- Heroes of China’s Great Leap Forward: Two Stories
The crucial point of Richard King’s edited translation Heroes of China’s Great Leap Forward could not have become more evident than by simply placing these entirely contrasting narratives of heroism into one and the same book jacket: Li Zhun’s short story “Brief Biography of Li Shuangshuang,” reflecting the dawn of an alleged utopia, and Wang Zhiliang’s “Story of the Criminal Li Zhongtong,” bewailing its de facto dystopia. Both literary heroes originate from the same historical period—the Great Leap Forward—but their stories are being told within a span of two decades—that is, 1960 and 1980. Naturally, we encounter two entirely different narratives of this historical disaster ranging between its optimistic, albeit naïve, takeoff and its tragic and horrifying outcome.
The two stories have been selected and translated by Richard King in collaboration with five of his graduate students. Accompanied with an insightful introduction to the Great Leap, the stories are contextualized through informative portraits of the two writers. Both Li Zhun and Zhang Yigong grew up in the province of Henan, where the Great Leap not only was supported with great enthusiasm and no little naïveté but in the course of time also showed its most cruel and brutal face. Based on interviews with the editor, these biographical sketches are enriched by the authors’ recollections of that traumatic time. Furthermore, both provide information on their creative process and the literary sources they drew from when breathing life into their very different heroes. Finally, a brief glossary with relevant terms and expressions is included. Heroes of China’s Great Leap Forward is a valuable document that gives historical insight into the workings of ideology and into one of the most horrific catastrophes the Chinese people endured during the twentieth century.
Both stories are outstanding representations of their genre and time in various respects. As Richard King points out in his introduction, Li Zhun’s “Li Shuangshuang” is a representative and superior example of the literary doctrine of the time that combined revolutionary realism with revolutionary romanticism and was to replace the Soviet socialist realism. Writers and “cultural workers” in general were perceived of as “engineers of the human soul” whose crucial task was to display the nation’s glorious future. Therefore, it was the author’s task to create images of heroic figures excelling in their striving for the goals set by the national leadership. Having been reprinted more than four hundred times; read by 300 million people; adapted as a comic strip, a film, and numerous local operas, “Li Shuangshuang” was the literary success story of the Great Leap, par excellence.
Wang Zhiliang’s “Li Zhongtong” cannot compete in terms of success. However, it can be seen as a typical example of what has been called “Literature of the Wounded.” Although wound-literature mainly has its focus on the tragedies and injustices of the Cultural Revolution, Wang Zhiliang’s Great Leap story follows the same narrative mindset: his hero unhesitatingly sacrifices himself since he is the one who upholds the true values of the Party, which has been betrayed by ultraleftist policies. He also shows unshakeable confidence in the new leadership that [End Page 342] would not only right the wrongdoings of the past but safely lead toward a new future.
Read nowadays, both stories become tales of absurdities. Their respective literary figures emerge as true incarnations of time-bound heroes. Like the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap created a world in itself; thus, heroism followed its own logic. Equipped with the guiding brilliance of Mao Zedong’s thought, it was a world reigned by a utopian scheme that was more real than the miseries and shortcomings of daily life. Though we might find these stories and their figures ridiculous, they are at no point trivial or laughable. Certainly, we no longer read them to indulge...