Revolutionary Literature in China: An Anthology

By John David Berninghausen; Ted Huters | Go to book overview

Introduction to Qu Qiu-bai's "Who's 'We'?" and "The Question of Popular Literature and Art"

Qu Qiu-bai (also Ch'ü Ch'iu-pai, 1899- 1935) is most often remembered as the person who led the Chinese Communist Party during the difficult months which followed the disastrous counter-revolutionary victories of mid-1927. It is often forgotten, however, that he was the first significant Marxist literary critic and theoretician to appear on the Chinese scene.1 Steeped in China's vast traditional and modern cultural history, the studious Qu, in fact, regarded himself primarily as a literary figure. The diversity and originality of his voluminous creative writings, polemical essays, theoretical works, and translations place him second only to his close friend and admirer, Lu Xun (Lu Hsün), as the most outstanding cultural revolutionary of his time. Consequently, the task of selecting two short, yet typical, essays by Qu has not been easy.

The two works translated below were written in the early 1930s, unquestionably the most brilliant period of Qu's literary career. At the time, Qu Qiu-bai was the leader of the Shanghai League of Leftwing Writers, a most impressive coalition of revolutionary writers who were grappling, in one way or another, with the problem of the relationship between literature and revolution. Working underground, and trying to keep himself, his wife Yang Zhi-hua and daughter one step ahead of the KMT secret police, Qu made an extensive review of the history of the revolutionary literary movement in order to explain what he believed to be the most serious problem confronting League members--the isolation of revolutionary writers from the masses. The dynamic left-wing literary movement, Qu insisted, had never attained a mass base. The two essays translated here are extraordinarily interesting because they clearly reflect two of the most significant conclusions reached by Qu in this complex period: first, that the "Europeanized" May Fourth literary and cultural revolution should be viewed as a failure rather than as an unqualified success story, and secondly, the revolutionary literary movement should be thoroughly restructured along popular lines if it hoped to ever make contact with the masses of illiterate and semi-literate Chinese. Indeed, these two themes--his critique of the May Fourth generation of revolutionary intellectuals and his theory of revolutionary popular literature and art-- constitute two of Qu's most original and enduring contributions to Chinese Marxist literary thought.

The first selection, "Who's 'We'?", written appropriately on the thirteenth anniversary of the celebrated 1919 May Fourth Incident, has been included in most anthologies of Qu's writings. 2 Although the essay is brief, the direct and critical approach taken by Qu sets this piece apart from the more muted public exchanges ordinarily made among close revolutionary comrades. Of course the point Qu makes in this and other essays is that Europeanized revolutionary intellectuals remained captives of the abortive May Fourth bourgeois- democratic literary movement. Instead of actively promoting the spread of modern culture and literacy among the masses, China's modern literary movement--including its "proletarian" and revolutionary wings--had become increasingly elitist and exclusive. Consequently, revolutionary writers remained isolated from the masses, and the movement as a whole lacked a mass base.

The second selection, "The Question of Popular Literature and Art," which appeared in the June 10, 1932 issue of the League publication Literature Monthly ( Wenxue Yuebao), is more systematic and complex.3 It is not merely an appeal to writers to "popularize" their works. Instead it represents a fairly elaborate conception of how a variety of China's modern cultural and literary problems might be confronted in a revolutionary environment. There can be no question, for instance, that Qu's intense interest in China's traditional non-literate forms is related to his rejection of the extreme cultural iconoclasm which had prevailed in Chinese intellectual circles since 1915. By rejecting traditional popular forms for a few exclusive Western forms, China's revolutionary writers had cut themselves off from the people. And the nationalist overtones of Qu's remarks suggest that his concerns were not merely practical. A staunch anti-imperialist on the cultural as well as political front, it is apparent that Qu himself found the new stress on the art forms of the people to be culturally and psychologically satisfying. Similarly, his populist appeals for revolutionary writers to "go to the people to learn" represents an unmistakable assault on the social isolation of the "Europeanized" generation.

In the last analysis, it is Qu's vision of a "Proletarian May Fourth Movement" which best characterizes his view of the problems and possibilities of China's revolutionary literary movement. As a "stage" of development in the cultural realm, it bears some resemblance to the "New Democratic" stage in the political, social, and economic realms discussed by Mao Tse-tung nearly a decade later. Both recognize the failure of "old" (or European) bourgeois-democratic revolution in China. For Qu, the completion of the bourgeois-democratic cultural revolution is linked to the emergence of a distinctively socialist cultural movement in a single "Proletarian May Fourth." While the proletariat would exercise leadership for the duration of this period (owing to the failings of the bourgeoisie), the Europeanized writers were to be particularly active in the first and more bourgeois-democratic phase by popularizing their work and making direct contact with the people. But even during the first phase, the seeds were to be


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