Stories from the Ice Age

Stories from the Ice Age

Since the Tiananmen Square killings it has become fashionable within the Chinese leadership to refer to dissident intellectuals as “scum.” That was Mao’s view, too. In 1942, the chairman, his armies besieged by both Chiang Kai-shek and the Japanese army, took time off for zheng-feng, or rectification movement, in which he laid down rules for “unclean” Chinese authors. Despite the official repudiation of Mao’s literary views in 1983, his dead hand continues to terrify writers today.

The dead hand occasionally withdraws a bit, and what both writers and the Party call a warm wind and gentle showers blows across the literary scene. Before long a cold wind follows; this has been the case since the killings in Beijing. On August 26, Vice-President Wang Zhen, one of the octogenarians who emerged from angry retirement in late May to encourage a violent crackdown on what Beijing calls “the insurrection,” recalled with pleasure the “men of letters” who, while reclaiming frontier wasteland, “immersed themselves in the lives of peasants and workers.” Older writers will remember such immersion as one of the nightmares of the Maoist era. Wang said today’s dissidents are “scum” (the People’s Daily also uses this word), advocates of bourgeois liberalism.

* * *

In her foreword to Spring Bamboo, an anthology of stories by young Chinese writers, Bette Bao Lord notes that while “the authorities have a love-hate relationship with writers… Deng Xiaoping has championed reforms and…writers, like the rest of society, have benefited.” This benefit has been at best temporary. Although what Ms. Lord says may have been so at the moment she was writing in 1988, Deng has always insisted that intellectual freedom comes far behind loyalty and discipline. He said this during the smashing of the Democracy Wall movement in 1979, and the arrest of hundreds of pamphleteers, some of whom, like Wei Jingsheng, remain in jail; and he repeated it during the campaigns against spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalism of the mid-Eighties. It was Deng, then Mao’s Party general secretary, who oversaw the Anti-Rightist drive of 1957 and 1958 in which at least 400,000 “bourgeois” intellectuals were purged, including two recent contributors to The New York Review, Liu Binyan and Fang Lizhi, who were both rehabilitated after more than twenty years, only to be repurged in 1987, once again as bourgeois liberals.

iconDavid Levine. Copyright Matthew and Eve Levine.
Ding Ling, 1989

“Bourgeois liberalism” is the official catchall for bad ideas from the West, which when they emerge in literature tend to be called poisonous weeds. The novelist Wang Meng, who has just been sacked as minister of culture after failing to congratulate Deng for ordering the assault on Tiananmen, was first purged more than thirty years ago, during the Anti-Rightist campaign; he had written the short story, or poisonous weed, “The Newcomer,” about an idealistic young cadre who doesn’t understand how the Party really works. In his introduction to a collection of his formerly banned stories published in 1983, Wang Meng said that in 1957 the purgers of “good and enthusiastic comrades” (Wang knew that Deng Xiaoping was one of them) believed that “by breaking thermometers which gave readings they did not like, they could ensure that the real weather would never be too hot or too cold.”1

In Liu Binyan’s story, “Inside News,” for which he too was purged in 1957, a newspaper reporter learns the same lesson:

Leadership, organization, discipline were, after all, what really counted…. Even if you overdid it a little you could not go too far wrong. Democracy and freedom were always linked up with individuals. If you were not careful you could go too far—bourgeois and petit-bourgeois thinking…2

Chinese writers were told this bluntly in 1942 in Yan’an, Mao’s guerrilla headquarters, when the chairman delivered a series of outdoor speeches at what became known as the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. Mao’s targets were some of China’s most famous—and “unclean”—writers, who had left Shanghai and other cities and crossed over into what were called the Liberated Areas. There they imagined that the irony and sarcasm with which they had needled the Chiang Kai-shek regime could be put to use, even though from a friendly standpoint, to criticize the Communist party. They took as their model China’s greatest polemicist, Lu Xun, whose za-wen, or barbed essays, aimed at the Kuomintang and its supporters, were much admired by many on the left. Lu died in 1936; despite his left-wing sympathies he never joined the Party, and his independence and sense of outrage—which the Party officially and heavily praised—would have been crushed had he appeared in Yan’an.

We know this because when the Shanghai newcomers started writing critically and sometimes satirically within the Liberated Areas, Mao hit back so forcefully that forty-seven years later the shockwaves still make writers tremble. “A good many comrades,” the chairman said, “have come here from the garrets of Shanghai, and in coming from those garrets to the revolutionary base areas they have passed not only from one kind of place to another but from one historical epoch to another.”3 It was entirely right, Mao continued, to use burning satire and freezing irony against

the dark forces…. All the dark forces harming the masses of the people must be exposed and all the revolutionary struggles of the masses of the people must be extolled.

But “good,” i.e., well-written, stories that aimed their shafts at the wrong target were especially dangerous:

The more reactionary their content and the higher their artistic quality the more poisonous they are to the people and the more necessary to reject them…. What we demand is the unity of politics and art… [my italics].4

* * *

Nowhere in the history of twentieth-century Chinese literature are the effects of this formula clearer—or sadder—than in the work of Ding Ling (1904–1985). In the admirably translated short stories and essays collected in I Myself Am a Woman (the introduction, unfortunately, is a thicket of fashionable clichés), we see her progress, over fifty-one years, from a sensitive observer of the inner lives of sophisticated Chinese to a party hack. Daughter of a self-emancipated woman who chose to educate herself rather than remain a mournful widow, Ding Ling (her pen name) became a member of the May Fourth Movement of the 1920s, which was made up largely of militantly nationalistic young intellectuals—like Mao and Deng Xiaoping—who blamed China’s backwardness and oppression on its traditional culture and demanded changes in family and sexual relations, language, and education. During a protracted adolescence in Shanghai she frequently changed lovers, residences, and jobs before publishing, in 1928, “Miss Sophia’s Diary.”

This short story at once made her famous, at least in Shanghai’s literary circles, and it remains one of the few works of twentieth-century Chinese literature one can read with pleasure, without making allowances for the isolation of Chinese writers and the difficulties under which they have suffered. It records the emotions of a young woman writer, probably very much like Ding Ling, infatuated with a beautiful, stupid young man. Certain sexually frank passages, graphic enough today, were outrageous in a country where the last emperor had been deposed only fifteen years earlier. Miss Sophia masturbates (“boils my milk”)—“I’m never really sure that it suits my taste, no matter how often I do it, but it’s the only thing that releases frustration on a windy day”—and she has no illusions about the object of her passion:

When I think that in this precious, beautiful form I adore, there resides such a cheap, ordinary soul, and that for no apparent reason I’ve gotten intimate with him several times (but nothing even approaching what he gets at his brothel)!… Don’t I offer myself to him for his pleasures the same as any whore?

The diary ends bleakly: “Life sneaks on. Death too. Oh, how pathetic you are Sophia.” Mao would have hated Miss Sophia; he could look at such people only as coming from the enemy class: “We cannot love enemies, we cannot love social evils, our aim is to destroy them.”5 In the pre-Communist period Chinese readers were free to see her as a weak but not unsympathetic person, and to have mixed feelings about her, as we do for Emma Bovary, upon whom, as Tani Barlow points out, Ding Ling modeled her.

* * *

Ding Ling wrote other stories about Shanghai intellectuals in which political and revolutionary themes became prominent (she had joined the underground party in 1932) but not strident, and after her husband was executed, and she had spent a year in one of Chiang Kai-shek’s prisons, she escaped to Mao’s enclave at Yan’an. There she was greeted as a great catch by the Communists. She threw herself into campaigns to promote literacy and circulate anti-Japanese propaganda, but retained her sharp eye and tongue, for which, Mao was to say, there could be no room within the revolution. In 1942 she published the short essay “Thoughts on March 8” (especially well translated here by Gregor Benton) to mark International Women’s Day. As Tani Barlow says,

There was something to offend everybody in this essay. Political theorists resented her implication that the Party had an internal class system. War planners were angry because they had yet to find a policy for mobilizing women that served both family interests and the aims of the state.

Women in revolutionary Yan’an, Ding Ling wrote, came under traditional pressures to get married and bear children, and they were abused if they remained single or tried to get a divorce—for which they were accused of immortality, although, as she did not say, Mao himself had no inhibitions about disposing of his wives. Ding Ling referred to women’s “tragedy,” to “the silent oppression they suffer here in Yan’an”; she suggested that it would be “better if all Communist Party members were more responsible for their own moral conduct.” Worst of all, perhaps, from the Maoist standpoint, she dared to speak not as a revolutionary but because “I myself am a woman, and I therefore understand the failings of women better than others. But I also have a deeper understanding of what they suffer.”

This was unacceptable. The Party rejected the notion that women in the Liberated Area had special problems, although all the leaders knew Mao treated his own women badly. Yan’an itself was in an especially backward region, where the Party leaders believed that women’s liberation, particularly the concept of divorce upon women’s demand, would endanger its relations with tradition-bound peasants.

* * *

Then came the long, slow tragedy. With Ding Ling in the audience, Mao at the Yan’an Forum of 1942 issued the denunciation that included her own work, and like most other urban radical writers she underwent “rectification.” She was required to condemn her own work and confine herself to writings that followed the Party line. After the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, Ding Ling, now awarded a Stalin prize, became a powerful literary functionary. She took part in the anti-intellectual campaigns that began in the early 1950s and she had a hand in more purges of intellectuals than Party norms required, sometimes attacking writers for what they had said during arcane disputes in Shanghai twenty years earlier. In 1957 Ding Ling’s independent past caught up with her and she herself was chosen to be “smashed” by Party officials, who denounced her, using the mixture of political and sexual scandal that the Party reserves for politically fallen women.

Then came public humiliation, internal exile, solitary confinement, more humiliation during the Cultural Revolution, and, in 1978, two years after Mao’s death, rehabilitation. The result, sadly, was the emergence into a relatively privileged position of a grande dame who behaved so timidly that she was soon called Old Shameful by those who had counted on her to use her reputation and position to condemn the Party for what it had done to writers. That would have required more courage than she had. By 1976, Deng Xiaoping, the Party boss during the Fifties both when Ding Ling was crushing her enemies and when she herself was purged, had become the most powerful man in China and beyond criticism.

* * *

The full measure of her shame can be seen in the story “Du Wanxiang.” Published in 1978, the year of Ding Ling’s release, it had been drafted just before the Cultural Revolution, and is so banal that it must either have been a parody of all the worst aspects of socialist realism or a desperate bid to obtain the author’s freedom. As Tani Barlow says—and it takes a devoted translator to work through “Du Wanxiang”—the story “juxtaposes old-fashioned four-character idioms and assorted bits and pieces of ‘Maospeak.’”

Du Wanxiang is a perfect Maoist heroine. Motherless and from a poor peasant family, she is unerringly cheerful, hardworking, and optimistic, even when she is sold into marriage and treated like Cinderella by her sisters-in-law, whom she soon wins over. She is such a good worker that the Party spots her and trains her to become a minor cadre:

She was no longer a friendless, pathetic woman who only knew how to toil and how to avoid vicious, brutal scolding and abuse,…she was recruited into the Communist Party. She had found her real mother.

Unlike the intellectuals Ding Ling knew intimately, Du Wanxiang and her comrades are delighted to work in the freezing wastelands. “Communist Party! Brilliant and great Communist Party. You’ve cast such light on humankind! Given such hope, such warmth!” As for Du herself, she told her admiring comrades, “All I want is to stay under the Party’s leadership forever.”

* * *

What had happened to the Ding Ling who had written about Miss Sophia is what happened to most Chinese writers working under Party control after 1942: they no longer wrote for their readers. As the Princeton scholar Perry Link has explained, we “bourgeois” Westerners must first set aside our notions about the primacy of the writer if we are to understand mainland fiction:

From the standpoint of the control system, the primary relationship on the [Chinese] literary scene is between readers and top leadership. The whole point of literature, so viewed, is to cause readers to think what the top leadership feels it is best that they think…. Party theorists, borrowing a term from Stalin, explain that literature is a tool for “engineering the soul” of readers.6

Even the courageous literature of the immediately post-Mao years, the literature of the “wounded” and the “scarred,” as it was called, confined itself to the horrors of the Cultural Revolution, carefully placing the blame on members of the Gang of Four, as if they had nothing to do with Mao or the Party. If outspoken stories or scripts or poems strayed back into the years before the Cultural Revolution, when Deng was in high office, or forward into the late Seventies, when he was once again in power, the censors acted fast, no longer with physical violence, but by arranging for the writer to be publicly humiliated and attacked by the official literary establishment. Such treatment reminds every writer that things could suddenly become much worse. As Mr. Link points out, those in trouble were—and are—invariably referred to as a “tiny handful” not because they are necessarily a small number but to make them feel isolated. This was the intention of the late Hu Yaobang, the former Party secretary whose death was commemorated by the Tiananmen students, when he referred to dissident intellectuals as lice on the body of a great lion. Since many writers harbor “anti-Party tendencies,” accusations like “tiny minority” and “lice” make nearly everyone uneasy.7

* * *

The need to show that one is a patriotic citizen, even the pressure to identify oneself with one of the great political factions maneuvering for power, remains pervasive in Chinese literature. As Leo Ou-fan Lee observes, in his introduction to the collection of stories Spring Bamboo, revolutionary ideology, propaganda, and moral didacticism make much contemporary Chinese literature an acquired taste. During the last five years, Lee says, younger writers have been “searching for roots” beyond the themes of social and political service which began with the May Fourth generation. “Experimental,” unconcerned with ideology, sometimes seeking inspiration in Tibet and other non-Chinese regions, or in Latin American novelists like Gabriel García Márquez, these writers, according to Mr. Lee, look beyond China to foreign literature and they often write about the remote past.

It would be welcome if these efforts produced good stories. Mr. Lee—who knows as much about twentieth-century Chinese literature as anyone—argues that the stories in Spring Bamboo deserve strong praise. No doubt they will seem experimental to most Chinese readers since they mysteriously shift from one time or place to another, and the characters have streams of consciousness, to mention only some of the devices familiar from modern Western literature of this century. I find these stories, like much post-Mao Chinese painting and sculpture, imitative, derivative, or boring. Neither Chinese nor Western in any distinctive way, they are didactic-sounding or flat if compared to small masterpieces like, say, the stories in Babel’s Red Cavalry or Solzhenitsyn’s “Matryona’s House” in We Never Make Mistakes, where tiny details suddenly illuminate character or motive.

In Spring Bamboo the problem is made worse by the translation, with such lines as “a nice new suit with nary a wrinkle in it” or “it matters naught who they are.” But there are also too many mechanically introduced flashbacks, too much heroic resignation in the midst of loneliness. In Zhang Chengzhi’s “The Nine Palaces,” which takes place on the edge of the desert in western China, a peasant whose devotion to hard work in the midst of adversity makes him seem a character from a Maoist textbook has a series of unexceptional interior thoughts about, for example, the relation between past and present and the differences between the Han and non-Han Chinese. He meets a dogged intellectual who becomes dazed by the desert while searching for a possibly mythical city, buried under the sands. In the end, the peasant and intellectual go off in comradely contentment—another Maoist stereotype.

The Tibetan story “Souls Tied to the Knot on a Leather Cord,” by the officially approved Tibetan author Zhaxi Dawa, portrays characters who seem barely more civilized than animals, and Zhaxi makes clear her view that Tibet is much better off under Chinese rule. There is a vivid moment when the heroine, a pathetic, shadowy creature, suddenly decides to sleep with an attractive stranger. Afterward,

she weeps. Falling onto the ground with her face buried in her hands, she mutely begs Father’s forgiveness. Then, wiping her tears away on the dog’s furry hide, she stands up and goes back into the house.

* * *

One of the contributors to Spring Bamboo is Wang Anyi, a thirty-five-year-old Shanghai woman who is highly regarded in China and is undoubtedly the most talented of the writers whose work has recently appeared in English. The story “Lao Kang Came Back” is not an example of her best work, however. In what has become a familiar Chinese theme, an office employee in a city is exiled for years to the frontier, probably because he comes from the upper class, he is pardoned and returns, a suffering, silent wreck, able only to trace the character for uncooked rice on any surface he can find. He may be a symbol for suffering, silent China but he is too opaque to make us take much interest in him. If he is supposed to remind Chinese that many of them suffered, they know that already. And in this story, no one is to blame for Lao Kang’s tragedy, not Mao, not the Gang, not the Party, not the particularly brutal local officials…it just happened. Wang Anyi, as we see from her own collection of stories, Lapse of Time, likes optimistic endings; she finishes with “the profound and insightful” words of Lao Kang’s cheerful old housekeeper that, when you come down to it, life is just breathing in and out—so Lao Kang is not so badly off after all.

In “The Destination,” one of the stories in Lapse of Time, a much more interesting character returns to Shanghai after years of life on the frontier, where he had volunteered to go in place of his brother. He has forgotten that Shanghai people stand in crowded buses in a certain stoic way. He realizes slowly that the city is not as glamorous as he remembered it. His family tries to marry him off to an unappealing woman—“a dead crab”—just because she has a room. All this is sparely told and poignant. But Wang Anyi must have an upbeat ending—is this Mao’s influence at a great distance, or simply prudence on her part? “He believed,” she writes, “that once he arrived at his true destination, he would have no doubts, troubles, or sense of rootlessness.” Nothing in the story makes us believe this for a moment.

The title story, “Lapse of Time,” is a novella, wonderfully translated by Howard Goldblatt, about Ouyang Duanli, a spoiled young married woman from a rich Shanghai family who is reduced to a pariah during the Cultural Revolution. Her husband and in-laws turn out to be either weak, bickering, or greedy. Like her children she learns to manage, lining up to buy food in the early morning and fighting not to get jostled out of her place. She comes to like making a bit of money by doing dreary manual work. Her working-class comrades are more interesting than most others in recent Chinese fiction: they are helpful to her, yet make her feel the anger of class envy. The bad time ends and the family becomes rich again. Duanli slowly realizes that while she now has plenty of money again she misses working, but she can’t quite find the strength to go back. Her story is delicately and deftly outlined, like good caligraphy. Wang Anyi’s inevitable final sentence about how time “never made its passage in vain” seems simply irrelevant.

* * *

Wang Anyi’s Baotown is a short novel about life in a small town remote from the great shifts in Chinese politics. At first its people seem poor but kindly. They share their food and houses with orphans and stray travelers and boast about their willingness to help each other. But when a single lonely woman goes to bed with a boy she adopted as a child, their Baotown neighbors beat them up. With a few exceptions, such as Ding Ling in her early work, Chinese writers are not good at describing sexual feeling, which is often compared to flowing warm water. Wang Anyi also uses this image, but she also can describe, in language coy to us, but almost pornographic to Chinese readers, the mute, Oedipal longing of her odd couple, who sleep head to foot:

His feet were resting in Aunt’s bosom, warm, soft, warm and soft. Very gently he moved his toes and found an even softer spot, even warmer—and now the skin on his head began to tingle. He did not dare move as he felt his heart begin to pound. A breeze came through the brick-hole, the grass outside was wrestling.

Wang Anyi tells the story of a little boy in Baotown who is drowned in a flash flood. The Party, needing a model hero for the county, decides to turn him into one. A professional writer is commissioned to concoct an inspiring story of his heroic death for the public, the family is given a better house, and a memorial hall is planned. None of the little hero’s belongings, however, can be found to be placed on exhibit in the hall. Only his signature survives on the mud wall of an outhouse. But is it really his handwriting? “Absolutely,” says a young friend. “The two of us were taking a shit together and we just wrote our names for fun.” The committee tries to lift off the signature for display, but the walls of the privy crumble, “so in the end they had to leave the Youth Hero’s signature where it was.” Wang Anyi’s quiet sense that there is a continuing Communist comedy to be observed in China sets her apart from her contemporaries.

But these are not humorous times for Chinese writers; any writer I have mentioned in this review could be called scum. Two of China’s best poets, in self-imposed exile since Tiananmen, describe the current situation as follows:

Bei Dao:

The Ice Age is over now.
Why is there Ice everywhere?

And Duo Duo:

In the pitch black empty city
we hear again the urgent knocking of red terror.

  1. Fragrant Weeds, edited by William Jenner (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Co., 1983), pp. vii–viii.
  2. Fragrant Weeds, p. 70.
  3. Mao Tse-tung on Literature and Art (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967), p. 38.
  4. Mao Tse-tung on Literature and Art, pp. 30, 32–33.
  5. Mao Tse-tung on Literature and Art, p. 32.
  6. Stubborn Weeds: Popular and Controversial Chinese Literature after the Cultural Revolution, edited by Perry Link (London: Blond and Briggs, 1984), p. 2.
  7. Stubborn Weeds, pp. 14–15.
  8. Bei Dao, The August Sleepwalker, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall (London: Anvil, 1989), p. 33; Duo Duo, Looking Out from Death: From the Cultural Revolution to Tiananmen Square, translated by Gregory Lee and John Cayley (London: Bloomsbury, 1989), p. 26.
Jonathan Mirsky was born in New York in 1932 and educated at Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught Chinese and Vietnamese history, Comparative...
Reviewed in This Article

Spring Bamboo: A Collection of Contemporary Chinese Short Stories
compiled and translated by Jeanne Tai, with a foreword by Bette Bao Lord, an introduction by Leo Ou-fan Lee
Random House, 284 pp.

I Myself Am a Woman: Selected Writings of Ding Ling
edited by Tani E. Barlow, with Gary J. Bjorge
Beacon Press, 361 pp.

Lapse of Time
by Wang Anyi, introduction by Jeffrey Kinkley
China Books and Panda Books (Beijing), 235 pp.

by Wang Anyi, translated by Martha Avery
Norton, 144 pp.

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This article was first published in the October 26, 1989 issue of the New York Review of Books.



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Like most pilgrimage sites in China, the shrine in the village of Cave Gulley in Shanxi province is located partway up a mountain, reachable by steep stairs that are meant to shift worshipers’ attention from the world below to heaven above. Thousands make the journey each year...

China’s Way to Happiness


Richard Madsen is one of the modern-day founders of the study of Chinese religion. A professor at the University of California San Diego, the seventy-three-year-old’s works include Morality and Power in a Chinese Village, China and the American Dream, and China’s Catholics:...

China: Reeducation Through Horror


Here are two snippets from a Chinese Communist journal called People’s China, published in August 1956:In 1956, despite the worst natural calamities in scores of years, China’s peasants, newly organized in co-operatives on a nation-wide scale, produced 2,740 million Yuan’s...

China: Five Pounds of Facts


No one seems to have measured exactly how old Chinese civilization is, but Endymion Wilkinson can probably give a more precise answer than anyone else. “1.6 billion minutes separate us from the Zhou conquest of the Shang,” he informs us at the beginning of his Chinese History...

The Surprising Empress


In the mid-1950s, when I was a graduate student of Chinese history, the Manchu Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) was invariably condemned as a reactionary hate figure; Mao Zedong was admired. In the textbooks of that time, leading American scholars characterized Cixi as cruel,...

Dreams of a Different China


Last November, China’s newly installed leader, Xi Jinping, asked his fellow Chinese to help realize a “Chinese dream” of national rejuvenation. In the months since then, his talk has been seen as a marker in the new leadership’s thinking, especially as Xi has pursued a...

How to Deal with the Chinese Police


A casual visitor to China today does not get the impression of a police state. Life bustles along as people pursue work, fashion, sports, romance, amusement, and so on, without any sign of being under coercion. But the government spends tens of billions of dollars annually (more...

Unhinged in China


In one of the central scenes in Jia Zhangke’s new film, a young man working in the southern Chinese manufacturing city of Dongguan goes to an ATM and finds that he’s broke. He’s just spent the past month betraying his friends and hopping from job to job, including one as a...

China: “Capitulate or Things Will Get Worse”


The massacre of protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and the harsh repression during the months immediately following put China into a foul mood. Among ordinary Chinese, the prestige of the Communist Party, whose leaders had ordered the brutal assault, fell to a new low....

Who’s Afraid of Chinese Money?


“China is what it is. We have to be here or nowhere.” Chancellor George Osborne, Britain’s second-highest official, was laying out the British government’s view last week, near the end of his trip aimed at selling Britain to Chinese companies. Western governments used to...

Old Dreams for a New China


Ever since China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, first uttered the phrase “China Dream” last year, people in China and abroad have been scrambling to decipher its meaning. Many nations have “dreams”; in Canada, the country’s most prominent popular historian used the word to...

China: When the Cats Rule


In the Northwest corner of Beijing’s old city is a subway and bus workshop. It was built in the early seventies on the site of the Lake of Great Peace, which was filled in as part of a plan to extend the city’s subway system. In the bigger picture of the destruction of old...

The Man Who Got It Right


1.Near the beginning of Simon Leys’ marvelous collection of essays is an odd polemic between the author and the late Christopher Hitchens, fought out in these very pages. Leys takes Hitchens to task for attacking Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. He...

Censoring the News Before It Happens


Every day in China, hundreds of messages are sent from government offices to website editors around the country that say things like, “Report on the new provincial budget tomorrow, but do not feature it on the front page, make no comparisons to earlier budgets, list no links,...

Faking It in China


One of the most striking features about daily life in China is how much of what one encounters has been appropriated from elsewhere. It’s not just the fake iPhones or luxury watches—pirated consumer goods are common in many developing countries. In many Chinese cities,...

Chen Guangcheng in New York


Following are excerpts from a recent conversation among Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who was recently permitted to leave China and is currently a distinguished visitor at New York University School of Law; Jerome A. Cohen, Professor of Law and Co-Director of the US-...

The ‘Breaking of an Honorable Career’


1.In the 1950s, the late John King Fairbank, the dean of modern China studies at Harvard, used to tell us graduate students a joke about the allegation that a group of red-leaning foreign service officers and academics—the four Johns—had “lost” China: John Paton Davies,...

Who Killed Pamela in Peking?


An ordinary winter evening in the Legation Quarter of Peking, where foreign embassies and consulates were located, January 7, 1937. Cold. The heavy sound of Japanese armored cars, out on patrol down the busy shopping streets that flank the Forbidden City. (Japan would occupy the...

Dancing in Empty Beijing


The Lunar New Year began last week as it always does, with a new moon. The empty sky seemed to empty Beijing of up to half its residents—authorities estimate that an incredible nine million people left the city, which usually has a population of eighteen to twenty million. This...

The New Chinese Gang of Seven


In traditional Chinese religion, a fashi, or ritual master, will recite a set of phrases to turn an ordinary space into a sacred area where the gods can descend to receive prayers and rejuvenate the community. The ceremony can last days, with breaks and feasts, until the rites...

Does This Writer Deserve the Prize?


On October 11 Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, announced that the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2012 will go to the fifty-seven-year-old Chinese writer Guan Moye, better known as Mo Yan, a pen name that means “don’t talk.” (The name is...

China: Worse Than You Ever Imagined


Last summer I took a trip to Xinyang, a rural area of wheat fields and tea plantations in central China’s Henan province. I met a pastor, a former political prisoner, and together we made a day trip to Rooster Mountain, a onetime summer retreat for Western missionaries and...

Who Was Mao Zedong?


In Kashgar’s largest bazaar a few years ago, I spotted a pencil holder sporting an iconic Cultural Revolution image: Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao smiling together. But Mao’s personally chosen heir apparent had been a nonperson since 1971, when he allegedly godfathered an...

An Honest Writer Survives in China


A little over a year ago, I went with the Chinese writer Yu Hua to his hometown of Hangzhou, some one hundred miles southwest of Shanghai, and realized that his bawdy books might not be purely fictional; their characters and situations seemed to follow him around in real life too...

China’s Lost Decade


It’s hard to believe, but just twenty years ago China was on the verge of abandoning the market reforms that have since propelled it to its current position as a world power. Conservatives had used the 1989 Tiananmen massacre to reverse the country’s economic direction. Many...

News from the Dalai Lama


“I told President Obama the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are missing a part of the brain, the part that contains common sense,” the Dalai Lama said to me during our conversation in London in mid-June.But it can be put back in. I am hopeful about the new Chinese...

Bo Xilai: The Unanswered Questions


The Chinese Communist Party has always put great emphasis on smooth surfaces, maintaining political “face” through a decorous exterior. Men at the top dye their hair black and every strand must be in place. But sometimes there are cracks in the smoothness and outsiders are...

The People’s Republic of Rumor


A group of people the other day were at the large shopping mall at a place called Shuangjing, just inside Beijing’s Third Ring Road, looking at their cell phones and comparing notes. “Don’t go to Sina Weibo—it’s too famous,” one person advised, referring to the...

‘Pressure for Change is at the Grassroots


The Chinese legal activist Chen Guangcheng arrived in the United States last month following top-level negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials. Several weeks earlier, Chen had dramatically escaped from house arrest in his village in northeast China by jumping over a wall...

China: Politics as Warfare


Mao’s Invisible Hand is one of those books that make one feel good about scholarship. It describes inner workings of Chinese Communist society about which few nonexperts know anything—it may even surprise the experts—and it will interest anyone professionally interested in...

A Chinese Murder Mystery?


Roughly every decade, China’s political system cracks, its veil is rent, and its inner workings are laid bare. 2012, the Year of the Dragon, is turning out to be one of those periods when the country’s high priests can’t quite carry out their rituals as planned.The...

On Fang Lizhi (1936–2012)


Fang Lizhi, a distinguished professor of astrophysics, luminary in the struggle for human rights in contemporary China, and frequent contributor to The New York Review, died suddenly on the morning of April 6. At age seventy-six he had not yet retired, and was...

Debacle in Beijing


The story of a blind Chinese lawyer’s flight to the US Embassy in Beijing is likely to ignite accusations and recriminations until the US presidential election in November. But what few will acknowledge is a harsher truth: that for all our desire to effect change, outsiders...

Beijing Dilemma: Is Chen Guangcheng the Next Fang Lizhi?


The Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng, blind since childhood, self-taught in the law, defender of women’s rights to resist forced abortion, thorn in the side of local despots in his home district of Linyi in Shandong province, veteran of a four-year prison sentence on the spurious...

A Master in the Shadows


How should one assess the best ways to survive in a revolution? What exactly is the tipping point between obedience and outright sycophancy? When does one try to hold on to the values that gave meaning to one’s upbringing, and when is it best to just let it all go? When does...

China’s Falling Star


In China, the year is traditionally divided into periods based on the moon’s orbit around the earth and the sun’s path across the sky. This lunisolar calendar is laden with myths and celebrated by rituals that allowed Chinese to mark time and make sense of their world.So too...

The Chinese Are Coming!


The day after the Russian parliamentary elections in early December, the Chinese publication Global Times, an English-language newspaper and website managed by People’s Daily, the official organ of the Communist Party official, ran an editorial on how little credit the West...

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny


Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)Records of the Grand HistorianTruth will set you free.—Gospel according to JohnThe economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of...

The New York Review of Books China Archive

Welcome to the New York Review of Books China Archive, a collaborative project of and The New York Review of Books. In the archive you will find a compilation of full-length essays and book reviews on China dating from the Review's founding in 1963. We encourage you...

China Gets Religion!


This autumn, China has been marking the one hundredth anniversary of the collapse of its last imperial dynasty, the Qing, with a series of grand celebrations. The government has released an epic film showing how the revolution of 1911 prepared the way for the Communists’...

From Tenderness to Savagery in Seconds


Much nonsense has been written about the Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking. We know this much: in December 1937, the Imperial Japanese Army, after taking the Chinese Nationalist capital of Nanjing, went on a six-week rampage, looting, murdering, and raping large...

The High Price of the New Beijing


One recent weekend, I went for a walk through the alleys around the Qianmen shopping district, once Beijing’s commercial heart and still home to nationally known traditional shops. One of its chief side streets, Dazhalan, had been turned into a Ye Olde Pekinge-type street: its...

The Past and the Future


Concerning the Past:I have maintained that China should move forward with the reform of society. In many speeches before 1988, I openly expressed my advocacy of reform in China.I acknowledge that the following are my principal views:Marxism—whether viewed as a philosophy, a...

Kissinger and China


It is hard to fit Henry Kissinger’s latest book, On China, into any conventional frame or genre. Partly that is because the somewhat self-deprecatory title conceals what is, in fact, an ambitious goal: to make sense of China’s diplomacy and foreign policies across two and a...

Will There Be a ‘Duel of Dalai Lamas’?


On March 10 the Fourteenth Dalai Lama made front-page news throughout the world by saying,As early as the 1960s, I have repeatedly stressed that Tibetans need a leader, elected freely by the Tibetan people, to whom I can devolve power. Now, we have clearly reached the time to put...

Quality of Life: India vs. China


1.The steadily rising rate of economic growth in India has recently been around 8 percent per year (it is expected to be 9 percent this year), and there is much speculation about whether and when India may catch up with and surpass China’s over 10 percent growth rate. Despite...

The Worst Man-Made Catastrophe, Ever


When the first waves of Chinese graduate students arrived on American campuses in the early 1980s, they were excited at entering an unfettered learning environment. After the recent ravages of the Cultural Revolution, political science students had few inhibitions about studying...

China: From Famine to Oslo


1.Each year around the “sensitive” anniversary of the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1989, Ding Zilin, a seventy-four-year-old retired professor of philosophy, is accompanied by a group of plainclothes police whenever she leaves her apartment to go buy vegetables, or to do...

How Reds Smashed Reds


July and August 1966, the first months of the ten-year Cultural Revolution, were the summer of what Andrew Walder, a sociologist at Stanford, calls “The Maoist Shrug.” Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s wife, told high school Red Guards, “We do not advocate beating people, but...

The Question of Pearl Buck


The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer...

The Party: Impenetrable, All Powerful


In the next few weeks, an event will take place in Beijing on a par with anything dreamed up by a conspiracy theorist. A group of roughly three hundred men and women will meet at an undisclosed time and location to set policies for a sixth of humanity. Most China watchers will...

The Message from the Glaciers


It was not so long ago that the parts of the globe covered permanently with ice and snow, the Arctic, Antarctic, and Greater Himalayas (“the abode of the snows” in Sanskrit), were viewed as distant, frigid climes of little consequence. Only the most intrepid adventurers were...

The Triumph of Madame Chiang


Charlie Soong, born in 1866, was a new kind of figure in Chinese history, an independent-minded youngster with an openness to the world who came to Boston from Hainan Island at the age of twelve to work in a store. At fourteen he stowed away on a Coast Guard cutter, was baptized...

Specters of a Chinese Master


1.Luo Ping, who lived from 1733 to 1799, was perfectly placed by time and circumstance to view the shifts in fortune that were so prominent in China at that period. He grew up in Yangzhou, a prosperous city on the Grand Canal, just north of the Yangzi River, which linked the...

The Mystery of Zhou Enlai


Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out...

China: Humiliation & the Olympics


The IncidentOn a snowy winter day in 1991, Lu Gang, a slightly built Chinese scholar who had recently received his Ph.D. in plasma physics, walked into a seminar room at the University of Iowa’s Van Allen Hall, raised a snub-nose .38-caliber Taurus pistol, and killed Professor...

The Passions of Joseph Needham


It is now a little over four hundred years since a scattering of Westerners first began to try to learn the Chinese language. Across that long span, the number of scholars studying Chinese has grown, but their responses to the challenges of Chinese script have been generally...

Casting a Lifeline


Sixty pages or so into Ma Jian’s novel Beijing Coma, the hero, Dai Wei, is troubled by the memory of a harrowing anatomy lecture that he attended as a university student. Taught by “a celebrated cardiovascular specialist,” the class observed the dissection of the fresh...

Sentimental Education in Shanghai


1.In April 1924 Rabindranath Tagore arrived in Shanghai for a lecture tour of China. Soon after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore had become an international literary celebrity, lecturing to packed audiences from Japan to Argentina. His message—that...

The Quiet Heroes of Tibet


Earlier this year, shortly before boarding the new Chinese train from Beijing to Lhasa, I met Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist (she uses only one name). Unusual among Tibetans in China, who tend to avoid talking to foreigners, she spoke frankly about Chinese rule over Tibet....

Mission to Mao


“This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and...

China’s Great Terror


Long before August 1966, when immense chanting crowds of young Chinese Red Guards began to mass before Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square, alerting those in the wider world to the onset of the Cultural Revolution, senior figures in the Chinese leadership began to seek their own...

‘June Fourth’ Seventeen Years Later: How I Kept a Promise


The weekend of June 3, 2006, was the seventeenth anniversary of the Beijing massacre and also the first time I ever received a summons. It happened, as the police put it, “according to law.” Twice within twenty-four hours Deputy Chief Sun Di of Department 1 of the Beijing...

Liu Binyan (1925-2005)


Liu Binyan, the distinguished Chinese journalist and writer who died of cancer on December 5, 2005, in exile in New Jersey, at the age of eighty, was an inveterate defender of the poor and the oppressed, a man with a powerful analytic mind. But the trait that most determined his...

On Leaving a Chinese Prison


Jiang Qisheng, a former student of philosophy and a human rights activist, was arrested in 1999 for commemorating the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. After four years in prison, he was recently released. He wrote the following statement upon accepting the Spirit of...

A Little Leap Forward


The Communist dynasty is collapsing in China, and in retrospect one of the first signs was a Chinese-language computer virus that began spreading when I was a reporter in Beijing in the early 1990s. The virus would pop up on your screen and ask a question about the hard-line...



1.To stand somewhere in the center of an East Asian metropolis, Seoul, say, or Guangzhou, is to face an odd cultural conundrum. Little of what you see, apart from the writing on billboards, can be described as traditionally Asian. There are the faux-traditional façades—...

China: The Anaconda in the Chandelier


In China’s Mao years you could be detained and persecuted for talking with your neighbor about your cat. The Chinese word for “cat” (mao, high level tone) is a near homonym for the name of the Great Leader (mao, rising tone), and a tip to the police from an eavesdropper who...

Found Horizon


1.Traveling recently by bus from Shigatse to Lhasa, squeezed in between a heavily made-up bar hostess from Sichuan who was vomiting her breakfast out the window and a minor Tibetan official in a shiny brown suit who asked me about Manchester United football club before noisily...

East Is West


Chang-rae Lee has an extraordinary talent for describing violence. Here is his account of the gang rape and murder of a Korean sex slave (“comfort woman”) in a Japanese army camp during World War II:I ran up the north path by the latrines, toward the clearing, as it was known...

Divine Killer


“If there was anything Mao wouldn’t want to see, it was tears. Mao said on one occasion, ‘I can’t bear to see poor people cry. When I see their tears, I can’t hold back my own.’ “Another thing which upset Mao was bloodshed.” —From Mao Zedong: Man, Not God by...

China in Cyberspace


1.It is not widely known that the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are now at war. The battles are not being fought on land, however, or at sea, or even, strictly speaking, in the air; they take place in cyberspace, where nobody so far has ever died. The soldiers in this...

The Jiang Zemin Mystery


1.Since the Chinese Communist Party leaders will not allow themselves to be criticized in the press or on television, critics have had to find other means to express their political grievances. Historically speaking, one of the most telling ways to make a protest known has been...

Sex and Democracy in Taiwan


Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their...

Selling Out Hong Kong


1.And so it finally came to pass, at midnight, June 30, 1997, in the brand-new Hong Kong convention center, resembling, local people say, a giant cockroach: the red flag of the People’s Republic of China, snapping in the breeze of wind machines, went up, and the Union Jack came...

Holding Out in Hong Kong


1.The Master said: “If seeking wealth were a decent pursuit, I too would seek it, even if I had to work as a janitor. As it is, I’d rather follow my inclinations.”—Confucius: Analects1Flicking through the April issue of the Hong Kong Tatler, a glossy high life magazine...

China: The Defining Moment


The evolution of the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949 has been tumultuous and bloody, and marked by the suffering of millions. It has been anything but peaceful. Yet it is precisely the prospect of “peaceful evolution,” which in Peking has the special...

The Beginning of the End


Failed rebellions are often like failed marriages: former partners and their friends blame the other side for what went wrong; old tensions are magnified; the past is rewritten; feuding camps are formed. This pretty much sums up the situation among the survivors of the Beijing...

In China’s Gulag


Near the end of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn includes a chapter he calls “The Muses in Gulag.” Most of the chapter describes the absurdity and uselessness of the Communist Party’s Cultural and Educational Section, but he also briefly reflects on the relationship...

Unmasking the Monster


In 755 the Tang dynasty poet Tu Fu wrote about the corruptions of court life:In the central halls there are fair goddesses; An air of perfume moves with each charming figure. They clothe their guests with warm furs of sable, Entertain them with the finest music and pipe and...

History on the Wing


Golden Inches is a charming memoir of an American couple who built up the YMCA in Chengtu and Chungking. Their careers on America’s farthest Western cultural frontier in Szechwan province give us a sense of the day-to-day texture of Chinese-American relations during the golden...

From the Ming to Deng Xiaoping


When I began teaching Chinese history at Harvard in 1936 my first students turned out to be the brightest I would ever have—Theodore White as an undergraduate and Mary Clabaugh as a Ph.D. candidate. Mary Clabaugh was a Vassar graduate from Tuscaloosa who came to study...

The Last Days of Hong Kong


1.“Everything you need to know about a new life abroad…. It’s all in the pages of The Emigrant.”—Advertisement for a new Hong Kong periodical, 1989May 1983: It was exactly seven months after Mrs. Thatcher stumbled and fell on the steps of the Great Hall of the People in...

Keeping the Faith


On June 4, the day after the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on the citizens of Beijing, the distinguished Chinese astrophysicist and dissident intellectual, Fang Lizhi, reluctantly sought refuge in the American embassy in Beijing with his physicist wife, Li Shuxian. They...

Why China’s Rulers Fear Democracy


To try to understand is not to condone or forgive. Quite the contrary. In this bicentennial year when a euphoria for democratic rights seemed to be sweeping the world, why was it stopped in Tiananmen Square? Why do China’s rulers attack their students like enemies when in our...

The End of the Chinese Revolution


When Deng Xiaoping suppressed the Beijing Spring last month, he thought he was putting down a new Cultural Revolution. Pirated notes from a Party meeting in late April quoted him as telling his colleagues:This is not an ordinary student movement. It is turmoil…. What they are...

The Price China Has Paid: An Interview with Liu Binyan


Liu Binyan is a sixty-two-year-old writer and journalist who is regarded as the preeminent intellectual advocating reform in China today. During the mid-1950s and again throughout the post-Mao period, he has strongly criticized Communist party officials for abusing their power...

Roots of Revolution


The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own...

Passing the Baton in Beijing


Succession has become an omnipresent problem not only in China but throughout Asia. Long-lasting regimes under aging rulers are entering their twilight zone in North Korea, Burma, and Indonesia, and face a period of weakness and uncertainty, for the moment...

Our Mission in China


This is the bicentennial year for contacts between the United States and China, since it was in 1784 that the merchant ship Empress of China sailed to Canton from New York. It was an auspicious beginning, at least for the American backers of the voyage; the trip netted them 30...

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...

Sitting on Top of the World


Remoteness is often a condition of status and an attitude cultivated by parties to inequality. Chinese peasants, for more than twenty centuries subjects not citizens of the realm, were being literal when they said, “Heaven is high and the emperor far away.” Their world was...

Rules of the Game


On September 18, 1931, a very small bomb caused a very minor explosion on the South Manchurian Railway just north of Mukden, a railway controlled by the Japanese and crucial to their economic domination of Manchuria. The explosion was denounced as the work of Chinese saboteurs....

Bringing Up the Red Guards


Revolutionaries are Monkey Kings, their golden rods are powerful, their supernatural powers far-reaching and their magic omnipotent, for they possess Mao Tsetung’s great invincible thought. We wield our golden rods, display our supernatural powers and use our magic to turn the...

Peanuts and the Good Soldier


In 1927, the province of Shantung was under the control of the warlord Chang Tsung-chang, a ferocious ex-coolie with a taste for white mercenaries and white women. His forces included a Russian brigade with four armored trains; he himself went to war with a trainload of forty-two...

Still Mysterious


Within mainland China today the ratio of Westerners to Chinese is probably no greater than it was in Marco Polo’s time seven hundred years ago. Sino-foreign contact is so minimal that it almost meets the old Taoist stay-at-home ideal, “to live hearing the dogs bark in the...

A Mao for All Seasons


A psychologist and an expert on the Far East, Mr. Lifton believes that the most fruitful way to look at Mao Tse-tung and the Cultural Revolution is to combine the investigation of psychological motives with historical analysis in what he calls the “...

The Great Wall


China is so distant, big, and complex that each Marco Polo nowadays tells a different tale. The authors of the three books under review—a cool Swedish journalist, a passionate Chinese true-believer, and a philosophical Frenchman—give very different impressions of Chairman Mao...

How to Deal with the Chinese Revolution


The Vietnam debate reflects our intellectual unpreparedness. Crisis has arisen on the farthest frontier of public knowledge, and viewpoints diverge widely because we all lack background information. “Vietnam” was not even a label on our horizon twenty years ago. It was still...