Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

The Persistence of Traditional Utopias in Contemporary Chinese Writing

By Helen Wang, published

Paper by Chen Szuchi (Chung Yuan Christian University, Taiwan)
British Association for Chinese Studies (BACS) Annual Conference, 3-5 September 2012.
Full list of abstracts here

  • refers to Chi Zijian, Zhang Wei and Yan Lianke

Abstract: Utopia exists in many forms, although all utopias share the same objective: a perfect world
insulated from the sufferings of the world of reality. Tao Yuanming’s Peach Blossom Spring (Taohuayuan ji, 421 A.D.), while not the first utopia in Chinese history, is arguably its most paradigmatic one. It is a society nestled in seclusion; its inhabitants live in timeless harmony with nature and its rhythms. A portrait of a perfect world, it contains no political philosophy nor any detailed descriptions about how its social order is managed. Even so, the attainment of Peach Blossom Spring has been a pursuit of Chinese literati since this literary work was completed. That said, the powerful discourse of “enrich the country, strengthen its army” (fuguo qiangbing) has opened up other utopian options which foreground economics, science and technology. These ideas oppose Chinese utopia, and the dichotomy opened up by these competing models invoke conflicts which a number of Chinese writers have explored in recent years.

In this paper, I will use the literary works of Chi Zijian, Zhang Wei and Yan Lianke to demonstrate the continuity of the Peach Blossom Spring model of utopia in modern China, and to show how Western utopias disturb their imaginings of social perfection. I will argue that the ideal lifestyle presented in Peach Blossom Spring is suffocated by reality, and that the Western utopian visions imposed by the government warp the narrative texture of these literary works. A mood of hope persists, however, as the as eco-literature emerges as the possible saviour of the Chinese utopia.


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