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The Gate of Darkness

January 29, 2010

Tsi-an Hsia. The Gate of Darkness: Studies on the Leftist Literary Movement in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968.

Sigrid Schmalzer (2000)

This volume of essays by Tsi-an Hsia, collected and edited by his brother (Chih-tsing Hsia) after his death, examines the art and politics of a number of leftist writers in revolutionary China. It would not be true to say that this important literary critic from Taiwan had no sympathy for the spirit that drove these writers to participate in the Communist revolution. However, his agenda is clear nonetheless: he aims to expose the deep conflicts between the writers’ own ideas and aspirations and the constraints placed on them by the ideology and policies of the Communist Party. In so doing, he destabilizes PRC claims about the political roles and artistic merits of several of its most revered literary heroes.

While Hsia clearly holds the deepest respect for certain individuals within the movement (notably Lu Xun, Ding Ling and Mao Dun), the authors he discusses in these essays were not selected for their literary talents. Rather, Hsia chose people whose lives illustrate the abusive treatment of writers by the CCP or whose work demonstrates the party’s destructive influence on literature. Each portrait reflects a disturbing aspect of the relationship between Communist politics and leftist literature.

The story of Qu Qiubai, the “tenderhearted Communist,” demonstrates the incompatibility of warmth and sentiment on the one hand, and the “harshness, ugliness, and abnormality” (p. 34) of communism on the other. The very heart that was the source of Qu’s writing talent also prevented him from ever being more than “a halfhearted, and therefore a poor, Communist” (p. 8). Jiang Guangzi is perhaps the least likeable character as Hsia portrays him: a “romantic” who made excellent propaganda and has thus been celebrated in the PRC, but whose writings scarcely deserve the term “literature.”

Lu Xun, by contrast, is (of course) the hero of the book. A leading member of the League of Leftist Writers, Lu Xun was a Communist sympathizer for all the right reasons. His sincerity and faith in the possibility of a rebirth for China stood in stark relief against the capitulation of the Party to political expediency. After using him for years as a figurehead, some of Lu Xun’s Communist friends abandoned him when his ideals no longer fit Party strategy. Still more tragic is the story of the “Five Martyrs,” young leftist writers executed by the Guomindang in 1931. While Hsia does not exonerate the GMD, he does suggest that a faction of the Communist Party betrayed the “martyrs” for political reasons and were thus responsible for their deaths. The book closes with a retrospective on the Yen’an forum of 1942 in light of the hundred-flowers movement and subsequent anti-rightist campaign. Both events demonstrate the damaging effects of ideological control on the creative spirit.

Reviewers of the time appeared not to take issue with the often nasty tone Hsia used in describing Communists and communism, found in such comments as, “Courtesy will be extended even to the Communists, who if treated as individuals, seem to be also capable of thoughts other than political” (p. xx). Rather, they saw his attack on aspects of communist historiography as an essential contribution to scholarly work on the period. Merle Goldman, author of Literary Dissent in Communist China, praised Hsia for breaking down Communist claims that Qu Qiubai was a “typical Communist” and Lu Xun an “ardent Maoist” (Journal of Asian Studies, 29.1:155-7). Similarly, Leo Ou-fan Lee commended Hsia for showing that, far from being the leader of the leftist literary movement, Lu Xun in fact opposed the Party line on the arts (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 29:309-14). Both reviewers also cited Hsia’s skillful combination of literary criticism, political analysis, biography, and psychology, which provided new insight into the lives of several important historical figures.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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