Tag Archive for renmin ribao

“No, YOU’RE a bad Marxist” – On Debates & Things

Well, the semester is well & truly underway here. I’ve been having (anxiety-ridden) fun with my seminar – a topic I’ll come back to in a few weeks – and (completely anxiety ridden) not-so-fun with my manuscript, although I have been making forward progress. On the one hand, I’ve enjoyed getting back into my sources, trawling various databases, and the like; on the other, I keep bumping into walls that remind me I’m Not Very Good at some of this stuff. By which I mean: I have a lot of talents as a scholar (I think), but I also work on a kind of weird topic that’s at the intersection of several different disciplines and sub-disciplines, which often is going to make one feel like an idiot (“Why don’t I know everything about, well, everything“). There have been tears and angry tirades – and the grownup equivalent of temper tantrums directed at one’s self, which in my case usually means stalking off to soak in the bath for a good long while & having some comforting, juvenile dinner, like beer and croutons. But it hasn’t been unproductive, and once I yank myself out of a funk, I usually realize I am making progress!

The past few weeks, I’ve been revisiting/rewriting & doing some fresh work on one of my favorite little interludes from my research – a 1951 debate on drama adaptations of the famous Chinese story, “The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid” [niulang zhinü 牛郎织女]. The story is one of two celestial lovers, who wind up so engrossed in each other & having passionate, celestial sex that they (a) stop herding the celestial cows and (b) stop weaving celestial cloth. This makes other denizens of the celestial realm pretty angry, both because the cows are wandering everywhere and they have no new fabric for clothing. So – in the interests of the greater celestial good – the lovers are forcibly separated, only allowed to meet once a year. This is the basis for the Double Seven Festival – Qixi 七夕, or Tanabata in Japan: the stars Vega and Altair “meet” on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month (this does Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 11.13.43 PMactually happen – another star serves as the “bridge”). This has, as far as I know, turned into some bizarre Valentine’s Day spin-off (at least partially), but originally, it was a celebration of women’s work (one of its alternate names is the Qiqiaojie 乞巧节, the ‘Begging for Skills Festival,’ referencing domestic skills & the practice of qiqiao 乞巧, making offerings to the Weaving Girl and holding competitions related to domestic tasks, like threading needles only by the light of the moon) & also one hoping for love or celebrating bonds. Or for missing lovers who were absent – not uncommon, at least among the poetry-writing literati, when husbands were not infrequently off on far-flung bureaucratic assignments and the like. In any case, it’s always struck me as a good deal mopier than Valentine’s Day, for the coupled and singled alike.

Regardless of its mopey (or not) character, it’s an important story & one that has been rather beloved on Chinese stages. Thus, the 1951 debate: to the consternation of many people, some particularly enthusiastic playwrights had been remaking the story to better speak to contemporary events. After all, art was supposed to be drawn from and speak to the people, and that included contemporary concerns, not abstract star lovers. In 1951, this largely meant the Korean War, so there were versions where Harry S. Truman (yes, Truman) was represented in the guise of the King of Demons, supporting characters become helpmates of feudal morality & the patriarchy, the Cowherd & the Weaving Maid actually didn’t mind being separated because it left more time for work (my title for this chapter is actually “The Weaving Maid as Labor Hero”), and the like. Some intellectuals liked this: it was taking art and really making it serve the present! But many intellectuals (the winning side of this debate, actually – both in the short term, and on the whole, at least until 1963/1965) emphatically did not like the idea of Harry Truman (or much of anything else) intruding on a classic, beloved Chinese story, and objected. Loudly. Very loudly. On the pages of People’s Daily, the CCP’s print mouthpiece.

It’s a very interesting debate, and pretty fun (I take particular glee in quoting some of the more snippy parts of it) – I discovered it more or less by happenstance, but it has a lot of things to say about drama reform in this early period, as well as theoretical issues. It’s largely been read solely as a theoretical debate (one on “formulism,” “subjectivism,” and “historical materialism” – the primary concerns here being approaches to historical material). I’m more interested in the actual subject matter of a few key essays, which are fundamentally, I think, addressing questions about how best to handle China’s “traditional” culture and explicating the relationship between art and socialism. There’s theory, to be sure, but we’ve generally looked past all the rest. It’s also simply pretty fun: a spicy, snarky argument between brilliant people – and there’s a certain casualness I don’t usually associate with my sources. It really does remind me of fans debating the particulars of a plot point – just really, really smart fans, deconstructing their perceived enemies in really smart ways. I described it recently on Twitter like this:

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I had a realization at some point while writing my dissertation, while tracing these kinds of debates between 1949 and 1963. For the most part – with very few exceptions – even these pretty violent debates (the subject of the Weaving Girl debate received a serious dressing down on the pages of People’s Daily – it can seem laughable in retrospect, especially some of the words hurled from this side to that, but there was someone who had to read this stuff written about them and their work in the CCP mouthpiece) look less like hardened ideological adversaries than people who are more or less on the same side, just have some quibbles with execution, interpretation, etc. (Kirk Denton points this out regarding Hu Feng & Mao, at least on some subjects, and certainly it’s been noted in a lot of more recent scholarship). From the distance of 70 years, minor stuff: and after all, most of them – with very few exceptions – wound up on the wrong side of the Party during the Cultural Revolution. In the end, time – and Mao – were the great equalizers.

frontWhen I started looking more seriously at older parts of the historiography, I realized the field had spent some time sorting many of these people into various categories. “Establishment” intellectuals, for instance, or “revolutionary” intellectuals. These divisions can be useful, to a point; but they can also obscure a larger point, which is there was frequently a lot more similarities between these people than sorting them into different “camps” would lead you to believe. I don’t mean to imply I think there weren’t differences, or that seemingly minor differences don’t have an impact. As the political trials and travails of the 1950s and early 1960s – never mind the Cultural Revolution – indicate, there were camps, and your opinion on certain matters could have deadly consequences. But at the same time, from a distance of 70 years, there are a lot more similarities than differences. All of the people in my 1951 debate, for instance, agreed that China’s traditional culture was important and should be preserved. They disagreed on what that preservation should look like (among other things). But they agreed on one of the most important things of all: that this was worth arguing about, fighting over.

Largely because I was bound up in trying to understand some of the more theoretical terms of this debate, I missed much of a more recent debate, on the subject of formalism and games. The fact that I was trying to figure out WTF subjectivism-formUlism (subjective-formulism? subjectivism & formulism?) encompassed – and fighting with autocorrect, which kept inserting “formalism” for “formulism” – while people on Twitter & in the blogosphere were viciously arguing about formAlism & games was a weird coincidence. Perhaps it was the spelling similarity in these -isms that made me ponder the similarity between the nature and shape of these debates.

I’m won’t rehash everything here – partially because I haven’t read everything (though I’ve looked at a lot), but partially because I’m less interested in the particulars than the shape of the debate – but I couldn’t help but read through everything and think that some historian, 70 years hence, would be sitting and reading the posts and laughing her head off, in much the same way that I laugh and laugh and laugh when reading my Weaving Girl debates. Not because the stakes were laughable, or the subject, or the writing, or anything else: but because that historian 70 years hence is going to know how things play out, and it’s entirely possible (likely, even) that the denouement will make what came before seem minor in comparison. But also that you’re witnessing – by virtue of being removed from it – people who more or less fall on the same side of an issue argue in a manner not entirely befitting their lack of an ideological gap. I don’t mean everyone falls on the same side of the “formalism” debate. What I mean is that everyone agrees games are important and worth talking about and studying. 

The most striking thing I read, while trying to catch up on some of this, was actually Ian’s comments on game studies as a discipline – found at the bottom of this post. Largely because it struck me as a pretty self-reflexive comment on a field that he has obviously had a large part in, and also has a lot of investment in. And it summed up why I found this all so achingly reminiscent of those “ancient” Weaving Girl debates: ultimately, if game studies is the academic joke Ian sketches it as, the people on both sides of this debate have a lot more in common with each other – at least where games are involved – than they do with the rest of the academy. This isn’t a “can’t we all get along” plea – Ian’s right, I think, in that debate is good in the long run (history hasn’t died as a discipline because we fight like cats and dogs over approach and theory, for instance. Plenty of people have serious disdain for the kind of history I do, and I have my own preferences when it comes to how to do history. That hasn’t stopped each of us from doing our thing – sometimes vicious repartee in major journals, monographs & edited volumes notwithstanding - and I daresay that kind of discussion and debate means the field’s a lot healthier than it would be if we all had the same approach to everything).

And, perhaps (well, almost certainly) ill advisedly, I’ll comment on what’s perplexed me most: the characterization of the “old guard” that says they’re involved in a “power grab” and/or some evil hegemonic power. Game studies has been, in my experience, the most open academic group I’ve been a part of. The idea that there’s essentially an evil cabal denigrating and trying to shut down points of view or research that don’t match their own really, really does not square with my own experience. Yes, I speak from a position of Privilege on multiple levels & that of course colors my perceptions. I “got into” game studies as a grad student because I wrote for Kotaku; I am now a tenure-track professor (of history). But I’m a serious outsider on a disciplinary level: my primary work is on the high socialist period of the PRC, for crying out loud. Even if I wanted to, I’m not equipped to do research on games in the way that much of the “old guard” is. And I don’t want to. And that’s been A-OK – I’ve never been cold shouldered, ignored, told to “kiss the ring” of important scholars, or belittled for being a cultural historian who doesn’t even do games as a primary subject of research. On the contrary, I’ve rubbed shoulders with a lot more luminaries – the “old guard,” I guess – at game studies conferences than I ever have in my home discipline. Doesn’t mean I always agree with them, or them with me, but it’s been a field made up of people (including the powerful and privileged) who have been really welcoming – I dare say encouraging – of different approaches. To be blunt, I’m a lot less freaked out about being a cultural historian when I go to a game studies conference than I am when interfacing with some members of my own field.

At FDG 2014, I was asked for the first time ever “What are you doing here?” (valid question, as it’s a conference where a Chinese historian is going to stick out more than at, say, DiGRA – which was the person’s point). But from that question, which I guess I could’ve taken as sign of latent hostility, flowed a really interesting, productive discussion, one that actually gave me an epiphany about my manuscript. Being in a relatively alien environment, with neither area studies nor history (nor games, for that matter) to fall back on as some kind of disciplinary common ground, I had to articulate my work in a way that made sense for someone whose academic context looks very, very different than mine. Experiences like that one are a reason I still make an effort, however small, to keep in the game studies milieu.

Giving pleasure, not a political lesson

Darth Vader lianhuanhuaWell, the Star Wars comic has proved shockingly popular; I’ve been keeping up on both where it’s going & the sorts of discussions its been stimulating with great interest. I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised that there’s been a lot of delight (and trying to figure out where the references are coming from), versus generalized grousing about shanzhai culture in China; the timbre of the discussion also seems a bit different from the usual ‘point and laugh at bizarre Chinese shanzhai whatever.’

I was burbling to a colleague about its spread & he asked why I was cordoning it off from my ‘actual work’ (‘This is your actual work!’ was basically his response), but I suppose I’ve looked at it as an idle curiosity, with barely any connections to my research topic of the past few years – especially with some of the grandiose titles authors have come up with, discussing its rarity and my “unearthing” of it (I feel as though I unearth things from the archives; this was a cheap purchase on the fly!). Unlike Nick Stember (who has been posting translations of the comics on his site, and did a wonderful post on lianhuanhua adaptations of Western movies), say, or any number of other academics, I don’t primarily study visual culture. I certainly don’t deal with interpretations of Western culture in the PRC (at least, not of this sort) - Li Huiniang (a lot of the great ghost operas, really) is about as classically Chinese, in form, language, and content, as one is going to get.

But a comment on the Star Wars post got me thinking. The comment noted:

So this is a story of a rebel faction (written as 造反者, no less) fighting against the tyranny of a great empire, and it was just so casually published in China back then? I find this rather interesting.

In contrast, a translated Japanese light novel “No Game No Life” was recently banned in China, because the protagonists won a (modified) chess game by inciting a coup in the opponent’s (chess-piece) camp, and the book was deemed to promote subversion, blah blah blah,

Actually, I find this very unsurprising; of all the things that have crossed my mind, the “rebel faction fighting great empire” being problematic was not one. Perhaps if Star Wars had premiered in 1963; but 1980? The post-Cultural Revolution “thaw” of the very late 1970s/early 1980s looks remarkably like the post-Great Leap Forward thaw of the early 1960s. My research concerns opera in particular, but the relative relaxation of both periods was seen elsewhere, and for very similar reasons (and, I would guess, opera was generally considered more of a bureaucratic priority than lianhuanhua: regulation would have been stiffer for opera). The present, of course, is a different kettle of fish altogether; who knows what would be said about this presentation of Star Wars right now?

The Star Wars comic may seem a strange thing to try and compare to traditional Chinese opera (xiqu 戏曲), but consider the fact that (quoting from my Appendix piece on Li Huiniang through the ages) there is a very beloved plot structure in Chinese theatre, going something like this:

It is a time of great crisis for China, a period when peasants break under the strain of government pressure and foreign armies agitate on the borders. A cruel or impressively incompetent ruler is in power, a person who cares for little but his own pleasure. At best, he ignores pressing political issues and the unhappiness of his people; at worst, he makes the lives of the people worse through draconian punishments and inhuman land requisitions and taxation. Weak and corrupt lackeys and subordinates surround him. But there is somebody—there is always at least one person—who finally stands up to him. It may be an official with a sharply honed sense of right and wrong, or perhaps a gutsy young scholar who burns with righteous fury. And sometimes there is an innocent bystander who meets a gruesome, unjust end.

Little guy against the big guy (even in Hai Rui Dismissed from Office [Hai Rui baguan 海瑞罢官] – by Wu Han 吴晗 – you’re dealing with an important minister versus an even more important person – the emperor); the big guy is invariably doing something wrong (usually really, really wrong). In the case of Li Huiniang 李慧娘, one of the ghost plays I study most intensely, it’s a combination of gutsy young scholar & a powerless concubine. The scholar stands up for himself in the face of the evil prime minister (who is cavorting by West Lake while the peasants starve and barbarians mass on the northern borders: callous and incompetent), the concubine remarks admiringly on it, and she winds up dead at the hands of the prime minister (and returns as an incredibly righteously indignant ghost, at least in the version by Meng Chao 孟超).

An edition of Li Huiniang used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe; it is marked "poisonous weed" above the crossed out title - below is noted that it is "evidence for criticism." From my personal collection.

Li Huiniang script used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe, marked “poisonous weed” above the crossed out title – below is noted that it is “evidence for criticism.” From my personal collection.

Until 1963 – and, for plays like Hai Rui, until 1965 – these sorts of story lines weren’t read as subversive, at least not in official channels. They were celebrated for encouraging a “resisting spirit,” “spirit of revolt” [fankang jingshen 反抗精神] in their audiences; naturally, they were not talking about the spirit of resisting the Party, but of everything else that needed to be resisted (America, capitalism, revisionism, landlords, Confucianism, the patriarchy, whatever: the list is practically endless).  Some of this is simply part and parcel of the game of Marxist showmanship, where intellectuals and artists trotted through a pretty standard set of narratives to justify why certain types of culture – often the things Mao had said (at Yan’an) ought to be “totally destroyed” – were perfectly appropriate for socialist China. On the other hand, I’m not keen to dismiss all of that kind of talk as meaningless: I think there was a kernel of truth underneath all those claims (that is, I think a lot of the writers did believe in the power of art, and did think it could be “educational” without being over the top, and did think “the masses” probably had something to learn from watching well-loved classics).

However, there was undoubtedly an element of modern “indirect remonstrance” regarding the Great Leap Forward by senior intellectuals who were writing these revamped classical tales. But that (like the story lines themselves) is a grand tradition. Tian Han 田汉, the famous playwright who also write a revised historical drama along the same lines (Xie Yaohuan 谢瑶环), supposedly told Meng Chao that Li Huiniang‘s great fault was that opera (qǔ 曲) should be “bent” or “indirect” (qÅ« 曲); Li Huiniang was too “unyielding,” or “not bent,” or “direct” (buqū 不曲).1 As it turned out, they were considered “too direct” – an attack on the Party, or on Mao himself – after 1963; Li Huiniang, Xie Yaohuan, Hai Rui, and their authors were savaged in the early days of the Cultural Revolution, the first casualties of that long decade. I’ve written about all of this in my Modern Chinese Literature & Culture article, “A Ghostly Bodhisattva and the Price of Vengeance: Meng Chao, Li Huiniang, and the Politics of Drama, 1959-1979.”

But the terror of the Cultural Revolution was not foreordained in 1961, and it was a period of relative relaxation, insofar as parts of the cultural realm were concerned. Who could have seen 1966 coming when Chen Yi 陈毅 (at the time the Foreign Minister) commented on the profusion of crappy, didactic dramas that flourished during the Great Leap Forward: “Plays,” he said, “should give us pleasure and artistic satisfaction, not a political lesson.” The reasoning was, of course, that having come through such a dreadful period, people just needed to be entertained; to smile and be happy; to forget. Zhang Zhen 张真, a staunch defender of traditional drama throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, wrote in 1956 on the overzealous application of certain rules regarding drama (in this case, the dictate that the masses should not be made the butt of jokes):

… the clowns have all washed their faces clean [referring to the traditional makeup style of clown characters] …. This is most odd. Can it Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 11.25.24 PMbe that there are people who believe that the construction of socialism and laughing are incompatible? Some people think these little comedies have no didactic purpose, but I think in regards to [them], we should just want them to give the audience a healthy laugh, and this is enough.

The tension between didactic drama and artistically valuable drama (or just entertaining drama) is felt throughout the period. But in the short thaw of the early 1960s, although playwrights and intellectuals didn’t back away totally from the need to justify their work on socialist merits, they weren’t tied to producing works of often questionable creative and artistic standards (indeed, the performance of contemporary-themed revolutionary works – never terribly robust – drops to practically nil in the period between 1960 and 1964).

In any case, the Cultural Revolution didn’t kill these plays (their authors were another matter entirely); in the period following Mao’s death and the fall of Jiang Qing’s clique, known as the Gang of Four, in 1976, drama journals resumed publication, photographs of ballerinas with bayonets and opera singers dressed in the dull olives and blues of military uniforms were replaced (gradually) with those of plays that hadn’t seen a stage for a decade or more – actors in beautifully embroidered robes, actresses resplendent in glittering headdresses. Li Huiniang returned in 1979, one audience member recalling that when the curtain went up on the first performance in Beijing, the audience’s nervous, excited energy was palpable.

Part of this was due to the political situation, no doubt – a sign that other, more recent specters of the past were at least locked in jail – but it’s also a testament to two things: one, the enduring power of these types of classical tales (and their incredible adaptability); two, to a much more relaxed atmosphere of cultural production, one that hadn’t been seen since the early 1960s (again, this is all relative).

So, in a climate that was downright encouraging of plays like Hai Rui and Xie Yaohuan and Li Huiniang – not just plays that could be read as subversive, but had been actively criticized as attacking Mao and the Party (it’s probably a testament to how neutered traditional drama has become that it’s now pretty much in the camp of “safe and glorious national product,” ghosts or no ghosts) – plays that celebrated the long odds of the little guy versus overwhelming (usually state) power, Star Wars would’ve fit right in. Sure, it was American in origin, but it’s not like it was set in America – it’s science fiction (frankly, I’d think this less dangerous in many respects than classical Chinese tales set in China – never mind classical Chinese tales set in China that have already been accused of trying to bring down the Party). So many of the Cold War-era, space racey elements “could have” been read as us (China, the little guy!) versus them (American capitalists! The Soviet Union!) – without venturing into us (the masses) versus them (the CCP). Even more topically, it could be read as us (the masses) versus them (the Gang of Four & the excesses of the Cultural Revolution).

Besides, there were much more vicious critiques that were allowed to be published. One of my favorite essays is one I’ve written aboutI think of Meng Chao” 我怀孟超 by Lou Shiyi 楼适夷 – published in 1979, where he says (in a not terribly subtle, extraordinarily sarcastic manner – and this was published in People’s Daily!) of the period of early Li Huiniang criticism:

At the time I didn’t really understand – how could “anti-Jia Sidao” count as “anti-party”?  Don’t tell me our great, righteous, glorious, and honorable party was harboring a Jia Sidao?2

A fantastical space opera tale, no matter what kind of resistance it was encouraging, looks pretty tame in comparison to some of the cutting remarks of senior CCP members who had been through the gamut & had had it. So I suspect it was “allowed” because, as Chen Yi & Zhang Zhen discussed drama in the ’50s and ’60s, it could entertain people, and the people desperately needed to be entertained. Further, there were much more important things to keep an eye on. Just as bureaucrats had in the wake of the Leap, attention was turned towards getting the economy and society back on track, and away from tighter control of the cultural sphere. Policing lianhuanhua must have been pretty low on the list of things to take care of.

Besides … if I were looking for rebellion-fomenting culture c. 1980, I’m pretty sure Darth Vader & a triceratops would not be tops on my list of dangerous media. I mean, really: just look at it!

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Show 2 footnotes

  1. Clever bit of word play from a clever man; unfortunately, none of them were clever enough to get themselves out of the trouble they inadvertently created for themselves by writing historical dramas.
  2. Surprise: it was!

Mystic chords of memory

Li Huiniang (who else?)

We read a great essay (which I of course cannot find now) when I was taking my methods class as an undergrad; the gist of it was that doing history can make for the loneliest profession.  We find ourselves growing attached to people who are long dead, and who don’t care about us (they can’t, being dead) – yet we care deeply about them, become familiar with them on intimate levels.  They become part of us in a way that we never become part of them.  Truthfully, I never really felt “lonely” – I’ve always approached history with a bit of Mengzi’s “looking for friends in history” description in mind.  It’s generally a friendly place, and an exciting one, to be in.

I didn’t feel lonely until I started studying someone most people had never heard of and who left a relative dearth of written materials (at least, for a writer!) – yet there I was at home, plowing through sources, trying to get at someone I had very little familiarity with and having precious little to go on, both in terms of his own writing and any secondary sources helpful to the cause.  What I wouldn’t have given to be able to speak with him, or read his diary – or do anything to get closer to the life of this author.  But as I read more and wrote more, I got more and more attached to this person – even though I had (at least as an undergraduate) written papers focused on a single person, I had never grown as attached to them as I was (am) to Meng Chao.

So it was with some relief I discovered plenty of people had remembered Meng Chao and had written eloquent memorials to him.  They’re not all serious; one of my favorites was written by someone who had been in Guilin with Meng Chao in the 1940s, during the war with Japan.  The author recalled that Meng Chao was perpetually in motion, always running everywhere, and while everyone else struggled with getting essays written, he seemed to have an uncanny ability to put pen to paper and just write.  It is such a different picture from the defeated septuagenarian – the Meng Chao I first came to know.

The first time I cried out of sadness (not frustration!) while writing a paper was when I had to write the story of Meng Chao during the Cultural Revolution; while I’ve certainly read plenty of history that has made me cry, I had never had to write anything myself that made me unbearably depressed.  Part of that was having to work off documents that had been written by those close to Meng Chao, and they were so full of affection for the man, and anger and bitterness for what had happened to him (and all of them – all of China, really) – it was difficult not to be moved in some way.   An essay written by one of Meng Chao’s daughters was full of pent-up vitriol and anger and grief; an essay by his friend and fellow writer, Lou Shiyi, was more tempered, but it still has a biting sarcasm that doesn’t translate well, a sharp and bitter edge.  Even though plenty of people suffered a lot more for having done a lot less, it was the first time I had to write a narrative that just about broke my heart – working off sources that did break my heart.

Lou Shiyi

Below are parts of Lou Shiyi’s essay, titled simply “I think of Meng Chao” (a partial, mostly uncleaned up version of an earlier partial translation I did), first published in People’s Daily in 1979 (three years after Meng Chao’s death). He has some real zingers that do translate pretty well, but a lot of the language is sarcastic to the extreme (at least, in terms of particular word selection), and it’s difficult to convey how sharp it is in Chinese without copious footnotes.  While I wish I could get my hands on something – anything – written by Meng Chao having to do with “the Li Huiniang problem,” it is comforting to know that he was loved, people did remember, people did care.  It is helpful to have their takes on the “problem,” their memories of those 13 years.

It’s of course wonderful to have more sources (as always), but on a less academic, more personal level, it’s nice just being able to get a little closer to one of my subjects and the people who cared deeply for him.  It helps a little when I get hit with yet another “You study who? Well, I’ve never heard of him” statement.  It’s nice to know that plenty of people who “matter” more on the spectrum of “important intellectuals of the 20th century” considered him a friend and a talented writer.  It makes me think sometimes that maybe I’m not barking up the wrong tree here.  I may not know any of these people (and most of them have “gone to see Marx,” joining the ranks of those who are out of reach on many levels), but I’m not actually alone.  Making friends in history can be a one sided venture, but it can be comforting, too.

It makes lonely tasks, then, a little less lonely.

from Lou Shiyi, “I think of Meng Chao”

楼适夷 《我怀孟超》

Meng Chao wrote a kunqu script, Li Huiniang; when it premiered, he sent me a ticket. …That day, the theatre was full of familiar friends; the ghost of Li Huiniang entered the stage, her singing powerful and her dance graceful.  It certainly appeared like she was enchanting people.  Comrade Yan Wenjing happened to be sitting beside me; while he was watching the play, he said gently to me, “Look at Meng Chao, an old tree starting to bloom.” He said this to me, and I knew it was meant with kindness and encouragement towards me, but I was so ashamed I wanted to die.

Meng Chao and I had, in former years, both been members of the Sun Society.  He wrote poetry, I wrote utterly muddled short stories. … He published a little volume of collected poems … I love to read poetry, and I remember he sent me a copy, although I’ve forgotten the contents and the title.  I really liked it; he proposed to me that I edit a volume, I promised to do so with no hesitation.  But it’s easy to promise readily and renege easily … the result was I never edited it.  Afterwards, I couldn’t stay in Shanghai and left to sneak a trip to Japan.  Two years later, I returned to Shanghai.  The League of Leftist Writers had already been formed, but I couldn’t find Meng Chao.  Someone else told me, he had “changed his occupation” and was involved in “real work” (at that time, writing wasn’t considered real work), and he was currently squatting in prison.  From this point on, I had no news.

Not until the war of resistance was over did I finally know that he had been writing zawen in Guilin, writing plays.  After liberation, sure enough, he became a dramatist … we didn’t have much occasion to see each other, but when we had time would we go to the bathhouse to get together and chat.  He was the one who told me: there were the fewest people at the bathhouse around noon, and it was possible to avoid lines.  And it was also he who told me: this bathhouse in the past was a stronghold of the underground Communist party – if comrades were spotted by secret agents while they were out and about, they’d head for this bathhouse, enter to change clothes, and slip out the back door, shaking off the agents.  So we often met here.

The bathhouse attendants all knew him, and knew about the widely reported “trouble” regarding Li Huiniang.  They would see me leaving, and they would ask me, “How’s old Meng doing?”  Everyone was very worried about him.  At the time I didn’t really understand – how could “anti-Jia Sidao” count as “anti-party”?  Don’t tell me our great, righteous, glorious, and honorable party was harboring a Jia Sidao?  On account of this, this old, flowering tree was nearly cut down for firewood.  Meng Chao’s back grew more and more hunched, beautiful Li Huiniang became a “vicious ghost.”  Someone wrote an essay called “The some ghosts are harmless theory,” and immediately became an “ox ghost-snake spirit.”  For a short while, a ghostly atmosphere flickered, and we saw ghosts everywhere – everyone was afraid of ghosts, deathly afraid.  I was a shallow person, and rejoiced at my good luck, thinking I “had the luck of the lazy,” was an “old tree” who hadn’t “started to bloom,” at last I had escaped by sheer luck.  How could I have known that it wouldn’t be long before I was an “ox ghost-snake spirit,” entering a “cow shed” with Meng Chao.

Inside the “cow shed,” Meng Chao was a famous person.  Frequently, “young pathbreaking revolutionaries” would burst in and ask: “Which one of you is Meng Chao?”  Meng Chao could only stand up and show himself, whereupon they would box his ears, beat him with their fists, and beat his hunched back with a duster.  Meng Chao never made a sound, and took the beatings with his head bowed low – seeing this made my heart cold and filled with fear.

Well, we all attended cadre reeducation school. [The cadre in charge of their “cow shed” requested expensive “Red Peony” cigarettes from Meng Chao, which he dutifully provided every day]  On account of this, he was allowed to stay at the reeducation school, and didn’t have to go work in the fields ….

At the reeducation school [some] comrades were allowed to return home to visit family once a year, but we were “ox ghost-snake spirits,” and it wasn’t permitted.  We sometimes stealthily procured a little bit of alcohol to drink.  One time, I’d had a few glasses, and counseled Meng Chao: “Didn’t you have that ‘master of theory’ you grew up with? He was really good to you, that day we went to see the premiere of the play, he specially congratulated you and invited you out to eat Peking duck!  Why don’t you write him a letter and appeal, maybe you can be released a little early.”  Meng Chao didn’t say anything … and shook his head, I also didn’t say anything more.

[Meng Chao broke his leg while getting water from the well] It took a long time to heal.  Finally he was able to drape a tatty padded jacket around his shoulders, rest on a bamboo pole, and silently walk here and there, standing at the edge of the vegetable plot … herding away the old hens of old villagers, so that they wouldn’t ruin the vegetables.  After his wife died, to our great surprise one visit home was graciously granted.  You could say those “Red Peonies” finally had a good effect.

So the reeducation schools were dismissed.  Meng Chao and I returned home.  Meng Chao was all alone, and he had to ask an old granny in the hutong to cook for him.  I went to go see him when I had time – he was alone, reading Selected Works of Chairman Mao.  All of his books had been confiscated, only this one book was left.  Sometimes, he’d lean on his walking stick and come to my house to borrow novels. I once asked him: “Meng Chao, any news on your case?”  He set his mouth, shook his head, and I didn’t ask again.  Some days after he had come to borrow a volume of [Nikolai] Gogol’s writings, I heard suddenly that Meng Chao had died.  They didn’t say what big illness he’d had.  The hutong granny who cooked him food knocked on his door early in the morning; when he didn’t answer, she had to open the door and go in.  She looked, and Meng Chao was lying on his bed, blood trickling from his nose, dead.  At that time, the “Gang of Four” was still in power, several friends had to carry his remains on their shoulders to take him to be cremated – in the end, he never got to see the “Gang of Four” fall from power; he just wore his [bad element] cap and  “went to see Marx.”

Right now, Li Huiniang is back on stages.  I just received an official notice that there’s going to be a memorial service for comrade Meng Chao at Babaoshan.  I thought – as a reply – I ought to send funerary couplets. I thought for a long time, and finally came up with these two lines:

While living, you were made to be a ghost; for this we should whip the corpse of Jia Sidao three hundred times.

Though you have died, it is as though you still live; for this we should offer solemn song to Li Huiniang.

An edition of Li Huiniang used by the Beijing Kunqu Troupe; it is marked "poisonous weed" above the crossed out title - below is noted that it is "evidence for criticism." From my personal collection.

A few notes: Jia Sidao, the villain of Li Huiniang, is often portrayed as one of the great evil figures of Chinese history, hence Lou’s confusion over how an “anti-Jia Sidao” play became “anti-party.”

The “Some ghosts are harmless theory” (yougui wuhai lun 有鬼无害论) was written by Liao Mosha 廖沫沙 (under the pseudonym Fan Xing 繁星) in 1961.  He repudiated it in February 1965, in an article that appeared in People’s Daily.

An “ox ghost-snake spirit” (niugui sheshen 牛鬼蛇神) is the term for a bad element par excellence, the worst of the worst of class enemies and enemies of the party.  On being beaten with a feather duster, I initially scratched my head over this – a feather duster?  Fearsome?  However, after seeing some more “traditional” dusters (which tend to be longer and have a wooden rod as a core), I can imagine it would make a perfectly nasty weapon when wielded by zealous teenagers.

The ‘master of theory’ is Kang Sheng 康生.  When Lou Shiyi suggested to Meng Chao that he get in touch with him, he didn’t know that in the days of early criticism of the opera, Meng Chao had presented two letters from Kang Sheng praising Li Huiniang, as well as several photographs and the like (these all disappeared).  At the time Meng Chao did this, he didn’t realize who, exactly, was in charge of his case – as it turned out, it was his old friend Kang Sheng himself.

On a more ancient note, Mengzi’s thoughts on “looking for friends in history” is one of my perpetual favorite snippets of antiquity:


The best gentleman of a village is in a position to make friends with the best gentleman in other villages; the best gentleman in a state, with the best gentleman in other states; and the best gentleman in the empire,with the best gentleman in the empire. And not content with making friends with the best gentleman in the empire, he goes back in time and communes with the ancients. When one reads the poems and writings of the ancients, can it be right not to know something about them as men? Hence on tries to understand the age in which they lived. This can be described as “looking for friends in history.” (Mencius: 5B8, trans. D.C. Lau)