Commentary: The Cruel Generation

By David Haysom, published

Translated from 他们四个人的最大公约数是残酷 by 唐山 at 北京青年报.


赵志明 Zhao Zhiming, 孙一圣 Sun Yisheng, 于一爽 Yu Yishuang, 双雪涛 Shuang Xuetao – what do they have in common?

Were their four books not published at the same time, and had they not all been given the same label of “neoclassicism” [1], I doubt many people would be able to come up with much of a connection between them.

Each has a distinctive style: Zhao Zhiming evokes Richard Yates, Sun Yisheng inclines towards Juan Rulfo, and Shuang Xuetao resembles Faulkner, while reading Yu Yishuang recalls Sylvia Plath. But perhaps this is where the “neoclassical” comes in: in this day and age, writers who are still interested in continuing in their precursors’ footprints are few and far between.

But any summary of this kind can only be a crude one, because this broad-minded generation of writers also consciously defines itself against those influences. Shuang Xuetao’s story “The Master” is highly Faulkneresque, but “Eternal Rest” is the exact opposite; Sun Yisheng’s “The Shades That Periscope Through Flowers to the Sky” is more like a work of structuralism than anything by Juan Rulfo; stories like Zhao Zhiming’s “Jimo the Craftsman” take place in a world that is entirely different from that depicted in works such as “Eye on the Square”.

The fact is that Zhao Zhiming and Shuang Xuetao are writers who straddle more than one kind of style. While taking nourishment from the classics, they also betray the classics. They are continually breaking through their own habits of writing, which makes classifying them almost impossible.

But we could perhaps, at a stretch, dub them “the cruel generation.” This shouldn’t be taken as implying that these four are advocates of cruelty, but rather as a summary of the aesthetic tastes of their writing. […] In terms of creative principles, they all firmly believe that cruelty is an inherent aspect of existence. It is only through the experience of cruelty that we can get at the truth of the world.

The father in Shuang Xuetao’s “The Master”, for example, is addicted to chess, and insists on going out to play the game even if it means destroying his marriage, throwing his life into chaos, and even blithely risking the danger of a stray bullet […] All four of these writers specialise in the chilly depiction of how the universe can quietly crush an existence, slowly effacing you and any lingering sense of vitality, dignity, value or endurance. Everyone is wasting their life, there is no true love, we are destined for loneliness… take any piece out of these four collections and you will discover something along these lines. But readers will sense from the specific details of the writing that this exposure of the truth does not equate to the encouragement of negativity.

[1]: This is referring to the title of the book launch for these four authors that took place at the Modern Museum of Chinese Literature on July 17th. Pictures (and a few thoughts of my own) here.

“The Master”, the Shuang Xuetao story referred to in this article, was translated by Michael Day for the Winter 2015 issue of Pathlight.

Sun Yisheng’s “The Shades That Periscope Through Flowers to the Sky” was translated by Nicky Harman for Words Without Borders. Her translation of “Apery”, another Sun Yisheng story, appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Pathlight and was the 33rd release of the Read Paper Republic project.


# 1.   

Dave's polite parenthetical at the end of this post deserves to be moved up front! His article on Spitting Dog is the sort of analysis that this 唐山 should have written.

These writers are part of a group that, in my opinion at least, constitute a new direction for Chinese contemporary literature. Read Dave's post to see why.

Eric Abrahamsen, August 23, 2016, 8:56a.m.

# 2.   

I just wanted to try and explain my thoughts with slightly more coherency than I managed during the event itself...

Dave Haysom, August 23, 2016, 9:18p.m.

# 3.   

80s writers are blooming and unstoppable. Never have I seen so vivid of imaginations and observations within one generation. “the cruel generation” hollowing out of materialistic possession and pursuit with spiritual urgency is quite palpable.

Susan, August 24, 2016, 5:52p.m.

# 4.   

So I'm going on a road trip, and stocking up on kindle ebooks ahead of time. (I'm supposed to be driving, but theoretically I'll have downtime.) I went to and searched for Sun Yisheng's 《你家有龙多少回》, and the page that popped up had exactly four books on it: Sun Yisheng's, Zhao Zhiming's, Shuang Xuetao's, and Yu Yishuang's.

Someone's been doing their thematic promotion properly!

Not one of them has an ebook edition (angry face).

Eric Abrahamsen, September 7, 2016, 2:53p.m.

# 5.   

Surely, this must be the second cruel generation, with Su Tong and Yu Hua as the first one?

Anna Gustafsson Chen, September 9, 2016, 1:44p.m.

# 6.   

please share a site from where I can download books of Chinese literature in English translation in pdf format , I am a researcher from Pakistan and these books are not available in kindle store,

Ezza, September 18, 2016, 11:32a.m.

# 7.   

hi Ezza,

"Sing-song girls of Shanghai" translated/edited by Eileen Chang and Eva Huang is available on Kindle. I think. It is a monumental translated work!

susan, September 18, 2016, 2:01p.m.


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