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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 89-117
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The Short-Lived Avant-Garde:
The Transformation of Yu Hua
The avant-garde literary movement is now seen as an international phenomenon, no longer confined to Euro-American societies. It is often associated with aesthetic self-reflexivity and subversiveness, with strong political and ideological contentiousness in modernist movements. 1 As Harold Rosenberg wrote in 1968 , "The avant-gardes have brought into art the dynamics of radical politics. . . . Historically, the primary antagonist of the avant-garde is the middle class. From the start, avant-garde art movements have paralleled advanced political movements." 2 But there are multiple histories of the avant-garde, in western Europe and in the former Soviet Union and the countries of the socialist bloc, in which the political antagonist was not the bourgeoisie but the repressive official culture of Stalinism.
The Chinese avant-garde movement of the late 1980 s offers yet another story. Its emergence in 1987 was marked by a critical self- consciousness in a social milieu of "post-everything-ness." It consisted of a generation of writers who grew up in the post-Cultural Revolution or post-Mao era; the naming of the avant-garde came in the post-Tiananmen (1989) era, after the high political drama had gone awry; and the theoretical underpinning for the self-styled avant-garde critics and writers was postmodernism, imported from the West. As a literary movement, the Chinese avant-garde had a short life span. It drew [End Page 89] much critical attention and high expectations. But in less than a decade the avant-gardists ceased to be cultural front-runners and dissolved into discrete voices and professions. Chen Xiaoming, one of the major avant-garde critics, proclaimed the "boundless challenge" that the avant-garde launched against the literary and cultural establishments in its early years, but soon the "challenge" had lapsed into a "residual imagination," as Chen's second book on the avant-garde observes. 3
Perhaps no one exemplifies the swift rise and fall of the Chinese avant-garde more clearly than Yu Hua (1960-), a native of the prosperous southeastern province of Zhejiang and arguably one of the most radical avant-gardists. His short stories, mostly written in the late 1980 s, have been touted as a "paradigmatic symbol of avant-garde fiction," 4 yet his novels and stories of the 1990 s have largely effaced the elaborate formal devices of metafiction and have become best-sellers in the unmistakable mode of "plain," down-to-earth realism. When Yu Hua began to write fiction in 1986 , he set himself the task of scandalizing conventional expectations and, ultimately, subverting the values and rationales that inhabit the Chinese language. In only five years, however, he had given up avant-garde experimentalism. He wrote his two best-sellers To Live and Xu Sanguan Selling His Blood in a basically realist mode. 5 While other avant-garde writers, such as Su Tong and Ge Fei, opted to write imaginary or nostalgic historical stories or simply [End Page 90] abandoned fiction, Yu Hua's fame as a popular realist accentuates the absence and silence of the once clamorous avant-garde.
Yu Hua's writings provide a focal point for a critical evaluation of the Chinese avant-garde. The movement, which appeared during China's transformation from a revolutionary society to a postsocialist state, bore the imprint of "global" (Western) cultural fashions and trends from high modernism to postmodernism and in fact is often labeled "Chinese postmodernism." It arose as a radical literary movement to challenge established literary conventions and institutions, but the rapid sociopolitical changes disoriented the new cultural and literary movement before it had taken firm hold. The Chinese avant-garde was paradoxically both radical and apolitical. The writers were radical and subversive only in their aesthetic experiments with form and language; they largely avoided political engagement and intervention. In the late 1990 s, as China entered a "postpolitical" phase in which economic development and marketization began to dominate politics, aesthetic radicalism became susceptible to...