In July 1949, the first All-China Conference for Writers and Artists was convened, marking the end of the new democratic literary and art movement and the beginning of socialist literature and art. Since then, literary creation has focused on the reflection of revolutionary history and real-life stories, with classical works such as To Defend Yanan, The Red Flag Pedigree and Red Crag as representatives. Alongside these grand heroic novels are works full of legends and stories based on folk cultural resources, such as Tracks in the Snowy Forest, Steel Meets Fire, Railway Guerrilla and Struggle in an Ancient City.
Revolutionary novels take real-life revolutionary struggles as their prototype and make them more legendary. Though the creation of revolutionary novels is the result of many factors related to the times, the heroism complex in these works is to a large extent consistent with the heroic legends in traditional Chinese literature, especially the chivalrous novels popular with the common people.
With easily accessible narratives as their main feature, ancient heroic legend tales have cultivated a large number of readers with similar aesthetic taste. Some contemporary writers have been immersed in traditional culture for a long time. For example, Qu Bo, the author of Tracks in the Snowy Forest, once said that “though foreign literary masterpieces can make one intoxicated and educated, one can only feel the sentiment, but not make it one’s own and express it in words.” But as for some of the plots and stories from traditional serial novels, he can comment, recite, absorb and draw lessons from them in his own creation.
Tracks in the Snowy Forest centers on the anti-bandit groups led by Shao Jianbo, unfolding a series of stories about the intelligence and braveness of the investigative hero Yang Zirong and his companions, who finally exterminated the bandit leader Zuosandiao and his followers in Weihushan. Some stories in the novel such as “Yang Zirong Debates With a Tinker” and “Liu Xunchang Captures Bandit Diao Zhanyi” could stand independently, but remain closely related to the whole book. In each snapshot, the author focuses on one or two characters. This writing method is quite similar to the traditional serial novels.
Steel Meets Fire author Liu Liu recalled his reading experience in his youth: “what I enjoyed were what people called leisure books at that time, mostly drama scripts, opera lyrics, serial novels and story-telling performances, before I started reading translated foreign novels … However, they never appealed to me as powerfully as the folk traditions … The idea came to me: We need to write something that is easy to understand, read and tell.”
Many of the stories in Steel Meets Fire are based on folk tales, with complex plots and vivid characters. At the same time, the author also uses a lively folk oral narrative style to convey revolutionary new ideas and tell new stories, so that the work as a whole is full of romantic heroism.
In the book, each chapter is introduced in couplets and the words are roughly orderly. Each couplet begins with “last time I left at,” “without further ado” and other storyteller’s clichés. And the content often begins with “as it is often said,” similar to a storyteller’s introduction in stage performances. Each chapter ends with a poem, which not only summarizes the whole chapter and clarifies the theme but also conveys emotions and makes the reader think.
The novel is divided into several units according to the development of the plot, and each unit is told over several chapters, with clear logic and progression.
In the description of characters, the novel also applies the artistic techniques of traditional serial novels, which describes the appearance of characters when they first show up in the book. In its narration, the novel also adopts the tone of an omniscient storyteller, like in the traditional storytelling performance, to strengthen communication with readers, get rid of the stiffness and sense of lecturing, and make the narration vivid and natural.
Twists and turns
Revolutionary historical novels told in grand narration aim to reflect real historical events and important figures, so they have certain stipulations to follow in writing. Though the legendary novels of revolutionary heroes also take real history as their background, there is certain wiggle room for artistic fiction in terms of narrative form, plot, setting and the portrayal of characters.
In addition to drawing on the narrative method of traditional literature, the plots of the legendary novels of revolutionary heroes are developed around the heroes to highlight the unusual experience of the heroes, so that readers can feel the fearless spirit of the heroes and enjoy reading at the same time.
In Tracks in the Snowy Forest, Yang Zirong is given an arduous task from the start: using a pair of broken leather shoes as the sole clue to locate the trail of some mountain bandits in the woods. Yang keenly observes the marks on the trunk of a tree and finally finds the trace of the bandits, after which he disguises himself as a mountain goods trader to gather information from the farmers in local villages. Later, Yang goes undercover among the mountain bandits. Under the harsh cross-interrogation of the bandit leader Zuoshandiao, Yang remains calm and finally wins Zuoshandiao’s trust, creating a favorable condition for the Communist anti-bandit group to take the mountain.
Similarly, in Struggle in an Ancient City, the protagonist Yang Xiaodong is ordered to infiltrate the enemy occupied areas and dissolve the puppet army. He takes advantage of a moment of weakness in the city defense and strikes the headquarters, capturing the leader of the puppet army. These legendary plots leave a deep impression on readers.
Heroic legendary novels draw on traditional narrative forms to incorporate the concept of “Jianghu” and “folk society” into modern revolutionary discourse, so as to make revolutionary thought better accepted by the public. Jianghu, literally translated as “rivers and lakes,” means people who live in a world parallel to conventional society, one that operates by its own laws and code of ethics. Though some plots somewhat exaggerate the fact, the braveness of the soldiers shines through, both legendary and intriguing.
In addition to the thrilling combat scenes, the revolutionary novels of legendary heroes also inherit the chivalrous spirit of the traditional Chinese heroes.
For example, in Tracks in the Snowy Forest, Yang Zirong joins the revolution with the idea of revenge, but later, his understanding of the enemy is no longer confined to a single person, rather it is all those who oppress and exploit the poor, the culprits of poverty and misery.
It should be noted that though these legendary novels of revolutionary heroes draw lessons from the narrative techniques of the classical chivalrous novels, they differ fundamentally in regard to the chivalrous and righteous practices of the heroes.
While satisfying the public’s taste, the legendary novels of the revolutionary heroes are full of educational significance, which embodies the ideals and desires of the author and the revolutionaries. The main purpose of these novels’ emphasis on the origin of the heroes is to mobilize the masses, so that every ordinary person can see the possibility of becoming a hero oneself.
To sum up, the legendary novels of revolutionary heroes focus on shaping the image of heroes while telling the history of the revolution. This kind of novel creatively borrows the narrative technique of Chinese traditional storytelling, and the language is easy to understand. Many of these novels caused a sensation upon their release and were favored by adaptations into film and television, storytelling performances, and opera.
However, in contemporary literary history, such works are rarely mentioned, and the characteristics of nationality and popularity are often overlooked. Therefore, it is of great significance to study the legendary novels of revolutionary heroes to explore their artistry and promote the sense of revolutionary heroism and patriotism embedded in the works.
Wang Qian is from the Institute of Literature at the Tianjin Academy of Social Sciences.