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Modernism in literature and art amid Chinese modernization

Author  :  LAI DAREN     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2023-03-14

The 20th CPC National Congress report summarizes and expounds on the theory of Chinese modernization, a great theoretical innovation. The remarks General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping made at the opening of a study session at the Party School of the CPC Central Committee (National Academy of Governance) in February were a comprehensive and profound elaboration on how to correctly understand and vigorously promote Chinese modernization. As a part of socialist modernization, literary and artistic undertakings have their own characteristics and laws, so any further innovation and development of the sector must be unpacked in the context of Chinese modernization. There have been many discussions in academia about modernity in Chinese literature and art. While insightful and inspiring, there are also great limitations, even confusions and errors. From the perspective of Chinese modernization, we can reflect on the topic to arrive at a fresh perspective. 

In history

In the course of historical development, as early as the turn of the 20th century when the new literary and art movement was flourishing, discussion of modernity in Chinese literature and art emerged and gained traction. At that time, modernity was exhibited in two ways in China’s new literature and art. First, it was reflected in thoughtful critique of old-fashioned tropes in literature and art, as literati were seeking a modern transformation of Chinese works. Second, the introduction of a large volume of foreign literature and art, with styles such as realism, romanticism, symbolism, and so on, inspired new thoughts and approaches, which formed the modernity of Chinese literature and art at that period.

In the end, modernity in China’s literature and art mainly takes foreign literary and artistic thoughts as reference, and finds its own enlightenment modernity, aesthetic modernity, and other rich connotations. It not only brings the modern transformation and development of literature and art itself, but also plays a positive role in the modern reform of Chinese society; its historical significance is self-evident. In particular, adapting Marxist literary theory to the Chinese context has brought about the theoretical construction and practical development of people-oriented literature and art in China, which greatly influenced the progress of modern Chinese literature and art. 

Since the reform and opening up, socialist modernization in China has entered a new development stage, while the modernity of literature and art has been rebuilt and expanded. In the introduction to foreign literature and art, we have learned from it, emphasized the pursuit of autonomy and self-discipline in artistic theory and practice, and stepped up our exploration in the aesthetic, artistic, and humanistic aspects, thus enhancing the creativity of Chinese literature and art.

The incorporation of Western theories of pre-modernity, modernity, and post-modernity enrich theoretical research in Chinese literature and art. However, it remains problematic that inspiration for modern literature and art is mostly imported, so literary and artistic practices seem to always follow foreign modern and postmodern thoughts, treating these ideas as the most up-to-date and advanced. By following this path, Chinese literature and art seems to have to accept the standard of the West to go global. 

In this way, there is a constructed belief that “modernization = Westernization” or “modernity is equal to the advanced nature of foreign literature and art,” which has negative outcomes. Several theoretical reflections have been published on this phenomenon. Some scholars have questioned why Western literature theory exemplifies “modernity” and its impact on Chinese literature and art, and advocate against chasing the shadow of Western modernity and postmodern theories. Rather, we should draw from our own social reality, and discuss the “comtemporarity” of Chinese literature and art. To say the least, Chinese scholars are on the move, which represents the growing theoretical self-consciousness.

Myth of ‘modernization equals Westernization’

As the 20th CPC National Congress report stated, “Chinese modernization is socialist modernization pursued under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. It contains elements that are common to the modernization processes of all countries, but it is more characterized by features that are unique to the Chinese context.” Chinese modernization has rich theoretical connotations and values, demonstrating a new vision separate from Western modernization, dispelling the myth of “modernization=Westernization,” representing the direction of progress for human civilization, and creating a new model for human advancement. If we can interpret the modernity of Chinese literature and art from the perspective of Chinese modernization, we might deepen our theoretical understanding.

To begin, according to Chinese modernization theory, we need to disrupt past inertia, and focus on the essential requirements and the development process of Chinese modernization to understand and discuss modernity in Chinese literature and art. From the beginning of the 20th century, modernity has gone through more than one hundred years of development and evolution in Chinese literature and art, with extremely rich connotations and many factors playing a part. 

For example, the modern transformation of Chinese society has adapted to the requirements of socialist modernization in different stages. After the founding of the PRC, Marxist literary theory developed in China over time and the idea was established to “put people first,” or people-centeredness. Also, the creative transformation and innovative development of fine traditional Chinese culture has been integrated into the reconstruction of modernity in Chinese literature and art via different historic stages, in which the Chinese aesthetics has been passed on from generation to generation.

In addition, there is the absorption of foreign literary and art—and this factor evidently cannot be underestimated. On the whole, the discussion of modernity in Chinese literature and art should first be based on changes within Chinese society and the realistic requirements of the development of Chinese modernization, and it should comprehensively examine the role of various factors within this integration, to avoid overvaluing the influence of “Westernization” and downplaying a more important realistic baseline of natural growth in response to new stimuli. This should be a new way of thinking and a new requirement to deepen the understanding of the modernity of Chinese literature and art in the new context of Chinese modernization. 

People-oriented approach

People-centeredness is an essential attribute of Marxism. This means that Chinese modernization guided by Marxism must put people first, which is reflected in all aspects of Chinese society including in literary and artistic undertakings.

Since the introduction of Marxism into China, at the beginning of the 20th century, some early communists used the Marxist view of literature and art to explain the problems of new literature and art, which brought about the initial framework of people-centeredness, and thus influenced and guided the development process. Since then, left-wing thought trends in literature and art and the popular movement in literature and art have promoted the popularization and nationalization of new literature and art, highlighting the leading role of people-centeredness. In his speech at the 1942 forum on literature and art in Yan’an, Mao Zedong stressed that “This question of ‘for whom?’ is fundamental; it is a question of principle.” Since the founding of PRC, in the process of socialist modernization, Chinese literature and art has always been for the people. The people’s creative practices are regarded as an inexhaustible source of theoretical innovation. 

In the new era, Xi said writers and artists should take a people-centered approach and produce more works that meet the people’s cultural needs and enhance people’s spiritual strength. All literary and artistic creations should be from the people, for the people, and beneficial to the people. Marxist literary theory in the Chinese context requires this. The modernity of Chinese literature and art is thus fundamentally different from various foreign literary modernities, and its significance is self-evident.

Chinese characteristics

As Chinese modernization has absorbed the achievements of human civilization, it contains elements that are common to the modernization processes of all countries. However, China’s modernization is most characterized by features that are unique to the Chinese context. As such, modernity in Chinese literature and art also has rich connotations and has formed a dialectical and unified development trend with the core principle of people-centeredness based on China’s national conditions.

As mentioned above, in the historical development of the modernity of Chinese literature and art dating back to the beginning of the 20th century, we have extensively absorbed foreign literary and artistic resources from realism, romanticism, modernism, and postmodernism, and also fully encouraged the autonomy, self-discipline, aesthetics, and humanistic spirit in Chinese literary and artistic creations. With time, these approaches adapt to the new requirements of open and diversified literature and art in contemporary society. 

That said, people-centeredness holds the ultimate sway. Contemporary literature and art should fully meet the intellectual and cultural needs of the people, with promotion of mainstream thoughts and ideas, while also calling for diversity. It should not only reflect the people’s spiritual world, but also lead their intellectual and cultural life.

Therefore, all kinds of modern art characteristics reflect people’s lives and satisfy people’s aesthetic needs to represent modernity in Chinese literature and art to achieve the organic unity of people-centeredness and diversity. This is in line with requirements for the development of Chinese modernization, and also is where further innovation and development of modernity in Chinese literature and art exist in the new era. 


Lai Daren is a professor from the School of Literature at Jiangxi Normal University.




Editor: Yu Hui

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