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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Tradition and modernity in the novellas of Ah Cheng Lonergan, Ross Edmond


Since the beginning of the May Fourth era in 1919, modern Chinese literature has been dominated to some degree by four main characteristics: antitraditionalism, Westernization, realism, and artistic deficiency. Of these, the most persistent has been antitraditionalism. Chinese writers and intellectuals have long felt that the Confucian tradition was responsible for the near-collapse of the country in the early part of the twentieth century and it was therefore rejected in favour of Western values - first democratic, and later socialist. The three novellas of Zhong Ahcheng (pen name Ah Cheng), which were first published in 1984 and 1985 and which are part of a larger contemporary literary phenomenon known as the "School of Cultural Exploration", have effectively reversed the predominant traits of modern Chinese literature by overturning its long-standing antitraditional bias, eschewing any overt influence from Western literature, creating an objectified critical realism through the careful maintenance of authorial distance, and demonstrating a singular concern for form. This concern for form is what constitutes the modernity of Ah Cheng's work. Although Chinese fiction near the end of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) began to move away from the traditional episodic structure which was characterized by large numbers of loosely connected chapters and began to favour more tightly structured plots, fiction in the twentieth century has tended to concern itself more with content than with form. I have in this thesis employed the neo-Aristotelean method of analysis as described by Norman Friedman in his study Form and Meaning in Fiction to show that the plots of Ah Cheng's novellas have been carefully and cleverly structured and that they therefore represent a significant departure from the predominant trend in modern Chinese fiction. Tradition in the novellas is manifested in their meaning. "The Chess Master" represents, at the primary level, a recognition or affirmation of the spiritual values of life not only in a society and an era (the Cultural Revolution) in which the system of values appears to be bankrupt, but more importantly for the protagonist, in an individual life of material and emotional deprivation. The story also suggests that these spiritual values may be located in the Chinese tradition and that this tradition is available to anyone at any level of society. "The King of Trees," a didactic work (in contrast to the other two novellas which are both mimetic) is a modern day allegory with a strong Taoist flavour that depicts a struggle representative of the contest between man in his mindless determination to conquer nature and nature in its quiet determination to survive. Finally, "The King of Children" reflects a return to the traditional values of honesty and integrity at a time when these values have been supplanted by the struggle to survive and the imperative to conform to the ideological dictates of the day. While psychological treatment and social criticism make up an important part of the overall meaning of the three novellas, Ah Cheng's fiction is in the end primarily philosophical. He is suggesting as a possible solution to China's post-Cultural Revolution spiritual crisis a synthesis of the elements that constitute the Chinese tradition. Ah Cheng's tradition is a flexible organic entity, all or part of which may be adapted to fit the particular needs and circumstances of the individual.

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