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Writers in a Cold Wind

Link has much to say about the different and often contradictory “uses” of literature in China. These included, and still include, both conveying correct political attitudes and showing resistance to them; educating people about the rest of China and about the outside world; announcing shifts in national policies and circulating criticism of them. As he observes, Chinese like to read superficial popular literature, much of it junk, “but this only deepens the mystery of how something simplistic or thin could occupy the very central place in life that literature in socialist China obviously did.”

One of the more interesting intellectuals in Link’s Evening Chats in Beijing is Dai Qing, a former physicist who became a dissident while staying apart from the groups that were critical of the regime. Imprisoned after Tiananmen, even though she was an outspoken critic of the student leaders, she has now visited the United States several times. Members of her family were prominent revolutionaries and, drawing on her connections with them, she has become an unusually perceptive historian of the Party. In a few words she explains better than almost anyone else why it is that Chinese sometimes appear bizarre in what they consider worth reading or watching. She told Link:

…You should imagine living in a dark room with all the shades drawn. If one shade goes up—just a crack—the light that enters is suddenly very interesting. Everyone will rush to look. People in a normally lit room would find the same ray of light unremarkable.

She went on to say that another aspect of the fascination with what is written is the inquiry—and this is a major theme—into “How did we end up in this mess. Where did we go wrong?”

Professor Link skillfully dissects the elements of official censorship as it was practiced until fairly recently. When it came to entertainment, for example, the Party considered how much of it should be allowed, especially as radio and television became more available and literacy widened. It is hard to imagine how boring life had been for most Chinese, including those who lived in cities and belonged to relatively privileged groups. Until very recently, there was little by way of movies, theater, or opera, there were few museums or public parks, and shops had little to sell. Anything new in a shop window, anything unexpected in a film, book, or magazine article, could be fascinating, Link writes, “simply because it existed.” In each case, Party officials asked essentially the same questions about the work they were considering: Should it have political or improving content? Was it at least “harmless”? An official group wrote in 1983 that a radio series on fiction “enables the audience, while enjoying themselves, to receive moral and ideological lessons and to refine their character and taste.”

Of course, among the elite, for whom a far broader variety of entertainment was available, including foreign books and films from special shops, many of these standards did not apply. In the late Seventies more than 1,500 titles were published for “internal,” i.e., privileged, use, many of them about well-known historical figures. They included the memoirs of Nixon, Khrushchev, Zhukov, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman. There were also biographies of Gerald Ford, Napoleon, and Henry Kissinger, and novels such as The Ugly American, Love Story, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and Roots. The circulation of such books gave rise to a well-known joke: much that came from “without” or “outside” was confined to “within” or “internal.” (Such internal publication was part of what was called tequan or “special privilege,” one of the aspects of life that many Chinese regarded as especially corrupt. Before very long many of the internal publications quietly slipped into more general circulation.)

Professor Link observes that sometimes, when one would least expect it, the system of censorship broke down. During the Cultural Revolution anecdotes about Mao’s notorious love life—he liked to have several girls in his bed at the same time—were circulated in hand-written form by some of the Red Guards, most of whom professed to worship the Chairman. A 558-page book of these anecdotes called Mao Zedong and His Women was compiled in 1980.

What did the everyday readers like? The most popular works were traditional in form. They were often magical and mysterious, stories about ghosts, martial arts, and heroes. Such stories were especially popular when read on the radio. From the early Eighties onward, Professor Link writes, “popular literature and film became important as a kind of explorer’s skiff into the wide world outside.” Already in 1979 one of the most popular books in China was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. (When I was a student in Taiwan in the late Fifties this was already a big favorite there. Many of my Chinese friends thought London was always shrouded in fog and that Holmes, Watson, and Moriarty were real.) In mainland China The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile sold a million copies each. Romance, too, was extremely popular, especially when lovers died for love. Much pornographic literature was copied by hand. Professor Link says that Chinese were amazed when Western movies began to appear in which people spoke and made noises while making love. So cramped were the accommodations of most of his friends that they supposed sex was always conducted silently. “In sum,” he writes,

the popular Western notion of monolithic media in Communist China is too simple…. The natural tendency of people to think, say, and hear what they like, and to pursue a variety of purposes, always found ways to ooze through or around the monolithic structures, preventing their final petrification and allowing complex and changing patterns of communication to continue.

This was important in a society where, as the writer Zhang Xianliang metaphorically observed, “When people get up in the morning, they put on their underwear, then their clothes, then a padded coat, and finally they wrap themselves up in an invisible suit of armor, before going out…. What appeared on a person’s outside was his or her biaoxian or ‘showing.’”

Such a view is hardly surprising in a society where for years one could be sent into long internal exile for accidentally defacing a picture of Mao, and where after Mao’s death in 1976 people still had to deal with “warm” and “cold” winds. Cultural policy could suddenly relax or tighten on orders from the top, and to display one’s genuine feelings could be dangerous.

In Evening Chats in Beijing Professor Link describes how, in the late 1980s,

my routine work in Beijing presented a daily contrast between the “official” and the “unofficial” modes of expression…. One I heard in my office, at meetings,… in any formal business concerning formal arrangements…. The other I heard after hours, in the homes of Chinese friends and in other informal situations…. Both kinds of language are fully “real”; and are equally essential in getting along in Chinese life.

One could say the same about life in New York and London as well as Beijing, but in China there could be literally deadly consequences for uttering an “informal” thing in a “formal,” that is to say a public, place. It meant a lot when someone else dared to write something that might express one’s innermost feelings. In 1981 Bai Hua, an army writer, was attacked by officials throughout China for a film script called Unrequited Love, in which a daughter said to her dying father, “You loved your country but your country didn’t love you.” Deng Xiaoping was rumored to have seen a private screening of the film and exclaimed, “This won’t do.” But for many people Bai Hua now became an admirable person precisely because he was attacked.

Similarly, for a brief period after Mao’s death there was an outpouring of what was called “scar literature”—stories, novels, and poems about personal suffering during the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping himself approved such writing as long as it discredited the later Mao years. But he concluded, Link writes, that “further critical probing of the Maoist period would undermine the authority of the Communist Party itself, and that was something he could not risk.”5 This taboo on discussing the years between 1966 and 1976 made it impossible for people to confront a bitter truth: that millions of Chinese had persecuted and often killed other millions of Chinese, and that the terrible decade was not wholly the work of the Gang of Four, whose trial in 1980 was supposed to end discussion about the Cultural Revolution.

But as Professor Link observes, even during the most tightly controlled periods, “the mental space that literature can open within relatively closed societies has special importance that people accustomed to open societies do not easily appreciate.” During the years between 1966 and 1976 Madame Mao had decreed that “eight model operas” were virtually the only form of mass entertainment that would be permitted. They attracted huge audiences. When I saw some of them performed in 1972, I found them trite, unconvincing, and baldly propagandistic. Professor Link explains that people came in large numbers partly to learn about current government policies; they could tell from them what was in, what was out. But most of all, he writes,

the color, music, choreography, and general excitement of the performance situation was hard to find anywhere else; and they came also because the content of the operas, however narrow and sterile, still provided some space in which a viewer’s mind could exercise itself….

And of course peoples’ minds changed. In the Fifties audiences silently watched films in which guerrilla heroes leaped into battle and shouted one after another “I am a Communist party member!” In 1981, according to a writer who recalled the earlier performance, there was “sarcastic laughter during the same scene.” More important, in the post-Mao years the kind of investigative reporting of official incompetence that resulted in Liu Binyan’s eventual exile was increasingly popular. So were stories and novels about corruption, which the Party tended to condemn as “negative,” while also recognizing that reading such “bad news” could provide an outlet for popular frustration. It became possible, for example, although only briefly, to publish stories about officials who advanced their careers by lying about grain production during the great famine of 1959–1961, when some 30 million people died. What was deemed “negative literature” was in fact considered good literature by millions. Indeed, Professor Link says, “In 1986, a survey of film audiences in five cities…found that official praise for a film actually reduced the likelihood that people would go to see it.”

In 1980 a writer in Guangzhou recalled the observation of Lu Xun, one of the most talented writers of the late Twenties and Thirties, about the eighteenth-century novel Dream of the Red Chamber. When they read it, he wrote, “classicists see The Book of Changes [“I-Ching”], Daoists see pornography, romantics see pathos, revolutionaries see anti-Manchu spirit, and rumor-mongers see a trove of secrets.” The writer in Guangzhou argued that one work could therefore produce many “social effects.” Professor Link writes in this spirit when at the end of his book he discusses the question of what is “good” literature. Here he warns that

It is an especially unfortunate mistake to look at the crass intrusions of the state—its “engineering” and its literary control system—and conclude that the people who suffered those intrusions must have been equally unsubtle…. When truth-telling and subtlety are restricted and become dangerous, they become rarer even as the public need for them grows stronger, and their value can soar beyond what it would be without the system that restricts them.

In 1980 a story appeared called “The Ninety Percent,” referring to a statement by Mao that 10 percent of the Chinese population was “bad” and deserved punishment while the other 90 percent was “good.” In blunt language the author describes the different ways the 90 percent were persecuted during the Maoist era. The writer received hundreds of letters, praising him for showing that during the terrible years not only had political leaders and famous intellectuals suffered, but ordinary people had as well. Such a response can still be dangerous for a writer, and one of the saddest effects of the Communist regime has been to drive many of China’s most talented people abroad.

To the fury of the regime, last year the Nobel Prize for Literature went to the dramatist Gao Xingjian, who left the mainland for France in 1987 and became a French citizen two years ago. He lives in a small flat on the outskirts of Paris. The authorities have denounced him as mediocre and not Chinese. This was to be expected. What is surprising and hopeful is that some of China’s most respected writers praised the award. Four of them wrote to the official Chinese Association of Writers protesting its characterization of the award of the prize to Gao as “politically motivated.” Gao, they said, had brought “glory” to Chinese writers. Mo Yan, whose novels Red Sorghum and The Garlic Eaters are admired in the West, said that Gao had made an “enormous contribution” to Chinese drama, and Wang Anyi, also read abroad, said that where a Chinese writer lives is unimportant. What counts, she said, “is whether a Chinese can contribute to human culture.” The editor of a literary magazine reported that when Gao’s prize was announced thousands of delighted people appeared at a bookfair in Nanjing to celebrate.6

I believe these reactions to Gao’s triumph show that the Chinese Communist Party’s influence on literature is now limited to its power to censor and frighten. But as Perry Link has shown in his excellent book, this power remains considerable. During his recent visit to Hong Kong, Gao gave lectures at two universities but was shunned by the city’s political leaders, who would normally have extended themselves to welcome a Chinese Nobel Prize winner. It is only when writers like Liu Binyan and Gao Xingjian can return to China and write as they please that we will know the system has truly changed.

  1. 5

    Scar literature takes its name from Lu Xinhua’s story “Shanghen” (“Scar”), translated as “The Wounded” by Bennett Lee and Geremie Barmé in Lu Xinhua et al., The Wounded: New Stories of the Cultural Revolution (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing, 1979), pp. 9–24.

  2. 6

    A new book about Gao supplies much information about him and his work: Henry Y.H. Zhao, Towards a Modern Zen Theatre: Gao Xingjian and Chinese Theatre Experimentation (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 2000).

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