MCLC logo

The Temple and the Market: Controversial Positions
in the Literary Field with Chinese Characteristics

by Marco Fumian

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 126-166

Like many other masters of Western theory, the French thinker Pierre Bourdieu is now very popular in China. His theory of the literary field constitutes a valuable resource for the analysis of contemporary Chinese literary practice. The essential "rule of art," according to Bourdieu, is the autonomy of the field, or, more precisely, the separateness of the field from the political and economic domains. In contemporary China, however, the literary field is characterised by an organic and ambiguous relationship with the field of power. How is it possible, then, to apply Bourdieu's theories to the study of Chinese literature?

The purpose of this article is to examine a literary controversy that took place in 2006, drawing upon Bourdieu's observation method and sociological notions in order to provide insight into the functioning of the contemporary Chinese literatary field. The chief opponents in this controversy are Bai Ye, an influential critic who holds important appointments in the official literary institutions, and Han Han, a young literary "pop star" who has become a celebrity by virtue of his alternative lifestyle. While the former upholds the elitist tenet of "pure literature" (chun wenxue) and defends the traditional literary establishment (wentan)-especially official literary journals-from the intrusions of the market, the latter professes the "revolutionary" creed of free and open literature to be spread through the internet and the market. Their positions are actually equivocal, since Bai Ye has promoted many commercial novels in his career, whereas Han Han was discovered and consecrated as a writer by an official literary journal. This article reconstructs the trajectories that brought the two contenders to take up their respective positions. The chun wenxue discourse, advocated by Bai Ye, has evolved from an aesthetic cutting edge against the political establishment into an ethical armour which safeguards the social status of the old wentan. The market, which lies at the core of Han Han's own social trajectory, has acted as a transformative force to turn him from an innovative and oppositional voice into an icon of consumer society. The struggle between their positions can thus be interpreted as a struggle between the two opposing modes of literary production coexisting in China's post-socialist transition, the wentan and the market, which operate as two extremes in the "space of possibles" of the Chinese literary field. The ambiguity of these positions reveals nonetheless that the struggle between the wentan and the market is in fact more symbolic than factual: the controversy suggests that it is actually this interaction between these two, largely heteronomous poles of the field that constitutes the main force regulating contemporary literary production.