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Mao and the Writers

The Gate of Darkness: Studies on the Leftist Literary Movement in China

by Tsi-an Hsia
University of Washington Press, 266 pp., $7.95

Literary Doctrine in China and Soviet Influence 1956-1960

by D.N. Fokkema
Humanities Press, 296 pp., $11.50

Pa Chin and His Writings: Chinese Youth Between the Two Revolutions

by Olga Lang
Harvard, 402 pp., $7.95

The Hundred Flowers Praeger ($6.75) under the title, The Hundred Flower Campaign and the Chinese Intellectuals. It is now out of print)

by Roderick MacFarquhar
Atlantic Books, 324 pp., 50/(the Hundred Flowers was published in America in 1960 by

By the 1930s the intolerable quality of life and the inefficiency, corruption, and conservatism of the Kuomintang had driven nearly every serious creative writer in China to the Left. Most turned toward some form of Marxism, which not only offered the most convincing explanation of the appalling international and internal situation of China but also seemed to provide the best way of escape from it. But a common hostility to the Government and a common desire to build a new, strong, and just China did not impose any unity on the left-wing literary scene.

During the last thirty years radical writers in China have fought continuous literary battles on such issues as whether to use traditional forms or to import new ones; whether foreign models should come from the West or the Soviet Union; whether fictional characters should be morally clearcut or ambiguous. Whether books should try to elevate popular taste or whether authors should write for the people; whether revolutionary art can be completely utilitarian, or whether a writer under the direct control of the Communist Party can also be creative. Since the 1930s numerous complexities have been added to these and other controversies, and yet the issues and even the personalities involved have recurred with surprising regularity.

During the last few years several books touching on this topic have appeared in America. For Mr. Hsia Tsi-an, “Leftist” writers could hardly have been more antipathetic. When he was at the university in the 1930s, whenever other students went on strike in protest against Kuomintang oppression or Japanese aggression he would spend the day watching traditional opera. In the draft of his introduction—the book was compiled after his tragic death—he stated that he knew none of his radical contemporaries. At several points he gave the impression that for him a “Communist” was some sort of creature from outer space. While admitting that he approached some of the Communist writers of the 1930s from the outside, Mr. Hsia tried hard to understand them. However his sympathy was further hampered by his conviction that with two or three exceptions, notably the works of the great short story writer and critic Lu Hsun, the literary value of most Marxist writing in the period was nil. For instance, he described one young writer of immense popularity and wide political influence as “a back who had yet to prove that he could write a single good sentence.”1 Mr. Hsia loved complexity, subtlety, and paradox, all qualities strikingly absent in the writers he described. The only times when he could identify with them were their moments of pessimism or doubt.

Much the most interesting section of the book is on Lu Hsun and the League of Leftist Writers. The League was founded in 1930 as a cultural adjunct to the Communist Party, and it remained one of the leading radical organizations in Shanghai, until 1936, throughout the intense Nationalist persecution and the bitter internecine fighting of the Communist Party. A major reason for its survival was the patronage of Lu Hsun. Despite his Marxism, his savage social criticism, and his violent attacks on the Government, Lu Hsun, the greatest writer in modern Chinese, was far too important a cultural figure and far too well known internationally to be suppressed by the Kuomintang. Although he was not formally in control of the League still, when other radical intellectuals were arrested, executed, or forced to leave Shanghai, Lu Hsun remained a pillar of strength. At the same time, as his closest friends in the Communist Party were eliminated or fled to join the guerrillas in the Kiangsi Soviet, Lu Hsun, who had never become a member, drifted away from the Party. He turned increasingly to other non-party Marxists, notably his “first disciple,” a young writer called Hu Feng.

In the winter of 1935 the Communist Party in Shanghai called for an end to the civil war and a new United Front with the Kuomintang to fight the Japanese. Early in the following year, Chou Yang, a minor writer and critic who was becoming the Party authority on literature, disbanded the League of Leftist Writers and set up a new cultural organization open to all patriots and bearing the slogan, “Literature for National Defense.” Lu and his disciples believed this to be a betrayal of the revolution, and together with other left-wing writers they established an independent group, using the more radical slogan, “Mass literature for the revolutionary war.” Bitter polemics were exchanged between the two groups until Lu Hsun’s death from tuberculosis in October 1936.

In 1938 and 1939 there was a new flare-up, this time between Chou Yang, who was now with Mao Tse-tung in Yenan, and Lu’s disciples, many of whom stayed in “white zones.” The issues dividing the two sides were extremely complicated. Mr. Hsia and Merle Goldman, who describes the same struggle in the first chapter of her book, both emphasize the objections of Lu Hsun and Hu Feng to Chou Yang’s dictatorial methods and their insistence that the revolutionary writer can only be creative if he is given freedom. In the later stages of the literary battle a new issue emerged. Chou Yang and the official group argued that new writing should borrow from Chinese tradition so that the masses who were familiar with the old forms could easily understand it. Hu Feng and his colleagues, clearly following Lu Hsun’s thinking on the subject, maintained that as all Chinese traditions were vitiated by feudalism, progress was impossible unless the traditions were completely destroyed. Therefore they argued that an entirely new revolutionary literature should be created which should use only modern and foreign literary forms.

The next stage came during the spring of 1942. This was a time when the Japanese were pressing on the Communist guerrilla zones in North China with a policy—“burn all, kill all, destroy all”—of almost American ferocity. The Communists in their base area around Yenan also had internal problems and in February 1942 they launched a campaign of “rectification,” in which Party members were criticized and forced to make self-criticisms in order to straighten out their “style of work.” The movement lasted for over a year and spread to all areas under Communist control and even to radical circles beyond.

In the midst of what Merle Goldman calls “this confused atmosphere,” a group of writers published a number of essays and stories in the Party newspaper that were sharply critical of many aspects of Yenan life. Nearly all of these writers had been in Shanghai and several of them, including the famous woman novelist Ting Ling, had been associated with Lu Hsun. The writers, like many other students and intellectuals, had made the dangerous journey to Yenan and had accepted the rugged life there because they saw the Communist capital as the focal point of the struggle against Japan and as the center of new China.

In spite of their basic loyalty to the new society, and because of their high expectations of it, they felt severe dissatisfaction. Having lived and written under the Kuomintang, they were steeped in a culture of protest. For them, social criticism was a major function of political writing. Ting Ling, for instance, was in many ways like the present members of Women’s Liberation in America. An important reason for her revolt against the old society had been its treatment of women. Now she found that in a lesser way women were still being exploited and despised by the “revolutionaries.” They were expected to marry, have children and look after them, and were then looked down upon for being backward. In general terms she and the other critics attacked the Party cadres for their cynicism, insensitivity, and intolerance toward lower ranks, especially the young. Above all, and Merle Goldman sees this as the essence of all their criticism, they demanded the freedom, which had previously been denied, to write and publish honest descriptions of life as they saw it.

The criticisms began in February 1942 but in April the full blast of the “rectification” campaign was turned onto the critics. Merle Goldman believes that the intensity of this second part of the campaign indicates that the writers had originally been allowed to develop their ideas so that the challenges to Party discipline contained in them could be isolated and dealt with. This picture would seem to be confirmed by Mao’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art,” which he made in May 1942. In these he specifically dealt with many of the criticisms put forward earlier. Indeed most of the points raised in the Talks are incomprehensible unless one reads Merle Goldman’s background material.

While frequently referring to and quoting from Lu Hsun, Mao came out clearly against Lu’s attitudes in almost every respect. He opposed Lu Hsun’s school of independent social criticism and his disciples’ desire to describe the unpleasant aspects of the new society. He also took up the arguments previously championed by Chou Yang and attacked the critics’ rejection of all traditional art forms. He laid down the line that was to be followed in China until the 1960s:

Nor do we refuse to utilize the literary and artistic forms of the past, but in our hands these old forms, remolded and infused with new content also become something revolutionary in the service of the people.

Serve the people” was the key phrase in the Talks. Mao made it absolutely clear that there was to be no art for art’s sake, that art was to be purely utilitarian. He admitted that there were aesthetic criteria of good and bad, but he maintained that these should be subordinated to the nature of the political content. Aesthetic quality or skill increased the effectiveness of the political message. Thus high level work for the bourgeoisie was especially dangerous, while skillful work for the proletariat was good in itself and in its effectiveness in mobilizing the masses. According to Mao, the revolutionary artist should produce good straightforward work for the people, and to do this he should go to the people and become as much like them as possible.

Merle Goldman sees one of the main aims of the Rectification campaign as an attempt to incorporate the petty bourgeois writers from the cities into the rural mass revolutionary movement. Above all she sees it as a way of bringing writers to heel and of placing them firmly under Party discipline. She underlines this interpretation by describing the mass meetings and public denunciations organized against the critics and their subsequent removal from office and dispersal in the countryside to “reform their thoughts” through labor and contact with the masses.

By 1949 and the establishment of the Peoples Republic, most of the former critics had returned to positions of influence. They became officials in the Writers Union, professors in universities and institutes, and editors of literary journals. Within a few years they were joined by Hu Feng and other members of Lu Hsun’s school who had previously stayed behind Kuomintang and Japanese lines as critics of reactionary society. In the early 1950s, in spite of their acceptance into the new structure and some attempts to adapt themselves, Hu Feng and his colleagues maintained an independent stand. They continued to argue for the introduction of Soviet and Western forms to create a new revolutionary literature. They wanted a new socialist realism that would describe all aspects of the post-revolutionary society, not only its favorable ones. Hu Feng emphasized the importance of subjective vision and his belief that Party control over creative writers would stifle new literature. In particular, he attacked the bureaucratic power of his old enemy Chou Yang, who had become Vice-Minister of Culture.

  1. 1

    Here my linguistic limitations and the failure of modern Chinese to develop firm criteria of style make it impossible to challenge him.

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