Academic journal article China Perspectives

Creating a Literary Space to Debate the Mao Era: The Fictionalisation of the Great Leap Forward in Yan Lianke's Four Books

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Creating a Literary Space to Debate the Mao Era: The Fictionalisation of the Great Leap Forward in Yan Lianke's Four Books

Article excerpt

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The post-Mao era is usually considered to have begun with the elimination of the Gang of Four and Deng Xiaoping's consolidation of power at the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee in December 1978, two years after Mao's death. However, the Chinese regime has never entirely called into question Mao's role and importance as the founding father of the nation. Most recently, the current secretary general of the CCP, Xi Jinping, has put forward a complex theory of "two irrefutables" (liangge buneng fouding ...), pointing out that the accomplishments of the Mao era could not be "refuted" by using the advances of the reform era. (1) In a recent essay, Joseph Fewsmith formulates the view that "[Mao's] legacy seems even more difficult to deal with today than it was 10 or 20 years ago." (2) The persistence of Mao's legacy has of course also been the subject of many scholarly studies: important ones include Geremie Barmé's In the Red, which points to the continued appeal of the figure of Mao in the cultural and intellectual field; Ching Kwan Lee and Guobin Yang's Re-envisioning the Chinese Revolution, which turns to grassroots social representations of the "revolutionary era"; and Sebastian Heilmann and Elizabeth Perry's Mao's Invisible Hand, in which the authors highlight the continuity in policy-making style between the Mao and post-Mao eras. (3)

The 1981 "Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of our Party" laid out the general framework in which official historiography or other public writing could tackle the Mao era, mainly in terms of "errors" along the road of building socialism.4 However, in parallel, the government enforced a politics of amnesia, by which public debate of the events of the pre-Reform era was actively discouraged in the public sphere. Fang Lizhi, confined to the US embassy in Beijing shortly after the repression of the 1989 democracy movement, wrote the famous essay "The Techniques of Amnesia of the Communist Party" (5) (Gongchandang de yiwang shu ...), in which he sets out his idea of duandai ("generational break"), according to which the CCP's hold on power is linked to its ability to cut offthe memory of generation after generation of democratic movements, so that each generation must start from scratch, without knowledge of their predecessors' ideas and accomplishments.

This is not to say that no debate has taken place in China on the years from 1949 to 1978: whether behind closed doors in the upper echelons of the Party or in popular, "unofficial" (minjian ...) publications, there has been, over the years, a fair amount of soul-searching about the events of Mao's reign. (6) As early as 1978, even before the Third Plenum consolidated Deng's power, a thaw in the literary and art world was signalled by the publication of two short stories, one of which (Lu Xinhua's "The Scar") gave its name to a whole literary movement commemorating certain episodes of the Cultural Revolution. From the late 1970s, literature thus played the role of a substitute for public discussion of the history of the Mao Era. A systematic, public, and officially sanctioned discussion in China of the history and politics of the Mao era, allowing both historians and citizens (and children educated in schools) to better understand the mechanisms of the political persecution campaigns that began in the early 1950s, of the Great Famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and of the mass violence that took place throughout the country during the Cultural Revolution has obviously remained elusive, although such a public discussion has often been highlighted as an indispensable prerequisite for true political reform and democratisation in China. However, writers and publishers have continually sought to use the loopholes of the publishing system, the perceived greater tolerance for fiction, and the generally liberal sympathies of publishers and journal editors to spark a public discussion on various episodes of the Mao era. …

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