YellowBridge Chinese Language & Culture
Chinese Language Center

Chinese Literature Modern Fiction Since the 1980s: Revisiting the Cultural Revolution

The Cultural Revolution ran for ten years before it ended with the death of Mao Zedong and the arrest of the so-called Gang of Four. The new leader, Deng Xiaoping, instituted an economic liberalization program that revitalized the nation. Although works that are openly critical of the government are still banned, there have been many works that reflect on the events and absurdities of the Cultural Revolution. The writers of these works generally grew up during that dreadful era.

The end of the millennium also saw the award of the first Nobel Prize of Literature to a Chinese author, Gao Xingjian. The PRC did not take pride in the announcement and called it a political event.  Gao Xingjian's work is highly innovative but difficult to read.  Or in the words of Nobel Prize committee: "[Soul Mountain is] one of the singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves."

  Title Mini Review
The Remote Country of Women
Written by Bai Hua (1956-)
Translated by Andrew Jones
University of Hawaii Press, 1995
384 pages
Written in 1988, this wonderful story follows the two protagonists in their parallel worlds. Sunamei is young girl from the Mosuo tribe, an idyllic matriarchal society in Southwest China. Liang Rui is a Han Chinese and former Red Guard who is sent to labor camp for an earlier attempt to escape "reeducation". The two meet and fall in love, thereby setting up their two worlds on a collision course.
The Past and the Punishments
Written by Yu Hua (1960-)
Translated by Qingyun Wu
University of Hawaii Press, 1996
336 pages
Yu Hua grew up during the Cultural Revolution, a time of senseless cruelty that shaped the view and attitudes of a whole generation. This collection of eight stories were written in the 1980s. The settings range from old China to the Cultural Revolution and the economic reform era. The stories are troubling for their combination of great literary beauty and horrifying cruelty.
A Dictionary of Maqiao
Written by Han Shaogong (1953-)
Translated by Julia Lovell
Columbia University Press, 2003
400 pages

Han Shaogong also grew up during the Cultural Revolution, when he was sent to work in a rural village. This novel uses a very innovative device:  it is written in the form of a dictionary for the Maqiao dialect through which the main character attempts to understand the life and customs of his new home.This work has been awarded several prestigious Chinese literary prices.

Chaos and All That: An Irreverent Novel
Written by Liu Sola (1955-)
Translated by Richard King
University of Hawaii Press, 1994
142 pages
Liu Sola, a versatile composer, playwright, and author, published this novel in 1991. The novel's main protagonist is Huang Haha, a Chinese student in London who is writing a novel about growing up during the Cultural Revolution.  It includes many funny vignettes involving village latrines, practicing swear words in order to join the Red Guards, and keeping contraband pets.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Written by Dai Sijie (1954-)
Translated by Ina Rilke
Anchor Books, 2002
208 pages
Dai Sijie is a filmmaker who has lived in France since 1984. This novel was first published in French. Two city youth are sent to a rural village to be "re-educated" Their reeducation mainly involves carting excrement and listening to Communist propaganda. However, they find a secret stash of banned Western literature which changes their lives and that of the beautiful daughter of the local tailor whom they flirt with.
Soul Mountain
Written by Gao Xingjian (1940-)
Translated by Mabel Lee
Perennial, 2001
528 pages
In 2000, Gao Xingjian became the first Chinese writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. The award was controversial since Gao was little known in the West and he had been living in exile since 1987.  In 1983, having been diagnosed with lung cancer and expecting to be arrested for his writings, Gao decided to travel to southwest China. Although he got a medical reprieve before he left for the trip, he proceeded with a circuitous route in search of the sacred mountain of Lingshan. This book is the record of that trip, Written more in a stream-of-consciousness style than as a true novel, some have found it a difficult read.
One Man's Bible
Written by Gao Xingjian (1940-)
Translated by Mabel Lee
HarperCollins, 2003
464 pages
Another stream-of-conciousness novel by Gao Xingjian. This time, he is visiting Hong Kong and spending his time his Margarethe, who gets him started on a trip down memory lane through the wasteland of the Cultural Revolution.
Modern Chinese Fiction