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Literature of the Wounded

His daughter says her father loved Yanan, which like the Americans who visited it during the war he compared to Kuomintang-controlled China and found it to be “a paradise of fairness.” Self-educated but brilliant, the young man from the provinces amazed his big-city comrades by placing first in the entrance examinations for the prestigious Academy of Marxist-Leninist Studies, where, when he was barely twenty, he became the youngest research fellow. It was in this Academy that fear turned the upright and idealistic Chang Shou-yu into the still upright but rigid and unyielding Communist who loved Jung Chang’s mother but blighted her life; thirty years later he would implore her forgiveness.

Jung Chang recalls that in 1942. Mao asked for open criticism of the Party’s failures, as he was to do again in the late Fifties after the Hundred Flowers. The effect was the same as in 1957: having, as he put it, “charmed the snakes from their holes,” Mao proceeded to punish his critics, who included leading intellectuals, such as the woman novelist Ding Ling. Some of the young research fellows, including Chang Shou-yu, had publicly called for individual expression and attacked the elite’s personal corruption. “Mao did not like what he saw, and turned his campaign into a witch-hunt,” says Jung Chang. Her father was accused by one of Yanan’s top ideologues, Ai Si-qi, of having “committed a very naive mistake,” and in what was an augury of decades of campaigns against intellectuals, Chang and his friends were subjected to months of group attack and self-criticism. They were charged with no less than causing chaos in Yanan and weakening Party discipline, “which could damage the great cause of saving China from the Japanese—and from poverty and injustice.”

This zheng-feng, or rectification campaign, came to a climax at the Yanan Forum on Literature and Art in 1942, at which Mao laid down once and for all the rules for China’s artists and writers to which they have been compelled, with more or less severity, to adhere ever since; it could be said that almost nothing worthwhile was written again.

Although what happened to Jung Chang’s father was a tiny side show in this mighty upheaval, his ordeal, which is not crudely described by the metaphor of brainwashing, was significant for understanding the rest of his life: it “turned him into a convert…. He regarded his harsh treatment as not only justified, but even a noble experience—soul-cleansing for the mission to save China.”

Jung Chang doesn’t fully explain what happened to her father, although her description of him and the rest of his life helps us to understand him. She mentions that the young dissidents at the Academy were led by a young writer called Wang Shi-wei. She says little about him, except that he was accused of being a Trotskyist and a spy. But Wang, the author of an essay called “The Wild Lily,” which was attacked as “a poisonous weed,” was the only one of the Yanan victims actually put on trial and, in 1947, when Mao was forced out of Yanan by Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, he was shot.3 As the Chinese expert Laszlo Ladany puts it, the Yanan purge “created a pattern which China was to find difficult to get rid of…. It culminated in the Cultural Revolution…. Mao made a number of fanatical converts who from their earliest days had only known one way of governing the Party and the country: namely the way Mao dealt with the Rectification campaign in the 1940s.”4

From then on Mao and his disciples tended to treat their critics like enemies. They terrified them, first by casting them out of the inner circle, which meant the victims suddenly became powerless, forcing them into detention or manual labor and, on occasion, shooting them. This should not be confused with Stalinism, which depended on one man, with enormous power, killing old comrades, singly or in great numbers, and eradicating religious and ethnic groups. Mao, by contrast, was a master at provoking the group, whether it was the Politburo or a cell in a primary school, into humiliating the people designated as legitimate targets. Although it was always possible that one could be executed, the prevailing fear among China’s Party members and intellectuals, until the mass killing of the Cultural Revolution, was of being isolated from guanxi—the Chinese web of alliances that protects individuals and their families. Avoiding this fate was a major preoccupation of Party life and is a core theme of Wild Swans.5

Eventually rehabilitated after his disgrace, around the time he met his seventeen-year-old future wife in 1948, Jung Chang’s father had become a famous guerrilla leader in Manchuria. They were instantly attracted to each other—she by his cultivation and cultural interests, his fine appearance, his habit of brushing his teeth each day, and his use of a clean handkerchief; he by her beauty, daring, and political maturity. And now for the first time De-hong encountered Party coercion and total control. “For those who had ‘joined the revolution,’ the Party functioned as the family head.” After securing Party approval to get married, the couple were literally on the point of climbing into their honeymoon bed when a Party representative arrived to take De-hong away “because of her family connections.” Two weeks later they were again given permission to marry. But “revolutionaries” were supposed to spend every night in their offices. De-hong used to sneak over a wall to her husband’s quarters and return at dawn. They were discovered. Each had to make a self-criticism. De-hong could not see “what harm [it] could do the revolution if she spent the night with her husband.” To her dismay he admonished her: “A revolution needs steel-like discipline. You have to obey the Party even if you do not understand it or agree with it.”

The reason for such insensitivity on the part of this unusually intelligent man, who deeply loved his wife and later his children, emerged fully in 1949. The young couple were ordered to travel, mostly by foot, over one thousand miles back to Sichuan, Wang’s native province, where by 1966 he would be one of the top officials. It was a grueling ordeal for De-hong, who although she didn’t know it was suffering the first pains of a miscarriage. Her husband’s rank meant he could travel by jeep. Although she was vomiting continuously he refused to carry even her bedroll because that would be nepotism (as opposed to the elitism which permitted him use of a car) and told her, “You have a choice: you can either get into the car, or get into the Party, but not both.”

Jung Chang is somewhat sympathetic to this on the grounds that the peasants would expect officials to be tough, and that her father had proved himself as a guerrilla fighter, but it seems to me that her father was frightened of criticism and its consequence—ostracism. It was regarded as disgraceful for a revolutionary to cry, Jung Chang says, and one night when her mother was weeping with pain her husband hurriedly clapped his hand over her mouth. Through her tears she heard him—the man who years before at Yunan had felt the blowtorch of Party discipline—whispering into her ear: “Don’t cry out loud! If people hear you, you will be criticized.” Later when she miscarried, and demanded a divorce, he apologized to her and washed her blood-soaked clothes, an unusual act for a Chinese man, Jung Chang observes. But when De-hong complained that “she could never please the revolution,” and might as well go home, he warned her, “That will be interpreted as meaning you are afraid of hardship. You will be regarded as a deserter and you will have no future…. Once you were ‘with the revolution’ you could never leave.”

Before long, when De-hong heard Mao proclaiming the victory of the revolution she scolded herself for her suffering—“trivial compared to the great cause of saving China.” But soon, and for the rest of her life, she realized “that my father’s first loyalty was to the revolution, and she was bitterly disappointed.” Six years later, in 1955, when De-hong was in detention for six months while her “class background” once again came under minute scrutiny, her husband—one of the top twenty Party officials in a province of well over seventy million people—never visited or telephoned. “As he saw it, to comfort my mother would imply some kind of distrust of the Party.” In 1957 De-hong told him, ” ‘You are a good Communist, but a rotten husband!’ My father nodded. He said he knew.”

In Chengdu, the provincial capital, because of her father’s extremely high rank (her mother’s was much lower, although she too had considerable power), Jung Chang grew up in a luxurious walled compound, surrounded by the squalor of the masses. Served by guards, chefs, and chauffeurs, she was entitled to see special movies and plays provided to the Party elite, and attended a “key school,” founded in 141 BC, for which she had passed the entrance exam with perfect marks in Chinese and mathematics. (Her “class background” had helped too, although her father cautioned her not to count on it.) She belonged, in short, to a group of “high officials’ children” (gao-ganzi-di), who had “an air which identified them unmistakably as members of an elite group, exuding an awareness of powerful backing and untouchability,” and because her father advised against close contact with such children, Jung Chang had few other friends and found that it was nearly impossible to form relationships with ordinary people. So sheltered was this life that between 1959 and 1961 when, according to Jung Chang, China’s great famine killed 30 million people, 7 million in Sichuan alone, or “10 percent of the entire population of a rich province” in which people were kidnapping and killing children for food, she knew nothing about the disaster—or “in fact, anything that might sow a grain of doubt in me about the regime, or Mao. My parents, like virtually every parent in China, never said anything unorthodox to their children.”

And here, as is so often the case in Wild Swans, Jung Chang provides us with part of the explanation for the success of the Mao cult. She observed that many Chinese believed that the Chairman had ended the civil war, brought peace and stability to China, and restored it as a great country in foreign eyes. The almost complete lack of information in China made it impossible to distinguish between Mao’s successes and failures—like the disastrous Great Leap and the ensuing famine—or even to compare his achievements with those of other Communist leaders. (Except, very quietly, within the inner circle: already in 1958, when the Great Leap was in full swing, her father had seen Marshal Ho Lung, one of China’s greatest military figures, point at Deng Xiaoping, and murmur, “It really should be him on the throne.” According to a popular song, “Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.” But “fear was never absent in the building up of Mao’s cult,” which meant, as Jung Chang notes, that even thinking was dangerous.

  1. 3

    This episode is described ably in Merle Goldman, Literary Dissent in Communist China (Harvard University Press, 1967) and in Gregor Benton, editor, Wild Lilies: Poisonous Weeds (Pluto Press, 1982), which includes the text of “The Wild Lily.”

  2. 4

    Laszlo Ladany, The Communist Party of China and Marxism, 1921–1985: A Self-Portrait (Hoover Institute Press, 1990), reviewed by Simon Leys in The New York Review, October 11, 1990.

  3. 5

    Lucian Pye has recently written astutely on the traditional Chinese subordination of the individual to the group, and how this worked to the advantage of the Party. The Party’s attack on individualism, Pye notes with special reference to the ordeal of Liu Binyan, “was directed at keeping the masses in line so that the leadership would be free to advance its interests, which could be quite personal and not necessarily in the national interest.” “The State and the Individual: An Overview Interpretation,” The China Quarterly, No. 127 (September 1991), p. 449.

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