‘Big literature’ view holds key to disciplinary development

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-07-10


FILE PHOTO: “Journey to the West,” “Water Margin,” and “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”

On June 2, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping discussed the basic characteristics, structure, and development of Chinese culture and the Chinese civilization at a meeting on cultural inheritance and development, which provides fundamental guidelines for effectively working in the cultural field in the new era, and also drafts a roadmap for cultural workers to carry out in-depth study on “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

Five prominent features

At the meeting, General Secretary Xi summarized five prominent features regarding Chinese civilization—consistency, innovation, uniformity, inclusiveness, and a peaceful nature.

The consistency of Chinese civilization determines on a fundamental level that the Chinese people must follow their own path. It is an important prerequisite of understanding China’s history, present, and future. 

Chinese civilization is exceptionally innovative, which explains why the Chinese nation upholds fine traditions but never blindly sticks to outdated practices, and respects fine traditions but never indiscriminately restores old traditions. It is also the reason why the Chinese nation is fearless of new challenges and is always open to new things.

Chinese civilization is characterized by strong uniformity, which is why the Chinese nation’s different ethnic cultures are integrated and can rally together even when faced with major setbacks. It is commonly known that the homeland cannot be divided, the country cannot be destabilized, ethnic groups cannot be separated, and the Chinese civilization cannot be disrupted. National unification always stays at the heart of China’s core interests and a strong and unified country is the pillar upon which the well-being of all Chinese people depends. 

Chinese civilization is inclusive. This orientation can be seen through the Chinese nation’s long history of exchanges and integration, the harmonious coexistence of diverse religious beliefs in China, and the openness of Chinese culture to other world civilizations.

The peaceful nature of the Chinese civilization determines China’s ambition to continue to build world peace, contribute to global development, and safeguard the international order, while continuing to pursue exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations rather than cultural hegemony. Respect for peace also means that China will not impose its own values and political system on others. China is a champion of cooperation, not confrontation. China will never award acolytes and punish opponents. 

These five prominent features accurately and properly reveal the characteristics, laws, and values of Chinese civilization and excellent traditional Chinese culture and offer a new perspective for a comprehensive understanding of Chinese cultural traditions. As an important part of traditional Chinese culture and the Chinese civilization, Chinese literature is no exception. Examining Chinese literature through the lens of these features can make clear many important aspects that have gone unobserved in the past.

Literacy research

First, in regard to consistency, over the thousands of years that Chinese literature has developed, from oral traditions such as myths, legends, and epics passed down by various ethnic groups, to written works such as poetry and prose, the method of expression, rhetorical strategies, basic spirit and emotions, as well as key literary styles, have remained consistent. New artistic techniques, new styles, and new ideas formed gradually as later generations of authors continued to develop. These new creations are tributaries that flow from an the earlier mainstream tradition. Consistency is a core feature of Chinese literature throughout history.

Second, innovation is internal driving force that keeps Chinese literature vivid and prosperous. Literary studies, especially in the field of folk literature, have discussed the dialectical relationship between consistency and innovation in the process of literary development through a set of important concepts—inheritance and variation. There can be no variation in literature without inheritance, and there can be no literary or cultural inheritance without variation. Innovation actively iterates new variants that reflect the consciousness and initiative of literary subjects, this is the key to ensuring the continuous development of literature. 

Third, from the perspective of uniformity, literature, as an art form that reflects social life, conveys people’s emotions, and embodies the national spirit. Literature not only projects various aspects of reality, but also can make an impact on the real world. In the literary works of various ethnic groups in the past, we can see many realistic themes reflecting territorial integrity, national unity, and national cohesion, as well as a description of love for the motherland that emphasizes pluralism and integration and opposes war and division. Therefore, it can be said that uniformity is not only an external function of Chinese literature, but also its intrinsic attribute that cannot be overlooked.

Fourth, inclusiveness is one of Chinese civilization’s deepest attributes. It is precisely because of inclusivity that Chinese literature has always been able to maintain its openness and spirit of embracing all cultures. It has not only drawn vitality from continuous interaction between the literature of different ethnic groups and different regions within the pluralistic and integrated structure of the Chinese nation, but also actively absorbed and learned from literature from other countries in an open and inclusive manner. 

In this sense, inclusiveness is a prerequisite to ensure uniformity. Without including and recognizing diverse cultures, there can be no uniformity. Inclusiveness is also the basis for ensuring innovation and consistency. Without the spirit of inclusiveness, literature cannot achieve innovation or variation, cannot welcome adaptation to current and local conditions, and thus cannot obtain long-term vitality.

At the same time, to create harmony among the five prominent features, inclusivity is crucial, as this fundamental element ensures peace within Chinese civilization and Chinese literature. 

Finally, a peaceful nature equips us with another important lens through which to view Chinese literature. For example, in both oral and written literature, happy endings are the most common in traditional Chinese literature. From an artistic point of view, this routine has been widely criticized, but after understanding the Chinese civilization’s peaceful nature, we can see that happy endings symbolize the Chinese nation’s eternal pursuit of peace and tranquility. In classics such as “Journey to the West,” “Water Margin,” and “Romance of The Three Kingdoms,” though there are conflicts, and even bloody violence, the endings are mostly peaceful. This resonates with Chinese readers and testifies to the priority of peace within Chinese literature.

‘Big literature’

In light of the Party-wide thematic education campaign, launched in April 2023, which studies and implements Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era and General Secretary Xi’s summary of five prominent features of Chinese civilization, we can clearly see the world outlook and methodology embedded in it, namely integrity, systematic approach, and scientific rationality. As we promote cultural construction in the new era, it has a significant enlightening value as China seeks to further prosper, develop the cause of literary research, and promote the construction of a “big literature” perspective.

At the same time, this knowledge framework has greatly enhanced our confidence and determination as we accelerate the construction of the three major systems in Chinese literary research and promote the construction of a modern Chinese civilization. 

The so-called “big literature” view refers to the method of understanding literary phenomena, summarizing the laws of literary development, exploring the basic attributes of literature, and promoting the construction of literary research disciplines from the perspective of China’s cultural integrity. This approach, rooted in the May Fourth New Literature Movement, also incorporates the Yan’an New Literature Movement. Currently, the “big literature” approach is being further developed.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, under the guarantee of the nation’s prosperous system, through the joint efforts of several progressive Chinese intellectuals such as Zheng Zhenduo, He Qifang, Zhong Jingwen, and Jia Zhi, the basic concept of big literature has become increasingly popular. Advocating for an open attitude and a broad vision, the field of literary research has been expanding, and many important literary styles, such as novels, myths, legends, ballads, and operas, which were previously excluded from the narrow definition of literature, have been included and have been highly valued. 

Using a people-centered approach, all literary creations from people of different ethnicities and even other countries have been included. This not only demonstrates the Chinese people’s rich creativity, but also plays a practical and effective role in forging a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation.

On the premise of aligning with the correct political direction and academic orientation, this view of literature not only reflects how inclusive our literary works are, but also extends to include broader literary views and perspectives. Whether this encompasses traditional classic literature, or the folk oral literature, or online literature; Whether we are discussing literature produced by the Han ethnicity or the literature of other ethnic groups; Whether applying a traditional Chinese literary thought or the Western literary theory, this view of literature always maintains a tolerant attitude and positive support. 

An open rather than closed, inclusive rather than exclusive, and innovative rather than conservative attitude toward literature will bridge ancient and modern times, integrate multi-ethnic groups, and help understand China and the world. It not only creates ideal conditions for comprehensively examining literature’s diversity, but also helps build different secondary disciplines. It will lay a solid foundation for the comprehensive development of literary research in theory, perspective, and method. All this is an important premise as we adapt to the requirements of the times, further improve basic research by considering literature and culture as a whole, and promote the social application and transformation of basic research results and elevate research’s role in serving contemporary cultural construction.

Disciplinary development

It is worth noting that while different secondary disciplines have developed significantly in accordance with the original plan, there have also been larger barriers between them, under the primary-level disciplinary framework of Chinese literature. This is a divergence from the “big literature” approach.

In this context, General Secretary Xi’s new systematic statement regarding Chinese civilization and excellent traditional Chinese culture, as well as his holistic and systematic view embodied in the Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, will help us further develop research ideas and strategies. It will certainly promote various literary research disciplines as they form a self-consciousness based on their own traditions and expand their research horizons. 

In summary, an in-depth study of the five prominent features of Chinese civilization will help deepen our understanding of the richness and diversity of literature itself and expand literary theories and perspectives. It will help us further understand the pluralism and intersubjectivity of literary practices, and then forge a strong sense of community for the Chinese nation and build a human community with a shared future. This study will certainly help understand the diversity of literary forms and the dynamic interaction between them, while maintaining literature’s vitality and creativity. It will help promote the construction of the three major systems of literature research and advance the development and perfection of a “big literature” approach. This view of literature, which conforms to the new era and the new requirements, will inevitably contribute to the construction of the Chinese nation as a modern civilization and create a new form of human civilization.


An Deming is the deputy director of the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor:Yu Hui

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