The Uses of Literature: Life in the Socialist Chinese Literary System
Early in 1979 the Chinese officials in charge of culture declared that the Maoist ban on nineteen traditional classics and sixteen foreign works, including Anna Karenina, was lifted. On the day the books became available at a Beijing bookshop, a line of peo-ple two miles long formed and within a week all 800,000 copies were sold. Fights broke out among the customers jostling to buy the books.
The members of the Chinese reading public are hardly known in the West. In The Uses of Literature they are perceptively described by Perry Link, professor of East Asian studies at Princeton, and the author of some of the most revealing work on life in China, including his book on Chinese intellectuals, Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China’s Predicament.1 The Uses of Literature provides much unexpected information: the former mayor of Shanghai, we learn, has by now published two volumes of his decidedly mediocre collected poems; Mao provided a sample of his calligraphy for the masthead of the People’s Daily; the Chinese military command issued a list of thirty recommended novels to its soldiers; modernist poets can attract five hundred people to an outdoor reading that is held in the rain. At the same time, some of China’s best writers have been executed, or have committed suicide, or have been imprisoned for years because they violated the system of literary censorship, or “engineering,” that Mao imposed in 1942 and that still continues.
In Evening Chats in Beijing Professor Link, who has a remarkable command of written and spoken Chinese, reached some sad conclusions about the intellectuals he met while living in Beijing in the 1980s, when he was in charge of the China liaison office of the National Academy of Science. He found that university professors and writers died ten years earlier than the national average, that they were much more susceptible to illness than most people, that they were more poorly paid than urban office workers, and worked longer hours. They felt that their traditional duty was to youguo youmin, “worry about the country and the people.” Link observed that there was
a tension at the heart of the Chinese intellectual’s cultural identity that has from time to time over the centuries been the source of much personal ambivalence, pain, and sacrifice: it lies in the intellectual’s paradoxical relation to the state…. Long considered pillars of the state,…it is their duty as well to criticize and even oppose China’s rulers when these rulers compromise their moral authority.
This exalted but perilous status explains why, beginning in 1942 and continuing up to the recent purges of members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, virtually every campaign to impose the Party’s power on its subjects has begun with attacks on writers and other intellectuals.2
In his new, densely packed, and fascinating book, Professor Link has moved from describing the plight of Chinese intellectuals to an account of what books and publications the Chinese read and why, under a…
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