Beyond the Little Red Book

By Laurence, Patricia | The Nation, September 4, 2000 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Little Red Book


Laurence, Patricia, The Nation


Wang Anyi, one of China's leading novelists, best captures the swift evolution of Chinese fiction since the death of Mao in 1976. In a dialogue in her 1985 novel Baotown, a grandfather, Bao Yanrong, in dialogue with his grandson, Bao Renwen (they're both from the same town, Bao, and so have the same surname, which appears first in Chinese names), observes:

"Son, you're putting so much time into this...what are you really after?" Bao Yanrong was genuinely puzzled.

"I want to write a novel," Bao Renwen answered.

"A novel?"

"That is, to write a book."

"Government ask you to write it?"

"No."

"Commune ask you to write it?"

"No."

"Then who are you writing it for?"

This question of audience amounts to asking the purpose of literature. Posed and answered more or less routinely in the West, in China, twenty-four years after the demise of Mao's Cultural Revolution, the question is newly minted. As China moves toward the development of a free-market economy and entrance into free-trade agreements (while shops in Shanghai and Beijing expand with consumer goods and cities grow dense with skyscrapers), people are encouraged to think more about the individual than the communal. The question emerges, What do these economic and cultural shifts mean for literature?

In China, more than any other nation, except perhaps Russia, politics and literature are inextricably intertwined. Mao Zedong, in constructing a "revolutionary" literary history for China in his 1942 Talks at Yan'an Conference on Literature and Art, also brought the analysis of audience to the forefront of literary discussion in raising the question of "for whom we are writing." He regarded all other literary and political questions as dependent upon this one. Viewing writers as "heroes without a battlefield, remote [from the people] and uncomprehending," he urged them to get to know the workers and to develop a wider audience for their work. Overtly rejecting Western literary influences in favor of the development of a national literature written for the masses, he announced that literature would serve the workers, the peasants and the soldiers. "Literature and art," he said, "are subordinate to politics."

After Mao and the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, many writers suffered a literary death. Shen Congwen, the gifted short-story writer, stopped writing--turning from novel-writing to a study of Chinese costumes--speculating that the new government would not extend freedom of speech to writers like himself. Similarly, Ding Ling (1904-86), one of China's leading women writers of the May 4 generation, was silent during this period, spending time in prison for her "rightist" politics. Those who continued to write were, predictably, expected to follow a Socialist Realist formula, perhaps best expressed by a Beijing poet:

   Pang tzu noodles
   Line by line
   Stuffed into his mouth.

After Deng Xiaoping's 1979 reforms, the stance toward writers and literature changed. Deng announced that literature would not simply serve politics, as it had for the previous thirty years under Mao's Socialist Realist literary platform. That thirty-year period, which I call "interrupted Modernism," not only arrested a developing Modernist fiction in China (Shen Congwen, Lao She, Mao Dun, Ding Ling, Ling Shuhua) but also deprived Chinese writers of contact with Modernist literature: William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Jorge Luis Borges. There was virtually no contact with Western literature, as translations of Western works were not encouraged or even allowed. Jeff Kinkley, an Asia specialist, observes that during this time Chinese literature developed more or less in a desert and that consequently, the Socialist Realist literature that emerged was naive. But publishing practice and public rhetoric concerning literature did generally begin to change with Deng's reforms, though there was slippage in the 1983-84 campaigns against "spiritual pollution" in literature, i. …

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