Chinese Writers Steer a Careful Course Around the Shoals of Government Policy

Gayle Feldman, a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly, has worked extensively in Chinese publishing houses and is a frequent visitor to China.

Last September, when the momentum of China's reforms and opening to the outside world appeared to be unstoppable, Zhang Xinxin, one of the country's leading young writers, spoke with a caution that many optimistic outsiders would have regarded as a little surprising.

"It's true that the policy toward literature has recently been more open," she said. "But writers like us have been through many changes before. We have to be coolheaded when the policy is more open, and coolheaded when it is more closed."

Given the movement away from relaxation since December's student demonstrations, bringing the fall of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and the campaign against Western democratic influence, or "bourgeois liberalization," Zhang's words appear strangely prophetic. Bearing in mind that two of the three prominent intellectuals who have been expelled from the party--Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang--are writers; that the editor of the country's most prestigious literary magazine, novelist Liu Xinwu, has been "temporarily relieved of his post" for authorizing a controversial story about Tibet, and that there is speculation about how long novelist Wang Meng will continue to be China's minister of culture, Chinese authors need as much coolheadedness as they can muster.

The government policy toward writers has veered with the political winds of change, and it has only been in the Deng Xiaoping era that writers have officially been called members of the working class. Before Deng, in a country where politics were predicated upon notions of "class struggle," not being officially accepted into the ranks of the workers meant at best a mercurial and more often than not a dangerous existence.

What, in fact, is the role of the writer in China today? Who are these writers, what is controversial about their works, what kinds of reflections are we likely to see over the ensuing months? And a question pondered by so many of China's writers: Why is it that for so much of the world, and particularly within America, the literary image held up by one-quarter of the world's population is almost a total blank?

Since 1949, politics has entered, intimately, every aspect of Chinese life in a way inconceivable to most Westerners, the world of books being no exception. During the early and mid-1950s, many writers were imbued with a naive and ultimately tragic faith in Mao Tse-tung's ability to do no wrong. Thus, when he called for the blossoming of a "hundred flowers," extending an invitation for supposedly open literary and intellectual debate, writers like Wang Meng and Liu Binyan responded, only to be branded as "rightists" during the 1957-58 campaign that followed, and put away in internal exile or worse for the next 20 years.

For those who escaped the anti-rightist movement, the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution lay in wait just around the corner. It is not surprising that a writer like Zhang Jie, a well-known woman novelist, "didn't write a single word before 1978, when I was already 41 years old. Before then, the policy was that literature should 'serve workers, peasants and soldiers.' Anything that was not about politics or workers and so forth could not have been published, or if published, would not have been welcomed."

After the Cultural Revolution, the exhortation to serve workers, peasants and soldiers was removed, only to be replaced by the slogan to "serve the people and socialism" and the campaign against bourgeois liberalization is emphasizing the currency of this slogan. Even before the current campaign, Wang Meng set down the official parameters within which Chinese authors must operate. And while his phoenix-like rise from former rightist to culture minister was welcomed by Chinese writers, it also demonstrated political survival skills that caused some to have second thoughts.

"Every writer may have his or her own pursuit," Wang said. "But one's own pursuit should be consistent with the overall interests of society. I hold that writers' freedom of artistic creation should be guaranteed and at the same time, writers' social responsibility and the need to maintain a socialist orientation in literature should be emphasized."

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese writing has gone through several phases. The first "wound" or "scar" literature was an immediate outpouring of the enormous suffering that people experienced during 10 years of chaos. Subsequently, the focus shifted from merely exposing the wounds to achieving a more considered understanding of modern Chinese society in the midst of its many dislocations. This "new realism" at times encompasses "reform" literature, some works emphasizing the impact of the economic changes. Other works are deemed more "humanistic"; in a country that has traditionally emphasized the needs of society over the needs of the individual, these writings reaffirm the value of the latter and explore such hitherto taboo topics as divorce and the destructiveness of relationships based on connections and political maneuvering. The new realism is best represented by authors like Zhang Jie, "Leaden Wings," and Wang Meng, "The Butterfly," whose thematic experimentation is matched by the use of "unorthodox" techniques imported from the West--flashbacks, black humor and stream-of-consciousness.

The past few years have given birth to several other categories. One is called "looking for roots" fiction, and is written by the lost generation of big-city high school students known as "educated youth" who were shipped off to learn from the peasants by doing manual labor in the most remote areas during the Cultural Revolution. These writers are in their 30s, and base their fiction in the distant places where they passed their youth. Many of them feel that Chinese literature as a reflection of Chinese culture has become painfully stunted and narrow, that the new realism is still little more than a direct reflection of politics or sociology. They look on the poor, isolated areas in the countryside as representing the least changed elements of Chinese culture and therefore go in search of their roots amid the history, customs and geography of these areas so inextricably bound up with the most traumatic period of their lives.

Some of this writing also comes under the category of "western" literature, stories that take place in China's inhospitable far west. One western novella that recently caused a sensation--Zhang Xianliang's "Half of Man Is Woman"--has gained extreme notoriety since it is the first to deal explicitly with sex, although unexceptionally so by American or European standards.

While the dislocations of the past 50 years of Chinese experience have caused some authors to search for continuity and meaningfulness through roots, others, notably Zhang Xinxin and her co-author of "Chinese Profiles," Sang Ye, combine elements of oral history and reportage in a Studs Terkel-like attempt to capture the Chinese collective memory. The work of Lin Binyan, "People and Monsters," represents another kind of reportage--outspoken, crusading journalism that has courted the displeasure of many in power while enjoying enormous popularity among ordinary people. Finally, the post-Cultural Revolution era has also given rise to a new type of poetry, known as "hazy" or "obscure," which uses "unrealistic" images and is often viewed as "perplexing" by members of the older generation.

In a country where the first move in the Cultural Revolution took the form of a newspaper attack on a play, the state of literary criticism gives very strong indications about the health of the body politic itself. Over the past few years, an attempt at objective literary analysis--not just political interpretation--was among the positive cultural phenomena in China. So far, the campaign against bourgeois liberalization has involved newspaper criticism of Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang's journalistic efforts, but, in a significant departure from the past, they have not yet been attacked by fellow writers.

Also, individual works of fiction, drama and poetry (apart from the Tibetan story in Liu Xinwu's magazine), have not yet been overtly attacked as they were during the Spiritual Revolution campaign of 1983. Chinese writers and publishers anxiously wait to see if the attack will come, and there have been rumors that some new projects--a novel by Zhang Xianliang exploring teen-age sexual awakening--are being stopped at the press.

The Chinese government has set up a new publishing authority--the Press and Publications Administration--that clearly will aim to exercise greater control, although how it will do so has not yet been clearly indicated.

How do the writers look on their role and the state of Chinese literature as a whole? Zhang Jie represents many new-realism authors when she says that "people seem to want to forget suffering and difficult issues, but my strongest motive is to write for the conscience of mankind." Wang Meng agrees, feeling that the writer in post-Cultural Revolution China has a mission to provide spiritual nourishment for young people in particular: "In China, there isn't a dominant religion. Sometimes it's through the forms of art and literature that, to use religious terms, we can save people's souls and bring a new enlightenment to their lives."

Zhang Xinxin was commissioned to do her "Chinese Profiles" for serialization by the American Overseas Chinese Daily, a newspaper based in New York, after she had been severly criticized during the Spiritual Pollution campaign in 1983 and was unable to be published in China. For this project she and her co-author interviewed 300 people and eventually had about 100 of the stories published--subsequently, they appeared in China as well. Zhang feels that "we first saw our role as telling people all over the world that the Chinese aren't just a billion blue ants. Second, we wrote it for our own countrymen to show through the layers of ordinary eyes and voices that in China, although every individual's experience is different, it is in one sense also the same. Another reason for our project was to capture the stories of older people before it's too late. The Cultural Revolution destroyed so many traditions--we wanted to put things down for the record at a time when China is changing."

Ah Cheng has published only a handful of short stories but they are regarded, artistically, as among the best works to come out of China in the past 10 years. He is one of the few young mainland authors whose works have found their way to publication and critical acclaim in Taiwan. Unlike the others, he does not subscribe to the "writing as mission" phenomenon, although admitting "this sense of mission is a long tradition among Chinese intellectuals." Before the start of the current campaign, he spoke for all the other authors, saying that "in comparison to previous periods, this is probably the most open period for Chinese writers." But even in what has been such an "open" period, no great epic account of the Cultural Revolution--something to be compared with "Dr. Zhivago," for example--has surfaced. Why?

Wang Meng feels that "over the past 10 years, there's been a tremendous surge of love for literature in China, and literary circles are very lively. But I think to write that kind of epic, writers need to calm down . . . . The cultural atmosphere has been too hot this past decade."

And, unpalatable as this may be, many China specialists in the West feel that although there are some outstanding exceptions, too much of the literature that has come out of China is, from a literary point of view, simply not good enough. Being so highly politicized and cut off from the outside world for so long has taken its toll on the quality of much of the writing, leaving it narrow, overly sentimental and all too unsubtle.

When I was in China last September, the atmosphere among writers and publishers was buoyant. Returning to Beijing in February, it was muted at best. Writers are biding time, as they have so often had to in the past, hoping that bourgeois liberalization, like spiritual pollution, will turn out to be a passing phase rather than heralding another long winter, just when spring appeared to be so teasingly around the corner.

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