On “Invisible Writing” in the History of
Contemporary Chinese Literature, 1949-1976[1]

By Chen Sihe
Translated by Hongbing Zhang

Published by the MCLC Resource Center, Copyright 2000.

chensih2 Chen Sihe 陈思和 (1954 – ) is professor of modern Chinese literature, associate dean of the Humanities School at Fudan University (Shanghai), and vice president of the Modern Chinese Literature Association in China. As an expert on Ba Jin, Chen has been engaged in the study of twentieth-century Chinese literary history since 1985. In recent years, his theories of “a cultural configuration of the folk” (民间文化形态), “shared denominator and unshared denominator (共鸣与无名), and “invisible writing” (潜在写作) have received broad critical attention from scholars in mainland China. His major publications are: Ba Jin lun gao 巴金论稿 [A critical study on Ba Jin], Renge de fazhan–Ba Jin zhuan 人格的发展-巴金传  [The development of a personality—a biography of Ba Jin], Zhongguo dangdai wenxueshi jiaocheng 中国当代文学史教程  [A textbook for contemporary Chinese literary history] (ed.), Huanyuan minjian 还原民间 [Return to the folk], and Zhongguo xin wenxue de zhengti guan 中国新闻学的整体观 [A total view of new Chinese literature].

Today, I am pleased to accept Professor Xiaobing Tang’s invitation and give this talk on contemporary Chinese literature at the University of Chicago. The topic of my talk today is “invisible writing in contemporary Chinese literature.” The concept of contemporary Chinese literature refers to a relatively long historical period, and the time from 1949 to 1976 is only a special segment of it. Since the Chinese communists established their power nationwide in China in 1949, under the rule of Mao Zedong, there were many campaigns of criticism and condemnation in the area of politics and culture, and many intellectuals were deprived of the right to write. The idea of “invisible writing” (qianzai xiezuo) is conceived against such a particular historical background. Even though a lot of writers, poets, literary theorists and critics lost their freedom and lived a life of poverty and even enslavement, they did not give up their desire to write and create. They continued their creative work in secret and wrote a lot of poems, prose essays, literary notes, fiction and non-fiction. These writings had no chance, for a long time, of getting published. In the past, the history of contemporary Chinese literature only focused on those works published during this period as its object of exploration and research. From the 1950s to 1970s, those published writings were mostly propagandist work written in light of the ideology of the state. What I want to point out here is that, for this particular historical period, to confine our study of Chinese literary history only to those published works is far from enough, because in this historical period there was another kind of literary creation, a writing that was deprived of the opportunity for publication. Although literary creations and writings of this kind did not have much observable social influence at the time, yet they reflect the serious thinking of intellectuals, and they are an organic component of the spiritual life of that historical period. They are a literary phenomenon that actually existed in history. Therefore, I call this type of writing “invisible writing.”

Indeed, “invisible writing” has a very broad range of meanings. On the one hand, it refers to the writing of non-fiction, personal documents, such as letters, diaries and reading notes. When writers wrote them, they did not mean to have them published. But under such special circumstances, these personal documents could be read as literary works. On the other hand, “invisible writing” stands for literary writings that writers wrote with much self-consciousness. These writings, either expressing the subjective feelings or ideas of the writer or telling a story through some fictional narrative, did not get published for some political reasons at the time; some of them managed to get published only after the Cultural Revolution was brought to an end in 1976. This latter type of literary writing is closer to what I refer to here as “invisible writing.”

At present, it is difficult to come up with a detailed list of all those works out there from this period that fall into the category of “invisible writing.” “Invisible writing” is still an area that awaits to be explored. My own research in this area is based upon the study of the relationship between the various political campaigns and movements and the different groups of intellectuals in the period from 1949 to 1976. I put the writers of “invisible writing” into four different groups.

The first group of writers of “invisible writing” appeared right after 1949. The great changes in political system also caused a revolutionary break in culture. As a result, those intellectuals accustomed to the traditional model of culture were forced to leave the literary arena, and from then on they no longer wrote for publication, fame, or profit. For example, there was a famous novelist in the 1940s called Pu Ning (his pen-name is Wu Mingshi or the Nameless). In the 1940s, he lived in Hangzhou and planned to write a multi-volume novel titled Wu Ming Shu, or The Anonymous Book. Modeled in part on the structure of the German writer Goethe’s Faust, the novel was purported to explore, through the experience of the hero, the meaning of life and the issue of cultural difference between the East and the West. Before 1949, Pu Ning published two volumes, and volume three was only half finished when Shanghai was liberated. After liberation, his books were banned but he did not stop his writing. In an environment of poverty and solitude, he continued writing the next four volumes of The Anonymous Book. Finally in the 1960s he finished this two-million-word novel. After 1978, he managed to mail the manuscript of this long novel to Hong Kong for publication. At present, his works are being published in mainland China. So far, The Anonymous Book is the longest work of “invisible writing.” This novel does not have much to do with the dominant ideology at the time of its writing; through the articulation of the ideal of the writer, it provides, however, a picture of utopia and great harmony that his contemporary Chinese intellectuals embraced.

The second group of writers of “invisible writing” was a number of poets, novelists and thinkers, who were deprived of the right to write after 1955. Hu Feng, the Marxist theorist and critic who was criticized and condemned as a renegade from the Communist Party and the state at the time, was regarded as the lead of this group of writers; so, this group of writers was also called the “Hu Feng Clique.” Most members of this group were young intellectuals growing up in the War of Resistance. In the 1950s, they were energetic, full of drive, and entered such a period of life where they became mature both in thinking and art. The unexpected turn of fate by no means wiped out their desire to write. The poems by Hu Feng, Lü Yuan, Zeng Zuo, Niu Han and Peng Yanjiao, and the literary notes by Zhang Zhongxiao, all of which we are able to read today, are what Nietsche calls “books written in blood” of that particular historical time. In the 1950s and 1960s, the poetic world was dominated by the need to praise the leaders of the state and to celebrate the good life of the people. Against these mediocre poems of praise and celebration published at the time, I would argue, the poems by this group of poets reached a higher level of thought, that is, the positioning of the intellectual among the people and his/her critical spirit. And these poems also achieved a better quality in terms of art, namely, the artistic depth of realism and its artistic appeal.

The third group of writers of “invisible writing” appeared after the anti-rightist movement in 1957. In the field of literature and arts, the number of intellectuals condemned as “the Rightist” is much greater than that involved in the case of Hu Feng, but from the perspective of “invisible writing,” the number of good works by the Rightist intellectuals is much smaller. Because the materials available are still limited, this comparative evaluation is, perhaps, not justified at present. The most important writer from this group of was Mu Dan, the poet who got a Master’s degree from the English Department at the University of Chicago. During this period, Mu Dan translated a lot of poems by Russian poets and also wrote some poems in secret. Today, his poems have received great attention from scholars in China.

The fourth group of writers came into being during the national disaster of the Cultural Revolution. In the second half of the 1960s, many writers were persecuted and their lives were under threat. However, what was most surprising was that, in such a harsh atmosphere, the sacred fire of literature would never die out. In the anthology Masterpieces of Chinese Literature in the Past Hundred Years (Bainian Zhongguo wenxue jingdian), edited by Xie Mian and Qian Liqun, there is Huang Xiang’s 1968 short poem “The Wild Animal” (Yeshou) and some fragments of his 1969 long poem “The Symphony of the Fire God” (Huosheng jiaoxiang shi). His poems vividly reflect, through its poetic language and image, the spirit characteristic of that maddening decade. In the 1970s, a group of high-school graduates reached maturity because of the hardships in life and they started to use the forms of poetry and fiction to express their desire. From this group of young people emerged some poets, such as Bei Dao, Mang Ke and Duo Duo, who were to exert a great influence in the world of poetic writing. The May Fourth literary tradition converged gradually in this group of “invisible writing” and this writing reached the highest artistic level of its time.

It is not difficult to see, from 1949 to 1976, the development of “invisible writing” was in inverse proportion to the development of published literary works. When the control of literary writing by political power became tighter and tighter, published works decreased while “invisible writing” grew and flourished. The variety of “invisible writing” expanded, and the number of writers increased. Especially in the later phase of the Cultural Revolution, the composition of “invisible writing” started to shift from the old generation to the younger generation, and the form of writing started to shift from non-fictional writing, without much literary consciousness, to the more mature form of poetry, novel and prose-essay. Although the exact amount of “invisible writing” cannot be determined at present, the achievement of what we have seen so far reveals its undeniable great value in literary history.

The last point I want to make here is: what kind of change will the concept of “invisible writing” bring to the history of contemporary Chinese literature? The motivation for me to engage in this research project is the writing of literary history. In the development of Chinese literature in the 20th century, the period from the 1950s to 1970s has always been regarded as a period of literary poverty. There were not the many literary masters in this period we see in the May Fourth period; neither were there the colorful variety of writings we see in post-Cultural Revolution literature. From the 1950s on, the dominant ideology of the state demanded that everything serve politics. Literary creation was turned into a propaganda tool. Previous histories of contemporary Chinese literature only chose published works as their object of examination and so they could only see poverty and simpleness. The introduction of the concept of “invisible writing” will definitely change such a picture of contemporary literature. From the “invisible writing” we can see intellectuals’ spiritual tradition from the May Fourth did not completely disappear under the severe political suppression. It just transferred from the public space of published magazines and books to the spaces of the margins, of the non-official [literarlly, folk, minjian], even the underground, and it existed in the form of individual discourse such as personal letters, reading notes and underground writing. In the evaluation of the achievement of the spiritual life of a given time, it is such individual or private documents that display the variety and richness of the spiritual pursuit of the people from that period.

—translated by Hongbing Zhang

[1]. I use “invisible writing” to translate the term qianzai xiezuo. In his Textbook for Contemporary Chinese Literary History (Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi jiaocheng) (Shanghai: Fudan daxue, 1999), Chen comes up with another similar term, yinxing jiegou (latent structure). It is used to designate the latent structure beneath the manifest structure in a contemporary literary work. Although these two terms, qianzai xiezuo and yinxing jiegou, are much related, their difference can be easily seen here in Chen’s lecture.