Late last month, a "cultural event" involving 100 prominent Chinese writers quietly made the news: each of them had hand-copied a passage of Mao Zedong's 1942 "Yan'an Talks on Literature and Arts" for a publication celebrating the 70th anniversary of the speeches. The writers felt they had done nothing out of the ordinary - "no different from the numerous commemorative activities held every day", as one of them, the popular novelist Chi Li, put it.
Unexpectedly, however, the news caused a wave of unbridled derision; the criticism has rumbled through Chinese cyberspace for weeks.
This negative public reaction turned the unremarkable cultural event into a scandal. Readers searched for the names of their favourite authors in that "shame roll", as it was dubbed by Shanghai blogger Wu Hongsen, and expressed relief at the names not found. When some beloved names did turn up, feelings of betrayal turned into angry claims, such as "I'll never read their books again!"
This apparently has taken the writers by surprise; so far, a few have stepped out to explain their involvement. Ye Zhaoyan, a well-known fiction writer from Nanjing , wrote on his weibo page that "the feeling of eating a fly is not very good". He said he never liked Mao's Yan'an speeches, but thought they were a "paper tiger" that "could no longer hurt us", and thus had not taken the event seriously enough to bother sending back the 1,000 yuan (HK$1,230) cash mailed to him.
The majority of those involved, however, have kept silent; among them were more than a few who fell victim to Mao's Yan'an speeches whose bite was once real enough. "Literature and art must serve proletariat politics! Literature and art must serve workers, peasants, and soldiers!" The slogans, incisive extractions from Mao's speeches, flooded China in my childhood during the Cultural Revolution. The rubric that Mao put forth at Yan'an was responsible for the persecution of many writers and artists who dared to speak their mind. Many were imprisoned, even executed.
Under communist rule, for half a century, there was at least one major political campaign every decade wielding those principles - the Yan'an rectification movement in the 1940s, the anti-rightist movement in the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, and the campaign against "spiritual pollution" in the 1980s. Though such mass campaigns against writers and intellectuals have subsided in recent decades, freedom of speech is still a problem in mainland China.
Yet, I knew writers who truly believed in Mao's rhetoric. In the 1970s, a friend's father, a talented novelist in Sichuan , spent many years writing a two-volume novel that sings genuine praise for the people's communes. When published, the novel was hailed as a major achievement and was broadcast all over the province. Even in 1977, when my first short story was published in Sichuan Literature, the magazine awarded me copies of the novel in lieu of payment.
Later, the truth came out that the people's communes were culpable in the great famine from 1959-62 that killed millions of people in our province. Consequently, the novel my friend's father poured his heart into was never mentioned or seen again. He never wrote another novel either, in his later years taking refuge in the Qing dynasty classic A Dream of Red Mansions.
But if you think that was all in the remote past, think again. As recently as last year, when the now disgraced party secretary Bo Xilai still ruled my home city Chongqing, writers there had taken active roles in creating works to praise Bo's "strike the black, sing the red" campaigns. Huang Jiren, one of the writers who took part in the Mao project and the chair of the Chongqing Writers' Association, spent two years writing a book about Wang Lijun. It never reached readers: the Chongqing police chief fled to the US consulate in Chengdu in February and is now facing treason charges. Like all its predecessors, sooner or later, literature written on party assignment becomes the waste of history.
If Huang was under political pressure to write the book on Wang, he and other participants who hand-copied Mao's Yan'an speeches did it willingly. As a reader mocked online, they at least "had the freedom to have unsteady hands" (the Writers Publishing House that published the book has said that some senior writers they contacted couldn't do it because of unsteady hands).
I share the relief of readers who find their beloved authors spared from this roll of dishonour. A friend told me that Wang Anyi, who I believe to be China's best female novelist of our time, rejected the request for participation by saying: "I never copy anyone." What a great thing to say.
I also share the disappointment of readers who found out that writers they respected were involved. Feng Jicai, Mo Yan, Zhang Jie, Jiang Zilong; these are not "party assignment" takers, like some others. Their own writing will probably have a place in China's literary history. So why did they do it?
It was all to do with "relationships", a friend with knowledge of the project told me. Those prominent writers all know He Jianming, the designer and publisher of the calligraphy collection, very well, making it difficult to reject his invitation. This was probably why Zhang Jie, in addition to copying the Mao passage assigned to her, also wrote another four words for the book - "True to the art" - in obvious conflict with Mao's doctrine.
"Don't you think a critical spirit is more important than a 'relationship' to writers?" I asked the friend, who is also a writer.
"That's a bit presumptuous," he replied. "China has so many things that need criticism, can you criticize them all? Writers need to get along."
I'm just glad China still has writers like Wang Anyi.