Past Imperfect

One Day in China: May 21, 1936

translated, edited, and introduced by Sherman Cochran, by Andrew C.K. Hsieh, with Janis Cochran
Yale University Press, 290 pp., $19.95

What we have here, resurrected, condensed, and translated into English, is a long-buried collection of short pieces about how things were in China on a certain arbitrarily chosen day forty-seven years ago, May 21, 1936. The original work was produced by the late Mao Dun, then already a leading figure among China’s younger radical writers—he died at eighty-five in Peking two years ago—and a group of fellow writers and editors working in the protected sanctuary of the International Settlement at Shanghai. Mao Dun had taken up a suggestion for such a book made in Russia two years earlier by Maxim Gorki at the First Congress of Soviet Writers. Gorki’s suggestion resulted in a book called One Day in the World, which first appeared in Russian in 1937.

Mao Dun had moved rapidly, inviting contributions from all over China and producing his result. One Day in China, in the fall of 1936 to score an impressive propaganda coup designed to have an impact on the special circumstances in China at that time. Its chief value now is as a reminder of a moment of now-forgotten history, and for the contrast it suggests about what was possible at that particular time for communist opponents of the dictatorial regime and what would be possible for any such opponents of the communists who rule it now, matters to which the American editors and translators of the present volume do somewhat less than justice.

The year 1936 foreshadowed convulsive happenings in China, in some ways not unlike the year 1939 did in Europe; it was a time of tremulous awareness of great events coming—blows, upheavals, changed lives for everyone. This atmosphere is well caught in this book in the opening of a story about an incident in a northern village:

Great winds blew before noon, loess covered the entire sky, and everything seemed gloomy and dark, quietly waiting for the wild winds to wreak destruction and cause disturbances.

Japan’s drive to make itself master of China had begun in 1931 with the invasion and occupation of China’s north-eastern provinces, known then as Manchuria, and had been inching slowly southwestward ever since. The waiting target now was the whole of what was called China Proper, vast, disorganized, ravaged by contending warlords and an oppressive social system inherited from a stubborn past, maintained by an assortment of misrulers wielding central, provincial, and local authority, deeply worsened by Japan’s encroachments and the worldwide economic depression.

Chief among these power wielders was Chiang Kai-shek, whose army and political party, the Kuomintang (now rendered Guomindang), ruling as the central government, carried his writ as far as they could from his capital at Nanking in central China. His rule was a harsh dictatorship in more or less fragile alliance with rival militarists elsewhere in the country, a regime of repression and terror aimed at all radical opposition. His prisons were full; the earth had barely hardened over the mass graves of the tens …

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