In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Modernism and Postmodernism in Chinese Literature

  • Introduction
  • General Studies
  • Modernism in Mainland China
  • Modernism in Post-1945 Hong Kong, Macao, Malaysia, and Singapore
  • Postmodernism in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Malaysia
  • Overseas Chinese

Chinese Studies Modernism and Postmodernism in Chinese Literature
Carsten Storm, Pei-yin Lin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0179


Modernism and postmodernism are highly contested terms, both in theory and in academic practice. Both are understood here primarily as a mixture of literary styles and agendas, of times and/or areas of flourishment, and of canon (i.e., a selection of typical texts and authors through journals, criticism, or the academy). While the advent of modernity in China can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century, modernism as such does not gain momentum in Chinese literary discourses until the second decade of the 20th century and was adopted in a relatively short time. Therefore, the scope of literary techniques and attitudes deemed “modernist” was usually broad and included competing, sometimes oppositional, trends, but is often characterized by a sense of individualism and of crisis, and by a critique of the concepts of realism, progress, and linear time, as well as by a self-referential style. Aspects of both linguistic and formal playfulness opened modernism to influences from traditional literature and thus brought modernist literature into contact with other realms than in the West. Modernism flourished at different times and in comparable but different environments in various localities in the Sinophone world. Postmodernism was introduced to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China around the mid-1980s, whereas postmodern literature and discourse emerged primarily in the 1990s. Postmodernism rejects the claims to legitimacy of modern logocentrism, stable identities, essentialism, and linear and developmental conceptions of time, as well as concluding ideologies and power structures. In literary practice, it is characterized by techniques such as metafiction, fabulation or hyperreality, fragmentation, bricoleur, pastiche, playfulness, nonlinear or spatial arrangements, intertextuality, parody, and dark humor. It highlights multiple interpretations, or even no coherence, in a single literary text. In China, modernism and postmodernism are simultaneous and overlapping phenomena. Various scholarly debates have evolved regarding chiefly the adoptability of both West-originated terms. They are critically negotiated as (semi-, neo-)colonial, as nationalist literature, as independent and own developments of both concepts, and as an indigenization. The question remains whether these Western terms can be meaningfully applied to describe Chinese, Taiwanese, or Hong Kongese cultural/literary phenomena. In any case, different sociohistorical settings resulted in an adaptation of these highly conscious and independent Western styles. (Post)modernism in the Sinophone world has boundaries different from those of its Western counterpart. It often comprises other forms and own manifestations.

General Studies

Studies listed here deal with both modernist and postmodernist literature. Denton 2016 provides an overall companion; Hong 2007, Zhang 1997, and Zhu 1998 offer historical overviews. Chow 1993 and Wang 2010 negotiate the issue of the adaptability of both terms so that these works do not fit well into the more specialized sections below. Manfredi and Lupke 2019 focuses on modernist poetry but does so across regional and temporal borders.

  • Chow, Rey. “Rereading Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies: A Response to the ‘Postmodern’ Condition.” In Postmodernism: A Reader. Edited by Thomas Docherty, 471–489. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

    Chow takes a body of loosely connected texts labeled the “Mandarin Duck and Butterfly School,” originating from the late 19th and the first decade of the 20th century to renegotiate the usefulness of the Western categorical terms “modernism” and “postmodernism” in the Chinese case, and argues that elements of both can be found in these texts. However, she criticizes these labels, arguing they are ethnocentric and misleading.

  • Denton, Kirk A., ed. The Columbia Companion to Modern Chinese Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

    This is an extremely informative overview on modern Chinese literature, covering the complete modern era from Liang Qichao to Internet literature. Especially important for the issue of modernism and postmodernism are Steven Riep on “Chinese Modernism: the New Sensationists” (pp. 176–182), John Crespi on “Form and Reform: New Poetry and the Crescent Moon Society” (pp. 121–127), and Michelle Yeh on “Misty Poetry” (pp. 286–292), as well as articles dealing with contemporary literature (chapters 37–57).

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

    A useful reference covering China’s literary scene from 1949 to 1999. Part One deals with Chinese literature of the 1950s–1970s, whereas Part Two is dedicated to post-1976 Chinese literature. Both parts discuss the general literary environment first before delving into specific genres—poetry, fiction, prose, and drama. It also offers a chronology of contemporary literature in China at the end.

  • Manfredi, Paul, and Christopher Lupke, eds. Chinese Poetic Modernisms. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2019.

    This impressive volume analyzes modernism since its beginnings in the 1920s across regional borders (mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). It deals with poetic groups, individuals, and issues such as modernism’s interventions with linguistics, visual art, or it’s Western and Chinese traditional counterparts. It also engages with authors who are sometimes described as postmodern, like Xia Yu 夏宇 or Xi Chuan 西川.

  • Wang, Ning. Translated Modernities: Literary and Cultural Perspectives on Globalization and China. Ottawa, ON: Legas, 2010.

    Wang deals with the conditions, frameworks, and practices of modernism (~ity) and postmodernism (~ity) in the case of a “glocalized” China from the point of view of literature and culture. Wang is especially interested in the translation processes of the Western concepts or narratives and the adaptations and changes that were caused thereby. Wang engages predominantly in theoretical issues and seldom analyzes literary texts in detail, but succeeds to get into a fruitful dialogue with Western and other Chinese theorists.

  • Zhang Yiwu 张颐武. Cong xiandaixing dao houxiandaixing (从现代性到后现代性). Nanning, China: Guangxi jiaoyu chubanshe, 1997.

    Negotiates the shift from modernism to postmodernism in two sections, firstly applying a historical approach, focusing primarily on changing environments and trends, and, secondly, following literary concerns like narrative devices, language issues, narrative modes, etc.

  • Zhu Shoutong 朱寿桐. Zhongguo xiandaizhuyi wenxue shi (中国现代主义文学史). 2 vols. Nanjing, China: Jiangsu jiaoyu chubanshe, 1998.

    A chronological two-volume treatment of modernism in Chinese literature. The first volume presents topics such as the early experiments by symbolist poets and neo-sensationalism. The second volume covers issues from Yuan Kejia’s 袁可嘉 On the Modernization of New Poetry, up to postmodernist Chinese literature of the new era, such as the post-root-seeking poetry, post-avant-garde fiction, and experimental drama.

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