Criticizing <Dream of Red Mansion> Study

(ChineseNewsNet)  Criticizing <Dream of Red Mansion>: Excerpt from The Other Stories of History: My Days at the Supplement Division of the People's Daily (风云侧记我在人民日报副刊的岁月).  By Yuan Ying (袁鹰).

[in translation]

The autumn of 1954 was supposed to be another golden season.  During the summer of that year, we studied and discussed <The Draft of the Constitution of People's Republic of China>.  This draft constitution was passed unanimously at the opening of the First National People's Congress Meeting on September 15, and became the basic law of the People's Republic of China.  On that afternoon, we assembled in the office and listened to the opening speech of Chairman Mao Zedong over the radio: "We are moving forward.  We are involved in a great and glorious project that our forebears had never done before.  We will attain our goals.  We will attain our goals.  Let the 600 million people of the country unite and work together to fight for it!"  We were emotionally excited.  There was nothing but brightness ahead before our eyes.

At the time, the construction of the motherland was progressing rapidly.  The three campaigns after 1950 -- the campaign to support Korea to resist United States, the land reform and the suppression of the counter-revolutionaries -- have all ended in great victories.  The "Three Anti's" and the "Five Anti's" campaigns were also successfully completed.  The Party was flourishing in the many battlefronts across the county during the transitional era.  The top priority for the Party's propaganda department and all propaganda units (including the People's Daily newspaper of the party central organization) was to learn and publicize the party lines during this transitional era, and it was obviously the top priority for every editorial worker.

In mid-October, in the midst of the brilliant autumn sun, a dark cloud suddenly arrived followed by a hazy misty rain.  Chief editor Deng Tuo communicated a directive from the central leadership to the Literature and Art Department to criticize the capitalistic idealism as represented by Yu Pingbo's studies of <Dream of Red Mansion>.  A team was to be formed quickly to write and publish the critiques.  The Chief Editor personally explained the mission.  We were all mystified because we did not understand what was going on.

Actually, Deng Tuo had learned the truth about this affair only one month ago.  It began when two Shandong University Department of Chinese Literature graduates Li Xifan and Lan Ling wrote a couple essays about Yu Pingbo's writings on <Dream of Red Mansion> and criticized Yu's viewpoints.  The essays were submitted to the <Literature and Art News> of the Chinese Writers Association, but they were not accepted for publication.  So the two sent the essays to <Philosophy and History of Literature> of their alma mater Shandong  University for publication.  Somehow, this drew the attention of the central leaders and they asked People's Daily to publish the essays.  Deng Tuo personally contacted Li and Lan and let them make some editing in preparation for publication at People's Daily.  But certain leaders in the literature and art area dissented because they thought it was inappropriate for the Chinese Communist central party newspaper People's Daily to be publishing a scholarly article.  So it was published in <Literature and Art News> instead.  This caused Mao Zedong to be displeased because he thought that this was a slight of the newly emergent forces and a surrender to the capilitalist class.  Deng Tuo wanted us to study the relevant material, especially the essays of Li Xifan and Lan Ling that criticized Yu Pingbo's viewpoints.  He instructed in detail: before publishing the commentary of Li and Lan as well as others, there has to be an editorial from the newspaper to state our position.  The task of writing this essay quickly fell upon my shoulders and I had to produce a draft.

I had no mental preparation and I quickly fell into a serious and perplexed mood.  I had no idea what was going on.  I suddenly remembered the criticisms that were directed against the movie <The Story of Wu Xun>.  The development in this case seemed similar.  However, many people had seen the movie <The Story of Wu Xun>, but how many people have read Yu Pingbo's study of <Dream of Red Mansion>?

All sorts of rumors abounded and the truth was unclear.  I heard that Jiang Qing came to the newspaper office to deliver an important directive from Chairman Mao Zedong (the history disclosed more than twenty years later showed that whenever Jiang Qing inserted herself into something, the nature of the problem would be seriously altered).  She said that Chairman Mao wrote a letter, but none of us had seen that letter.  It was only on May 27, 1967 (ten years later) in the second year of the "Great Cultural Revolution" that the newspaper published the full text of <A Letter to the Central Political Bureau and other relevant comrades>:

Please read the two attached critiques of Yu Pingbo attached with this letter.  This is the first serious salvo against the mistakes of the so-called authorities in the study of <Dream of Red Mansion>, but it was ignored.  The writers were forced to write to their alma mater (Shandong University) teacher for support to publish their essay critical of Yu Pingbo's <Short Discourse on Dream of Red Mansion> in the school's publication <History and Philosophy of Literature>.  The problem has now come back to Beijing because someone wants to have the essay published in People's Daily in order to arouse interest and create debate and criticism.  However, certain other people are using various reasons (mainly because "this is an essay from two nobodies" and "the party newspaper is not a place for free debate") to oppose and prevent publication.  The compromise was to have it published in <Literature and Art News> instead.  Later, Guangming Daily's <Literary Legacy> published another essay in which the young men criticized Yu Pingbo's <Studying Dream of Red Chamber>.  Thus, it seemed possible to move forward with the struggle against the capitalist idealism of the Hu Shi school that have poisoned the minds of young people for the past 30 years.  While the affair was initiated by "two little people," "the big people" have either paid scant attention or even obstructed.  They are therefore standing on the same side of the battlefront next to the capitalist idealism and willingly serving as the hostages of capitalism.  The situation is similar to when the movies <The Secret Story of the Qing Palace> and <The Story of Wu Xun> were shown nationally.  <The Secret Story of the Qing Palace> was described as patriotic but it actually represented treason; it has never been criticized after its national showing.  Although <The Story of Wu Xun> has been criticized, no lesson has been drawn.  Now we are seeing these strange happenings in which Yu Pingbo's idealism is being tolerated while the vigorous critiques by the "little people" are being obstructed.  This deserves our attention.

With respect to capitalist intellectuals such as Yu Pingbo, we obviously ought to try to unite with them.  But we ought to criticize their erroneous thoughts which have poisoned our youth.  We should not surrender to them.

(October 16, 1954)

This letter was written in such a stern and clear manner that it was frightening.  I didn't know whether the Chief Editor Deng Tuo and the deputy chief editor in charge of literature and art Lin Danqiu had read this letter.  According to them, they have only heard that the letter involved the two young writers and it was only thirteen years later that they actually read the original text of the letter that changed their lives.  At the time, I can only try to guess at the content of the letter and details such as "the first salvo in thirty years against the idealistic viewpoints of the Hu Shi school" by what Deng Tuo and Lin Danqiu said and acted.  I deduced that this mission would be of the same magnitude as the criticisms against the movie <The Story of Wu Xun>.

I received this mission out of the blue and I was still perplexed and concerned.  Yu Pingbo's <Studying Dream of Red Chamber> and <Short Discourse on Dream of Red Chamber> were two academic treatises which were nowhere as well known as <Dream of Red Chamber> itself.  His "capitalist idealism" may have some influence within the realm of classical literary studies but how could it poison the minds of youth people?  Never mind anyone else, but I thought about myself.  I have read classics such as the four great works (<Dream of Red Mansion>, <The Romance of the Three Kingdoms>, <The Water Margin> and <Monkey Go West>) as well as others, but I have not read many books that are studies of those works.  I have not even read the work by the famous Hu Shi about <Dream of Red Mansion>, never mind anyone else's books.  I only knew Yu Pingbo as an essayist in the post-May-Fourth era.  I have read his essay titled <The Qinghuai River with the sound of oars and the light from lanterns> which shared the same title as Zhu Zhiqing's essay.  I am embarrassed to say that I had not read anything that he wrote about <Dream of Red Mansion>.  Concerning his "idealism," I only know a little bit based upon reading the critique by Li and Lan.  Frankly speaking, this was like Grandma Liu entering the Garden of Grand Spectacles -- I was bewildered, foundering and I did not think that I had been poisoned.  But this notion quickly flashed by.  Since Chairman Mao had spoken and he was so serious and stern, then that must be correct.  As ordinary party members, we didn't know much about Marxism-Leninism, we cannot see that far ahead and we cannot see how serious the problem was.  Since the assignment has been handed out, I had to do my best to accomplish the mission.  Besides, this was a personal directive from Chairman Mao and it was a glorious mission for an ordinary editorial worker like myself.

So for the next several days, I put aside all my other work in order read the essays of Li Xifan and Lan Ling day and night as well as the works of Yu Pingbo on <Dream of Red Mansion>.  I did not dare to skimp through them, but I also did not have enough time to read them carefully.  So it was a very difficult task.  Deng Tuo wanted me to gain some more feel for the problem, and so he sent his secretary Wang Weiyi to the Peking University Library with a personal letter to ask for photocopies of the 1874 edition of <Dream of Red Mansion> as well as other editions.  The materials were delivered to my dormitory.  But I was so busy that I had no time to examine a pile of photocopies, so I had to send the materials back untouched.

While alternating between clarity and confusion, between excitement and tension, I came up with 4,000 to 5,000 words.  On one hand, I criticized Mister Yu Pingbo's viewpoints in the study of <Dream of Red Mansion> as being derivative from Hu Shi's viewpoints.  I did not have a lot of descriptions or analyses to explain why Yu's methods correspond to idealism and subjectivism, but I had plenty of vacuous conclusions and unfounded accusations.  On the other hand, I praised the essay by Li Xifan and Lan Ling.  I presented the main points of the essay and I affirmed that their essay was the "first valuable salvo to counterattack the viewpoints and positions of the Xu Shi capitalist class in the study of classical literature!"

Although the essay began with "As a reader who loves Dream of Red Mansion ...," which made it seem like a personal reflection, the tone soon changed: "Presently, the problem is in front of us and it is absolutely essential to discuss this in a serious manner.  In terms of actual thoughts, this issue is another important fight by the working class against the capitalist class in the realm of thoughts.  The purpose of this fight is to tell right and wrong, and to eradicate the positions, views and methods of the idealism and subjectivism of the capitalism class from the realm of the study of classical literature; from thence, we shall properly learn and use the positions, views and methods of Marxist materialism and science.  Every worker in literature and art, no matter whether he or she is engaged in researching classical literature, must pay attention to this thought struggle ..."  This sounded like a newspaper editorial and not a reader who loved <Dream of Red Mansion>.  This was how those essays were written in those days.  Any reader with some cultural quality would eventually gain the habit of writing essays in this tone of voice such that it was represent the authority of the newspaper and not just some personal opinion.

I hurried up and delivered a first draft to Comrade Lin Danqiu.  He made a careful revision and sent it to Chief Editor Deng Tuo for approval.  The decision was to let it appear in print on October 23 as the first essay in which People's Daily revealed its 'stance' in this campaign of criticism.  The newspaper leaders then breathed a sigh of relief.  Before publication, Deng Tuo, Li Xifan and the night-shift chief editor's room director Li Zhuang discussed the essay title for a long time.  They came up with several ideas.  I sat aside and watched them go back and forth.  By midnight, they decided to follow the title for the editorial against the movie <Wu Xun> ("We should pay attention to the debate about the movie <The Story of Wu Xun>").  They used "We should pay attention to the criticisms of the erroneous viewpoints in the study of <Dream of Red Mansion>" and they signed essay with the pen name that I used at the newspaper.  I said in a low voice: "Comrade Deng Tuo, is it appropriate to sign this type of essay with a personal name?"  He waved his hand and said with a smile: "Of course, we can do it.  There is no issue about being appropriate or not."  

At midnight, I walked back from the newspaper office on Wanfujing street.  I was tired, but I was relaxed inside for completing an important mission without really knowing what I was doing.  At the same time, I seemed to have understood: this is the kind of work that both the party newspaper's literature and art department and I (as an editor of the party newspaper) do.

At the same time, the Literature and Art Group director Yuan Shuipa received an assignment to write a different essay.  His job was to follow the spirit of the directive from Chairman Mao to severely criticize <Literature and Art News>, which really meant criticizing the leaders in the literature and art sector.  This was not an easy task and it is extra hard for Yuan Shuipa because he was on familiar terms with the <Literature and Art News> leaders Feng Xuefeng and others and he respected the literature and art leader Zhou Yang very much.  So he had to rack his brains to figure out how to write the essay.  For several days, he did not go to office and he worked hard at home for days before he turned his essay in and then it was delivered to Chairman Mao for revision.  Reportedly, Chairman Mao made detailed revisions and personally wrote several paragraphs.  He also chose the title "Questioning the editors of <Literature and Art News>".  The essay had a loud tone, the language was stern and aggressive, such as the following paragraphs:

For the longest time, we in the literature and art field have tolerated and become inured to the capitalist idealism of the Hu Shi sect.  We did not even offer the slightest opposition to their ruling position in the field of classical literature.  When people outside the field of literature and art started to denounce them, some people in the literature and art field tried to stoop to compromise with the capitalist thoughts of the "authoritative scholars" while acting in the manner of lords against the vigorous Marxist thoughts.  Can this be tolerated?

We have reason to demand that the editors of <Literature and Art News> should fairly treat the essays that it published.  Yet, among the more than 500 articles in the 19 issues of <Literature and Art News> that have already been published, the editor had only annotated 13 essays.  Of the 13 essays that were annotated, 12 of them were supportive or praising.  Only in the essay by Li Xifan and Lan Ling did the editors tell the readers that the essay was obviously partial and not fully considered; the editors did not point out what the flaws were, beyond stating that these "obviously" exist.

When it comes to famous people and elderly people, the editors will always approve and think that 'it should be beyond questioning' no matter whether this is promoting capitalist ideas.  When it comes to unknown people and young people, the editors will always act coolly, demand impartiality and devalue its merits because they are promoting Marxism.  We can only say that this is 'basically' a lordly attitude held by the capitalist class.

The capitalism belief and superstition in fame, position, authority and seniority are at work here.  Their mission is not interested in attracting the new forces in order to become stronger and reinvigorate themselves.  Instead, they only want to lie down in the middle of the road to prevent the new forces from advancing. 

The essay was published under the name of Yuan Shuipa.  Before publication, Yuan Shuipa pleaded repeatedly not to have his name published.  He argued for using "newspaper commentator" or unsigned.  However, the orders from above prevailed and he had to acquiesce.  This signature would drew a lot of condemnation and scorn later on, and he could only endure the barbs.  The battle cry had sounded; the arrow that was fired could not be put back; we had to join the battle.

In my essay, I wrote the words "The valuable first salvo."  More than twenty years later when the essay was collected into the book titled <The Collection To Make Spring Stay> (published by Huacheng Publishers, February 1982), the title was changed to "The Valuable First Salvo."  This critique of the study of <Dream of Red Mansion> was truly the "first salvo" (obviously not by me) in the cultural field in the 1950's.  Suddenly, the brilliant autumn sun was covered by dark clouds and heavy gun smoke.  

On October 24, Li Xifan and Lan Ling's <Which path to follow?> was published.  Deng Tuo personally reviewed that essay and added the dynamite-charged sentence: "This is not happenstance, but it reflects the complex class struggle within literary studies in the transitional era."

On the same afternoon, the Chinese Writers Association held a forum at its office with Mao Dun, Zhou Yang, Shako Quailing and other leaders present.  Classical Literature Department director Zheng Zhenduo chaired the meeting and almost twenty persons spoke.  The chairman asked Yu Pingbo to speak first, while Zhou Yang spoke last.  The atmosphere at the forum was relatively gentle.  The speakers said "Mister Yu Pingbo" did this or that, but the tone was very stern.

In October and November, the newspaper continued to publish critical essays.  When <Questioning the editors of 'Literature and Art News'> was published, the "critical campaign" had extended to the entire field of literature and art and the target was no longer just Yu Pingbo.  At the following Chinese Literary Federation Forum, Hu Feng began to move from the idealism in the study of <Dream of Red Mansion> to the capitalist lord attitudes at <Literature and Art News>.  So the campaign was expanded to the thought problems and sectarian behavior of the leaders in the literature and art field.  Hu Feng was emotional and he used very sharp language, and this drew a counter-attack.  In early 1955, there was the battle call to "criticize the Hu Feng tendency."  The criticisms of the mistaken viewpoints in the study of <Dream of Red Mansion> have given way to a bigger and more important battle, which developed rapidly into a conflict known as the "battle against Hu Feng's counter-revolutionary clique."  Next came the criticism of Hu Shi, the fight to eradicate the hidden counter-revolutionary elements, the criticisms by the literati against the "anti-party clique" led by Ding Ling and Chen Qixia and ultimately to the nationwide "anti-Rightist campaign" in 1957.  The misty hazy rain had rapidly turned into a gale force rainstorm. 

Fifty years later, I am not sure how today's literary critics and classic literature scholars (especially the contemporary <Dream of Red Mansion> specialists) view that critical campaign fifty years ago.  If the policy of "Let one hundred flowers bloom, let one hundred schools speak" were truly implemented, there may be many more topics that can be criticized, discussed and debated.  As the saying goes, there is no end to what can be said about <Dream of Red Mansion>.  As for me, I had personally experienced that "critical campaign."  As a newspaper editor of literature and art, I was in a state of constant tension afterwards.  I was prepared for some "critical campaign" to suddenly emerge out of nowhere.  In the 1950's, Zhou Yang and other leaders in literature and art were often heard to repeat a famous saying: "Literature and art is the weatherglass for class struggle!"  I remember this in my heart, because it is perceptive and concise.  From then on, I constantly reminded myself: "My brain must hold the class struggle string in taut form!"  But as much as I said that, I often forgot to "keep it taut" or "taut but not tight".  So for the many years afterwards, I had to keep making self-criticisms over this problem.


Related Links:  The Other Stories of History; Yuan Ying PK Wu Shulin