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Typical People In Typical Circumstances

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Chapter Summary

The formulation, rendered in Chinese as Dianxing huanjing zhong de dianxing renwu, originates in Friedrich Engels' celebrated letter of April 1888 to Margaret Harkness. Engels was responding to her otherwise unmemorable novel A City Girl, which had been published the previous year. Engels' formulation was accepted as an incontrovertible truth by subsequent Marxist champions of realism, including those in the Soviet Union and China. This chapter provides an introduction to the "typical" aside from its introduction to China. It then presents the opposing sides in key debates among Chinese literary theorists. The author follows changes in the official view of the typical from the 1930s to the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the portrayal of "proletarian heroic types" was declared to be the "basic task" of the socialist arts. Finally, Engels insists that shifts in historical reality make for changes in the "typical circumstances" that literary works should depict.

Keywords: A City Girl; Chinese literary theorists; cultural revolution; Friedrich Engels; proletarian heroic types; realism

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