LISTEN CAREFULLY TO THE VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
On November 9, 1979, Liu Binyan gave a startling speech at the Fourth Congress of Chinese Literature and Art Workers in Beijing. Repeatedly interrupted by spontaneous applause, the speech eventually became famous not only as a clear exposition of key problems that had been facing Chinese writers in recent times, but also as a courageous statement of thoughts that had occurred to many intellectuals but that few had dared to mention in public.
The speech has never been published as originally spoken. Excerpts were published in People’s Daily on November 26, 1979, under the title “Listen Carefully to the Voice of the People” (Qingting renmin de shengyin). The present translation is based on this version, although we have restored some deleted lines. The Literary Gazette (Wenyibao), in its November-December issue of 1979 (nos. 11 and 12), published a fuller and more extensively edited version of the speech under the title “The Call of the Times” (Shidai de zhaohuan)1—ED.
1. Face Life Squarely, and Listen Carefully to the Voice of the People
Of the middle-aged writers present at our Fourth Congress on Literature and Art, the most active and prolific in the past two years have been comrades such as Bai Hua, Wang Meng, Deng Youmei, Gong Liu, Shao Yanxiang, Cong Weixi, and Liu Shaotang. Considering their actual age, they should not look as old as they do. Just look at Bai Hua, with his head of white hair, and Gong Liu—who has entirely lost his hair. Whose fault is this?
If mistakes have been made, I must ask why it is that scientists are permitted their mistakes, and so are politicians, while writers alone are forbidden to make mistakes. It is said that the mistakes of scientists are forgivable because they produce no “social effects”;2 but then what about the mistakes of politicians? Which is larger—the consequences of a politician’s mistake or the consequences of a writer’s? How many times larger?
Those of us here today are fortunate to be alive and well, to have had our “rightist” labels removed,3 and to be able once again to serve the people with our pens. But we mustn’t forget all the young people who were implicated with us twenty-two years ago. They were also labeled “rightists.” Some of the verdicts on them have not been reversed even today. I am thinking of our comrade Lin Xiling, whose fate has been even worse than ours.4 I hereby appeal to all those in authority, including the leadership of Peopie’s University, to expedite the rectification of these cases. These “rightists” have lost more than twenty of the most precious years of their lives, and don’t have very many more to go. The question of their exoneration simply must not be allowed to drag on any longer.
But looking back over the last twenty or more years, I feel we have gained certain things in spite of our losses. Fate brought us into intimate contact with the lowest levels of the laboring masses; our joys and worries became for a time the same as their own. Our hopes were no different from theirs. This experience allowed us to see, to hear, and to feel for ourselves things that others have been unable to see, hear, or feel.
In my own personal experience, the most unforgettable years were 1958-60, when I shared a bed and even sometimes a quilt with poor peasants. The things I saw in the villages, and the plaints I heard from the peasants, were all vastly different from what was being spread by the authorities and the press. Whom was I to believe? I had resolved at the time to obey the Party and to remold myself from the bone marrow outward. But there is no avoiding the fact that objective, material things are more powerful than subjective, spiritual ones. However great my will to reform, it was no match for the continual onslaught of certain plain incongruities. For example, the higher authorities told us that our impoverished gully of a village ought to build a zoo and a fountain. Now, what were peasants who hardly ate meat all year supposed to feed to lions and tigers in a zoo? With no water source—with man and beast still drinking rainwater—how were they to build a fountain? A struggle began to rage deep inside me: how could two diametrically opposed “truths” coexist in the world? The longings of the peasants were one truth, and the policies of the higher-ups and the propaganda in the newspapers were quite another. Which should I follow? Not until 1960, when Party Central issued its “Twelve Points on Rural Policy,”5 did I finally get my answer. It was right to uphold the interests and demands of the people. Anything that ran counter to their wishes was ultimately untenable.
This year we have seen the appearance of Ru Zhijuan’s “The Misedited Story” and Liu Zhen’s “Black Flag,” both of which are stories about these same years I have just been speaking of.6 We should ask ourselves what the “social effects” would have been if stories like these had been permitted publication twenty-one years ago. Would the masses have risen in opposition to the Communist Party? Would the peasants have rebelled? History tells us they would not have. The effect of these short stories would have been quite the opposite: they would have helped the Party to see its mistakes while there was still time to make changes. Such changes would have heightened the Party’s prestige, strengthened the collective socialist economy, and stimulated the peasants both economically and politically. Recent experience has taught us time and again that true harm to the prestige of the Party and socialism is done not by literary works that describe problems, but by the problems themselves, problems that have been caused by our own mistakes and by the destructiveness of our enemies.7 Had writers during 1958-60 been able to hold their heads high, to speak out in behalf of the people, to uncover mistakes, and to expose the destructiveness of our enemies, this would, in fact, have been the best way they could have upheld the Party and socialism. Yet in 1958 no one was writing works such as those by Liu Zhen and Ru Zhijuan, and even in 1962, when Party Central summed up the lessons of the 1958-60 period, no one could write stories that told the truth about peasant life. Not for twenty years—not until the third year after the “smashing of the Gang of Four”—did People’s Literature and Shanghai Literature publish these two stories, thereby reclaiming for literature some of its rights to tell the truth about life. Even today we have to admire the political courage of these two editorial boards.
We should try to learn from our experience, and I have three points to offer in this regard.
First, writers should face life squarely and listen carefully to the voice of the people. The policies of the Party must pass the test of practice and be corrected when they are wrong. When faced with the “two kinds of truth” that I referred to a moment ago, we writers must maintain a strong sense of responsibility to the people in reaching our conclusions. Our thinking must be dead serious, never rash, and always independent. We must never simply follow the crowd. The test of time has shown that all those literary works about peasant life in the late 1950s are dead today, whereas stories like those by Liu Zhen and Ru Zhijuan live on.
Second, some comrades apparently feel that literature’s “delving into life”8 is simply a matter of writing about the dark side of soeiety, to the exclusion of heroes or progressive characters. This is a misunderstanding. In varying times and under varying historical circumstances, progressive people must confront varying social problems. A writer cannot portray life separately from actual sodety, even if he limits his heroes to model workers and war heroes. A writer cannot avoid taking a stance on the great social questions of the day. The several heroic characters that Ru Zhijuan and Liu Zhen have created in the two stories just mentioned are all assertive and courageous in protecting the interests of the masses—which are the same as the interests of socialism—and they all meet with some temporary setbacks. These heroes, who are genuinely part of the tide of history, have won the power to survive; the heroes in those other [overly romantic] literary works have by now lost this power.
Third, literature is a mirror. When the mirror shows us things in life that are not very pretty, or that fall short of our ideals, it is wrong to blame the mirror. Instead we should root out and destroy those conditions that disappoint us. Mirrors show us the true appearance of things; literary mirrors speed the progress of society. Smashing a mirror is no way to make an ugly person beautiful, nor is it a way to make social problems evaporate. History has shown that it is better not to veil or to smash literary mirrors. Isn’t this truth all too clear from the extended period of time in which our realist tradition in literature was dragged toward an evil dead end? To forbid literature from delving into life, to deprive writers of their right to reflect on the problems of real life, and not to allow writers to speak for the people harms not only literature but the people and the Party as well. The period of literary history in which such things could happen has now come to an end, and a new chapter has begun. We hope no one will be pulling literature backward any more.
2. Answer the People’s Questions
Our differing views on literary issues have always been bound up with our differing views on politics. And these two kinds of differing views have always derived from the question of how to interpret society and reality.
For example, as some comrades see it, Lin Biao and the Gang of Four did not actually wreak much havoc, and in fact there was no “ultra-leftist line.” Others feel that the havoc and the criminal line of the Gang of Four have followed them into collapse and final extinction, and that the only problem remaining today is to get everybody to be productive together.
My view is that the tragedies brought on us by the Gang of Four have yet to be fully exposed, and that what has been exposed is yet to be fully comprehended. The Gang’s “residual perniciousness”9 must not be conceived as something lifeless or static—something just standing by, waiting to be swept away. It is a living social force, and it has its social base.
The perniciousness most worthy of our attention is the invisible kind. The Gang of Four has disrupted the organic workings of our Party and has damaged our social relations. They have created a highly abnormal relationship between our Party and the masses. What makes this matter so difficult to deal with is that many people, while not bad people themselves, either knowingly or unknowingly have been protecting bad people. Superficially they are all Communist Party members or Party cadres; but every action they take serves only their vested interests and comes only from their own habits of thought. This is the very problem I have pointed out in “People or Monsters?” It is not going to go away unless we deal decisively and finally with it.
At this point I would like to bring something to the attention of those comrades who feel that the primary duty of literature is to portray heroes. We are faced today with the ironic fact that heroes are in an awkward position. To do good deeds one has to offend people. One has to take risks and even make a bad name for oneself. When I did newspaper work in the 1950s I always found it hard to initiate criticism of a person. Now, in the late 1970s, I suddenly find it has become hard to praise a person. Take, for exampie, the case of Liu Jie, an inspector of the neighborhood registry in the Daxing’anling district of Heilongjiang, who was praised in the press for sticking to principles. She also had the support of the provincial Party committee. But it was precisely the commendation of the Party newspaper that brought calamity upon her, and the support of the provincial leadership was of no use in breaking the siege that befell her. There were even threats on her life. Now, if a true writer of the people were to interview this progressive young woman, there can be no doubt that he would soon find himself taking sides with her. He would join the battle against wickedness and help her to win a more advantageous position. Only then would he turn to writing up her story. I feel strongly that only this kind of writer deserves the name “writer of the people.”
To another group of comrades, those writers and critics who hold that it is the responsibility of literature to introduce modernization and construction, I would like to offer a different observation. The modernization of industry and agriculture is by no means simply a matter of adding new machinery. Human beings are still the mainstay of all productive forces, and the enthusiasm of people today still suffers many artificial constraints. This question deserves notice and additional study.
Methods of enterprise management that are modeled after the patriarchal family system, or after medieval practices or the ways of Genghis Khan, cannot possibly sustain a lasting rise in production. Militaristic methods and political incentives can, it is true, motivate workers over the short term; but as time wears on this approach is also doomed to failure. It is simply incompatible with the nature of modern industry. In history, the birth and development of modern industry has gone hand in hand with the liberation of human beings. This was a qualified liberation, of course. It grew out of the feudal serf system, in which people were bound in their social places. It gave to individuals freedom of their persons as well as certain political rights and legal guarantees of equality. As the individual came to feel that he was an independent person, a free person, a person with a certain dignity and worth, a person equal with others before the law, gradually the ideas “personal character” and “individuality” came into being. Only when the individual attained this kind of status and this kind of consciousness did he begin to rely on himself and devote his talents to the improvement of his lot. The result was that productive forces in the period of capitalism exceeded those of the feudal period many times over. For socialism to exceed capitalism in productivity, it can and must provide even better conditions for human development and advancement. Management principles modeled on the feudal patriarchal system are a step backward from capitalism; they constrict people, inhibit them, and block their abilities and potential. It should go without saying that socialist modernization gains nothing from this.
It may seem that what I’ve been talking about falls into the realm of economics, but this is not the case. All this has to do with people, and therefore with literature. There are only two ways in which the feudal patriarchal style of leadership supports and extends itself. One is by coercion and command, and the other is by attack and retaliation. And both these methods, because they have, in contemporary political life, become common ways in which a minority can subdue the masses, warrant our closest vigilance. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Without the supervision of the people, a good person will turn bad, and an honest official will turn corrupt.
We must answer the people’s questions. We have no right to be auditors in the courtroom of history. The people are the judges, as well as the plaintiffs. We must help supply them with scripts. But before we provide answers, we first must learn. We must understand more about social life than the average person does.
One serious problem is that we still lack an accurate understanding of our own society. Our efforts to understand it have been suspended for many years. In recent times we have not had any sociology, political science, or legal or ethical studies worthy of the name “science.” The kind of investigative research that Chairman Mao used to advocate has also been shelved for many years. A vast unknown world lies before us. Consider a few examples.
First, “class struggle.” Everyone accepts that class struggle has “expanded” for many years, but in fact, for a long period of time, the target of class struggle was completely misconceived. Its content and methods were also wrong. (In fact, it has been a distinguishing feature of our current historical period that mistakes continually repeat themselves.) Recently a new question has been raised: do classes really exist in our society? Some say they do not. Some say of course they do—just look at Wang Shouxin.10 Her case shows that after more than twenty years of “struggle,” we still haven’t figured out whom we ought to be struggling against.
Second, we have worked for more than twenty years at “socialist construction.” Yet innumerable problems have dragged on without resolution, and in fact have gotten worse over time. This year our economists have identified the crux of the matter by raising the question of the goals of production under socialism: are we, in the final analysis, producing steel for the sake of steel, and petroleum for the sake of petroleum, or are these things for the people, aimed at satisfying their ever-increasing material and spiritual needs? It seems there are some individuals who do not agree that the goal of production should be to maximize satisfaction of the constantly increasing material and cultural needs of society as a whole.
Third, for many years now we have assigned top priority to “the human factor” in an unending political and ideological revolution. But after many years of this, people’s enthusiasm not only has not increased—it has actually declined. This is another question to ponder. It is mystifying that this piece of land called China, always so inhospitable to the cultivation of “rightist opportunism,” has nonetheless allowed revisionism with a “leftist” tag to grow so wild.
3. On “People or Monsters?” and Other Things
Our readers need literature with many different themes and styles. But they especially need writers who will serve as spokesmen for the people, writers who will answer their questions and express their demands by confronting the major issues of the day. The welcome for such writers is clearly evident in the spirited applause that plays like “Harbinger of Spring” and “Power Versus Law”11 have received, and in the wide readership that People or Monsters?” has had. Some readers worry that “People or Monsters?”, which exposes such massive problems, creates a negative or pessimistic mood in readers, causing them to lose faith in our Party and our system. I have received a great number of thought-provoking letters from readers of “People or Monsters?”, and judging from these, there is no such danger. The reader response is positive. The work triggers a burst of righteousness in people; it arouses the ardent wish of everyone who cares about our country to cure our illness and save our society. Some readers have even gone to Chairman Hua12 with concrete proposals for reform. But the opposition to “People or Monsters?” of course has been fierce, too. I have awoken to a hard fact: in today’s China, if one speaks or writes and does not incur somebody’s opposition, one might as well not have spoken or written at all. One has no alternative. The only alternative is to cower in a corner and fall silent. But if we do that, why live?
We are writing in the particular time and circumstances of China at the juncture between the 1970s and the 1980s. The needs of the times and the demands of the people must be our commands. Our role is necessitated by the inexorable development of history. We have no right to sidestep the immensely complex problems of our society. We must help our readers to understand our society more profoundly and accurately, and help them to rise in struggle for the complete realization of the great historical task of the Four Modernizations!13
1. An earlier version of the present translation will appear in a collection of transiations of Chinese literature from 1979 to 1980, edited by Mason Wang (University Center, Mich.: Green River Press, 1983). The version of the speech that appears in Literary Gazette is translated by John Beyer in Howard Goldblatt, ed., Chinese Literature for the 1980s (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1982), pp. 103-20.
2. “Social effects” here means undesirable social consequences. The phrase has been widely used in post-Mao China to maintain a subtle yet sometimes strong pressure on writers to conform with official policy.
3. Liu refers to labels applied during the Anti-Rightest campaign of 1957, when hundreds of thousands of intellectuals who had criticized Party policies were punished for anti-Party or anti-socialist thought.
4. Lin Xiling was a young lecturer at People's University in Beijing when she was arrested in 1957 and charged with being part of the “Zhang (Bojun)-Luo (Longji) Alliance,” a group who objected to the one-party system, to ignorant Party officials “leading” non-Party specialists, and to the political campaigns forced upon the nation after 1949.
5. The “Twelve Points on Rural Policy” was an emergency classified document aimed at rectifying serious economic dislocations that had resulted from the overly idealistic policies of the Great Leap Forward in 1958-59.
6. “The Misedited Story” (Jianji cuole de gushi) was published in People's Literature (Renmin wenxue) no. 2, 1979. “Black Flag” (Heiqi) was published in Shanghai Literature (Shanghai wenxue) no. 3, 1979; an English translation appears in Chinese Literature (Beijing). May 1980. Both stories attack the excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the decline from previous years in the Communist Party's concern for the peasantry.
7. “Enemies” here refers to the domestic enemies who conceived and directed the Great Leap Forward (1958-60) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-72).
8. The phrase “delve into life”(gatiyu shenghuo) stands for a principle that Liu Binyan adopted in the 1950s from his friend and mentor the Soviet writer Valentin Ovechkin. The principle is that a writer should investigate life for himself and tell the truth, both the good and the bad, about social issues. “Delving into life” has been opposed, in both the Soviet Union and China, by literary officials who prefer that only the rosy side be published.
9. Liudu, literally “coursing poison,” was a standard and politically approved term for the Gang of Four's legacy in 1979.
10. The mastermind of massive embezzlement in “People or Monsters?.”
11. “Harbinger of Spring” (Baochun hua) by Cui Dezhi appears in Drama (Juben) no. 4, 1979. Set in a factory shortly after the fall of the Gang of Four, it explores a controversy over whether an outstanding employee can be named a “model worker” despite her bad, i.e., bourgeois, class background. “Power Versus Law” (Quan yu fa) by Xing Yixun appears in Drama (Juben) no. 10, 1979, and is translated in Chinese Literature (Beijing), June 1980. The play criticizes officials who abuse power for selfish purposes.
12. Hua Guofeng (b. 1921) was Chairman of the Communist Party of China from October 24, 1976, until June 29, 1981.
13. “The Four Modernizations” is a program to modernize industry, agriculture, national defense, and science and technology by the year 2000. First enunicated by Zhou Enlai at the Fourth People's Congress (January 13-17, 1975), the plan became the dominant policy of the Deng Xiaoping regime in the late 1970s.