Chinese Shadows

Love in a Fallen City

by Eileen Chang,translated from the Chinese by Karen S. Kingsbury and Eileen Chang
New York Review Books, 321 pp., $14.95 (paper)

In 1920 a young Chinese poet named Guo Moruo published a poem called “The Sky Dog,” which begins:

Ya, I am a sky dog!
I have swallowed the moon,
I have swallowed the sun.
I have swallowed all the planets,
I have swallowed the entire universe.
I am I!

After swallowing the universe the dog keeps going for twenty-one more lines, until, at the end, “The I of I is about to explode!” In fact, the writer moved on to a career of fame as poet, translator, literary organizer, archaeologist, and government bureaucrat. He also gradually acquired a reputation among Chinese intellectuals as one of the century’s greatest political sycophants. In 1977, a year before his death, he published a poem called “I Sing of the Third Plenum of the Tenth Congress of the Communist Party of China.” Aimed at “smashing the Gang of Four,” the poem is a work of crude propaganda.

Guo Moruo was extreme in several ways, but his career describes a general pattern in twentieth-century Chinese letters. In the early decades of the century there was a sense of challenge, adventure, and openness in the Chinese literary world. Break with the past! Explore Western literature! Investigate society! Plunge into the future! Build a better China! Few writers in those days saw any reason to set limits on their imaginations or submit to constraints on their writing. But in the 1930s, Japanese attacks on China began to bring a change of mood. The threat of invasion seemed to warrant a concentration on resistance, and this in turn was taken to require coordination of national efforts in order to defeat the enemy. Writers began to accept, indeed to embrace, limits on what they published.

The Communist movement had an important part in shaping what was called “National Resistance Literature,” but few Chinese writers in the 1930s foresaw how powerful the effects of communism eventually would be. In his “Talks on Literature and Art” in 1942, Mao Zedong called for

keeping to Party spirit and Party policy. Are there any of our literary and art workers who are still mistaken or not clear in their understanding of this problem? I think there are.

After the revolution in 1949, Mao’s orders to follow the Party began to apply throughout mainland China. Writers fell under what Chu Anping, a liberal newspaper editor (who was purged in the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957 and died, apparently by suicide, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966), aptly called “the world of the Party.” In this world, the leaders and the administrators gave the writers subjects to deal with; they let them know if they got things wrong, and punished them if they kept getting them wrong. Much has been written about the problems caused by this system.

Not nearly enough, though, has been written about the deeper influences that the “world of the Party” had on Chinese writing. Much more than the choice of subject was involved. Heroes and villains …

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