Socialism Is Great!

When I started work on my novel Peace Court, I looked for sources to feed my imagination. I found plenty of history books but almost no fiction that dwelt on Shanghai in the early 1950s. Certainly none that originated from inside China. I wondered why that was the case. This is what I learned.

revolutionary art

group portrait at Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art

In 1942, Mao Zedong gave a talk at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. China was at war with Japan. The People’s Republic of China was still a pipe dream. Yet Mao’s Talks ushered in a cultural policy that would last well into this century. To subordinate literature and art to the needs of the state

for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy […] with one heart and one mind. 

Once in power in 1949, the Party acted swiftly to implement its cultural policy. The first prong was organizational. To nationalize the publishing industry and centralize the book distribution system. To create a Soviet-style cultural bureaucracy: the Ministry of Culture, the federation of literature and arts and various artist unions. Not to speak of the censorship.

The second prong was conceptual. From now on, Socialist Realism would be the only acceptable art form. Borrowed from the Soviet Union, the purpose of Socialist Realism is to show society as it should be. “Correct” art must

illuminate the exact class relationships of the protagonists and leave no ambiguities about the direction and purpose of the socialist revolution. 

Jonathan D. Spence. The Search for Modern China. 3rd Edition, W.W. Norton, p. 338.
Statue ot socialist workers and soldier
Tiananmen Square. Photo credit: Frans Verhagen

The state decreed that landscape paintings must show workers, peasants and soldiers contributing toward the socialist cause. Novels must portray a hero who perseveres against all odds. Music must be easily accessible to the masses.

book burning

The Party banned art that did not conform to these guidelines. They destroyed books, artwork and musical instruments. Chinese poet Bei Dao recalls two sets of book collections in his childhood home.

The public collection contained works by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and revolutionary fiction.

Portrait Mao Zedong
By Zhang Zhenshi (1914–1992). Mao Zedong portrait attributed to Zhang Zhenshi and a committee of artists (see [1]). [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It stood centered against the north wall in the outer room (where Mao Zedong’s portrait hung during the Cultural Revolution, and before that, where we displayed the ancestral tablets for offerings).

The private collection was in the attic. Authors who had fallen out of favor. Illicit materials such as his mother’s medical handbooks.

Then the Red Guards posted a notice

saying there’d be door-to-door searches, setting a deadline to hand over any “four olds” possessions to the neighborhood committee — do not delay or risk being executed under lawful authority.

It took them three days to burn all the books.

a socialist vacuum

The Party purged artists who failed to toe the line. They did so in mercurial, often vindictive ways. In 1951, novelist Ding Ling won the Stalin Prize for The Sun Shines Over Sanggan River. In 1957, the Party purged her for criticizing its attitudes toward women. They banished her to a work farm for 12 years and to jail for another 5 years.

portrait of Jiang Qing
Image source:

Classical Chinese literature, French Impressionist composers, traditional ink and water paintings: all banned works. For generations, the Chinese made do with Soviet works in translation, propaganda films and the eight model operas of Madame Mao.

Pick a random list of the “best” Chinese modern fiction and you’ll find only writers born before or after the Mao period. Some are controversial. Novelist Mo Yan won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. His  detractors claim that Mo is too close to an authoritarian government that continues to control artistic expression.

chinese diaspora

It seems that the only Chinese writing about life under Mao are the ones who live outside of China. Some fled political persecution like Liao Yiwu. Others like Jung Chang and Yiyun Li moved for their education . Many witnessed the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square massacre or one of the countless crackdowns and purges before and since.

And then there is the second generation. We are the children of Chinese immigrants who grew up Vancouver or New York or Los Angeles. Our understanding of Chinese history may come initially from the television and half-remembered family stories. We begin to dig deeper, examine the old ideas with more dispassion. We use all the creativity we can summon to re-imagine China under Mao. As Madeleine Thien does so brilliantly in Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Each book builds on those that have come before. Ding Ling drew inspiration from Madame Bovary. I wanted to draw on contemporary accounts of revolutionary Shanghai. All I could find were ash and bone.

Socialist Realism has all but erased any record of Shanghai as it really was in the early 1950s. With all its hopes and disappointments and rumblings in the distance of things to come. I work on anyway: trying to raise the dead.

Note: the title to this blog post is borrowed from Lijia Zhang's memoir of 1980s China.