Most people who think and talk about the literature of the People’s Republic of China want to understand the question of literary control. This is generally as true inside China as outside. Chinese readers and writers, especially during the years represented in this book, have paid much attention to the “scope” allowed to writers and to the forces that have made this scope expand or contract. The Western reader, although prevented from seeing very much of the immensely complex dynamics of Chinese literary politics, nevertheless remains curious about the question of control and tends to ask about it first. A few Chinese writers were pleading in 1980 that people stop focusing on the control question and pay more attention to literary quality. From foreigners, these writers wished dearly to know how their works would be classified and rated by international standards. To these writers I sincerely apologize for focusing this introduction on the more popular topic of control; my purpose is not to slight the question of artistry but to place it in its societal context—explaining how certain ideological pressures are applied, resisted, modulated, reapplied, etc.—and thereby perhaps to help the Western reader to contemplate the artistic question with more insight.
THE SYSTEM OF LITERARY CONTROL
Mao Zedong, in his “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art” in 1942, laid down some basic rules for the control of literature in China’s Communist areas. Although the vicissitudes of literary politics have been many since 1942, the fundamental importance of Mao’s rules has not changed. Literature should serve political aims; individual literary works are to be judged by both political and artistic criteria, with the political criteria taking precedence. These and others of Mao’s theoretical pronouncements on literary control have been well analyzed elsewhere;1 here, rather than summarize that work, I will offer an analysis of the actual practice of literary control as I was able to observe it in China during the course of research there in 1979–80. But first a warning: in speaking of a “system” of literary control and in analyzing its workings, I do not mean to give the impression of a fixed set of standards that writers, editors, and readers can confidently rely upon. Sometimes, as when the liberal Hundred Flowers period of 19562 suddenly turned into the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957, the entire system has been known to lurch from one direction to another in a manner that is quite unpredictable to most of the people involved.
The primary rule of literary control is that literature must support the current political leadership or, to the extent that literature can be apolitical, at least not oppose the leadership. Five significant groups are involved: readers, writers, editors and publishers, critics, and the top leadership. By top leadership I mean literally the highest levels—Party chairmen and vice-chairmen monitor contemporary literature and worry about its implications; writers cultivate friendships with the children of high officials in order to learn what the Party Secretariat is saying about them. By critics I mean officials whose job is to analyze literary works and, if necessary, to criticize authors according to the political criteria the top leadership has chosen for the present day. This role differs in obvious ways from that of a literary critic in the West. Some critics in China, especially in academia, do entertain questions of literary technique, but these critics usually have very little access to the public media. By readers I mean primarily urban readers. This is not to slight the peasant masses in China but simply to note the plain fact that they are not yet part of the literature-reading public.3
These five groups interact in extremely complex ways but always, of necessity, under a strong influence from the demands of the literary control system. To understand this influence, we “bourgeois” Westerners must first set aside our notions about the primacy of the writer. From the standpoint of the control system, the primary relationship on the literary scene is that between readers and top leadership. The whole point of literature, so viewed, is to cause readers to think what the top leadership feels it is best that they think. Correct thoughts in turn serve Party policy as well as the interests of society as a whole. Party theorists, borrowing a term from Stalin, explain that literature is a tool for “engineering the souls” of readers.4 Thus the prescribed roles (but not always the actual roles—more on this later) of writers, editors, publishers, and critics are to ensure in their various ways that the primary relationship is properly built and protected. Critics are supposed to mediate the thought of the top leadership for writers, editors, and publishers; these groups, in turn, mediate correct thought for the masses of readers. The relations of these various roles on the literary scene are, moreover, hierarchical in a way that resembles the traditional Chinese family system. This is not just because the top leadership is elderly, while most readers are young and most writers and editors are in between; it is because Chinese political culture still rests, as it has for centuries, on the family analogy. Top leaders in many ways function as parternalistic authority figures for citizens of all ages. This theoretically benevolent authoritarianism, as it applies to literature, is frequently expressed in a medical metaphor. A good literary work is “healthful” to its readers; a bad work is “unhealthful” or even “poisonous.” The implication is that a wise prescriber of medicine (the top leader) knows what is best for patients (readers) better than the patients themselves can know. Whether the medicine tastes good is a separate point.
A separate point, but hardly an ignored one. The leadership can be embarrassed if it becomes too obvious that readers do not enjoy the literature that is prescribed for them. Hence the fiction is maintained that readers do like it. A prescribed medicine also becomes a prescribed preference of the palate. Such preferences must be distinguished, of course, from genuine palatability; in fact, it will be useful in many contexts to use the following almost as technical terms: actual reader preferences are what readers enjoy; prescribed reader preferences are what the top leadership feels readers ought to enjoy.5
One could, with care, draw a kind of graph of the years since the Yan’an Conference in 1942, showing when and to what extent actual reader preferences and prescribed reader preferences have converged or diverged. (Separate graphs might have to be drawn for certain works or certain kinds of works.) There was indubitably a high degree of convergence for resist-Japan war stories in the liberated areas through 1945 (especially when the anti-Japanese message was delivered through oral or performing media that circumvented the problem of illiteracy). On the other hand, pronouncements that the proletarian masses loved the subtle art of the great modern writer Lu Xun, at that time and ever since, are a good example of extreme divergence between actual and prescribed preferences. Another area of relative convergence would be the optimistic years of the 1950s, at least until the Great Leap Forward in 1958. Many readers genuinely liked 1950s’ stories of the revolutionary struggle and early socialist transformation—works such as Yang Mo’s Song of Youth or Zhou Erfu’s Morning in Shanghai. In the 1950s, the horrendous problems of the 1930s and 1940s were still vivid in readers’ minds, and the self-sacrificing idealism projected in these works was considered fresh, hopeful, and attractive. Several years were required before the impracticality of this idealism began to emerge and to lead to alienation and wide divergence between actual and prescribed reader preferences.
An interesting thing happened, in the terms we are using here, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). We would have to invent a new graph to chart it. Literature became so politically bowdlerized that actual reader preferences were frightened almost entirely out of sight. Yet there was a sense in which enthusiastic Red Guards did enjoy such literature. The key to understanding this paradox is to see that they were not really enjoying the literature as readers. Chairman Mao’s “little generals,” in emulation of the Great Leader, conceived themselves as dispensers, not consumers, of truth. They asked themselves less whether they liked a story than whether it was good medicine for society—meaning, essentially, for other people. It was primarily this role in the use of Cultural Revolution literature that was so enjoyable.
With the fall of the Maoist “Gang of Four” in October 1976, the way was cleared for a great popular outpouring against “ultraleftism,” “socialist fascism,” “remnants of feudalism,” etc. The main avenues for this great outpouring became the mushrooming literary magazines of the late 1970s, which changed the face of contemporary Chinese literature dramatically. But it is important to recognize that these changes did not happen outside the same basic system of literary control that had begun in 1942. The crucial change was in the top leadership, who, partly from a wish to legitimize their departures from the ancien regime, could to some degree approve of the vitriol directed against that regime and life under it. As a result, prescribed reader preferences and actual reader preferences coincided for a time as never before, and little “engineering” was necessary to foster literary works that satisfied everyone. With little need for engineering, all elements in the system could relax somewhat.
This relaxation had some side effects. For one, writers and editors could, to an unprecedented degree in the Peoples Republic, take their own initiatives with nothing to fear except what might happen when conditions changed again. Critics could also be less rigid in their work because the new degree of harmony among leadership, writers, and readers meant that the critics’ job of keeping writers in line was for the time being unimportant. (To be sure, there was some anxiety among critics over the very fact of their sudden marginal role, and there must have been a secret hankering in some of them for a return to the status quo.) The most noticeable and refreshing effect was that literary works became much more lively and much more reflective of actual society and popular thought. In early 1979 it appeared that a fundamental change may have happened in the political control of literature. But within a year it was clear that the relaxation had resulted from the temporary internal configuration of the system, not from its demise or its radical change. In 1980 prescribed reader preferences and actual reader preferences began to diverge again (although not nearly as much as before), and the system became accordingly more rigid.
The 1980 retrenchment happened for two related reasons. First, the leadership felt that its goal of discrediting its predecessors had been adequately achieved. To continue excoriating the recent past encouraged spillover into discontent with the present and could undermine current leadership, despite their efforts to assign blame for most problems to “remnants” and “residues” of the Gang of Four. Second, with the increased elbow room that writers enjoyed in the late 1970s, they had begun departing from their assigned role of transmitting received wisdom and were now expressing their own views on social morality and the fate of the nation. Among the more conscience-ridden and outspoken writers, there was a general drift during 1979 away from explicit attacks on the Gang of Four and toward works that examined basic problems not easily attributable to only four people. In some cases, the drift included works that clearly referred to major questions in the present. The play “What If I Really Were?” (“Jiaru wo shi zhende”), which is included here, is an important example. Written in summer 1979, it explicitly identifies its time of action as after the Gang of Four. Its satire of official corruption was received with great enthusiasm by the public, especially urban youth, and eventually the leadership singled it out as an example of a tendency that had to be curbed.
THE WRITER’S DILEMMA: CONSCIENCE VERSUS RISK
The trend in the late 1970s which saw writers begin “expressing their own views on social morality and the fate of the nation,” as we have just described it, was a trend less toward “bourgeois” interests than toward an ancient concept of the writer’s role in China. To understand this role we must remind ourselves of the traditional Chinese idea of the near synonymy of literature, morality, and politics. The Chinese classics were not only literature but also, for centuries, the crucible of the morality that uniquely qualified one for political office. Historical writing was also literature, one of its main purposes being to establish the legitimacy of the current dynasty by “correctly” describing the wrongs of the previous one. Dissenters, too, shared assumptions about the moral-political duty of writers: the famous poet Qu Yuan (ca. 340–278 B.C.) took his life in protest of a weak and corrupt state; the equally famous Du Fu (A.D. 712-770) spoke for the cold and the hungry. In the popular tradition, heterodox sects and peasant rebellions nearly always had a “heavenly document” which they considered fundamental. Even when literature that was primarily for entertainment did emerge, roughly a thousand years ago, its departure from serious moral-political purposes caused it to be denigrated—together with visiting teahouses and brothels or watching itinerant jugglers—as something that diverted people from their proper Confucian roles. Although these attitudes have softened in recent centuries, especially the early twentieth century, the synonymy of literature-morality-politics is still a prevalent notion. Mao Zedong himself, in laying down the rules for the “scientific” control of literature at Yan’an in 1942, was not only borrowing concepts from Marxism-Leninism but also appropriating some deep-seated Chinese assumptions about the written word and the patriotic responsibilities of a writer. In the late 1970s, these same deep-seated assumptions ironically were working in opposition to much of Mao’s own post-Liberation legacy.
What kind of problems did writers point to? Perhaps most fundamental in the whole protest of the late 1970s was the question of telling the plain truth. China’s vexing and sometimes massive problems had never been adequately illuminated by the ersatz light of “revolutionary romanticism,” and in many writers the nagging sense of a duty to tell the plain truth would not go away. In recent history there had been much to mention: broken families, suicides, floods (it is said a million died in a flood in Henan in 1975, and who knows?), acute hunger, horrible prisons, and many other things that had not been truthfully, or even half-truthfully, reported. To be sure, much was already known through the informal word-of-mouth network that in many ways is the functional equivalent in China of a low-quality newspaper in the West. But, given the moral and political prestige of the written word in Chinese tradition, it was still exciting, and very important, for readers to see the truth in print. And the weightier and more official the medium, the better. We in the West (I include Hong Kong and Taiwan as part of the “West” for present purposes) often overemphasize the significance of “underground” literature in China. It is quite true that the greater the distance between literary creation and extraneous political pressure, the better the chance for high-quality creation. But this fact is greatly over-powered by another—that readers and writers at all levels in China feel it is better to be above ground than under and, while above ground, better to be in official publications than in unofficial or semi-official ones. One’s writing counts for more in an official journal—not primarily because the circulation is bigger but because of the prestige.
Telling the truth naturally led in the late 1970s to criticism of those who had not been telling the truth. Hence much of the outpouring of conscience became an unofficial campaign against hypocrisy. The stalwarts of this trend, being democratic in spirit, were largely uninterested in hypocrisy among the lowly, but focused attention on glaring hypocrisy in officialdom. Mao Zedong had warned of “the emergence of a new ruling class” when he launched the Cultural Revolution. Although writers seldom invoked Mao in 1979 and never used his phrase, it still comes as close as any to describing their concerns.6 The most obvious offenses of the new class, especially in the view of young writers, were its special comforts—better food, finer clothers, larger homes, and access to automobiles, to the “soft” class on the railroad, to private hospital rooms, to vacation resorts, to stores where others could not shop, to theaters where others could not enter, etc.—all governed by an immensely complex system of formal and informal privileges, some of which could be bartered. It is not an exaggeration to describe the whole system as a kind of “economy,” related and in some ways parallel to the money economy, where privilege and political power could and often had to substitute for cash in the distribution of goods and services.
These special privileges were eye-catching in the late 1970s, especially to youth. But some of the more mature, mostly middle-aged, writers could see a deeper issue. They were opposed to the system of special privileges less for its unequal distribution of material comforts than for its cruel betrayal of the ideals of the revolution and its shameless establishment of a gap between verbiage and practice. In the 1930s and 1940s, a person risked life itself to join the Communists, and many did so from high idealism. But now manipulation, cynicism, and hypocrisy had taken over. Officials who benefited could easily see the injustices but feared to tamper with a system whose ropes they had mastered only after the investment of much effort and whose protection of their own narrow margin of safety and comfort required steady vigilance. There was no return, perhaps, after one-time socialists learned that pursuit of an item of private interest had to be made even when the loss to the collective weal far outweighed the private gain itself.
Some of the literary works that revealed these problems stated or implied that they were common problems, in fact endemic ones. This implication drew fire from the political critics, because it made it harder to separate problems and to attribute them to either aberration or the Gang of Four. But on the other hand, works that might appear to lampoon specific people, such as, in this collection, “A Bundle of Letters” by Bai Hua or “Foundation” by Jiang Zilong, could cause problems if it were not perfectly clear who the person lampooned was supposed to be. Certain people were not to be attacked. Sometimes an author would create a villain from his own imagination, based on general observations, only to have his editor receive dozens of letters from real-life individuals protesting that the alleged villany was not so—or (more interestingly, since it implied a degree of guilt) not quite so. This circumstance was widespread enough to acquire the nickname of “self-assigned seating.” Amusing though it seems, authors could face serious trouble for it.
Honest reflection of actual social problems was inevitably controversial. The issue created a kind of protracted tug-of-war between advocates for and against a greater scope for such honesty. The expansion of the scope in 1979 bears definite resemblances to a similar “thaw” in the Soviet Union in 1956: both came three years after the death of a Great Leader; both exposed social and psychological sores that had been festering under the proud facade the Great Leader had enforced; in both cases some of the bolder pieces, like “What If I Really Were?” in China, could be openly published only outside the country; and in both cases the thaw ended in the following year, 1957 and 1980 respectively. The gradual refreezing that then occurred had a similar rationale in each case.
Yet the analogy to the Soviet thaw can be misleading if pressed too far. The bold writers on the Soviet scene reached their audience by slipping some literary bombs into a few key volumes—the journal New World and two large anthologies called Literary Moscow. Their Chinese counterparts—more mobile, more deft, using smaller weapons, and in general more like guerrilla warriors—published from time to time in several places, availing themselves of sympathetic editors who themselves were involved in precarious balancing acts. The repressive side in China also has differed from that in the Soviet Union. Less mechanical and heavy-handed, China’s subtler approach to psychological engineering has also been more effective in its suffocation of dissent. The modern Chinese, to paraphrase Simon Leys’s ironic insight, bear an added burden because of the superior sophistication of their civilization.
The mechanics that determine the scope allowed to Chinese writers have been complex, and we can sketch them here only briefly. One must begin by exorcising the illusion, which can also arise by analogy to the Soviet Union, of a joust between Party and non-Party forces. Many, perhaps most, of the courageous and truthful writers and editors in China have been Party members. It might be objected that this is so because a true dissenter from the Party would speak out only at forbidding cost. And this is true, but it is also true that non-Party people, provided they are not anti-Party, have generally been given a wider scope for public expression than Party members have. Hence it is a true paradox that many of the bolder writers have been in the Party. Even those writers (mostly youth) who have gone so far as to suggest dismantling the whole system have sometimes been Party members.
Other labels for the advocacy of a larger or smaller scope for writers are similarly problematic. “Liberal” and “conservative” might seem reasonable. The term “conservative” is in fact used, widely but informally, inside China. But the term “liberal” cannot be used because the 1981 campaign against “bourgeois liberalism” has made it politically repugnant, a “heavy hat” no person can afford to wear. “Left” and “right” will not do either, because they are hopelessly entangled in differing usages, both inside China and between China and the West. The most culturally conservative people in China (those who, for example, oppose bell-bottom trousers from an antipathy for things that are “un-Chinese”) are sometimes the same as the most politically orthodox people (who, for example, regard the Marxist classics as scripture even though they do not read them very sensitively). It may seem strange to a Westerner, as it does to some intellectuals in China, that these two overlapping groups are sometimes called the “left,” or even the “ultra-left”. Often associated with the military, they advocate rigid control of many things, including literature. On the other hand, people who have opposed militaristic rigidity and have advocated tolerance in publishing, tolerance of foreign influences, and a more democratic political style have been the objects of campaigns against “rightism.” These rightists, ironically, have much less in common with the old “reactionary right” of the KMT in the 1940s than do some of the people on today’s “left.” The situation is as complex as the labels are unclear.
But, troublesome though it is, we cannot abandon the search for labels for the two opposing poles of thought that are called in Chinese political-literary discourse shou (advocating more restriction) and fang (advocating more tolerance). There is, of course, a range of opinion between these two poles. There are also many people who conceal their opinions in order to stay somewhere in the middle where they can hedge their bets. But no other two words are as good as shou and fang to describe the polarity involved, and hence I propose here to adhere rather closely to the Chinese terms and to refer below to “restrictiveness” and “tolerance.” The reader should bear in mind, however, that these terms in English do not carry the same weight of political connotation that shou and fang do.
THE MECHANICS OF EXPANSION OF THE SCOPE FOR WRITERS
How does the pull between the advocates of tolerance and restrictiveness actually cause the scope for writers to expand or contract? It is fair to conceive of an almost constant pressure from the “tolerance” group of writers and editors to expand this scope. But the pressure they exert also varies considerably with what is called in China the “wind.” The wind—a metaphor for messages from the top leadership that are usually oral or, if written, oblique—shifts direction in subtle ways, and people are well advised to adjust their weather vanes carefully. In literary politics, people usually refer to wind “temperature,” which is either “warm” or “cold,” indicating tolerance or restrictiveness. To be sure, the top leadership often intends more complex instructions than merely “warm” or “cold,” but by the time the wind blows all the way down from the mountaintop, having been repropelled by functionaries at many intermediate stations, only its temperature is sensible in the valleys. The leadership’s reasons for ordering changes in wind temperature are seldom very clear—they are often the subject of speculation through the grapevine inside China as well as in the Hong Kong press. Raising the wind temperature sometimes seems to be aimed at winning the support of intellectuals, as, for instance, when a modernization drive begins; or, as we have seen, it can serve to encourage an outpouring of complaint about former leaders; or, as many say of the Hundred Flowers campaign in 1956, it might be used to lure dissenting opinion into the open. A drop in wind temperature can reflect a renewed burst of faith in “restrictivist” philosophy. Since a cold wind can be a weapon of great strength and flexibility in the hands of local officials, it can also be used to reimpose social control when public behavior has grown lax or unruly. Changes in wind direction further can be a reflection of political accommodation between advocates of tolerance and restriveness at the top.
Happily, however, the question of why wind temperature changes is beyond our scope here; our topic is the effect that a warm or cold wind has on everyone in the political-literary system. In general we can observe that a higher temperature increases the pressure exerted by writers and editors against the “scope” of permissibility that surrounds them, and that a drop in temperature correspondingly reduces that pressure. (The metaphor could not fit more nicely with what Charles’ Law in physics has to say about the relation of temperatures and pressures.) When the wind blows warm, the effect is not only to lend moral support to writers who would speak out but, more importantly, to increase the likelihood that a foray outside the currently prescribed scope will go unpunished. Such forays always involve the risk of criticism, and criticism, in the People’s Republic, has often led to more serious consequences.
A writer or editor who would make such a foray therefore does whatever is possible to ensure in advance that it will meet with approval rather than criticism. The way to gain such assurance is to find what is called “backstage support” from someone who wields some power. It is not a Catch-22 to say one needs official permission to break an official barrier, because officialdom, including Partydom, includes many shades of both tolerance and restrictiveness. Frequently one writer and his backstage support will face off against corresponding adersaries on an opposing side. This happened, for example, in 1977, when the editors of the literary magazine Literary Works in Guangzhou decided to risk a series of articles criticizing Hao Ran, who in the latter part of the Cultural Revolution had been promoted as the only significant contemporary Chinese novelist. In this case, the question became one of whether Hao Ran’s backstage support could outweigh that of Literary Works. Such a question turns not only on the relative weight of the two backstage supporters but on their distance (meaning political distance, although geographical dis-tance also plays its part) from the site of publication. If someone dares to publish a criticism of Hao Ran in Guangzhou, and if his backstage support resides in Guangzhou, he needs less powerful support than he would need to accomplish the same thing in Beijing. Conversely, the opposition, in order to outweigh a challenge from Guangzhou and silence it, needs more clout in Beijing than might be necessary locally. And one does have to out weigh the opposition in order to silence him; a tie in the weight of backstage support, even a very approximate tie, usually means, under the conditions of a warm wind, that both sides get to say what they want. Thus it happens that Chinese writers can benefit from their country’s unmanageable size. During a warm wind they can send their manuscripts to various provinces in search of leaderships with varying emphases; those who would oppose such writers can be thwarted purely by the bureaueratic headaches involved in trying to stamp out a bubble under a rug.
Backstage support can also be analyzed for “firmness.” The firmest support comes in cases where a writer simply speaks for his backstage support, with prior understanding on both sides of what is happening. For example, the “restrictive” ideas in the essay entitled “Praise and Shame” (Hebei wenyi, June 1979) by Li Jian, a previously unknown young man, belonged to his backstage support, who apparently were people close to the famous veteran poet Tian Jian. But usually a writer cannot get specific, before-the-fact approval from his backstage support. A supporter cannot know in advance how something might be phrased, and even if he could, to assume all the responsibility would be an unfair division of the risk. Besides, in the face of criticism, it is much easier for backstage support to defend a few key points in someone else’s bold fait accompli than to take responsibility for originating the idea. A less firm kind of backstage support provides a vaguer, more general license, without implying approval of any specific piece. This was generally the case in Anhui Province, where First Secretary of the Party Wan Li supported a generally tolerant trend among literary journals in the late 1970s. At its softest, backstage support can be symbolic and nearly impossible to pin down. But even then it is useful; if a supporter is powerful, weight can compensate for lack of firmness. In late 1978, for example, students at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou were having difficulty in launching their literary magazine, The Red Beans (Hongdou). When Zhou Yang, vice-chairman of the All-China Writers’ Association, came to town for a meeting, a student sought him out with a question: “What do you think of our plan to start a magazine, respected Comrade Zhou Yang?”
“Very good,” Zhou reportedly answered.
“Will you do us the honor of donating your calligraphy?”
Zhou Yang did, and using the calligraphy for their front cover, the students got a subsidy of 1,000 yuan (about $650 U.S.) from their university and the magazine was born. It is hard to say whether Zhou Yang’s very abstract and temporary patronage had anything to do with The Red Beans’s daring to be one of the more outspoken student magazines in China, or its being the last of these magazines to fall in the chilly wind of 1980. This is possible, but its success certainly also had to do with the relatively enlightened policies of the Guangdong provincial leadership. In cases where backstage support is abstract, the involved parties themselves cannot say with precision just what is being done, and being made possible, by their relationship.
In some cases a writer may not know who is supporting his piece. When the wind blows warm, one can send a pathbreaking piece to an editorial board, and with luck an editor will notice it and champion it. This does not happen very often, but warm winds can cause many aspiring young writers to assume that it will happen to them. Editorial boards will receive piles of manuscripts every day—more than they can read and hundreds of times more than they can use. Prominent literary officials will also receive stacks of manuscripts from youth who feel their genius has been snubbed by editorial boards but will certainly be recognized by a wise and fair literary official.
From these stacks of manuscripts it emerges that besides self-expression and truth-telling, another incentive exists for writing boldly. For if one’s breakthrough is not criticized, and if official opinion eventually affirms it, one can be credited as a chuangjiang or “groundbreaking hero.” After Liu Xinwu’s famous story “The Homeroom Teacher” (November 1977) and Lu Xinhua’s equally famous “Scar” (August 1978),7 thousands of youngsters wrote stories in imitation and mailed them to literary magazines. But only the first to make the plunge, of course, is the groundbreaking hero. During the Cultural Revolution it had been a rather well known trick to write a false diary detailing one’s self-sacrifices and secret loyalty to Chairman Mao and then to “lose” the diary on a sidewalk and wait for one’s hidden virtue to be discovered and rewarded. Without detracting for a moment from the honesty and courage of the writers who brave cold winds, it is also true that during warm winds there has been a certain speculative mentality in figuring how to become tagged as a “groundbreaking hero” with “liberated thought.” In fact playing the ups and downs of literary politics in China, at least during its livelier periods, can be something like playing the stock market in the West: in both cases one can speculate on future trends; both can bring success or ruin; both do have their logic, but a logic that is easier to see after the fact than before; and about both there circulate inside “tips.”
No one other than the top leadership can declare that the wind will blow warm and that the scope for writers will expand markedly. The power of local political leaders is moderate by comparison. Editors, another notch lower, are left mainly to maneuver among the larger forces. But occasionally even editors can influence the temperature of the wind in limited times and places. This usually has to be accomplished through some sort of cleverness, such as finding a bold piece written by an important person’s son. Another device, to pick but one example, is the selective publication of letters to the editor—one can publish the sincere diatribe of an opponent of tolerance, knowing full well that to many readers it will read like self-satire.8 But while editors by themselves can do little to expand the scope for writers, they can easily bring the opposite result by impatiently attempting to expand the scope too quickly. Rash action can anger the leadership and tip the balance at that level to favor the advocates of restrictiveness. The more progressive editors around the country therefore monitor one another and attempt to go forward in concert—not precisely together, since a slightly erratic march can keep the opposition off balance, but also never so far apart that the one in front might be picked off and made a negative example for everyone.
THE MECHANICS OF CONTRACTION OF THE SCOPE FOR WRITERS
A cold wind is always attributed, at least officially, to the masses, because the masses are the theoretical basis for political legitimacy. In early 1980, for example, it was an official view that the masses were getting tired of literature that exposed psychological sores and were demanding more stories about the heroes of the Four Modernizations. In reality, judging from all available evidence,9 no such shift in popular tastes occurred. In November and December 1979, the editors of People’s Literature surveyed reader preferences in short stories, and the editors of Yalu River in Shenyang surveyed reader preferences in poetry. The results—which showed a continued strong preference for protest and exposure of sores—were classified “for internal circulation only.”10 The gap between actual and prescribed reader preferences could not be publicly admitted.
Like reader preferences, the whole dynamic of a cold wind admits a distinction between the theoretical and the actual. The case of the cold wind of 1981 that blew around the writer Bai Hua will serve as an example. Theoretically, the masses read Bai Hua’s film script “Unrequited Love”11 and discovered that the author hankers after bourgeois liberalism (why the masses had not made this discovery two years earlier, when the piece first appeared, is not part of the theory); the leadership then took action on behalf of the masses but reminded them that ad hominem attacks must not be made on Bai Hua, but rather that the issue of bourgeois liberalism must be singled out wherever it appears. The theoretical causal chain, in other words, starts with mass opinion and ends with a warning to all writers. The actual causal chain is more nearly this: the top leadership determines that writers must be warned; an example is sought and Bai Hua is found; a literary example within Bai Hua’s work is sought and “Unrequited Love” is found; it is then proclaimed that the masses object to “Unrequited Love.”12 (We need to remind ourselves that any statement about the views of the masses is moot, because actually they are not involved. The readers of contemporary literature, as noted above, are primarily educated urban youth who constitute less than 10 percent of the population.)
By far the most important force in the contraction of the scope for literary expression, and in inducing writers to stay within it, is a vague but omnipresent fear of criticism and punishment. This fear is the great anchor that exerts a constant, directed pull on all the little sailboats of subtle crisscrosssing suggestion. During the Cultural Revolution one’s house could be ransacked, one could be paraded through the streets with excrement on one’s head, and one could be shot. In the late 1970s no punishments approaching this severity were being applied, but the vivid memory of such things and the perpetual uncertainly of Chinese politics were enough to make even mild criticism a very effective disincentive. At times the leadership exhorted writers to rid themselves of “residual fear” of the Gang of Four and to overcome the kind of paranoiac conditioned reflexes that had developed during the Cultural Revolution. Yet could something like the Cultural Revolution happen again? No one expected that it would, but few denied that, if the leadership changed, it could. (Actually to expect another Cultural Revolution might have been psychologically impossible—and if not that, then politically impossible to express.) Moreover, the leadership, despite its pronouncements to the contrary, quietly exacerbated the problem of residual fear by continuing to use the implied threat of criticism to control writers. Thus in 1979-80 it was still true that, for writers and editors, no disincentive loomed as large as the danger to one’s career, family, and self that might result from political criticism. That fear of criticism was the major means of control on literary expression was another circumstance distinguishing China from the Soviet Union, where, in the three decades since Stalin, a more settled system of pre-publication censorship and economic measures such as firing and blacklisting has largely replaced overt political criticism in the control of writers.
The manipulation of fear in literary control in China can be quite subtle and, on the face of it, even gentle. One device, for example, is to begin by isolating the object of criticism. If in 1981 “the masses” suddenly felt revulsion at “bourgeois liberalism,” it follows that those tainted by it are “a tiny minority.” In a major speech in September 1981—a speech that blew the coldest wind since 1976—Party Chairman Hu Yaobang used the “tiny minority” phrase several times.13 He fleshed out his point with the simile of lice on the body of a great lion. To an outsider this might appear odd. If the opposition were indeed as minor as lice are to a lion, one might wonder why the Party Chairman would deliver an austere and well publicized speech about “the crucial need to maintain vigilance” against this “grave danger.” But to wonder this is to look in the wrong direction. The point of the lice simile and the “tiny minority” phrase is not to estimate the size of any group but to work on the psychology of everyone.
First, to tag the opposition as a tiny minority automatically removes their legitimacy, since legitimacy rests on the wishes of the masses. Second, such a tag says to the majority of writers and editors who are involved in complex compromises and balancing acts that, if they will be docile, they will be safe; after all, it is only the “tiny minority” who are causing trouble. Writers who have been provocative toward the leadership can be forgiven if they change their ways. If they do, their actions have propaganda value for the leadership. An example is Sha Yexin, the main author of “What If I Really Were?,” who refused to alter this work even under considerable pressure; but when he followed it by another called “Mayor Chen Yi,” a clever and enjoyable play that praised a revolutionary elder, the critics found him quite acceptable and gave the new play much publicity.
A third and most important aspect of the “tiny minority” phrase is its vagueness. What tiny minority? Who? Since everyone knows that some traces of bourgeois liberalism, “correctly” interpreted, might be found anywhere, the ambiguity of the “tiny minority” phrase is a fearsome thing. But this ambiguity also has its purpose: with almost no one able to rule himself out, almost everyone has an incentive to play things safer. The same kind of vagueness attends the borderlines of the “scope” for permissible expression. What exactly is bourgeois liberalism? How does one square it with the injunction to “liberate” one’s mind? (Contradictory warnings are a favorite tool in literary control. The impossibility of compliance tends to bring everything to a halt, and this, for advocates of restrictiveness, as well as for time-serving bureaucrats, is ideal.) True, a writer can be shown Bai Hua’s “Unrequited Love” as a concrete negative example. But why would this film script be objectionable when many pieces that go even further are apparently acceptable? If one wishes to be safe, one can only stay well inside the vague boundaries.
Another very important sword in the arsenal of vagueness is ambiguity about the seriousness of a case. When a literary work is criticized for “casting a shadow over our socialist motherland,” the author cannot know whether this is a reminder to be a little more optimistic next time or an innuendo that one is anti-socialist, therefore anti-Party. Even if the charge seems clear when it is made, its gravity could change abruptly in the future after a change in wind temperature. But at least shouldn’t the writer of the criticism know what is meant? Not even this is necessarily true. If he is writing with backstage support, which is the norm in major cases, he is representing partly the intentions of another, and this relationship must also be protected with some vagueness.
The ambiguity that results when top leaders speak through critics instead of directly also has its use in bringing pressure on writers. When the leaders speak publicly, they can confine themselves to general principles, leaving their complaints about specific works to be expounded by critics. As it impinges on writers, this division of labor amounts to that between carrot-holder and stick-holder. A top leader’s general principles can welcome writers warmly to side with the masses against the tiny minority of troublemakers. There is, after all, no need to comment on a writer’s work if he will be nice enough to curb himself. But if this approach fails and a critical attack does become necessary, the critic can come forth to play the negative role. The separation of roles is important because it leaves the writer, even after an attack, with enough face before the leadership to apologize and to accept, as if on second thought, the leadership’s kind invitation to side with the masses.
In formal political-literary discourse, it is not only the author’s face that is considered but also—in fact much more—the leadership’s. What the leadership often wants to say to writers is, “Don’t take potshots at us.” (My paraphrasing here is not merely playful; informal political-literary discourse within the leadership is apparently often very colloquial.) But the simple fact that potshots are being taken, if admitted formally and in public, can represent a bad loss of face for leadership that is cast in the father-figure mold. Hence political-literary criticism is often oblique. Sometimes a work that is excessively outspoken is criticized for some other reason. For people who are accustomed to interpreting the “wind,” there is no great difficulty setting aside the stated reason in order to absorb the true one. As an example, we can refer once again to the play “What If I Really Were?,” which was criticized for encouraging youth to sympathize with a deceitful impersonator, “a swindler.” It is perfectly obvious that the message of this play is not to glorify deceit. The play’s whole point, which could hardly be clearer or more colorfully portrayed, is to denounce deceit, bribery, sycophancy, and string-pulling—not of the impersonator, to be sure, but of the official circles he moves in. (The critics might be credited with considerable originality for pointing out a problem that the audience did not even notice until it was found to be the central problem of the work.) Yet viewed against its own goals, the critics’ emphasis on the swindler was brilliant. It drew attention away from the sore point—the play’s devastating portrayal of official corruption—and toward an issue where the leadership had not only face but the upper hand. Sympathize with a trickster? Socialist China may have its problems, but what we need are socialist solutions, not bourgeois-individualist solutions.14 (In fact, the play never presents the protagonist’s deceit as a “solution” to the social problem of corruption. Even as a way out for an individual, it is presented as a forbiddingly dangerous stratagem, because at the end—and Chinese audiences always look at the end for the lesson—the young trickster is crushed.) The attack on the play was successful, and as a result one bold challenge to the leadership was squelched—but without any official’s having to admit publicly that the squelching was the main point.
In the years since the Cultural Revolution, the leadership has found a need for gentler disincentives than the fear of political criticism. To criticize a writer can be too frightening, and perhaps too farreaching in its effects. To achieve limited goals in a more precise fashion, a number of other measures, primarily logistical and economic, have been more convenient. One such measure, as the editors of the student journal Our Generation (Zheiyidai) discovered in November 1979, was simply to cut off access to printing. This curtailed one’s activity without doing gross damage to one’s face or career. When Deng Xiaoping sought to crack down on the unofficial press in January 1980, he zeroed in on the question of printing and paper supplies:
It is absolutely forbidden for a Party member to peddle notions like freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or freedom of assembly if these are extended to counter-revolutionaries. No one may turn his back on the Party by becoming involved with such people. What I mean here is that no one may be sympathetically involved; I am not referring, of course, to our comrades who work as infiltrators. But there are people who genuinely do sympathize. How, for example, did some of those secret publications get printed so prettily? Where did they get their paper? Who did the printing? Don’t tell me those people have their own printing presses!15
Limitation of paper supplies is an even more widespread disincentive than control of printing facilities, and it is also more subtly articulated. All official publications are subject to the scrutiny of the State Publication Administration, a bureaucracy with several functions, but two especially important ones—it checks for material it feels the masses should not read, and it allocates paper. Paper was in chronically short supply for literary magazines in the late 1970s, and although the shortage itself was not the fault of the State Publication Administration, it could and did make use of the shortage to bring pressure on publishers. Like other pressures, this one too was diffuse. Paper allocations were made not for specific works but for a publisher’s entire annual plan, which meant that the whole plan could be in jeopardy because of one or two objectionable items. On the other hand, viewing the trade-off in terms of a publisher who advocated “tolerance,” one might be able to slip in a few bold pieces provided they were balanced by more orthodox works.16
These considerations were strongly colored by a financial question. Paper allocation was often a question not of more or less volume but of what one would be charged. There were two grades of paper, one fixed at 1,500 yuan per ton and the other at 1,350 yuan per ton. The difference in quality was not great, and the State Publication Administration enjoyed the financial leverage of determining for each publisher the ratio of the two grades of paper. The resulting difference could be surprisingly important to a publisher’s finances in the new economic regime of the late 1970s and early 1980s, when publishers were given progressively greater incentives to operate at a profit. Beginning in 1980, 15 percent of profits could be returned to the staff of a publishing house as a bonus. For the Guangdong People’s Publishing House, this meant everyone received 400 yuan (about $275) in bonuses for the year. In 1981 bonuses at this publishing house came to 6 yuan per person. (The bonus was the same for everyone from chief editor to janitor.) In an economy marked by rising prices, especially for food, bonuses were very important. If it chose to come down hard on a publisher, the State Publication Administration could wipe out bonuses and even force the end of a magazine through financial means. The most radical way of doing this was to wait until a book or magazine was already printed and then forbid its sale, effectively wiping out a publication’s entire working capital. This nearly happened in the case of the cartoon version of the story “Maple” until the decision was reversed at the highest levels.
The complexity of literary politics in China often means that when a warm or cold wind blows, it blows with different effects in different places. Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hefei, and Jilin—mostly because of local leadership that favored tolerance—were among the more progressive literary publishing centers during the late 1970s. Since the central leadership was also more tolerant than the provinces, at least before 1980, central journals such as People’s Literature (Renmin wenxue), Poetry (Shikan), and Present Times (Dangdai), as well as the journals of the Beijing municipal press, were also livelier than most. But there was also very complex chronological variation. Centers of restrictiveness and tolerance shifted over time, and almost every province did something interesting once in a while. We cannot attempt to trace every development here, but the main fluctuations in the climate as a whole will be briefly reviewed.17
A BRIEF CHRONOLOGY OF LITERARY DYNAMICS, 1976-80
It is customary in China to point to April 5, 1976, as the beginning of the major thaw of the late 1970s. That was the date of the famous Tiananmen Incident, when supporters of the relative moderation of Zhou Enlai challenged police in the heart of Beijing. But in fact, no milestone, publicly attributable or not, can compare to September 9, 1976, the day Mao Zedong passed away and supreme power fell within the reach of people with more practical ideas. During the first year after this great watershed, little of note appeared in the literary journals, but there was a paving of the way for future change through the gradual return to prominence of old-guard writers, editors, and critics from the 1930s through the early 1960s.
The first literary work to break significantly into forbidden zones was Liu Xinwu’s “The Homeroom Teacher” (People’s Literature, November 1977). Not only did Liu dare to put China’s problem of urban juvenile delinquency into print; he was even more bold, and eventually controversial, in his portrayal of a young woman whose “model leftist” characteristics—energy, unquestioning loyalty, puritanical attitudes, disdain for any view that does not originate in the official press—eventually turn her into an ignorant, insensitive bigot, as flawed in her own way as the juvenile delinquent is in his. Judged by the standards of two years later, “The Homeroom Teacher” seems rather plain; but the excitement it generated in late 1977 coursed through China’s literary grapevine as intensely as anything since. In the ensuing months, the cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai successively restored branches of the Chinese Writers’ Association and themselves became the scenes of some exciting publishing.
The next work to signal a significant change in the literary weather was Lu Xinhua’s “Scar,” published in the Shanghai newspaper Wenhuibao on August 11, 1978. Basing itself on the fact that the family unit is still supremely important in China, “Scar” tells of a young woman whose relations with her widowed mother (representing her family of birth) and her boyfriend (her would-be family of marriage) are both ruined by mindless and overwhelming political pressures in her environment. For readers, the story provided a vital connection between their own daily lives and the widely trumpeted symbolic evil of the Gang of Four. Although “Scar” is a very simple story, millions read it and thought: This family was ruined! My family was ruined! Bravo for this story! But critics asked: Can we allow a story to dwell on the negative, to elicit tears? Where will such a trend stop? Where are the heroic figures and the optimism of “socialist realism”?
While these questions were being debated on the pages of Wenhuibao and in conversations across the nation, many other stories like “Scar” appeared, until they came to be known collectively as “Scar literature.” Meanwhile the supreme weathermen at the top continued to call for a warming trend. In November 1978, the Tiananmen Incident was officially declared to have been a good, correct, and revolutionary movement. Although this decision might have been anticipated, it was a true surprise when, around the same time, the “rightist” labels were removed from everyone who had carried them since the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957. Why would the leadership do something this drastic? Were they really repudiating such a large and significant campaign? Fourteen months later, in January 1980, Deng Xiaoping made it clear that he was not repudiating the Anti-Rightist Campaign but only saying it had been too big.18 November 1978 had been, however, the planning time for the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Party Congress in December. This plenum was to unveil great plans for China’s modernization, and without the cooperation of intellectuals, such plans might look like a giant paper tiger. Viewed in this context, the blanket removal of rightist labels was certainly a prudent investment.
The Third Plenum proceeded to call upon intellectuals to liberate their thought, to break into previously forbidden zones, and not to fear a return of repressive policies. Although the purpose behind this appeal was the modernization of China’s economy, military, and science—not especially her art or politics—when the wind blows exceeding warm, the whole great land is inevitably heated. In literature and art, the first quarter of 1979 was the warmest season in thirty years.
In April, May, and June, the wind temporarily blew chilly again. Wei Jingsheng, the courageous young editor of the unofficial journal called Explorations (Tansuo), was arrested on March 29. Many editors cautiously donned another layer or two of clothing. In June a young man named Li Jian, representing “restrictive” opinion, published an article called “Praise and Shame” in Hebei Literature and Art. He argued that any writer who fails to remember the Great Chairman Mao or to sing the praises of the wonderful socialist motherland is shameful. This piece, although awkwardly written and from an unknown pen, captured national attention as a definitive statement of the so-called “praise faction”, i.e., people who supported the Maoist legacy and found “liberation of thought” to be irksome.
But soon the weather changed again. Wang Ruowang, an intrepid veteran literary warrior from Shanghai, attacked Li Jian’s “Praise and Shame” in an article called “A Cold Wind in Springtime” that was published on July 20 in Guangming ribao, the national newspaper for intellectuals. Overwhelmingly, intellectuals sided with Wang against the praise faction—now dubbed, popularly and less flatteringly, “the whateverists”—meaning that they supported “whatever” Mao said, now and for all time. Li Jian became a pariah; even his girlfriend left him, denouncing his whateverism, and he is said to have attempted suicide. Li Jian found reprieve only when Deng Xiaoping personally summoned him, Wang Ruowang, and editors from People’s Daily to meet and recognize together that young Li had made some mistakes, to be sure, but that the older people were also wrong simply to attack him. They should guide him instead.
The fine literary weather in autumn 1979 (and extending in the journals to January and February, 1980, because of the publication time lag) was even better than that of the early spring. In speeches at the Fourth Congress of Literary and Art Workers held in Beijing from October 30 to November 15, some long repressed writers brought standing ovations with their challenges to falsity, hypocrisy, and crass political intervention in literature. In addition, Hu Qiaomu, head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pressed for abandonment of the slogan “Literature in Service of Politics.” Hu argued that the record of the past thirty years showed the slogan to have done more harm than good. Members of the praise faction (Huang Zhen, Lin Mohan, Liu Baiyu, and others) were naturally opposed, and key bridge figures such as Zhou Yang remained temporarily uncommitted. But for the interim, while the debate continued, the slogan did disappear from the public media.
In December the chilly wind made its second return of the year. The closing of Democracy Wall in Beijing was much less important in itself than as a signal across the land. And only a month after the unofficial press had been endorsed in the communique of the Congress of Literary and Art Workers, pressure on all unofficial publications increased. The top leadership had apparently decided that it was time to direct the attention of youth away from contemporary social problems. Apparently to soften the blow, they allowed for the time being a certain stress on traditional and foreign literature and art—even such things as an occasional nude statue—so long as these served to reduce youth’s preoccupation with criticism of contemporary society.
The wind temperature dropped further with Deng Xiaoping’ s speech of January 16, 1980. Many youth, Deng said, had been infatuated with bourgeois liberalism and had overlooked the great distinction between socialist democracy and bourgeois democracy. In socialist democracy, literature and art must uphold socialism, Marxism-Leninism-Mao-Zedong-Thought, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the leadership of the Communist Party. While it may have been be acceptable to set aside the slogan “Literature in Service of Politics,” this of course did not mean that “literature can be separate from politics.”19
A month later, during the middle of February, the line was drawn more clearly for literature at a Conference on Playwriting in Beijing. Hu Yaobang, then Secretary General of the Party’s Central Committee, delivered the keynote address, a fact that signaled the importance of the conference. Amid an effusion of verbiage about encouragement of the arts, two film scripts and a play were cited as negative examples. One was “What If I Really Were?,” whose problems we have already reviewed. Another, a film script by Wang Jing called “In Society’s Archives,” tells how a fine young woman is driven to juvenile delinquency after she is raped by a high military official and his son.20 It was criticized for exaggeration. The third, “Girl Thief” by Li Kewei, although only mildly offensive compared to the other two, was criticized for sympathizing too much with a young gangster who runs circles around bumbling police.21
The basic principle that writers were supposed to infer from the Conference on Playwriting was formulated in a slogan that was widely publicized in March—“Writers Should Consider the Social Effects of Their Writing.” Leading critics cited examples of the ill effects of irresponsible writing. It was pointed out that somewhere in China children had murdered their siblings after viewing a violent foreign film. But the promulgation of the “social effects” slogan actually led to a mild counterattack from the advocates of tolerance. How, they parried, can a creative artist stand responsible for the immensely complex relations between a work of art and reader or viewer psychology? Or the even more problematic relations between reader psychology and reader behavior? When something goes wrong in society, why assume that it all started with writers? Since when are writers the most powerful influence in the environment?
The leadership had never intended, of course, that writers do research on what readers derive from literature. The behest to consider “social effects” was in fact a face-saving way to press leadership’s view of social effects, and one did not need opinion polls in order to grasp this view. The opponents of the policy knew this and followed the rules of the game by pointing out that the only true way to know the social effects of a piece is to let it be published so that the people themselves can decide. Thus, while everyone accepted the slogan superficially, the real issue was argued to a standoff. The wind grew no warmer, but the refreezing tendency also abated for a time. On July 26, the long awaited replacement for the slogan “Literature in Service of Politics” was unveiled. It was itself a carefully wrought compromise: “Literature in Service of the People and in Service of Socialism.” Writers would apparently still have more elbow room than during most of the last twenty years, but works that exposed social problems too baldly would be out of bounds.
By this time, the gifted writer Wang Meng had been experimenting for many months with literary form in ways that were popularly attributed to influences from “stream of consciousness.” These experiments, like exposure writing, drew considerable criticism. (“If I can’t understand a story, the masses can’t; and if the masses can’t, it doesn’t belong in socialist art.”) But in the latter half of 1980, Wang Meng’s experiment set a trend among a significant portion of China’s serious writers. Basically, it offered these writers a middle way between the Scylla of capitulation and the Charybdis of serious political trouble. But their interest in new techniques continued to bring the opposition not only of restrictivist critics but also of the bold advocates of social exposure, who continued to insist that a writer’s first duty is to speak for the people and to tell the truth.
A renewed plea for freedom of art was delivered in early October by the famous film actor Zhao Dan as he lay dying of cancer. “If the Party controls literature and art too closely,” he wrote, “literature and art are hopeless—they are finished.”22 Although this piece was published in People’s Daily and other Party organs, the final verdict on it, delivered from the very top, was negative. Indeed it may have been a factor in bringing about the nationwide movement in 1981 to curb “bourgeois liberalism” through criticism of Bai Hua.
The future of literary politics in China is impossible to predict; the only thing that seems certain is that it will remain a frequent topic of interested speculation. Two underlying forces, major and basically opposed, appear likely to continue causing fluctuation in the Party line, at least for the next few years. First, the top leadership, even if it changes, will not want to relinquish literature and art as tools to “engineer the souls” of readers. Second, as long as modernization remains a primary national goal (which it may not, if there is a change in leadership), the hand of the advocates of tolerance will be relatively strong. Scientists and engineers must be treated reasonably well if modernization is to succeed; although it does not follow that writers must also be treated well, any attack on them that is too severe will, for at least another few years, conjure fears of the across-the-board anti-intellectualism of the Cultural Revolution years. Moreover, China’s creative writers will remain a vital bridge between generations. Almost all of the top leadership is over sixty; the majority of the population, including the vast majority of readers of contemporary literature, is under thirty and quite conscious of being a different—and aggrieved—generation. Prominent active writers are a key group because nearly all of them are between thirty and sixty and share some characteristics with the two generations they bridge. The leadership can hardly be unaware of the dangers of silencing them. In sum, the literary weather in China will probably continue, as surely as the stock market, to fluctuate. But the extremes of 1966-72 on the cold side, and 1979 on the warm side, may not be exceeded for some time.
SOME NOTES ON THE PRESENT COLLECTION
This volume is conceived in part as a sequel to Kai-yu Hsu’s Literature of the People’s Republic of China (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980). It attempts the same broad representation of genres but focuses on 1979 and 1980, whereas the Hsu volume spanned all of 1949-79. Our choice of 1979-80 is not accidental, of course; these two years stand out clearly since 1949 in terms of the relaxation of controls on writers and the frankness with which writers were able to reveal some of the profound and complex problems in Chinese society and in recent Chinese history. The year 1956, with its short-lived “hundred flowers” atmosphere, is comparable in these regards but still falls far short of 1979-80.
It is less easy to say that 1979-80 were banner years artistically. Clearly, when the controls were relaxed, the literary quality of published works did improve along with its “outspokenness”; but in general the increase in quality was not as striking as the increase in outspokenness. Why? First we need to remind ourselves that, as pointed out earlier, the distinction between art and outspokenness has for a long time been less clear in China than in the modern West. In China, candor in behalf of one’s people and country has long been considered a primary duty of intellectuals and therefore a literary value in itself. Not surprisingly, the traditional sense of a responsibility to speak out has in recent years been magnified by the very fact of controls on expression. It thus can happen, ironically, that when the controls are eased and writers have more leeway to shape their artistic intuitions, they are impelled instead to use their new freedom to complain about controls. Thus when we think of the artistic harm done by the “scope” that writers must stay within, we are mistaken to think only about the fertile areas for inspiration that the scope rules out of bounds. More insidious, and ultimately more damaging, is the simple presence of the “scope” itself, which, even at its broadest, irritates writers enough to draw their attention away from art. Readers in China also become preoccupied with the scope question, and this fact explains why “pathbreaking” works that are highly praised by Chinese readers can seem quite dull to an outsider. Unless one understands how a “forbidden zone” is being opened, and can feel the exhilaration that comes when a long period of enforced silence ends, it is hard to appreciate a story that simply tells about an unfair bureaucrat, or an intellectual separated from his books, or a boy and girl who put love before class background. In the present collection we have tried to include some works with potential staying power for the non-Chinese reader. Liu Zhen’s “The Girl Who Seemed to Understand” and Xiao Yi’s “The Little Egg Girl” may be particularly successful in this way. But most of the works collected here are basically time-bound and culture-bound. The more one knows and cares about contemporary China, the more meaningful they will be. At a minimum, they are testimonies to human suffering that reached massive proportions in recent years in the world’s most populous nation. From this they achieve a certain dignity that transcends cultures, even if their expression is culture-bound.
There were some conspicuous flaws that recurred in the literature of 1979-80 which, for the sake of perspective, deserve a brief review here. The most important problem may have been the tendency to imitate. The theme of the heroic cadre, returning from persecution by the Gang of Four to shoulder the burdens of the Four Modernizations, was repeated nearly ad nauseam. Although badly battered, he is always as steady and trustworthy as your favorite uncle. He is self-sacrificing and very humble in spite of the fact that he is never wrong. In sum he embodies morality itself, and this shows in his physical appearance (graying temples if over fifty and bushy eyebrows if under) just as clearly as it does in the heroes of popular Chinese opera and pre-revolutionary popular fiction. Another popular holdover from earlier storytelling was the plot that turns on far-fetched coincidence—long-separated family members reuniting by chance or only because someone recognizes an artifact from childhood, etc. In the category of thrilling device, however, the far-fetched plot had to vie with a modern competitor—the flashback, and flash-back-within-flashback, mostly as adapted from Western film. Romantic love, perhaps because it was banned from the printed page for the decade 1966–76, became a hackneyed theme. Even stories whose main interest lay elsewhere often included a touch of melodramatic romance, almost as if a formula required it. Fewer in number, although equally hackneyed, were the accounts of army heroes and their glorious victories over the Vietnamese. But these stories, like the border war itself, were not very popular.
A tremendous volume of literature was published during 1979-80, making the question of a survey quite difficult. The present selection was made after considering suggestions from friends in China and from some of the contributing translators. Considerable emphasis has been put on illustrating the kinds of works that were popular and controversial, and thus there has not been enough space to represent many of the more important authors. Stories like “Maple” and “What Should I Do?” will frustrate the reader who is seeking literary art; they are included here for their popularity in China and for the role they played in the politics of literature during 1979. Similarly, “Cries From Death Row” is meant to give the Western reader a sense of the kind of sensationally accented stories of woe that were commonly told, orally as well as in print, during 1979-80. The comedians’ dialogues and clappertales are also included to illustrate popular tastes, and will be most appreciated by readers who are familiar with the performance styles of these genres.
In matters of translation, the editor and translators have emphasized both naturalness in English and fidelity to the Chinese. We feel that in literary translation faithfulness to tone—involving the attempt to write what a native speaker of the target language might write if inspired by the “same” thought (it is hard, of course, to say any thought is precisely the same in different languages)—can be just as important as faithfulness to denotative meaning. Our emphasis has involved trying to match the overall quality of writing in Chinese and English: harsh when it is harsh, subtle when subtle, immature when immature. The effort to give the volume a reasonable uniformity in approach to translation involved a protracted editing process that I know was a burden to some of the translators. My warmest thanks go to all the translators (both those who were oppressively edited and those who were not) for their fine work as well as their remarkable patience and good will over a preparation period that was too long.
For the convenience of the reader, all references to amounts of money have been converted to U.S. dollars at the 1979 exchange rate of approximately 1.5 Chinese yuan to $1. Other references to weights and measures in the metric system or in traditional Chinese units have been converted to pounds, feet, acres, etc., except that the metric system has been kept in a few scientific and technical contexts. Except for the introduction to “What If I Really Were?” by Edward M. Gunn, the introductions to individual pieces are by the editor.
This project was conceived and begun in China in 1980 under a fellowship from the Committee on Scholarly Communication with the People’s Republic of China. My sincere thanks go to the CSCPRC as well as to my Chinese host organizations, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Zhongshan University. My grateful thanks also go to the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California at Berkeley for support during this project and to China Quarterly for permission to reprint copyrighted lines from the three poems “The New Face of Judas,” “Desert Scenes,” and “Two Cents,” translated by W. J. F. Jenner. Finally, I am delighted to acknowledge my debt to Eugene Eoyang for coming up with the interesting title “Stubborn Weeds”—from his noctural subconscious, I understand.
1. See Bonnie S. McDougall, Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies, 1980); T.A. Hsia, “Twenty Years After the Yenan Forum,” in The Gate of Darkness (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968); and Merle Goldman, Literary Dissent in Communist China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967).
2. Under the slogan “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom, Let a Hundred Schools of Thought Contend,” intellectuals were urged to speak their minds in the latter half of 1956 and early 1957. See Hualing Nieh, ed., Literature of The Hundred Flowers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981, two volumes).
3. Even among urban readers, we refer primarily to high-school-educated youth. Older readers generally preferred classical literature, the politics of which, at least in 1979-80, were not considered a very important topic. The less educated urban readership preferred detective and spy stories, love stories, and martial arts tales, which in the late 1970s were also regarded as less important items for literary control.
4. Herman Ermolaev, Soviet Literary Theories, 1917-1934: The Genesis of Socialist Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press: Publications in Modern Philology, vol. 69, 1963), p. 167.
5. Prescribed reader preferences are easy to infer from the many policy statements and critical articles in the public press in China. Actual reader preferences are more difficult to determine. The statements and assumptions about reader preferences in this essay are based on: (1) interviews with editorial boards of literary magazines, book publishers, and newspaper literature columns in six Chinese cities; these boards in turn base their impressions on readers’ letters, their own annual surveys, and a system of pingshu dian (“review points”), where an appointed reader in a local work unit is given free literary materials in return for writing reports on how they are received among соworkers; (2) interviews with personnel of the New China bookstore; (3) library borrowing statistics; (4) reader preference surveys that are occasionally published in China; (5) 116 responses to my own questionnaire among readers in Guangzhou and Beijing; and (6) my personal impressions from talks with readers during 1979-80.
6. Some of Mao’s original ideas in the Cultural Revolution were aimed at improving conditions that the Cultural Revolution in fact made much worse, but that is another story.
7. Liu Xinwu, “Ban zhuren,” Renmin wenxue, no. 11, 1977; Lu Xinhua, “Shanghen,” Wenhuibao (Shanghai) August 11, 1978. Both stories are translated in Geremie Barme and Bennett Lee, eds., The Wounded (Hong Kong: Joing Publishing Co., 1979).
8. For example, in May 1979, the very popular magazine Masses Cinema printed on its back cover a color photograph of a Chinese actress and actor in the roles of Cinderella and her prince, kissing. In the August issue the editors printed a letter from a Party cadre in Xinjiang Province who was furious: “A foreign poisonous weed is attacking the Party and Chairman Mao!” The letter was so unbridled and outlandish that it drew an immense volume of biting rebuttal, and this pushed the door of tolerance just a bit further open.
9. See note 5.
10. In the survey for short stories, four of the five most popular (I do not know the fifth) were, in order, Jiang Zilong’s “Manager Qiao Assumes Office” (“Qiao changzhang shangren ji,” Renmin wenxue, no. 7, 1979); Chen Guokai’s “What Should I Do?” (“Wo yinggai zenmo ban?,” Zuopin, no. 2, 1979); Kong Jiesheng’s “The Other Side of the Stream” (“Zai xiaohe neibian,” Zuopin, no. 3, 1979); and Dai Qing’s “Anticipation” (“Pan,” Guangming ribao, November 25 and December 2, 1979). All were rather hard-hitting. Jiang Zilong’s story was officially awarded first prize. Chen Guokai’s story was listed eighteenth; Kong Jiesheng’s and Dai Qing’s were denied prizes, although Kong was rewarded by having another of his stories, much more innocuous, listed sixteenth. The survey of reader preferences in poetry was published in Wenyi qingkuang (Beijing), February 1980, pp.1-8.
11. Bai Hua and Peng Ning, “Kulian,” Shiyue (Beijing), no. 3, 1979.
12. One might suppose that, in the middle of this causal chain, the reason for singling out Bai Hua was indeed his film script “Unrequited Love.” But this would be to misconceive the process fundamentally. The reason for criticizing Bai Hua was that a societal tendency had to be curbed. The interesting question that relates to Bai Hua personally is this: Of many possible alternatives, why was Bai Hua the one picked as an example? The answer, alas, is obscure. Many theories have circulated through China’s grapevine, and some have appeared in the Hong Kong press. But it would serve little purpose here to review such theories or to explain my own, when the fact remains that no one outside China and only a tiny minority inside can know the truth. This circumstance is the same in more important cases, such as Lin Biao’s.
13. Hu Yaobang, “Speech at the Commemorative Convention of the Hundredth Anniversary of the Birth of Lu Xun,” in Guangming ribao September 26, 1981.
14. Many critics voiced this view in the spring of 1980. Probably the most important statement was from Chen Yong in People’s Daily March 19, 1980.
15. Deng Xiaoping, “On Our Present Situation and Responsibilities” (Beijing, February 1980), p. 20.
16. Most publishers in China give the size of print runs in the backs of books. But these numbers, which are the ones reported to the State Publication Administration, are not always accurate. The more active publishers often find informal ways to get paper supplies, sometimes more than half of their total supply, outside the State Publication Administration’s system. It is prudent for them not to indicate the resultant increased circulation of their preferred books.
17. For a fine introduction to literature in 1979 and the events that made it possible, see W.J.F. Jenner, “1979: A New Start for Literature in China?,” China Quarterly, no. 86 (June 1981) pp. 274-303.
18. Deng Xiaoping, “On Our Present Situation and Responsibilities,” pp. 6-7.
19. Deng Xiaoping, “On Our Present Situation and Responsibilities,” p. 23, and paraphrased from pp. 16, 17, and 36.
20. Wang Jing (pseud.), “Zai shehui de dang’anli,” was originally published in the unofficial journal Wotu (Beijing), no. 1, 1979; it was reprinted in the official journal Dianying chuangzuo (Beijing), no. 10, 1979.
21. Li Kewei, “Nu zei”, Dianying chuangzuo, no. 11, 1979.
22. People’s Daily, October 8, 1980, p. 5.