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6— Popular Culture in the Communist Areas
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The Border Region Culture

The change of Zhong Wancai from an opium addict to a model worker in the new yangge play Zhong Wancai Starting from Scratch conjures up visions of a new society full of reformed erliuzi, people


determined to abandon their disgraceful past and embrace a new life. But what the Communists were really trying to promote in these stories was the positive, purposeful attitude of characters like Zhang Yulan. Indeed, heroes and heroines were an all-important component of the Communists' efforts to inspire men and women with the socialist cause. The new Communist social order should be peopled by new citizens, different from their predecessors in actions as well as in thought. These "labor heroes" (laodong yingxiong), as they were called, represented the future of China.

In the vast, backward countryside, Chinese proletarians were simply nonexistent. Thus peasants became the pathbreakers, the "model workers," exuding fortitude and boundless energy in their reconstruction of a moribund society. In sharp contrast to the backward, submissive, ignorant peasant promulgated in the works of Confucian scholars, the new peasants of Communist popular literature were dedicated, intelligent, and politically active. Hardworking and selfless men and women who had finally "turned over" (fanshen), their first allegiance was to the collective. They acted in the service of the community, never hesitant to sacrifice themselves for the people. And they were no longer victimized by predatory capitalists or tyrannical landlords. Popular culture was a primary means of announcing the arrival of these "new men and women."

Among the many peasant heroes promoted by the Communists during the Yan'an years, perhaps none was more celebrated than Wu Manyou. Wu, a peasant refugee who once had to sell his three daughters to avoid starvation, moved to Yan'an from northern Shaanxi in the mid-1930s to eke out a living. On land allotted to him by the Communists, and by means of hard work, determination, ingenious cultivating methods such as deep ploughing, and sound management, Wu was able to increase his cultivated land manyfold, raise sheep and cattle, and live a comfortable life. In April 1942, the Liberation Daily launched a "Learning from Wu Manyou Movement." It lasted a considerable time, filling the newspapers with articles about the enormous a

chievement of Wu and his devotion to the collective.[175] In its 11 January 1943 editorial, the Liberation Daily counseled the people to study Wu's spirit: "[Wu's] direction is the direction for all the peasants in the border areas."

Heeding the Party's call, Ai Qing added his voice to this well-publicized campaign, writing a long nine-part poem for the Liberation Daily in early March 1943. In sharp contrast to his early, pre-Yan'an poems, which were mostly melancholic in mood, Ai Qing's long "Wu


Manyou" evoked enthusiasm and strong passion. Using simple but emotionally charged language, the poet describes how Wu's bitter life takes a dramatic turn only with the arrival of the Communist revolution. In Ai Qing's portrait, Wu Manyou is a poor peasant who has a keen sense of right and wrong. What makes him special is his bound-less love of the border region and his total devotion to a just cause. Wu Manyou's world is a world of liberation and happiness:

The world has now completely changed….
Today the poor people are masters of this world.
They eat what they have planted,
They wear what they have woven.
They are not laboring for the warlords,
Nor are they working for government officials.[176]  

To render his peasant hero Wu Manyou realistically, Ai Qing visited Wu and recited his work to him, in order, as the poet put it, to "observe his reactions." Wu, in turn, never hesitated "to suggest additions or corrections."[177] The visit to Wu's home may have added a convincing touch to the finished piece. But perhaps even more important, it demonstrated that Ai Qing was responding affirmatively to Mao's call for intellectuals to learn from the masses.

Ai Qing's celebrated poem represented but one of many ways in which the Communists elevated the image of a model peasant. Gu Yuan's woodcut "Emulate Wu Manyou" (fig. 50), which appeared in the Liberation Daily of 10 February 1943, presented an even more vivid picture of this erstwhile refugee. In the bold strokes of Chinese folk art design, Gu Yuan paints a smiling, contented Wu Manyou surrounded by bumper harvests and fat livestock. Well fed and well clothed, he is living proof of the success of the Communist revolution. What Gu Yuan's piece lacks in subtlety and elegance it more than makes up for with its robust vitality. This woodcut, proclaimed Lu Dingyi, "blends art and propaganda skillfully together"; it was a lively example of "sending culture down to the village" and "a great achievement of the Rectification Campaign."[178]

The "Learn from Wu Manyou" campaign spread the peasant's name far and wide.[179] Yet Wu was not the only peasant to be singled out for praise. Communist publications abounded with heroic stories of selfless and energetic peasants who were willing to struggle for a new life. More important, they showed that the poor no longer needed to rely on the generosity of others. A glance at the Liberation Daily for a single year (from early 1943 to early 1944) reveals numerous heroes,


Fig. 50.
Gu Yuan, "Emulate Wu Manyou." From JFRB, 10 February
1943, p. 4.


including Zhao Zhankui, Zhang Chuyuan, and others.[180] A certain model peasant named Yang Chaochen, whose achievements were said to "rival" those of Wu Manyou, vowed to "challenge" Wu Manyou in a "friendly competition" centered on production.[181] To generate more enthusiasm, local party committees selected regional heroes and showered them with accolades. For example, Shanxi's Wen Xiangshuan was not only an excellent peasant, but he also helped organize village dramas in service of the revolution.[182] The climax of this campaign came in the fall of 1943, when 180 "model workers" were publicly honored in the First Shaan-Gan-Ning Border Region Labor Hero Meeting held in Yan'an. Twenty-five of them were named "special model workers," with Wu Manyou topping the list. Their woodcut portraits were prominently displayed on the front page of Liberation Daily (19 December 1943). The government also showered them with material rewards: each received a hefty prize of 30,000 yuan.[183]

The significance of promoting "model peasants" and "new men and women" through a variety of popular culture forms can be understood in the larger context of the Communists' attempt to create what they called "village literature and art" (xiangcun wenyi). This new peasant culture proved to be markedly different from that of the past, though its roots were still firmly planted in Chinese soil.[184] This "village culture" represented nothing less than the future of China. In the eyes of the Communist party ideologues, their May Fourth predecessors had bequeathed a gloomy, tragic picture of a crumbling rural China; the Communists, however, viewed the countryside from a different perspective. Mao steadfastly argued that China must look to the primitive countryside for its future, and not to the urban centers where corruption and decadence ran rampant. Reshaping Chinese society would depend largely on a correct understanding of the life and thoughts of the peasants. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Communists made a dogged and enthusiastic effort to create a new village political culture suited to answer the pressing problems of rural decline and a ruined economy. This effort gained new momentum with the unleashing of the Rectification Campaign in 1942.

In many ways, Communist intellectuals equated this "village culture" with what they called "border region culture" (bianqu wenhua).[185] In the border regions, people lived a harsh, guerrilla-like life under ceaseless attack from the Japanese and the Guomindang, yet in the process they won both the hearts and minds of the rest of the Chinese people. "The border area is more than the center of the antiJapanese struggle," Sha Kefu proudly declared; "it is the fortress of


new culture and new art"[186] Pride in the border regions seemed to be everywhere. Brother and Sister Clear Wasteland, for example, starts with an upbeat song:

Loudly cries the rooster,
The bright red sun rises.
A robust young man,
How can I sleep late and be sluggish?
Carrying a hoe on my shoulder,
I march into the fields.
Atop the hill I look around,
Oh, what a wonderful sight!
The higher I stand, the farther I can see:
Our border region has now become such a marvelous place.

The border region culture and spirit as the keys to China's future were stressed repeatedly in all manner of Communist popular culture forms. These were in essence political and propaganda works full of the promise of salvation through class struggle and hard work. The pervasive emotion associated with the border area was optimism. There was no place for doubt or melancholy. People performed their assigned tasks with the utmost energy and enthusiasm. Through its well-coordinated and relentless campaign, the Party drove home the need to defend the collective entity and the marvels of Communism.

The image of Yan'an as a Spartan but happy land undergoing unprecedented transformation, of the CCP as the incarnation of China's future, and of Mao as a patriotic leader—a man who desired peace with his nemesis Jiang Jieshi but refused to yield an inch of land to the Japanese—was conveyed to the people outside the border regions through a variety of channels. Supplementing the official New China Daily, for example, Zhou Enlai brought woodcuts celebrating the life of the border area to Chongqing for display in the "National Day Festival Woodcut Show" in October 1942, and new yangge plays were staged in Chongqing in 1945. Despite the Nationalists' blockade, information about the border regions was filtered out by both Western and Chinese journalists,[187] especially in the waning years of the war.[188] Most Western reporters, if not all, were impressed by Yan'an's resistance policy, educational reforms, economic independence, equality of the sexes, leaders' sincerity, and, above all, its "air of gaiety."[189] In comparison with the Guomindang, a regime wracked by corruption and internal turmoil and that had lost virtually all momentum in its reform efforts during the early 1940s, Mao and his Party presented a refreshing, even hopeful, alternative for China's future. The sociologist


Fei Xiaotong (1910-) made an incisive observation in May 1945: "To the ordinary layman who has never been to Yenan [Yan'an] and who has never had the opportunity to read reports on activities in the Red capital, the 'Border Region' is a land of mystery. Those who are dissatisfied with the reality surrounding them tend to regard Yenan as a romantic paradise."[190] It was among those "dissatisfied with the reality," who desired a positive and forceful change, that Mao's message found the most receptive ears.

Within the border regions proper, however, the totality of Yan'an culture that the Party tried to impose did not meet with unqualified acceptance. The passage of time began to reveal many points of tension in the relationship between the Party and the intelligentsia. On the one hand, the search for a new ideal was emotionally appealing and morally gratifying; on the other hand, total submission to the Party aroused a sense of foreboding about the future of literature and art. The case of Wang Shiwei (1900–1947), who found the restrictions imposed from above unpalatable, is now well known. His "Wild Lilies" incident was but one of the few examples of open opposition to the party line. Ding Ling's criticism of the fate of women in Yan'an and Xiao Jun's (1907–1988) attack on party cadres fell under the same category.[191] A lesser-known but equally significant case was Mo Ye's story "Liping's Distress" ("Liping de fannao"). Appearing in Northwestern Literature and Art (Xibei wenyi) in the Shanxi-Suiyuan Border Region in 1942, this story depicts an unhappy marriage between Liping, an educated patriotic young woman (who once played the role of Fragrance in Lay Down Your Whip), and an old-fashioned, middleaged army cadre. Insensitive, extremely jealous, and clinging to the obsolete idea that "wives must obey their husbands," he demands his wife's submission, hoping that she will stay home and give birth to a son. The differences in education, temperament, and background between the two results in divorce. Mo Ye, a female Fujianese author, had once been a member of a drama propaganda troupe and a student in Luyi's literature department. She delved into the dark side of the border region, uncovering loneliness, unhappy marriages, and the unruly behavior of party cadres.[192] Her work provoked bitter condemnation from official critics. One charged that Mo Ye had tried to use "bourgeois intellectual thoughts to corrupt the revolution." The work, he said, was tantamount to an anti-Party act.[193] Like Ding Ling's "In the Hospital" ("Zai yiyuan zhong," 1941), Mo Ye's piece touched on the sensitive issue of the fate of women under the socialist system. And like Ding Ling, she was chastised for voicing a dissenting opinion un-


acceptable to the Party. When the Communists launched their official rectification campaign in the Shanxi-Suiyuan Border Region in 1943, "Liping's Distress" was singled out for particularly vehement attack. In 1947, Mo Ye was criticized again and was imprisoned for a few months.[194]

These bitter cases, of course, were not in line with the joyful image the Communists were trying to portray through a host of popular culture forms during the Yan'an years. But such incidents were the exception rather than the rule. The appeals and ideals of a bright socialist country were simply too powerful for most individuals to ignore. Despite their occasional brushes with Communist officials and unpleasant encounters with folk artists, intellectuals and artists in the border regions were not the victims of party coercion. On the contrary, most of them were willing participants in this new, carefully orchestrated political experiment, firmly believing that popular culture would help them realize their socialist dreams. Ding Ling, for example, soon admitted her "erroneous thoughts" about women and joined the Party in denouncing Wang Shiwei.[195] She went on to support the revolution with great loyalty.

Thus in the use of popular culture as in so many other ways, the Communist border regions were significantly different from the areas under Guomindang control. While the Guomindang employed popular culture largely as a patriotic tool, the Communists used it as a political vehicle to promote socialism and to politicize the people's life. Mao and his followers seemed to believe that symbols and pictures were more potent than mere words, and they made sure that the script of this political campaign was carefully written and screened not by individuals, but by the Party, thus allowing little room for dissension. The Rectification Movement, therefore, can be viewed as a deliberate attempt by the Party to create a new political culture. The popular culture campaign in the Communist areas aimed not at abstractions or highbrow symbolism but at simple realism. Although it undoubtedly benefited from the efforts made earlier in the Guomindang areas, it was not an urban-oriented drive; instead, it delineated vividly a rural base undergoing profound revolutionary changes, and it painstakingly projected this culture as the future of China. The campaign proved vital in the subsequent victory of the Communist Party in 1949.


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