Blog post

Past Events Disperse like Smoke

5 March 2013

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.

Hu Feng spent twenty-five years as a political prisoner starting in 1955, a record surpassed only by the Chinese Trotskyists’ thirty-odd years in gaol. After his death in 1985, his wife Mei Zhi wrote her memoir of the prison years she shared with him. Mei Zhi too was a revolutionary, but by profession she was a children’s author, so her writing is clear and jargon-free. Initially gaoled as Hu Feng’s accomplice, she was freed under supervision in 1961. The nuances of Hu Feng’s literary theory didn’t really interest her, but she stayed true to him despite the troubles he brought on her and their children and despite her milder views. She returned to prison voluntarily after her release, to care for him in his sickness and old age.

Mei Zhi was engagingly honest about her feelings. She was a stoic, capable of astonishing self-sacrifice for her family, but unlike Hu Feng she could be cynical about politics. Hers is one of China’s best prison-memoirs. It is a gripping story, climaxing in Hu’s madness and a redemption of sorts. It differs from similar accounts in that despite their calvary, Mei and Hu remained supporters of the revolution. It is also a love story – of her love for him, even in the years of his madness.

The book was first published in instalments, starting with Past Events Disperse like Smoke. I picked this up in Beijing in 1987 for Wang Fanxi, the exiled elderly Trotskyist leader who shared my house for several years. On my trips to China, I used to buy books I thought he’d like. It turned out he and Hu Feng had been class-mates at Beijing University, along with Wang Shiwei, Chinese communism’s first real dissident, murdered by the party near Yan’an in 1947 after arguing publicly that writing should be free to criticise party abuses and to talk about the soul. So one literature class harboured three of the party’s best-known future trouble-makers. Wang Fanxi pressed me to translate Past Events and told me some interesting facts about Hu Feng, which might have got him into trouble even sooner had his inquisitors known about them.

They concerned Hu Feng’s relations with Lu Xun and Lu Xun’s affinity with Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s exiled rival. As a literary liberal, Trotsky had attacked ‘proletarian literature’, a futurist Soviet style, in his book Literature and Revolution, arguing that the arts should be a sphere unto themselves rather than a product of official decrees. This was also more or less Lu Xun’s view.

In notes written after 1979, Hu Feng recalled a postscript Lu Xun had written in 1926 for a translation of Alexander Blok’s enigmatic poem The Twelve. According to Hu, reading the postscript freed him ‘from a vulgar sociological understanding of the creative process.’ In it, Lu Xun had used Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution to illuminate the literary genius of the ‘bourgeois’ Blok. He also sponsored a Chinese translation of Trotsky’s book. He stopped referring to Trotsky after 1929, probably for diplomatic reasons. After reading Lu Xun’s postscript, Hu Feng realised that not all Marxists believed that everything in the creative process had a ‘material’ or ‘economic’ base. So Trotsky’s style of literary appreciation was a wellspring of Hu Feng’s fateful opposition to party-decreed ‘mechanicalism’, though he never said so directly.

Stalin’s demonizing of Trotsky was copied by the Chinese communists in their attacks on Chen Duxiu, the independent-minded founder of Chinese communism, expelled as an oppositionist in 1929. Similarly, Stalin’s posthumous cult of Maxim Gorki was mirrored by the cult of Lu Xun, hailed as ‘China’s Gorki’, also after his politically convenient death in 1936 (the same year Gorki died). Like Gorki, Lu Xun was made into a cult so the party could cloak itself in his reputation for integrity. But first they had to expurgate his embarrassing antecedents, especially the fact that he was influenced by Trotsky, for the link made his enshrinement laughable. So the affinity between Trotsky, demonized in both China and Russia, and Lu Xun was richly ironic. And so was the fact that Hu Feng’s ‘thought crimes’ were in reality a faithful echo of Lu Xun, who had persuaded him that revolutionary writing did not have to be clichéd and uniform or to toe a party line and should be free to treat questions of the human spirit.