- Literature the People Love: Reading Chinese Texts from the Early Maoist Period (1949–1966) by Krista Van Fleit Hang
This short book begins with a brief account of revisions made to the first and second editions of Yang Mo’s famous novel Qingchun zhi ge [Song of youth; 1958, rev. ed. 1960] that “symbolize one path of literature from the beginning of the twentieth century into the Maoist period” (p. 1). Two pages later, she describes the revisions as a process that “mirrors the path of literature in the first half of the twentieth century” (p. 3). The discrepancy between “one path” and “the path” in these two statements introduces a note of uncertainty that may be due to the author’s mission: her wish to achieve a kind of balance she finds absent in academic scholarship on modern Chinese literature, as summarized in her concluding sentences: “Literature the People Love is part of the project of understanding China’s experience in the Maoist period outside of a Cold War lens that requires either an affirmation or negation of the communist project. Appreciating the utopian vision of authors of the early Maoist period … is one way to approach this question. Engaging with these stories reveals many ways in which the ideals they present fit neither the CCP’s rigid narrative of state-bestowed liberation, nor the Western narrative of insurmountable repression in the communist system, allowing for the discovery of a relevance in that surpasses either of these narratives” (p. 158). In characterizing the writers’ vision of literature as utopian in the 1950s and early 1960s, Van Fleit Hang demonstrates both a generous sympathy for these writers and a troubling failure to understand the constraints under which they were operating and the actual social and political history of the period.
Following the introduction, chapter 2 gives an account of the first volume of the magazine Renmin wenxue (People’s literature) in 1949–1950, with background information on its contributors; summaries of its theoretical and ideological articles; discussions of controversial stories by Qin Zhaoyang, Fang Ji, and Xiao Yemu; and finally analyses of two stories by actual workers in the last issue of this volume. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on Li Zhun’s short story “Li Shuangshuang xiaozhuan” (The story of Li Shuangshuang, 1960), the novel Linhai xueyuan (Tracks in the snowy forest, 1957), and their transformations into other genres. Chapter 5 looks at two films made in 1959 and 1961 (although no mention of film is made in the book’s title). The final chapter uses the example of building the Ming Tombs Reservoir to symbolize the different paths of Maoist culture.
There is much to be praised in the author’s statement in chapter 3: “I will not assume that a tightening of the political landscape leads to a less successful story. Using a relaxed political tone of the works as the sole standard of evaluation clouds our vision, preventing us from seeing different ways various artists negotiated policy and social change … My goal in this section is not to make a [End Page 206] value judgment, coming out in favor of the artistic merits of one version over the others, but rather to understand the complex factors that went into the production of literary works during the seventeen years” (pp. 62–63). It is true that many works on modern Chinese literature published during the 1970s took a narrow view of both politics and literature in China. A better understanding of the relationship between these two disciplines only began to flourish (mainly in studies published outside China) in the last thirty years. One of the issues, for example, that Van Fleit Hang brings to her analysis of Tracks in the Snowy Forest is changing attitudes toward gender roles. What is problematic about her approach, on the other hand, is its tendency to diminish the...