China’s Literature after Mao’s Death


By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

After Chairman Mao’s death, China’s 1 billion people were never to put their blind trust in a single godlike figure or in the party that had followed him so readily and so uncritically. The result was a spontaneous outpouring within China’s literature, a surge of new popular literary forms and genres. The age of skepticism had begun.

Statue of Mao Zedong.
Following Mao’s death, Chinese literature exponentially grew in various fields. (Image: TLF Images/Shutterstock)

“Wounded Literature”

Toward the end of 1979, around the time of the first anniversary of the Third Plenum, several Chinese artists and writers began to openly pick at China’s unhealed cultural and political wounds, taking advantage of the new spirit of “seeking truth from facts”. 

One new genre was called the “literature of the wounded”. “Wounded literature” portrayed in graphic terms the personal sufferings of the laobaixing during Mao’s “decade of destruction”, the Cultural Revolution. Taking their cues from the petitioners at Democracy Wall, writers in this genre took the raw, fragmentary complaints of individual persecution and injustice in everyday life and added literary poignancy and gravitas.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Powerful Scar Poetry

A close relative of “wounded literature” was called “scar literature”. Writers in this genre sought to express the rising cynicism and cultural despair experienced by China’s long-suffering intellectuals. Like their forebears of the May 4th era some 60 years earlier, contemporary writers in the “scar literature” school expressed their anguish over the spiritual emptiness and cultural desolation of Mao’s China. Others wrote of the widespread corruption and mind-numbing bureaucratic insensitivity and incompetence that had become prevalent in Mao’s later years.

One well-known “scar” writer, Ye Wenfu, published a thinly veiled satirical poem in 1979. The poem was about a famous PLA general who had become notoriously corrupted by power. Entitled “General, You Cannot Do This”, Ye Wenfu’s poem caused a major stir when it first appeared in print in 1979. A brief excerpt will serve to reveal why:

What can I say? How can I put this?…You are a respected man of the older generation, And I am but a Johnny-come-lately. My general…Your voice, which once rang out like thunder, is now…but a thin, feeble whisper: “Give to me…give to me,…” it says…If we gave you the moon, you’d complain it’s too cold…If we gave you the sun, you’d complain it’s too hot.

We offer you everything for your enjoyment…How is it that you forgot the oath you took when first you entered the party?…Ah, my general, with all your rank and power…[It seems] you have torn down a kindergarten…To make way for your “modern” palace. What do you care for the generations to come! How many years will you live in comfort? The people must not remain silent.…We hear the voice of future generations…crying aloud with one voice: “General, you cannot do this.”

Learn more about the conflicts concerning the Cultural Revolution.

Political Backlash against China’s Literature

Conservative members of Deng’s reform coalition were not at all happy with writers like Ye Wenfu. In their view, intellectuals who focused on the darker side of Chinese society were doing their country a grave disservice. By portraying China in a harshly negative light, they were demoralizing the laobaixing and robbing them of patriotic inspiration.

By the end of 1980, signs of tightening political censorship were growing increasingly obvious. One writer had his grain ration cut off after publishing an article critical of government bureaucracy and waste. A popular Shanghai television drama was banned for having cast the PLA in a less-than-heroic light.

Several new plays were canceled, and their authors and actors were harassed for having dared to dramatize politically sensitive themes. Teachers at several major Chinese colleges and universities were also warned against introducing “unauthorized materials” into their classroom curricula.

Statue of Deng Xiaoping
After Deng Xiaoping withdrew his plans for reforming China’s political system, Chinese art was attacked by the conservatives. (Image: Brücke-Osteuropa/Public domain)

A literary cold wave was spreading over China.

Learn more about Mao’s iconic status.

Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign

When Deng Xiaoping withdrew his blueprint for political reform in December of 1980, in the wake of Poland’s spiraling political chaos, China’s conservatives were emboldened. Shortly after that, they launched a new campaign against “bourgeois liberalization” in culture and the arts.

Foreign films, fashions, and even hairstyles now came under attack for being decadent. Also criticized was the recent trend in the fine arts of featuring overtly sexual themes and titillating display ads.

By setting a censorious tone in the mass media and emphasizing artists and writers’ patriotic duty to provide cultural content that was pure and uplifting, rather than decadent or depressing, conservatives managed to silence the purveyors of “wounded literature” and “scar literature.” They also succeeded in banning a substantial number of avant-garde foreign cultural and literary works.

Artists and writers like Ye Wenfu were subjected to an intense barrage of media criticism, and their offending works were temporarily withdrawn from circulation. They were not “labeled” as rightists, nor were they dismissed from their jobs, as would certainly have happened in the past. In this respect, the 1981 literary rectification campaign was considerably milder and less destructive than their Mao-era counterparts.

Common Questions about the China’s Literature after Mao’s Death

Q: What were some of the new Chinese forms of literature after Mao’s death?

China’s literature saw different styles come to life after Mao’s death. Wounded literature and scar literature are two examples that developed after Mao’s death.

Q: What was the focus of “literature of the wounded”?

“Literature of the wounded” focused on the lives that had been ruined during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, by graphically bringing personal suffering to light while also adding literary gravitas.

Q: Why was there a political backlash against writers like Ye Wenfu?

Conservative members of Deng’s reform coalition were not at all happy with writers like Ye Wenfu. In their view, intellectuals who focused on the darker side of Chinese society were portraying China in a harshly negative light, and thus demoralizing the laobaixing and robbing them of patriotic inspiration.

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