Early in 1979 the Chinese officials in charge of culture declared that the Maoist ban on nineteen traditional classics and sixteen foreign works, including Anna Karenina, was lifted. On the day the books became available at a Beijing bookshop, a line of peo-ple two miles long formed and within a week all 800,000 copies were sold. Fights broke out among the customers jostling to buy the books.

The members of the Chinese reading public are hardly known in the West. In The Uses of Literature they are perceptively described by Perry Link, professor of East Asian studies at Princeton, and the author of some of the most revealing work on life in China, including his book on Chinese intellectuals, Evening Chats in Beijing: Probing China’s Predicament.1 The Uses of Literature provides much unexpected information: the former mayor of Shanghai, we learn, has by now published two volumes of his decidedly mediocre collected poems; Mao provided a sample of his calligraphy for the masthead of the People’s Daily; the Chinese military command issued a list of thirty recommended novels to its soldiers; modernist poets can attract five hundred people to an outdoor reading that is held in the rain. At the same time, some of China’s best writers have been executed, or have committed suicide, or have been imprisoned for years because they violated the system of literary censorship, or “engineering,” that Mao imposed in 1942 and that still continues.

In Evening Chats in Beijing Professor Link, who has a remarkable command of written and spoken Chinese, reached some sad conclusions about the intellectuals he met while living in Beijing in the 1980s, when he was in charge of the China liaison office of the National Academy of Science. He found that university professors and writers died ten years earlier than the national average, that they were much more susceptible to illness than most people, that they were more poorly paid than urban office workers, and worked longer hours. They felt that their traditional duty was to youguo youmin, “worry about the country and the people.” Link observed that there was

a tension at the heart of the Chinese intellectual’s cultural identity that has from time to time over the centuries been the source of much personal ambivalence, pain, and sacrifice: it lies in the intellectual’s paradoxical relation to the state…. Long considered pillars of the state,…it is their duty as well to criticize and even oppose China’s rulers when these rulers compromise their moral authority.

This exalted but perilous status explains why, beginning in 1942 and continuing up to the recent purges of members of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, virtually every campaign to impose the Party’s power on its subjects has begun with attacks on writers and other intellectuals.2

In his new, densely packed, and fascinating book, Professor Link has moved from describing the plight of Chinese intellectuals to an account of what books and publications the Chinese read and why, under a regime that continues to regulate much writing even as the state otherwise partially opens up. The government’s drive to assert control can most recently be seen in the treatment of two internationally praised works. After the film Devils on the Doorstep, which takes place during the Japanese occupation of China in 1944, won the Grand Prize last year at Cannes, its director, Jiang Wen, was told that it cannot be shown in China. The official critic said the film would hurt the feelings of the Chinese people because of the racist language used by the Japanese soldiers—language that would come as no surprise to Chinese audiences. Mr. Jiang says of the ban: “There’s terror all around me. But I can’t see what’s going on.”

The novel Waiting by Ha Jin, who was brought up in China and is a veteran of the Chinese army and now teaches English at Emory University, won the National Book Award in 1999. It evokes the general corruption and cynicism in daily life, especially in the army, during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. Few Chinese would dispute Ha’s account. But the Beijing publisher who initially called Waiting a “masterpiece” has now been forced to turn it down and says only that “we editors have to obey.”

Professor Link provides the best description and analysis I have read of how literary controls have been imposed during the last five decades. He writes:

To understand how socialist China’s literary control system worked, the Western observer must first set aside deeply ingrained notions about the pri-macy of the writer. In the design of the system, the primary relationship, which all the other relationships were supposed to support, was that between top leadership and readers. The purpose of literature was to lead readers to think what the leadership determined it was best that they think.

Mao set down the general line in 1942 at a conference on literature at his guerrilla headquarters at Yan’an, held while the Communists were fighting both the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, which gives an idea of how important the Party considered literature and art to be.3 Mao’s views were published as Talks at the Yan’an Conference on Literature and Art, a work that is still invoked even though its influence has faded. Literature, Mao said, must “serve” by teaching politics to readers and by supporting the policy of the moment, whether it emphasized resisting Japan, or killing landlords, or making steel in the backyard. At all times what the leadership deemed to be “correct” was the standard to be used by both those who wrote books and those who evaluated them. Citing the words of Stalin and Lenin, Party theorists said the task of literature was “engineering readers’ souls,” and they described writers as “screws” in the socialist machine.


During the Forties and early Fifties, according to Professor Link, many Chinese were happy to read stories about the resistance to Japan and the revolutionary struggle. Widespread disenchantment with the prescribed canon set in when things began to go wrong, later, during the great famine, between 1959 and 1961, and during the Cultural Revolution, between 1966 and 1976, although, as Link writes, even the most blatant propaganda might give some enjoyment to audiences starved for any kind of entertainment. For a brief period, he says, the Party line and readers’ ideas about literature converged after Mao’s death in 1976, when it suited Deng Xiaoping to denounce the Maoist years. As soon as the criticism appeared to be turning against the Party itself, it was banned.

As policies were promoted or abandoned, the problem for writers and readers was to figure out what was a “warm” or “cold” wind, a “fragrant” or a “putrid” flower, a “healthy” or a “diseased” work. “Everyone…took it for granted that the leadership could decide the fate of any literary work,” Link writes, but “by the time a wind blew all the way down from the mountaintop, having been repropelled by functionaries at many intermediate stations, only its temperature was sensible in the valleys.” Taking the temperature was a specialized art. A satiric sketch published in 1980—during a warm wind—of a political leader or director making judgments is quoted by Link:

[The director’s] right-hand man transcribed everything the director said with lightning speed, scrupulously including every tiny inflection and evocative grunt or sigh. It would be a great mistake to dismiss those little “ahhs,” “hmms,” “wells,” “tsks,” and so on. These little noises would be of inestimable value to all the subordinates in their efforts to puzzle out and comprehend the head man’s thinking.

Amusing—except that Chinese readers, while chuckling mordantly, knew that it could be literally lethal for writers to mistake such signs. Mao himself admitted that he had to keep his wits about him at Party meetings so as not to appear to nod approval of a suggestion that could cause trouble. A friend of mine who was an interpreter for top officials in meetings with foreigners told me how careful they had been to note every nuance of the meanings of their fellow Chinese leaders, including their body language; they would ask them whether their words had one meaning and not another. They were constantly on guard against saying the wrong thing.

Here Professor Link is at his most subtle and useful. During the entire period of Mao’s rule, the campaigns against intellectuals and especially writers spared hardly anyone. There were no compromises or gray areas and plenty of physical punishment and killing. But even after Mao died in 1976 and the violence subsided, fear remained. “…The vivid and widespread memory of such things,” according to Link, “coupled with the uncertainty of Chinese politics, was enough to make even mild criticism an effective deterrent.” This should be kept in mind by those who insist that in China nowadays practically anything goes in literature and art. This year alone the banning of work by Ha Jin and by filmmaker Jiang Wen shows how repressive the government can be when it wants to remind writers and artists that they have to stay in line. As the Chinese saying goes, people bitten by snakes fear ropes forever. Link writes:

The resulting self-censorship in the Chinese system was, in general, more effective than the explicit editorial censorship…. There were no blacked-out characters, no blank pages,…in short, no external signs of any kind that the leadership was suppressing dissent.

There are of course exceptions. In one set of photographs from 1980, we see Madame Mao, while in an otherwise identical set—taken after her trial and imprisonment—she is airbrushed out, Soviet-style. Professor Link judges the Chinese system of censorship to have been less brutal than its Soviet counterpart, but no less effective. Chinese writers, unlike Russians, had little foreign support. “But most important, the psychological engineering of the Chinese system, operating subtly but powerfully on feelings of fear and calculations of risk in particular situations, created greater inducements to self-censorship….”


Still, Professor Link shows that while controls continue to exist, the possibilities for readers—as the Australian scholar Geremie Barmé also has shown4—are more open than many imagine:

One of the most striking features in the situation of literature un-der Chinese communism was the widespread assumption of its importance to the rest of life…. But in life within the system, Chinese writers, readers, critics, and political authorities—although sometimes holding very different or even opposing views on various matters—agreed almost unanimously in the assumption that literature is relevant, or even essential, to morality, social life, and politics at every level from the policymaking of the highest leadership to the daily life of the average reader.

In 1982, Link points out, high school students in Guangzhou said that reading was their favorite activity. And among students serious writers were seen as heroes. When asked about their careers, most said they would prefer to be writers rather than doctors or officials. Liu Binyan, for years China’s most famous investigative reporter, who paid for his courage with years in detention and who is now in exile near Princeton, received tens of thousands of letters after he wrote an especially strong story; crowds of people would come to his office in Shanghai to congratulate him and try to tell him their own stories.

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.

This Issue

March 8, 2001