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The Chinese Writers' Association: what good is it?

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New CWA president Tie Ning.

Tie Ning became president of the Chinese Writers' Association as the seventh congress of the organization met in Beijing earlier this week. The buzz in most papers was that this election is a promising step toward improving and revitalizing China's literary sector. Can installing a new president in the CWA actually accomplish that goal?

What is it that the Association does, exactly? CWA, which was formally established in 1953 out of an earlier writers' association formed in 1947, publishes the journal Writers' Digest, and several years ago it took over publishing authority for several journals (mostly in literary fields, but it also puts out Global Entrepreneur). It also runs a press (Writers' Publishing House), operates several institutes (including the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature and the Lu Xun Literature Institute), and awards a few major literary prizes.

The association is tasked with bringing up new writers and cultivating the development of the literary sector. It represents writers in international exchanges, and it works to protect their rights. However, as a government organization, the first duty of the CWA as listed in its own introduction is to "organize writers to study Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory, and to study the guiding policies of the party."

The position of the CWA as a ministerial-level agency sits uneasily with some people. A Southern Metropolis Daily editorial reflected on the Association's situation and the possible effect Tie Ning's election could have. David Bandurski at the China Media Project translated the piece and provided commentary; here's an excerpt:

The column points out that since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the China Writer's Association has been unique worldwide in being a nominal association of writers in fact operated by a national government.

In typical Southern Metropolis Daily style, the editorial argues that the China Writer's Association should move in the direction of a civic organization, representing the interests of freely creating writers over and against party ideology. [Excerpts]:

No matter when, where or under whatever system, true writers must represent the spirit of human freedom — independent thought and free imagination form the foundation of their act of creation. Therefore, the first task of the China Writer's Association must be to do as much as possible to protect writers' freedom of creation, and not to limit that freedom through the hardening forces of power and ideology as an official organization. Parochial ideology and wrangling over benefits [to the party] all have the potential to stifle free creation. Writers, who are dispersed, often do not have the strength to resist [these trends]. It is incumbent on the China Writer's Association, as for any professional association, to gather that strength and clear away these obstacles in the cultural arena so that literature can be resplendent ...we place great expectations on the youthful Tie Ning — not only that she might continue to write good works after her appointment, but more that she might, through the peculiar organization of the China Writer's Association [IE: an officially-controlled professional association] beat her drum for the creative conscience of China's writers.

This was just one of a flood of articles that expressed hope that the "young, beautiful female writer Tie Ning" — at 49, the youngest incoming president in CWA history, and not yet half the age of the previous president — would bring a breath of fresh air to a stodgy organization. One could claim, however, that the presidency is largely a figurehead — it has been vacant since Ba Jin passed away last fall, and for the last few years of his tenure he was completely incapacitated. The author of the SMD opinion piece responded to this objection the next day in a follow-up column in the Xiaoxiang Morning Post:

Some friends said to me, in an organization like the CWA power rests in the hands of the secretary; the presidency is only a name. This involves the division of power between the party and the government, as well as rules governing the effective use of power, and I won't discuss it here. From the organizational chart of the CWA, one can see that the presidency is a position with real power. And when Tie Ning was vice-president of the Hebei Writers' Association, she once said, "I'd rather be an official (to assist young writers)" — it's apparent that this is not an idle position.

What I'd like to say is that utilizing administrative power to do good is undoubtedly not a bad thing, but the strength of the CWA and the CWA president comes out of the abilities of the professional association as well as the integrity and prestige of its leadership. Things like the CWA and writers' associations actually exist all over the world; it's just that most of them are not supported by the government, and they have no administrative power. For example, Sai Jinhua* served as president of the American Authors Guild, Böll served as president of the German center of International PEN, and Rushdie served as president of the American center of International PEN. And just from searching the news, their effectiveness is not necessarily less than that of the China Writers' Association.

There certainly was a political and ideological emphasis to this year's congress. The first small-group discussion session focused on Hu Jintao's "important speech", in which "harmony" was mentioned no fewer than 24 times. Reactions from a number of famous writers were reproduced in the media; here is a sampling of some of the more harmonious:

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Jia Pingwa

· Jia Pingwa, author of Turbulence and Ruined City:

I was rocked and touched listening to the general secretary's report. I felt the creative environment and creative space was quite relaxed. On the question of literary heritage and innovation, general secretary Hu's perspective was novel, deep, and even more respectful of artistic norms; you could say that this indicates that a time of high-volume, high-quality literature is now upon us. In addition, the report had quite the literary grace - not a character could be deleted.

· Zhou Meisen, vice-president of Jiangsu Writers' Association:

Harmonious culture is not friendly feelings. Exposing problems, on one level of meaning, is a way to drive the construction of a harmonious society.

· Cheng Xianzhang, director of the Guangdong Literature Institute:

What is harmony? Is harmony, I'm OK, you're OK, we're all OK? I believe it is not. Harmony should contain two sides: one is the subjective side, that is, you need to have harmony with yourself, you need a sense of satisfaction. The other is objective, you need to have harmony with society, there needs to be comprehension, understanding, and respect.

· Peng Mingyan, vice-president of Guangdong Writers' Association:

The responsibility of an author is to use the conscience and reflection of a literary artist to find disharmony within harmony, and after finding the reason for this disharmony and the means to eliminate the disharmonious elements, to push society to a more harmonious development.

· Cao Wenxuan, vice-president of Beijing Writers' Association, PKU professor, children's author:

In President Hu Jintao's important speech there was a high-frequency word, harmony. I really like this word. Harmony is an issue in traditional Chinese philosophy and aesthetics.

Looking dialectically, the emphasis now is on widening harmony; that is, there still exists a bit of disharmony. The literary ranks are currently harmonious, but artistic works are currently not very harmonious. If any of you casually pick up a magazine or a literary work and flip through it, you will get the sensation that base, vulgar, volatile artistic works are really no longer rare. I often say to my friends that in today's fast-paced, busy, utilitarian times, reading this kind of low, fast-food stuff will stop you up and make you uncomfortable.

Last year I went with a friend to Sweden for the award ceremony for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I really did not want to go in; I stood there in the hall thinking: such a bright hall, such an elegant scene — how could they give the Nobel Prize in Literature to Jelinek, an author who depicted such abnormality and illicit sex? Can't literature have a bit more harmonious beauty? Not long ago, I reread Tolstoy's War and Peace, and as before, my eyes brimmed with tears, because the novel shone with the brightness of humanity. Much of the readership likes to watch Korean soaps these days, perhaps because they contain so much traditional, harmonious culture.

So then, why does some of our literature today incline toward the poisonous, the ruthless, the dead? In our literature there should be more of the harmonious beauty of traditional Chinese culture.

Jia Pingwa and Cao Wenxuan in particular were raked over the coals for their views, which were seen by some bloggers and forum posters as toadying — was Hu's speech really that perfectly crafted? Other reactions were more sanguine — what else could they say — and pointed to Jia's history of writing controversial books that were not exactly harmonious themselves.

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Wang Lixiong

This is not the first time that this issue has been brought up — the CWA has been attacked for irrelevance on one end and its contribution to an environment that's actually hostile to good literature on the other. Some commenters brought up Sha Yexin's question, "How can you ask a writer like Louis Cha to write wuxia novels according to the spirit of the 'Three Represents'?" Others referred to Wang Lixiong's widely-circulated statement announcing his withdrawal from the CWA in 2001.

Wang, author of the popular apocalyptic thriller Yellow Peril and more recently known for his writing on Tibetan culture, tossed out his membership in disgust over the association's emphasis on ideology and political work. There doesn't seem to be an English version of his statement online, so here is a rough translation:


# To the Chinese Writers' Association:

After reading the speeches, resolutions, and summations in the first issue of Writers Bulletin (2001) that I just received, I have decided to withdraw from the Chinese Writers' Association.

To explain why I would make such a decision, I performed some calculations on the first piece in the bulletin, "Abstract of Comrade Jin Binghua's address to the closing ceremony of the sixth session of the fifth congress of the Chinese Writers' Association"; the following is a list of the frequency certain words are found in the text:

Party: 24; Jiang Zemin: 8; general secretary: 3; Deng Xiaoping: 6; Ding Guangen: 2; Central Propaganda Department: 2; Central: 5; Propaganda chief: 6; Three Represents: 6; Marxism-Leninism: 2; Mao Zedong Thought: 2; Advanced culture: 6; Important thought: 5; Directing thought: 2; Great banner: 2; banner: 3; Strategically advantageous position: 4; Leaders: 4; Direct: 7; Advocate: 2; Aim: 1; Guide: 2; Direction: 10; Orientation: 2; Guiding principle: 4; Policy: 3; Carry out: 4; Politics: 6; Overall situation: 12; Stable: 3; Propaganda: 2; Socialism: 10; Main melody: 5; Task: 4; Offering: 2; "Double Hundred": 2; "Two Do's": 2; Seize: 2; Firmly grasp: 1; Grasp: 2; Lift high: 3; Struggle: 6; Put into effect: 6; Study: 9; Lecture: 9; Earnest: 8; Strengthen: 4; Persevere: 12; Responsibility: 3; Consciousness: 7; Thought: 15; State of affairs: 8; Organization: 2; Position: 1; Core: 1.

The entire document totaled 4468 characters; the words above totaled 666 characters, accounting for 14.9% of the text. These words alone are able to depict what the content is; here are a few short excerpts:

We request writers to understand clearly the overall situation, to consciously listen to and serve the overall work situation of the party and the country...on major issues related to political direction, social stability, welfare of the people, national unity, and national solidarity, consciously listen to and serve the overall stable situation of reform and development.

The larger group of writers and workers in the literary field must consciously uphold the guiding position of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory, and oppose pluralism in guiding thought.

Writers should have consciousness of politics, consciousness of the overall situation, and consciousness of their responsibilities.

Hold fast to the key mission of making an offering to the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Party; hold tight to the key note of walking with the party with a single heart and pursuing development as a united nation. During the creative process, keep a practical hold on the relevant policies, and never forget that literature must serve the overall stable situation of reform and development. Literary works whose contents concern major historical events or individuals of the party must strictly respect the spirit of the CPC's "Resolution concerning some historical issues of the Party", "Resolution concerning some historical issues of the Party since the nation's founding", and relevant central government documents. Content that reflects the leadership of the party or the country must be handled in strict accordance with the relevant regulations of the central government. Writing realistic subject matter should emphasize positive descriptions. Literary works whose content reflects ethnic groups and religion, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao, or international affairs must apply for views from government departments in accordance with procedure.

You might say that the above words are merely what a newly-installed official said, so here is the entire text of the "Resolution of the sixth session of the fifth congress of the China Writers' Association":

Resolution of the sixth session of the fifth congress of the China Writers' Association, held 14-16 January, 2001, in Beijing.

Under the guidance of Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Comrade Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents", the session conscientiously studied the important speech given by general secretary Jiang Zemin at the discussion with comrades from the central propaganda department, as well as the important speech presented by Ding Guangen at the propaganda department session; it studied the speech comrade Li Peng gave representing the Central Propaganda Department, and engaged in earnest, enthusiastic discussion on both the literary world and the practical work of the Association. The session believes that comrade Jiang Zemin's important speech is farsighted and deep, a guiding plan of action for creating a new makeup for socialist literary work. The literary world must study hard, profoundly comprehend, resolutely carry out, and use it as guidance for future work.

The session deliberated and passed "CWA 2000 Work Summary" and "CWA 2001 Key Work Points".

The session resolved to add comrades Jin Binghua and Luo Guanfu as committee members for the fifth national congress of the CWA. Comrade Jin Binghua was elected as vice-president of the fifth national congress of the CWA.

The session urged all writers and literary workers to closely unite in the surroundings of the party and central government with comrade Jiang Zemin at the core; and guided by Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of general secretary Jiang's "three represents", persevere in the direction of the "two do's", carry out the guideline of the "double 100s", and resound with the main melody of "The Communist Party is good", "Socialism is good," and "reform and opening up is good." Promote more works with deep thought and exquisite artistry to present on the 80th anniversary of the founding of the party. With a spirit of the lofty responsibility of socialist literary work, earnestly work on all planning projects for the sixth congress of the China Writers' Association. Enterprising and revived, compose new works for the new century of literature for socialism with Chinese characteristics.

This "resolution" passed by the entire assembly of the CWA totals 543 characters; 413 of them "talk politics". Similar writing appears in the same issue of Writers Bulletin, eight pieces in total.

Looking at this stuff, I thought of a story: A man from the northeast trained a parrot. If you pulled his left leg, he would say "Hello"; if you pulled his right leg, he would say, "goodbye". One day, the northeasterner suddenly wondered, if you pulled both legs of the parrot at the same time, what would he say? So, he gave it a try, and the parrot said to him, "Son of a bitch! You trying to kill me?" —— This story demonstrates that even a parrot, who's just imitating, can sometimes come up with something new to say. What is strange is that the Chinese Writers' Association, which brings together nearly all of the country's best wordsmiths, knows only how to speak this dead language.

I can't help but think — is it that China's writers are naturally all corpses, or is it that the China Writers' Association wants to, and is in the process of, turning China's writers into corpses?

In the 80s, Chen Huangmei, my elder, and Shi Tiesheng, my friend, brought me into the Association. Although I never looked to the association to gain any sort of benefit, I at least thought that becoming a member was a kind of honor. Typically, my personality is neither impetuous nor demanding; I can understand the impotence of individuals and organizations in China's special environment. However, in view of the words above, there is no longer any honor to speak of, only a writer's shame.

For this reason, I hereby declare that as of today, I have withdrawn from the China Writers' Association.


Wang Lixiong

2 May 2001, Beijing.


Has there been progress? Tie Ning's address at the closing ceremony of this year's congress uses "harmony" 12 times, and starts off with the following passage:

During the congress, the representatives conscientiously listened and enthusiastically discussed general secretary Hu Jintao's important speech at the opening ceremony. Everyone unanimously agreed that comrade Hu Jintao's important speech opened up a new direction for a new phase of Chinese literature in the midst of our construction of a socialist harmonious society, and has major guiding significance for the prosperous development of socialist literary work. Everyone also heard the report on the domestic situation presented by State Council Premier Wen Jiabao, and the report on the international situation presented by State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan. Everyone gained a new understanding of the Central Committee's great strategic deployment for the construction of a socialist harmonious society, and gained a new appreciation for the mission and responsibility of literary workers.

However, as Wang Lixiong alludes to in his statement, this is probably just standard boilerplate for the first speech of a newly-installed official. And despite all the references to current political buzzwords, Tie Ning's address says nothing explicit about literature "serving" the party or government — it leaves out completely that section of Jin Binghua's address that dealt with review and censorship of sensitive topics.

So that's a start, at least. Whether having a functioning president for the first time this century will start any major changes in the way CWA operates is something that, given the speed of bureaucracy, will probably take quite a while to make itself felt. In the meantime, we can at least be grateful that writers are no longer being urged to write in service of the "three represents".


Note: Sai Jinhua (赛金花) was a famous courtesan in the late Qing, who later accompanied her diplomat husband to Europe. She was the image of an independent woman, but I found no information regarding any presidency of the Authors Guild, which doesn't list its past presidents anywhere. It's possible some American author's name is rendered phonetically into Chinese as 赛金花. Addendum: It's probably an error on the part of a clueless editor; Pearl S. Buck apparently presided over the Authors Guild in the 1960s, and her name in Chinese is 赛珍珠.

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There are currently 6 Comments for The Chinese Writers' Association: what good is it?.

Comments on The Chinese Writers' Association: what good is it?

Great article.

As it happens, I’m about halfway through reading Wang Lixiong’s brilliant book about Tibet. Every page brims with honesty and sincerity. And at the same time, he is one of the few writers of prose that I’ve read in Chinese (granted, not a lot) who has combined a novelists eye for description and vivid use of un-stale language, combined with a good historian’s sense of objectivity and brevity.

I wonder if that sort of writing is only possible under a more free system.

What prizes does the CWA give out? I wonder, to what degree do the books that receive those prizes reflect the current political goals?

The big prizes the association runs are the the Mao Dun prize (novels), the Lu Xun prize (short fiction, poetry, essays, translation, and criticism), and the Children's Literature prize. The Lu Xun prize is a decade old, the others were started in the early 80s. They're all supposed to reflect these political goals, at least according to the charters (see descriptions here), but it's probably easier to criticize a work for obviously not living up to Marxist-Leninist goals than it is to actually identify those goals in a work, at least these days.

The Mao Dun prize has been criticized its last two rounds (it's awarded every four years) for being out of touch, but the accuracy of that claim is debatable - people complain about awards all the time if their favorite doesn't win.

Interestingly, SF author Wu Yan reports that out of the 953 delegates (selected from 7690 association members), just 48 were children's authors, compared to 367 fiction authors and 125 theorists and critics. Of course, that's far better representation than the SF writers - just six of them were at the congress.

Interesting. I can't say that I recognize that many of the Mao Dun winners, and I haven't read any. My wife really liked 《穆斯林的葬礼》, and 《平凡的世界》seems popular.

What books enter the canon of literature in China, and how that happens seems to be a fascinating process. I wonder how much power do these people have in that process?

I always thought enhancing the role of sci-fi was a good way to popularize scientific knowlegde (普及科学知识).

Pearl Buck's Chinese name is rendered as 赛珍珠,that's probably the Xiaoxiang Morning Post piece mistaken it as 赛金花 the courtesan. But this really leads to funny effect, I enjoy it;-)

You're probably right, William. I couldn't find any mention of an AG presidency for Buck when I searched earlier, but I just ran across this JFK letter to her thanking her for his AG membership card, however, so that's probably what it is. I've added an update to the post.

This article is really great, even from the viewpoint of a Chinese reader, as me.

I just wonder how a foreign editor could know China so well (esp. China's cultural arena as in this article) if he was not that smart.

p.s. 赛珍珠 was what Pearl S. Buck named herself in Chinese when she lived in China in the early 20th century. (reference:
http://nr.book.sohu.com/2004/06/28/15/article220751545.shtml)

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