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F: Hu Feng's Prison Years

China's first literary dissident's Kafkaesque journey through the prisons of the Cultural Revolution.

Hu Feng, the 'counterrevolutionary' leader of a banned literary school, spent twenty-five years in the Chinese Communist Party's prison system. But back in the Party's early days, he was one of its best known literary theoreticians and critics—at least until factional infighting, and his short fuse, made him persona non grata among the establishment.

His wife, Mei Zhi, shared his incarceration for many years. F is her account of that time, beginning ten years after her and Hu Feng’s initial arrest. She herself was eventually released, after which she navigated the party’s Byzantine prison bureaucracy searching for his whereabouts. Having finally found him, she voluntarily returned to gaol to care for him in his rage and suffering, watching his descent into madness as the excesses of the Cultural Revolution took their toll.

Both an intimate portrait of Mei Zhi’s life with Hu Feng and a stark account of the prison system and life under Mao, Fis at once beautiful and harrowing.

With support from English PEN

This book has been selected to receive financial assistance from English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme supported by Bloomberg. English PEN exists to promote literature and its understanding, uphold writers’ freedoms around the world, campaign against the persecution and imprisonment of writers for stating their views, and promote the friendly co-operation of writers and free exchange of ideas. For more information visit www.englishpen.org.

Reviews

  • “What kind of people are those we don't execute? We don't execute people like Hu Feng ... not because their crimes don't deserve capital punishment but because such executions would yield no advantage ... Counterrevolutionaries are trash, they are vermin, but once in your hands, you can make them perform some kind of service for the people.”

Blog

  • Past Events Disperse like Smoke

    Gregor Benton is the translator of F: Hu Feng's Prison Years. This article was originally published on English PEN's PEN Atlas webpage.

    Probably all revolutions in modern times have fallen out, sooner or later, with their intellectuals. Critical thinkers have been both the begetters of revolution, by articulating its ideologies, and its victims, for the same righteous indignation that fired them up enough to join it in the first place led many to denounce its abuses once the new freedoms vanished.

    Hu Feng is an example. He became a revolutionary at Beijing University in the 1920s, secretly joined the Japanese Communist Party in Tokyo, worked for the resistance in wartime China, and led movements of leftwing writers in cities controlled by Chiang Kai-shek. He was one of China’s best-known leftwing editors before 1949 and a pupil of Lu Xun, the giant of China’s twentieth-century literature and its George Orwell. After Mao’s victory in 1949, Hu Feng worked for a while on the fringes of the Beijing regime, but after a couple of years he got into trouble with the literary and political establishment. This was partly because he belonged to a wrong faction, but mainly because of his liberal view of literature. He implicitly criticized Mao’s proposal that creative writing should serve the party, by extolling the masses and reflecting the ‘bright side’ of life rather than ‘exposing the darkness’. So he was denounced for ‘subjectivism’, i.e., exaggerating the role played by what he called the inner energy of the active subject. He was also a belligerent man. His short fuse made enemies, and he was not a party member, unlike his opponents. He had joined its youth section in 1923, lost touch during the civil war, and tried to rejoin after returning from Japan, but failed.

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