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audience passivity in the yan’an talks

As preparations for the Bienalle start, I have found myself thinking again about the level of censorship over literature and art in China. Yesterday, I even went so far as to re-read the Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (在延安文藝座談會上的講話), which Mao began on May 2, 1942. Audience passivity and the ignorance of artists and writers were two key ideological assumptions structuring Mao’s arguments about the social functions of literature and art. Below, I have taken several key phrases in order to show the way in which the Maoist politicization of literature and art was concomitantly a disempowerment of the audience or reader of a work, even as artists and writers became tools — and I use the word deliberately — of the Revolution Party.

Mao opens the talks by greeting his comrades and outlining the social-aesthetic questions he sees facing revolutionaries: the question of standpoint, the question of attitude, and the question of the object of work. Mao’s interpretation of correct standpoint and attitude are unsurprising and straight-forward. The question of correct standpoint for Party members was unambiguously defined as being the Party’s position (對於共產黨員來說,也就是要站在黨的立場,站在黨性和黨的政策的立場). The question of correct attitude was then defined with respect to three types of people — enemies, allies, and one’s own people (有三種人,一種是敵人,一種是統一戰線中的同盟者,一種是自己人). The emphasis on “one’s own people” is important because in everyday Chinese, these are the people that one can count on no matter what. Mao then further defines “one’s own people” as the masses and their vanguard (這第三種人就是人民群眾及其先鋒隊). In short, on Mao’s reading, a correct attitude involved opposing one’s enemy, criticizing one’s allies when they were wrong, and “patiently teaching one’s own people, helping them with their burdens, and to struggle with their mistaken views in order to help them make great progress (我們應該長期地耐心地教育他們,幫助他們擺脫背上的包袱,同自己的缺點錯誤作鬥爭,使他們能夠大踏步地前進).” In turn, “our” literary and artistic works describe these struggles to overcome one’s mistaken views (他們在鬥爭中已經改造或正在改造自己,我們的文藝應該描寫他們的這個改造過程). However, when Mao turns to the long discussion of “the object of work” the discussion becomes interestingly convoluted.

The discussion opens with the line, “the question of the object of work, that is the question of who the literary work will be read/seen by (工作物件問題,就是文藝作品給誰看的問題)”. As I read it, the Mandarin defines the intended audience of revolutionary works as objects (物件) who will be given something to read/see (給誰看). In many translations of the Talks, this line is translated as, “The problem of audience, i.e., the people for whom our works of literature and art are produced”. This translation not only transforms the object of literary and artistic creativity into an “audience”, but also gives the writer and artist productive agency. However, neither of these subjectivities is implied in Mao’s language, a fact which becomes more explicit several lines later.

On the one hand, Mao contends that in Yan’an, the objects of literary and artistic work are the workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres who are the “receivers of literary and artistic work (文藝作品的接受者)”. He emphasizes that the objects of literary and artist work in Yan’an were “completely different (完全不同)” from those in Nationalist-held Shanghai, where the primary objects were students, officials, and merchants.

On the other hand, he also stresses that “our literary and artistic workers (我們的文藝工作者)” who don’t understand the workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres have a responsibility to learn about them. One of the more interesting examples of Mao’s designation of the object of literary and artistic work comes in this discussion of literary and artistic workers’ ignorance of the lives of workers, peasants, soldiers, and cadres. Mao states, “Literary and artistic works are not familar with the their descriptive object and product-receivers (文藝工作者同自己的描寫物件和作品接受者不熟,或者簡直生疏得很)”. In this line, we see that for Mao, “workers, peasents, soldiers, and cadres” were simultaneously the object of and receiver of descriptions. In other words, the purpose of literary and artistic work was to help the masses become self-conscious of their class position, without actually teaching them critical reading skills.

The discussion then turns to the question of education for both literary and artistic workers as well as for the masses, with the Party providing correct standpoints and attitudes for this work, which is based on Marxist-Leninism. At this moment, we see the rhetorical transformation of creative workers into tools of the State because standpoint and attitude have already been defined as being in line with the Party position.

Thought du jour: as someone who engages in literary and artistic work, I agree with Mao’s contention that many of our ideals and passions are class-determined. Where I part ways with his analysis, however, is in his characterization of audiences as passive object – receivers of creative work and writers and artists as vehicles for one standpoint and attitude on any question. It’s not only that I enjoy a good dose of whimsy in my art, but also that I have more faith in a variety of standpoints and attitudes than I do in one proscribed, formulaic interpretation there of. Indeed, I find the idea that all creative work must be immediately accessible to all audiences more in keeping with Hollywood goals than with creative exploration.

And there in lies a core paradox in doing creative work in Shenzhen: while I agree with Maoist analysis that we need to take economic inequality and class differences into account if we are to create a more just world, nevertheless, as both a writer and reader, I am nourished by a diversity of perspectives and interpretations.


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