4. LIVING HELL REVISITED
The year 1942 marks a turning point in both the Nationalist and Communist versions of modern Chinese literary history. In response to the increasingly recalcitrant postures among the writers in the "liberation area," Mao gave a series of talks
Second, as far as leftist literature was concerned, there appeared a decisive inward turn, so to speak, as writers came to terms with the new definition of violence. The quarrel between Hu Feng (1902–85) and Mao Zedong as to how reality was to be represented, for all its ideological turmoil, mirrors the disturbed etiological state of Chinese Communist discourse. Hu Feng and his followers picture in their critical treatise a humanity seriously maimed by the atrocities of inhuman history, so much so that it cannot be rehabilitated until the primitive, individual power inherent in it is called forth. Mao and his cohorts acknowledge the suffering of humanity, but argue that to do justice to "the insulted and the injured," they first have to subordinate individual subjectivity—which seemed to have gone out of control in Hu Feng's hands—to a collective, historical subjectivity.
The debate cannot be adequately characterized in an essay of this scope. But let it be said that the two sides concurred in a diagnosis of the self as beset by storms. As will be discussed, whereas Lu Ling (1923–94), Hu Feng's protégé, features a gallery of grotesques trapped in a losing war against their own ferocious ressentiment, Ding Ling (1904–86), one of Mao's grudging followers, moves her drama of revolution toward a portrait of individual passion that has submitted itself to the will of the mass and found its true vocation in self-discipline. If Lu Ling aims at a negative dialectic of the soul caught in its libidinous desire to be free, Ding Ling intends to show how that soul can truly liberate itself through intense acts of continual submission. Set side by side, the two form an unexpected dialogue pointing to how, before the final revolution happens, the mindscape of China has already become the battleground of opposite furious impulses.
This changing configuration of national, international, and "intentional" factors results in a significant reform of the discourse of justice and violence. My first case in point is the well-known short story by Ding Ling, "Wozai xiacun de shihou" (When I was in Xia village, 1941). In the story, a girl named Zhenzhen (literally meaning "chastitychastity"), who had been known to have defiantly rejected an arranged marriage, was raped when the Japanese invaded her village. To revenge herself,
Zhenzhen's rape embodies only the fear any Chinese woman might entertain during wartime; her mission as a prostitute-spy exemplifies total patriotism. But as Ding Ling has it, Zhenzhen's fellow villagers, who mostly remain ignorant of her mission, think of her otherwise. For these villagers, a girl like Zhenzhen who defied an arranged marriage and then failed to safeguard her virginity is already quite detestable; that she should have capitalized on her misfortune and become a prostitute and traitor amounts to nothing less than outrage. Meanwhile, Zhenzhen suffers submissively, her venereal disease becoming a physical token of both her patriotic fervor and her unredeemable shame.
Feminist critics have argued forcefully that Zhenzhen's story indicates as much the cruelty of the Japanese invaders as the callousness of Chinese defense forces. As Yitsi Mei Feuerwerker puts it, the sufferings of Zhenzhen are "fully ‘available’ only to women: arranged marriage, rape by enemy soldiers, exploitation of her body by both armies and, after her return to the village, ostracism for violating the chastity code." Zhenzhen's story is built on a paradox, that she can derive self-esteem only through willful self-abandon. For her patriotic contribution, she is rewarded with the most humiliating of diseases. To this one may add one more point. Zhenzhen joins the secret mission supposedly at the call of the Communist United Front. In the cause of liberating the collective body of the Chinese, first her own body must be taken and ruined by the enemies. But when she returns home, it is those "people" that she has vowed to save that ostracize her, in accordance with a most unliberated code of chastity.
But more striking is the fact that, for all the physical illness and tortures she has suffered, Zhenzhen "appears" in the story as a rather healthy-looking person. As the I-narrator puts it, "There was no outward sign of her disease. Her complexion was ruddy. Her voice was clear. She showed no signs of inhibition or rudeness. She did not exaggerate. She gave the impression that she had never had any complaints or sad thoughts." That Zhenzhen appears undisturbed by her painful experience would have indicated, to a romantic reader, a personality of nunlike goodness as well as saintly self-control. Her ideological (or religious?) commitment is stronger than her still-hidden physical degeneration. But I wonder if one can take Ding Ling's narrative merely at face value. Zhenzhen's natural, healthy look is, after all, a front, hiding a body that is rapidly deteriorating. The contrast between how Zhenzhen's body looks and how it feels invites an allegorical reading; it is symptomatic of a reality or realism that turns against itself. As such, it may very well point to the dilemma that beset Ding Ling as a writer in the "liberated area."
For Ding Ling, to write a story like "When I Was in Xia Village" would have meant to indict the evil forces of reality: the Nationalist regime, the feudal forces,
As expected, the story has a bright, formulaic ending. Zhenzhen will go to another city, presumably Yan'an, for medical treatment and rehabilitation. But with all her inglorious past, as a raped woman and a Japanese army prostitute, will Zhenzhen be treated fairly by the puritanical-minded party cadres? Knowing that "illness" and "rehabilitation" are characteristic of Chinese Communist literary and political discourse, one wonders whether Zhenzhen's disease can be cured, even in medical terms. One recalls how the story starts with the frame in which the narrator Ding Ling is sent down to Xia Village for her "rehabilitation,… because of the turmoil of the department of politics." Even if she could recover from her physical ailment, chances are that Zhenzhen might end up being like her creator, Ding Ling, spending the rest of her life undergoing the cycle of political illness and rehabilitation.
"When I Was in Xia Village" thus appears as a Communist retelling of Christian-Buddhist hagiography, while it provides a chilling subtext regarding the usefulness and disposability of the female body under the new regime just as under the old one. It is at this point that a dimension of violence and justice in modern Chinese literature has been touched on by a woman cadre author. The case of Zhenzhen demonstrates the advent of an intricate technology of violence that inflicts pain on its victim, only to win the victim's wholehearted support. By writing her story as such, Ding Ling proves that she is not as naive as Zhenzhen. Allegedly thanks to publications such as "When I Was in Xia Village," Mao put forth his literary policy in 1942, followed by the first zhengfeng (rectification) movement. In the next few years, Ding Ling, together with some other outspoken fellow writers, would disappear from the scene for "rehabilitation." Given the nostalgic mood of its narrative, "When I Was in Xia Village" turns out to be both a nostalgic posture and an ominous outlook, indicating the end of an age of innocence.
Far away from Yan'an, a young writer named Lu Ling wrote Ji'e de Guo Su'e (Hungry Guo Su'e, 1943) in Chongqing, Sichuan, to bear witness to the atrocities of the war. Instead of ordinary patriotic themes, Lu Ling exhibits the primitive psychological landscape of a group of people who have been condemned to the pit of life. At the center of the novel is Guo Su'e, a woman who was driven out of her hometown by famine and banditry, only to be taken by a sleazy opium addict, Liu Chunshou, as his wife. Ever discontented with her circumstances, Guo carries
For our purposes, Hungry Guo Su'e impresses by radically shedding light on an internalized form of violence. In the case of "When I Was in Xia Village," Ding Ling witnesses the transformation of the village girl Zhenzhen into an obedient servant of the people. By contrast, Lu Ling sees in the life and death of Guo Su'e a (self-)destructive impulse that calls for vehement rebellion—against reality itself, if necessary. Guo Su'e's tortured soul can never find peace with itself, let alone submit to discipline.
As the protégé of Hu Feng, the feisty spokesman of a humanist brand of Chinese Marxism, Lu Ling writes of the "spiritual scars" that have in every way distorted Chinese humanity. Guo Su'e's hunger is seen as caused both by her need for food and sex and by her innate yearning for spiritual redemption, which will not happen unless there is a Communist revolution. But just as in the case of Ding Ling, Lu Ling can hardly find a viable way to convey the gospel of revolution without first questioning, however involuntarily, the "hygienic" preoccupation of that gospel. Moreover, given his own obsession with the sadomasochistic forces propelling human desire, Lu Ling sees in the downfall of Guo Su'e a strange mixture of creation and destruction, a libidinous chasm that cannot be filled by sociopolitical institutions.
Thus enters the crucial but ambiguous moment of the novel, in which the adulterous Guo Su'e is caught by her husband and relatives and put on private trial in the back room of a Daoist temple. Guo Su'e is forced to one corner of the room, her clothes torn to pieces but her look ever defiant. As one of the female clan members approaches her, "a devil suddenly comes out [of Guo Su'e]. This devil dishevels her hair, spits saliva, and jumps fiendishly onto the old woman, strangling the old woman [by seizing her] weak throat." Infuriated by this unexpected move, Guo's husband and others tie her to a board and grill her thighs with red-hot pokers, till she loses consciousness in excruciating pain. Guo Su'e is left alone and dies three days later, from lack of food and medical care.
If the scene of the punishment of Guo Su'e seems familiar to us, it is perhaps because it first appears to be a parody of courtroom scenes from late Qing novels such as Living Hell and The Travels of Lao Can. Nevertheless, while the bloody punishments in the two late Qing novels are attributed to officials, Guo Su'e's death is a spectacle put on strictly under the direction of the masses. The predictable charges against the evil of the male-centered feudalism notwithstanding, the scene reveals how cruelly the social underdogs can be to each other, before they unite to stand against their class enemy. As Lu Ling puts it, there is almost a sense of festivity as Guo Su'e's torturers engage in mutilating her body, as if their own repressed desire had found a final, vicarious consummation. Nurtured on the tradition of the "literature of blood and tears," Hungry Guo Su'e presents a series of scenes resulting in an overabundance of blood and tears, and it is hard to identify the instigator of the scenes as being squarely from any definite social class.
This leads us to reconsider the crime Guo Su'e committed. As a deserted child, a beggar, an abused wife, and a sexual object, Guo Su'e starts out being a repeat of the stereotypical suffering woman of socialist fiction. As the story develops, her vulgar, militant manners and her seemingly insatiable sexual desire appear to be her new front, which must have raised the eyebrows of many Communists. Compared with Zhenzhen in "When I Was in Xia Village," who willingly donates her soiled body to her country while managing to look healthier than ever, Guo Su'e commits adultery for a much humbler reason: after her body, she has nothing to lose. Guo appears even less pitiable than Pan Jinlian in Ouyang Yuqian's Pan Jinlian, who at least has clear motives of love and vengeance as she transgresses all ethical boundaries.
In somewhat dated mid-twentieth-century jargon, Guo Su'e's hunger is driven either by a "lack," a loss of physical and spiritual plenitude, or by an excess of carnivalesque desire, relentlessly demanding fulfillment. In any case, if Communist critics had found it irksome to diagnose Zhenzhen's dubious health, it must have been more difficult for them to explain Guo Su'e's eternal hunger. In the most ironic sense, the death of Guo Su'e might well be the solution to her problem: eternally "repressed," Guo Su'e can no longer stir up trouble and, perhaps thanks to this fact, her corpse can be safely displayed in the gallery of victims in the Communist hall of justice.
In the year 1948, seven years after her visit to "Xia Village," Ding Ling reemerged with a novel about another village experience. Titled Taiyang zhaozai Sanggan heshang (The sun shines over the Sanggan River), the novel deals with the land reform movement in a village of northwestern China, Nuanshuitun. The transformation of Ding Ling in terms of authorial status, subject matter, plotting, character, and even tonality is clearly indicated in the new book. In a humble, almost self-effacing manner, Ding Ling narrates the drastically changing ethical and economic structure of the village after the arrival of a land reform team. Though winner of a Stalin Literary Prize in the early fifties, the novel suffered a sudden eclipse when its author was purged in 1956.
Ding Ling's own ups and downs notwithstanding, the novel represents in many ways the climax of the dialectic of violence and justice discussed in this article. Given all its economic initiatives, the land reform movement as Ding Ling describes it was never a mere attempt at overhauling the infrastructure of rural China; rather it had a superstructural dimension, as its implementing land reform contributed to, and was conditioned by, changes in traditional Chinese ethical, cultural, and legal systems. To that extent, Yitsi Mei Feuerwerker has made a significant point when she calls the novel a historical novel.
With such builtin epic implications, The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River can no longer be treated as a mere account of the transfer of land ownership from landlords to poor peasants. Instead, it wants to capture an apocalyptic moment of history, when a new moral machinery has been activated: the revolution finally has begun. When Ding Ling's peasants demand justice accordingly, they are uttering
Liu Zaifu observes, in a novel like The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River, the rise of a new dialectic of violence and justice. Based on Roland Barthes's typological approach to the forms of revolution, Liu argues that the Chinese Communist revolution appeared as a hybrid, one inspired by both the "bloody ritual" of the French Revolution and the teleological imperative of the Stalinist Revolution. In other words, the Chinese Communist revolution as manifested in Ding Ling's novel takes on a doubly grandiose form, combining both spectacular purgation and predestined fulfillment.
While acknowledging Liu Zaifu's observation, I would call attention to an indigenous dimension to the Chinese form of revolution. The legal motifs of Ding Ling's novel, from public trial to communal ostracism, from the theater of blood to the invention of penal technology, could hardly have been new to twentieth-century Chinese readers and writers. When class enemies are judged by the arbitrary will of the newly empowered and when punishments are performed with an aim to arouse bloody festivity, even actual cannibalism, one cannot help recalling how "Chinese" these modes of imagining justice are. After almost half a century of debate over the feasibility of justice and its manifestation, one sees in a novel such as The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River not a leap over, but an uncanny return to, the premodern discourse of crime and punishment.
Take the prosecution of Qian Wengui, the archvillain of Ding Ling's novel, for example. For years Qian has joined with other local notables to persecute tenants. Upon hearing of the impending land reform movement, Qian sends his son to the Communist army and marries his daughter to the local cadre, with the hope of forestalling possible charges. Qian's wonderful scheme fails. In the climax of the novel, appropriately subtitled "The Final Combat" (juezhan), Qian and his wife are paraded before the public, humiliated, beaten, and almost clawed to death by the angry masses. Even the cannibalistic impulse comes close to the edge of consciousness, as the peasants converge to punish the hated landlord: "One feeling animated them all—vengeance! They wanted vengeance! They wanted to give vent to their hatred, the sufferings of the oppressed since their ancestors' times, the hatred and loathing of thousands of years; all this resentment they directed against him. They would have liked to tear him with their teeth" (italics mine). It is not coincidental that such a ferocious scene appears in Communist fiction of this time. Zhou Libo's Baofeng zouyu (Hurricane, 1948), another novel on the land reform movement, which was published about the same time as The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River, features a similar scene with a similar suggestion of cannibalism. At the public trial of the landlord Hang Laoliu, the angry masses raise clubs and sticks to beat the villain. Widow Zhang, a weak old woman, raises her club too and cries to Han Laoliu,
"You, you killed my son!"
Her elm stick falls on Han Laoliu's shoulders. As she is about to hit Han Laoliu again, she finds herself short of energy. She drops the stick, jumps over to Han Laoliu, biting his shoulders and arms with her teeth. Nothing else can relieve the hatred in her mind.
If the two public trial scenes are still startling to us today, it is perhaps not due to the questionable modes of popular justice but to the capacity of humans to be so possessed by bloodlust that they jump about and bite, like beasts. The sensational language and bloody descriptions that permeate the texts are reminiscent of the revolutionary works of the earlier generation, such as Jiang Guangci's The Roaring Earth and Wu Zuxiang's "Fan Family Village" and "Eighteen Hundred Piculs of Rice." But Ding Ling's work differs in that it programs all the motivations that Wu's and Jiang's peasants would have felt in such a way as to present the animality as a logical outcome rather than a momentary human reversion to the bestial. The public trial is made to happen as if in accordance with a court procedure, the difference being that this court scene takes place in an open space that demands everybody's attendance and, ostensibly, everybody's judgment. The fusion of the theater, the courtroom, and the site of punishment, long embedded in the early revolutionary plays and fiction such as Pan Jinlian and "The True Story of A Q," are finally officialized as an integral part of ultimate Communist legality.
The old questions regarding the way the late Qing novel Living Hell represents justice prove to be still pertinent. Whereas Living Hell presents a closed courtroom in which all suspects are punished and paraded about as if in a variety show, a novel like The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River introduces an open courtroom wherein suspects are served up in a mock cannibalistic feast. Lu Xun's and Lu Ling's cynical vision of the cruel human capacity to humiliate and persecute is enthusiastically endorsed in a model Communist novel. One perhaps would argue that the Communist masses are not the corrupt judges of the late Qing, and that they inflict punishment on the wicked as a necessary step toward long-awaited social justice. Liu E's paradoxical warning in The Travels of Lao Can is relevant: self-righteous, incorruptible judges are far more dangerous than corruptible ones. Believing that they are acting at the behest of a new mandate, the Communist masses are more dangerous—when they torture the villains and their families indiscriminately—than the self-righteous, incorruptible judges of the Qing dynasty, not because the technology of torture has advanced but because there is now a vast number of self-righteous, incorruptible judges.
I would further argue that the discourse of violence and justice demonstrated in a novel like The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River can also be more cruel than that offered in the two late Qing novels. Liu E and Li Boyuan describe in one way or another the corruption of the late Qing judicial system, pointing out or insinuating that there are cracks between what the law means to achieve and what it really achieves. Despite their righteous or cynical undertones, the two novels contain a dimension of self-reflection, one that compels the writers and their implied readers to renegotiate a judicial and penal system other than what is practiced in the novels.
There is another aspect of violence in a Communist novel like The Sun Shines over the Sanggan River that has been less discussed by critics. The land reform movement does not end in the redistribution of the land and properties that used to belong to the rural ruling class. Reform of the Chinese landscape prefigures the reform of the Chinese mindscape. Behind the confrontation between the landlords and the peasants stand the land reformers; their task is to mobilize the long-oppressed peasants to rise against local authorities. Throughout the novel, one witnesses how the reformers plan carefully to arouse anger among the peasants and channel that anger into action. The peasants, at the opening of the novel, are shown as so inhibited by the power of Qian Wengui that they cannot talk about their suffering in public. After they have been "worked on" by the reformers, however, they cannot talk enough about their hatred and vengeful desire. Insofar as they undergo group-therapeutic personality changes designed and initiated by the reformers, the peasants' liberation inaugurates a new, advanced form of serfdom; land reform is the outward form of mind reform.
This psychological reeducation of the peasants is closely related to the so-called violence of language imposed on them. Tang Xiaobing has argued, with Zhou Libo's Hurricane as an example, that the function of language in Communist literature at this time has been reduced to the most primitive level, which can "make sense" only in recourse to the invocation of physical scars. Tang sees a dangerous reduction of a symbolic system of linguistic signs to that of bodily spectacle.
One should, however, never take the apparent Communist vulgarization of language for simplification of figural symbolism. The obsession with the reciprocity of ink and blood is not the invention of Communist writers. Lu Xun's "decapitation complex" still has to be regarded as one of the origins of the "scarred" discourse that later prevails in leftist and rightist literature. As argued above, the new violent language can be a well-orchestrated linguistic system, couched in a deep cultural and literary subtext traceable as far back as to late Qing literature. While evoking an immediate, bodily spectacle, this language functions not as a means to do away with but to revitalize a richly encoded discourse of violence. Thus, as David Apter and Tony Saich observe, the violence of language is an intricate, figural mechanism rather than a raw abuse of words, which manages to evoke an exegetical bonding among the party members.
My final point is about the way in which some forms of suffering and punishment, horrific as they are, have been written as a result of the new Communist discourse of justice. I have in mind cases where the debate over crime and punishment is least expected, such as the love affair between Heini, Qian Wengui's niece, and Cheng Ren, the newly appointed local leader of the land reform. Before the land reform took place, the two were lovers despite their class difference. Now, under
Though closely related to Qian Wengui by family ties, Heini has been treated as a free laborer by Qian and his wife. Now that they have learned Cheng Ren's position in the new power structure, the shrewd couple suddenly change their attitude toward their niece, hoping to use her to win Cheng Ren's favor. Heini is despised by the villagers for a scheme she is innocent of. Although she is accepted later as part of the oppressed class and enlisted to join the rally against her uncle, her romance with Cheng Ren has been indefinitely suspended by public will as well as by self-abnegation.
Cheng Ren is no better off. That Cheng Ren should have transgressed social taboos and fallen in love with a landlord's niece before the land reform seems to one a sign of his genuine courage and revolutionary consciousness. But in the new society, Cheng Ren becomes selfconscious of his newly won class status, which carries with it a new taboo as severe as the old one. The romance proves even more trying than before. As he finally decides to pick out Qian Wengui as the chief target of a public trial, Cheng Ren recognizes that he has been less than resolute in facing up to that reality: "He felt as if he had committed a crime, and done something wrong to others, and could not hold up his head. This was something he had never felt before…. He had forgiven [Qian Wengui] everything for the sake of his niece…. In his heart he had been secretly protecting her, that is, protecting them, the interests of the landowning class" (italics mine).
Torn between his dedication to the party and his love for Qian Wengui's niece, Cheng Ren finally sacrifices all personal feelings for the sake of the revolution. And the motive that compels him to do so is a deeply embedded sense of prohibition and guilt.
In Cheng Ren's self-sacrifice there lurks a gender politics, one that is crucial to the Chinese Communist way of disciplining the "new" citizen. In "When I Was in Xia Village," Zhenzhen suffered under the old regime because she had lost her virginity, but she was allowed to prove her worth by sacrificing her body again, as a prostitute. Now, under Communist rule, Cheng Ren has lost his ideological purity by falling in love with a class enemy, and to prove his worth he must dedicate himself physically and emotionally to the party. As such, the man of the new era has been reduced to playing the role of the woman of the prerevolutionary era. Men and women will take up the old "feminine" role, so to speak, in the new society, a role in which the taint of evil can be acquired by rape or by association, and can be removed only by continual acts of selfless penitence, if at all. The emasculation of Cheng Ren thus completes the dialectic of gender already started in "When I Was in Xia Village."
Above all, as the homonym of his name suggests, "Cheng Ren" means both "becoming a man" and "dying as a martyr." Humanity can be attained only through a self-willed nullification of separate humanity. Lu Xunesque cannibalism—institutionalized oppression in the name of social virtue—has reappeared
The case of Ding Ling brings us back to where this article started. Late Qing writers like Liu E and Li Boyuan modernized conventional court-case literature by providing venues in which the terms of justice and violence were radically renegotiated. What had seemed complete, divine law and human law, was revealed in its incapacity to address either morality or equity. Their indictments of legal justice led to restatements of poetic justice; hence the beginnings of a new, forensic discourse.
While they look into social abuses and political atrocities, writers since Lu Xun's generation have excoriated social evil and called for the implementation of individual punishment; and they have usually come to the conclusion that justice cannot be done without violence—in the form of a revolution in the self. The consummation of the Qing desire for true forensic discourse was a massive network of self-censorship and mutual surveillance, and the Communist scene of justice shifted from the physical courthouse to the interior monologue. This inward turn of policing would prove to be far more "advanced" than any moment illustrated in the late Qing novels, both in penal technology and juridical efficacy. Violence finally stabilized in the form of self-imposed crimes and self-inflicted punishments, and the moral and legal machinery of a new justice was in full operation.