Among the Chinese writers who have emerged or reemerged since the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976, Liu Binyan occupies a unique position. By profession a practicing journalist, Liu is a writer of major stature who was recently elected to the board of directors and the secretariat of the Chinese Writers Associaton. He was a “star” participant at the Fourth Congress of Writers and Artists (October 30- November 16, 1979) and gave one of the best-received speeches at the Third Congress of the Chinese Writers Association. A rehabilitated Party member, he is also the most outspoken critic of Party bureaucracy. His Chinese readers throughout China and abroad, communists and noncommunists alike, know him as a man of great integrity and one of the leading voices of social conscience on the post-Mao literary scene.
Liu’s own biographical background shows a typical “personal history” of a “true believer” victimized by the vicissitudes of political movements. Born in 1925 in Jilin Province in the Northeastern region, he received poor schooling because of the Japanese invasion following the Mukden Incident on September 8, 1931. But he later managed to teach himself Russian, Japanese, and a bit of English. He joined the underground activities of the Chinese Communist Party in 1943 and soon became a Party member. In 1951, he was transferred to Beijing and worked as a reporter and editor at the Party newspaper, Zhong-guo qingnian bao (The Chinese youth). In 1956, responding to Mao Zedong’s call for free criticism in the “Hundred Flowers” movement, he published three works in which he attacked the bureaucratic style of Party cadres. As a result, in the subsequent “Anti-Rightist” campaign, he was branded a “rightist” and a representative of “anti-Party adverse current,” his works, “poisonous weeds,” and he was “sent down” to various localities in the Chinese countryside for labor reform from 1958 to 1961. In 1961, he went back to work at his old newspaper as a researcher-translator for eight years. Following the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, he was again sent down to attend the so-called May Seventh cadre schools from 1969 to 1977. Finally, after twenty-one years of enforced silence, he was rehabilitated in 1979. His current position is with the official newspaper, The People’s Daily.
The formidable reputation that Liu now enjoys has been earned chiefly by a single work, a lengthy piece of reportage titled “People or Monsters?” (Renyao zhi jian), which upon its publication in September 1979 created an immediate sensation in China. Some of the high-ranking cadres felt scandalized by his unstinting exposé. Oṇ the other hand, enthusiastic letters poured in from every province except Tibet. This vox populi has given vivid testimony not only to the profound impact Liu’s reportage has exerted but also to its broad, representative significance. The corruption depicted therein of a middle-aged female cadre by the name of Wang Shouxin in a small county in the remote Heilongjiang Province of northeastern China is certainly not an isolated case, but a nationwide phenomenon. The following letter from a worker is quoted by Liu in his article “The Call of the Times” :
When I read your “People or Monsters?” an indescribable force caused me to crush the glass in my hand to pieces. Glass splinters lacerated my palm, but I felt no pain. In fact, it brought a sensation of euphoria.
Your pen wove a net over Binxian, but why stop there? The characters you wrote of are not peculiar to Binxian, are they? To put it bluntly, it is a microcosm of the whole country and describes a force that is obstructing the Four Modernizations, a force whose defeat is urgent.
In study time after work, I read your “People or Monsters?” to the fourteen workers in my section in a mood of great excitement. The listeners included women with their children, busy young people, and tired old workers who had thoughts of nothing but rest. But for more than three hours of reading, not a single one left; in fact, they called more and more people over. That is how much they wanted to listen. I am not just saying this to flatter you, for that would be a waste of time. I was asked by these workers to write and congratulate you. They wanted to express their hope that our comrade Liu Binyan will continue to tell us the truth in the future, for we no longer want to hear any more lies or deceptions.1
For Western readers who do not necessarily share this “sensation of euphoria,” the piece may pose more difficulties: it is not strictly speaking a literary work; its welter of unfamiliar names and its depictions of the bureaucratic maze are not easy to digest. But as I have argued elsewhere,2 this is precisely the initial effect intended by the author. As a reporter who is drawn into this case, Liu Binyan’s own reactions may have been quite similar. Like a detective, Liu finds himself uncovering layer upon layer of bribery, corruption, backdoorism, and abuse of power, with seemingly no end in sight. And he has presented himself as an over-zealous raconteur telling his readers what he has discovered with impetuous tempo and seeming disregard for the narrative art. Once we are drawn into this “story,” the experience becomes increasingly exhilarating and, at the same time, profoundly disturbing. For the accumulated impact of the piece is directed ultimately at the socialist system itself. Amidst the national celebrations that greeted the downfall of the Gang of Four, Liu Binyan alone adopted a Cassandra-like warning voice, as he intoned at the end of “People or Monsters?” :
The case of Wang Shouxin’s corruption has been cracked. But how many of the social conditions that gave rise to this case have really changed? Isn’t it true that Wang Shouxins of all shapes and sizes, in all corners of the land, are still in place, continuing to gnaw away at socialism, continuing to tear at the fabric of the Party, and continuing to evade punishment by the dictatorship of the proletariat?
People, be on guard! It is still too early to be celebrating victories . . .
Such a somber tone and devastating exposure of the “dark” side of contemporary Chinese society is unprecedented in the entire corpus of post-Liberation Chinese literature (not to mention official reportage). In the volatile atmosphere of Chinese politics, it takes not only personal courage but selfless dedication to tell the gruesome and unappetizing truth about contemporary Chinese society.
To speak the truth is, in fact, the reigning theme that informs Liu’s three early works published in 1956: “On the Bridge Construction Site” (Zai qiaoliang gongdi shang), “The Inside Story of This Newspaper” (Benbao neibu xiaoxi), and its sequel.3 While criticizing the bureaucrats, Liu affirms the role of the reporter to speak the truth as he or she sees it. The protagonist of “The Inside Story” is, like Liu, a young reporter, Huang Jiaying, who finds her impulses to describe the reality of the situation in a coal mine contradicted by the pressures from her superiors to conform to Party directives. Huang’s application to join the Communist Party is judged, ironically, according to whether or not she is willing to conform. The story ends with the Party members still deliberating over Huang’s case, but the reader is left with no doubt as to the author’s position: for the good of the Party and the future of the country a reporter and Party member cannot afford not to think independently and to speak the truth.
It is, from an outsider’s perspective, a matter of supreme irony that such an idealistic conception born of Liu’s political faith has been ill matched by the reality of the Party bureaucracy, which in fact has deteriorated since he voiced such sentiments. When he registered some soul-searching thoughts in his diary in the late 1950s, that diary was secretly copied by another Party member and later used as evidence against him. Thus in 1966, merely two months after his “rightist” cap had been lifted, a big-character poster from this comrade recharged him as an “anti-Party rightist.”
Liu’s speech “Listen Carefully to the Voice of the People” is poignant testimony to his personal experience and his mental struggle to reform according to the injunctions from the Party. Yet the result of his prolonged soul-searching is that if he must choose between two versions of truth—the consistently rosy “official” version and the painful version related to him by local peasants—he would rather side with that of the people. Consequently, Liu’s sense of realism is itself a defiant stance; it is burdened with an ethical weight accumulated from twenty-one years of experience and reflection. As practiced in his own writing, this ethical sense of realism is translated into his famous motto to have literature “delve into life” (ganyu shenghuo)—that is, the writer must actively render a truthful reflection of the reality of life so that it, in turn, exerts a powerful impact on the actual life of the readers.4 In adopting this stance of committed writing, Liu has made himself vulnerable to criticism from two different camps: he has been accused by the more ideological “Left” of being too excessively concerned with the darker aspects of Chinese society, which of course is contrary to Mao’s injunction to “extol” revolutionary reality. On the other hand, from the more artistically oriented writers comes the critique that Liu is too didactic, that he still wishes to use literature as a tool for political persuasion and not as art. In a sense they are both correct. However, they have failed to grasp the unique significance of Liu’s work and the real objectives of his “methodology.”
As Liu himself states, his motto “delve into life” is “aimed at the tendency in literature and art to evade the contradictions and conflicts in reality and to cosmetize life” (fenshi shenghuo).5 Such a tendency has, of course, characterized Chinese writing ever since Chairman Mao gave his famous Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942. This Maoist canon of literature in the service of revolutionary politics has shaped and dominated the consciousness of Chinese writers for the past three decades. After Mao’s death in 1976, a nationwide reaction against his Cultural Revolution policies triggered a reaction against his literary doctrine as well. As the tremendous volume of works published since 1977 has shown, the basic tenor of this new writing is dark exposure, focusing not only on the wrongdoing of the Gang of Four (as in the so-called scar literature around 1977-78) but also on the variegated ills of a problem-ridden society. Liu’s “People or Monsters?” , published when the literary thaw was at its most advanced, thus exemplifies and sets a new standard of this exposure ethos, for it towers above all previous works in its devastating probing of a deep-seated evil nurtured in the very “body politic” of the socialist system.
In the post-thaw context of the early 1980s, however, Liu’s daring stance hangs in the balance between moderation and a new radical reaction against moderation. The official position of the Party, as reflected by Hu Yaobang’s recent speeches, is intriguing. Нu has warned against excessive exposure of social ills and the tendency of “bourgeois liberalization” ; at the same time, the Party seems to give tacit consent to the new strain of artistic experimentation (represented by the works of Wang Meng and others) that deemphasizes the sociopolitical functions of literature. The unfolding of the new official policy seems to favor writings of the more artistic variety that are politically innocuous and ideologically safe, whereas artistically inferior but politically sensitive or sensational works—such as Bai Hua’s screenplay “Unrequited Love” (Kulian)6 and the works by younger writers of the “unofficial journals”—have been either severely criticized or banned. Liu Binyan’s reportage belongs ultimately in the “political” variety, and we have reason to believe that, without behind-the-scenes protection from Hu Yaobang himself, Liu would have been the easy target of another pseudo-campaign (since the leadership has formally declared an end to all political campaigns) comparable to the Bai Hua case.
Liu Binyan has acknowledged that he is hopelessly lacking in the power of imagination because as a reporter he must deal with “real people and real events.” He does not like “fabrication” and would rather seek out truth from the material of genuine life so as to achieve the result of fact speaking more eloquently than fiction.7 Thus in describing the case of Wang Shouxin, he does not wish to write a literary work but an “investigative report.” Because of his declared intentions, two Chinese terms have been applied to his writing: “texie” and “baogao wenxue.” The former term, which may be translated as “special feature,” or “sketch,” may have been derived from the Russian term “ocherk,” which in turn was originally taken from the French term “esquisse physiologique.”8 Used first in the eighteenth century, it was a kind of report on the “physiological” environment of the “masses” by an intellectual writer and commentator. When Liu talks about the need for “sociology,” he has in mind not necessarily the current American definitions of the discipline but rather a kind of “esquisse,” statistically detailed, on a segment of society—be it a factory, commune, or county. For him, the lack of such a “sociology” explains the regime’s inability to solve problems that in a big country like China have become increasingly complex. Liu once told me that his ambition was to do a series of such “sociological sketches.” But as a Chinese critic has pointed out, there may be two subcategories of texie, and Liu has clearly adopted in his “People or Monsters?” the type of “literary sketch” (wenxue texie) that gives the writer more flexibility to reorganize his material without the restrictions of “journalistic sketch” (xinwen texie), which is more objective but also more passive.9 Thus, Liu’s reportage can also be taken as a special kind of proto-literary writing; hence the term “reportage literature” (baogao wenxue). But the phrase likewise places more emphasis on “reportage,” which is closely linked with sociological investigation (diaocha), than on “literature” per se. Since Communist China has had until recently no proper sociology to speak of, the responsibility seems to fall on the shoulders of Liu’s ideal reporter, who investigates and reports truthfully a social situation. In other words, the role of the journalist in Liu’s conception certainly goes beyond that of a passive “newspaperman” someone who works for a newspaper (which in the People’s Republic is invariably an official organ). Liu’s model journalist is by definition actively and ethically involved in sociological investigation. In both texie and baogao wenxue , the intrusive presence of the reporter/writer is assumed, although it is in the service of a larger purpose and not merely to embellish his own ego (as found in some of the eminent practitioners of American New Journalism). Moreover, the investigation is avowedly focused on problems and problem solving; hence the necessary connection with exposure. It is also by necessity “realistic” literature.
But as specimens of literature Liu’s reportage pieces are faulty because his reorganizations and stylistic inventions are not generated by artistic concerns intrinsic to the text itself; they are, on the other hand, aimed at generating maximum audience response. The ultimate goal of Liu’s “delving into life” is to invite his audience to “delve” into their own lives as well; otherwise, no problem uncovered can be resolved. Therefore, by the conventional standards of literary criticism, “People or Monsters?” is by no means a masterpiece.10 The proper gauge of its value lies not only in the truthfulness of its content but also in audience impact. In this regard it is an unqualified, and as yet unrivaled, success. Since “People or Monsters?”, Liu has written several similar pieces of reportage, but for some reason they are not as overpowering. The other piece included in this volume, “Sound Is Better than Silence,” is carefully crafted and no doubt based on a real figure who played “dumb” for twelve years. If it were fiction, a novelist of Wang Meng’s caliber could surely turn the middle part of the story into some “stream-of-consciousness” revelation of the protagonist’s inner turmoil during the Cultural Revolution. The motif of the feigned physical defect also offers rich possibilities for psychological and allegorical treatments, examples of which abound in modern Western literature. (For instance, Günter Grass might in fact find Liu’s sketch very appealing when compared with The Tin Drum, in which the protagonist, instead of playing dumb, refuses to grow up.) But because of his commitments to this special genre, Liu has willingly forsaken art in favor of truth and reality.
It is only when Liu is confronted with material that obviously falls outside the realm of reality that he resorts, rather crudely, to “fiction” The story “Warning” deals with ghosts, which certainly cannot be dealt with through reportage. It is also likely that the last unnamed “ghost” in the story refers to a real political figure—in my conjecture Kang Sheng, a leader of the Cultural Revolution group and widely rumored to be a cruel “executioner.” A “fictional” format is needed for purposes of safety. (Some of the names in “People or Monsters?” are also altered for the same reason.) But fiction is clearly subsidiary to reportage in Liu’s scale. “The Fifth Man in the Overcoat,” billed as a short story, betrays strong traces of reportage. As in “The Inside Story of This Newspaper,” the protagonist is a reporter who is intent on finding out the facts behind a case of wrongdoing. Interestingly, both stories are “fiction” about truth. The only difference between the earlier and later stories seems to be that the author is now less idealistic and more sullen than before. Behind the obvious themes of truth and justice in “The Fifth Man” lurks the disquieting motif of evil and its invincibility. Although the case of Wang Shouxin has been solved in real life, the fictional figure of He Qixiong in “The Fifth Man,” who has masterminded several plots to implicate innocent people, causing divorce, insanity, and death, continues to rise in his political fortune. It is perhaps this final “realism,” the reluctant realization that the forces of evil and injustice may not ultimately be defeated because of the omnipresence of people—or monsters—like Wang Shouxin and He Qixiong, which imparts a degree of tragic irony to Liu Binyan’s warning: “People, be on guard! It is still too early to celebrate victories.” In a country and a literature that for thirty years have shown little tragic sense of life, Liu Binyan’s voice is all the more precious and deserves to be heard.
That Liu is allowed to continue with his writing may be an indication of the Party’s more relaxed policy. It also reflects, more importantly, Liu’s own commitment to the act of writing itself. After two decades of silence, there is an almost existential ring to his remark that, having gone this far, “there is no way back”: “I thought it over and decided that I had to speak out. If I didn’t, then what was I doing back in the Party? What would it mean then to be a communist? What would my life mean?11” It is statements like these, which signify a rare combination of pessimism and affirmation, of despair and commitment, that invest Liu Binyan’s spirit of integrity with a depth of humanity reminiscent of Lu Xun, modern China’s foremost writer and intellectual. Even if Liu were never to produce another work comparable to “People or Monsters?”, his preeminence as a defiant figure in the Chinese Communist Party and as a writer of conscience is assured. We can only hope that Liu Binyan will continue to speak out, unhampered, through his writing.
1. Liu Binyan, “Shidai de zhaohuan” (The call of the times), English translation by John Beyer in Howard Goldblatt ed., Chinese Literature for the 1980s: The Fourth Congress of Writers and Artists (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1982), p. 118.
2. See my article in Chinese, “Liu Binyan he ‘Renyao zhijian’” (Liu Binyan and “People or Monsters?”), Qishi niandai (The seventies, Hong Kong), no. 129 (Oct. 1980), pp. 79-82.
3. These three pieces are included in Liu Binyan baogao wenxue xuan (Selections from Liu Binyan’s reportage literature) (Beijing: Beijing chuban she, 1981), pp. 25-146.
4. For Liu’s views on this subject, see his “Guanyu ‘xie yin’an mian’ he ‘ganyu shenghuo’” (Concerning “exposing the dark side” and “delving into life”), in Huang Dazhi, ed., Ζhongguo xin xieshi zhuyi wenyi pinglun xuan—Liu Binyan ji qi zuopin (Selected literary criticism from Chinese neo-realism—Liu Binyan and his works) (Hong Kong: Bowen shuju, 1980), pp. 142-49.
5. Ibid., p. 143.
6. For an analysis of Bai Hua’s controversial screenplay, see Michael S. Duke, “A Drop of Spring Rain: The Sense of Humanity in Bai Hua’s Unrequited Love,” in Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (forthcoming).
7. See Liu Shaotang’s comments in his open letter to Liu Binyan, in Zhonggho xin xieshi zhuyi wenyi pinglun xuan, pp. 200-202.
8. I am indebted to Professor Rudolph Wagner of the Free University of Berlin for bringing this to my attention. Since Liu himself reads Russian, the Russian origin of his texie can be ascertained.
9. Wu Wenxu, “Cong ‘Zai qiaoliang gongdi shang’ dao ‘Renyao zhijian’” (From “On the Bridge Construction Site” to “People or Monsters?”), Wenhui bao (Oct. 23, 1979), p. 3.
10. For an analysis from a literary and historical angle, see Michael Duke, “Ironies of History in the Reportage Fiction of Liu Binyan,” paper presented at the Conference on “Contemporary Chinese Literature: Forms of Realism?” St. John’s University, New York (May 28-31, 1982).
11. Liu Binyan, “The Call of the Times,” in Goldblatt, Chinese Literature for the 1980s, p. 119.