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Here and Now at Malaya: Revisiting the 1948 Debate on the Uniqueness of Chinese Malayan literature

Issue 11: Here and Now at Malaya: Revisiting the 1948 Debate on the Uniqueness of Chinese Malayan literature

Proposed by SHOW Ying Xin, Postdoctoral Researcher, National Chiao Tung University


Few years after WWII, a debate on the “uniqueness” of Chinese Malayan literature sparked in the literary scene from Oct 1947 to April 1948. With more than 20 writers involved, the debate had evolved around the topic that whether writers based at Malaya should contribute to building “Chinese Malayan literature” or should they be part of “Overseas Chinese literature”. Zhou Rong周容 (pseudonym of Jin Zhimang 金枝芒) represented the first camp of writers who advocated that writers should depict the “here and now” (此時此地) reality in Malaya, while Sha Ping 沙平 (pseudonym of Hu Yuzhi胡愈之) emphasized that Chinese writers in Malaysia should also participate in the revolution in China as the anti-feudal and anti-imperial struggles in the two places were of the same nature. This debate is often seen as the watershed of the construction of local consciousness among the Chinese Malayan writers, and it has since laid the foundation of socio-realist writings in the scene. The contents of the debate have always been core issues in the history of Chinese Malaysian literature and culture, such as what constitutes the “reality”; whether there is a canon in the literature; should Chinese Malaysian writers bear the responsibility of becoming translators; the problem of dogmatism in the socio-realist works etc. In fact, the period of the debate is not accidental – it happened during the height of the hartal (mass protest) in 1947 and ended two months before the declaration of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). Soon, magazines and newspapers that carried the polemical articles were banned by the colonial government; Zhou Rong joined the communist armed struggles in the jungle, while Sha Ping and others returned to China. This study revisits the debate to explore the implication of the “Malayan reality” as manifested in a literary polemic during the Cold War and independence period. It uncovers the discourse of subjectivity in Chinese Malaysian literature amidst the great social change, and explores how the discourse evolves around questions of localization, Chineseness and Third Worldism.