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  Literature and Artistic Development

The Encounter of Aesthetics and Time ── A View of the History of the Development of Prose in the Republic of China (Yee-Voon Choong)


              Prose is one of the prominent literary forms in Chinese literature. In the history of literature, its achievement is only next to that of poetry. Functionally, prose came into existence to make up the shortfall in poetry. In other words, prose and poetry are complementary to each other. Consequently, the “expression of social concerns,” “fulfillment of social functions” and other criteria alike are crucial factors in excellent works of prose. It is a pragmatic variant among literary forms, providing a powerful and well-rounded capability in depiction.

In the history of vernacular Chinese literature, prose is the major media for the conveyance of new ideas and knowledge, and is responsible for the establishment of aesthetics norms in modern literature. Therefore, the first target of the literary revolution led by Liang Chi-chao was the language used in prose. Of all literary forms, prose is the closest to people’s daily life, and is the form with the most potential to carry out the aim of “what I write is exactly what I speak.”  Prose is effective both at the delivery of reasoning and the expression of emotion, a function lacking in other forms of literature. From its birth, modern prose was assumed to be pragmatic, critical, and written to reflect the reality, as had also been the case with classical prose.

Modern prose in a broader sense covers almost any literary form except the novel and poetry, including critical essay, pure prose (or literary prose), reportage, sketch (or familiar essay), biography, and diary entry etc. Its early development shall be traced from the critical essay and descriptive essay in the early 20th century.  

At the beginning stage, people did not have a high regard for critical essay in terms of their literary and artistic value because they were often merely in the form of shouts or curse of resentment and frustration. The rise of such essays actually echoed people’s yearning for modernization, in other words, the constant social and political incidents and problems of the time nurtured the flourishing of such type of essays. Lu Shun was the most representative writer of this kind of essay.  As opposed to the critical essay, the concept of the descriptive essay was frist raised in a piece of prose entitled “Descriptive Essay” by Chou Tso-jen published in 1921. Chou emphasized the use of a reserved and subtle touch in the writing of critical essays. Chou’s discussion was the first outline of an aesthetic imagination for prose, and signaled the separation of pure prose from the critical essay. It thus came to be regarded as marking the origin of “modern prose.”  

The early period of the development of prose was closely associated with the May Fourth Movement, but the connection came to an end when Shen Tsong-wen’s autobiography became popular to the public. Additionally, it was then that the fundamental ground for prose was established. In the following thirty years, there was significant acceleration in the development of the writing of prose works, with an accumulation of considerable achievements in the use of language and writing styles. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the war with Japan in 1937 disrupted the development of prose and the encouragement of diversity.  Due to the war and the unstable political situation, function-oriented prose was back on the center stage again. Prose works lacking in literary or aesthetics value, such as patriotic writing and anti-war theme, remained as the mainstream till the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

With establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the move of the government of the Republic of China to Taiwan, Chinese modern literature developed in two separate tracks. Subsequently, the scene for the history of prose of the Republic of Chia was also relocated to Taiwan, and modern Chinese literature has developed along two separate tracks. The history of prose in Taiwan is highlighted by three unique phenomenon: (1) the rich and versatile island culture which fostered the development of diverse and bountiful sub-categories in prose; (2) the literature sections in newspapers and the literature journals which speeded up the development of the writing of prose in Taiwan; (3) the plentiful number of literary awards since the 1970’s, which, though many are established for political purpose, encouraged diversity in prose.

The 1950’s was a golden age for sketches, and Liang Shi-chiu was the most representative writer of all.  His “Sketches of a Cottager” formed the landscape for prose in the 1950’s and was no doubt a forever classic. He insisted that “a piece of prose should be profound and forward-thinking, but never be long.” In general, prose was still under the influence of the May Fourth movement in the 1950’s and finally shook off its influence in the 1960’s. Yu Kuang-chung was the most creative and revolutionary writer during this time and he pioneered the theory of modern prose in Taiwan.

Another group of prose writers also noteworthy in the 1950’s and 1960’s were female writers. Though they were criticized for deliberately staying away from political issues and thus lacking in a sense of time or history, their works were full of a sense of place. They took the first step to write about Taiwan and were the dominant group in the writing of prose during this time.

 As the martial law was lifted in 1987, the new freedom of speech encouraged the diversity in theme, subject and style in the writing of prose. In the subsequent thirty years, not only was there a dramatic increase in the quantity of prose works and enhancement in quality, numerous sub-literary forms also emerged during the time, such as travel writing, nature writing, food and drink writing and topography, etc. The thriving and popularity of travel writing and food and drink writing was a notable phenomenon in the 1990’s. Moreover, Taiwan gradually became the leading source of writing and literary creation for the Chinese-speaking community around the world.

 After an existence of more than 100 years, though some of the attributes of critical essay are still alive in the prose of the present, the tradition of being lyrical in expressing emotions has disappeared in the age of the internet today. In such a diverse and open society with its high exposure its high exposure to modern forms of media, more opportunities and more potentials are presented to writers, while at the same time they have to face more challenging issues and tasks. Prose writers are free to dig into any period of time or any facet of culture for the search of either individual’s or the nation’s history and memories. Writers can also choose to use blogs as the media to record and share their own daily life and emotion. As the boundaries of prose grow more indistinct, freedom becomes the toughest challenge in the history of prose.









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