Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Comparative Literature

First Advisor

Krista Van Fleit


This dissertation, entitled “The Rising of the Avant-garde Movement in 1980s People’s Republic of China: A Cultural Practice of the New Enlightenment,” deals with Chinese avant-garde literature and art in the reform era of the 1980s, when the People’s Republic of China was turning from high socialism to state capitalism. Scholars of Chinese studies have deemed avant-garde texts as counter-narratives of enlightenment, which was a main ideology and national agenda of the reform era. This dissertation reexamines this established statement by shifting focus from the traditional hermeneutic approaches to a sociological study of the generative conditions of avant-garde literature and art. Responding to the thematic preoccupation with individual avant-garde artists and works in various scholarly monographs and literary and art history, I take literary and art journals and newspapers in which avant-garde works were primarily published and discussed as the object of observation. The three content chapters, by focusing on the official literary magazine, Shanghai Literature , the self-printed unofficial poetry journals, Them, At Sea, and Not-Not, and the semi-official art newspaper Fine Arts in China, examine the dialogic and conflicting relationships of the Avant-garde with socialist cultural production. They also delineate the generative trajectory Chinese experimental literature and art, in correspondence with China’s economic reform starting from the mid- 1980s. This dissertation treats the avant-garde as a cultural movement in the form of groups rather than individual texts and artists. This movement is related to the change of knowledge system, the reform of institutions, and the conflict and complicity among

different cultural fields. Predicated on this conception, it investigates how the avant-garde engaged in the reform era by practicing and reflecting on the national discourse of the New Enlightenment. This research leads to a more complicated understanding of Chinese avant-garde in terms of its relationship with the official cultural field, of its deviating and transitional doubleness in the history of the Post-Mao Era, and of its great ambiguity in the growing discrepancy between two forms of enlightenment, namely, industrial modernization and aesthetic modernity.