Writers in China Today

PEGGY DURDIN was born in China, the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries. After her graduation from Agnes Scott College in Georgia, she returned to China to teach English in the Shanghai American School. She married Tillman Durdin of the New York TIMES staff in 1938, and during the war years was herself an accredited correspondent in Burma, Chungking, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.


CHINA’S long history has not been characterized by complete freedom of expression. But through many, many centuries, Chinese scholars and writers tried to apply Confucius’ maxim: “If, looking into my heart, I find I am right, I will go forward, although those opposing me number thousands and tens of thousands.” Highly respected, even when tyrants frowned dangerously on them, China’s literati generally wrote with courage and frankness. But who, in this Chinese Communist decade, dares criticize border wars, the tragedy of famine, high taxes, heartless officials, peasant suffering, neglected scholars, harmful state policies, as did China’s classic writers? Who, today, would dare to write these ancient lines?

Todays, public morality disintegrates.
True scholarship has no more value
Than a scrap of wastepaper.
He who has no virtue
Is said to be more virtuous
Than the greatest sage.

In this century, Chiang Kai-shek’s government showed little of the traditional Chinese respect for writers, particularly when many of them criticized his politics and policies. The Kuomintang banned publications, harassed authors into hiding, arrested some, and executed others without trial. But many leftist and Communist writers managed to live through this period to write and be published. None of these men today can hold dissentient views, preserve their intellectual integrity, write and speak out as they did when Chiang Kai-shek’s police frowned on their activities.

The Chinese writer certainly has never enjoyed less freedom of thought than he does today. The intelligentsia — and, in particular, the writers among them — seem the least fortunate group in China. Regularly, through its ten years of rule, the Party has directed “struggles” and campaigns against writers and other creative artists. The better literary works of the decade came from the first few years, when the Party was too busy achieving effective control of the country to concentrate its attention on writers, and from the six or eight months of thaw in late 1956 and early 1957. The worst era for authors — and that of their poorest work — has been since mid-1957, when, to use Communist language, “poisonous weeds” were “uprooted” and “turned into manure.”

Not that the restraints the Communists place on creative writers today have been unheralded. Almost two decades ago, Mao Tse-tung declared his distrust of the intellectual and his view that the writer was a Party propaganda tool. Party functionaries and publications have echoed and underlined these ideas since. The writer’s job is, quite simply, to serve and obey the Party; to further socialism, Communism, and the political, ideological, social, and economic tasks or campaigns of the moment; to reflect “advanced ideas" with the utmost speed and persuasiveness; to glorify the Party and Mao; to expose and fight their enemies.

Chou Yang, at present the Party’s chief cultural commissar, explains the yardstick for literary criticism: “Anything that is helpful to the development of productivity and social progress is good, and the reverse is bad.” Last year, he also pointed out that members of local Party committees at every level were “in the best position to judge whether a literary work or work of art is a true reflection of life or not.” Of course, the state controls the publishing houses, all publications, and all jobs and assignments; the Party’s puppet cultural organizations approve a writer’s subject, check each section of his work, make corrections and suggestions, and approve the final draft.

Chou Yang has explained that the Party must control authors because it is often through literature and art that bourgeois ideas insidiously corrupt, while battles between the proletariat (good) and bourgeoisie (bad) often commence with “skirmishes on the literary front.” Anyone can see that the potential danger of the written word increases as millions more Chinese become literate.

AS so frequently happens in other areas in Communist China today, those ideas in culture and literature which are generally sound become twisted, exaggerated, and misapplied, and the writer and his audience suffer rather than benefit. For writers to descend from their ivory towers — a process that commenced before Mao Tse-tung controlled China — so that they may better understand, write for and about the common people is healthy. To encourage new young writers from factory or farm, to destroy the tradition that only the highly placed or highly literate can wield the Chinese brush — all this is sensible. But deliberately to humiliate, punish, and break so many professional writers that almost all are cowed; to manacle authors, young or old, with Marx-Lenin-Mao and Party dicta; to compel, however deviously, millions of tired workers “voluntarily” to produce poems, songs, stories — this is distortion.

The writer must, in the Chinese Communists’ religious phrase, “give his heart to the Party” and always obey it; study the works of Mao Tse-tung; continue regular group study and discussion, self-criticism, and, in Party terminology, “the long, agonizing process of self-remolding.”

The writer must write for and about the masses: workers, peasants, and soldiers in the Liberation Army. He must live among, share the living conditions, pleasures, and pains of, humbly learn from factory workers, miners, soldiers, herdsmen, fishermen. One of last year’s Communist reports estimated that over a thousand writers were to be sent down to live with “the people” and take part in manual labor, some for a limited period, some permanently.

For instance, a Communist magazine reports that, in Mao Tse-tung’s province, novelist Chou Li-po writes in the mornings; in the afternoons and evenings he does Party work, tends an experimental sweet potato plot and keeps pigs. The reader is assured that writer Chou finds it all “much more satisfying than living in Peking.”

In addition to the tough, unaccustomed physical labor in mine, field, or factory, writers are expected to take on other tasks in their spare time. They man the schools, teach people to read, spread propaganda about the new ideas, and help to break old customs, such as the worship of ancestral tablets. They must join the multiple special campaigns (steel-making, fertilizer gathering, ratand-sparrow catching) and participate in the periodic struggles — for example, in late 1959, the struggle against rightist conservatism, or against waste.

Writers must also develop a whole new group of proletarian authors; collect, edit, and improve folk poetry; and inspire the masses to write poems, songs, short stories, reminiscences (politically significant), plays, movie scenarios, autobiographies, commune or factory histories. In the course of practicing collective creation, they must collaborate with these amateur authors. The Communist press states, for instance, that a film director, two worker writers, and one lathe turner wrote successfully a scenario, called Eighty-eight Days, about China’s first home-produced locomotive. Of course, the report adds, they received great aid from the plant’s other workers and Communist Party Committee.

The authors sent to frontier, field, or factory have been important aids in one of the Party’s key programs through the “great leap forward”— to make every Chinese become something of a writer. Besides breaking the professionals, destroying, if possible, the special esteem Chinese have traditionally felt for the literati, developing writers from worker and poor peasant families - that magic, proletarian formula — Peking has probably above all wanted to use writing by the people as mass self-indoctrination and self-hypnosis for right thoughts and increased production. Mass writing has become what Communists call a “political task, under the direct sponsorship of the Party.” Communist articles report that in this literary creativity “the local Communist Party Committee leads, to ensure a high political and ideological level.” It criticizes carefully. Leading Party members Sometimes take a hand in writing; the published results are little short of dreadful. It is safe to say that never has so much bad writing been produced by so many.

Whatever its quality, the quantity of writings the Communists report by the people (often by wordage, in hundreds of thousands or millions) is tremendous. They say that, in the rural areas of China, poems cover trees, doors, walls, and rocks. As for the cities, an enthusiast wrote not long ago of “The hum of machines by day, Drama and singing by night.”

During a year of what the Communists admitted was overwork, the twelve thousand employees of one steel plant created, after the day’s regular shift, more than 160,000 articles, short stories, poems, and dissertations. Liberation Army generals and privates write; 38,000 poems came from one tank regiment. Workers in Tientsin’s Bureau of Light Industry evolved 3400 artistic pieces in a month. In the same time, a Szechuan province cooperative put out 10,000 folk poems, 60 short plays, and 30 ballads; not to be outdone, another cooperative wrote collectively a 30,000word novel. The staff of a Shanghai hotel collectively wrote, staged, and reformed themselves through a play called Better Service. The Communists say that in about half a year Shanghai’s workers alone created more than two million literary items. Most of this “voluntary” literary activity has been done by exhausted people working well over the twelve-hour day.

The writer must make “great leap forward” plans for the year’s work — formal, detailed ones, listing how many novels, plays, essays, poems, songs he promises to produce. Then he must revise the target upward, submit the outline to the Party-controlled Writers’ Union for discussion and approval, and exceed his target.

Writers must try new techniques just as a carpenter does, Communist officials explained last year. They must include in their plan many different forms of writing, “just as a department store supplies everything.” They must produce large numbers of short works on “major battles waged by the people.” Writers must also compete with one another, like factories and mines, and “subject themselves to collective supervision and encouragement.”

The writer must combine, in Communist words, “up-to-date Communist and socialist ideology, elegant national style, high skill in expression with revolutionary romanticism and socialist realism.” In brief, writers are to glorify with boundless enthusiasm the Party and socialist society, while exposing enemies with hatred and venom. The heroes and heroines must be workers, soldiers, peasants, and Party men with fighting spirit strong enough to move heaven and earth, model workers with collectivist thoughts, motives, and feelings. While the writer describes only their positive side, he paints totally black villains — landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, members of the Kuomintang army, or rightists.

Novels of the last few years describe the heroic revolutionary student movement of the thirties; struggles of peasant heroes, Communist-led, against landlords before Liberation; Chinese peasants “marching toward the agricultural cooperative movement"; the conflict between advanced and backward workers in a steel plant; the struggle between communal-minded and individualist laborers on the Paochi-Chengtu Railway. Themes for short stories and plays are similar.

The author must produce topical works quickly. The Communists claim that writers produced tens of thousands of literary works in a few days after American “aggression” began in the Middle East, while, in a two weeks’ visit to the Fukien front in the fall of 1958, a small group of authors turned out 300 “heroic works.”

The result of these Party policies has been increasingly mediocre writing, with plots, characters, themes, dialogue, and sentiments so politically conventional that one can hardly finish reading any story, novel, or play. The verse is usually so bad that one cannot caricature it. Since the Party demands quantity, speed, and political orthodoxy, one forgives poor construction and style. But it is hard to overlook plain emptiness in writing.

WE DO not know how many Chinese writers have been condemned as rightists; how many are being reformed through labor; how many have lost their housing, jobs, income, and friends; how many Peking has sent to frontier regions, much as Emperor Ch’in Shih Huang Ti sent dissenting scholars to die working on the Great Wall of China.

Among Chinese writers of talent, Ting Ling, a gifted woman from Mao’s own province of Hunan, has been subjected to two years of reform through labor at a desolate spot on the northern fringe of Manchuria. She was no trifling, fellow-traveling scribbler. She was a disciple of Lu Hsün, this century’s foremost Chinese literary figure, a courageous left-wing fighter, master of irony, sarcasm, and satire — dead, and therefore safely enshrined today as their literary god by the Chinese Communists. After Ting Ling escaped from the Kuomintang and crossed China disguised as an army private in the thirties, Mao Tse-tung himself warmly welcomed her to his cave headquarters, Yenan, writing a special poem in her honor. Before the 1949 Liberation, she was a Communist propagandist and political worker as well as writer; she has held many important Communist offices. Chinese Communists admit she achieved reputation in the whole Communist bloc and the respect and admiration of many inside China, especially the young.

But at the end of the short thaw, or Flowerblooming period, two years ago, this Communist novelist was shorn of jobs, Party card, and government office. Her books were banned. The Party belatedly discovered, to use its own official verbiage, that this “wicked, despicable adventurer,” this “soul-corroding bourgeois master,” this “morbidly avaricious exploiter” had long “spread poison” within and without the Party, “viciously corroding” the young especially, over whom she had “cast a spell.”

The Party now found that her first work, published some three decades before, had been full of “bourgeois decadence”; that she had betrayed the Party when under Kuomintang arrest; that she had written anti-Party essays and stories in Yenan two decades earlier; that she had always been a disloyal, dyed-in-the-wool individualist who, behind praise of Mao and the Party, uttered “silly twaddles" about writing with genuine feeling and valued quality more highly than quantity.

Ting Ling illustrates the fact that the author’s dilemma and shackles in China today are greater than those of writers in Soviet Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Hungary.

Some of the men who were outstanding and prolific before 1949 have been virtually silent; for instance, the novelists Mao Tun and Pa Chin, the dramatist Tsao Yu. Since these men make good and important window dressing for the Communists, Peking has given them money, comfort, position, and face in return for holding office, receiving and impressing foreign visitors, parroting Party dogma, going on delegations abroad, signing protests, and so forth. Perhaps most cooperative of the pre-Liberation authors of talent is Lao Sheh, the first writer in Peking to whom the Communists gave a car, a real sign of status. He not only holds offices in government-dominated cultural organizations but produces propaganda on demand very quickly — plays on how women free themselves from household chores or how a daughter reforms her bourgeois father. It is a tragedy that the men who rule China today have been able to submerge not just literary talent but the individual integrity of the Chinese writer.