Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Tracing ChinaA Forty-Year Ethnographic Journey$

Helen F. Siu

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9789888083732

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888083732.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM HONG KONG SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.hongkong.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Hong Kong University Press, 2022. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in HKSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 24 May 2022

Social Responsibility and Self-Expression

Social Responsibility and Self-Expression

Introduction to Furrows: Peasants, Intellectuals, and the State

(p.244) 12 Social Responsibility and Self-Expression
Tracing China

Helen F. Siu

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Both intellectuals and peasants have played vital roles in the political arena of 20th-century China. The short stories that follow focus on peasant life and were written by leading literary figures from the 1930s to the 1980s. In my introduction to each part, I try to point to the structure of values that guided intellectual thought and actions and to demonstrate the cultural mechanisms that tied writers to subjects in a political order rapidly being transformed by their often unintended efforts.

Keywords:   Rural-urban divide, China, Hong Kong, Anthropology, Social changes, Political changes, Identity formation, History, Culture, modernity

  • To the world
  •   I am ever a stranger.
  • I do not speak its language;
  •   it does not appreciate my reticence.
  • Our encounter is
  •   virtual nonchalance,
  •   parted by a mirror.
  • To myself
  •   I am ever a stranger.
  • I fear darkness,
  •   but I let my body get in the way of light.
  • The shadow I make
  •   is my lover.
  • The heart inside is my foe.

Bei Dao, “Wuti” 無題‎ [Untitled] (1988)

The literary scene in China during the 1980s was, at least until June 1988, lively, and puzzling. The official concern about “spiritual pollution” and “bourgeois liberalism” revealed a prevailing lack of faith among intellectuals (of which writers are a subset) in Marxism and in the party.1 Although party leaders have tolerated more divergent political views since the early 1980s, they continue to expect unconditional commitment to the country. But the reluctance of writers to engage in this dialogue, as expressed in Bei Dao’s poem, poses a unique problem for the party. Engineers of ideologies find it difficult to mold ideas and opinions when the mind itself refuses to conform. Even more interesting has been the rumbling among the writers themselves. “Obscure poetry” (menglongshi), a style represented by the above poem by Bei Dao, is attacked by established poets as unintelligible and an unjustified deviation from the rhetorical conventions of Chinese poetry.2

Moreover, its poignant sentiments are said to show a lack of appreciation for the larger cultural forces that permeate poetic sensitivities. The moral message in the artistic squabble is clear to all: new-style poets are indulging in a subjectivity that (p.245)

Social Responsibility and Self-Expression Furrows: Peasants, Intellectuals, and the State

Figure 12.1 “A Searcher in the Capital,” 1976. Photograph by Li Xiaobin. Printed in Dazhong sheying, August 1986.

Reproduced by permission of Li Xiaobin.

cannot transcend personal experiences, and hence their poetry is devoid of social commitment or effectiveness.

Writers of fiction feel similar tensions. Experiments with new techniques and emerging themes that dwell on individual psychology and feelings of estrangement have become intensely controversial.3 As with the new poetry, complaints about the new style and content of fiction are morally charged. To many modern Chinese writers, the May Fourth Movement of 1919 symbolizes Chinese intellectuals’ passionate involvement in cultural criticism and political regeneration. That awakening in thought brought with it a strong sense of mission (shiming gan), a deep commitment to society. To turn one’s back on the world is seen as an affront to an enduring intellectual tradition.

Liu Binyan, a forthright writer-journalist and a severe critic of the Chinese Communist Party, believes that writers should assume responsibility for society’s troubles. Social responsibility sustains a writer’s identity and inspires artistic creativity. Liu asserts that, because contemporary politics has stamped its presence on social life, the urgent task facing writers today is to expose political contradictions as a means of working toward their solution. Divorcing politics from literature is unrealistic because it alienates writers further from the true nature of their subject matter.4 Moreover, many Chinese intellectuals have suffered because of their convictions. Their indulgence in individualism today is seen as a moral betrayal. It demeans what they have fought for and what they have preserved in face of terrible political persecutions.5 Many wonder, as they reflect upon their role along the path of a torturing Chinese revolution, if in their eagerness to abolish tradition by political means they may have inadvertently damaged a deeper cultural ethos. They also ask whether (p.246) the subsequent cultural estrangement and the political alienation of a younger generation of writers are precipitating further intellectual toxins.6

A revealing series of articles in 1988 in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily mixed patronizing attitudes with bruised feelings.7 One essay was written by Liu Xinwu, a writer in his forties noted for his concern for the younger generation.8 Another is a dialogue between Li Zehou, a liberal-minded philosopher, and Liu Zaifu, a daring literary critic. The tone is mild; the authors insist that they understand and respect what the young writers have gone through. But the message is clear: the young writers are unwilling to face the test of their times and are shirking their responsibilities. Liu Xinwu’s comments are typical:

In the past, things were too closed off, too calcified. Once a window is opened and lively exploration becomes possible, one is shocked and saddened; the world outside seems to have become unreachable—even if one surges forward at full speed, it is impossible to narrow the distance. Anxiety, restlessness, and impatience prevail. This mood naturally makes one eager to find an easy way out. (1988)

What is surprising to me is the attitude of these critics. The critics are young by Chinese standards, and they are hardly party hacks. They have opposed the party line on literature, they don’t identify with the party’s cultural czars, and in the recent decade of reforms they broadened their horizons by foreign travels. In February 1989, Li Zehou joined thirty-two other top Chinese intellectuals in signing a letter to the central authorities urging amnesty for those who were imprisoned for their involvement in the democracy movement of the late 1970s (subsequently another forty-two scientists and forty-three young and middle-aged intellectuals put their names on similar petitions).9 Ironically, given their criticism of younger writers, the petitioners’ focus on the well-known dissident Wei Jingsheng was triggered by sympathies from the poet Bei Dao. If these critics’ disagreements with the younger writers are not entirely ideological, what is at issue?

The critics seem unable to accept an art that has become cynical and detached, and they are reasserting a sense of involvement that they expect the younger writers to be proud of.10 The dispute arises from differing views on the cultural identity of modern Chinese intellectuals and the political activism attributed to them. It forces the protagonists to rethink how they relate their art to society and the state in an era of revolutionary change, and to consider where they should direct their critical energies under a party-state that firmly and often mercilessly asserts its power. In fact, the new-style writers range widely in their degree of detachment from political reality. Bei Dao’s part in the amnesty campaign brought him closer to the position of the politically committed writers than may be apparent in his art. His preference is detachment, but at times he finds this difficult. After the government tried to discredit the amnesty campaign he initiated, he wrote, “I am a poet. Politics does not interest me very much. I am tired of being a celebrity. I originally intended to retire (p.247) to my desk and to the world of my imagination after the publication of the petition. But if China, vast as it is, cannot accommodate a desk, I certainly cannot choose to be silent” (Li Yi 1989a, 1989b; Qi 1989a, 1989b).

The ambivalence of the new-style writers toward their culturally expected roles is complex. Most of them came of age during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and are painfully aware of their own political baptism. They witnessed the upheavals of the late 1960s and spent years of soul searching in the countryside as educated youths who were “sent down.”11 Xie Mian, editor of the poetry journal Shikan, puts their anguish in context: in the past five decades, the literary scene experienced little flourishing of thought and emotions; the young writers matured under this stifling reality.12 It has become clear to them that political criticism is not a right and that commitment to society has been twisted to serve dehumanizing political ends.13 They see how a sense of mission has compelled generations of intellectuals to mold themselves to ideologies that “devour” them, just as the traditional morality—which early 20th-century novelist Lu Xun wrote about—devoured the Chinese people.14 That it is a crime to work with the mind instead of with the hands was made explicit in the Maoist era. During that time, intellectuals were assigned to labor in the fields. In confronting the state, they were as helpless as the peasants for whom they had intended to speak. The young writers may appreciate that some of their elders faced their plight with the quiet sense of dignity revealed in Yang Jiang’s Six Chapters of My Life “Down-under” (Ganxiao liuji). Yet the complicity involved in victimization has made them cynical about the culture and society in which they find themselves. The poet Gu Cheng, for example, treats the Jialing Jiang (Jialing River), traditionally portrayed as a source of sustenance, as malevolent:15

  • All crumbling has ceased.
  • A giant—carved in the gorge—watches on:
  • Sailboats, in doleful procession,
  • Dressed in mournful colors,
  • Dragging behind them—unfurling—
  • A pearly burial cloth.

His anguish is clear:

  • My shadow is a mutilated carcass.
  • My body is a figure carved in a cave
  • My voice echoes the rasps of a glacier.
  • My gaze, alone, is a liberated spirit …

Some young writers have embarked on superficial and self-serving experiments in order to gain quick recognition in a rapidly commercializing world.16 Others have plunged into “pure art,” to defy a political ideology distasteful to them. But many (p.248) are ambivalent about a socially involved art because they personally understand the tragedy of their parents’ generation. This feeling was expressed, solemnly but compassionately, by the writer Ah Cheng when his father, a film critic condemned as a “rightist” for twenty years, received notification on a night in 1979 of his rehabilitation. From the standpoint of a friend, Ah Cheng spoke the words of a son:

If I were overjoyed tonight, my past thirty years would be reduced to nothing. As a person, you have already affirmed yourself. There is no need for others to judge you. The power of such judgment lies within the hands of others; these hands may well support you today and deny you tomorrow. Therefore, in my view, your rehabilitation has no real significance outside of mere technical convenience. Moreover, the political vicissitudes that have afflicted you are not without blessings. They have forced me to rely on my own efforts to acquire confidence in life, although for you these twenty years must have been brutal.

(Ah Cheng 1988, p. 12)

Seventy years ago, Lu Xun portrayed the human condition of his time as mired in tradition: “an iron house having not a single window, and virtually indestructible, with all its inmates sound asleep and about to die of suffocation.” Although he wondered whether it was fair to wake up the few light sleepers only for them “to suffer the agony of irrevocable death,” he did pick up his pen and face up to his predicament (Schwarcz 1986, p. 13). As contributors to the book Lu Xun and His Legacy convincingly argue, the fearless originality of his art is based on his uncompromising conviction that he must not only unveil the irrational powers that enforce social life but also ruthlessly scrutinize his own compulsions. The sardonic wit that permeates his prose reveals an introspective spirit as full of anguish over external enemies as over his own inner ghosts, an anguish rooted in a culture and history of which he felt himself an integral part. In this way, “he gave artistic form to the experience of being a modern Chinese intellectual” (Lee 1985, pp. xiii, 31).

On the issue of the “agony of wisdom,” Ah Cheng and his father were probably in agreement.17 The difference is that, whereas some older writers continue to feel committed to working toward a better world, some younger writers wonder if they have not constructed a new iron house through their very attempts at emancipation. They question the revolutionary movement and dispute its sense of mission. Is it the latter part of an “eternal” cultural repertoire, or does it bear the unique imprint of the political contingencies of the 20th century? Are the defenders of this sense of mission so preoccupied with fighting the external powers of the world that they are unaware of their own inner compulsions and the political consequences of their acts? Some among the younger generation drawn into the eventful journey have come to appreciate it as a point of awakening and departure. In consciously disengaging themselves from what is politically expected of intellectuals, are they examining their cultural baggage more introspectively? If they refuse to be captive spirits now, how will they (p.249) break new ground? According to Ah Cheng, the way lies through critical cultural reflection. To him, it is tempting to forget one’s past, but in fact the past is hard to dismiss:

If we acknowledge that the prerequisite for freedom of creativity is the freedom to explore our own consciousness, just imagine how little freedom we would have if we were not aware of the forces of our culture or world culture …The older generation of writers has often assumed a negative stance when they represent the national tradition. The younger writers have started to assume a positive stance … in order to illustrate the new direction of a Chinese literature built on a critical [approach to] cultural inheritance and development.18

Political Authority and Cultural Critique

Disengagement as a means of cultural reflection, the proposal of the new-style writers, is disorienting both for party officials and for their fellow artists. The controversy speaks to the delicate yet entrenched position of intellectuals in the system of authority in 20th-century China.19 Traditionally, to be Chinese has meant a commitment to and an identification with the evolution of Chinese culture, society, and polity, a historical process heavily informed by the interpenetration of moral and political authority and anchored in the power of the written word.

To understand why scholars have felt compelled to attach themselves to moral and political authority, and to appreciate the profound effect of their writing on society, some knowledge of the historical sources of literacy in China and the vitality it has generated is necessary. “The Chinese” have diverse racial, linguistic, and cultural origins; their identity as Chinese has rested on the written language, which dates to around 2000 to 1500 BC (Cheng 1987; Mote 1971, p. 5; Chang Kwang-chih 1983). The state culture was recorded first by shamans and scribes in the early dynasties and then by court historians and literati during the institutionalization of the imperial bureaucracy in subsequent dynasties. The ethical and intellectual principles of the written tradition were created by generations of scholars, who shared as well as contested its substance. Through the written record, the debates among the ancient sages left an enduring imprint on the culture (Mote 1971, p. v).

Until this century, to be Chinese meant sharing a cosmos and participating in a way of life that bound an individual to kin, community, and state. Everyone had a place in an ordered universe. The confirmation of this way of life was intricately tied to manipulations of the symbols of power. The virtual monopoly of scholarly writing by a group of administrative specialists constituted the core of this symbolic complex, which had become firmly diffused in everyday life by the 11th and 12th centuries (Balazs 1964; Chang Chung-li 1955; Chang Kwang-chih 1983; Ho 1962). What was at stake when control of the written tradition was contested in the political arena was (p.250) not only the fate of the ruler but also the object of the government’s ever-expanding “civilizing” process—the land, the people, the historical memories, the very moral and cultural dialogue.20

The process of a written state culture percolating downward was not limited to official writings. In each dynasty, a distinctive repertoire of popular artistic cultures interacted with the official culture. Literary scholar Cyril Birch (Foreword to Chinese Narrative, Plaks 1977) argues that

Chinese stories and novels no doubt belonged to a minor tradition rather than to the central elite culture of historiography, philosophical prose, and lyric verse. But the divergence can easily be exaggerated. The long early cycles that seem to have grown like coral reefs by processes of accretion ended by enshrining the moral values and philosophical bases of an entire civilization … Read by the children of the semi-educated, orally presented by storytellers or transferred to the dramatic stage, the great masterpieces of fiction confirmed cultural identity just as surely as the dazzling beauty of the cathedral told the European peasant he was a Christian. (pp. x–xi)

The written tradition as civilizer of the polity readily became part of popular consciousness, and scholars saw themselves as agents indispensable to this process.

Precisely because political authority was so directly involved in the construction of society and its ethics, China lacked the trappings of a modern nation-state until the 20th century. The term tianxia (all under heaven) was replaced by guojia (nation-state) only in the modern era. The realization that the vast empire was held together more by a shared cultural heritage and less by military might or legalistic-political administration led the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the sociologist Robert Park, both visitors to China in the Republican period, to comment that “the Chinese polity is a cultural phenomenon.”21

China, however, has never lacked despots who obtain compliance by force. To deny their power is unrealistic, but the issue here is the nature and the bases of that power and the means by which they exercise it. The ancient philosophies, revised through the centuries, have become a state culture that consumes rulers and the ruled alike. At the core of this culture is a set of rites and mutual obligations within the cardinal social relationships (ruler-ruled, parent-child, husband-wife, older sibling–younger sibling, friend-friend). Human fulfillment comes with the realization of these relationships through moral self-cultivation and social practice. Cultural vitality emerges from this inner force and extends outward to order family, society, and universe. Heaven bestows the mandate to rule on a political leader who has proved himself worthy by behaving morally (in Confucian terminology, neisheng waiwang). In imperial times, benevolent government was expected, and the failings of the ruler were chastised by the literati, who represented this system of values. More seriously, the ruler’s shortcomings justified peasant rebellions, whose leaders claimed that the ruler (p.251) had violated Heaven’s mandate. Although the opposite was more often true—military rulers claimed their dominant position was an indication of their mandate to rule, and they forced court philosophers and historians to affirm their de facto status in the value system—the significant fact is that they felt obliged to do so.

Whereas peasants rebelled against imperial excesses in order to force a restoration of the moral and political order, their leaders, often displaced gentry and militarists, claimed to act according to the Way of Heaven (titian xingdao). The literati, on the other hand, could choose between two different but related courses of action. They could actively intervene on behalf of society (weimin qingming) by castigating the ruler (jian). Or, they could retreat from the political whirlpool, live the life of a hermit (yin), and refuse to serve an illegitimate power until order was reinstated. Both acts appealed to a moral paradigm to which the literati remained committed. Such acts may have been infrequent, but they were imprinted on the historical consciousness that was a major part of the symbolic repertoire in the literati culture and the popular mind.22

Given the cultural expectations, the position of the literati was never very easy. They occupied the highest places in the societal complex and were privileged by education and access to political office and wealth. They used their writings to propagate a system of morality (wen yi zai dao) that legitimized the political order as well as their place in it. “Those who excel in scholarship serve the state” (xue er you ze shi) was a motto for scholars, and this attitude bound some of the best minds to the imperial court. But another principle made them answerable to society. Criticism of political excesses was a moral privilege and a social responsibility. If few scholar-officials exercised this principle of action against imperial power, their acts nevertheless gained significance in the historical consciousness as exemplary behavior. They were thus a necessary thorn in the side of the power holders, whose legitimacy depended on the system of values they represented. Despite drastic transformations in substance and meaning through the centuries, this precarious marriage between scholarship and power continues to be taken for granted.23

In the early 20th century, the educated elites were heavily influenced by Western thought, especially by the ideals of progress, scientific rationalism, and democracy in a modern nation-state led by a dynamic, autonomous, urban-based cultural elite. Both Chinese and Western scholars have regarded the Chinese enlightenment—as the May Fourth Movement has been termed (Schwarcz 1986)—as the epitome of a passionate attempt to criticize the primordial sentiments of an agrarian state. The success of these efforts is subject to debate, but urban intellectuals did sever kin and communal loyalties to the countryside, the same loyalties that had once supported imperial and bureaucratic power. In so doing, they redefined their position in the system of government. Instead of using tradition to serve political ends, they claimed the authority to create a new political and moral order.

(p.252) Modern intellectuals were sincere in examining their own roles and assumptions. In the preface to The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Jonathan Spence eloquently sums up their painful involvement in society:

The Chinese whose thoughts, words, and actions constitute the heart of this book were all intellectuals in some form or other, yet though they could not speak at first hand for workers or peasants, they were far from being mere spectators. At their more strident or ineffective moments, certainly, one can see them as being in some senses parallel to the members of the chorus in a Greek play, watching in horror and fascination the tragic working out on center stage of a conflict between mortals and gods, the end of which has been long foretold. Yet though the cultured voices of these Chinese may seem at times too piercing, and their gestures too ritualized, they still possess the essential power—denied to the traditional chorus—of leaving their apparently allotted space and marching to the center of the stage. It is often true that those who do this die earlier than the others—“before their time,” to use a simple phrase—but one cannot deny that they often show a startling wisdom, the wisdom of those who have seen the hidden directions of this particular play, who have understood that this is not the kind of drama in which those who stay on the periphery will be left in peace. (1981, pp. xiv–xv)

Paradoxically, the fateful drama of revolution, cultural pride, and human dignity, which the protagonists in the historical narrative unveiled in their lives, illuminated the stubborn vitality of a structure of values that continued to bind writers to a polity and its changing bases of authority. Certain forward-looking attempts to build a modern nation-state were heavily informed by what remained of the literati tradition. Tu Wei-Ming maintains that, although anti-traditional in content, the intellectual culture followed tradition in being epistemologically authoritarian (quanwei xing). Leo Lee stresses that “modernism” in China differs considerably from the antiestablishment orientations of European modernism. During the May Fourth period, the belief prevailed that an urban, “bourgeois,” intellectual elite would lead China in building a new establishment, a strong nation-state.24 Moreover, not unlike their predecessors, intellectuals struggled to represent an autonomous ethical system with the intent of chastising power holders for their failings. They expected to be the leading agents in the creation of a new political culture.

The partnership between cultural iconoclasm and an emotional commitment to building a nation-state was tense.25 The first aimed at critical self-reflection; the second threatened that spirit. How did the patriotic momentum unintentionally prevent a deeper examination of the authoritarian assumptions of the state as well as the participants’ own motives and roles? Such “external” factors as political constraints obviously tied people’s hands, but “internal” factors, embedded in cultural expectations, permeated the heart and rigidified the mind.

(p.253) In their eagerness to deliver the country from an unprecedented crisis, modern Chinese intellectuals immersed themselves in state-building, which, initially at least, seemed to offer solutions. This prevented them from attaining a crucial level of cultural reflection—not on the material or institutional changes themselves but on the epistemological values that informed them. This lack of self-scrutiny distorted evaluations of the Chinese cultural tradition in face of pressures to modernize and led to a moral and an analytical impasse.26 The protagonists mechanically opposed either tradition or modernization and did not question their own positions and commitments. Consequently, they could not fully appreciate the changing nature of their role. They were wedged uncomfortably between moral and political authorities, whose positions were themselves increasingly undermined by war and revolution. This powerful but unfinished process of reflection shaped their predicament, especially their relations to the Communist movement (and after 1949 to the Marxist-Leninist state) and to the laboring population, the vast majority of whom were peasants.27

The tension between morality and power intensified during the 20th century. The efforts at a thoroughgoing critique of tradition were an acute reaction to a pervasive political crisis. When the Qing empire faltered under the aggressive expansion of Western powers and Japan, economic and political paralysis led to a crisis of confidence in the moral foundations of the culture. The May Fourth Movement and the decades of intellectual activity that followed attest to the depth of the problem and the intense commitment to find solutions. Throughout this process, relationship between moral authority and political power has been redefined through the participation of intellectuals with a heightened sense of mission.

The dilemmas the intellectuals faced were obvious. Confronted by the challenge from the West and by the impoverishment of the peasantry, many concluded after nearly a century of soul searching that China needed the apparatus of a modern nation-state. In the mid-19th century, some high-ranking Qing administrators advocated the adoption of Western technology for the practical purpose of defending the empire against foreign aggression.28 When the empire suffered humiliating defeats in the 1890s, the constitutional monarchists suggested reforms in political institutions to solve the country’s problems. Both movements were attempts to preserve the imperial order by a limited adoption of Western technology and institutions. But the failure of the movement known as the Hundred Days Reform (1898) and the persecution of its advocates by conservative forces at court finally led some literati to join the movement to overthrow the monarchy. In 1912 a republic was set up, but the ambitions of regional warlords shattered liberal hopes for a democratic and unified polity. Instead of providing a means to improve national livelihood, the military adventurers, backed by competing foreign interests, became a major source of disorder. For those who participated in the anti-government demonstrations in Beijing on (p.254) May 4, 1919, all of Chinese civilization, material and spiritual, was at stake. Whether nationalism rallied energies to fight for survival or to console a badly bruised cultural pride, it became almost an obsession. But the nature of the proposed new polity, guojia, which attracted the educated elite’s commitment and nurtured their hopes, had only begun to be explored. A dazzling array of ideologies for nation-building was adopted by the warlord regimes, by the Nationalists, and by the Communists, but the ill-defined relationship between moral authority and political power made the position of the educated elite increasingly precarious.

In contrast, the semi-literate militarists who arose after the fall of the Qing dynasty were too preoccupied with struggling for spoils to seriously seek legitimacy from traditional morality. New bases of authority were invented, but their blatant violations revealed the superficiality of the effort.29 After 1927, the delicate facade of national unity under the Nationalists generated some enthusiasm among the liberal-minded, but survivors of the “White terror” conducted by Chiang Kai-shek against leftists were fearful of his moves. The ineffectiveness of the Nationalists in blocking the advances of the Japanese in the 1930s disappointed many patriots. Their lingering hopes were dashed when they witnessed the Nationalist government’s acts of terror against dissidents in the cities and its army’s mistreatment of peasants in the villages.

The peasantry has often been a symbol of the life force of Chinese culture and polity. Their well-being justifies the power holder’s Mandate of Heaven; their abuse discredits it. In the early 20th century, writers were divorced from peasant life, but enraged and horrified, they produced a literature obsessed with images of brute force exercised on an innocent peasantry—war, rape, indiscriminate killing—the way of the beast in which morality and authority were no longer respected. Images of peasants being ruthlessly abused, however unrealistic, were used as symbols to condemn various regimes.

Mao Dun, whose work “Mud” (Nining) begins this volume, and a few others such as Ye Shengtao, Xu Dishan, Ba Jin, and Ding Ling, whose works were published by the Shanghai literary journal Xiaoshuo yuebao (Short story monthly; 1921–31) remained true to the realism popularized in the 1920s. Their humanist concern and their eagerness to absorb Western thought gave their works a cosmopolitan outlook. Wu Zuxiang, whose short story “A Certain Day” (Mouri) is included here and who is recognized as one of the best left-wing writers on rural themes of the 1930s, skillfully combined humanism with the techniques of realism. But this urbane focus became less evident among writers later drawn to revolutionary romanticism.30

Many fell early in their journey. The Five Martyrs, as Lu Xun sadly remembered the young writers killed for their Marxist sympathies, were probably noted more for their political convictions than for their literary abilities. Yet behind the martyrdoms were often moments of painful self-scrutiny, as revealed in Qu Qiubai’s “Superfluous Words” (Duoyu de hua), written in jail shortly before he was executed in 1935. At the (p.255) age of thirty-six, he was an established Marxist literary critic and theoretician, and for a brief period in 1927–28, he was general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1934, when the majority of party leaders headed for Yan’an in northwestern China, he remained behind and was captured by Nationalist troops. Knowing his end was near (he was also dying of tuberculosis), he dissected the layers of romantic optimism that he had wrapped around himself for the preceding fifteen years and concluded that his political life had been untruthful, that he was nothing but a “petty bourgeois,” superfluous to the very movement he had helped to build. The essay was a controversial one. His comrades largely denied its authenticity, claiming that the Nationalists had fabricated it to show the futility of urban intellectuals serving the Communist cause. Pragmatists concluded that it was Qu’s effort to make a confession in order to save his neck. His motive for writing it, if he did write it, was probably a complex one. To insist on one or another reason would undermine the anguish shared by many modern Chinese intellectuals.31

The disenchanted who joined the Communists in Yan’an also undertook a long ideological scrutiny, a process that was exhilarating at times, painful at others, but in the end compelling. Those who had entertained the idea that the Communists represented the vanguard of an urban proletariat must have been disappointed. The Chinese Communists had made major adjustments in Marxism as early as the 1920s. Li Dazhao, a founder of the Communist party and a professor at Peking University, argued for a revolution in China that involved the peasantry. In Li’s conceptual scheme, China was “a proletarian nation” exploited by foreign imperialism. His revolutionary strategy called for a broad united front of workers, national bourgeoisie, and peasants, whom he believed to have an innate spirit of nationalism (Meisner 1969; Johnson 1962).

Although Li was captured by the Beijing warlord government and shot in 1926, his ideas on the Chinese peasantry were adopted by Mao Zedong. After the Communists were driven to rural areas by the armies of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao, who assumed leadership of the party in the mid-1930s, directed its energies toward the peasantry.32 Hampered by both the Nationalists and the Japanese, the Communist movement turned increasingly rural and patriotic. Communist documents and leftist literature identified the Japanese as a direct foreign aggressor and disparaged the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek as ineffectual in defending China against foreign aggression. The emerging political language referred to collaborators (hanjian), together with military officers, petty government functionaries, the landlords, and the comprador bourgeoisie, as enemies of the revolution.

National salvation colored literary language in the mid-1930s. Fiction was couched increasingly in sinicized terms.33 In the cultural arena, writers debated the application of Marxist philosophy to literary criticism, discussed the development of a more rustic style and a literature for national defense, and raised questions on (p.256) the nature of the new Chinese polity, the identity of its allies and enemies, and the conduct proper to participants in the movement. One decisive debate among leftist writers centered on the direction of literature during the War of Resistance against the Japanese. Those who joined Lu Xun argued for an uncompromising critique of Chinese tradition and politics. Those who had chosen the political pragmatism of the Communists and were grouped around the literary theorist Zhou Yang promoted a literature for national defense (guofang wenxue). They rejected Western rationalism and literary techniques in favor of Chinese roots, with the intention of tapping energies across a broad united front.34

The writers who congregated in Yan’an had different motives and assumptions, but they were basically concerned with national salvation, a goal to which the Communists seemed committed at the time. The historian of modern Chinese literature C. T. Hsia points particularly to literature’s “obsession with China,” its patriotic passion, which arose from “a burden of moral contemplation.” Coupled with this was a vague sense of class justice.35 The two dovetailed with the traditional belief that educated elites should show a social commitment by rejuvenating the political and moral order—a belief shared by the leaders and the led. To some extent, the Communists subscribed to the belief that the vast scope of state power rested on a shared moral consensus, but the party was to be the leading agent and vanguard in defining and fighting for that morality.

Influenced by Stalin, Communist leaders in the 1930s had additional items on their political agenda, and they demanded a commitment to that agenda from all those within their grasp, peasants and intellectuals alike. To them, to have ideological unity in the revolution meant to embrace the Leninist and Stalinist strategies of party-building. Mao in particular warned fellow revolutionaries against “feudal” beliefs of the Chinese peasantry and “petty-bourgeois” tendencies of Westernized intellectuals, both of which stemmed from value systems different from that of the party. Although Mao believed in the ultimate revolutionary potential of the peasantry, he had less sympathy for the articulate, urbane, and independent-minded intellectuals. To generate revolutionary changes, Mao required of his comrades a worldview that served the party’s political ends, not one that stood independent of them. Criticism was possible only after the language of discourse had been so defined.

In a speech at the 1942 Yan’an Forum on the arts and literature, Mao held writers responsible for ideological engineering, thus making the political straitjacket explicit.36 The speech inaugurated a three-year party rectification movement during which Mao’s ideological authority was imposed. It also put an end to a year of grumbling and confusion among the artists themselves. Four years into the war, the patriotism the urban intellectuals had brought with them had been worn down by the harshness of life in the caves of Shaanxi that housed the party in exile. More important, the political realities of a growing party bureaucracy gnawed into their revolutionary (p.257) romanticism. They would accept their circumstances only after a struggle. Luo Feng, for example, insisted that the satirical tradition of Lu Xun be continued. In an article entitled “Thoughts on March 8” (Sanbajie yougan), Ding Ling poignantly revealed the difficulties of women in Yan’an, where the traditional hierarchy of male dominance continued to be assumed. Xiao Jun lamented that the pragmatism of cadre work killed moral vigor. However, Mao demanded that realism recognize the progress made under Communist leadership and that sympathy be offered only to class allies and satire be directed only against class enemies. Ding Ling and a host of others who voiced their discontent were persuaded to change their petty-bourgeois views after a severe public attack from Mao (Birch 1963, p. 232).

A more serious confrontation occurred between party hard-liners (such as Chen Boda, Mao’s secretary) and Wang Shiwei, a radical urban intellectual. Born in 1907 to a literati family whose fortunes had declined, Wang enrolled in the English Department of Peking University in 1925 and joined the party in 1926. He was a gift ed translator. His interest in Marxist theory led him to translate major works of Lenin and Trotsky. He left his family in Hunan and made his way to Yan’an in late 1937. But in April 1943, a year after his essay “Wild Lilies” (Ye baihehua), which attacked corruption and privileges among party cadres in Yan’an, appeared in Jiefang ribao (March 13 and 23, 1942), he was jailed. In his defense against those who accused him of promoting absolute egalitarianism, he justified his complaints by warning against a mechanical view of historical progress that ignored errors of the revolutionary vanguard itself.37 The tense public debates over his behavior and the harsh disciplinary action taken later came to be known as the Wang Shiwei Incident. His sympathies for Trotsky were branded as counter-revolutionary. A chilling account of his last years in Yan’an and of his execution in 1947 highlights the tensions between emerging Stalinists in the party and their military commanders on the one hand, and the independent-minded urban intellectuals on the other hand.38

Spring 1947, Shaanxi.

The wind swept over the rolling hills, blowing dust through every gap in the tightly sewn clothes. The Qingming Festival had passed, yet there was not a touch of green.

Xing Xian: a small and dilapidated town. It was the capital of the Jinsui Base Area; but the only signs were the little flags hanging from the windows of a few cave-like houses.

There was fighting at the western bank of the river hundreds of li away. The dusk here was tranquil. Caijia Cave, the headquarters of the public security office of the Jinsui Base Area Administration.

A young man with a heavy sword in his hand, who appeared to be a cadre, went into a cave. He dragged out another, middle-aged man of similar appearance and took him to a remote hillside.

(p.258) The heavy sword was raised …

Bright red blood spilled over the hardened yellow earth.

The executed: Wang Shiwei. Crime: Trotskyist, Nationalist agent, member of a counter-revolutionary group. There was no verdict, no appeal, no denial.

The only basis for the execution was a report approved by some authorities.

(Dai 1988, p. 23)

This account of Wang’s execution forms an ironic contrast to that of Qu Qiubai. Despite Qu’s doubts about his own role in the revolution, his execution, brutal as it was, was debated among the highest echelons of the Nationalist leadership. His martyrdom was witnessed and given a degree of respect. The order for Wang’s execution came secretly from someone higher up in the party who felt challenged by Wang’s revolutionary enthusiasm.39 In retrospect, however bleak his end, it was but a rehearsal for worse to come.

The confrontations between leftist writers and the party during the 1930s and 1940s illustrate an important fact—that the intellectuals in Yan’an put up a struggle for autonomy of thought, and that party leaders were not yet established enough to monopolize opinion. It is also clear that Chinese writers acted from the apex of a cultural nexus of authority, only to condemn the very social and political codes that gave them the position to voice such opinions. The leftists who joined the Communists found themselves compelled to promote the cause of a political power that increasingly negated their right to speak their mind. In the years to come, the mission and conscience of the scholar changed. Instead of challenging a power that had deviated from truthful and moral behavior, it became a struggle against a power that claimed to dictate truth. A gnawing question remains: Why did these intellectuals stay with the Communists? Conditions in war-torn cities were no less harsh than those in Shaanxi. Furthermore, at the time, the party could not have prevented those who were disenchanted from leaving. What was behind their conclusion that there was no turning back?

By the time the Communists firmly established their power in the 1950s, the ideological impositions on writers had come down with full force. Issues involved in the struggle were complex. Although dissident voices had become muted since the days of Yan’an, party ideologues were concerned with curbing the “bourgeois liberalism” of leftist intellectuals who remained unconvinced. More important, party leaders confronted mounting challenges from a younger generation of committed Marxists, many of them party members, who questioned the political orthodoxy of the leaders. The tradition of the intellectual’s mission and conscience continued to be invoked, but it was reconstituted on a new political stage where power relationships between the protagonists and their ideological assumptions had changed considerably. The battles were fought within a Marxist-Leninist paradigm that was increasingly taken for (p.259) granted. The legitimacy of the party was not questioned although the definition of party orthodoxy was fiercely debated.

Such tensions were revealed in the mid-1950s persecution of a leading Marxist literary critic, Hu Feng, who had staunchly opposed party dogma since the 1930s.40 Hu Feng continued his stubborn independence in the early 1950s by contradicting Maoist orthodoxy. In a long article entitled “The Five Blades” (Wuba daozi), he charged that party dogma had strangled artistic sensitivities. His views were subsequently branded “petty-bourgeois liberalism” and, more seriously, “counter-revolutionary,” a crime that led to his long imprisonment. Many of his friends were made to criticize him, including Lu Xun’s widow, Xu Guangping, who wrote that Hu had “betrayed” them. The novelist Ba Jin later recalled the rudeness of the party cadres who asked him to denounce Hu Feng.41

The liberal Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956–57 and the subsequent Antirightist Campaign revealed the uncomfortable marriage between the sincere belief of these intellectuals in an independent authority based on enlightened critical thought and their faith in a revolution based on patriotism and Marxism. The end result seemed like total capitulation. In 1957, those who had been bold enough to speak out against the party bore the brunt of persecution. The new political classification given their “crime” is important. Huang Qiuyun, Gao Xiaosheng, and Fang Zhi, among many others whose works are included in this volume, were labeled “rightists” of various degrees. They became enemies of the party to be banished to labor camps for “re-education.”

Ru Zhijuan, whose 1958 short story “Lilies on a Comforter” (Baihehua) brought a breath of freshness to the literary world, looked back in 1980 and admitted that, if it hadn’t been for a moment of “numbness” toward the political currents at the time, when she gained some space and distance, she would not have produced the story. One wonders whether the young Marxist writers were too committed and too naïve to reckon the political price of their acts. In fact, that was very much in the mind of Ba Jin when the twenty-six-year-old Fang Zhi came to him with his plans to form the “Explorers” (Tanqiuzhe).

I met Comrade Fang Zhi once at the beginning of the Anti-rightist Campaign. I can no longer recall his face. I only remember that he and Comrade Lu Wenfu came to discuss their plans for organizing the Explorers …They said that they had already discussed the matter with a comrade and were encouraged. I understood them. We had given much thought to similar attempts in the 1930s. The two young men were trying to pursue some creative ends. They had ideals and convictions. I sympathized with them, but I was also concerned. Feeling the changing climate, I thought they were too naïve. I tried to persuade them not to organize the Explorers or the Tongren zazhi [Colleagues’ journal], and to give up their plans for “exploration.” I cannot now remember whether they had already issued the manifesto of the Explorers or whether they did it afterward. But I am certain (p.260) on one point: they had not understood my concern, nor had I made myself clear. They certainly did not follow what I had hoped.42

If there was room for reflection and debate in the 1950s and for critical reassessment in the early 1960s, it was obliviated by the nationwide witch hunt of the Cultural Revolution: no one was spared. In an atmosphere of feverish ideological confrontations, silence and retreat were no longer viable options. Old “rightists” were dragged out and humbled and humiliated alongside party patrons accused of having followed the wrong political line. To stay in the middle of the road required a precarious balancing act. In the eyes of the competing political factions, it was a life-and-death struggle. The intense factionalism forcibly polarized the already fragmented intellectual circles. During moments of ideological extremes, even the writer Hao Ran, who followed the Maoist line closely and who rose high in the decade of radical politics, was criticized for not having expressed enough faith in the party. The definition of artistic positions and orientation had become the monopoly of party officials.

In retrospect, in the 1980s survivors insist that they had no choice but to drone on (Morse 1983, pp. 121–37). Their reasons are unclear. One can understand that peasants, who had no livelihood outside the collectives controlled by local party cadres, had to comply with the dictates of the party. One might even argue that, by the mid-1960s, the Chinese Communist Party’s successful monopoly of the representation of moral and political authority left intellectuals little ground for independent judgment. The only viable course of action left, if they were to survive, was to transform themselves under the party’s ideological dictates and to continue to believe in the possibility of reducing its excesses. But was it entirely a matter of survival? Why did many writers who prided themselves on belonging to an intellectual tradition of protesting illegitimate power, and who had courageously faced the deadly consequences of doing so decades before, feel a lack of choice in the post-revolutionary era?

This is the central issue disputed among writers today. To what extent was the lack of choice self-imposed? Many leftist writers of the 1930s retreated to the background after the Communist revolution, but did Marxist writers from the 1950s to the 1970s reconstitute the legacy of modern Chinese intellectuals and make it into their own “iron house”? Ba Jin, in his memoirs, boldly admitted that, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, he remained faithful to the need for ideological transformation as dictated by the party.43 Moreover, what was the basis of the commitment of Liu Binyan, who remained loyal to the party despite being condemned for twenty-two years and expelled in 1987? When he portrays the attempt of the protagonist in “A Second Kind of Loyalty” (Dierzhong zhongcheng) to right a wrong committed years ago by a party cadre, is he speaking about himself?

Today many writers claim the humanist ideal and a renewed sense of mission as their sources of strength against an engulfing political power, but the issues behind their spirit of resistance assume new meanings because of the much-transformed (p.261) nature of the polity. For some, “social responsibility” is a disguised effort on the part of writers to achieve self-expression at a time when the brutal denial of intellectuals’ right to define and represent moral authority is still vividly remembered. For those who remain faithful to Marxist-Leninist ideals and to the party’s basic assumptions, it is time for a revival of protest against political excesses. The call in early 1989 for amnesty of political prisoners is one example of courage and faith.44 But the question remains: Why, despite their unhappy experiences, do intellectuals remain committed to the national state? What is behind their agitation at the new-style writers’ decision to abandon the accepted vocabulary in order to begin a new dialogue?

The literary works of the 1980s display a quiet empathy with the peasants. Together with the Yellow River, the peasantry has always symbolized the life force of Chinese culture and society, with which the literate elites have historically claimed affiliation. Today, there is an added dimension of compassion, perhaps because years of exile in the countryside have given writers a more realistic understanding of the peasants. Also, both have been subjected to the abusive power of a state determined to transform them. Out of these experiences arose a bridge between the social and cultural distance separating writer and peasant, as expressed in the postscript to Li Zhun’s two-volume The Yellow River Rushes On (Huanghe dongliu qu). Critical realism again flourished, as illustrated by the writings of Gao Xiaosheng, Gu Hua, and Li Rui presented in this volume.

But this is not enough for the new generation of writers. Today, many of them have decided that, as long as the party-state dictates moral authority, they will disengage themselves from ideological dialogue altogether. They turn to the private sentiments of peasants, which parallel their own, as painfully described by Ah Cheng’s story “Chimney Smoke” (Chuiyan) in this anthology.45 The peasant’s burden arises from the insensitive, entrenched structure of the state; the writers’ baggage, however, comes partly from the system of values on which their social mission is based. What they would like to explore is the motive force underlying their sentiments as well as those of the peasants. They believe that it is buried deep in the national culture, uncontaminated by ideology. Chen Cun, a literary critic, sees a parallel between the concerns of these writers and those of Gabriel García Márquez: they focus on a life force that extends beyond the struggle between good and evil, illusion and reality, joy and anger, but creates a world filled with these sentiments.46 In view of their effort to free themselves from contemporary politics in order to excavate the culture that has shaped their lives and thoughts, can one justifiably dismiss these writers as indulgent individuals with no sense of social responsibility?

In April 1989, tens of thousands of students in Beijing marched to Tiananmen Square to criticize the government. In response to an official condemnation, they returned to the streets to insist on the patriotism of their behavior. Moreover, the citizens of Beijing turned out en masse to support the students’ claim. The atmosphere (p.262) was peculiarly familiar. There was a heightened sense of mission and self-sacrifice, euphoria over the power of idealism and goodwill, all in the name of cleaning up a morally bankrupt government and getting the country back on an honorable course. The students were naïve, but their intentions were considered noble and their sentiments were shared: this was what a Chinese of good conscience would do. For its part, the regime insisted that the democracy movement was nothing but a counterrevolutionary disturbance instigated by subversive foreign elements. It could not be equated with the patriotism of the May Fourth Movement of seventy years before. In its eyes, the students were un-Chinese.

Once again, “Chineseness” was being renegotiated. Implicated in the process were the moral choices, the social discipline, the economic initiative, and political compulsions of an educated sector increasingly drawn into a diverse and volatile modern world. Even those young enough to have escaped the vicissitudes of the Cultural Revolution realized that they too were not spared in wake of the brutal repression of the student movement. Can there be lingering hopes of merely removing the excesses of the party-state? Writers on both sides of the literary dispute were relatively silent as the events unfolded.47 Those who deeply mourn the many fallen, gunned down by the very government they—the fallen—believed in, what do they—the mourners—now think of the authoritarianism unintentionally created by their own commitment only a few decades earlier?

To be human is neither to be entirely programmed by cultural principles nor be simply driven by economic necessities. It is precisely the human involvement in the creation of a compelling political process that heightens the sense of tragedy. Scholarly works on modern Chinese intellectuals have often emphasized the involuntary nature of their involvement in contemporary political currents, but this view ignores their active role in the making of a political culture centered on a heightened sense of social responsibility. Deprived of an institutional base by the abolition of the imperial examinations in 1905 and especially by the fall of the Qing in 1911, the educated elites made their transition to the 20th century by adhering to an increased sense of mission. Whether this was a desperate attempt to retain their right to self-expression under the new moral order or a shrewd move to assert a self-assumed importance as new institutions were making them superfluous,48 the traditional assumptions of responsibility to the state and to society were recycled to fit new political realities. This assertion of responsibility allowed a displaced educated elite to redefine a social identity and to acquire a unifying symbol of community and a political platform, both of which are ultimate forms of self-expression.49 Social and political criticism based on a commitment to an entire civilization remains, even today, a cultural given in the eyes of the general public and a special calling for many intellectuals.50 But it also dovetails with interests of power holders. The Chinese Communist Party, for example, has seldom challenged the sense of mission that engages the intellectuals (p.263) in a dialogue with the polity. The party is concerned, however, with controlling the power to define the terms of the dialogue.

The question is: Once the Communist party succeeded in doing so by disregarding the human costs, did the intellectuals and their cultural roles become even more superfluous?

Ten years into the post-Mao reforms, “cultural tradition” is a term no longer taboo; it is now in vogue. A revived interest in neo-Confucianism has led to international conferences, and writers have traveled far into the rural fringes in hope of understanding those cultural roots, untouched by revolutionary politics, that continue to inform contemporary consciousness. Others have begun to explore how China’s particular national culture nurtured Maoist extremes. After the long interlude since Lu Xun scrutinized tradition in his “Diary of a Madman” in 1918, tradition is being examined instead of being categorically dismissed (Lee 1986; Ji 1986). The question of complicity in the reproduction of cultural hegemony, a concern that fueled the self-scrutiny of Lu Xun, underlies discussions of the sense of mission today. The debate forces protagonists to examine their assumptions about the written word’s power to give privilege, the philosophical bases of their commitment to a state with humanist concerns for its subjects, and consequently their ambiguous relationships with those in power. When young writers dwell on artistic issues, for example, and claim that creativity can blossom only when both authors and the subject of their art are not tied together by political and moral obligations, are they redefining the self-image of the educated elite in modern China, an image embedded on the one hand in a structure of values originating deep in Chinese culture and on the other hand in a “recycling” of that tradition to cope with the political realities of the 20th century?51 The controversy over the nature of artistic expression and writers’ pursuits seems to have initiated a long-overdue cultural criticism.52

In fact, the need for a critical self-reflection has also been made explicit by China’s most senior writer, Ba Jin, after a lifelong devotion to the revolution. In a postscript to five volumes of collected essays published in the 1980s, he writes:

With so much to say, I do not know where to begin. There are 150 essays about the joy, anger, and sorrow of ordinary characters. I call them “whimpers.” In fact they are mostly bloody pus that oozes out of unhealed wounds. I squeeze them out not to kill time, but to lighten my own pain. When I began with Random Thoughts [Suixiang lu], my pen was not weighty. In the process of writing, I continued to explore and to know myself. In order to know myself, I cannot but dissect myself. With the aim of lightening pain, I thought the dissecting would be an easy task. But when I used the pen as a surgical knife to cut into my heart, I appeared clumsy. I could not press it in because I felt violent pain. I always reminded myself that I should demand a lot of myself.

Yet I weakened when I needed to use a knife to gouge at my heart. I dared not dig deeply. Every page of the five volumes is stained with bloody pus. But (p.264) there is more of it in a ten-year wound. I know that if I do not clean it out, it will poison the body. I also know: the wounds of many people, like mine, are oozing out bloody pus. We have shared experiences and a similar fate. I do not worry. Whatever I do not accomplish, others will. If I have not dug deep enough, there will be another who overtakes me and, without fearing pain, mercilessly gouges out his own heart. … To clean up the garbage, and to purify the air, it is not enough to demand only of myself. We are all responsible. We must find out the source of the problem, in myself, in others … Gouge then. (1988, pp. 212–15)

This anthology does not pretend to answer the questions it poses. It serves more to illustrate issues for contemplation than to explain. By tracing the intellectuals’ deliberate rupture with tradition at one level and their reconstitution of it at another, I hope to reveal the tension underlying their artistic work and to capture the vitality of a conviction that lies behind the tragic and puzzling predicament of the modern Chinese intellectual.


Both intellectuals and peasants have played vital roles in the political arena of 20th-century China. The short stories that follow focus on peasant life and were written by leading literary figures from the 1930s to the 1980s. In my introduction to each part, I try to point to the structure of values that guided intellectual thought and actions and to demonstrate the cultural mechanisms that tied writers to subjects in a political order rapidly being transformed by their often unintended efforts.

A major issue in the literature on peasants is that a literate elite is writing about an inarticulate peasantry whose world is far from their own but whose lives are interlocked with theirs in multiple ways. In the wake of the May Fourth period, writers indicted the old cultural tradition and the political order by describing what it had meant for peasants to be victimized. But in treating the unawakened populace as objects of social engineering and themselves as the providers of that engineering, the intellectuals failed to bridge the distance between themselves and the peasants. By reifying tradition as an object of attack, they prevented themselves from reflecting on the roots of their claims to authority. I have selected works by those who chose to write about peasants as a way of exposing the frailty of power, peasants as objects of abuse. Most of these images of peasants should not be treated as “real.” Rather, they disclose the authors’ naïveté about village life and popular culture and their distance from rural reality. But they do reveal the authors’ sense of outrage toward an entire social order. The works illumine how the underlying political assumptions of these writers guided their efforts to participate in a new political culture, a significant historical narrative in its own right.

Critical realism, a literary form popularized during the 1920s, depicted the soul searching of the writers and their peasant subjects. Mao Dun, Wu Zuxiang, and (p.265) Xiao Hong, whose works are included in this anthology, are among the best-known realist writers. I have juxtaposed these works with those by authors who, having joined the Communist Party, devoted most of their efforts to writing about peasants.53 Driven by the force of a dogma effectively imposed by a political movement that later became a highly organized party-state, the act of writing came to assume very different meanings; so too did perceptions of political failings and the nature of abuse. The writers continued to fill their culturally prescribed roles, but Marxism-Leninism allowed them less room for maneuver. They were assigned the task of promoting the peasants’ cause both as masters of the revolution and as objects of socialist engineering, a theme clearly shown in the works of Zhao Shuli, Kang Zhuo, and Zhou Libo. But both the legacy of their elitist assumptions and the primordial loyalties of the peasants were politically suspect.

The struggle against dogma, which became the overriding concern of many writers in the 1950s, revealed their uncomfortable position between the party’s growing monopoly of ideological power and their perceptions of the bitter fruit tasted by the vast majority of peasants and produced by a revolution conducted in their name. Such tension is apparent in this collection in the stories by Kang Zhuo and Fang Zhi and in the essay by Huang Qiuyun. Some spoke out and paid the price, expecting that, as in the past, their banishment would affirm the importance of their voice. Others stopped writing altogether; for example, Mao Dun was given high positions in the administration of the arts but never joined the party. But the rigid language of class promoted by the Maoists meant that the intellectuals were faulted not only for what they wrote but also for what they were. Just as peasants have complied, and at times conspired, with the Communist Party, writers strained to follow the party’s dictates and often confessed to more sins than they had committed (Morse 1983, pp. 121–37). The political straitjacket has prevented writers from getting close to their subject matter. The positive, forward-looking heroes of socialist realism reveal the forceful suppression of sensitivity to the peasants’ plight. Eventually many writers came to appreciate what it means to be a victim. Yet many have hung onto a losing dialogue with a political machine in which they have placed so much faith. This is the unrequited love that Bai Hua poignantly alluded to in his play of that title.54

The fact that scholars of modern Chinese literature have paid overwhelming attention to the leftist literary movement speaks to the captivating energies of its participants, which have dominated the artistic consciousness of this century. C. T. Hsia and Tsi-an Hsia have portrayed these writers as unwittingly prostituting themselves to a political movement that ultimately engulfed them (C. T. Hsia 1979, Tsi-an Hsia 1968). Leo Lee, on the other hand, argues that, apart from using their pens to promote revolutionary change, truly self-critical intellectuals like Lu Xun continued to search for a sense of values in a world where values were in flux. From the large corpus of leftist literature from the 1920s on, it is not difficult to find works that examine (p.266) the cultural repertoire and idealize the future. In a period of depression and contemplation in the 1920s, Lu Xun termed his retreat into the poetry of the Wei-Jin period (AD 220–316) as the “sound of silence on a written page” (Lee 1987a, p. 39). On looking back, survivors of the Cultural Revolution agonize over the fact that they were not allowed to remain silent. Yet in the 1980s, the young poet Bei Dao cherishes his silence after his faith was shattered through his own political fervor. The changing meanings behind silence and protest, retreat and involvement, is what this anthology intends to explore. The process reveals how generations of writers, with their cultural assumptions and political commitments, have come to terms with a process of political transformation to which they subscribe with a desperate sincerity.

The works selected in this anthology are not entirely representative. I am well aware that human responses to even the most engulfing of circumstances are infinitely diverse. It is nevertheless possible to see how the efforts presented here disclose the ethos that shapes the predicaments of both authors and subjects. The stories in each part share some underlying characteristics, but my ordering of them aims to capture their contribution to the central plot of each era, as culture, art, and politics intertwine to form a meaningful narrative about cumulative human efforts as well as selective memories.

The notion of “furrows” contains several dimensions. It represents what several generations of Chinese writers have perceived as the lines that successive regimes have plowed on the backs of the peasants. Based on their sense of social responsibility, writers have voiced their opinions and created contours on the literary fields. These furrows crisscrossed numerous times over the decades. Together, they have provided the spiritual essence of a political landscape that has formed the consciousness of successive generations.

In the way modern Chinese writers have come to terms with the politics of nation-building and the dictates of a Marxist-Leninist party-state, they have something in common with writers elsewhere.55 However, differences in cultural assumptions and politics create different tensions. In China, revolutionary goals contribute to literary vigor precisely because intellectuals can draw inspiration from literati tradition dating back to over two millennia as well as from a forward-looking desire for a modern state.56 The heightened sense of social mission among post–May Fourth intellectuals, however subversive in intent, continues to reinforce their complicity in an authoritarian state culture. Those who joined the Communist movement, however, found their voices smothered by the very language of the revolution they promoted. The peculiar turns of the movement have set urban intellectuals against the rural orientations of the party though the two are linked by nationalism.

The political environment compels modern writers to fashion their works on terms dictated by party leaders, but they do this with increasing ambivalence. Ironically, compliance with the party-state has led to a profound loss of faith that in (p.267) the end is subversive both of the new order and of the intellectuals’ sense of mission. The process is an agonizing one. Because ambivalence challenges not only political commitment but also cultural identity and historical consciousness, debates about it are intense. The intensity reveals a collective human spirit captivated by its own sense of value. How this tension has informed artistic sensitivities in modern China is the focus of this anthology.

* This is a slightly revised version of the original published in Furrows (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990c). The book manuscript was submitted to the press three weeks after the events at Tiananmen, 1989.


() Retranslated by Gershom Tse, 2015.

(1.) For a concise summary of official views on the philosophical issues involved in the spiritual pollution dispute, see Liang Liyi (1984). Liang’s article is an analysis of Hu Qiaomu’s essay “On Humanitarianism and Alienation,” which was published in Renmin ribao, Jan. 27, 1984. See also the summary written by Li Si (1983/1984).

(2.) See the debates in the Hong Kong literary journal Renditions in the 1980s and in the collection of essays edited by Bi Hua (1983). Xie Mian, an editor of the poetry journal Shikan, speaks on behalf of the younger experimental poets. He and Xu Jingya, a sympathetic critic, argue that the attempts at self-expression represent a reaction against the party’s past distortions of poetic sensitivities.

(3.) See the introduction in Tay (1988), which outlines the major issues in the controversy. Liu Xiaobo’s criticism of the new-style writers is noteworthy. See also the analyses of the fiction of Bei Dao (pen name of Zhao Zhenkai) by Bonnie McDougall (1984) and of the debates centering on Wang Meng’s experiments with the stream-of-consciousness technique by William Tay (1984).

(4.) Critical realism as a genre of writing was popularized in China during the 1920s, when Russian influence was strong. Lu Xun, for example, introduced many pieces of Russian literature to Chinese intellectual circles (Lee 1987a). The early Chinese leftists adopted the theories of the Hungarian Gyorgy Lukacs and attempted to reflect in their work the totality of an epoch and to present the human predicament through dramatic plots. However, the Stalinist era brought a shift toward a more formalistic socialist realism. The Chinese Communists selected the most “advanced” pieces as models, and Maoists pushed the Stalinist line further (Ng 1988). The critical and the humanist strains in art were thus severely suppressed.

(5.) Liu Binyan joined the party in his youth. In 1957, he was labeled a “rightist” because he portrayed the dark side of the party. After his rehabilitation in 1979, he intensified his efforts to expose the corruption of power. His “People or Monsters” (Renyao zhijian) and “A Second Kind of Loyalty” (Dierzhong zhongcheng) are both well known. In 1985, he was elected to the executive committee of the Chinese Writers Association by a popular vote. He was expelled from the party in 1987 together with the playwright Wu Zuguang, the philosopher Wang Ruoshui, and the physicist Fang Lizhi. All are outspoken critics of the (p.268) party. Liu has lived in the United States since 1988 and has joined the exiled leaders of the pro-democracy movement. For a summary of Liu’s views, see Liu and Chen (1988) and an interview of him by Li Yi (1988c), the editor-in-chief of the Hong Kong intellectual journal Jiushi niandai.

(6.) See the interviews of Tu Wei-Ming by Xue Yong, a reporter in Beijing (Tu 1985), and by Li Yi (1989c), which focuses on the May Fourth movement. Tu is interested in the recent efforts at “cultural reflection” in China. The issues surrounding “tradition” are reflected in the debate triggered by the television series He Shang; see Sanlian Shudian (1989). See also the discussion among Li Zehou, Liu Shuxian, and Li Yi (1988b).

(7.) See Li Zehou and Liu Zaifu (1988) and Ren (1988), which quotes Liu Xinwu, and Liu Xinwu (1988).

(8.) Among his more famous pieces are the short story “Leader of the Class” (Ban zhuren), the novella Overpass (Liti jiaochaqiao), and the novel Bell and Drum Towers (Zhonggu lou). He was an editor of Renmin wenxue (People’s literature).

(9.) The March and April1989 issues of Jiushi niandai contained the text of the open letter and several reports and analyses of the letter-signing campaign; see Li Yi (1989a, 1989b) and Qi (1989a, 1989b).

(10.) Liu Binyan divides the young writers into two groups. Bei Dao and Han Shaogong are among those whose works are still engaged in a dialogue with political reality and are therefore acceptable. He dislikes those who explore their inner emotions to the exclusion of social concerns. See Liu Binyan and Chen (1988).

(11.) A growing pool of their writings has been identified as the literature of the sent-down educated youths. See the special section devoted to their works in Lianhe wenxue 3, no. 12 (1988): 82–147.

(12.) See three articles (“Zai xinde jueqi mianqian,” pp. 83–85; “Shiqu le pingjing zhihou,” pp. 89–92; “Tongwang chengshu de daolu,” pp. 130–36) by Xie Mian and “Jueqi de shiqun,” pp. 97–129 by Xu Jingya in Bi Hua (1983). On the generational divisions of modern Chinese intellectuals since the May Fourth period, see Schwarcz and Li (1983–84).

(13.) The “literature of the wounded” and the “exposure literature” were the first waves of literature to emerge after Mao’s death in 1976 to reveal the horrors of the Maoist period. See Siu and Stern (1983) and Link (1983). See Kinkley (1985) and Duke (1985) for later developments.

(14.) I refer to Lu Xun’s classic 1918 short story, “The Diary of a Madman.” Through the eyes of a paranoid, he described the traditional ethics that formed the habits of the heart and that killed human feelings and critical self-reflection.

(15.) For a description of Gu Cheng’s poems by his father, Gu Gong, see Siu and Stern (1983), pp. 9–15.

(16.) An art show in Beijing in 1989 confirmed the worst fears of politically concerned artists. Some young artists, calling themselves the Xingdong pai (Action school) deliberately attracted attention to their art by “unconventional ways.” Two of them obtained a gun from the home of a close family friend, a high military official, and shot at a painting in the exhibition hall. Whatever the “artistic” value of their expression, their reliance on their families’ power and privilege was distasteful to those artists who have tried to use unconventional art forms to express their opposition to political orthodoxy. See Ya (1989).

(17.) This term comes from Wang Ruoshui (1985/1989), which was written for Chinese youth.

(18.) Ah Cheng (1985b), p. 92. For other advocates of “roots” literature, see Zheng (1985), Han (1985), the interview of Han Shaogong in Lin Weiping (1986) and Shi Shuqing (1989).

(p.269) (19.) For different aspects of how modern Chinese intellectuals relate to the state, see Yue and Wakeman (1985), Kinkley (1985), Duke (1985) and Goldman et al. (1987), particularly the article by Rudolf Wagner.

(20.) For comparative purposes, see Goody (1986) on writing and the organization of society.

(21.) See Liang Shuming (1949), p. 19. This is not to deny the legalistic elements in the Chinese polity and their ancient roots in the first dynasty, the Qin, which, according to Mote (1971), p. 114, “expressly denied all humanistic values, and [was] quite implacable in its scorn for venerated tradition.”

(22.) Qu Yuan, a poet and official of the 3rd century BC, represents loyal opposition and honor even in banishment. He drowned himself in protest, an act remembered in the popular culture in connection with the Dragon Boat Festival, when rice cakes wrapped in leaves are thrown into rivers supposedly to feed the fish so that they will not disturb his body. There are many other such examples. Tao Yuanming, a poet and official of the 4th century, resigned from office and became a hermit. His chrysanthemums became a symbol of a gentleman’s retreat.

(23.) Yu Yingshi (1978) has analyzed the interconnections among Confucian scholarship, the rise of the large lineages from which the scholars emerged, and dynastic fortunes. He argues that the scholars also shared artistic tastes based on Daoism that were not necessarily related to the pursuits of officials. These self-conscious, anti-official identities were forcefully expressed during the Wei-Jin period (3rd century), when many scholars engaged in metaphysical studies and refused to acknowledge the Confucian order in social and political life. This trend of thought was a genuine component of the scholarly culture, Yu argues, and scholars in the later periods resorted to its symbols of scholarly retreat when the political arena became too treacherous. The Scholars (Rulin waishi), an 18th-century social satire on scholars and their attempts to come to terms with the growing disparity between their aspirations and the political constraints imposed by the late imperial state, reveals the powerful ideological forces to which intellectuals felt compelled to attach themselves (Ropp 1981).

(24.) See Tu (1985 and 1987), Lee (1987b and 1989), Schwarcz (1986), p. 8, and Li Yi (1989c). For the interactions of the traditional assumptions of modern Chinese intellectuals and political power, see Goldman (1967 and 1981) and Goldman et al. (1987).

(25.) For a detailed analysis of this tension, see Li Zehou (1987) and Liu Zaifu and Lin (1988). See Chow (1960) on the May Fourth Movement and its implications. See also Goldman (1977) on the literature of the May Fourth period.

(26.) Yu (1983). Some intellectual self-examination was achieved at the beginning of the May Fourth period, as shown in the earlier works of Lu Xun and Hu Shi. However, the period was short lived. From the late 1920s on, even Lu Xun was somewhat drawn into the political whirlpool.

(27.) See Li Zehou (1987), Liu Zaifu and Lin (1988), and Gan in Lin Yushen et al. (1989), pp. 62–81, on the unfinished process of cultural reflection.

(28.) Their eagerness for Western technology did not entail a willingness to embrace Western cultural values. As advocated by Zhang Zhidong in the late 19th century, the goal was to use Western means while retaining the Chinese essence.

(29.) See Alitto’s “Rural Elites in Transition” in Mann (1979), pp. 218–75, on the maneuvers of these military bosses.

(30.) This division is epitomized by two literary clubs, the Wenxue Yanjiuhui (Literary research society) and the Chuangzao She (Creation society). According to C. T. Hsia (1979), the (p.270) first one used Xiaoshuo yuebao as its mouth piece, and the other published a series of journals, Chuangzao jikan, Chuangzao ribao, Hongshui, and Chuangzao yuekan, to counter the realism of the first. From the late 1920s on, writers in the Chuangzao She increasingly combined romanticism with revolutionary fervor to promote the Communist cause. A representative figure is Guo Moruo.

(31.) For recent evaluations of Qu, see Wang Shiqing (1984) and the biographical accounts by Chen Tiejian (1986) and Pickowicz (1975).

(32.) Although Mao was most concerned with class, his tactics justified a united front for national salvation in the 1930s and 1940s. For studies of the rural economy in the Republican era, see Myers (1970), Alitto in Mann (1979), Perry (1980), Philip Huang (1985), Duara (1988) and Faure (1989a). For studies of how the Communists attempted to mobilize the peasants, see Johnson (1962), Hinton (1966), Selden (1971), Pepper (1978), Thaxton (1983), Chen Yung-fa (1986) and Mao (1930/1990).

(33.) See the writings of Qu Qiubai and Hu Feng on Marxist literary criticism and on relations with the Chinese populace.

(34.) See Ding Yi (1955/1978), Ding Wang (1978), C. T. Hsia (1979) and Lee (1987a). See also the articles by Huters and by Holms in Lee (1985). This view should be distinguished from Qu Qiubai’s opinions in the early 1930s concerning excess “Europeanization” in leftist literature. Qu’s concern was along class lines. He was afraid that the bourgeois, urban, elitist assumptions of many writers prevented them from speaking a language the peasant masses could appreciate. See Pickowicz (1975). Hu Feng, a Marxist literary critic, staunchly opposed sinicization. He and Lu Xun were friends, and his views brought him into opposition to Mao Zedong in the 1940s and 1950s.

(35.) C. T. Hsia (1971), p. 533. Russian literature with a moral thrust and a populist sense of compassion for the peasants was influential in the formation of this attitude. See Ng (1988) and Pickowicz (1975). Also, many of those thinking in Marxist terms, such as Wang Shiwei and Hu Feng, were later persecuted as Trotskyists and revisionists by a party heavily influenced by Stalinists.

(36.) For a critical evaluation of the Yan’an Forum and the subsequent twenty years, see Tsi-an Hsia’s “Twenty Years after the Yenan Forum” in Birch (1963), pp. 226–53. See also Dai (1988) and Selden (1971) on the rectification movement in Yan’an. For a survey of the literary debates during the Yan’an period, see Liu Zengjie et al. (1983).

(37.) Gregor Benton (1982), who translated Wang’s essay “Wild Lilies,” said that Wang spoke more from the heart than from the mind. For his ordeal, see Benton (1982), pp. 168–86, Dai (1988), C. T. Hsia (1979) and Cheek (1984).

(38.) See Dai (1988), Ma (1975) and Cheek (1984) on the incident. Dai asserts that the incident was intimately tied to the sinification of Marxism under Mao.

(39.) Dai Qing (1988) suggests the order came from Marshal He Long, who was given control of the base area at the time and who obviously did not feel bound by legal procedure. Many intellectuals considered these military leaders semi-bandits. He Long, for his part, had little patience with intellectuals.

(40.) Hu Feng became friends with Lu Xun during Lu’s last years. In 1935, party pragmatists sent four representatives from the League of Left-wing Writers to warn Lu Xun against the friendship, accusing Hu of being an “internal spy.” The act infuriated Lu Xun, who nicknamed them the “four fellows” (si tiao hanzi) and refused to cooperate (C. T. Hsia 1979, p. 312).

(41.) Ding Shu (1987) and Ba Jin’s Wuti ji 無題集‎ (Untitled), p. 150 (reprinted in Ba Jin 1988).

(p.271) (42.) See Ba Jin’s “Dao fangzhi tongzhi” 悼方之同志‎ in Tansuo ji 探索集‎ (reprinted in Ba Jin 1988).

(43.) Ba Jin’s Zhenhua ji 真話集‎, p. 69 (reprinted in Ba Jin 1988).

(44.) Two notable examples of loyal opposition are Wang Ruoshui (1985/1989) and Wang Ruowang (1989); both men are prominent Marxist philosophers and literary critics.

(45.) An autobiographical short story by Shi Tiesheng, “My Distant Qingping Bay” (Wode yaoyuan de Qingping wan), describes a common bond between an old peasant and an educated youth paralyzed by disease. Due to its length, I could not incorporate it in the volume.

(46.) See Chen Cun (1985), p. 64. See also Zeng (1985) on the works of Zhang Xinxin, and Ding Fan and Xu (1986) in defense of the “roots literature.” In a recent letter (personal communication), Han Shaogong said that he no longer wrote this kind of literature.

(47.) A student leader (New York Times, June 3, 1989) commented that his one regret was that the students had been unable to link up with intellectuals, writers, and journalists.

(48.) This idea was suggested to me by Ng Mau-sang. See also Schwarcz (1986) on Zhang Shenfu’s feelings of being superfluous.

(49.) See Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) for the concept of the invention of tradition. See Liu Na (1986). Liu distinguishes traditional literature, which functioned as social mediation, from modern literature, which has been used as an active tool to promote national salvation and social reform.

(50.) Many workers and other citizens supported the demonstrations, not only because they had their own frustrations to air but also because many believed that these students, the future leaders of society, were patriotically trying to bring about a better state and nation. Might this be a sign that traditional attitudes of looking to the educated elite for moral leadership are still alive?

(51.) In a dialogue with Liu Binyan, Leo Lee (1986) summarizes the complexity of the issues involved. He shares Liu’s sentiments but objects to Liu’s appeal to social conscience to prevent artistic explorations that have not been allowed in the past four decades. Lee hopes that, after a period of chasing after art or cultural roots, the young writers will acquire enough vision to link an abstract exploration of cultural roots with immediate issues in social and political life. See also Shi Shuqing (1989) for interviews with Liu and other writers.

(52.) My intentions in exploring this cultural critique seem best summarized by Marcus and Fischer (1986), p. 114: “The philosophical critique is most securely grounded in the sociology of knowledge, a questioning of the relation between the content of beliefs and ideas, and the social position of their carriers or advocates. The effect of this style of cultural critique is demystification; it detects interests behind and within cultural meanings expressed in discourse; it reveals forms of domination and power; and thus, it is often posed as the critique of ideology.”

(53.) After 1949, there were works on workers and soldiers, but a large number of writers were sent to the countryside to “experience” peasant life and to write about how the peasants were “embracing” a revolution conducted in their name.

(54.) Bai Hua, a middle-aged writer in the army, wrote Kulian (Unrequited love) in 1980 and became the target of official wrath in 1981. For an interview with him seven years later, see Li Yi (1988a).

(55.) For similar political problems faced by East European writers, see the works of Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, and Czeslaw Milosz.

(p.272) (56.) See Williams (1958, 1977, 1979, and 1980) for theoretical statements on culture and political economy, and on Marxism and literature. See the works of the new historicists (e.g., Stephen Greenblatt) on how literary voices are encoded by their political-historical environments. Although one may conclude that voices of self-assertion are inevitably shaped by social codes and political agendas within a historical context, the Chinese texts appeared to engender themselves. See also Stallybrass and White (1986) for a summary of Mikhail Bakhtin and revisions of his work in relation to cultural hegemony and subversive voices in literature and cultural performances.