Commentary Magazine


The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Cultural Revolution, by Chen Jo-hsi

Tales of Mao’s China

The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
by Chen Jo-Hsi.
Translated by Nancy Ing and Howard Goldblatt. Introduction by Simon Leys. Indiana University Press. 220 pp. $8.95.

The establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China is supposed to yield various strategic and economic returns. However that may work out, one wonders whether “normalization” will yield new insight into Chinese realities. For Americans are deeply ignorant not only of China’s real political workings, but even more of its cultural and intellectual life.

Consider a single example. Western readers are by now thoroughly familiar with the “dissident” literature of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But few have seemed to notice the absence of a Chinese counterpart. Indeed, it is only recently that we have become even remotely aware that dissident literature does exist in China. In December 1977, Fox Butterfield of the New York Times reported on accounts that had reached the West of an “underground” Chinese literature, part escapism, part submerged political protest. Some of it was apparently wholly oral, passed by word of mouth after the fashion of traditional storytellers; some consisted of unpublished literary material, anonymously written and circulated.

A year later, accounts of disaffection became far more substantial, with Teng Hsiao-ping and his “moderate” colleagues apparently in firm control. Thus, John Fraser of the Toronto Globe and Mail could report from Peking on “the appearance of a dramatic wall poster attacking [China's] record on human rights. . . . The poster was addressed to President Carter. . . . The authors criticized the President for ignoring the issue of [human rights] in China.” Yet for all the widely reported ferment of late 1978, the dissenters are anonymous still. All the more intriguing, then, are written works of “dissent” that we can associate with a known author, such as the collection under review.

Chen Jo-hsi is a forty-year-old native of Taiwan. After graduation from the National Taiwan University in 1961, she studied in the United States, first at Mount Holyoke, then at Johns Hopkins, where she married a Chinese graduate student in physics. In 1966, the two decided to live in China and arrived there as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was spreading throughout the country. They spent seven years in the People’s Republic; in the thaw that followed the Nixon visit, they were allowed to resettle in Hong Kong. They now live in Canada. The eight stories in the Mayor Yin collection were written in Chinese between November 1974 and August 1976.

The stories are thus not, properly speaking, products of a literary underground, although they certainly are dissident literature. In each story, the protagonists are victims, physical or psychological, of the “system.” Mayor Yin, the hero of the title story, is an earnest and sincere official whose political murder is brought about by a young Red Guard who displays fanaticism and opportunism in equal measure. In other stories, a devoted female cadre member is hounded to suicide; the residents of a communal dormitory are mobilized to trap a suspected adulteress; a four-year-old child commits a serious “political error”; a simple worker purchases a fish to cheer up his sick wife, only to be told that he must return it for possible display to a group of foreign visitors.

The pattern is clear. Victims of the Cultural Revolution, as described by Miss Chen, are “good Communists” who have been forced to live beneath the level of their attainments. But like Miss Chen and her husband—who returned to China in a moment of genuine patriotic enthusiasm—they are naifs. As their situations unfold, and as we follow the surreal twists and turns of the political line, we are struck by the allegiance which these people, despite everything that has befallen them, still retain to the larger purposes of the regime. Miss Chen’s characters may appear resigned, disappointed, or ironic, but they are never bitterly cynical or overtly hostile to the regime. None of them seems able to imagine an alternative arrangement; instead, they cope—as the Chinese have coped for centuries—with all manner of abrupt shifts in personal fortune.

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Precisely because Miss Chen’s accounts ring so true, one is puzzled by the tolerance of the educated Chinese she writes about. They have been thoroughly exposed to the West—many are even bilingual—yet even as they suffer from the government’s methods they continue to take its declared aims at face value. Miss Chen, moreover, appears to concur in their attitude. As one reads, for example, of the seeming contentment of a former university teacher who accepts with more than good grace his current occupation—making kerosene stoves out of old tin cans—one waits for the author to provide some clue as to the meaning of such a response to what she assures us is social and political madness. But none is really forthcoming. The stories remain vignettes—evocative, brilliant, powerful, to be sure, but less than deep explorations of the human situation. Is this the much-vaunted Chinese stoicism in the face of adversity? Or is it the reluctance of an obviously skillful and courageous writer to follow things wherever they might lead?

And yet these stories do remain instructive for what they reveal, perhaps unwittingly, of the dilemmas facing the Chinese intelligentsia. The best piece in the collection, “Keng Erh in Peking,” is the tale of a forty-nine-year-old American-educated scientist working at one of Peking’s prestigious research institutions, who has twice, on pointless political grounds, been refused permission to marry. He dines with an old friend from his student days who had opted for a career in the United States rather than for a return to China. Keng Erh is open enough in sharing his personal difficulties with his friend, but reticent when it comes to the unsettled state of the Chinese scientific community. “In the final analysis, I am a Chinese, he told himself: how I feel is my own business, but defending the national image is a moral obligation.” It would seem, then, that whatever else the Maoist order destroyed in Chinese life—honest personal relations, the rule of law, a proper sense of justice, cultural creativity, individual ex-passion—it did not destroy that fundamental sense of Chinese nationalism. Indeed, by restoring China to the status of a world power, it was successful in reinforcing it.

Miss Chen went to China as a patriot; her cosmopolitan background made life in such a sterile and banal country personally unendurable, and so she left. Yet she remains a patriot, uncomfortable with her own cosmopolitanism; it is almost as if she regrets that her exposure to things Western has made her somehow unsuited for a satisfying life with countrymen engaged in a large common enterprise. Her tales, however, contain forceful criticism of Mao’s China. The claims made for them in the introduction by the Belgian Sinologist, Simon Leys (author of Chinese Shadows), are perhaps too large, but the stories do affirm his essential point: “In the empire of lies, the humblest truth is revolutionary.”

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