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Buds of Freedom

At a Chinese writers’ conference.

Many of China’s writers were less than enthusiastic when they heard there was to be a national Writers’ Conference in December 1984. Just the previous fall, during the campaign against “spiritual pollution,” a number of them—along with pop singers and disseminators of “yellow,” or pornographic, videotapes—had been accused of “creating disorder in the minds of the young” and “spreading doubts about socialism and the Communist Party.” Several of the younger writers, who had been exploring the costs of the Cultural Revolution and the role of self-expression and humanism in art and society, had been forced to make public self-criticisms, and older writers had been mobilized to speak out against them. This technique of pitting intimates against each other had been reminiscent of China’s most repressive political campaigns.

What’s more, although the campaign ended suddenly in early 1984, the slates of delegates to the Writers’ Conference had been established under its shadow. Many of China’s more outspoken writers had not been invited, and a number of those on the roster fold us they originally had little interest in attending: the pre-conference meeting held in October, presided over by propaganda minister Deng Liqun, chief architect of the campaign, was said to have sounded unpleasant warnings against “bourgeois liberalism.”

TYPICALLY, the fall 1983 campaign had been driven more by political differences within the party than by any specific grievances against its victims. It reflected an attempt by some ideological hard-liners to combat the party reformers. The attempt didn’t succeed. The movement was called to a halt when such essential aspects of the modernization program as trade with the West and the free-market economy developing in the countryside began to be threatened, and the reformers reasserted control.

The repeated repressions of intellectuals by the Communist Party had greatly contributed to its unpopularity, and reformers knew that they needed the support of the country’s intellectuals. So, our writer friends told us. Central Committee leader Wan Li stepped in and made an “internal” speech for distribution to high-ranking officials, saying that the party had never understood literature and art. He not only seemed to be discarding the tired theme that writers are the tools for instilling socialist morals, but to be recommending that the conference be a forum for the advancement of artistic freedom. Word of the speech soon reached many members of the intellectual community.

A number of writers who bad been excluded from the conference suddenly received personal invitations. One of them was a young writer from Shaanxi province named Jia Pingao. Jia had been fiercely attacked during the campaign against spiritual pollution. Some of the most influential national literary magazines published detailed critiques of the negativism, cynicism, and lack of heroes in his work. The municipal party committee in the city of Xian had called in Jia on several occasions to read him documents that criticized his writing. He had been forced to respond with ritual confessions of guilt.

All of the public attention, however, only strengthened Jia’s literary reputation. He told us that the Shaanxi provincial propaganda department had found it virtually impossible to find other writers willing to write denunciations of him. The man finally coerced into the job sought him out in advance to apologize; the young woman party member charged with leading criticism meetings at his work unit was an old friend and editor, and tbe two met beforehand to find a way of getting through it unscathed. There was strong sentiment that Jia and other conspicuously omitted writers should be invited to attend. “Jia Pingao’s stock has just gone up, you see,” his friend pointed out. “Since the campaign against spiritual pollution he’s become famous!” In the end, Jia not only participated, but was elected as an officer of the influential writers’ association.

Some writers were unaware how extraordinary the meeting was to be until young Secretariat-member Hu Qili gave the opening address. He told them:

Literary creation is a spiritual labor… It is necessary to give free rein to individual creativity, powers of observation, and imagination. It is necessary to have a deep understanding and unique opinions of life, as well as unique artistic techniques. The writer must think for himself, have full freedom to choose subjects, themes, express his own feelings, excitement, and thought…
For a long time, the party has interfered too much… The cadres sent by the party to the literature and art associations are good comrades, but they don’t understand much about literature and art, and have harmed the relationship between the party and literature and art workers…

A number of unpopular leaders were absent, with excuses of illness, including propaganda minister Deng Liqun. Also absent was art theorist Zhou Yang, who was in genuinely poor health. Zhou had been one of the chief targets of the campaign against spiritual pollution for his discussions of socialist alienation and Marxist humanism. When the messages of congratulations from the absent left-leaning leaders were conveyed, there was only polite reaction from the audience. When Zhou Yang’s words were read, there was a standing ovation, with thunderous applause for a full five minutes.

ONE OF THE THEMES of the meeting became the writers’ hatred and fear of leftist persecution. People’s Daily arts page editor Yuan Ying’s complaints were even published in advance:

In literature and art, the history of leftism is long and deep, the damage great . . . it has reached the point that although the Gang of Four was smashed eight years ago, there has still been no strong and clear criticism of leftist thought. There has even been a strange phenomenon: in the economy, leftism is opposed, but in literature and art, rightism is. This is not logical, practical, or defensible. To some, even more interesting than the speeches was the rebellion behind the scenes by writers against the slates of delegates their local propaganda departments had selected for elections to the writers’ council. The writers’ associations were supposed to be mass organizations, they said, like clubs for writers, not party-controlled bureaucracies that existed to control and criticize them. Some provinces added candidates, others selected new ones. The results were embarrassing for the official arts bureaucracy. Many party darlings were not reelected, and those who were made it by a shamefully low margin.

Despite such exciting events, some writers remained doubtful that the party would fulfill its promises. Several writers told us that emotions were very different from those during and after the last writers’ conference in 1979, when writers naively believed that extreme leftism had been dealt a deathly blow. The campaign against “bourgeois liberalism” that followed soon after had come as a shock. This time, many had grown wiser. Few assumed that artistic freedom under the Communist partymeant they had the freedom to speak against the party and socialism. They were well aware that freedom that has been “given” from above can just as easily be taken away again.

ONE OF THE SPEECHES at the meeting was particularly revealing of this mood. Wu Zuguang, a respected novelist, told the audience how difficult it had been to decide to speak. His wife, whose life had been ruined because of remarks he had made in 1957 just before the anti-rightist movement, had read his draft repeatedly, modifying it to make it safer. She warned that if he was too truthful, she would rise in the middle of the meeting and prevent him from continuing. A famous actress, she had once been ordered by the minister of culture to divorce her husband. When she refused, she was persecuted: applauded on stage (too famous to be forbidden to perform), she was sent to clean outhouses when off. After seven years of digging air raid shelters, she had a stroke and lost the use of one of her hands. Wu Zuguang described the great price paid for Hu Qili’s guarantees of artistic freedom by reminding his listeners of how many writers and intellectuals had perished over the past 30 years under the party’s leadership. How could anyone be sure there would be no further repression?

Wu’s cautious attitude appears to be well-founded. In a speech several months after the conference, party secretary Hu Yaobang offered a far more conservative interpretation of artistic freedom than that offered by Hu Qili:

The social function of artists… is, through their art, to inspire and educate the people, to exert a subtle influence on their souls. This function, in the words frequently quoted by Comrade [Deng] Xiaoping, is precisely the function of “engineers of the souls of the people.” Indeed, the party’s writers will also express the party’s nature and support the party’s line, direction, and policies, and will also convey the voice of the party in their own works. But the party should never tell this or that writer what to write… Only then can written works be truly affecting, truly of educational value…

Jia Pingao told us, “We’ve come to expect constant fluctuations between looseness and tightness. Few people think that the current ‘warm’ climate will last indefinitely.” Still, most writers seem greatly encouraged by the signs of change. Jia said that since the conference he had been publishing freely, and would continue to do so as long as he could, at which point he could always write what he called “drawer” literature—writing that stayed in his desk until it could be taken out. For the first time in recent memory, writers are struggling not primarily against political restrictions on subject and literary technique, but within themselves, to find out whether, after all these years, they are able to produce world-class literature.

Many artists and writers worry that China has not produced any work of international stature since the 1930s, and fear they may be incapable of anything but the usual small adventures into forbidden zones. They trace the problem not only to their internalization of socialist restrictions (for they know that the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’s literature is flourishing), but to facets of Chinese national character such as passivity and the non-combative relationship of Chinese intellectuals to authority.

Older writers have been treated as functionaries for decades, some struggling courageously on the borders of the acceptable and occasionally paying the price, but many more becoming writing machines sensitive above all to every political shift. The middle-aged generation of extremists, though often courageous, is seen by many young writers as seeking only the freedom to criticize the dark side of society, while remaining strongly in the socialist realist tradition. And some of China’s greatests writers, like Shen Congwen, long ago retreated to virtual silence. “Now you tell them they have artistic freedom,” one elderly historian told us, “and they don’t quite know what to do with it. In some ways it’s harder to be a writer than ever.”

The younger writers are doing their best to strike away from the sterility of recent political traditions. They hope to draw on China’s primitive traditions as well as on modern Western literary techniques, and are particularly interested in South American writers who have combined social awareness with myth. Some make expeditions into China’s backwaters, to speak to old sorcerers and collect ancient legends.

There is an excellent chance that their experiments will bear fruit. In the availability of raw material, literary sensibility, and richness of language, China provides all the conditions for many masterpieces. But the fragile liberties now being explored cannot be separated from the reform movement. The reformers may yet have to make quick sacrifices of personal and intellectual freedoms if their economic programs run into serious difficulties and they are unable to hold their ground against strong attacks from more orthodox leaders. As one reformer told us, they are “groping for stepping-stones while crossing the river,” unsure even themselves where their experiments are leading.

This article originally ran in the October 7, 1985 issue of the magazine.