After 20 years of government control -- and suffocation -- Chinese literature is flourishing as never before in the world's oldest continuous civilization. ``The present literature is marked by its ideological depths, and also by its variety in topics, style, and form,'' says Lu Wenfu, one of China's leading writers. ``And this is a landmark of prosperity of literature, because I think if there is only one style, then that means it is not flourishing.''
Mr. Lu and another popular Chinese writer, Wang Meng, were in New York recently as sponsored guests of the 48th International PEN Writers' Congress. They were accompanied by three other Chinese writers, Huang Qingyun, Luo Luo, and Zhu Hong. In separate interviews, Lu, Mr. Wang, and Miss Huang spoke of their views of the past, present, and future of Chinese fiction writing.
``Just before the Cultural Revolution, literature was influenced too much by politics, so it didn't have its own characteristics,'' says Wang, who, as the others, spoke alternately in broken English or through a translator. ``Now, the development of writing reflects the reality of the society. And it reflects the writer's point of view of society and reality.''
Not only is there more variety in what is written, and how, but the amount of what is published in China today is unprecedented in Chinese history, Lu says. More literary works have been published during the past five years than in the preceding 30. Every year, 100 novels and 10,000 short stories now are published in China. To accommodate all this writing, more than 300 literary magazines fill the racks in bookstores.
``Also,'' Wang contends, ``contemporary Chinese literature has a very close relationship with world literature. During the Cultural Revolution, Chinese literature had no relationship at all with the rest of the world. It was completely cut off. Now, because of the open-door policy, China is more open to the world.''
Since Deng Xiaoping's more liberalized ``open-door policy'' began in 1977, Chinese literature has been reaching more foreigners and more foreign literature has been reaching the Chinese. Translations of American and European classics are now available again -- after having been burned and banned -- and more contemporary works by such authors as John Updike, Truman Capote, and one of Wang's favorites, John Cheever, are being rapidly translated, Wang says. In addition to books, 40 magazines now publish foreign literature in Chinese.
During the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76), writing was all but snuffed out. At most, 10 books were published, but they were propaganda for Mao Tse-tung and the ``gang of four,'' says Huang, a popular children's writer and vice-president of the Guangzhou (Canton) PEN (which stands for Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, and Novelists). She recalls one children's book published during the Cultural Revolution: ``It was absurd. The book was about a child who came from a village and he knew everything. He even taught his teacher. He was from the working class and she was an intellectual, so she had to learn from him.'' The elderly Huang now speaks of writing stories about ``love and a sense of beauty,'' and those that inspire children ``not to listen to others without using your own judgment.''
The annihilation of popular literature began in the mid-'50s with the persecution of intellectuals during the ``anti-rightist'' campaign, to which all writers fell victim. As a penalty for his writing and involvement with a so-called ``rightist'' literary magazine, Lu, now in his late 50s, was ordered to be a factory worker and mechanic in a cotton mill from 1957 to 1977. In 1956, Wang, then in his early 20s, published a story called ``The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department,'' which mildly criticized the apathy and favoritism of the communist bureaucracy in China's capital city, Peking. His story was branded a ``poisonous weed,'' and in 1963 he was sent to Xinjiang Province, China's equivalent to Russia's Siberia, to work as a peasant laborer. During their exile -- or as the Red Guard called it, their ``reeducation'' -- Wang, Lu, and Huang published nothing.
``Sometimes I hoped for a better future,'' Wang says of his years away from Peking and writing. ``I didn't believe China could be so bad year after year. But sometimes I was so hopeless I dropped my pen.''
Though she did not write, either, Huang did not stop telling her kind of stories to the children in the reeducation camp to which she was sent in China's southern Guangdong Province. ``I was thinking even if I didn't have the chance to write again I must teach the children anyway,'' she says.
After the ``gang of four'' fell in October 1976, Wang recalls, ``I felt we could change our country. I felt we could change our fate.''
``Chinese people are now interested in reality, and stories with new techniques in structure, and with emotion,'' Wang says. Fictional characters are becoming more like characters from good Western fiction; that is, they are more like real people who find themselves with real problems. But unlike Western fiction, Chinese literature upholds official government policy. While Lu or the others would not say if their work is censored, they did say censorship is not needed. Their topics are influenced by what they want to write about and what Chinese readers want to read about, Lu says.
Next, they want to cultivate a more international audience, especially in America. But this will not be easy, Lu believes, because of the difficulty of translating works, since too few foreigners speak Chinese and too few Chinese speak English. Still, Wang says he has been translated into 10 languages.
``I think the future of Chinese literature will go ahead along the same lines as we are going today,'' Lu says. ``Chinese literature flourished first [after the Cultural Revolution] in the sphere of short stories. Afterward, novelettes. But I believe that in the future it will flourish with novels. And some important and great novels will come out someday.''