I recently finished reading《在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话》by 毛泽东. It is a series of five talks on literature and art that Mao delivered between February and May 1942 at Yan’an. In these five talks, Mao expounds the purpose of revolutionary literature, criticizes the defective thinking of his Yan’an comrades, and prescribes widespread intra-party thought reform for these defects.
Below is my loose paraphrase of Mao’s arguments with corresponding quotations from the text, and a brief thought on mainstream art in modern-day China.
Literature is a part of the machinery of the revolution. It is a weapon used to unite and teach the people, and to strike and destroy the enemy.
Literature is not neutral. Writers must be on the side of the proletariat, the people, and the Party.
Unfortunately, many comrades champion petty bourgeois ideas. They view the intelligentsia and petty bourgeoisie as more important than the workers, farmers, and soldiers. They stand with the petty bourgeoisie and express petty bourgeois ideas in their work.
There is much of value in Chinese and foreign literature traditions. What has value should be kept. Older literary forms can be used, but they should be changed, filled with revolutionary content, and pressed into the service of the people.
Some comrades mistakenly believe that all art must flow out of “love,” as though love were some transcendent ideal untouched by social class. Others argue that literature should reflect “human nature.” But human nature is a concrete thing with a class dimension, not an abstract concept. What is often called “human nature” is actually capitalist individualism. Literature must not proceed from so-called abstract notions of love, freedom, truth, or humanity. The presence of these errors in the Party show that some comrades have been deeply influenced by bourgeois and capitalist ideas. These comrades should cast off this influence, and study Marxist-Leninist thought.
但是我们有些同志… 说什么一切应该从“爱”出发。就说爱吧，在阶级社会里，也只有阶级的爱，但是这些同志却要追求什么超阶级的爱，抽象的爱，以及抽象的自由、抽象的真理、抽象的人性等等。这是表明这些同志是受了资产阶级的很深的影响。应该很彻底地清算这种影响，很虚心地学习马克思列宁主义…… “人性论”。有没有人性这种东西？当然有的。但是只有具体的人性，没有抽象的人性。在阶级社会里就是只有带着阶级性的人性，而没有什么超阶级的人性。我们主张无产阶级的人性，人民大众的人性，而地主阶级资产阶级则主张地主阶级资产阶级的人性，不过他们口头上不这样说，却说成为唯一的人性。有些小资产阶级知识分子所鼓吹的人性，也是脱离人民大众或者反对人民大众的，他们的所谓人性实质上不过是资产阶级的个人主义，因此在他们眼中，无产阶级的人性就不合于人性
We must not love our enemies. We must not love noxious social phenomena. Rather, we must seek to destroy them.
Many petit bourgeois writers write pessimistic literature that exposes the darkness in society without also showing the light. Capitalist writers invert light and darkness, portraying revolutionaries as thugs and themselves as saints. Only true revolutionary writers praise and expose correctly. All dark powers that harm the people must be exposed, and all the revolutionary struggles of the people must be praised. This is the fundamental duty of revolutionary writers.
Revolutionary writers must expose the invaders, the exploiters, the oppressors, and their harmful influence on the people. Revolutionary writers must not expose the people themselves.
Literature is subordinate to politics. But literature is also a tool of great political influence. Revolutionary literature is like a gear and a screw. These tools are less important than other parts of the machine, but the machine cannot function properly without them.
How can we know if the primary motivations of a writer are correct and good? Not by listening to what the writer says, but by observing the effect of that writer’s work on society.
In light of many false ideologies that have taken hold among the comrades, what is needed is a strict rectification campaign. Many comrades are unclear of the difference between the proletariat and the petit bourgeoisie. Many comrades have joined the Party with their bodies, but have only partially joined the Party in their thinking. The minds of these comrades are filled with the thoughts of the exploiting class; they do not know what proletariat thinking is, what communism is, what the Party is. So although most within the Party and its ranks are pure, for the future of our leadership, there must be a serious transformation in the thinking and organization of the Party. To transform the organization of the Party, first we must transform the thinking of the Party. There must be an ideological struggle against non-proletariat thinking.
A concluding thought: Back when I lived in China, I ascribed the bathos, banality, and overwrought patriotism of much modern-day mainstream Chinese music and television to government censorship. But I also sensed that such an ascription was pat and lacked explanatory power. Seeing mainstream Chinese music and television in light of Mao’s instructions on literature and art makes a lot more sense. One of the many things Mao did at Yan’an was come up with—and inculcate—a framework for understanding the making of art in modern China. He provided artists and future leaders of the Party with answers to questions like: Why make art? Who is art is for? What does art do? How should art be made? At Yan’an, Mao made a positive case for Chinese art that serves the people and their Party. This view of art was highly influential and informs the making of art in China to this day.
I became aware of Mao’s talks on literature and art through an episode of the Chinese Literature Podcast. A link to that episode is below.
Link to the text in Chinese:
Link to the text in English:
Chinese Literature Podcast: “Art for the Masses: Mao Zedong’s Yan’An Lectures”
Characters read this year: 31,400
Characters left to read this year: 968,600
Percent of goal completed: 3.1%
List of things read:
《三八节有感》by 丁玲 (2,370 characters)
《我在霞村的时候》by 丁玲 (10,754 characters)
《在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话》by 毛泽东 (18,276 characters)