Random Thoughts on Writings about the Cultural Revolution
by Mu Ting
(excerpt in translation; read the Chinese text here.)
798 art zone. A sculptor who made a statue of Lin Zhao was summoned by the government many times. Writers wrote novels about the Red Guards and no publishers dared to publish. A director who made a movie called The Blue Kite,
which involved the CR and didn’t pass domestic censorship, sent it abroad stealthily, received awards, and was stripped of his director qualification immediately and for 7 years thereafter.
The Cultural Revolution tormented people for ten years, but following the “scar literature” and “rethinking literature” periods, relevant works have been scanty. The civil war between the Nationalists and Communists was fought for only three years, yet novels, biographies, memoirs, documentaries, movies , TV series are abundant and everywhere. The cold and hot explain the Chinese characteristic: words are one thing, actions are another.
In old times, artists called this “subject determinism,” meaning the subject determines the work’s fate. Judging a work completely by its subject, this, of course, is very depressing. It went beyond the limits of forbearance for artists in 1950s-60s, and they ridiculed it under the name “subject determinism.” This ridicule angered the left in a big way – they deemed it a desire for the bourgeoisie's freedom of creation, and so denounced it on a grand scale. During the CR, this term was even listed in the “black eight theories” and thus denounced for ten full years.
Reasonably, after the Gang of Four was downed, shouldn’t that have marked the end of “subject determinism”? Big no! Why is there still “subject determinism”? The knowledgeable say, it’s because of “linguistic context.”
Linguistic context is one thing. Besides what to write, there is also how to write it.
The subject of fighting the Japanese invasion, shouldn’t it get straight green lights? However the screenplay of Devils on the Doorstep did not pass – the movie jury made over 40 criticisms, including :
After the Japanese military officer finished playing tricks, not only did he give candy to the children, the movie also showed Chinese children going after the Japanese army asking for candy several times. Through the mouth of Japanese, the movie often insulted Chinese as ‘China pigs’, seriously damaging the image of Chinese
And so on (See Jiang Wen’s Right and Wrong – trouble caused by ‘Devils on the Doorstep’, edited by Wu Di, 2005.) [The director] Jiang Wen, being cornered, decided on no single word change, but further added a scene depicting a joint celebration between the Chinese villagers and the Japanese troops. The Cannes gave him a big prize. Inside the country he got a severe warning; so far the movie is still banned. The result was an all-happy harmonious scene between the pirate and the pirated – once, Jiang Wen ran into an Anhui boy selling the pirated disks, and he bought 150 of them immediately. He still didn’t feel that was enough and wanted to buy more.
The same is true with the CR. It’s not that it absolutely can’t be written about; it is how you are writing it. Yu Hua and Yan Lianke are one positive and one negative examples, respectively.
Yu Hua’s Brothers (2006), a novel of over 500 thousand words, in its first part uses a modernist approach to write about the CR: in a small southern town, a boy named Bald Li yearns for women’s asses. The town beauty, Lin Hong, goes to the toilet, and Bald Li follows her to peep. After peeping, he brags about it everywhere, and the town men are infatuated. In order to have Bald Li repeatedly describe what he saw, the adults vie each other to treat him with noodles. The peep and telling occupy two chapters of Brothers.
In Yan Lianke’s Serve the People (2005), a division commander marries Liu Lian, a nurse 19 years younger than he. The commander has lost sexual functionality, having been wounded during war. Liu Lian commits adultery with the commander’s guard. Their contact signal is a signboard of Mao’s quotation “Serve the People.” Once, when the commander takes his troop for field training, the two have a rendezvous for 7 days and 7 nights. Their main work is to make love. Liu Lian discovers that smashing Mao’s portraits raises both their sexual desires, and her home turns into a shambles of Mao’s portraits. When the commander returns home, he finds out. But Liu LIan’s pregnancy saves his face. As thanks, when the guard retires from service, he and his family all get to transfer their rural registration to a city.
Both novels write about sex. Brothers is written in a surrealistic way, of an absurd sexual abnormality. Yan Lianke writes about an abnormal marriage caused by class privileges, using a metaphor for the sex-politics relation. Such are the two different writing approaches. Yu Hua’s Brothers was published four years ago and is still a hot seller. Yan Lianke’s Serve the People, however, was banned right after publication. That issue of Flower City (花城) magazine (which published his novel) was also recalled and destroyed.
The jury for the Mao Dun Literary Prize commented on Yu Hua’s novel: “Brothers is a case of successful commercial hype. The work has poor esthetics and misrepresents details.” To say the novel has “poor esthetics” is pertinent; to say it misrepresents details is itself misrepresentation – What Yu Hua uses is a modernist approach. Modernism, at least China’s modernism, treats reality as its enemy. Misrepresentation of details is the pursuit.
Tian Jianmo’s Traces of History takes a different path. He disdains Yu Hua-like surrealism, and stays away from Yan Lianke’s political metaphors. He insists on realism.