A history of realistic writing in modern China: 1890s–1970s

Xinqiang Li, Purdue University


This dissertation examines the historical development of realist literature in modern China and its influences on the formation of modern Chinese writing. As Chinese writing was dominated by lyric and instructional traditions, Western realism, with its focus set on objective observation and representation, presented a fundamentally new model of writing when first introduced to China in the late 19th century. It was credited as a progressive literary trend for its scientism and appealed to Chinese intellectuals as a tool to reach a wider range of readers and transform the society and culture of China. Under the influences of Western realist works and with the development of new literature movements, Chinese writers gradually extended their subject matter from depiction of upper society to more humanist topics such as the life of common people; they began to base their writing more on objective observations and real experiences; they abandoned elevated and ornate styles and embraced an easy and plain language; they tended to follow scientific rules in characterization and depiction of settings. Simultaneously, the modernization of Chinese writing developed with realistic literature: the inclusion of modern literature in school education, the decrease of ancients' teachings, the spread of vernacular styles, and the conflation of Chinese and Western writing modes. All these factors have been interwoven with the development of realist literature and contributed to the looking outward for true knowledge trend in modern Chinese rhetoric. This study also contributes to the comparison between Chinese and Western writing culture. Traditional Chinese aesthetic philosophy often emphasizes lyricism, while realistic writing styles, affected by classical conception of mimesis and facilitated by the 18th and 19 th century science, humanism and faculty of reason, gained a more fundamental development in the Western culture. These differences in tradition also explain some differences between modern Chinese and English writing.




Silva, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Asian literature|Literature|Rhetoric

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