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.

David 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.