Yunte Huang has his work cut out. You could say that the author, translator, and academic has set himself the impossible task. In the introduction to The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature, he describes his project as a “search of the soul of modern China”; an endeavour hampered by the fact that there is no such thing as a single modern China, but several.
Huang is well aware of this. His search begins in 1911, with the 20th century still just an infant, but with one of history’s most enduring dynasties lumbering to a close. The Great Qing, founded by Nurhaci in 1616, is sputtering towards its death throes. Child-emperor Puyi sits precariously on the Imperial throne, and republican fervour is in the air.
Is this the beginning of modern China; the Xinhai Revolution which saw Sun Yat Sen bring an end to thousands of years of imperial rule? Or did this transition to modernity occur later, when combined Nationalist, Communist and international forces drove the invading Japanese from China? Or was it later still, when Mao Ze Dong’s communist PLA achieved total control in the country?
China today, in the ‘post-Mao era’ — the era of Deng Xiao Ping, economic reform, and slow liberalisation — is different from anything ever seen before in China’s long history. But does this count as truly new, or is this China only a logical progression from what went before; simply, a small change of direction?
It very quickly becomes clear that Yunte Huang’s position is not a straightforward one. Even the term ‘Modern China’ is problematic in itself, posing challenges of its own to our curator even before he has begun.
Yunte Huang appears to relish this challenge. He delivers us straight into the capable hands of Lu Xun, who starts us off on our journey towards the heart of the modern Middle Kingdom. Much of China’s cultural heritage is built upon its literature, but the deepest reverence, even today, is reserved for writers of the Medieval period — the godlike figures of Shi Nai’an and Lu Guanzhong for example. Lu Xun is about as close as a 20th century figure can come to those totems of the written word.
The reader is treated to Lu’s Preface to A Call to Arms, and a snippet from his celebrated 1918 work, Diary of a Madman, and then we are whisked somewhere else. We take in the poetry of Guo Moruo, the prose of Ding Ling and Ba Jin, and we begin to understand a little more about where our guide, Mr. Huang, is coming from.
There’s not too much in the way flesh on the bones, however. This is, at heart, an anthology, and yet its 600 pages are dwarfed by similar collections concerning the Romantic poets, or 20th Century American literature, or pieces from other sources. This is not because the subject matter is lacking; it’s simply because this is not what Huang is creating for us.
Huang is not giving us an exhaustive education in Chinese literature; he’s giving us a sampler, a taster of some of the great (and many of the figures in this collection are truly worthy of this epithet) writers of the last hundred years. The result is a meticulously-structured literary smorgasbord, aimed at training our palates to accept the best of the Chinese literary canon.
It doesn’t take the reader long to get to grips with this tactic, and by the time we have made it through to the evocative sensuality of Chi Zijian or the lyrical flourishes of rock musician Cui Jian — both contemporary voices — we are suitably acquainted with the material. There’s no big reveal — there’s no spotlight illuminating the nature of China’s modern cultural soul — but we, as readers, have dallied with its complexity, and we have opened doors which were perhaps hitherto closed to us.
But what about this canon? It’s one thing to be briefly introduced to a literary ouevre, but how do we approach it? How do we engage with it? It is at this point where even those with a die-hard devotion to the work of Roland Barthes come unstuck. Disentangling history and art is not so easy, in this instance. Within much of the work covered by Huang’s whistlestop tour, the two entities do not merely exist side by side; they are combined symbiotically. There cannot, one feels, be one without the other.
At no point does Huang present this to us more abruptly than at the beginning of the Revolutionary Period section, when several poems are introduced, each published by a young Leftist scholar from the Hunanese countryside who went by the name of Mao Zedong.
There’s no shying away from this. These are good poems, particularly Changsha — named for the provincial capital of Hunan — which more than holds its own alongside many of the other pieces in the collection. Those who want to extricate the weight of history from the literary output of Chairman Mao… well, good luck to them.
Of course, we can take the beauty of the writing at face value; we can engage with the aesthetic skill of the authors who crafted these words. We can marvel as the richly figurative language of Chinese classicism collides with the starker stylistic elements of social realism.
The poems and stories of The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature can stand up to scrutiny in their own right — both aesthetically and semiotically — but the introduction of the historical element is part of the journey that Huang has laid out for us. When he divides his collection into three parts — Republican, Revolutionary, and Present — this is not for nothing; this is significant. He’s showing us the soul of modern China: the beauty, the ugliness, the glory, the atrocity, the art, the history. He’s showing us the culture in its totality. In this sense, the collection becomes as much a historical document as it is an artistic one.
The centrepiece of the self-styled Great Helmsman could have overshadowed Huang’s work. He sits within those pages, keeping a watchful eye on proceedings in the same way his portrait does in countless restaurants, schools, libraries and homes in the People’s Republic to this day. But the strength of the authors on show here ensure that this is not the case. The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature is an examination of the literary soul of modern China, a step towards an understanding of what has brought us here, to the China of Xi Jin Ping and economic liberalism. To have not included the work of Mao would simply be an exercise in airbrushing history.
Yunte, however, has pulled it off. He has succeeded in his impossible task. He has mapped a route to the soul of today’s China as accurately as we could ever expect such a thing to be mapped. It may not be comprehensive, but it’s an excellent access point — a springboard into something truly magical.