Once Exiled as a ‘Rightist,’ Chinese Writer Becomes Cultural Minister

Times Staff Writer

In 1956, a young Chinese writer named Wang Meng published a short story about a young Communist Party official disillusioned by his battles with the party’s inert and apathetic bureaucracy.

The story, “The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department,” was soon officially denounced as anti-socialist, and Wang was sent off to do physical labor. For two decades, most of them spent in the Xinjiang region of far-off western China, Wang was unable to write anything at all.

Now, Chinese literary politics have come full circle. This week, Wang, 51, was appointed China’s new minister of culture, the government official responsible for overseeing literary and artistic developments in the world’s most populous nation.

Story Now Praised

In announcing Wang’s appointment, the official New China News Agency said Wednesday that “The Young Newcomer” “is now regarded as one of the finest short stories since new China was founded in 1949.”

Wang’s selection as culture minister is apparently meant to dramatize the regime’s current attempt to foster a literary and artistic revival--and to show how much things have changed in China since the days under Mao Tse-tung when writers who displeased the party leadership were imprisoned or exiled.


Wang will replace outgoing Culture Minister Zhu Muzhi, 70, a veteran party propaganda official who was head of the New China News Agency in the early 1970s while Wang was exiled in Xinjiang.

A Cultural Renaissance

Over the past two months, the Chinese leadership headed by Deng Xiaoping has conducted an extensive public campaign to encourage a cultural renaissance. The campaign is ostensibly aimed at commemorating the 30th anniversary of Mao’s exhortation to writers and artists to “Let a hundred flowers bloom.”

Wang’s short story about the Communist Party’s bureaucracy was published in the middle of that earlier “hundred flowers” campaign. The next year, he was branded a “rightist” when Mao decided that there had been too much freedom and led a movement to silence those who had criticized the party too severely.

“My whole being was split,” Wang later recalled. “To be loyal to the revolution, you must betray literature; if you loved literature and created it, then you were a traitor to the revolution.”

Ally of Leadership

In recent years, Wang has attracted attention in Chinese literary circles less for his new written work than for his public stature and political influence. A member of the Communist Party since age 14, he was made a member of the party Central Committee in 1982 and, under Deng, has gradually emerged as an important literary ally of China’s political leadership.

“No matter how many well-intentioned readers want me to retain the style of ‘The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department,’ it is both impossible and unnecessary,” he wrote in 1980. “It is more than 20 years now since I was expelled from the ‘Organization Department,’ and I am no longer young.”

Wang has never espoused the cause of absolute literary freedom in China.

Limits to Freedom

In 1985, when asked if a Chinese writer would be free to publish a book praising Mao’s imprisoned wife, Jiang Qing, who was the leader of radical forces during China’s Cultural Revolution, Wang said that such a book would probably not be published in modern-day China.

“I think society would criticize (the author) and throw stones at him when he walked down the street,” Wang said.

In a recent article in the Communist Party’s theoretical journal, Red Flag, Wang warned that “we should realize that the creative freedom we are to safeguard is creative freedom with a socialist character.”

Still, despite his willingness to accept the Communist Party’s requirement that writers maintain a basic commitment to socialism, he has emerged as a spokesman for a more tolerant approach toward literature in China.

‘Makes Others Nervous’

Only last week, at a literary symposium, he warned participants not to use phrases such as “We hold that . . . " or “We Marxists maintain that . . . " because, he said, it “makes others very nervous.”

Born in Peking, Wang published several novels and short stories in the early 1950s. After he was branded a rightist, he was sent first to a farm in the Peking suburbs and then, in 1963, to Xinjiang. Once there, he worked on a commune and learned how to write and speak the Uighur language of the Islamic ethnic group that dominates the region.

“During those 20 years from 1957 onwards, when I was accused of being worthless and despicable, I came gradually to feel that the accusations were true,” he later confessed. Nevertheless, he said, he learned from ordinary people in Xinjiang “the chicanery of those years, the arbitrariness of power.”

It was not until 1979, three years after the death of Mao, that Wang was transferred back to Peking. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, he published several new works, and he also began serving as editor-in-chief of a leading Chinese literary magazine, People’s Literature.