Writers React to Comrade Xi Jinping’s Foray into Literary Criticism

It has taken a bit of time, but Chinese authors have begun to publicize their reaction to Xi Jinping’s speech at the Beijing Oct 15 Forum on Literature and Art Work. While slavish praise has been appropriately abundant, a handful of Art Workers do not appear to be singing in unison. We’ll skip the former and focus on the latter because they’re more fun.

Tellingly, some well known authors have chosen to express their views online in op-eds at the New York Times, first in English, then in Chinese. Both sites are blocked in the PRC, ever since the NYT ran its muckraking report on the massive wealth acquired by the family of then-premier Wen Jiabao.

Yan Lianke’s essay (bilingual version) opens with a reference to his childhood, when “China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death.” This experience, in particular his mother’s stark explanation of what kind of clay and tree bark one should or should not eat in order to survive, led him to recognize that “darkness is not the mere absence of light, but rather it is life itself. Darkness is the Chinese people’s fate.”

In a nod to Xi Jinping’s call for China’s artists to “use light to disperse darkness,” Yan Lianke (阎连科) asserts that it is indeed “a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.” But in his closing sentence, he clearly opposes Xi Jinping’s insistence — consistent with Mao’s — that literature and art “must persist in the fundamental orientation of serving the people and serving Socialism,” and implies that the writer does not need The Party’s guidance to perform his mission:

. . . only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.

The phrase “unencumbered by anyone” is present in the English translation by Carlos Rojas, but not in the Chinese. It would be interesting to know the source of this discrepancy: The translator? The editor? Or Yan Lianke himself, opting to be less confrontational in text aimed at the Chinese reader?

Meanwhile, to ensure that Xi Jinping’s message gets across to artists nationwide, “Learn from Chairman Xi” study sessions targeting non-Han writers are underway, and one was held on October 29 in Beijing (学习习近平总书记).

The problem with such events, alas, is that they can be hijacked by outspoken participants with their own agenda. Perhaps noting an opening in Xi Jinping’s call to “go deep among the masses, go deep into life, earnestly and sincerely be the little students of the people,” writer Guo Xuebo (郭雪波) issued this challenge to those who wish to write about China’s ethnic minorities:

It’s permissible to describe the life of other ethnic groups, but it would be best to learn their spoken language, so that we can dialogue with the masses and understand what they are really thinking. And similarly, it’s best to learn to read their written language so that we can dialogue with their history, culture and ethnic consciousness. If these two aspects are not grasped, we often cannot enter deeply into the inner world of that people, and it will be very difficult to pen an excellent work.

Misrepresentation of the cultures of non-Han ethnicities is apparently an important issue for Guo Xuebo, who is Mongolian. In a recent interview (书写科尔沁的传奇), for instance, he castigated the Han author of Wolf Totem and others for their erroneous and romanticized claim that the wolf is a sacred totem for the Mongolian people.

Back to the New York Times op-ed page, where another high-profile Chinese writer has chosen to voice his distaste for Xi Jinping’s vision of socialist art. Unlike Yan Lianke, in The Art of Xi Jinping writer Murong Xuecun (慕容 雪村) makes no attempt whatsoever at indirectness.

He points out that in a country such as China, leaders possess “unsurpassable authority.” Their likes and dislikes can have a huge impact on what people think and write. And in Xi Jinping’s case, Murong Xuecun sees a man with a vision that is not open to debate:

The crux of Mr. Xi’s much touted “China dream” is a peace that is intolerant of dissent. A teacher who doesn’t obey the party (like the legal scholars Zhang Xuezhong and Chen Hongguo) will be pressured to leave his university post; a publication that doesn’t obey the party (like Southern Weekend and China Through the Ages) will be punished; an individual who crosses the party (like the lawyer Pu Zhiqiang and the rights activist Guo Yushan) will be locked up.

Now the government has fixed its sights on literature and the arts. We can imagine that the government’s list of forbidden films, broadcasts and publications will swell with additional categories of banned work. Even though many of Mr. Xi’s boosters are proclaiming a new spring in the arts, I think that before that spring arrives, we will endure a long winter.

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