The following essay by Xi Jinping, then the Chinese Communist Party chief of Ningde, was penned shortly after the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Washington Post reporter Eva Dou, who came across the essay in a Fujian library, writes how it hints at ‘how the first serious crisis of [Xi’s] career may have informed his worldview’.
In his sweeping criticism of the relationship between literature, art, and politics, Xi writes that, ‘We must oppose those who, under the guise of freedom of creation, use literature and art as a political tool to promote bourgeois liberalization, and repudiate the lines, directives, and policies of the Party and negate the leadership of the Party.’
In his reference to ‘foot washing and egg hatching’, Xi specifically critiques the China Avant-Garde exhibition at Beijing’s National Art Museum, where an incident involving a gun, as Alex Colville writes, ‘was instantly immortalized, swept up in the social and political hurricanes of 1989, and all the interpretations that came with it’.
Check out Eva Dou’s Twitter thread for more details on the essay.
Xi Jinping: On the Relationship between Literature and Art and Politics
The relationship between literature, art, and politics is one of great importance. Dialectical materialism holds that the relationship between literature, art, politics can neither be separated nor equated.
Both belonging to the superstructures of society, literature, art, and politics are fundamentally determined by and have a reactive effect on the socio-economic foundation [of society]. As Engels says, ‘political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development is based on economic development. But all these impact one another and also influence the economic base.’ Literature and art use images to reflect social life. Similar to philosophy and religion, literature and art, as Engels says, ‘are an ideology more remote from the material and economic base’; unlike politics and law, literature and art’s relationship with the economic base is not a direct one, but rather an indirect one. The economic base’s decisive impact on literature and art or the influence of literature and art on the economic base both demand ‘an intermediate link’ through other forms of superstructure such as morality, philosophy, and religion, though mainly through politics. This is because ‘politics is the most concentrated expression of the economy’ and maintains a dominant position among the superstructures. It holds the most direct and immediate relationship with literature and art. No matter how much influence progressive or reactionary literature has had on society, it must first be affirmed that the socio-political context of the time determines the creation of progressive or reactionary literature before such literature and art can influence society. There would have been no Enlightenment literature without the struggle of the French bourgeoisie against the feudal aristocracy; there would have been no new literature in China without the spectacular May Fourth Movement. Countless evidence affirms the inseparable relationship between literature, art, and politics.
On the other hand, the two—literature/art and politics—cannot be made equal lest one becomes eliminated. Comrade Mao Zedong, in ‘Talks at the Yan’an Symposium on Literature and Art’, maintains that ‘politics cannot be equated with literature and art, nor can a general worldview be equated with a method of literary and artistic creation and criticism’. Literature, art, and politics, belonging to the superstructures of society, holding relative independence and distinctiveness. Literature and art hold independent content, form, and process; it is a special sort of spiritual production with an irreplaceable function. As Mr. Lu Xun writes, ‘literature and art are both the fire emitted by the national spirit and the lamp that lights up the national spirit’s future’. Literary and artistic works greatly influence the national spirit, the social atmosphere, and the ideological and cultural tendencies of the next generation. High-quality literary and art works may inspire revolutionary ideals, shape the national spirit, and enlighten people’s wisdom and souls. Especially in the present era, literature and art hold the important duty to unite, inspire, and motivate the people to achieve the ‘Four Modernizations’, to revitalize China, and to build a conception of socialism with distinctive Chinese attributes. Such duty cannot be entirely transferred to politics. Marx has described the phenomenon of unbalanced development in literature and art and material production during certain historical epochs; artistic development carries its own laws—which are different from those of political and economic development—that ought to be obeyed when handling literary and artistic works.
Decades of practice have shown that the ability to correctly understand and handle the relationship between literature, art, and politics is the key to the prosperity of literature and art. And, to correctly understand and handle the relationship between literature, art, and politics requires the implementation of the Party’s literature and art policies and to oppose and overcome two biased viewpoints.
One viewpoint that must be opposed and overcome is that literature and art are equal to politics, thereby erasing their unique nature. This view completely deviates from or contradicts the law of literary and artistic development by integrating literature and art into political struggle, thereby constraining literature, and turning it into a replica of politics. This view facilitates and is the origin of turning literary and artistic creations into a formulaic, conceptualized process. It requires people to write about and discuss the core and to underscore the ‘theme’; it requires literature to follow a set model or to demonstrate specific policies and political slogans of different periods. This leads to the ‘falsity, grandiosity, and shallowness’ of literary and artistic creation. From creations consisting of slogans upon slogans during the Great Leap Forward to poetic competitions in Xiaojinzhuang Village, the situation of ‘eight theatrical plays for eight million people’ demonstrates that following such a path would not only dismember the special function of literature and art but would also destroy its proper role. Moreover, it will bring about the confinement of people’s thoughts and the suffocation of literary and artistic life.
Another point of view that must be opposed and overcome is the pursuit of pure art. This view promotes detachment from politics and reality. Literary and artistic works created with this prejudice are often difficult or pale because they are disconnected from life and politics. It will finally lead literature and art into the path of decay. As early as more than forty years ago, Mao Zedong pointed out: ‘Literature and art should be well established as an integral part of the whole revolution, as a powerful weapon for uniting the people, educating them, attacking and destroying the enemy, and helping the people in their struggle against the enemy’. In the revolutionary war years, literature, art, and politics were inseparable. In times of peace and construction, literature and art should also keep pace with the times. Because our literature and art are for the people and for socialism, they cannot be without ideals, goals, and social responsibilities. No matter how different the types and styles of our literary and artistic works are, they should have only one social effect, that is to arouse people’s sense of historical responsibility for national rejuvenation and social progress. They should promote the spirit of hard work and bravery, unity and struggle, and reform and innovation of the Chinese nation, and raise people’s national self-esteem and self-confidence. Numerous examples in the history of Chinese and foreign literature and art have proved that truly great literary and artistic works are always rooted in social and historical contexts. Many literary and artistic works on the theme of reform, such as Jiang Zilong’s ‘Factory Manager Qiao Gets to Work’ and He Shiguang’s ‘The Rural Market’, enjoyed a large readership because they reflected the political life of the time. Deng Xiaoping pointed out, ‘Literary and artistic creation must fully express the excellent qualities of our people. It should praise the great victories achieved by the people in revolution and construction, and in the struggle against all kinds of enemies and difficulties. The fundamental road to the prosperous socialist literary and artistic cause is to voluntarily plant oneself into the lives of the people, absorbing content, theme, plots, poetics and things to paint.’
To correctly understand the relationship between literature and art and politics, we must conscientiously carry out Mao’s ‘adopting ancient things for the current time and applying foreign things to our needs’ and ‘letting a hundred flowers blossom and letting a hundred school of thought contend’, and correctly grasp the relationship between the Party’s leadership and the development of literature and art. Deng Xiaoping said, ‘The Party’s leadership of literary and artistic work is not to issue orders, and not to require literature and art to be subordinated to temporary, specific, direct political tasks. Rather, the Party, in accordance with the characteristics and development laws of literature and art, helps literary and artistic workers obtain the conditions to continuously make literature and art prosper and to create excellent literary works worthy of the people and the times’. In other words, to exercise correct political leadership over literature and art, the Party must first conscientiously carry out the Party’s basic line of one central task (of economic construction) and two basic insistences (insisting on the four basic cardinal principles and insisting on reform and opening up). Second, we must fully respect the labor of writers and artists, fully respect the laws of literary development, and fully understand the needs of literature and art and literary workers, giving full play to the creative talents and creative spirit of individual literary artists. The function of literature and art should be properly estimated, and the issues of right and wrong in the field of literature and art should be analyzed and viewed in a realistic manner. We should advocate the free development of different forms and styles, and the free discussion of different viewpoints and schools in art theory. While advocating freedom of creation, we also expect all writers and artists with integrity and conscience to unite to create works that directly serve the people and socialism for the sake of social progress and national stability. It is wrong for anyone to take an irresponsible attitude towards life and society. We must oppose those who, under the guise of freedom of creation, use literature and art as a political tool to promote bourgeois liberalization, and repudiate the lines, directives, and policies of the Party and negate the leadership of the Party. It is not advisable to use literary works as catharsis tools. For a period of time, porn books and videos have flooded society, and literary works of low taste have flooded the literary market. Some time ago, foot washing and egg hatching were on display in the National Art Museum of China, and they were called “behavioral art” representing the new trend. In essence, they desecrated art and destroyed beauty.
At the same time, we should actively promote and develop healthy and active literary and artistic criticism, and we should advocate competition for works of different styles, forms, and genres. We should encourage the debate of various views on literary and artistic issues. In literature and art criticism, newspapers and periodicals should truly carry out the ‘let a hundred flowers blossom campaign’, adopt a fair attitude, and form a healthy, democratic atmosphere of mutual respect and equal discussion. Party Committees at all levels should carry out the Party’s lines, principles, and policies concerning literature and art in an exemplary manner, strengthen exchanges and discussions with writers and artists, and make regular presentations to them, while also listening to their opinions and requests. We should do our best to provide them with the necessary help for their deep understanding of social life and their engagement in literary and artistic creation. We should both adhere to our principles and refrain from interfering across the board. But we cannot ask the Party and the government not to interfere in literature and art at all, or to ignore specific works at all. In fact, the government and ruling party of any country cannot completely do nothing to intervene in literature and art or ignore specific works at all. The difference lies only in the scope and standard of intervention, and the particular way of intervention. What matters is not how much or how little to regulate, but what principles and directions to apply when engaging in regulation. We are a socialist country guided by Marxism. The Party’s guidance of literature and art should adhere to the Party’s Four Cardinal Principles (we must adhere to the socialist road, the people’s democratic dictatorship, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and Marxism, Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought), and we should focus on maintaining the overall political direction. Specific views and comments on literary and artistic works should be judged by the masses and literary and artistic experts through normal democratic discussion. We must trust the artistic appreciation and aesthetic ability of the people. To deal with contradictions and disputes in academia and art, we should avoid administrative orders as much as possible, and learn to deepen our understanding and improve our artistic level through democratic and equal discussion. What is correct should be promoted and what is incorrect corrected through the development of sound material and cultural conditions and an appropriate public opinion environment, and through the formulation of regulations and laws. Only in this way can we promote the healthy development of literature and art.