New York Review of Books
May 15, 2015
It can be embarrassing for a China scholar like me to read Eileen Chang’s pellucid prose, written more than sixty years ago, on the early years of the People’s Republic of China. How many cudgels to the head did I need before arriving at comparable clarity? My disillusioning first trip to China in 1973? My reading of the devastating journalism of Liu Binyan in 1980? Observation of bald lies in action at the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 and in the imprisonment of a Nobel Peace laureate in more recent times? Did I need all of this to catch up to where Chang was in 1954 in her understanding of how things worked in Communist China, beneath the blankets of jargon? In graduate school I did not take Chang’s Naked Earth (published in Chinese in 1954 and translated by Chang into English in 1956) and its sister novel, The Rice-Sprout Song (also published in 1954 and translated by Chang into English in 1955), very seriously. People said the works had an anti-Communist bias. How silly.
In Naked Earth, Chang shows how the linguistic grid of a Communist land-reform campaign descends on a village like a giant cookie cutter. There are Poor Farmers, Middling Farmers, Landlords, Bad Elements, and more. When actual life doesn’t fit the prescriptions, so much the worse for actual life. Make it fit. A “cadre” (a technical term for a functionary in the Communist system) complains that the farmers have “always been backward… . All they ever see is the bit of material advantage right in front of them.” This leaves them “afraid to be active.” Perhaps they don’t want to be active? No, answers the organization, they are reticent only because they fear “the revenge of the Remnant Feudal Forces.” When finally coaxed to complain, they sometimes—oops!—complain about the cadres, not the Landlords.
Eventually the farmers, like everyone else, figure out that their personal interests depend on correct verbal performance. There are certain things you are supposed to say and certain ways you are supposed to say them. “Tell the truth!” is a command that you recite your lies correctly. An unimpeachable exterior becomes everyone’s goal.