Sent-Down Youth Literature in Post-Mao China


A review of The “Sent-Down” Vision: Poetics and Politics of Zhiqing Literature in Post-Mao China, by Yanjie Wang.

Zhiqing 知青 writers are often considered by literary critics as a generation who express a profound sense of nostalgia in their writing. Yanjie Wang’s dissertation The “Sent-down” Vision: Poetics and Politics of Zhiqing Literature in Post-Mao China is an insightful and probing study that challenges this conventional yet still prevalent view of zhiqing literature. Defining the zhiqing generation rather as rootless and displaced, Wang skillfully investigates what she calls the “sent-down” vision of the zhiqing writers. She convincingly demonstrates that such a vision is enabled and enriched by zhiqings’ decade-long rustication experience and that the past associated with the sent-down experience is invoked not simply to express nostalgic feelings but rather to offer a “critique of contemporary China’s massive modernization project” as driven by developmentalism, materialism, and consumerism (p. 1).

The term “zhiqing,” as Yanjie Wang points out, is abbreviated from zhishi qingnian 知識青年 (educated youth) and is used in the context of contemporary China to refer particularly to the urban youths who participated in the “up to the mountains and down to the villages” movement and relocated to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (pp. 1-3).   Although much has been written on the zhiqing generation, most scholarship focuses on either providing socio-historical narratives of the rustication movement or surveying their major literary works. Yanjie Wang’s dissertation is, therefore, a much-welcomed, much-needed addition to the study of zhiqing literature. Through in-depth analysis of literary works by prominent zhiqing writers such as Han Shaogong 韓少功, Wang Anyi 王安憶, Ah Cheng 阿城, and Zhang Chengzhi 張承志, Wang examines “the aesthetic, psychological, and cultural after effect of the sent-down movement,” particularly the way in which these writers as cultural agents construct their identities and appropriate the past to critically appraise the present (p. 19). Taking the notion of zhiqing literature in its broader sense, Wang emphasizes the zhiqing identity of the writers covered in her dissertation, yet she does not restrict her analysis of their literary works to those explicitly related to the rustication movement, as she states in the Introduction that she hopes to “investigate the aesthetic reification of the legacies of the sent-down movement that exceeds the historical event itself” (p. 20).

Chapter 2 on Han Shaogong explores notions of temporality represented in his essay “The Roots of Literature” as well as his story “Homecoming” 歸去來 and novel A Dictionary of Maqiao 馬橋詞典. Wang argues that post-Mao state ideology centers on a teleological vision of time, as China’s massive modernization project has been dominated by the notion of modernity inherent in the doctrines of global capitalism and developmentalism. Han Shaogong’s works, however, challenge the homogeneous and linear temporality of official, hegemonic discourse and propose instead a heterogeneous sense of time. Wang locates in Han Shaogong’s root-searching efforts “a perception of national roots in its plurality” that bespeaks his particular sense of cultural heterogeneity fueled at once by his notions of spatiality and temporality (p. 37). Through the exploration of the crisis of identity in “Homecoming” and the use of episodic literary form in A Dictionary of Maqiao, as Wang forcefully demonstrates in this chapter, Han Shaogong “undercuts the ideological normality through an ontological questioning of time,” making his writing “one of the most powerful political interferences in the present” (p. 85).

Chapter 3 on Wang Anyi explores the issues of gender and sexuality through close reading of two of Wang Anyi’s works, The Hermitic Age 隱居的時代 and A Century on a Hillock 崗上的世紀. The author starts the chapter by foregrounding the particular significance of Wang Anyi’s identity as a graduate of 1969—a generation who suffered both a loss of youth and a loss of ideals—and points out that Wang’s writing “is symptomatic of her troubled psyche of being a graduate of 1969” (p. 89). The author then examines the recurrent image of adolescent girls in Wang Anyi’s works to argue that this image serves “both as a revelation of the sent-down youth’s traumatic past and redemption of their loss” (p. 101). She further explores the theme of sexual desire in A Century on a Hillock and rightfully positions Wang as a writer who celebrates the autonomy of sexuality in defiance of both the Maoist ideology that represses or even eradicates sexual desire and the post-Mao discourses of commercialization and commodification of sex and particularly of the female body.

Chapter 4 on Ah Cheng proposes a new reading of his novellas The King of Chess 棋王 and The King of Trees 樹王 by investigating the theme of corporeality. This theme has largely been overlooked by critics, who tend to focus much of their critical attention on the examination of Chinese tradition in Ah Cheng’s works. Wang explores corporeality in two senses. First, by reading The King of Chess against zhiqings’ experiences with hunger, both as food deprivation and as sexual desire, Wang demonstrates that Ah Cheng’s artistic representations of corporeality greatly challenge Maoist idealism’s neglect or even negation of the bodily needs of the people. Second, by emphasizing the environmental consciousness reflected in The King of Trees, Wang highlights Ah Cheng’s particular concerns with corporeal ecology and suggests that such concerns reveal his criticism toward and reflection of the deforestation projects of the Mao era as well as the environmental abuse that persists in the post-Mao era.

Chapter 5 on Zhang Chengzhi examines the role the Red Guard spirit plays in various stages of Zhang’s literary career. “The Red Guard 紅衛兵,” a term that Zhang identifies as his first literary creation, serves as what the author calls “the matrix” through which Zhang structures his thinking and writing. Instead of seeing Zhang Chengzhi’s later Islamic fiction as marking a rupture in his writing, Wang explores the ways in which the Red Guard spirit, ultimately a rebellious and anti-authoritative stance, informs and shapes Zhang’s literary creations and contributes to their metamorphosis. In Zhang Chengzhi’s early writings about the sent-down experience, Wang identifies an aesthetic ideal of “for the people” that “fuses the Red Guard ideal with the interest of the people” and “serves as a redemptive power that revitalizes the Red Guard spirit” (p. 198). Further exploring the function of the Red Guard spirit in Zhang Chengzhi’s The Black Steed 黑駿馬 and Investigation of Assassination in the Western Province 西省暗殺考, Wang argues that “Zhang Chengzhi’s twisted reclamation of the Red Guard spirit and his assertion of religious belief ultimately constitute a powerful critique of the post-Mao society pervaded by materialism and consumerism” (p. 31).

In chapter 6, the epilogue, the author envisions future projects current study of zhiqing writers can lead to, proposing two very intriguing projects. One is to explore the works of the zhiqing diaspora writers so that the examination of zhiqing literature can be put in a “transnational, cross-cultural context” (p. 242); the other is to explore “the construction and reception of zhiqing narratives in feature films, documentaries, and television dramas” and particularly “the use of affect” in the visual media (p. 242).

Yanjie Wang’s dissertation The “Sent-Down” Vision: Poetics and Politics of Zhiqing Literature in Post-Mao China departs from the commonly used socio-historical approach to the study of zhiqing generation and successfully uses the lens of literature to explore the subjective and individualistic accounts of the sent-down experience as well as the “aesthetic, psychological, and cultural after effect of the sent-down movement” (p. 19). Skillfully positioning the zhiqing writers both in the past and the present, the author demonstrates how these zhiqing writers “carve out an alternative temporal spatiality where the teleological, urban-based, consumerist, and material notion of modernity is astutely disputed and unsettled” (p. 240). With its incisive and nuanced arguments, The “Sent-Down” Vision makes a significant contribution to the study of zhiqing literature.

Yanhong Zhu
Assistant Professor
East Asian Languages and Literatures
Washington and Lee University

Primary Sources

Ah Cheng 阿城. Qiwang shuwang haiziwang 棋王樹王孩子王 (The King of Chess, The King of Trees and The King of Children). Taipei: Xindi wenxue chubanshe, 1988.
Han Shaogong 韓少功. Gui qu lai 歸去來 (Homecoming). Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2008.
Han Shaogong韓少功. Maqiao cidian 馬橋詞典 (A Dictionary of Maqiao). Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 2004.
Wang Anyi 王安憶. Yinju de shidai 隱居的時代 (The Hermitic Age). Shanghai: Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1999.
Zhang Chengzhi 張承志. Zhang Chengzhi daibiao zuo 張承志代表作 (Representative works of Zhang Chengzhi). Zhengzhou: Huanghe wenyi chubanshe, 1988.

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2011. 257 pp. Primary Adviser: Gary Xu.

Image: Zhiqing propaganda poster.

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