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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 of thousands of victims killed during the decade since he had seized power on the crest of the great popular revolution that he brought to a sudden bloody halt in 1927. The surviving remnants of that movement were the communist-led peasant guerrilla armies under Mao Tse-tung and General Chu The (now rendered as Mao Zedong and Zhu De) holding remote districts in the hinterlands of the Yangtze Valley—hardly anyone now recalls that they used to be called the “Chu-Mao armies.”

Against these foes, Chiang led repeated “bandit-suppression campaigns,” while toward the Japanese he remained steadfastly nonresistant, hoping they would leave him in control of “his” China. In 1934, he had finally succeeded with the help of German military advisers in driving the communist armies out of central China to make their famous Long March to a more distant hinterland refuge in the far northwest. By methods increasingly borrowed from Italian fascist and German Nazi models (his anticommunist squads were known as “Blue Shirts” or “Blue Jackets”), he also succeeded in fragmenting what was left of the communist movement in his cities and driving its remnants deep underground.

But strong tides were forcing him to turn around. Generals already ousted from Manchuria and those threatened in the north were pressing Chiang to join them in confronting the Japanese. A popular anti-Japanese movement, partly inspired by the communists, but also nationalist and patriotic, had taken hold despite all the repression, and was kept alive by widespread student agitation and demonstrations, making it increasingly difficult for Chiang to cut down all anti-Japanese activity by calling it “communist.” The communists, conforming to the new “People’s Front” line adopted by the Communist International in 1935, offered to end the civil war and enter into a united front to fight the Japanese under Chiang’s command. It was a step that took them a long way toward their eventual conquest of power, putting them in the forefront of all the pressures converging on Chiang.

For his part, Chiang was forced to see that his choices were narrowing. He had served his aims of getting power by temporarily becoming a tool of the Russians in the 1920s, and then a client of the Americans, but there was no way he could serve his ends—he saw himself in his own way as a nationalist and a patriot—by becoming a Japanese puppet. So through most of 1936 complex negotiations went on, aimed at creating a new national front of struggle against the invaders with Chiang and his armies at its head. This was not accomplished until December that year when Chiang was “kidnapped” at Sian by the exiled Manchurian warlord Chang Hsueh-liang and released when a deal, largely the work of none other than Chou En-lai acting as Mao’s emissary, was finally made. In effect, it committed Chiang to resisting the next Japanese blow, which came in the form of an all-out invasion of the country the following year, beginning in July 1937.

The last half of 1936 was thus very much a time of passage. The communists were in transition from being all-out revolutionary opponents of the regime to becoming allied defenders of the nation against the foreign foe. Chiang was making his way from being a scorned nonresister to Japanese aggression and a persistent anticommunist campaigner to national leader of the resistance to Japan, with the communists at least nominally under his command. In the middle of these passages One Day in China was published. It was an early and notably successful item in the new communist propaganda campaign to promote the surging patriotic revival that would help force Chiang’s hand and hasten the moment of his decision.

Early in May, Mao Dun and his group announced their project in newspapers and magazines in many parts of the country. They invited anyone anywhere to write anything significant about their lives on that single ordinary day, May 21, and asked to have contributions in the mail by May 30. The response exceeded all expectations. More than three thousand replies came in. The board winnowed these down to 469. The book was rushed through the press and was published in September. This opportunity, Mao Dun wrote in his introduction, had “aroused the hearts of almost all those Chinese who were able to read…who are concerned about the destiny of our motherland, and who are eager to know the whole, true face of our motherland which is at this perilous journey. They have brought about a general mobilization of minds.”

The editors of the English version of this book cut its 469 pieces to eighty-four, making every effort, they say, to preserve the original spirit, balance, and variety of the material. If this is so, the book obviously had little in it that was any more casual and more everyday or less cast in a political idiom. We do not know how much of such material might have been included in the more than 2,500 pieces that were screened out of the original selection in 1936. The American editors tell us that they had hoped to ask Mao Dun what had happened to them, but unfortunately they did not reach him before he died. Besides cutting the book, the American editors also drastically rearranged it, replacing the original geographical distribution with a grouping under topics which they say recurred most often in the Chinese version: ” ‘Family’ and Women,” ” ‘Heads’ and Political Authority,” ” ‘Superstitions’ and Popular Religion,” ” ‘Chinese Traitors’ and the Enemy.” As used here, they explain, the word “family” means an “oppressive institution.” The word “heads” refers to “abusive local leaders.” The term “religion” equals “superstition” and “wasteful or misguided practices.” The term “Chinese traitor,” with a long cultural history of its own, is of course explicitly pejorative. These negatives prevail throughout, giving the whole a common point of view expressed in much the same tone and in large part in much the same style, one that is familiar in the numerous semi-legal or illegal radical publications of the period. The editors treat the political auspices of this project with odd circumspection, but they acknowledge that this was hardly a spontaneous result. “By its very design,” they note,

this project probably appealed more to the outspoken and disgruntled than to the contented or complacent…. [They] provide a largely critical comment on their society…. They share…a common…somber mood, and their picture of this one day is painted in dark hues.

Almost everything in the book, accordingly, is about misery, suffering, injustice, brutality, backwardness. These are described in tones of sadness, scorn, anger, protest. The similarity of style and idiom sometimes has a numbing effect, but not a little of this writing draws strength from the truth in so much of it. In the China of that May day in 1936, beggars did indeed cluster at the doors of places where the well-to-do ate well. Women suffered and often died young of overwork, malnutrition, and childbirth; many were victimized by deeply imbedded cultural mores, lived in slavelike subjection, were reduced to prostitution. Peasants were press-ganged into the army, forced to give labor and land, if they had it, to government road-building or “fortress”-building projects. Workers suffered precarious and helotlike conditions in factories. Officialdom at every level was more often than not arbitrary, callous, and cruelly exacting. Many people, especially young people, were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, killed as suspected communists.

These were powerful experiences and they were heavily described, sometimes in the passionately florid style of young writers caught up in the events and emotions of that time. In one extreme example, the author watches a Japanese South Manchurian Railway train pull into a station:

…puffing out smoke, baring its teeth, and showing its claws like a poisonous serpent…. It is this kind of train which has drawn more than 3,800,000 square li of my homeland into the tiger’s mouth…dragged more than 30 million of my elders and brothers into hell…brought in thousands and tens of thousands of tigers and wolves!

But here again, the reader may have to be reminded that these pieces have to be read not as fiction, but for the reality they reflect. The Japanese had in fact descended like a conquering horde on the northeastern provinces, had committed gross brutalities, were threatening to move on to make themselves masters of the rest of the country.

More casual, commonplace, or lighter touches appear only in the section dealing with “popular religion” in glimpses of simple folk going about wasteful rituals or acting on their misguided superstitions. Here too, to be sure, the approach is critical. All the pressure for change in China, whether for reform or for revolution, had been directed for half a century not only against foreign domination but also against the crushing burden of backwardness in the society with its heavy weight of custom and belief still governing the daily lives of most of its people.

Indeed, the Kuomintang government, itself the product of a “modern” nationalist movement, prided itself on its constitutional and legal bans on many customary practices, as in matters of marriage and the status of women, for example, but unfortunately these bans were for foreign consumption only and had gone uniformly unenforced; the customs continued to be practiced, indeed, by many in the regime itself. For the more radical, and certainly for the communists, much of the old high culture and just about all the “low” or popular culture continued to be seen as a drag on emancipation and modernization. But here the offenders were the people themselves and the “people”—especially for People’s Fronters—could never be the villains, only the victims. Hence the tone in pieces about these matters shifts to a sadly disapproving critical description of the illiterate masses dealing with the varieties of good and evil spirits who dominated their daily lives.

In a section headed “The Intrusion of Christianity,” the tone becomes rather sharper, the Christian missionaries having been seen as the flag bearers for the hated foreign imperialisms that had reduced China to its sorry plight. The Marxist judgment turns up at the end of a piece describing a Christian service:

In the midst of the wailing of holy hymns, I walked out. Biting my lip, I thought to myself:

Religion, like opium, is more than ever poisoning both innocent young people like us and children!”

In a description of a missionary preaching to a crowd on a street in front of a village temple appears this sharp vignette:

Within the crowd stood a tall Western woman, like a whooping crane in the middle of a flock of chickens. She had a small white hat, glasses perched high upon the bridge of her nose, a long light blue dress, white skin, and red shoes. She held her head high, shifted her gaze up and down, and, as she held a picture up high with her left hand, she pointed at it with her right hand. She addressed the group in halting, not very fluent Chinese. I turned to look at the picture, and it was of the man who was nailed to the cross.

I kept walking because I certainly had no time to listen to her great ideas.

The editors of the translated version of this unusual book seem naively intent on establishing the politically “independent” character of the enterprise and its sponsor, the Literary Society, which together with its associated publishing house functioned in limited safety in Shanghai’s foreign-protected International Settlement. The editors stress that it was not “affiliated” either with Chiang Kai-shek’s government or with the communists. In fact, the society was a precarious haven for “liberal” Chinese writers and intellectuals, among whom not a few, like Mao Dun himself, were communists or as close to the Party as they found it possible to be at a time of considerable disarray and disorganization in the Shanghai underground. Of the ten members of Mao Dun’s editorial board for One Day in China—all prominent writers, scholars, editors, journalists—five were liberal figures and five were in fact members of the Communist party. (One of them, Jin Jonghua, who became vice-mayor of Shanghai in the communist years, committed suicide in 1968 while being held prisoner by his comrades in their so-called Cultural Revolution.) That they were able to bring off this propaganda coup with such success showed not only how much weaker the government’s controls had become but also how remarkably adaptable the communists were.

In countries like France and Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, the new “People’s Fronts” created that same year required that the communists join with parliamentary reformist socialists whom they had just been calling “social fascists.” In China, however, this required making peace with none other than the communists’ enemy and executioner with the bloodiest hands, Chiang Kai-shek himself. Under the abruptly revised rules of the game—One Day in China was an early exercise, a kind of trial run—Chiang had to be exempted from direct personal attack. The pieces in the book reflect the beginning of this shift. As Mao Dun describes them in his introduction, they deal with travail in the villages “under all kinds of domestic and foreign destruction and invasion”—a guarded swipe at Chiang’s anticommunist campaigns; with “local bullies and evil gentry”—and not with higherup officialdom or landlords as a class; with “Chinese traitors who have become ‘claws for the tiger,”’ and with the “dissipation and indulgence of the rich,” and “the writhing masses on the edge of starvation.” Communists were to be described not as the vanguard fighters of the workers’ and peasants’ revolution but as “the patriots devoting their lives to the people’s revolution.”

Whatever can be said about this book, produced by communists as a picture of life in China under Chiang Kai-shek in 1936, one thing is sure: no comparably critical picture of China under the communists now could be produced by anyone today. No “independent” group, much less a thinly disguised revolutionary group, could invite, much less receive and publish, such critical reports about the system in which they are living. Mao Dun, who became minister of culture in the communist government a few years after it took power in 1949, was dismissed in 1966 and spent the years between 1966 and 1978—the period of Mao’s Cultural Revolution—confined to his house in Peking, kept safe there only because of the direct personal patronage of the premier, Chou En-lai. He spent all that time reading classics, he told me when I visited him there in the fall of 1980, never writing a single word because he did not dare.

In 1979-1980 there was a brief flareup of popular anger and revelation about official oppression and injustice during the years of the Cultural Revolution. But it was quickly extinguished. The few young dissidents who spoke out not just against individual suffering but against the Party itself and its system ended up in prison. The communist dictatorship that rules in Peking now is something less than the nightmare it became under Mao and the “Gang of Four,” but it is infinitely more thorough in controlling all channels of expression in the country than Chiang’s Kuomintang dictatorship ever managed to become.

As for One Day in China, in its resurrected, condensed, translated form, the most one can say is that it has an archaeological interest, bits and pieces of experience and perception dug out of a crumbling, disappearing slice of time; it is composed of parts of fossils and bones that are distinguishable in themselves, but, as put on view in this book, these are not enough to build the entire extinct body from which they came.

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