Inside the Outsider: The Reappearance in Chinese Literature of Long Absent Type of Character

Anne Weddell-Wedellsborg


Of course there are some examples of individuals who crave passionately for a more meaningful existence. But they have to express their inner feelings furtively, out of sight of society. If they admit their beliefs openly, they will simply be seen as "negative examples" by the community. So these people continue to be oppressed.

The above quotation, describing the Chinese outsider, is taken from the Hong Kong intellectual Sun Longji's book, The Deep Structure of Chinese Culture, published in Hong Kong in 1983. This work, together with The Ugly Chinaman by the Taiwanese essayist Bo Yang, has been widely circulating in China, attracting much attention in intellectual and artistic circles.1 Both of them attempt to confront and analyse the negative impact of Chinese culture on its people, and, on that basis, to discuss what it means to be Chinese in the twentieth century.2 They were received in China as highly relevant and provocative contributions to the search for identity, nationally and individually, which has been the main characteristic of the literary scene in recent years. In this article it is intended to take a closer look at this search, through the particular angle of the outsider, as he or she is represented in contemporary fiction. But before giving my definition of an outsider, a few general remarks about the interest in national and individual identity are called for.
The search in literature for national identity has been most conspicuously expressed in the so-called "root-seeking" (xungen) literature, prominent since 1984, which consciously tries to rediscover some traditional Chinese elements, mainly Daoism and Buddhism, but also tribal cultures, primitive myths and folklore.3 This search, as well as being a psychologically understandable response to the tremendous and sudden influx of Western culture and to the whole process of economic modernization, has also been triggered off by the urge to find the roots and causes of the Cultural Revolution. And in fact a sense of the necessity of enquiring into deep-rooted traditional values existed in avant-garde circles well before the large-scale cultural opening of Anne Wedell-Wedellsborg the eighties. The positive approach of the exponents of the recent root-seeking literature, like A Cheng and Han Shaogong, can be said to be complemented by the critical attitude inherent in many stories published in the pioneering unofficial magazine fintian (Today) already in 1978-80. Several stories by writers such as Zhao Zhenkai and Chen Maiping for example, imply a subtle criticism of the traditional virtues of compliance and adjustment.4 The "debate" over national character underlying a significant part of the literature of the post-Mao era is not even something exclusively characteristic of this period. The present debate can in some ways be seen as a continuation of earlier discussions in the fifties and sixties around the type of A Q, though widely divergent in regard to not only concrete issues, but also frame of reference and terms of discourse.5
By contrast, the search in literature for individual identity, as something apart from collective identity, is a new phenomenon particularly belonging to the latest decade, with no real precursors in the previous years of the People's Republic. Looking at the more interesting part of what is in China broadly termed "searching" (tansuoxing de) literature, it is clear that whereas the search for national identity may include or be linked up with a more personal search, there are many examples of literary figures groping to define themselves without even indirectly referring to questions of national identity.
Here I shall present some of these stories which in one way or another touch upon the individual's attempts to understand and cope with the complexities of his or her own existence.6 I shall not attempt any in-depth literary analysis, but rather - as mentioned above - focus on one particular type of fictional character who, after many years of absence, seems to have reentered Chinese literature, and who, by definition, stands apart from the rest: the outsider.

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Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies
ISSN (print): 1395-4199, ISSN (online): 2246-2163

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