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  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: May 2009

12 - The involutionary tradition in modern Chinese literature


The abolition of the imperial examinations in China in 1905 heralded, among many other things, a significant change in the Chinese practice and understanding of literature. Prior to 1905, knowledge of literary texts and the ability to compose essays and poems were crucial components of the education of any man wishing to advance himself in society, as well as of the home education of many women from gentry families. After 1905, this direct link between literary reading and writing on the one hand and social status and power on the other gradually disappeared, as did the privileged access of men to public education. Although literature continued to be accorded high value within modern culture, its position in modern society became more marginal, but at the same time more autonomous. A literary scene emerged, populated by literary figures, including an increasing number of women, who were no longer literati, or scholar officials, but 'literary intellectuals' (a term coined by Bonnie S. McDougall and Kam Louie). Despite the increasing marginality of literature within society as a whole, many literary intellectuals continued to attach great social and political value to literary work. A very influential modern view of literature, first articulated by Liang Qichao at the start of the century, saw writing and especially fiction as a useful tool for transforming readers' mentalities and thereby bringing about social and political reform, or revolution. Indeed, early statements of modernity in Chinese literature seem to have centred on the notion of revolution. Liang Qichao proclaimed a 'poetry revolution', a 'fiction revolution' and a 'drama revolution'.

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The Cambridge Companion to Modern Chinese Culture
  • Online ISBN: 9781139001861
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