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Who's tops in Chinese lit?

Su Dongpo vs. Han Han

Sina and Bertelsmann are currently running a poll to determine the top 100 Chinese-language authors. Three hundred writers are on the list, ranging from ancient philosophers like Confucius and Laozi to the luminaries of the New Culture movement to contemporary writers of online fantasy epics. Voters can write in names if they feel that someone has been left out (Hai Zi, or Mao Zedong, for example*).

The current top ten at post time are:

  1. Lu Xun 鲁迅 (Call to Arms and other May 4 hits)
  2. Cao Xueqin 曹雪芹 (Dream of the Red Mansions)
  3. Ba Jin 巴金 (Family)
  4. Louis Cha 金庸 (wuxia fiction)
  5. Li Bai 李白 (Tang poetry)
  6. San Mao 三毛 (travel writing)
  7. Confucius 孔子 (The Analects)
  8. Bing Xin 冰心 (Letters to Young Readers)
  9. Yu Qiuyu 余秋雨 (essays about travel and culure)
  10. Han Han 韩寒 (post-80s fiction)

Unsurprising, for the most part, but what's Han Han doing there? He currently outranks Lao She (11), Zhang Ailing(12), and Su Dongpo (13), while Guo Jingming (15) and Annie Baobei (18) top other big names like Bai Juyi (19), Zhu Ziqing (20) and Xu Zhimo (23). Is this yet another sign of the decline of Chinese culture?

Here are the two highest-rated comments posted in response to Sina's feature:

IP 60.209.152.*:
Han Han: 2084 votes
Guo Jingming: 2073 votes
Annie Baobei: 2070 votes
Is this a joke on the Chinese people?
These people can be called authors?
Don't Bertelsmann's people have any common sense?
Is this an April Fool's joke? It's long over.
Not just Lu Xun, Lao She, and Zhuangzi - they can't even compare with popular writers like Jiang Nan and Xiao Duan. And then there's a group of writers down there like Su Tong and Yan Geling. I can't vote for Zhuangzi.
Popular writers are mostly garbage.
Should they be divided into categories?

IP 222.64.116.*:
Plagiarists and playboys like Guo Jingming and Han Han, unknown young pawns like Tianxia Bachang, Shuxia Yehu, and Lanling Xiaoxiao, sensationalized writers like Yi Zhongtian and Yu Dan - how can they be mentioned together with Confucius, Laozi, and Mencius?
True literary masters are like Lu Xun, Ba Jin, and Xu Zhimo, or Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, and Mozi. What are the others - can they truly last through the ages? Will they be remembered in the history of the Chinese people? Will they be known to later generations? Can they enter the depths of our soul?

Other comments argue that different people enjoy different kinds of literature, and yesterday's Beijing Daily Messenger quoted a few writers who cautioned against taking the poll too seriously:

· Ge Fei (novelist and Tsinghua professor, currently #272 in the poll): I think one shouldn't be overly surprised at the outcome of this selection, because today, none of our opinions about today's writers and literature count. Whose works will ultimately be handed down, who will pass the test of history, is not something that can be decided by a poll. This poll only represents the literary interests and opinions of that group of people taking part; if we held a poll on the Tsinghua campus, then the results might be of a different sort. So I don't pay much mind to this kind of selection.

· Li Bo (vice-president of Changjiang Literature and Art Publishing House): This kind of selection results are entirely normal. It means that fashionable culture occupies the mainstream at present and draws more attention than traditional culture. As for whose literary works have more merit, I think that we should look at the standard for appraisal. Western culture is divided very specifically into levels such as mainstream culture, popular culture, and elite culture. China, however, lacks such fine distinction. The poll is drawn from the masses, but the current standards for appraisal are elite; when the orientation differs from those standards, then you get this kind of situation.

· Cai Jun (thriller author, currently #70 in the poll): If you want to judge an author from a historical perspective, then you must wait until after that author has died or has determined to cease writing. So I suggest that living writers should be deleted from the list of candidates. Unless they have decided never to issue new works (like Louis Cha). For thse writers, particularly young authors, will continue to bring out new masterpieces; if you evaluate them by their currently extant works, then you aren't being fair to them.

The Messenger also weighed in with an op-ed:

When Sima Qian wrote the Historical Records, he put Laozi and Hanfeizi together in one entry. He was attacked for in the Tang Dynasty: "The Grand Historian wrote a single biography for Hanfeizi and Laozi, and to this day is criticized by the people" (Tang Huiyao).

There are also precedents for this phenomena in the west: in 1996, England's Channel 4 and Waterstone's Books held a vote for the 100 greatest books of the century, with the fantasy best-seller Lord of the Rings gaining the top spot. In 1999, Amazon held a worldwide online poll for the book of the century, and PCA News ran a reader survey for the best book in history - in both cases, Lord of the Rings held first place.

Shakespeare bullied in the west, Du Fu and Li Bai defeated in China - on the one hand, this arises from changes made in readers by modern publishing, the overturning of genre categories, and an elimination of the opposition between serious and popular literature; on the other hand, it is related to fierce attacks from modern means of communication such as television, mass media, and games.
We'll not discuss whether or not this poll is fair; instead, we hope to see a flourishing literary realm where successive generations overtake previous ones; that in addition to a pretty face, a good body, and ultra-modern dress, these authors who are ranked above Su Dongpo and Bai Juyi can really come up with works that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the old masters.

If it is only the work of fans seduced by sales numbers that puts them on the same page as classical literati who've been through the baptism of time, then there's nothing wrong with having them together on the "Top 100 Chinese Authors" list, so long as you add "in 2007" to the end.

Note: After the first week of voting, the top ten write-in votes were Hai Zi, Mao Zedong, Du Mu, Ai Qing, Yu Guangzhong, Nalan Xingde, Yang Zhijun, Ji Xianlin, Ma Ruifang, and Xiong Zhaozheng (link).

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There are currently 5 Comments for Who's tops in Chinese lit?.

Comments on Who's tops in Chinese lit?

Zhang Ailing might be higher on the list if some of her work was not still banned. Or maybe she would be lower. Hard to say, but either way: Free Yangge!!!

indeed, the fact is that at any given moment over the last couple of hundred years, in any area of the world, authors would have dominated this kind of polls who would be considered to be rather "popular culture" in output. If today, the likes of Dan Brown, Ruiz Zafon or Joanne Rowling win high ranks, this is perfectly normal and not the decline of civilisation as we know it. Those who savour a more substantial form of literature are not affected, and should instead be glad that reading receives media attention in China (which is rare enough) and that there is an effort to bring people back to literature, which is a deserted place at the moment if you look at the reading statistics.

dylan versus keats. welcome to popular culture china.

did U guy ever read chinese writer Yang's fatal weakness or fatal weapon? read it ,then tell me again who is the best, he's so Fu-k wonderful.

If I were Sina & Bertelsmann, I would disown this survey altogether. It only reflects badly on the credibility of S&B for having such a loser-base.

Of all the reading lists I have come across, I have never been prouder to have read so little as of this list.

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