Chinese writer Tie Ning was appointed chairman yesterday of the China Writer’s Association (CWA), an official organization that nominally represents the interests of professional writers but which some have said serves as a tool of ideological control. Following in the footsteps of writers Mao Dun and Ba Jin, Tie Ning is the first female chairman of the organization, a post that has been empty since Ba Jin’s death just over one year ago. She is also the first chairman under the age of 50.

Tie Ning’s appointment comes as China’s world of arts and letters stands at what some say is an important crossroads, with the role of the writer in society in question. In its extreme, uneasiness about the state of Chinese letters has led to cries of the “death” of Chinese literature, a question writer Ye Kuangzheng (叶匡政) addressed in a recent online essay.

According to a report in today’s Jiangnan Times, there have been a number of high-profile requests by writers to drop their association membership in recent years. In 2003, writers Xu Kaiwei and Huang Heyi, in historic firsts, applied to withdraw membership. Explaining his action at the time, Xu Kaiwei said the CWA was “internally a mess and full of conflict, leaving the association in a state of paralysis”.

The sole media voice today to tease out the importance of Tie Ning’s appointment and the deeper issues facing writers in China was Southern Metropolis Daily. The column points out that since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the China Writer’s Association has been unique worldwide in being a nominal association of writers in fact operated by a national government. According to Southern Metropolis Daily, the association has ministerial rank and is fully supported by the central government, with a staff of over 6,000 nationwide.

In typical Southern Metropolis Daily style, the editorial argues that the China Writer’s Association should move in the direction of a civic organization, representing the interests of freely creating writers over and against party ideology. The fifth and eighth paragraphs of the editorial follow [pdf_southern-metro-daily-on-tie-ning-and-writing.pdf]:

    No matter when, where or under whatever system, true writers must represent the spirit of human freedom – independent thought and free imagination form the foundation of their act of creation

. Therefore, the first task of the China Writer’s Association must be to do as much as possible to protect writers’ freedom of creation, and not to limit that freedom through the hardening forces of power and ideology as an official organization. Parochial ideology and wrangling over benefits [to the party] all have the potential to stifle free creation. Writers, who are dispersed, often do not have the strength to resist [these trends]. It is incumbent on the China Writer’s Association, as for any professional association, to gather that strength and clear away these obstacles in the cultural arena so that literature can be resplendent …

In comparison to the two previous chairmen, who concurrently held several positions, onerous social responsibilities and poor health … we place great expectations on the youthful Tie Ning — not only that she might continue to write good works after her appointment, but more that she might, through the peculiar organization of the China Writer’s Association [IE: an officially-controlled professional association] beat her drum for the creative conscience of China’s writers.

[Posted by David Bandurski, November 13, 2006, 5:30pm]