In the spring of 1942 a series of articles appeared in the Yenan press which took as their theme the need to expose the ‘dark side’ of life in the Communist base areas of northern China. The authors of these articles saw themselves as upholders of the literary tradition of Lu Hsün, modern China’s best known literary figure, and used the tsa-wen—a laconic and fiercely critical essay form perfected by Lu Hsün—as their literary ‘dagger’.

This outburst of criticism and dissent was short-lived, and the writers involved were quickly silenced. But as the first in what was to become a long line of left-wing writer-dissidents, the Yenan ‘literary opposition’ occupies a unique place in the development of revolutionary literature in modern China.

Their case also raises some fundamental questions about the function of literature in a revolutionary society. The writers themselves saw their role as monitoring and exposing tendencies towards bureaucracy and the growth of a privileged élite in the base-areas, and in the name of Lu Hsün denounced all attempts to force literature into any kind of straitjacket (‘Politics wants to preserve the status quo; thus it places itself in the opposite direction to literature as a symbol of discontent.’)

They at first drew evident encouragement from Mao Tse-tung’s own attacks on bureaucratism within the Party and the administration (delivered in February 1942), and echoed many of his criticisms. But Mao’s own views on literature, formulated at the Yenan Forum of May 1942, were the very antithesis of those of the writers, and shattered any illusions they might have entertained about a united front with Mao against the bureaucracy. Mao argued the task of literature in the base areas was not to expose the dark side, but to reflect the bright side of life and to extol the masses. In his view the age of the tsa-wen was therefore over.

Mao also stressed the need to develop a literature which was truly ‘national’ in form and capable of seizing the peasant imagination. But his arguments assumed that the subordination of writers to a literary board of control was a more effective way of evolving such forms than free experimentation and choice at the levels of theory, production and consumption.