China: How Much Dissent?

In the year 278 BC an aristocrat and poet named Qu Yuan took his own life by throwing himself into the waters of the Milo River. Qu Yuan had once been the powerful adviser to the ruler of the Chu kingdom, specializing in legal affairs and diplomacy, but the monarch was tricked into hating Qu Yuan and rejected his advice. Driven into exile in southern Chu (south of the Yangtze, in the general area now known as Hunan province), Qu led a wandering life as a poet and visionary, remaining loyal in memory to the ruler who had ousted him. When his ruler was killed and the Chu capital destroyed by northern enemies, Qu committed suicide.

Over the centuries that followed this despairing act, Qu’s death took on a symbolic force: Qu Yuan came to stand not just for a type of political behavior, but for a force within nature, for myths of water and fertility, for the transplanting of the young rice shoots in the flooded paddy-fields; his image was inextricably associated with the swift “dragon boats” that river dwellers raced against each other at the summer solstice, and with the wild orchid—tender, fragrant, fiery—that bloomed in the humid south.

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Of the historical Qu Yuan we know very little but it has been Laurence Schneider’s marvelous idea to take the Qu Yuan story and see how the layers of myth enfolded him, how later Chinese historians, literary critics, and politicians interpreted him, and how all this accumulated lore illuminates the vexed questions of loyalty and dissent across time.

Schneider finds that the record—as we might expect—has been a mixed and ambiguous one, for Qu Yuan was one of those figures who show “how we can profitably characterize a culture by its chief dilemmas.” In the strong, centralized Chinese state that emerged only fifty years after Qu’s death his political stance was the basis for arguments concerning the role of the individual will in politics, and the various acts that a “loyal” subject who objected to a ruler’s behavior might be justified in taking. His poetry, which had always contained something “flamboyantly self-righteous and self-pitying,” in Schneider’s phrase, was searched for insights into the human predicament of self-enforced isolation. And in the slow accretion of the subsequent myths, elements of time, geographical space, and “madness” each played their part: the “madness” of Qu Yuan, to Schneider, being at once the “tactical madness” of the man who seeks release from official responsibility and the “mad ardor” of the philosopher-poet seeking inspiration from the visions that fill his own mind.

With Qu Yuan as his focus, Schneider is able to give us a guided tour of the attitudes of the literati, not just of “orthodox” scholar bureaucrats, but of those who themselves lived on the edge of danger and innovation. Across the centuries, Chinese scholars argued the merits of Qu’s suicide as gesture: should one serve at risk of death rather than resign? Was the recluse the mirror-image of the activist-bureaucrat, or something less? Bi Gan in the Shang Dynasty, after all, had protested “loyally” only to be disemboweled and pickled by his exasperated monarch; yet, as others noted, “to speak, knowing [one’s words] will not be put to use, is stupid.”

Over time, these assessments changed. By the twelfth century Qu Yuan had become, to many, a model for “spiritual authenticity and independence” rather than for political integrity; by the seventeenth, his obstinacy and isolation had drawn new scrutiny, his “madness” was seen in terms of the response to invading Manchus who might have been resisted in the south; in the republic of the early twentieth century, intellectuals without confidence in their own position saw in Qu a hero and a victim who offered them a “license for change”; by the late 1920s Qu was presented as having shown a revolutionary spirit in marshaling the common people to oppose their tyrants, a leader of an “Athenian” Chu that stood in opposition to a materialistic, more “Spartan” Zhou. By World War Two Qu had become an independent and radical fighter from a servile, not an aristocratic, background, a Promethean man of the masses.

Schneider ends this saga in the People’s Republic of China with Mao (a newer, bolder, madman of Chu) making Qu a “mere conduit of collective, popular sentiments,” building memorials at the “exact spot” where Qu plunged into the billows, praising Qu’s retreat from court to countryside as a creative advance parallel to the “back to the countryside” movement, and naming him as China’s historical entry to the 1953 World Peace Congress. (Other countries entered Rabelais, Copernicus, and José Martí.)

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In an admirable conclusion to this rich study, Schneider describes Qu as having served a need in China, not just in modern times for those who “mediate reason with passion,” but across time as a mediator between two types of dissent, types often starkly categorized as those of the recluse or the exuberant inebriate; Schneider sees him, too, as a mediator between social classes, and even between states in his earlier role as diplomat and negotiator. At his most potent Qu stood for individuality without anarchism, for dissent without nihilism. The issue has not been so much that each age in China tried to concoct its own version of Qu Yuan, says Schneider, “but rather that each age has the problem of how to relate its educated elite to political power, to ultimate values, to art, and to literature.”

At few stages in China’s history was that relationship between educated elite and the holders of imperial power more delicate than during the eighteenth century, when the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty exerted a rigorous control over the institutions of the state, and claimed to pass direct judgment in the world of political theory through their espousal of the ideologically “correct” schools of state neo-Confucianism.1 This is the period that Paul Ropp analyzes in Dissent in Early Modern China, a useful study with some valuable insights that focuses on the mid-eighteenth-century novel by Wu Jingzi, which is usually translated as The Scholars. Ropp’s title is perhaps a little too dramatic, for as he says in his own preface his subject is really “a rather modest exploration of social criticism in the intellectual history of late Ming and early Ch’ing [i.e., Qing] China,” and he is somewhat stretched to show why the 1740s should be seen as “early modern” rather than as, say, “late imperial” or “mid-Qing.” But through his historical analysis Ropp performs the helpful function of placing his picture of dissent within a clearly delineated pattern of the prevailing orthodoxies, so that we can assess for ourselves those elements of Wu Jingzi’s thought that seem truly to merit the term of “dissent.”

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Wu Jingzi, the intelligent and debauched son of a wealthy family in central China (who was unable to pass the higher levels of state examinations necessary for state service), compared himself at one stage to Qu Yuan “wandering in the south,” a perhaps unwitting displacement of the Qu Yuan image from the realm of courageous principle to the realm of mere worldly failure; but Wu was to transcend that failure by the imagination and scope of the satirical novel into which he poured the last ten years of his life. Ropp gives focus to the huge, picaresque panorama of The Scholars by concentrating on three areas of Wu’s disagreement with the dominant values of the status quo—namely on his contempt for the corruption and sterility of the state examination system, on his sympathy for the fate of Qing women committed to lives of illiteracy and exploitation, and on his sardonic rejection of the supernatural and superstitious beliefs so common at the time. As Ropp correctly says, all these things had been condemned by other Chinese before Wu, but what was new to the eighteenth century was the “scope, intensity, frequency and form of social criticism,” which constituted “a new stage in Chinese intellectual history.” One might argue over the specificity of such a phrase as “new stage,” but Ropp summarizes his argument forcefully:

Wu pictured a society whose leaders were not active agents of social progress in the sense of working to improve the general welfare, but rather they were occupied primarily in perpetuating their own existence. They used the commonly held ideals of society less to improve upon reality than to justify it. In his portrayal of the wide gap between ideals and behavior, Wu in effect pictured a civilization on the verge of a profound crisis—a crisis which became clear to most people only 150 years after his death. If Wu’s perception of crisis was in large part inspired by the personal crises of his own youth, his work was no less perceptive or prophetic on that account.

Wu Jingzi certainly does not cut a heroic figure, nor does Ropp try to make him one. Wu’s personal protest indeed may have been most clearly expressed, apart from his novel, through alcoholism: he ate little, claiming poverty, yet in the cultured cosmopolis of Nanjing he drank largely at his own and friends’ homes, and at least one of those friends remembered Wu’s declining to join in a sociable poetry-writing contest because his mind was working “so slowly”; Wu himself died suddenly in 1754, at the age of fifty-three, in the middle of a liquid supper.

By and large, Wu’s was a passive protest, safely outside the political arena, with no positive vision of a new society to be pursued: he was led to write his novel out of a “loss of allegiance to the elite Confucian culture,” says Ropp, and if Wu viewed his failure with any clarity it was as “absurdity” rather than as “fate.” This did not mean that he was not capable of imagining a final or more noble withdrawal, merely that he had no honorable status from which to descend with any fanfare.

As Ropp well points out, the novel’s prologue introduces a true, heroic recluse, the peasant painter Wang Mian, who flees the emperor’s express command to serve, and retreats to be a hermit in the woods; and the novel ends with four decent, hard-working artisans leading the life of dignified attention to morality that the alleged “elite” of Confucian scholars have now abandoned. If presenting such characters in a novel is “dissent” on Wu’s part, and it seems that a legitimate case can be made that it is, it is dissent as “secession,” not action, the complaint of a man who has noted, and been deflated by, the realization that in mid-Qing society “the only men in a position to effect changes would be those who had long since been given an enormous stake in the status quo.”

By the late nineteenth century that official resistance to change was finally destroyed by foreign imperialism and domestic rebellion; vigorous and witty attacks on bureaucratic behavior and styles in the late Qing far exceeded anything that Wu Jingzi had contemplated, and were replaced in turn by the temporary abandonment of all restraints in the Teens and early Twenties of this century.2 Then, with no focus of authority, dissent became both more extreme and more diffused, a deadly matter of political expression against warlords, corrupt republican politicians, the Guomindang machine, or Japanese occupiers.3 Only when the Communist Party reconsolidated state power in 1949, and brought into office a new generation with an enormous stake in the new communist status quo, did familiar tensions reassert themselves, and the search for meaningful channels of dissent resume some parallels to the past.

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In a book written fourteen years ago, Literary Dissent in Communist China, Merle Goldman charted this process from the guerrilla base of Yanan in 1940 through the Hundred Flowers Movement of 1957. Now in her new study, China’s Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent, she continues the story through the 1960s and into the 1970s. China’s Intellectuals, like its predecessor volume, is an engrossing and powerfully documented analysis of the difficulties and dangers that Chinese writers experienced when they attempted to challenge Communist Party orthodoxies. It describes how swiftly the expression of genuine disagreement could be silenced, and how the concept of “dissent” rose and fell according to shifts in the Party line.

Goldman’s new book seems to me an advance over her earlier volume in that it is always searching consistently for links back to the Confucian past. Those she refers to as “dissenters,” she points out, like the earlier Confucian cultural elites, were often near the center of power, and were not those on the outskirts clamoring for admission. They were driven by clear visions of the need for avenues of expression, again like the Confucian literati, for they were “interested more in transmitting a set of ideas than in practicing a profession”; and also, in a way “quintessentially traditional,” they believed that the best way to get a hearing for their views was “through alliances with factions in the establishment.”

David Levine. Copyright Matthew and Eve Levine.
Ding Ling

The road to having a chance to express dissent, therefore, lay often in the forging of patron-client relationships with dominant political figures, an arrangement that might not always be to the patron’s liking, and was at best precarious. The development of such a system in the People’s Republic of course assured that those who sought to stand alone had no chance of gaining a hearing, and neither in the 1950s nor in the 1960s did solitary voices break through and identify themselves. Even writers like Ding Ling, purged and exiled to a remote rural area in 1957, spoke out only when they were well-connected; after losing political support, they fell silent. As with the so-called “Qingyi” groups of dissident, moralistic, and patriotic scholars who had surfaced at intervals in imperial China during times of crisis to exhort their rulers to strengthen and reform themselves and their nation, the PRC intellectuals (whether “left” or “right” of the dominant power-holders) faced a situation in which there was no simple line separating intellectual from political expression, and where the rhythm of challenge and response could often have deadly consequences.

Merle Goldman is here reinforcing a point made in different ways by both Schneider and Ropp: we are quite wrong if we ascribe to China an overall sense of “dissent” as being totally outside the system, as it now often appears to be in the Soviet Union or under numerous other one-party regimes. Goldman makes this point with particular clarity in her chapter on the early Sixties, when the build-up of dissent was located in three discrete but extremely influential bodies: the Beijing Communist Party Committee, where scholar-writer-administrators like Deng Tuo and Wu Han were able to attack illiberal Party policies; the Propaganda Department, where artists as important as Mao Dun, Tian Han, and Ba Jin could foster their vision of “agonized, ambivalent individuals, caught in the midst of revolution and uncertain which way to turn”; and the senior academics at the major universities in Beijing and Shanghai, with their arguments concerning the evolutionary rather than the revolutionary nature of Chinese history and their emphasis on themes of “class reconciliation” and “coexistence of differing ideologies.” This early 1960s “body of public dissent,” as Goldman terms it, diverged both from official Party views and at times from the views of the dissenters’ own patrons, but it was not the desperate clamoring of those denied all access to decision-making.

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Much of the excellence of Goldman’s book lies in the specificity with which she picks up the “other” dissenters as well, those on the farther left side of the spectrum, known by some as the “Shanghai radicals.” (It was a faction within this group who were to be labeled later as the “Gang of Four.”) In both the Shanghai Propaganda Department and the Beijing Department of Philosophy and Social Sciences, there were those who had major differences of opinion with the more liberal critics and with the Party center: not only did they urge acceptance of the view that socialist transformation would be harsh and protracted, and seek to place more weight on the “voluntarist” and “human will” sides of Mao’s policies, they also represented a younger group of power seekers, eager for status, and bitter from what they believed to be “genuine socioeconomic grievances.” In the intense battle between these important factions, Goldman thinks, it was the Shanghai radicals who more nearly played the role of those earlier Confucian “Qingyi” dissenters. Not surprisingly, “dissent” in such a context was intimately connected to political career building. Goldman discusses the case of the tough South China Party boss Tao Zhu, who rose rapidly in the communist hierarchy during the early Sixties, at least in part because he developed an intensely “radical” pose with regard to the “people’s theater” which he felt coincided with the extremist Maoist position. His swift fall was matched by the rise of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, who also used the theater as an ideological base. In both cases, Goldman says, their opportunism was so extreme that it showed “the limitations of interpreting political behavior in terms of ideological views.”

Thus by about 1964 the stage was set for the intense ideological, political, and personal crisis centered around the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-1969, to which Goldman devotes three detailed and absorbing chapters. As she puts it from her perspective on dissent:

What is unusual is that a group of lower-level, politically inexperienced intellectuals were able to move close to the center of power on the basis of their ideological pronouncement woven into discourses on history, philosophy, and literature. Yet this is a recurring phenomenon in Chinese history. Like their traditional predecessors, the radical intellectuals were able to gain a hearing for their ideas because their views coincided with one of the political factions, specifically the ruler and his confidants, who were involved in an internal power struggle. Even their purposes resonated with those of their qingyi forebears. They sought through their writings to produce an ideological regeneration and to reverse the drift toward what they regarded as bureaucratism and ideological laxity.

Yet the paradox of this is that the Shanghai group’s zeal outran their practical experience with governance, so that they could rout their Beijing elders with successful ferocity, but had no coherent policy ready, and were unable to prevent factional disintegration within their own ranks. The ideological twists to which these extraordinary and terrifying years led are admirably summarized by the blandly presented remark of Goldman that Mao Zedong finally rejected the Shanghai commune slogan of “overthrow everything” as being “reactionary”! Behind such slogans lay the grim fact that intellectuals were no longer free even to keep silent: guilt by association with past factions, with fallen comrades, or with Western educational circles could condemn one to public humiliation, protracted imprisonment, or death. When a man like the wonderful novelist and dramatist Lao She chose suicide after being savagely beaten by Red Guard self-styled interrogators, he did so because it had become obvious that he would not be permitted the possibilities of dignified withdrawal that Qu Yuan had enjoyed.

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In the final three chapters Goldman examines the winding down of the Cultural Revolution between 1969 and 1976, a period including the death of Lin Biao and the rise, fall, and rise of Deng Xiaoping, which was so baffling to Western China-watchers at the time. Goldman sees much of the explanation to lie in the comparative weakness of the Shanghai radicals, a weakness that made them unable to mount any totally successful new mobilization drives and yet did not prevent them from blocking the policy aspirations of the opposition that had staged a modest comeback. Thus the 1974 campaign “against Lin Biao and Confucius” and the campaigns on behalf of proletarian dictatorship and against the novel Water Margin reached a level of opacity that transcended anything reached previously in the communist regime:

The disguised polemics of both sides were so shrouded in symbolism that they could barely be understood by the elite, let alone by the workers and peasants. The abstruseness of the debates discouraged the involvement of the masses on either side, perhaps purposely in order to limit disruption. This seemingly controlled arrangement reflected not a compromise, but a stalemate, created by fear of provoking again the open disruption and near anarchy of the Cultural Revolution.

Goldman sees this period as conveying the worst side of the earlier Qingyi scholars’ moralistic and intolerant tone. Yet even as the Shanghai group were apparently at their most domineering, Party regulars like Deng Xiaoping were reemerging as Party “patrons,” this time backing those interested in renewing scientific research and a growth-oriented economic policy, a position that Deng categorized with a rather homely metaphor: “Even people who are White and expert are better than those who occupy the toilet without discharging.”

Goldman’s coda goes through 1979, and up to the vexed question of whether the more liberal criticism briefly permitted by Deng would once again have to be totally silenced on the grounds that it “inadvertently undermined the party.” By September 1979 Zhou Yang, returned to dominance over cultural affairs in the Party hierarchy after a long eclipse, was warning the universities that “some comrades have a naïve and mistaken idea in wanting to mark off a clear division between politics and academia.” Goldman does not draw any nearer to a hopeful conclusion than to suggest that the current ideological confusion and flux may have led to a situation in which the traditional Chinese relationship between “loyal opposition” and political patronage has been finally destroyed, so that new freedom of expression might gradually emerge.

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In different ways, and using different perspectives, Schneider, Ropp, and Goldman all present the “dissent” that they analyze as being “permitted” by the state, so that when the state chose really to crack down, all opposition, loyal or otherwise, was silenced. David Goodman makes this point even more forcefully in talking of the protestors whose views were heard in the brief months of Beijing’s “Democracy Wall,” that is from November 1978 to March 1979. Goodman’s Beijing Street Voices are those of the fairly well-educated youths who had been swept up in the Cultural Revolution and then criticized because of their parents’ family or cadre status, and hence were unable to find the prestigious employment to which they felt themselves entitled. Technically those youths were workers, not intellectuals, but they were often over-qualified, especially in a country with so little higher education—at one point Goodman calls them the “underprivileged privileged.”

Their protest was not so much against the Gang of Four—much of that rage had been vented by others in powerful writings a year or so earlier—as against the limitations on free expression still insisted on by Deng Xiaoping once the Shanghai radicals had been firmly routed. In some cases the protests extended to the whole gamut of Marxist-Leninist ideas and their applicability to China’s current needs, as had been done earlier in the Hundred Flowers’ movement of 1957; but more often, it was personal questioning, an exploration of the self’s potential, as many of the titles of the little magazines unofficially circulated at the time show: The Spark, Thaw, Today, Dandelion, Harvest, Flint, Grass on the Plain.

One may say these magazines were “unofficial,” and that is true, but without official permission they could never have been allowed to circulate; when the government tightened the screws, almost all of them promptly folded. Goodman observes that the “intellectuals” who had some reputation or newly re-won status to maintain stayed carefully away from the whole movement: they regarded “democracy walls,” “thaw,” and “springtime” as unlikely to be of long duration, and saw the young writers as naïve. Those young writers who persevered, whose excitement was greatest, certainly included many who felt that they had little to lose.

Most of the political pronouncements made by Democracy Wall writers have been made fairly available by now in the West, but Goodman concentrates on the poetry that was circulated at the same time. He was studying in Beijing during the winter and spring of 1979, and collected much material that has not been made available elsewhere; herein lies the value of his book, in its assemblage of this “poetry of the moment” that arose from what he cautiously calls “a new, and to a certain extent popular, movement.” Goodman thinks that these Beijing voices matter, even if their poetry often strikes us as weak, because this was “a non-directed movement of opposition and dissent.” When one compares some of the poems in Beijing Street Voices with the often powerful yet so clearly circumscribed fiction of anger against the Gang of Four produced a year earlier in 1977-1978, one can see the force of Goodman’s point.4 At their best (and this is not meant belittlingly) the poems are outside ideology, and speak for themselves. As a poet called Tai Chi wrote in March 1979 of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath:

Mad men ran after half-mad
Each and every person was sucked down into the whirlpool.
When, at last the clamour ceased,
One basked in the sun, scratched one’s head, and wondered why.

Obviously such poets were falsely optimistic, and put unrealistic hopes on Deng Xiaoping (who had assumed, willy-nilly, some of the reflected glow from Zhou Enlai). A few stanzas later we find Tai Chi writing of Deng, “He’ll chat and laugh easily, and by lifting a finger make people and country happy and peaceful”; while in fact Deng, after his visit to the United States and the launching of China’s brief Vietnam War, was preparing to arrest (or countenance the arrest) of the more outspoken young writers.

Goodman’s running commentaries catch a good deal of the nervous excitement of those days, as the slender magazines passed from hand to hand and the young aspirants nervously made their first public speeches. Much of the sorrow and disillusion caused by the spring crackdown are caught in the statement of analytical regret by a young activist, written just before he was arrested in May 1979. This moving essay, “What are the Implications of China’s Democratic Experiment?” has been referred to in French and American reports, and some secondary sources, but I had not seen it in toto until I read Goodman, and it is valuable to have it all in front of one. It is a bitter statement, blaming the “widespread corruption, absurdity, stagnation, stupidity and backwardness” of China on Communist Party rule; lamenting Party control over all aspects of life, “the cut of one’s clothes, the tunes of songs, the contents of books, the time and place of one’s romantic liaisons”; and castigating the author himself and his friends for naïveté and lack of vigilance: “In times of peace, people always cherish the illusion that atrocity and outrage are impossible.”

It is touching that this young writer could have seen so swift and fragile a break in the line of control as heralding a true “time of peace,” and one could wish that he had been right. However the implications of such “illusions” were too dangerous to be tolerated by Party leaders, and most of these young poets had little hope that their words would be unfettered for long. Goodman gives a moving depiction of a young Chinese poet who marched up to Democracy Wall as the news of arrests began to filter through the crowd, pasted up one final poem, and strode swiftly off without a backward glance. This young man’s poem, as translated by Goodman, began:

My friend,
Parting time is pending.
Farewell—Democracy Wall.
What can I briefly say to you?
Should I speak of spring’s frigid- ity?
Should I say that you are like the withered wintersweet?
No, I ought instead to talk of hap- piness,
Tomorrow’s happiness,
Of pure orchid skies,
Of golden wild flowers,
Of a child’s bright eyes.
In sum we ought
To part with dignity
Don’t you agree?

One remembers, with a jolt, that the orchid had been Qu Yuan’s flower. This young poet, in April 1979, used the pseudonym “Icicle.” And he called his poem “For You.”

  1. The intense levels of personal and intellectual crisis that were triggered by the Manchu invasion of China in the 1640s have been analyzed by Jerry Dennerline with rare subtlety in his new book The Chia-ting Loyalists: Confucian Leadership and Social Change in Seventeenth-Century China (Yale University Press, 1981).
  2. An important contribution to our understanding of the late Qing intellectual world is the collection of essays edited by Milena Dolezelová-Velingerová, The Chinese Novel at the Turn of the Century (University of Toronto Press, 1980). For the developments since Wu Jingzi's time in social criticism see especially the essay by Donald Holoch, "A Novel of Setting: The Bureaucrats."
  3. The hitherto completely unstudied area of Chinese literary activity under the Japanese occupation has now been made accessible in an excellent work by Edward M. Gunn, Unwelcome Muse, Chinese Literature in Shanghai and Peking, 1937-1945 (Columbia University Press, 1980).
  4. See for instance the anthology The Wounded: New Stories of the Cultural Revolution, 77-78, translated by Geremie Barmé and Bennett Lee (Joint Publishing Co., Hong Kong, 1979). Though the stories abound in powerful images of hate and regret, they are ideologically conformist to the current anti-Gang-of-Four line. For some intriguing documents from the "left," defending the radical policies of the early 1970s and bitterly attacking Deng Xiaoping and Hua Guofeng, see Documents of Dissent: Chinese Political Thought Since Mao, edited and translated by J. Chester Cheng (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford, 1980).