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C hapter 3 Constructing a Neorealist Reality Petty Urbanites, Mundaneness, and Chi Li’s Fiction 57 In this chapter, I investigate the problematics of neorealism (xin xieshizhuyi) through a case study of Chi Li, a prominent Wuhan-based writer widely regarded as one of the most successful neorealist writers working in China today.1 When rapid commercialization began in the late 1980s, interest in serious experimental literature began to wane; neorealism emerged to largely reshape the literary scene in the 1990s, replacing the populist stance of a by-now obsolete socialist realism, as well as the avant-garde and roots literary styles of the 1980s. The politics of this process are complicated and have fueled much debate and controversy; although neorealism is central to an understanding of literary production in contemporary China, studies of the topic, especially in English, remain scanty.2 Chi Li’s fiction is both representative of neorealism and symptomatic of its problematics. Through a study of her fiction, I examine the dynamics of the sociohistorical juncture in which it arose; define it, both theoretically and historically, in relation to other forms of writing; and investigate ways in which its tenuous ideological character reflects the unevenness of both the social and the cultural development of postsocialist China. I begin by examining the term “neorealism” in its relationship to realism and avant-gardism in contemporary Chinese literature. Neorealism emerged in direct response to the formal and ideological character of these two styles of writing. To define neorealism in terms of ideological reconsolidation in postsocialist China, I look at Chi Li’s novella Coming and Going (Lailai wangwang) and investigate how the author constructs a new kind of reality in her writing, paying close attention to the formulation of two crucial concepts: petty urbanites (xiaoshimin) and the mundane (shisu); both are especially foregrounded in her works so as to fabricate a nontypical reality that had been written off. I argue that through the fabrication of petty urbanites in mundane Wuhan, Chi Li constructs a decidedly unheroic world, 58 Constructing a Neorealist Reality which, in defying all grand causes and discourses, reflects a loss of faith in transcendent values in postsocialist China. The literary construction of this neorealist reality, thus, speaks of the emergence of new ideologies and social relationships in a China in the midst of significant transformation. Formulating Neorealism: Transcendence or Return The term “neorealism” is no less imprecise than the multivalent term “realism.” Neorealism became fashionable in China in the early 1990s and was used loosely to describe a large group of writers who wrote in realist fashion, though their styles were diverse. In defining neorealism, we are faced with a two-fold difficulty. First, to understand neorealism, we need to clarify realism—no easy task—because the former is obviously dependent on the latter.3 And second, we need to sort out the multifaceted relationships embedded in the prefix “neo.” To give a general examination of neorealism is clearly beyond the scope of this chapter, but I do want to suggest that neorealism should not be ignored in any investigation of the literature of postsocialist China. I approach the term from the angle of the tension between realism and the real, so as to draw attention to the politico-economic conditions and cultural politics behind definitions of this term. When employed in a general way, Realism suggests a paradoxical relationship between art and reality.4 In the Western mimetic tradition, one basic standard of evaluating the quality of a work of art is how accurately and adequately it imitates reality. Plato (The Republic) excludes artists from his clearly stratified republic because their works are only approximations that are thrice removed from reality—the form of things, in Plato’s construction. Aristotle (Poetics) redeems the artist by valuing the role of art in purging emotions through catharsis. In this process, catharsis reaffirms the imitative, and thus secondary, nature of art in its relation to the rational real. Plato and Aristotle set the foundation for the Western tradition of mimetic philosophy. In general, later movements and trends in narrative art in the West were mostly varied expressions of this basic relationship between art and reality. From scholastic realism in the Middle Ages to the psychological realism of the modern novel, writers have upheld their responsibility to reveal the real, whether their realities were mythological or psychological.5 Much of the burden in studying realism has therefore shifted to philosophical contentions on what constitutes the real. The concept of...


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