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Manoa 15.2 (2003) 49-55
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Into the Labyrinth:
An Introduction to Postmodern Chinese Fiction
Yongchun Cai and Herbert J. Batt
A prehistoric sheep's head appears to a wandering man in the middle of the wilderness; a woman is haunted by the death of a friend who either was murdered or committed suicide; an illiterate peasant suddenly finds that he knows tales of ancient kings, and acquires the powers of the bards to chant epic stories; a landlord's beautiful concubine mysteriously disappears and the only one who seems to know why is her maidservant; an assassin appears and disappears like an apparition in a snowy landscape. At first reading, one might be tempted to conclude that the Chinese postmodernists have dedicated themselves to proposing mysterious statements about the human condition. But deep meanings about life, to be uncovered below the surface of a mesmerizing story, are not at all what postmodernism is about. What distinguishes the postmodernist writer from other writers is not dedication to hidden thematic undercurrents, in the manner of traditional realist and modern fiction, but dedication to experimentation in fictional form. Indeed, experimental forms are the postmodernist writer's passion. Through radical experimentation with every element of fiction, they seek to question the very meaning of "story" and all of the conventions that drive our assumptions about narrators and narration—and even meaning itself. Through ironic wordplay, misdirection, and self-consciousness, they seek to remove their stories from what we call the "real world," creating instead fictional worlds sufficient unto themselves. In these stories, there may well appear a personalized representation of humanity's painful existence, including solitude, violence, misfortune, and despair—and the role that sexuality often plays in these conditions—but the postmodern writers' aim is to subvert every authority (including literary authority) and shatter the conventions that presume the relevance of any "text" to the "real world."
Contemporary postmodernist fiction, or avant-garde fiction, appeared on the Chinese cultural landscape in the 1980s, when intellectual and economic liberalization challenged the official paradigms, conventions, and [End Page 49] beliefs. Concepts and values of the Mao era gave way to values adopted from the West. These transformations were manifested most strikingly in literature. As Western works flooded China, Chinese literary paradigms were not merely challenged but often simply replaced by a range of new concepts from modernism to postmodernism.
Since the mid-1980s, almost every important modern or contemporary Western work—in disciplines that include political science, economics, law, sociology, history, and anthropology—has been translated into Chinese. Western literature and literary theory have introduced psychoanalysis, stream of consciousness, existentialism, formalism, new criticism, narratology, structuralism, deconstructionism, feminism, and postmodernism into Chinese thinking. As a result, enlightening debates on humanism, alienation, and subjectivity took place and led to such developments as the Misty Poetry movement, stream-of-consciousness works by Wang Meng, and the Search for Roots movement.
The Chinese postmodernist writing that evolved takes a subversive posture with its anti-authoritarianism, rejection of mainstream expectations, dismantling of binary opposition, and intellectual playfulness. And this subversiveness is not only directed against the old ideological, political, social, and cultural paradigms, but also against traditional methods of storytelling and story construction. Postmodern writing is particularly interested in undermining literature's social and political utilitarianism and in overthrowing the doctrine of wen yi zaidao (literature as a vehicle of morality); postmodern writers replace the conventional problems of "what to write" with a preoccupation for "how to write." This change of focus reflects the postmodernist tendency to turn inward toward an all-embracing subjectivity: a search for individual freedom, for a pure motive for imaginative creativity, and for ways to manifest the rebellious power in expressive language. In contrast to other Chinese writers—many of whom are engrossed in exploring cultural roots, personal or national identities, or representations of cultural reform—postmodernists are immersed in linguistic, narrative, and conceptual experiments by creating new forms.
Chinese postmodernist narratives can therefore be disorienting labyrinths that blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. Self-conscious narrators frequently comment to readers...