On October 8, 1980, an editorial by famous Chinese actor Zhao Dan (赵丹), a central figure in the heyday of Chinese cinema in the 1930s and 40s, appeared in the Party’s official People’s Daily. Zhao expressed concern over political intervention in culture, which he said made it “impossible to have a flourishing of the arts.”
The editorial, which Zhao composed from his sickbed in September 1980, as economic reforms were just getting underway and the memories of the Cultural Revolution were still fresh, is a perennial favorite of Chinese artists and intellectuals on the issue of politics and creativity. It’s no surprise, then, that the editorial has been dragged out again in the weeks — and actively shared on social media — following the Chinese Communist Party’s “Decision” on cultural development.
[ABOVE: Zhao Dan’s editorial on literature and the arts appears in the October 8, 1980, edition of People’s Daily.]
Zhao’s cautions on the political control of culture are unfortunately as current today as they were three decades ago. A partial translation of the editorial follows.
“If Management is too Specific, There is No Hope for the Arts“
The People’s Daily is carrying out a discussion on “improving the Party’s leadership of the arts and culture, doing the task of arts and culture effectively.” When I saw words like “improving” and “effectively” in the headlines, I was encouraged; when I saw in the “editor’s note” this phrase about how “the Party’s work in leading literature and the arts must be improved, achieving strengthening through improvement, on this issue we are steadfast,” I was heavyhearted all over again. I don’t know how broad the scope of this “we” in the “editor’s note” is supposed to be. I only know that there are some artists — artists who have been loyal and faithful to the work of the Party, and who have persevered — who will be struck with fear as a conditioned reflex when they hear about this need to “strengthen the Party’s leadership.” Because in their gathered experiences of such movements, every time there is a strengthening, this means more interference, more intrusion, and even “outright dictatorship” [over the arts]. This is still fresh in their memories, and prompts especially sensitive feelings. We must not, hereafter, “strengthen” things in such a way. . .
As for concrete artistic creation, does the Party really need to take the lead at all? How should the Party lead?
The Party takes the lead in setting national economic plans, the Party leads in the carrying out of agricultural and industrial policies; but it is totally unnecessary for the Party to lead as to how to plant a field, or how to construct a bench, or how to cook, and it is totally unnecessary for it to lead writers in how to write essays, or actors in how to act. Literature and art are matters for writers and artists themselves. If the Party is too specific in its management of literature and the arts there will be no hope for them, they will be finished. The Gang of Four were the most concrete in their management of the arts, to the point where they managed every belt and patch on the bodies of actors, to the point that only eight plays were left for 800 million people. Will these negative examples not make us more alert?
What writer ever became a writer because he answered the call of the Party? Did Lu Xun or Mao Dun ever heed the words of the Party before the set their pens to writing? Did they ever write what the Party bade them to write?! And, well, who was it that told Marx himself to write? Life, struggle and the process of history give rise to culture, and make generations of artists and theorists “who guide the arts for generation following.” As for the character and philosophy of the arts, these are not things that any one Party, or any faction, or any organization, or any branch can manage. If you insist on managing it so concretely, you will only cause trouble for yourself, becoming a fool for one’s pains, and court disaster for the arts.
The leaders at every level who oversee the arts all say that they are “cleaving to the Party’s principles on the arts, cleaving to revolutionary thought on the arts.” With the possible exception of arts experts, they are all simpletons who are deaf and blind. It’s been 30 years now since the founding of the nation, and 60 years since the May Fourth Movement, and we now say that the proletarian army of the arts numbers in the millions. Why then is it that from the center right on down to the provinces, districts, counties, communes, factories and mines, we must always invite outsiders [to the arts] who do not understand or barely understand the arts to come of lead and guide them before we can set our minds at ease? It’s a logic that defies all understanding! . . . Should the various associations for literature and the arts, and various arts and literature troupes, make rigid and inflexible rules as to what ideology constitutes the one leading guideline? Should a single written work be established as [defining] the aim and purpose? In my view, we should think very carefully and debate this. I think it would be better not to. In the history of the arts from ancient times down to the present day, when one form is allowed to wash out all the hundreds of others, it is impossible to have a flourishing of the arts.
At the third meeting of the Fifth National People’s Congress the delegates debated fiercely about the issue of [political] systems. This term [political] “system” is something we artists were not so familiar with before. But we gradually discovered that if we were lazy in dealing with “systems” then “systems” can squeeze the life out of us; so we learned that we must seriously tackle this issue. . . .
Artistic creation is the most personal of all. Artistic creation cannot be dictated by a show of hands. It can be discussed, criticized, encouraged or praised. In terms of historical eras, the arts are not inhibited and cannot be inhibited.
September 1980, from his sickbed.