Chinese Studies Chinese Literature Post-Mao
Richard King
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0017


Chinese culture changed dramatically following the death of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in September 1976. The final decade of the Mao era, the Cultural Revolution, previously hailed in the Chinese press as Mao’s crowning triumph, was castigated as a time of brutality, irrationality, and economic stagnation. Art in the Mao era, particularly that final decade, had focused on struggles along class and political lines, dominated by heroic figures utterly loyal to Mao, with their adversaries exposed and humiliated. By contrast, the fiction, drama, and poetry of the late 1970s and early 1980s concentrated on the victims of the previous years and their physical and psychological sufferings. A policy of reform and opening led to the influx of foreign culture previously condemned as pernicious; Chinese writers encountered Western works from the classical to the contemporary, and by experimenting with techniques learned from them broke away from the confines of socialist realism, and experimental writers were seen to lead a Chinese “avant-garde.” The 1980s saw a serious reexamination of China’s own customs and traditions, or “root-seeking,” and a reevaluation of Chinese civilization by comparison with that of the West (“high culture fever”). In the 1990s, reductions in state sponsorship of the arts obliged writers to look increasingly to the market for endorsement, while still taking care to avoid state censure. Many preferred to set works in the first half of the 20th century, both for the glamour that period offered and to avoid contentious contemporary issues. The post-Mao era has seen a number of authors build celebrated and lucrative literary careers. Translation into English and other languages and publication by leading commercial presses have assisted in the international recognition of contemporary Chinese literature, along with literary awards, notably the Nobel Prize, won in 2000 by the playwright and novelist Gao Xingjian, by then a French citizen and shunned by the Chinese authorities, and by the novelist Mo Yan in 2012. Contemporary authors have benefited from the international success of Chinese cinema; many of the films made by the leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou have been adapted from fiction. This bibliography privileges fiction, the major literary form, while also addressing poetry, theater, and other prose. Concentration is on critical and literary works available in English, so authors whose work has been translated are given preferential treatment. The process of selection inevitably excludes some remarkable and important work by accomplished writers.

Introductory Works

Chinese narrative studies of contemporary literature (dangdai wenxue 当代文学) typically begin with 1949 and conclude at the time those works were written; thus the post-Mao period takes up the second, and increasingly the larger, half. These studies are divided into the Mao and post-Mao eras, and within those time frames proceed by genre (fiction, drama, poetry, and reportage) and chronological order, with sections on literary movements and introductions to works by major authors. Hong 2007 is the only such study currently available in English translation, and is a fine example of this kind of scholarship. Chen 2001 takes a different approach, opting for a thematic study, exploring responses to historical changes and intellectual and aesthetic trends across genres.

  • Chen Sihe 陈思和. Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi jiaocheng (中国当代文学史教程). Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe, 2001.

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    The second two-thirds of Chen’s study deals with contemporary Chinese literature from 1976 to the beginning of the 21st century, starting with a return to the writing styles of the early-20th-century May Fourth movement, and including sections on humanistic writing, the avant-garde, individualism, and idealism, as well as responses to social change.

  • Hong Zicheng. A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature. Translated by Michael M. Day. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004157545.i-636Save Citation »Export Citation » Share Citation »

    The fullest Chinese review to date; the second half deals with fiction, other prose, poetry, and theater from 1976 to the late 1990s. A chronology of events and publications is included. The translator has added a glossary, bibliography, and a list of works cited with their Chinese titles. Translated from the original Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi (中国当代文学史) (Guangzhou: Jinan daxue chubanshe, 1999).

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