester 2003, Liu 2004, Wedell-Wedellsborg 1996), or highlight the part of their work that can be connected to the so-called “new historical fiction” (xin lishi xiaoshuo 新历史小说) (Lin 2005, Choy 2008). Li Hua’s book presents a different point of view by analyzing their “coming-of-age” fiction and comparing it with the European Bildungsroman genre. Her analysis is selectively focused on several works that depict the protagonists’ problematic transition from childhood through adolescence to maturity. In the light of the traditional Bildungsroman in Europe and the so-called chengzhang xiaoshuo 成长小说 in China, those works are described as “tragic and parodistic” because of their specific plot and narrative features. According to Li Hua, Su Tong’s and Yu Hua’s coming-of-age narratives share a common quality with the Western parodistic Bildungsroman novels (such as Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain), whose parodistic character was described by Martin Swales (1978). Li Hua’s analysis of Su Tong’s and Yu Hua’s fiction further affirms Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1986) thesis about the dialectical relation between literary genre and social reality, according to which the Bildungsroman is seen as a “response to modernity” (Li: 15) both in  Europe at the turn of the eighteenth century and in early twentieth century China. In this sense, Su Tong’s and Yu Hua’s tragic and parodistic works about coming of age during the Cultural Revolution are firmly rooted in the Chinese reality of a transitional society, transforming from collectivistic communism and a state-planned economy into the selfish individualism of a market economy and wild capitalism.

The book is divided into five chapters. Li Hua begins with a detailed introduction to the evolution of the Bildungsroman genre in Europe in chapter one. Chapter two continues with an exploration of the Chinese counterpart to the German term Bildungsroman, the so-called chengzhang xiaoshuo, or “coming-of-age fiction”. In chapter three and four she analyzes the coming-of-age narratives by Su Tong and Yu Hua respectively, to compare them with the European Bildungsroman and the Chinese chengzhang xiaoshuo in the final concluding chapter. After providing a brief overview of the evolution of and scholars’ discussions concerning the term Bildungsroman, Li Hua comes to the conclusion, that one of the main concerns of the genre agreed on by basically all scholars is “the interaction of outward experience and inward reflection” (20). In the subsequent paragraphs she summarizes the principal elements of the plot of the Bildungsroman, such as the absence of fatherhood, setting out on a journey, the tension between potentiality and actuality, and the accommodation between the young protagonist and the social world. These elements are, as later shown, also present in the analyzed works by Su Tong and Yu Hua.

The Chinese counterpart to the term Bildundsroman, the chengzhang xiaoshuo, has been used since the late 1990s and retrospectively relates to thematically relevant works written during the twentieth century. In the second chapter the author applies Franco Moretti’s (1987) definition of the Bildungsroman as a “symbolic form” of modernity (Li: 16) and shows both, the European Bildungsroman and the Chinese chengzhang xiaoshuo in the time of their emergence as a direct literary “response to modernity” and to the “symbolic centrality of the life stage of youth in modernity” (ibid.). Li Hua maps the related youth discourse in China during the May Fourth Movement and later from the 1940s onward up to the Cultural Revolution, and shows its transition from individualism and subjectivism to collectivism and revolutionary zeal. After more than three decades since the establishment of the PRC the new coming-of-age narratives started to emerge in the avant-garde fiction around the mid-1980s and during the 1990s, but the examples are quite rare and the coming-of-age experience is usually nothing more than a more or less marginal narrative line of a more complex work with modernist aspirations, as attested to by Li Hua. However, in these works there is a notable change of the representation of youth, from the “morning sun”, the eulogized new, progressive and revolutionary youth to the “lost generation” of youth growing up during the Cultural Revolution and during the early reform era. Su Tong and Yu Hua are typical representatives of this generation both in their life and in their literature.

Chapters three and four introduce both authors in more detail, drawing from their personal experiences and memories. Li Hua provides a full chronologically arranged overview of their literary works, but the analysis is limited only to those works that allow for the coming-of-age interpretation, which are, however, quite marginal in Su Tong’s and Yu Hua’s work. Su Tong’s works are grouped into four categories: neo-historical stories, stories examining the lives of women, coming of age stories, and stories about modern Chinese urbanites (86). Yu Hua’s works are divided into two creative periods: the “avant-garde” creation and the “plain realist” socially critical works. In the case of Su Tong, the author examines several of his short stories from the Toon Street Series (Xiangchun shu jie xilie 香椿树街系列), which are strongly inspired by the work of J. Salinger, the novella “North Side Story” (Chengbei didai 城北地带, 1994), and the novel A Boat to Redemption (He’an 河岸, 2009). Chapter four analyses some of Yu Hua’s avant-garde short stories, such as “On the Road at Eighteen” (Shiba sui chumen yuanxing 十八岁出门远行, 1986) or “The April 3rd Incident” (Si yue san ri shijian 四月三日事件, 1986), and the novel Cries in the Drizzle (Zai xiyu zhong huhan 在细雨中呼喊, 1991). Li Hua has found many similar narrative elements in these works, which show them as the “tragic and parodistic” narratives in the Bildungsroman form. Such narratives deprive the genre of its educational function, and can be read as parodies of both, the “Bildung” as depicted in classic European works related to the genre and the Chinese “novels of the glorious youth”. The two authors clearly show a common “withdrawal from collective and politic activities and mass movements” and “alienation of the self from social transformation” (190) in Chinese literature since the 1980s. They rather stress the importance of individualism, subjectivism and humanity. Despite the obvious failure of the “Bildung” in their coming-of-age narratives, the young protagonists are at least able to “stand up on their own two feet” and take some responsibility for their own lives. At the same time, the analyzed works are to be read as biting satires of the Party politics of the Maoist era and its impact on an individual and his/her emotional and social relations, and, as argued by Li Hua, are far from a shallow popular literature, confirming the deep social engagement of their authors.

The book introduces an important, though in Chinese literary criticism as well as in Western academia so far overlooked, genre in China: the Bildungsroman, which played a crucial role in the Chinese negotiations of modernity during the twentieth century. Moreover, it brings new insights into the literary work of two of the most popular contemporary Chinese writers, Su Tong and Yu Hua, examining a so-far less reviewed portion of their work. However, for both Chinese and Western scholars it remains just a partial study, leaving much space for further scholarly research.


Bakhtin, Mikhail M.. Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by Vern W. McGee. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Braester, Yomi. “The Aesthetics and Anesthetics of Memory: PRC Avant-Garde Fiction.” Chap. 8 in Witness Against History: Literature, Film, and Public Discourse in Twentieth Century China. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.

Choy, Howard Y.F.. Remapping the Past: Fictions of History in Deng’s China 1979-97. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Lin Qingxin. Brushing History Against the Grain: Reading the Chinese New Historical Fiction (1986-99). Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 2005

Liu Kang. “The Short-Lived Avant-Garde Literary Movement and its Transformation: The Case of Yu Hua”. Chap. 4 in Globalization and Cultural Trends in China. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004.

Moretti, Franco. The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture. London: Verso, 1987.

Swales, Martin. The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Wedell-Wedellsborg, Anne. “One Kind of Chinese Reality: Reading Yu Hua”. Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 18 (1996): 129-45.

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