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Prof. Dr. Lena Hennigsen (Freiburg University), “Reading as creative and social practice: Unofficial popular entertainment literature during the Cultural Revolution”
May 20, 2019, 4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
Most literary histories of Twentieth Century China describe the output of the Cultural Revolution (CR) in a few sentences or paragraphs. Legal and officially endorsed literary texts of the decade seem flat, dull and boring to today’s readers. The CR thus appears as a period of literary shortage that would be ended with post-CR literature: misty poetry, scar literature, root seeking literature… However, a much more complicated picture of literary diversity arises once we look at actual literary practices: Chinese readers at the time were craving for things to read and went to great lengths to obtain reading materials. They would steal books from libraries; they read literary texts from earlier epochs that were now forbidden; they would illegally read and often copy material designated for internal circulation; they would write, read, copy and circulate entertainment literature by hand…
In this talk, I will discuss this latter type of popular unofficial hand-written (shouchaoben) entertainment fiction from the perspective of reading practices. First, I will present an overview of what and how particular groups of readers actually read at the time, and what meaning actual reading materials and reading practices had for their lives. Second, I will discuss a number of exemplary fictional shouchaoben texts and delineate the role that readers played in their creation, circulation, preservation and development. After all, extant manuscripts attest to a great variety of versions of the “same” story: when copying texts, many readers found ways to alter, enhance or change extant stories. This, I argue, thwarts notions of the dullness of CR literary practices. Rather, these practices lowered the threshold for literary creativity. Resembling fan-fiction practices in many ways, they offered readers space to probe into their literary talents and creativity, to ponder their experiences during the CR, to question the ideals of Maoism, and to test new notions of love or the self. From this I will proceed to argue that these practices anticipated post-Maoist literary trends as well as developments on the bestseller market that would emerge in the People’s Republic after 1978.
Lena Henningsen is Junior Professor for Chinese Studies at Freiburg University. Her research interests focus on 20th and 21st century popular literature and culture. She has authored a book on the 2000s Chinese bestseller market (Copyright Matters: Imitation, Creativity and Authenticity in Contemporary Chinese Literature, 2010) and has completed a book project on unofficial handwritten entertainment fiction from the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She currently leads the ERC funded research project “The Politics of Reading in the People’s Republic of China” in which she and her team investigate literary and intellectual change from the perspective of the (ordinary) reader. From 2013 to 2018 she was member of the German Young Academy.