Cultural Revolution Manuscripts:
Unofficial Entertainment Fiction from 1970s China

By Lena Henningsen

Reviewed by Richard King

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February, 2022)

Lena Henningsen, Cultural Revolution Manuscripts: Unofficial Entertainment Fiction from 1970s China New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021. xviii, 294 pp. ISBN 978-3-030-73382-7; ISBN 978-3-030-73383-4 (ebook)

The young narrator of Dai Sijie 戴思杰’s Balzac et la petite tailleuse chinoise, a novel mentioned in the volume under review, is among the seventeen million urban youths “sent down” during the Cultural Revolution. With his companion in rustication in a remote mountain village, he earns a respite from manual labour by watching showings of North Korean films in a distant town and returning to perform the action for their village neighbors. Then, finding himself in possession of a trove of translated European literature, he decides to copy them, writing extracts on the inside of his sheepskin jacket for want of paper. Later he retells Alexandre Dumas père’s novel Le Comte de Monte-Cristo over several nights to the tailor father of the eponymous seamstress both he and his companion love, and then reads to the young woman from the fiction of Balzac as she works at her sewing machine, improvising thrills when he feels that old Balzac has hit a lull.

The transmission practices depicted by Dai Sijie—re-enacting, borrowing or stealing, hand-copying, narrating from memory, and reading with improvisation—exemplify much of the entertainment and cultural sustenance available to urban youths abruptly relocated across the length and breadth of rural China in the 1970s, and through them to their village hosts and to high-school students and others in the cities. To this dissemination of Western classics should be added the authorship of new fiction and poetry similarly transmitted around the farms and villages where the urban youths were located, offering an escape both from their isolation and from the motivational tales of socialist heroism published in the official media. Given the state’s determination to promote its new revolutionary culture to the exclusion of almost anything Western, pre-modern, or unofficial, the composition, ownership, and transmission of such unsanctioned materials was a subversive and potentially criminal act. Thus the new compositions existed “underground” (to use the term favoured by their chronicler Yang Jian 杨健[1]), as a parallel or alternative literature to the revolutionary realism and revolutionary romanticism sponsored by the Cultural Revolution leadership.

Lena Henningsen’s Cultural Revolution Manuscripts is an adventurous and meticulous study of shouchaoben (手抄本hand-copied volumes), fiction and poetry produced in a turbulent age by young writers in extraordinary circumstances. The creators of these works were predominantly members of the zhiqing (知青educated youth) generation, high-school graduates born a few years either side of the establishment of the People’s Republic. They were the “morning sun” promised the earth by Chairman Mao, anointed red guards and set against Mao’s enemies in the mid-1960s, and then banished to the countryside, ostensibly to learn the work ethic and practical values of the peasantry. Many found themselves unwelcome, alienated, at odds with their new neighbors, and ill-treated by the officials responsible for their welfare, and thus receptive to tales of romance and adventure outside their current environments and written to provide entertainment and emotional release rather than moral and political instruction. As Henningsen observes of shouchaoben, following the formulation used by Karen Thornber in her study of writings circulating around Japan’s mid-century wartime empire, they were “texts in motion,” passing informally through fluid networks over considerable distances. By their physical nature, these texts were ephemeral—hand copied or rewritten from memory, embellished and revised by those wielding the pen or brush, surreptitiously passed from one community to another, on paper of variable quality, loose-leaf or in notebooks, often incomplete, untitled, undated, of unknown authorship (at least at the time), free from formal publication or cataloguing—and such texts that have survived thus present a stern challenge to the scholar attempting a systematic study.

Rather than presenting an extensive introduction to the genre, Henningsen has chosen to focus her attention on representative shouchaoben for which she has been able to locate multiple versions. Her selections include works popular at the time, those which have been recognized subsequently as significant works by known authors, and those seen as precursors for the sentimental, critical, or experimental “wounds” and “exposure” fiction and “misty” or “obscure” poetry that flourished in the immediate post-Mao catharsis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. She charts differences between variant texts in detail and includes translations to give a flavor of the works considered. The original authors and subsequent contributors are seen to draw on readings of western classics, Chinese texts from classical, late Qing, and Republican times, and fiction of the first seventeen years of the People’s Republic; but shouchaoben, she asserts, clearly relate to the concerns of the Cultural Revolution era in which they were written.

Cultural Revolution Manuscripts is divided into eight parts, with six substantive chapters between the introduction and conclusion. Of these six, three offer description and analysis of representative works; two shed light on the literary cosmos from which the shouchaoben emerged, with testimonies from members of the zhiqing generation and references within the texts themselves; and a final chapter follows underground fiction into the mainstream culture of Reform and Opening, including appearances in other media.

The focus of chapter 2 is on the best-known of the shouchaoben, the first to be officially published after the Cultural Revolution, and the one whose author has been most forthcoming about his own history and that of his magnum opus: Zhang Yang 张扬’s The Second Handshake 第二次握手. During the long process of creation, which began in 1963, Zhang was twice imprisoned, first for criticism of the rustication movement, and later for “using fiction to conduct anti-Party activities” (43) when his work came to the attention of the literary critic and ideologue Yao Wenyuan 姚文元.  The core of the novel in all its versions is a romantic triangle involving noble, patriotic, and attractive academic scientists: the hero loves a woman whose life he saves and from whom he is parted as she goes to study in the US; he later marries a colleague who saves him when he is attacked in their laboratory. Henningsen draws three main themes from the text that directly foreshadow those seen in the post-Cultural Revolution wounds fiction: the conflict between love and politics in Mao-era China; the veneration of Premier Zhou Enlai as beloved leader and moral compass of the Communist Party; and the elevation of intellectuals—suspected and reviled during the Cultural Revolution—to the status of heroic victims. The novel is a text in motion for its numerous revisions by the original author and the unnamed secondary authors who copied, revised, and augmented the story, and also within the text, as its characters travel, study, and work in China and overseas, and demonstrate literary and cultural cosmopolitanism in their conversation and correspondence.

Chapter 3 takes three examples from one of the shouchaobens’ most popular genres, “entertaining, thrilling texts about crime and espionage” (91): The Plum Blossom Case 梅花案, A Strand of Golden Hair 一缕金色的头发, and Three Times to Jiangnan 三下江南 (titles vary between different versions). All involve some real-life figures for a semblance of reality, though the plots tend to the fanciful. In the Plum Blossom stories, a Guomindang plot to attack the Communist Party leadership compound at Zhongnanhai in Beijing is thwarted by counter-espionage agents; and in A Strand of Golden Hair, set in 1950, Chongqing police capture a spy and destroy an underground city built by the Guomindang. Strong echoes of the celebrated pre-Cultural Revolution Red Classics The Song of Youth 青春之歌 and Red Crag 红岩 are found in these works, including resistance fighters, communist heroes, Guomindang villains, treacherous turncoats, and, in the case of Red Crag, the setting of Chongqing during the civil war. The Three Times texts (variations between which are detailed in a chart) include a dastardly plot to assassinate Mao in the early 1970s, using a German-made bomb in the form of a robotic infant in a failed attempt to blow up the Nanjing River Bridge as the Chairman’s train crosses it. Henningsen notes that the espionage novels are highly patriotic and uncritical of the Communist Party and its leadership, and portray systems of policing and justice as effective and fair, hardly the reality of Cultural Revolution China. They were dissident or subversive only in their composition and transmission outside the official system, and their non-adherence to the rules for literature then in force.

Chapter 4 turns from this light entertainment to two consciously literary works created by single authors in the early 1970s, Open Love Letters 公开的情书by Liu Qingfeng 刘青峰and Waves 波动by Zhao Zhenkai 赵振开 (the poet Bei Dao 北岛), seen as avant-garde both for their day and for the time of their subsequent official publication. Both are set at the time of writing and recount the hardships of young people searching for love and anxious about the fate of the nation. Both authors practice polyphony, changing up the narrative voices and focalization in their novels. Open Love Letters, as an epistolary novel, does this by switching between the correspondents in far-flung romantic triangles, while Waves rotates narrative voice between characters, a device that would subsequently be used to great effect by Dai Houying 戴厚英in her 1980 novel Ah Humanity! 人,啊,人! In both Open Love Letters and Waves, characters express their feelings in poetry, much of it in a style that would later be associated with the “misty” poets, of which Bei Dao was the leading representative, with their expression of sentiment and their play with symbols recurrent at the time, such as the sun and the road, finding meanings for them outside the standard usages of Cultural Revolution discourse. More than for any of the other works considered in the book, discussion of Open Love Letters is enriched by vivid translations of intimate and passionate poems and other extracts from the letters exchanged by separated lovers (119-124).

Chapter 5 draws on the author’s involvement in a project on “Worlds of Reading during China’s Long 1970s.” (159) Autobiographical accounts of the reading practices of the zhiqing, derived both from memoirs and recent interviews, provide a view of the wide range of fiction, poetry, essays, history, and political theory accessible, legally or otherwise, to the highly educated sector of that generation. Notable informants include the poet Shu Ting 舒婷, historian Gao Hua 高华, art historian Wu Hung巫鸿, and The Second Handshake author Zhang Yang. Charts and lists are provided of influential genres, authors, and works from pre-modern and twentieth-century China, Western and Eastern Europe, and elsewhere. A long quotation from a memoir by Shu Ting recounts her voracious reading, selections from which she copied by hand and wrote of in journals. The Chinese author most cited by informants is Lu Xun (with readers going well beyond passages prescribed for study in the Cultural Revolution); first among European fictional works is the novel Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland. Memorizing, hand-copying, and retelling practices are remembered: in an incident reminiscent of Dai Sijie’s Balzac, one informant recalls that he entertained his red guard captors with Le Comte de Monte-Cristo as he faced a death sentence. Henningsen points out blind spots in her informants’ memories: Soviet and Chinese socialist realism, clearly evident in the composition of some of the shouchaoben, are seldom mentioned, and, more surprisingly, the shouchaoben themselves are almost entirely absent from the informants’ accounts, perhaps being considered too low-brow to admit to having read.

To complement the reading preferences recalled by former zhiqing in the previous chapter, chapter 6 looks within the shouchaoben themselves to explore the literary cosmos of young Chinese intellectuals in the 1970s, finding references to Chinese and world writing. Not surprisingly, such references are more abundant in novels with greater literary pretensions. The Second Handshake’s scientists mention a large number of Western academic works, and the hero’s first love, who studies in the US, meets members of the international scientific elite; all of this locates Zhang Yang’s novel in discourses on modernization through science dating from the May Fourth period. Reference to Western poetry is more prominent in Waves and Open Love Letters; characters in both also compose poetry of their own. The entertainment texts demonstrate a more limited literary world, drawing more on Chinese classical poetry and fiction and Chinese and foreign fiction available and popular in the years preceding the Cultural Revolution, such as the Red Classics and Nikolai Ostrovsky’s How the Steel was Tempered, required reading for youth in the early Mao years. As in the previous chapter, charts are included, these enumerating intertextual references in the works under study. Henningsen concludes that shouchaoben incorporated the entirety of space and time to which the authors had gained access as readers; in doing so, they broadened the worlds of fellow young readers without the opportunities for such extensive literary travel.

Texts are in motion again in chapter 7, this time into a post–hand-copied life in the age of Reform and Opening. A lengthy chart lists shouchaoben officially published between 1979 and 2018. The Second Handshake, the focus of this chapter, led the way: a greatly expanded version of the novel was published with the support of Hu Yaobang 胡耀邦, the Party official then charged with the rehabilitation of people condemned in the Cultural Revolution. The novel proved immensely popular, now seen as fine literature, and the sole creation of a single author with legal and commercial rights to his work, in contrast to its status in hand-copying days as escapist entertainment or poisonous heterodoxy produced by unknown writers. A film followed in 1980, with patriotism surpassing love and science as its main theme, reaffirming faith in the Communist Party to right past wrongs and lead the nation forward. Several comic-book adaptations appeared; Henningsen lists and discusses seven of these, published between 1979 and 2007, with observations of differences in texts and visual imagery. Sadly, we have no images here to view, for example, the significant variations in “halo effects” (231) adorning the righteous.

Cultural Revolution Manuscripts is an admirable and highly readable book. The author builds on earlier research, by herself and other scholars including Yang Jian, Perry Link, and Shuyu Kong, on what is still a lightly studied body of work, and adds interview material and statistical detail to place the shouchaoben in the literary cosmos of the educated youth that produced them in the 1970s. Particularly valuable are her comparisons of variant forms, which strengthen the claim that these were in essence stories in which readers, retellers, and copyists can be seen as active participants in the authorship of texts in many kinds of motion, now including the journey from the underground to the academy.

Richard King
University of Victoria


[1] Yang Jian 杨健, Underground Literature from 1966 to 1976 (1966-1976 的地下文学) (Beijing: Zhonggong dangshi, 2013).