In order to discuss what mattered and how, this section begins with an excerpt by Shu Ting 舒婷 (*1952) in which she delineates her experiences of the Cultural Revolution along the lines of her reading practices. In a second step, I will then discuss how four of the authors that were shown to be particularly popular in Fig. 5.3 mattered to the autobiographers: Lu Xun, Romain Rolland, Salinger and Kerouac.
“Dang!” Something fell down and hit me on the eyebrow, I felt for it with my hand: it was a warm bullet. Above, my comrades-in-arms with their Red Guard armbands were storming the physics building, while I was reading Hugo’s 1793, which was also about attack and defense, suffering and struggle, humiliation and indignation, which was also about truth, good and beauty. I was fully immersed inside a different world opened up within works of literature by Balzac, Tolstoy and Mark Twain. Though I still had a nightmare, in it I saw wooden boards weighing more than ten kilograms and blood pearls oozing out from iron wires, thus humiliation turned into a gloomy stream in the eyes of persons I honored. Soaked in sweat I would always awake from these dreams, gather some clothes and foods, take them to the imprisoned members of my family, and enter another nightmare which was full of rebuke and supercilious looks.
The golden dust on the surface of life peeled off, revealing its uneven truth. Only books could soothe me.
In 1969, I put an English textbook (my dream of going to university) and “A Transcription of Poems by Pushkin”4 into my backpack and went to the countryside with others of my generation amidst heart-breaking sirens. On the platform and inside the carriage there was the sound of crying. I stared at contours of the mountains in the distance and thought to myself that the members of the Decembrist Revolt5 certainly did not cry on their way to exile. I wanted to go to Gorky’s “university” there.
Life constantly educated my naïveté. The knowledge that this “university among the people” provided me with, however, widely surpassed any real university.
Thereupon, I took up the pen.
During these three years, I wrote diaries every day. Before returning to the city, I burned three volumes of my diaries. Some scattered pages that were preserved by luck, were later published in the first issue of Banyan Tree Essays (榕树丛刊).
I desperately copied poems, this also was a sort of exercise. At the time, I was crazy for Tagore’s prose poems and for He Qifang’s “Prophecy”. As well as the works of Byron, Mickiewicz and Keats, there were also those of Yin Fu, Zhu Ziqing and Ying Xiuren.
Moreover, there were letters. Writing and reading letters was an important part of the lives of the educated youth, it was my greatest pleasure. I still remember how, deeply worried, I would wait for that green post bag on the village road, and how hastily I would then sit down on the small bridge to read the letter. I wrote a poem for a female friend: “Start on [your] journey, beloved girl, the passage of life is free and broad…”. This poem circulated and earned me some literary friends. They often sent books that they were interested in. I once spent a whole month locked behind the door reading Franz Mehring’s “Biography of Marx” and also read the explanatory part of the four volumes of Mao’s Selected Writings, although I never appeased the ghosts; with difficulty, I also read theoretical books such as “On the Aesthetic Education of Man” and “The Dialogues of Plato” and with ease forgot all about them again. Because of my friends’ emphatic recommendation, I also purposely read some classical works, of which I liked best the ci-poems by Li Qingzhao and Qin Guan, as well as essays. (Shu Ting 1999 : 300–301)
Shu Ting can be regarded as representative of the educated youth, so this piece of life-writing may be considered exemplary, reflecting the reading cosmos of many of her contemporaries. Similar to other authors, Shu Ting mainly refers to foreign literature (with a focus on authors of modern fiction: Victor Hugo (1802–1885), Honoré de Balzac (1799–1850), Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), Mark Twain (1835–1910) and Maxim Gorky (1868–1936), whose autobiography she refers to), poetry and essays. For essays she does not name any author, but for poetry she lists both foreign and Chinese authors. The Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941) is mentioned, along with European authors John Keats (1795–1821), George Byron (1788–1824) and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855, considered a national poet in Poland, Lithuania and Belarus), and Chinese poets of the early and mid-twentieth century: Yin Fu 殷夫 (1910–1931), Zhu Ziqing 朱自清 (1898–1948), Ying Xiuren 应修人 (1900–1933) and He Qifang 何其芳 (1912–1977). Two Chinese poets of earlier centuries (Li Qingzhao 李清照, 1084–1155, and Qin Guan 秦观, 1049–1100) are mentioned, along with nonfictional readings from the ideological realm that Shu Ting made efforts to read: Franz Mehring’s Biography of Marx,6 the explanatory part of the four volumes of Mao’s Selected Writings, and older European texts: “The Dialogues of Plato” and “On the Aesthetic Education of Man”, which refers to Friedrich Schiller’s Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, a treatise written in 1793 in epistolary form and dealing with Immanuel Kant’s aesthetics and the failure of the French Revolution.
In her account, Shu Ting refers to poetry in great number and variety. This may be considered as reflective of the fact that she later became a respected poet herself, or simply that the Cultural Revolution was a decade of poetry, also taking into consideration the countless literary salons discussing poetry at the time and the overall popularity of poetry among the educated youth for reasons both literary and practical. Poetry is often ambivalent, thus allowing for more subtlety than was prevalent in official literary culture, with its sharp black and white contrasts. This rendered the genre particularly meaningful for the educated youth disillusioned with their lives and with the official rhetoric and literature of the Cultural Revolution. Moreover, the brevity of the genre meant they could easily be copied into a notebook, or even memorized. This meant that Cultural Revolutionary youth could easily carry poems with them. Poetry thus allowed for literary mobility.
For some (like Shu Ting), the necessity of copying out poems represents a first step toward creating literary or poetic texts themselves. This is by no means a process confined to the “literary elite”; not only Shu Ting and other (later) obscure poets, but countless other youths copied poetry and then turned to writing their own poems. From the perspective of literary practice, I argue, the (alleged) literary quality of the poems matters less than the sheer unleashing of literary and intellectual creativity, a point I will discuss further below (see the section “Writing and copying as reading?”).
Lu Xun: One of the authors mentioned most frequently is Lu Xun. As is widely discussed, in defining Lu Xun and his works as models for literature and art in his “Yan’an Talks”, Mao Zedong firmly integrated Lu Xun into the literary dogma of the PRC. While most other May Fourth authors sank into oblivion during the Cultural Revolution, or worse, were considered counterrevolutionary, Lu Xun continued to be cherished and even worshipped, employed rhetorically for various purposes by various political factions (Goldman 1985). During the Cultural Revolution, Renmin Ribao printed contributions about Lu Xun, and his works were published both openly (including, for example, an adaptation of Lu Xun’s “The New Year’s Sacrifice” 祝福 as a lianhuanhua comic book, published in 1974 by Beijing renmin meishu chubanshe 北京人民美术出版社) and as internal publications. The index of internal publications in the PRC lists 51 publications of works by or about Lu Xun during the Cultural Revolution years. Of these, the majority (45) are publications of Lu Xun’s writings, sometimes edited, while only six are publications about Lu Xun and his literature. The majority of the texts are essays and letters, published in collections, some of which were published multiple times.
Of the publications about Lu Xun and his works, one provides readers with explanations of Lu Xun’s collection of prose poems Wild Grass (野草, 1973, first published in 1927), one provides readers with questions and answers on Lu Xun’s works and a third is on Lu Xun’s deliberations on translation. Among the nonfictional texts, four books contain a reference to Confucius, and three are explicitly linked to the campaign against Confucius. Among the published fictional texts, “The True Story of AQ” (阿Q正传, 1921) is listed twice (both published in 1972) and Call to Arms (呐喊, 1922, in which the former story was published) was published in 1976. (A list of the titles recorded in the index is provided as an appendix to this chapter in Fig. 5.6.)
Figure 5.4 maps the temporal distribution of these publications.
This pattern first follows the overall publication patterns of internal publications, with a veritable hiatus during the late 1960s (see Volland 2017b: 206). The only title published during these years is Quotations by Lu Xun (鲁迅语录), a genre clearly tied to the “Little Red Book”, the Quotations by Chairman MaoSeeSee“Little Red Book” (毛主席语录), first published in 1964 and heavily propagated during the Cultural Revolution (see Leese 2013: 108–127; 2014; Cook 2014). This Quotations by Lu Xun was also neither the first nor the last. From 1966 onwards, the publication of Quotations by Lu Xun was officially endorsed, and earlier publications of such collections also existed (see below), suggesting that the quotations collection as a genre in itself was deeply embedded in Chinese reading and publication practices. The bulk of Lu Xun publications appeared in 1972 and 1973, with texts about him and his works only starting to be published in 1973. This timeline runs parallel to the appearance of Lu Xun in the headlines of Renmin Ribao articles of the time (see Mühlbach 2016: 4). Thus, Lu Xun’s legacy survived into the Cultural Revolution and was exploited as he was discursively reframed: Lu Xun no longer appeared as a liberal-minded May Fourth author. “[H]is role as an author and intellectual took to the back stage and instead, his revolutionary and military-artist qualities were stressed” (Mühlbach 2016: 16). Reading habits attest to the success of this propagandistic endeavor, yet only partially. His reframing as a revolutionary made works of Lu Xun available, but readers would not fully subscribe to this framing of the author and many read his texts in a different way.
The reasons for the frequent mentions of Lu Xun in the autobiographies are manifold: he had been prominent during his lifetime and ever since his death; during the Maoist years, he was reframed propagandistically; and he continued to be popular after the Cultural Revolution when the autobiographies were written. The sources demonstrate that many considered Lu Xun and his texts to be important, and that the status of Lu Xun was high, yet ambivalent. For individuals, this importance and Lu Xun’s overall high status can be seen from the sheer number of references in the sources and from the variety of texts referred to. However, there was also significant insecurity about how to treat him and his texts. While the revolutionary Lu Xun was venerated by official discourse, his texts were also the focus of house raids, to the dismay of Han Shaogong, who relates that when his home was plundered, all of his collections were confiscated by the Red Guards, including the works of Lu Xun (Han Shaogong 2009: 569). Others refer to texts by Lu Xun and discuss them to some extent, as summarized in Fig. 5.5. At first glance, the numbers in this chart appear to be at odds with the number of titles recorded in Fig. 5.3. This relates to the fact that Fig. 5.3 presents the titles mentioned most often, while Fig. 5.5 also includes references to quotations.
Gao Hua read Lu Xun’s “Silent China” in late 1966. His remarks on the text illustrate that readers would not necessarily fully accept the image of Lu Xun as a warrior, but instead they continued to read his texts for the resonances with their own lives. In “Silent China”, first written in February 1927 and presented in Hankou at a Youth Assembly of Christian Youth,7 Lu Xun:
criticized the large-scale suppression of speech and writing during the Qing dynasty and the early Republican era for producing a “silent China”... for centuries. He had expected that the May Fourth New Culture Movement would restore regular speech to China by offering a new language more accessible to the common people, by facilitating the circulation of modern ideas, and by creating a genuine voice for a new era. But the success of the modern vernacular was not enough to transform the country into an “articulate China”. (Yang Haosheng 2016: 49–50)
Lu Xun thus laments that the reforms that were begun during the May Fourth era did not bring about what they had promised. Reading the text in late 1966, Gao Hua “was surprised that what Lu Xun expressed a few decades ago still reflected reality” (Gao Hua 2006: 134). In Gao Hua’s view, even the seventeen years since the establishment of the PRC had not served to give a voice to ordinary Chinese citizens.
Huang Xiaolong 黄晓龙 (*1943) relates an episode of desperation in the face of his Cultural Revolution experiences. The only way out, it seems to him, is death, a realization that relieves him. Suddenly, however, he recalls Letters between Two, the heavily edited correspondence between Lu Xun and his wife Xu Guangping mentioned in the preceding chapter (McDougall 2000, 2002). A story that Lu Xun tells his wife makes him change his mind.
It roughly went like this: should I encounter a tiger that wants to eat me, I’ll climb a big tree, and as long as the tiger waits down there, I’ll wait up in the tree and under no circumstances will [I] come down. In case I should die from hunger, I’ll first firmly tie myself to the tree with a leather belt. [In that way] even if I should die, I will under no circumstances let myself fall down and let the tiger fulfil his desire. (Huang 2010)
For Huang, therefore, Lu Xun’s determination becomes the inspiration to not give in to the enemy and instead to persist. He thereby relates Lu Xun’s words that he has stored in his memory to the reality of his life in the Cultural Revolution.
Qi Zhi 启之 (“The Enligthener,” pen name of the film scholar Wu Di 吴迪 *1953)SeeSeeQi Zhi 启之(*1953) also refers to Letters between Two. He even abandoned his “Great Linkup” (da chuanlian 大串联8) in order to immerse himself in the works of Lu Xun, even though he found them difficult to understand. He came up with the idea of compiling quotations of Lu Xun, which caused some turmoil among his family. He picked up some white paper, bound it together as a book and wrote Quotations by Lu Xun on its cover. When his activist elder sister, returning home from her Great Linkup, discovered what he was doing, she was appalled: “Only Chairman Mao can have Quotations” (Qi Zhi 2011). His parents likewise urged him to stop. After all, their house had just been raided by the Red Guards. Unable to stop, however, Qi Zhi continued writing down quotations, but making sure he hid them in secret places, until:
I made an extremely painful discovery – on the small bookshelf in the outer room, there was a Quotations by Lu Xun published in 1950. Edited by Song Yunbin, in vertical typesetting, two volumes. Shanghai Lianyi Publishing House. Comparing [them] carefully, [I realized that] many of the quotations I had compiled were in these [published volumes]. This was a heavy blow to my activism, and [from then on] I did not hide all my copied volumes any longer. 30 years later, I mentioned the incident to my eldest sister who unexpectedly asked me: “Really? That was happening?” (Qi Zhi 2011)
Youth activists like Qi Zhi’s sister and the Red Guards who confiscated Lu Xun’s work from Han Shaogong’s house were striving to become true heirs to the revolution. For many, the Cultural Revolution was about performing the revolution and thus proving themselves worthy heirs to the first generation of the communist revolution in China (on this, see Yang Guobin 2016). Claiming it to be unrevolutionary to compile quotations by Lu Xun (even though publications of the same title had existed before the Cultural Revolution and were officially endorsed as of 1966) and confiscating the works of Lu Xun can be seen in this light. However, this also attests to the ambivalence of his status and, of course, to the overall sense of confusion caused by the lack of media reports, revolutionary zealousness and sheer fear. After his realization that published collections of Lu Xun quotations already existed, Qi Zhi turned to other authors (Li Dazhao, Guo Moruo, Gorky, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hugo and Rolland), and considered himself quite scholarly. However, according to his account, Lu Xun left the deepest impression on him.
For Huang Xiaolong, the love letters presented inspiration during a dark period of his life; for Qi Zhi, Lu Xun’s writings represented literary and intellectual inspiration; for both, the books were not just a source of inspiration, one deciding life and death (Huang) and the other his main source of inspiration (Qi Zhi). This may have to do with the high quality of the texts by Lu Xun, but also with his status during the Cultural Revolution when he was transformed into a revolutionary author by official propaganda.
Lu Xun is remembered by many as meaningful childhood reading that continued to matter to the literary practices of members of the educated youth generation. Zhang Yang, the author of The Second Handshake, for example, writes “since my childhood, I loved and worshipped Lu Xun” (Zhang Yang 1999: 52; see also ibid.: 57). A quotation by Lu Xun seemingly had lasting impact on him: he recalls a notebook of his uncle’s that had a saying by a famous person printed on each page, such as a quotation by Darwin (“Broad desire for knowledge often can turn a person into a systematic erudite scholar.” 广泛的求知欲, 往往可以使人成为有系统的博学家。) and Lu Xun’s “You first need survival, second you need clothes and food, and [only] third you need development” (一要生存, 二要温饱, 三要发展, Zhang Yang 1999: 52) from “Letter from Beijing” (北京通讯 1925), suggesting the long-lasting impact of such childhood readings that stayed with Zhang until later in life. He also recalls having read “In Memory of Miss Liu Hezhen” 纪念刘和珍君 (written on April 1, 1926) as a child and even includes a quotation that he claims to remember from that time (Zhang Yang 1999: 419). Lu Xun remained perhaps the most important literary reference for Zhang. During the 1960s, Zhang read Lu Xun’s brief essay “Great Wall” (长城) and was moved by Lu Xun’s ability to “summarize” 2000 years of Chinese history (Zhang Yang 1999: 80). In 1967, similar to Qi Zhi, he also compiled (bianzuan 编纂) his own Quotations by Lu Xun (鲁迅语录), not for publication, but for friends (Zhang Yang 1999: 21). Zhang points to Lu Xun as his most important literary inspiration (Zhang Yang 1999: 79) and describes how he devised a pen name for himself modeled after Lu Xun (Zhang Yang 1999: 59). Lu Xun’s writings thereby served as a source of inspiration for Zhang Yang as he himself became an author.
The example of Wu Hong 巫鸿 (*1945), now a professor of art history at the University of Chicago, demonstrates the connections between reading, the scarcity of reading materials, memory and the practices of writing in a different way. Wu notes that whatever text he found interesting he would read multiple times in order to memorize it, even if it were a novel or autobiography (Wu 2012: 118).
One thing is interesting: maybe because at the time [my] brain basically was empty (political propaganda never encouraged independent thinking), and [my] spirit often was in a state of extreme concentration and nervousness, memorizing books became something rather easy [for me]… This ability later helped me get through a difficult time. (ibid.: 120–121)
Later, he is imprisoned and in an otherwise empty cell he finds a copy of Lu Xun’s collection of prose poems Wild Grass. The existence of Explanations of Lu Xun’s “Wild Grass” (鲁迅《野草》注解), published internally in 1973 (Zhongguo Banben Tushuguan 1988: 336), attests to a certain ambiguity attributed to the text. The copy Wu Hong finds carries the name Liu Xun (刘迅), based on which Wu guesses that the earlier occupant of the cell was from the elder generation and from artistic circles. Within one day, according to his account, he memorizes all the poems in the collection and he carries this memory with him as he is subsequently transferred to another, even more horrifying prison. “There, I wrote down anew Lu Xun’s poems from memory. This was later discovered by the prison guard but not confiscated” (Wu 2012: 121). These statements all suggest the literary importance attributed to Lu Xun, the ubiquity of handwritten copies and notebooks and the wide diffusion of hand-copying (see also the next section of this chapter). The educated youth wrote in their notebooks whatever they considered worthy of attention. Zhang Yang’s compilation of his Quotations by Lu Xun indeed suggests a writing project with a clear aim as to the contents and audience of his notebook. The “Liu Xun” notebook, however, suggests another dimension of Cultural Revolution hand-copying practices: their large scale. A previous prison inmate had written down a complete version of Lu Xun’s Wild Grass, and Wu Hong, in turn, indicates that he memorized and wrote down the entire collection again. Memory thus plays a significant role in the preservation and circulation of handwritten texts. These anecdotes also attest to the intellectual efforts individuals undertook during the Cultural Revolution to satisfy their own and their peers’ thirst for reading materials. (Even though, in the absence of material evidence, it is impossible to verify how accurate both the Liu Xun transcription and Wu Hong’s transcription were as compared to an authoritative edition by Lu Xun.)
In the accounts referred to here, Lu Xun appears as an important source of inspiration, attesting to the overall high status of the author during the long 1970s. However, only in the retelling of the tiger anecdote by Huang does Lu Xun appears as the brave revolutionary. In the others, the emphasis is on Lu Xun the author of texts that provide readers with inspiration or important insights into their own reality. It is also important to note that the majority of texts referred to are essays. Their relative popularity during the era, I would assume, may be related to (at least) three factors. First, this was an influential genre before the Cultural Revolution, and essay-reading was thus a familiar practice for many. Second, as the genre discusses concrete questions pertaining to real life, essays of earlier times, such as those by Lu Xun, could be interpreted with an eye to contemporaneous, Cultural Revolutionary experiences. Third, the relative brevity of these texts turned essays into appropriate intellectual consumer goods for Cultural Revolutionary reading: they could be finished in a short time; their main arguments could be easily memorized; and excerpts could be meaningfully copied into a notebook. Similar to poetry, essays could thus be carried, either on paper or in the memory, turning the Cultural Revolution not only into an era of poetry, but also into the era of the essay. (It should also be noted that Lu Xun was an avid author of essays.)
Romain Rolland: The French novelist Romain Rolland (1866–1944) and his writings are cited as meaningful by a number of the educated youth. Rolland’s multivolume novel Jean-Christophe was written from 1904 to 1912 and received broad international attention and acclaim. In China it came under attack in 1960 (Volland 2017b: 203). The novel on the one hand is an example of a classic bildungsroman; on the other hand, it was influenced by Russian novelistic practices, most notably by Tolstoy. The fictional Jean-Christophe is a musician of German origin modeled after Beethoven, and the novel traces the life of its main character, including his loves, his friendship with the poet Olivier and their involvement in the Parisian workers’ movement.
The novel was read by many during the Cultural Revolution. When the historian Gao Hua had to relocate with his family at the time, much to his pleasure, he found that their new home was in the immediate vicinity of the library stacks of a middle school, and so he started reading many Chinese and foreign books, especially Russian and Soviet literature, but also Jean-Christophe. In a similar vein, Ma Bo 马波 (*1947), son of Yang Mo, the author of the successful pre-Cultural Revolution novel Song of Youth, was repeatedly criticized and sent into the mountains during his rustication; here, living and working conditions were the hardest, not least because of the solitude. Ma Bo describes how he found solace in books:
This time it was true solitude. My only companions during those long, lonely nights were characters from books. Whenever I felt empty and frightened, whenever my courage deserted me, I tried to imagine myself in their midst. Too bad it didn’t do much good. I even turned to Romain Rolland’s Life of Beethoven for inspiration, copying memorized passages into my notebook. (Ma 1995: 280)
Reading provides him with comfort, similar to Shu Ting quoted above, who declares “only books could soothe me” (Shu Ting 1999 : 300). A number of authors point to the importance of Rolland’s multivolume novel Jean-Christophe, which was a favorite among young people in the years before the Cultural Revolution (Wu 2012: 118–119); many note that they were fascinated by its egocentric main character (Ye and Ma 2005: 94). In her description of the books she read, Xu Xiao, who would be sent to prison together with Zhao Yifan in 1975 and would soon after participate in the activities of the underground journal Today, notes that Jean-Christophe left her in a state of ecstasy, and the story of Olivier and his sister Antoinette moved her to tears (Xu Xiao 1999a: 159). She then remembers that the novel was among the first foreign novels to be published after the Cultural Revolution and that she of course bought a copy, but never in fact read it again for fear of destroying her memory of the text.
Wu Hong also describes the influence of the book on him, having read it shortly before the Cultural Revolution:
I felt bitter about ideological control at the university, but at the same time found no way out in reality. The abstract characters in the book became beings much truer to life than real crowds. Together with Christophe, some idealized historical heroes like Beethoven and Michelangelo, became my intimate friends (miyou 密友) and bosom friends (zhiyin 知音), their powerful spiritual strength moved me to the degree of seething with excitement and having no control over myself. (Wu 2012: 119)
Jean-Christophe (and similar readings) satisfied the readers’ curiosity about life outside China, their interest in worlds beyond their own. Moreover, I argue, they fed into the heroism of the age. As explained in the introduction to this book, in propaganda as well as in official literature and art, heroic figures had become the main point of reference. However, with characters such as Jean-Christophe, the master narrative of what a hero should be like was being rewritten. According to the official dogma, the hero subordinated all his actions to the right cause, i.e., the struggle for a bright future under communism. He (or she, as there were a few female heroes) demonstrated (almost) superhuman physical strength, and political integrity, but no individual desire, be this the desire for clothes, food and drink beyond the most simple and urgent fare (and many heroes would even go without, thus demonstrating their self-control), or to the need satisfy emotional or sexual desire (personal happiness was postponed until the achievement of communism, see Huang 1973; Henningsen 2014). With Jean-Christophe, there emerges an alternative hero, one that offered himself to Chinese 1970s readers for identification. The influence of Russian novelistic practice and the protagonist’s engagement with the French workers’ movement rendered Jean-Christophe compatible with earlier reading experiences. However, the fact that he is an artist, one modeled after Beethoven, introduces a distinctly different element: the individual as exemplified by one of the geniuses of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European high culture. Such a protagonist thus not only stands for extraordinary artistic achievement, but also his bourgeois culture and the fulfillment of personal ambitions and desires and the promise of individualism. Both Jean-Christophe and the example of Salinger and Kerouac discussed below thus represent different modes of writing heroism. These works can be related to later literary developments that are commonly associated with the early post-Cultural Revolution years. These reading practices and their long-term impact, therefore, attest to the roots of these post-Maoist developments in the literary and intellectual practices of the Cultural Revolution years.
Jack Kerouac and Jerome D. Salinger: Contemporary western literature also became important reading for many educated youth, including On the Road (internal publication in China in 1962; originally written on a handscroll 1949–1951 and published in the US in 1957) by Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) and The Catcher in the Rye (internal publication in China in 1963; first published in the US in 1951) by J. D. Salinger (1919–2010). Both novels are angry reflections on contemporary society, written from the perspective of disenchanted, alienated and predominantly male angry youth looking for their place in society, their path into life. The British play Look Back in Anger (internal publication in China in 1962; world premiere in London 1956) by John Osborne and the equally popular book Ticket to the Stars (internal publication in 1963, original publication in the SU in 1961) by the Soviet author Vasily Aksyonov (1932–2009) could be added to these two American titles as they debate similar topics. These titles were made available in Chinese in the early 1960s within the internal publication system. Theoretically, these translations were thus produced for a narrowly defined circle of readers (Song 1997, 2007; Kong 2002; Shen 2007; Jiang and Liu 2013) in what amounted to a “restricted public sphere” (Volland 2017b: 192–201): Access depended on one’s rank within party hierarchy, and the purpose of reading these texts was to teach these party readers about intellectual and literary developments inside and outside of China. However, the books found readers beyond these narrowly defined party circles, particularly the texts written by the Beat Generation authors (only On the Road is Beat Generation literature in a strict sense, yet in particular The Catcher in the Rye seems to have been perceived along similar lines in China as both are connected to notions of a generation of youth struggling to find their place in society). Wu Hong suspects that he and his fellows were most likely the first unofficial readers of titles like these, even before the Cultural Revolution (Wu 2012: 119), receiving them through private channels that endowed their reading with underground qualities. In the following years, Beat literature became increasingly relevant to the generation who found some of their experiences mirrored in the texts of the Beat authors. The painter Peng Gang 彭刚 (*1952) and the author Mang Ke were even inspired to reenact On the Road when they left Beijing in search of adventure and an act of (self-)liberation (Liao and Chen 1999a: 184) “imitating this both romantic and insane mode of the American author Mauriac’s [sic] On the Road” (Gan 1999: 273).
While Gan Tiesheng 甘铁生 (*1946) erroneously names the French novelist and Nobel Laureate François Mauriac (1885–1970) instead of Jack Kerouac, another author who emphasizes the importance of the text for his generation provides his readers with the wrong English title of the novel: On the Way. Similarly, Duo Duo 多多 (*1951, pen name of Li Shizheng 栗世征)SeeSeeDuo Duo 多多(*1951) points out that the play Les Chaises was important to his generation, wrongly attributing authorship of the play to Beckett, rather than Ionesco (Duo Duo 1999: 195). Such factual errors do not undermine the importance of the respective texts. They do, however, point to the unofficial circulation of the texts and knowledge at the time, to the transmission of knowledge in informal circles, as well as to the fragmentariness of sources and, possibly, the distortion of memory over time. Many of these autobiographical essays were written, and the interviews were conducted, roughly two decades after the events described. The continuing influence of these texts is also attested by other authors, who indicate that On the Road provided them with meaningful inspiration, including Bei Dao, Xu Xing 徐星 (*1956), Wang Shuo 王朔 (*1958), Wei Hui 卫惠 (*1973) and Mian Mian 棉棉 (*1970, see Cai 2010).
Autobiographical accounts attest to the fact that ample reading materials were available during the Cultural Revolution and that these readings were very important, albeit having different meanings for different readers. Access to these readings, however, was limited and depended heavily on connections, be this within the family or among trusted friends, as well as on the person’s audacity. After all, at the time these titles were not considered acceptable reading materials for the wider reading public by the regime, and they were deemed counterrevolutionary. Reading such censored materials could be dangerous to the reader and their family’s security.