The Sad End of Mao Dun

During my first trip to China in March 1981, I had no idea that one of the great figures of twentieth century Chinese literature was passing away: Mao Dun, the pen name for Shen Yanbing, novelist and author of Midnight, the social realist novel of Shanghai in the 1930’s. Long a place of interest, going to China only made the place an obsession. The following year, back in China, I was able to acquire Midnight for myself. Reading it left no doubt: Midnight is one of the great novels of its genre, certainly a rival to Emile Zola’s Germinal. It depicts a world where economics and war interact in an intricate way, certainly relevant for our own time. Mao Dun’s portrayal of this world isn’t two-dimensional; he saw the human complexities of the world around him in spite of his own Marxist ideology. "In spite of" eventually caught up with him. Accounts of his life present the fact that, for a while, he was Mao Zedong’s Minister of Culture. Ultimately he was caught, appropriately enough, in the Cultural Revolution. That event trashed him and many others in a way that people in the West can only imagine, with its "group struggle meetings," public humiliations, long imprisonments, shipping intellectuals to the countryside to tend pigs, and of course capital punishment. Mao Dun survived many of these indignities, and was rehabilitated to become the president of the All China Union of Writers and many other positions. On 28 April 1978, he granted an interview with the Canadian theatre critic John Fraser, Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail. Having read Midnight himself, Fraser was ready for an interesting interview. Unfortunately, he was sorely disappointed:

Mao Dun turned out to be an aging mockery of what I had built him up to be. I caught him in the midst of what was clearly a difficult assignment for his somewhat confused state of mind: the assimilation of the new Party line on literature. He droned on and on about “the Party’s correct policies” and the “havoc wreacked by the Gang of Four.” Every question on contradictions facing Chinese writers were either ignored out of hand or sidestepped. I was present with a sad old man who had survived a horrible disgrace to rise again another day. He was certainly not going to be disposed of again if he could help it. Except for few moments, which I actually managed to get him to digress on his beloved daughter who died during the civil war, he declined to show his human face. Instead he lectured me on how Chinese writers now had the freedom to explore and speak out on any issue whatsoever–”except if they oppose socialism or seek to spread bourgeois ideas.” He delineated again the old Communist theories of “revolutionary romanticism and revolutionary realism” to prove that under Communism there really was true freedom of expression.

As I listened to him, noting his air of loyal confidence in the regime that had once relegated him to the dust heap of “revisionist irrelevancy,” he seemed transformed into a Chinese version of Vicar Thwackum in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones: “When I speak of religion, Sir, I mean the Christian religion, and not just the Christian religion but the Church of England.” Mao Dun says much the same thing when he defines how a young Chinese writer should use the freedom of expression the Party has allowed him: “He [the writer] should be an optimist and put that optimism into his writing. In describing events and developing his characters, it would be be natural to look for this quality. With this optimism a writer should be able to see into the future, and by the future, of course, we mean Communism…” (John Fraser, The Chinese: Portrait of a People. New York: Summit Books, 1980 pp. 127-128.

Ever the theatre critic, Fraser’s account of the interview was capped off by Mao Dun’s own exit from the interview:

I felt toward Mao Dun the same sense of betrayal anyone feels when someone he admire turns out to be a bit of a fraud. For me, this fraud was symbolised by his departure. As I went out to my car, he was escorted with suitable fanfare to his waiting Red Flag limousine. The vast and sinister automobiles the Communist state makes available for its leaders are far larger than any equivalent vehicle a “feudal comprador capitalist exploiter” could have had in Shanghai during the thirties. Mao Dun got in and closed the door of the roomy back-seat passenger section. His chauffeur wheeled out of the entranceway with the blast of the car horn. The driver, as is usual in Peking, never stopped to see if there were any oncoming bicycle traffic: the horn blast was sufficient to alert the masses that greatness was descending upon them. Mao Dun set bolt upright in the back seat, holding his cane in front of him. One could just make out his image when a shaft of sun shone through the heavily curtained windows. As I followed him along the street for about half a mile, the limousine belched out loud honks while humble cyclists and pedestrians hurried to get out of the way. The scene could have been lifted straight out of Midnight. (Fraser, p. 128)

Below: Red Flag Limousine, the same kind as Mao Dun was whisked away in.  Beijing Hotel, 1981.

One of the appeals of left-wing movements to intellectuals is that they feel that they will be honoured and followed once the left-wingers achieve power. Unfortunately the opposite is usually the case, and Mao Dun’s life and tragic last years are as good of an illustration as one could want. Left wing leaders, politician and revolutionary alike, are fine with these people when they support their cause. But the needs of absolute power do not admit the free rein of people who see “contradictions” (the meaning of the name “Mao Dun.”) So they must be gotten out of the way. It is a cycle repeated time and again in the last century and is destined to be so again if allowed to happen.

10 thoughts on “The Sad End of Mao Dun”

  1. I don’t understand why the interview surprised that journalist that much. For someone who really understands his literary theories and
    political ideology, one should not be surprised at all. I don’t think what he said there was a show or some effort by him to keep in
    power. It was what he truly believed, or at least that was what he envisioned after his life-time devotion to the revolutionary cause.

    American journalists tend to look at things from their own angle. They have a self-defined notion of correctness or ultimate truth, and
    if people do not agree with that, then there is a problem. This is very sad. They do not try to understand the path of other people’s
    development, neither do they respect others’ ideals, or if they do, they bluntly ignore it. They describe everything they disagree as
    “undemocratic”, “insincere” or “fake.”

    Disagreement is too common and it is good that people are open about it. But I think it is a disgrace of turn a disagreement into
    character bashing. This is what the journalist did here. But nonetheless, it was good information that he revealed.

  2. #1: Many of the observations you make about American journalists are true. But John Fraser is Canadian.

  3. You try going through the cultural revolution and its struggle meetings for ten years and lets see what you have to say… Probably anything they want you to say. Have some compassion.

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