Narrative Pragmatics of the Chinese Socialist Realism

UDC 821.581
Publication date: 31.01.2024
International Journal of Professional Science №1(2)-2024

Narrative Pragmatics of the Chinese Socialist Realism

Нарративная прагматика китайского социалистического реализма

Sidorenko Andrei
PhD in Philology, Dept. of Chinese Philology, Faculty of Asian and African Studies,
St. Petersburg State University
Abstract: The article considers the narrative structure of the Chinese socialist realist novels, also known as the Chinese Red Classics, the literature or the 17-year period. Two well-known novels are used as examples: “The Sun Shines Over the Sangan River” (1948) by Ding Ling, and “Defense of Yan'an” (1954) by Du Pengcheng. The article traces the main features of socialist realist grant narrative as exemplified by the Chinese Red Classics. It is concluded that the narrative pragmatics are devised mostly to facilitate the workings of socialist value guidances.
Keywords: Chinese Literature, socialist realism, literary pragmatics, Du Pengcheng, Ding Ling, military fiction, Land Reform


Pragmatics is a discipline that studies the relationship of signs to their interpreters [11, p. 71]. The most common linguistic pragmatics, which studies the perception of statements by recipients. Thus, if we consider literature as a sign system, then the attitude of a literary work to the reader, in our opinion, can be considered literary pragmatics.

Literary pragmatics is an analysis of the contextualization (interpretability) of literature, using simultaneously «traditional» literary methods — historical-cultural, sociological, biographical and «new», precise literary methods. Literary pragmatics again draws attention to the connection between rhetoric and poetics [12, p. xiv].

When we read a text, we first try to understand what it is about, and then already having some information, we perceive it with our expectations, which are either justified or not [7, p. 19-20]. That is, the previously mentioned process of identifying the perceived information and the information already available to the reader takes place. Due to the fact that the available information differs from reader to reader, «what is clear to one reader may not be clear to another» [7, p. 14].


Ding Ling’s Novel «The Sun Shines Over the Sanggan River» (1948)

Ding Ling’s novel 丁玲 «The Sun Over the Sanggan River» 太阳 照 在 桑干河 上 (1948) is one of the most famous novels about land reform, translated into Russian, English, German, Japanese and other languages. This novel is based on the personal experience of the writer during her work on land reform in the Chinese countryside in 1946-1947, where she was sent after being criticized as part of the «style regulation movement» 整风运动 (1942 -1944) [9, p. 26]. While working on the novel, Ding Ling purposefully studied the novel “Virgin Soil Upturned” by M. A. Sholokhov (1932) [1, p. 157]

The plot of the novel is based on the struggle of village activists for the redistribution of landowners’ land and the redistribution of property with the active participation of the working group. The plot of the novel spans only two weeks. Events develop linearly — first, the «alignment of forces» is given, positive and negative characters are described. The land reform and other socialist transformations have supporters and opponents, respectively, the attitude of the heroes to the transformations reflects their division into positive and negative.

Value guidelines are provided not only descriptively, through the personosphere, but also through  narrative, the basis of which in the novel «The Sun Shines Over the Sangan River» is the struggle for a change of power.

A fairly detailed structural model of the narrative in the novel of socialist realism is built in the well-known work of K. Clark [4, p. 159-188, 255-261]. K. Clark argues that all the novels of Soviet socialist realism, in one way or another, are based on the “path to consciousness” [4, p. 255].

As in the novels of the Stalinist era, in the novel by Ding Ling we are faced with «an artistic interpretation of historical events based on the Marxist-Leninist concept of history» [4, p. 159]. At the beginning of the novel, the brigade arrives in the village and a general disposition is given. Then, they try to rouse the masses to fight, but nothing comes of them, the peasants could not take the documents from the wife of the landowner Li Zijun, that is, the «seeing» metagero faced the first obstacle on the way to awareness.

Taking into account the remarks of K. Clark [4, p. 160-161], it should be said that this scene is necessary from the point of view of the structure of the novel of socialist realism. If the peasants immediately came and were able to cope with the landowner, then the novel would not sufficiently reveal the leading role of the party in the person of the members of the brigade.

 After the defeat, the peasants go to collect and collectivize the fruits from the landowner’s garden, and here we see the brigade’s first victory. Even the most timid peasants who passed by the garden also got involved in the work, became more cheerful and helped to pick fruit, that is, if earlier they considered fruits from the landowner’s garden to be someone else’s property, now they have taken the path of liberation from the oppression of the landowners. When collectivizing the landlord’s orchards, the peasants joke, laugh, everyone is in high spirits. The main victory was not over the landowner, who, by the way, had fled by that time, but over the «slave», «backward» consciousness of the peasants, that is, here the reader is shown the growth of the consciousness of the collective meta-hero [5, p. 280].

Another interesting episode from the point of view of literary pragmatics is the night after the first peasant meeting, which did not go very well. To reinforce the negative perception of this episode, Ding Ling describes how villagers communicate with the groans of a mother whose child is dying [5, p. 118-120]. The dying child and the mother’s hopes for his recovery are compared with the peasants’ fears of the landlords and their hopes for a fair redistribution of property. This metaphor can be called a vivid example of postulating value guidances.

After the arrest of Qian Wengui, the whole village suddenly revived, everyone laughed merrily, loudly discussed this news — there is a positive characteristic of this event [5, p. 362-363].

At the meeting, the peasants, one after another, do not hesitate to tell how Qian Wengui ruined their lives. Interestingly, “some guy from the crowd” orders Qian Wenguyu to kneel, and the peasants then pick up this exclamation. Then someone (that is, again not a specific character of the novel, but an impersonal representative of the peasant masses) thought of putting a cap on his head [5, p. 393-394]. The replies of the peasants at the rally are also quite saturated with socialist rhetoric, we clearly see that the peasants do not speak each in their own name, and not so much to Qian Wengui as a specific person, but on behalf of the peasant class to the exploiter class [5, p. 394-395]. In general, we are faced with a guidance towards depersonalization, that is, the primacy of the collective over the individual.

After the meeting and «reprisals» over Qian Wengui, jubilant shouts were heard in the air, the peasants were in high spirits [5, p. 404]. Here we see a guidance towards a violent change in reality in the interests of the peasantry. That is, according to the laws of Chinese socialist realism about China in the mid-1940s, the peasants had to beat the landowner and, in every sense of the word, bring him to his knees (both literally and depriving him of all property and publicly condemning him), therefore, having done this they are happy.

When redistributing land, some of the activists are trying to make sure that they get better land, since they have more merit in the fight against exploiters. The members of the brigade find out about this and say that all decisions on the redistribution of land will be submitted to the peasant union. Once again, we are faced with the idea that the Communist Party plays a leading role, however, as Ding Ling describes it, we see here not at all a personal initiative, but that the masses will decide, which is certainly fair.

In Chapter 51, which describes the division of property confiscated from the landowners, everyone rejoices, acts in concert and amicably. It should be noted here that, as Ding Ling writes, the peasants did not fight over the same things, as the brigade leader Wen Cai feared, but quickly reached an agreement themselves [5, p. 435]. Let us say it again that according to the ideological principles of the CCP, the peasants were the most progressive stratum of the population, and such a «backward» way of resolving conflicts among themselves, like quarrels and fights, can not be combined with its image.

Further, Ding Ling writes that “after moving into the houses of the peasants, the red lacquered furniture began to look even more elegant, shone brighter than ever before … … Joyful laughter was heard everywhere in the village” [5, p. 441]. Here again we see how Ding Ling speculatively juxtaposes the events of the reform and the description, which is dominated by words with positive semantics.

At the level of the plot, we see a similar technique — the end of the land reform, like the ending of the novel, coincides with the Mid-Autumn Festival. The novel ends with a general triumph — on the theatrical platform are the slogans «Each plowman has his own field!», «Down with feudalism!», «Fight for land reform!» etc. The peasants are dressed in new clothes, on the tables there is festive food, in the streets there are crackling crackers [5, p. 447-449]. Part of the celebration consisted in holding a meeting of the peasant union, at which the peasants are given documents for the land, and the old ones are declared invalid. Before that, all those present bowed to the portrait of Mao Zedong.

Here it should be said again about the claims of socialist ideology to the place of a «new religion». The son of one of the peasants says to his father: “The Buddha doesn’t care about us, no matter how much we burned incense — he never paid attention to us. And as soon as Mao Zedong ordered, we were immediately allocated land. It turns out that Mao Zedong is our Buddha” [5, p. 419].

The holiday ends with a solemn demonstration, after which the militias line up and go to build fortifications to defend against the Kuomintang army. Despite the fact that the situation on the front of the civil war escalated, the peasants firmly believed in victory and quietly went home for a festive dinner [5, p. 455].

Here we see an attitude of historical optimism, which is the cornerstone of the value pragmatics of socialist realism — peasants and activists know that the struggle is not over yet, but Ding Ling realized that they are the driving force of history and that they could not act insecure.

At the end of this section, let us once again draw attention to the fact that the joys and hardships of the peasants are disclosed in sufficient detail, while there is no such phenomenon as the «problems of landowners» in the novel. The motives of the exploiters are self-interest, or unmotivated anger and meanness. Such a disparity in the detalization of the characteristics, as we have already noted, is the essence of the descriptive configuration used to build the opposition «friend» — «foe».

Taking into account the above, we should also recall the remarks made by the famous Chinese-American literary critic Xia Zhiqing in his review of the novel. The researcher writes that Ding Ling, describing the hatred of the peasants for the landowners, leaves out the feelings of fear and injustice of what is happening experienced by those against whom they fought during the land reform, apparently due to the restrictions imposed on writers by the then party leadership [8, p. 487-488].

Du Pengcheng’s novel «Defense of Yan’an» (1954)

Du Pengcheng’s novel 杜鹏程 (1921-1991)  “Defense of Yan’an” (1954) 保卫延安is one of the most famous novels of the early period of the PRC about the civil war of 1945-1949. The novel laid the foundations and is one of the classic examples of epic military prose of this time [2, p. 45; 3, p. 390].

The novel consists of eight chapters, named (except for the last one) according to the places where the company of the protagonist Zhou Dayong participates in combat. We can say that it is organized geographically, and the hostilities are a kind of loss and return of the «holy land», in the role of which is the city of Yan’an.

The plot of the novel is built in accordance with the concept “from victories to greater victories”. At the same time, its structure is quite homogeneous and even predictable: receiving a task, then a transition, then a battle, then a victory, and so on in a circle.

The first chapter describes how the communist troops leave Yan’an. As Yu. M. Lotman notes, “geography turns into symbolism extremely easily. This is especially noticeable when this or that geographical point becomes a place of intense hostilities…” [10, p. 303].

Yan’an in the novel appears as the embodiment of the ideals of communism, or, to paraphrase Yu.M. Lotman, serves as a “real equivalent of communist ideals” with features of a “holy land” within the framework of religious perception [10, p. 297-298]. Yan’an is a kind of «Jerusalem» for the communists. While many churches were erected in the old city of Jerusalem, where Jesus set foot, in Yenan since 1935 the headquarters of the CCP Central Committee was located, where Mao Zedong lived. Before the beginning of the hostilities described in the novel, Yan’an was a «paradise» described in pastoral colors: goats and sheep galloped over the mountains, and friendly and hardworking peasants sang songs [6, p. 11-17].

When Zhou Dayong told the soldiers of his company at the rally that their troops had left Yan’an, everyone immediately stood up and fell silent as if they were ordered, and the sky immediately darkened. The soldiers burst into tears. At the same time, one of the commanders noticed that it was not his first year in the war and for the first time he saw the soldiers crying when leaving the settlement [6, p. 32-36]. This clearly indicates Yan’an’s status as a «holy land» in communist mythology. For complete clarity, in the novel Yan’an is even called 圣地 «sheng di» several times, that is, the holy land.

In Du Pengcheng’s novel, Yan’an serves as “the locus where history meets myth and fiction crystallizes into Truth,” Wang Dewei notes. The defense of Yan’an is not a mission and a military operation, but a holy war against the infidels … … the narrative becomes more religious as it develops, and the war requires unconditional self-sacrifice from all believers” [13, p. 164].

At the beginning of the novel, in order to «set the tone» for the story, a scene of an air raid by the Kuomintang on refugees retreating from Yenan is described. Here the reader sees an old woman mourning her murdered daughter-in-law and her wounded grandson. Then Du Pengcheng thickens the colors — planes fly over again and shoot civilians from machine guns. Right in front of Zhou Dayong’s eyes (and, accordingly, the reader’s), bullets pierce a nursing mother with a baby [6, p. 11-17]. A woman with a baby in a pool of blood is a painting with clearly negative semantics, the origin of which is attributed to the Kuomintang, which, accordingly, is convincingly positioned as an «enemy» or «alien».

Given that Yan’an is a holy land, the novel begins with its loss as a «low point.» The first mission that Zhou Dayun’s company undertakes is to strike at the thirty-sixth brigade of Hu Zongnan’s troops. It was executed with brilliance: the brigade was defeated, even the commander of the enemy brigade was captured. It turns out that even while retreating, the CCP troops are victorious.

Further, in the second chapter, Zhou Dayong’s company is tasked with simulating the retreat of the main forces in order to lure the enemy to the side necessary for the CCP troops while their troops storm another city. The task was completed successfully again. This assault is the first offensive operation of the CCP forces on the northwestern front, which is positioned as a greater victory than the previous one. Moreover, machine gunner Wang Laohu captured the brigadier general of the Kuomintang troops — that is, both the army as a whole and individual good characters are achieving new successes.

In the third chapter, the unit, which includes Zhou Dayong’s company, receives a new, even more difficult task — to make a long march across the desert area in order to prevent encirclement and strike the enemy first. Zhou Dayong now, in addition to the duties of a company commander, also has the duties of a political instructor. In this chapter, a lot of attention is paid not only to the difficulties in the campaign, but also to political work — Commissar Li Cheng introduces Zhou Dayun to a course on the intricacies of working with personnel. The author’s intention here, as we see it, is to show the reader that the CCP’s victory in the war is not only military, but also political.

In the fourth chapter, the description of the hardships of a camp life continues. The forces of the soldiers are strained to the limit. Here the reader is shown not the victory of the troops as a whole, but the victory of individual soldiers over themselves and over the circumstances. It turns out that in order for the victories to seem bigger and bigger, the author shifts the angle from the battles (since the CCP army on the North-Western Front was retreating at that time), concentrating the reader’s attention on individual people and units. Due to this, Du Pengcheng does not step off the track «from victories to greater victories» in the narrative structure of the novel.

Also, speaking about the novel as a whole, we note that a detailed description of campaigns, not battles, was introduced so as not to inadvertently make the reader feel that the Kuomintang army is a worthy rival. The only reason for the severity of the battles described in the novel is the enemy’s multiple superiority, but in no way his military skill.

Interesting in this chapter is the death of 57-year-old revolution veteran Sun Quanhou. It is quite remarkable that this is almost the only death of a communist warrior described in detail in the novel. First of all, let us pay attention to the fact that Sun Quanhou is a cook, and he died from illness on the march. At the same time, Du Pengcheng prefers not to focus his (and readers’) attention on the deaths of communists in battles at the hands of the Kuomintang.

 This chapter also contains a lot about political work. There is no fighting in the fourth chapter, except for the capture of a village on the outskirts of Yulin at the end of the chapter. Again, this is intended to show that the CCP troops are marching towards victory all the time.

In Chapter 5, the CCP troops lift the siege from Yulin City. Despite the fact that Yulin is the end point of the long transition described in the previous chapter, the withdrawal of the army was not made at the end of the previous chapter, but at the beginning of the next, fifth, so as not to create the impression that the CCP army is moving towards retreat, that is, along a downward trajectory.

During the retreat, Zhou Dayong’s company in the battalion was ordered to cover the withdrawal of troops. Due to the death of the messenger, Zhou Dayong and his colleagues find themselves behind the front line, cut off from the main forces. The fighting situation is heating up to the limit. It is this disposition that gives Du Pengcheng the opportunity to describe the battles of Zhou Dayong’s troops against the many times superior enemy forces, without looking too closely at the realism and thereby not hinting at the incompetence of the command.

In this chapter, during the hardest battles, Zhou Dayong is wounded in the head, many soldiers are killed (but none of the main characters), a threat of encirclement appears, etc. The ratio of the forces of the enemy and the CPC in these battles sometimes reaches one hundred to one. With this, Du Pengcheng, in an exaggerated form, tells the reader about the bravery and personal feat of the PLA soldiers in the civil war. This chapter, in which Zhou Dayong’s company is essentially «coming back to life after being killed» is the largest in terms of volume.

If we talk about the military operations of the PLA as a whole, then the sixth chapter of the novel is its culmination. At the beginning of the chapter, it is mentioned in passing that enemy troops control most of the territory of Shenganning, but this is said in passing, so as not to focus on this. The main emphasis is on the fact that the communist troops are about to launch a counteroffensive.

The seventh chapter is the continuation of the climax of the novel. If the previous chapter is the largest military victory of the Northwest Army as a whole, then here the reader is faced with the most difficult task for Zhou Dayong and his comrades in arms. The newly created battalion, headed by Zhou Dayun, first comes in from the rear, and then ambushes the enemy, who is randomly retreating to Yenan, which the Kuomintang will not have long to own. Zhou Dayong and his associates again found themselves behind enemy lines and are fighting with superior enemy forces, but now — already by order of the command, and not by coincidence, as it was in the fifth chapter. If we turn back to the logic of the narrative, it is easy to see that Zhou Dayong is in a more responsible position, and receives a more difficult task. The logic of the narrative leads the reader to the conclusion that no matter what task the party sets before them, its soldiers who grow up under its leadership will certainly cope with it. In terms of the intensity of passions, this chapter is similar to the fifth, but here Du Pengcheng is trying to exaggerate — here he fights up to several regiments against the battalion of Zhou Dayong, some of the troops are surrounded by the Kuomintang, three soldiers are forced to throw themselves off the cliff so as not to be captured alive by the enemy, etc.

Nevertheless, Zhou Dayong’s company performs the task with brilliance and at the end of the chapter, Zhou Dayong even captures the top officers of the enemy division and documents of the encircled units.

The eighth chapter of the novel is its denouement and logical conclusion. The enemy is trapped in his camp, complete collapse, the communist troops are on the outskirts of Yan’an. Zhou Dayong meets with Peng Dehuai. All the soldiers, and together with them, according to the author and the reader, realize that «the day of liberation of the sacred land of the people’s power has come» [6, p. 607].

At the end of the novel, we see how the peasant parents meet their son-soldier, and how old friends meet. This should make a positive impression on the reader. To commemorate the happy ending there is a scene in which Zhou Dayong met with the «saint» Peng, that is, Peng Dehuai, who had initially been convinced that the Kuomintang had miscalculated by capturing Yan’an. Then a «military idyll» unfolds in front of the reader: the old fighters who «resurrected» must soon return to the company, the troops meet with the partisans, etc. The ending of the novel, and its highest positive point is the attack on the outskirts of Yan’an.


The above two examples clearly demonstrate that the narrative of the works of the Chinese Socialist Realist fiction in China are based on a structure which is designed to influence the reader in a preselected political direction. Communist values and collective goals are put forward and overshadow the private thoughts of the individuals. On the one hand, this makes fictions of this kind structurally homogeneous and easy to analyze. On the other hand, this severely takes away from the readability, and, therefore, trustworthiness of such fictions.


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