NEW YORK — Last September, when the momentum of China's reforms and opening to the outside world appeared to be unstoppable, Zhang Xinxin, one of the country's leading young writers, spoke with a caution that many optimistic outsiders would have regarded as a little surprising.
"It's true that the policy toward literature has recently been more open," she said. "But writers like us have been through many changes before. We have to be coolheaded when the policy is more open, and coolheaded when it is more closed."
Given the movement away from relaxation since December's student demonstrations, bringing the fall of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and the campaign against Western democratic influence, or "bourgeois liberalization," Zhang's words appear strangely prophetic. Bearing in mind that two of the three prominent intellectuals who have been expelled from the party--Liu Binyan and Wang Ruowang--are writers; that the editor of the country's most prestigious literary magazine, novelist Liu Xinwu, has been "temporarily relieved of his post" for authorizing a controversial story about Tibet, and that there is speculation about how long novelist Wang Meng will continue to be China's minister of culture, Chinese authors need as much coolheadedness as they can muster.
The government policy toward writers has veered with the political winds of change, and it has only been in the Deng Xiaoping era that writers have officially been called members of the working class. Before Deng, in a country where politics were predicated upon notions of "class struggle," not being officially accepted into the ranks of the workers meant at best a mercurial and more often than not a dangerous existence.
What, in fact, is the role of the writer in China today? Who are these writers, what is controversial about their works, what kinds of reflections are we likely to see over the ensuing months? And a question pondered by so many of China's writers: Why is it that for so much of the world, and particularly within America, the literary image held up by one-quarter of the world's population is almost a total blank?
Since 1949, politics has entered, intimately, every aspect of Chinese life in a way inconceivable to most Westerners, the world of books being no exception. During the early and mid-1950s, many writers were imbued with a naive and ultimately tragic faith in Mao Tse-tung's ability to do no wrong. Thus, when he called for the blossoming of a "hundred flowers," extending an invitation for supposedly open literary and intellectual debate, writers like Wang Meng and Liu Binyan responded, only to be branded as "rightists" during the 1957-58 campaign that followed, and put away in internal exile or worse for the next 20 years.
For those who escaped the anti-rightist movement, the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution lay in wait just around the corner. It is not surprising that a writer like Zhang Jie, a well-known woman novelist, "didn't write a single word before 1978, when I was already 41 years old. Before then, the policy was that literature should 'serve workers, peasants and soldiers.' Anything that was not about politics or workers and so forth could not have been published, or if published, would not have been welcomed."
After the Cultural Revolution, the exhortation to serve workers, peasants and soldiers was removed, only to be replaced by the slogan to "serve the people and socialism" and the campaign against bourgeois liberalization is emphasizing the currency of this slogan. Even before the current campaign, Wang Meng set down the official parameters within which Chinese authors must operate. And while his phoenix-like rise from former rightist to culture minister was welcomed by Chinese writers, it also demonstrated political survival skills that caused some to have second thoughts.
"Every writer may have his or her own pursuit," Wang said. "But one's own pursuit should be consistent with the overall interests of society. I hold that writers' freedom of artistic creation should be guaranteed and at the same time, writers' social responsibility and the need to maintain a socialist orientation in literature should be emphasized."