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Narrating new China : Chen Dengke, Liu Qing and the politics of literary production (1949-1976).

posted on 22.03.2017, 01:29 by Irving, Robert John
This dissertation examines the works of Chen Dengke and Liu Qing, two prominent writers of the Maoist period, a period often neglected in the study of contemporary Chinese literature. The main focus will be on their major novels, Thunderstorm and The Builders. In order to reflect more critically on 'life' as an ideological construct in the novels, the thesis will provide a contextualisation of literary production during the 1950s and 1960s to show that what is presented as 'life in the Chinese countryside' was tailored to reflect the socialist realist aesthetic according to which novels were written. This will involve an examination of the circumstances of the lives of Chen and Liu, their other writings and the reactions of their critics over time. The nature of this study requires an inter-disciplinary and adaptive methodological framework which will draw on literary and biographical theory while also drawing on political and economic studies about China. Such a diachronic study of their works will also illustrate the dynamics of literary production and the shifting nature of the socialist realist aesthetic during this period. The societal and educational factors that shaped the literary development of Chen and Liu were very different. Functionally illiterate, Chen was fostered by the Party as a peasant ¬soldier writer. By contrast Liu was exposed to a variety of non-communist views and literary genres. While Chen was developing his literary craft during the 1950s, Liu, already an accomplished writer, became involved in the agricultural mutual-aid and cooperative movements. Both were deeply influenced by Mao Zedong's 1942 Yan'an 'Talks', but differently. Liu embraced the spirit of the 'Talks' by putting down roots in the countryside. As a member of the broad masses, Chen, more simplistically, represented the target Mao sought to foster and benefited from the affirmative action of the Party's literary policy. The skill with which Liu describes the experiences of the characters of the Builders (1960) as they respond to the social changes occurring around them makes the novel artistically superior to Chen's Thunderstorm (1964). Nevertheless, in the context of literature produced according to the socialist realist aesthetic, which required writers to produce an idealised and optimistic vision of life, Thunderstorm is a significant novel because of the breakthrough it represents by looking at the harshness of life. The multivalence of symbolic language and the use of varying narrative constructions enabled Liu and Chen to respectively create visions of 'construction' and 'turbulence' in their novels within the restrictions of the revolutionary romantic realist paradigm. In doing so they also faced the balancing act of keeping up with 'history' in the light of continually changing orthodoxy. Socialist realism requires the author's standpoint to be crystal clear such that the text allows no ambiguity or interpretation other than the intended account. It will be argued that the very fact that our two case studies, how that such plurality of practice was possible confirms the description of socialist realism as an 'impossible aesthetic' . Our study shows that Chen and Liu held quite different views of agricultural reform. Whereas Chen favoured a market-oriented approach, Liu advocated the abolition of private property. Chen performed the function of social critic in the censure of self-interested cadres while Liu was an idealist who created idealised leadership characters because he believed the majority of cadres to be good. Writers facing the huge cultural changes of the post-Mao period have also been forced to chase 'history'. Whereas the 'history' faced by Chen and Liu was dictated by the Party, since the 1990s the market has assumed this guiding role, with the entertainment and artistic value of literature replacing its former didactic function. While the discourse of 'socialist realism' has become obsolete, failing to study this literary genre handicaps an understanding of the development of twentieth century Chinese Literature.


Principal supervisor

Gloria Davies

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Languages, Cultures and Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type


Campus location



Faculty of Arts