Overall the essay does the job, and I learned a lot about the longstanding legacy of the Talks that I did not know about before reading. That said, I take some practical exceptions to small points of style and suggest two points for consideration by the author: Style: In the “Overview”section, amend “a series correctives.” Under “Themes and Styles” in the second paragraph the author offers “reflect his powerful of his insight.” Clearly something needs to be added or refined. More substantively: I would recommend making a link between the Long March and cultural/intellectual activities at Yan’an in the “Overview” section, because the two are definitely linked and the link is a little buried, or seemingly secondary or incidental in the “History”section. I would recommend the author consider that the May 4 1919 Movement was more a move away from Western style intellectualism rather than away from a general “intellectual elitism.” The giving away of Tianjin/Shandong to the Japanese at Versailles turned China away from a continued exploration of Western models of governance and thought and towards other models. I would recommend that the author consider the implicit threat to artists and intellectuals in the Talks—Mao’s instant success in transforming the arts for political purposes what not just because everyone saw the rightness and clarity of his simple binaries. His firm tone is a telling one. A pleasure to read. Robert E. Kibler Overview Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art”, delivered on May 2nd and May 23rd, 1942, and published a year later, underscores the importance of revolutionary art in supporting the Communist Revolution as a whole and offers a series correctives for artists who, according to Mao, do not fully understand how best to play their role in supporting the masses. The Talks present a series of problems and obstacles compromising the revolutionary value of Communist literature and art, offering solutions for each problem as it is presented. Mao’s basic position is that art should be created for the people and from the people; that the political import of creative work takes precedence over its aesthetic quality; and that revolutionary art should be evaluated by its effects rather than by its intentions. The Talks constitute perhaps the single most influential document in the history of art in modern China, inspiring and guiding the production of thousands upon thousands of pieces of Communist propaganda literature in the seventy years since the Talks were first given.
Mao’s Talks were given at Yan’an because this small, mountain town had become a kind of headquarters for revolutionary thinkers, including artists from Shanghai and many other places. These revolutionaries lived in caves, setting up schools and other institutions to facilitate the development and spread of Communist ideas. The group of Chinese intelligentsia turned their energies toward providing journalistic commentary on the activities going on in Yan’an. During the “Rectification Campaign” of 1942, when the Party made a concerted effort to improve its functioning, much of this commentary took the form of criticism, and it was after two months of these critiques that the Yan’an Forum was called to address the attitude and mission of the Party’s intellectuals. Mao’s Talks soon travelled far beyond their immediate context, becoming almost instantly foundational to Communist theory and art, and shaping the artistic production of China ever since.
Historical and Literary Context As Mao himself points out, revolutionary literature and art had played a significant role in the revolutionary struggle since May 4, 1919, when student protests sparked a much larger artistic and cultural movement away from intellectual elitism and Chinese traditionalism and towards a more modern and politicized understanding of culture. The production of revolutionary art grew during the Chinese civil war of the thirties, as the Nationalist government’s violent persecution of left-wing activity spurred many writers and students to become even more radicalized and Communist than they otherwise might have been.
However, soon after the newest wave of these intellectuals arrived at Yan’an to observe the innovate social experimentation going on there, a tension arose between these new arrivals and the peasants, soldiers, and veterans of the Long March, a civil war Communist army maneuver that had found its destination at Yan’an. The tension arose in part because some of the intellectuals and artists who flocked to Yan’an felt a strong distaste for physical labor. In China at that time, young, educated people very rarely spent a few years performing working class jobs, in the way that young students and artists in the United States often choose to do to finance their early intellectual endeavors. Mao saw this as an experiential gap, creating a pervasive disconnection between the needs of a newly literate mass of people and the priorities and goals of the artists he addressed, and it was this disconnect which eventually prompted the Yanan Talks.
Much of the theory presented in Mao’s Yan’an Talks did not originate with him - earlier versions of the ideas he presents had begun to appear in China in the 1920s - however, scholar Bonnie S. McDougall argues that Mao’s thinking is deeper and more comprehensive than that of most left-wing writers of his day. May Fourth intellectual Qu Qiubai preceded Mao’s opposition to the Westernization of Chinese literature, and much of Mao’s theory of revolutionary art derives from Leninist Soviet Union literary theory and policy. Mao’s ideas also overlap considerably with those of Lu Xun, a beloved writer lionized by Mao and quoted multiple times in the Talks themselves. And yet, as McDougall points out, in the particulars of his emphasis on audience, on the politics of form, and on the process of literary creation, Mao’s thinking exceeds that of most of his contemporaries.
The Yan’an Talks had two primary immediate effects; the first was the suppression of the critical strain of May Fourth style writing that had been so prevalent in the months leading up to the Talks, and the second effect was an increased focus on popular cultural forms derived from peasant traditions, such as the yangge performances, which had been developed and polished into an exemplary revolutionary play called The White-Haired Girl, performed at the Yan’an Forum as a model of revolutionary art that reflected Maoist principles and guidelines. Studying Mao’s Talks today can provide a useful example of left-wing literary criticism and theory, while also offering insight into the historical period from which they emerged. The Talks enable today’s readers to see, in Mao’s practical approach, persuasive tone, and charismatic turns of phrase, how this man was able to inspire and carry out revolution on a grand scale.
Themes and Style
Throughout his Yan’an Talks, Mao reiterates that in a class society, all aesthetic values are class-based and therefore political, which is why the goals of art and the criteria for evaluating it cannot and should not be separated from politics. Encouraging artists to reflect on this knowledge as they create a classless society through revolution, Mao stresses the importance of a “cultural army” to unify and galvanize the revolutionary efforts of the people, who constitute over 90 percent of the population. He emphasizes the need for a “living Marxism which plays an effective role in the life and struggle of the masses, not Marxism in words.” Therefore, popularization and accessibility must take precedence over the raising of aesthetic standards, as art must be in service of politics.
The perspective and structure of Mao’s Yan’an speeches reflect his powerful of his insight and his direct, pragmatic approach. He establishes himself as a voice of practical logic: “in discussing a problem, we should start from reality and not from definitions.” Setting up his speech in a problem/solution format, he then systematically removes the bourgeois shekels from the eyes of the artists and writers in attendance. Moving through a series of misconceptions, he redefines the terms of the argument by making them less abstract, evaluating them by their revolutionary potential: “Many comrades like to talk about ‘a mass style’. But what does it really mean? It means that the thoughts and feelings of our writers and artists should be fused with those of the masses of workers, peasants and soldiers.” Rhetorical questions like this often help him to carry his point home, as he anticipates the question “then does not Marxist destroy the creative mood?” by answering with a twist: “Yes, it does. It definitely destroys creative moods that are feudal, bourgeois, liberalistic, individualist, nihilist, art-for-art’s sake, aristocratic, decadent, or pessimistic...” He also speaks in the first person at times, citing his own original distaste for manual labor and the peasant lifestyle, and then explains how, now that he has considered the corruption of bourgeois life, what he once thought was a “dirty” peasant way of life now seems the “clean” one.
In their simple, direct vocabulary and phrasing, Mao’s Talks model the popular accessibility and practicality he advocates for artists and writers. He tends to set up simple, familiar, graspable binaries like “political”and artistic”, “good” and “bad”, “content” and “form”, “motive” and “effect”, “unity” and “struggle.” His tone toward his audience is firm - “writers who cling to an individualist, petty-bourgeois stand cannot truly serve the masses” - yet somehow also patient and understanding, as he carefully articulates the appropriate approach (often surprisingly moderate and compromising) to the aesthetic binaries he summons. He uses metaphor sparingly but effectively, explaining that the people’s “prime need” is not “more flowers on the brocade” but “fuel in snowy weather.” In line with his advocacy of a “bright side” outlook, he speaks with hope, but one tempered by a realistic understanding of the size of the task at hand: “There will be genuine love of humanity - after classes are eliminated all over the world.”
In the months following the Yan’an Forum, voices critical of the Party’s methods quieted quickly, as artists and writers endeavored to follow the guidelines Mao provided. In the following years, over eighty editions of his Talks were published, and Mao’s ideas spread rapidly. Early treatments of the Talks by those sympathetic to Mao’s politics, such as Jaroslave Prusek’s Die Literature des Befreiten China (1955) or Wang Yao’s Zhongguo xin wenxue shi gao (Draft History of China’s New Literature) (1954), focused mainly on clarifying and propagating the political import of the talks. Western discussions of the Talks, such as those found in C. T. Hsia’s History of Modern Chinese Fiction (1961), Dowe Fokkema’s Literary Doctrine in China and Soviet Influence (1965) and Merle Goldman’s Literary Dissent in Communist China (1967), tended to be dismissive of Mao’s literary theory, perceiving it as simplistic propaganda shaped entirely by a political and moral agenda, rather than by aesthetic concerns.
The popularity of the Talks has waxed and waned over time; more attention was paid to them in the forties and the late sixties, but less so in the fifties and in more recent years. During those periods of praise for the Talks, they have been cited to rally support for a variety of artistic and intellectual revivals and suppressions. Before 1950, as mentioned above, the Talks inspired the turn to popular forms and the silencing of critical voices in Yan’an, whereas after 1950, a revival of both China’s classical tradition and the May Fourth literature ensued. Chinese literary policy became more permissive during the 1950s, when Zhou Yang, vice-minister of culture and of the Department of Propaganda, invited writers to explore topics less political in nature. However, this period of liberality ended when control of artistic production tightened again under the Cultural Revolution, and Zhou was persecuted and dismissed by Jiang Qing as a counterrevolutionary force.
Western scholarship of the past thirty years has revised its earlier reductive understandings of Mao’s thinking, exploring its actual complexities more carefully. Scholarship of the seventies and eighties in particular sought to reconsider Mao’s thought at a time when studies of Mao still felt relevant and interesting to global intellectuals. John Bryan Starr’s Continuing the Revolution: the Political Thought of Mao distinguishes between “historically universal, general, and specific ideas” in his discussion of the Talks validity, while Bonnie S. McDougall’s significant translation and commentary on the 1943 edition of the Talks redeems their complexity as literary theory, an approach which has been neglected in scholarship from East to West across the years.
Censorship of Chinese Literature and Art as Legacy of “The Talks”
Perhaps the most general and lasting effect of the Yan’an Talks has been the censorship of Chinese artistic production since the forties. Chinese art and entertainment tends to focus on the brighter side of life, to provide moral uplift, and to avoid superstition and grim subject matter. Furthermore, Chinese cultural productions avoid treading on any political toes through satire or humor, and are expected to depict Chinese history and historical figures heroically.
Censorship does spur creativity as well as suppress it, however. A great example is the work of controversial photographer, sculptor, architect and performance artistic Ai Weiwei, whose studio has been demolished by the government, and who has been detained for 81 days as punishment for his violation of the government’s tastes and preferences. Government censorship inspired Weiwei to create a self-surveillance performance project (Weiweicam.com) which takes censorship to its logical conclusion, endeavoring to depict what life in a fully censored China would be like. The project was shut down by the government in April of 2012, but Ai Weiwei continues his artistic struggle tirelessly.
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