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Servant of the State

Is China’s most eminent writer a reformer or an
Jianying Zha • November 8, 2010 Issue

On the afternoon of October 18, 2009, the writer
Wang Meng addressed a full house at the Frankfurt
International Book Fair. It was the fair’s last day, and
China, the festival’s guest of honor that year, had
worked hard to demonstrate its cultural appeal. The
secretary-designate of China’s Communist Party had
joined the German chancellor in opening a China-
themed hall. The pianist Lang Lang shared a stage
with German artists at the old Frankfurt opera house.
There were performances of the Peking Opera,
displays of Chinese folk arts, and forums on China’s Where dissidents like Liu Xiaobo
growing economic and political might. sought to challenge the state,
Wang Meng has set out, nimbly

Wang, who is seventy-six, is perhaps the most famous but cautiously, to humanize
it.Illustration by Finn Graff
living writer in China. A short, trim man with black-
rimmed glasses and a full head of salt-and-pepper hair, he has published
widely in nearly every genre, and, having once served as China’s culture
minister, is accustomed to ceremony. In Frankfurt, Wang was asked to describe
the state of literature in his country. “Chinese literature is developing very
quickly, and so is the readers’ taste,” he said, in bland, diplomatic language.
“Chinese literature is at its best of times. . . . China has over a hundred literary
journals, many writers of serious literature, and over a thousand novels
published each year. One can say China is a big literary nation.”

His remarks were greeted with derision on the Chinese Internet. One blogger
compared contemporary Chinese literature to Chinese manufactured goods:

low price, high quantity, little added value, no brand. A popular young blogger
named Li Chengpeng called Wang a liar and a toady: most literary
publications in China, he said, “are full of falsity and perversity, with many
writers taking money from the state and creating junk and gibberish. . . .
Wang Meng’s way of thinking is that of the eminent men in all fields: as long
as it’s large, plentiful, and junky, everything Chinese . . . is at the best of
times.” Within days, the blog post had received more than a hundred and fifty
thousand hits and thousands of reader comments. To young Chinese bloggers,
Wang seemed like another aging sellout, a mouthpiece of a soulless

The denunciations were reminiscent of a controversy that beset Wang in the
nineteen-nineties. In 1994, a young Nanjing critic named Wang Binbin
published an article entitled “The Too-Clever Chinese Writer.” Many Chinese
writers, Wang Binbin contended, had well-developed survival skills but lacked
the courage to tell the truth when it was dangerous to do so. One of his
examples was Wang Meng.

Wang responded with a couple of essays, insisting that the young critic was
going after famous people, Red Guards style, chiefly in order to make his
name. But Wang’s contemptuous tone grated, especially when he attacked the
literature professor turned human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo. In a piece
entitled “Black Horse and Black Pony,” Wang derided Wang Binbin (the titular
“black pony”) as a cheap copy of Liu, the “black horse” from the previous
decade. Liu, the recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, was a brave activist
during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and was imprisoned for a year
and a half afterward. He spent the nineties in and out of jail and labor camps.
Kept under police surveillance, banned from teaching or publishing in China,
he could write only for dissident magazines in Hong Kong or overseas,
relegated to a shadowy existence in the marginalized dissident community.

In his essay, Wang mocked Liu ruthlessly:

About ten years ago, a black horse appeared on the literary scene; he

He was even cheered on by a few youngsters who have always resented the famous and the eminent but were born too late to get a chance to put the tall paper hats on those heads and parade them at the street rallies. . Wang concluded. Wang’s reputation among liberal intellectuals never fully recovered. it was one of those moments of almost tectonic slippage. . and nothing more. Thanks.” Liu’s main offense was to have been the co-author of Charter 08. but have also attracted some attention. Liu. as though he commanded the wind and clouds and could easily force ten thousand troops to retreat. he talked the grand talk of someone who considered himself original and everyone and everything else beneath him. a Chinese court sentenced Liu to eleven years in prison on charges of “inciting subversion of state power. have been mocked in private. and I’m long used to it. “Among young people. his antagonist. it was false to both. Whatever. His self-trumpeting and self- aggrandizement. with an emphasis on blinding. in December of 2009. his yelling and selling. How could Wang. I’ve known both men since those days in the early nineties. a pro-democracy manifesto that called on the Communist Party to enact political reforms and .” Two months later. attack a political prisoner who was unable to speak publicly? Many felt that Wang had sunk to character assassination. and. The stark contrast provided blinding clarity. I e-mailed him to express my chagrin. In Chinese cultural life. and nothing more. Wang Meng is finished. but where is he now?” The superior tone was chilling. . Wang’s reply was prompt: “No problem. as a passive martyr. I don’t have time to worry about this sort of thing. Wang could be caricatured as a court poet. in which a fault line becomes a chasm.” a Beijing friend told me. “He was a hero for a moment. with all his privileges. struck a majestic posture. during the furor over Wang’s Frankfurt remarks last year. After this caustic reference to the Cultural Revolution.

Wang was a brilliant student. there was no reply. Yet. who won essay and debate competitions. who had studied in Beijing and Japan. Wang Meng was born in 1934. and Wang remembers having to bow to the bayonet-wielding Japanese guards at the city gates. he was prone to grand speeches yet was incompetent in practical matters or office politics. I couldn’t help wondering about Wang’s reaction. As his career foundered. Hard-liners and dissidents alike had a simple question: Are you with us or against us? Wang had no simple answer. it earned him no admiration among the rebels. The heavy sentence prompted international outrage. he found himself with an abiding aversion to turbulence. The courtier was once a rebel. His teachers loved him. his large family struggled with debt and hunger. When he was three. I sensed a vulnerability about him. I e-mailed him again. was enamored of all things modern and Western. I first met Wang Meng not long after his departure from the Cultural Ministry. Despite his national stature. He had incurred the wrath of people at both ends of the Chinese ideological spectrum. an act of disloyalty that caused him to lose political favor. His early political . His father. in Beijing. Wang Meng’s widowed aunt would pour a pot of hot green-bean soup onto his father. But secretly he was reading leftist books and becoming enthralled by radical ideas. The document was first signed by some three hundred mainland intellectuals—I was among them— and then by thousands of Chinese around the world. because he had taken his stand in the meekest possible fashion (he pleaded illness). He was the only Chinese minister who had refused to visit “the heroic soldiers wounded in crushing counter-revolutionary rioters” at Tiananmen Square. This time. A college teacher and a dreamy idealist. The household wasn’t exactly tranquil: during fights. Shaped by some of the most turbulent decades of twentieth-century political history. to parents who had arrived from a rural backwater in Hebei province.uphold the constitutional rights of Chinese citizens. the Japanese invaded China and occupied the city. along with tuition waivers. and his father would get drunk and pull down his pants to embarrass the women.

was assigned to a district branch of the Communist Youth League. At a time when literature served essentially as Party propaganda. Then something extraordinary happened: Chairman Mao learned of the controversy and intervened. the comradely meetings and songs. The euphoria of the first days of the People’s Republic is among the dearest of Wang’s memories. depicts an idealistic young cadreman much like Wang himself clashing with a range of senior Party officials. “From this day on. I would devour rich people. Always drawn to literature. the Party took over China. a notorious problem in the old capital. set in a district Party office. he spent a full year working on a novel—a lyrical portrait of a group of radicalized teen-agers. He marvelled at how. apparatchiks accused Wang of harboring unhealthy skepticism and bourgeois sentiments. Soon. Wang. the parades. The revolution. He was barely fourteen when the Party accepted him as a full-fledged member. Given the temper of the time. Communists recruited him.inclinations. But his first novella. had swept away the degenerate old way of life that trapped his parents and kept China backward. still in his teens. in 1956. He was elated by the passionate rallies. “A Young Man Comes to the Organizational Department.” caused an uproar when it was published. The story. and he set to work as a middle-school agitator. the Chinese people have stood up!” Mao Zedong declared in Tiananmen Square as the nation rejoiced in October of 1949. A year later. were revealed in a third-grade poem: If I were a tiger. romance mixing with innocent passion for the revolution—that ended up stuck with editors amid rounds of revision. Mao . Beijing cleaned up its gigantic garbage dump. In the newspapers. and corrupt. he believed. At a Central Party Committee meeting. he joked later. variously jaded. savvy. Wang’s budding career could easily have been destroyed. within a week. the unflattering portrayal of Party officials was unusual.

and their ordeal drove many to depression. “I don’t know Wang Meng. There.praised Wang’s novella as a work “against bureaucracy. He convinced himself that he deserved this retribution for the privileges he had enjoyed. he did menial labor during the day and participated in “self-criticism meetings” in the evenings. like him. half a million people were denounced and sent to labor camps. improved his health. Wang’s luck had turned.” Mao’s words bestowed not only the highest political protection—the attacks ceased—but also instant fame. true believers and Party loyalists. to Cui Ruifang. Carrying rocks and planting trees. Most of the “Rightists” were. He and his . Mao launched the Anti-Rightist campaign. Wang underwent a period of crushing self-doubt. The political reprieve was short-lived. and suicide.” Mao had always worried about the erosion of revolutionary fervor by bureaucratization. a young woman he had met through Youth League work and had courted with passionate love letters. divorce. In the ensuing frenzy. which had been delicate since childhood. for the next four years. and worked assiduously to redeem himself through hard labor. Wang proved too minor a figure to be worthy of the Chairman’s continued attention. Stripped of his Party membership.” Mao said about the obscure twenty-two-year-old. In 1962. but his critics don’t convince me. Soon he was married. Wang was allowed to move back to the city and to Cui. “Bureaucracy doesn’t exist in Beijing? I support anti-bureaucracy. he was sent to a mountainous farm outside Beijing. he wrote later. it seemed. A “Did Jesus create these locally?” few months later. She was a year older than him. and had great faith in his literary abilities. Wang Meng has literary talent.

Mao launched the Cultural Revolution. In 1966. He had published very little. A daughter was born. In Beijing and other big cities.” Wang replied. When he discovered that he was the subject of a fengsha— an official ban on a person and his work (the term literally means “seal off to kill”)—he put his energies into learning Uighur. deemed to be the only worthy subject for “new literature. lakes that seemed as blue as the sky. Still. an area in the far west populated mostly by Chinese Muslims. “A few years.” but the transfer would also remove him from the turbulent political center. He was charmed by the Uighurs’ approach to life—by the way peasant families grew roses even when they didn’t have enough to eat. Wang applied for a transfer to the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. . they and their two young sons (occasional visits home had been permitted during the exile) were able to live together. He knew nothing about workers and peasants. In the fall of 1963.” Meanwhile. Xinjiang suited Wang. and won him great affection among the villagers. which was rare for a Han.wife both got teaching jobs. and was enchanted by the “symphonic music” of their language. for the first time. That winter. The political climate was again becoming fraught. the Wang family packed their few belongings and boarded a westbound train for the ninety-hour ride. He relished the flatbread and lamb that dominated local cuisine. the Uighur town where they lived. having broken with the Soviet Union. “How long do you think we’ll be there?” Cui asked as the train pulled out of Beijing. Wang longed for a writing career and literary recognition. He was answering the Party’s call for writers to “delve deep into the grass roots. “At the most. and. was moved by the melancholy Uighur songs. was constantly fingering traitors within the Party. towering poplars. rocky deserts. Mao. and his fiction was criticized as overly intellectual. five years.” Their stay on the western frontier lasted sixteen years. albeit in a one-room apartment. He marvelled at the region’s beauty: magnificent snow- capped mountains. Cui and Wang named her for Yining.

the Cultural Revolution came to an end. to acclaim. with a washroom in the hallway and a loudspeaker blaring outside in the evenings. after a quarter century of limbo. Cui buried her face in her hands and wept. People’s Literature had a . which had just arrived in the mail. it was the basis of a popular movie. After decades of repression. A throng of Uighur and Han friends came to the station to say goodbye. In less than a year.the Red Guards ransacked homes. “Your story is in it!” she yelled as she came inside. he was making dumplings at home when he saw his wife rushing home through the rain. the courtesan. The family moved into a hundred-square-foot room in a noisy building. Sooner or later. and the poet. waving a copy of People’s Literature. Literary journals thrived. Wang had regained his Party membership. in 1976. Old Wang. But geography did help insulate him. Wang received a monthly salary and subsidized housing from the writers’ association. wearing only a pair of shorts. produce page after page. In Yining. the Wangs boarded an eastbound train. and beat up teachers. and Wang was protected by his Uighur friends. In 1980. “Don’t worry. (Later. any country needs three kinds of men: the king. you will return to your post as a poet. burned books. When the train started moving. Wang began to write and circulate his stories. Wang burned all his personal correspondence. he would strip off his shirt and. the campaign had lost much of its severity by the time it reached the remote border town. the hunger for new writing in China was tremendous. 1979. taking care to avoid anything politically risky. In the sweltering summer heat. One afternoon in 1978. and. All he had to do was keep writing and publishing. sometimes torturing and killing them. In June. his first novel was published.) Then came an order of transfer from the Beijing Writers’ Association. Wang grabbed the copy with his flour-stained hands: it was the foremost literary journal in China. An elderly peasant who sheltered him said.” With the death of Mao. Though the political climate remained uncertain.

He was also becoming a savvy cultural official. “Emancipating the mind” was a Party slogan at the time. and he worked as an unskilled laborer during his early adulthood. The moment belonged to the likes of Liu Xiaobo. Wenhua re—“culture fever”—was taking hold.” he protested. “Huodong Bian Renxing” (the title refers to a Japanese toy that changes shape when you play with it).” The book depicts two parents trapped in an unhappy marriage. Liu. He pushed for more liberal policies but maintained a warm. other major literary magazines enjoyed readerships almost as robust. spent his teen- age years in Inner Mongolia. Wang was elected to the governing board of the Chinese Writers’ Association. Yet the ferment of the late nineteen-eighties made such gestures seem pallid. he was elected to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Wang became China’s cultural minister. Years later. In 1985. where his father had been sent as part of Mao’s Down to the Countryside movement.5 million. A quick-witted speaker with impressive rhetorical and political skills.circulation of 1. when someone remarked that Wang was “a nice guy but had no achievements as a minister. but younger writers and critics took the notion much farther than officialdom ever contemplated. Wang struck a chord with his deftly turned portraits of innocents and true believers struggling to survive in a dark time. Widely considered his best novel. The year after its publication. After Mao’s death. and tried to invigorate state-funded enterprises with some market measures. who was born in 1955 to provincial intellectual parents. it was set in nineteen-forties Beijing and based on Wang’s own childhood experiences. “But I lifted the ban on night clubs!” Wang was a decidedly liberal minister. and their son’s mounting belief in revolution. brought Western artists like Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo to perform in China. He pushed for greater openness and pluralism in the arts. Wang’s second novel. The next year. painting a bleak picture of life in “old China. deferential relationship with senior Party leaders. he went to college at Jilin and . They had little time for Wang’s cautious meliorism. was published.

” and called for China to be thoroughly Westernized. not “because they were not allowed to write but because they cannot write. buying the grandfather ginseng royal jelly for his health. A great-grandson goes off to work at a joint-venture company. by collective will power and action—the same fantasy that. “Tough Porridge. A lighthearted vision of political reform and its travails plays out in a story that Wang published in 1989. to which some family members secretly add Chinese spices. Soon. as a rank imitator. where he began teaching in 1984.” which won China’s top literary prize for short fiction. a revered but open-minded patriarch. whose work he dismissed as derivative and mediocre. It’s about a large family that has always eaten rice porridge and pickled vegetables for breakfast. she starts skimping on ingredients and. they all return to the porridge breakfast. who detected symptoms of a “messiah complex. he pronounced Confucius “a mediocre talent. Some of his more mischievous assertions were made during a 1988 interview with a Hong Kong magazine: “After a hundred years of colonialism. When the family’s retainer of four decades takes charge.” the fantasy that culture and society could be transformed. the trendy grandson is serving an all-Western breakfast. Eventually. so plain and so . Hong Kong became what we see today. Various other reforms are attempted. he caused a sensation with scathing critiques of prominent scholars and intellectuals of the previous generation. he felt. of course. The boisterous scene of wenhua re was less congenial to Wang. that it would take three hundred years of colonialism to make it like Hong Kong today. offers to relinquish his authority over the menu to others.” For an iconoclast like Liu. though. causing digestive woes.” Delightedly piling outrage upon outrage. He claimed that there was “nothing good” to say about mainland Chinese authors. with the money she saves.did his doctoral work in literature at Beijing Normal University. The grandfather. In the mid-eighties. had spurred the Chinese revolution. including democratic voting. He dismissed the writer Gao Xingjian. in one swoop. The intellectual son and his wife move abroad. who went on to win the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature. People start eating separately. cultural critique and political reform were part of the same struggle. China is so big.

For many liberals. when he learned of the protests. after which he accompanied her to her university. Wang distanced himself from the hard-liners. naïve. he spent the rest of the summer in Yantai. not elation. following the death of Hu Yaobang. the situation rapidly deteriorated. as the demonstrations grew. Nobody was in a mood to be soothed when. mourning the passing of an era. While he was abroad with a delegation in Europe and Egypt. elliptical poems. In the eyes of the radicals. the chairman of the People’s Republic of China officially terminated Wang’s ministerial appointment. On medical leave. in mid-April. he behaved no differently from a host of other cowardly functionaries. The massacre destroyed the tenuous bond between the Party and the intellectuals: some renounced their Party membership and broke with the regime. no protestations.soothing. he spent seven hours talking down his twenty-year-old daughter. Liu Xiaobo was on a fellowship at Columbia University at the time. it was a stand-up-and-be-counted moment. 1989. . At one point. the liberal Party Secretary who had been forced to resign a couple of years earlier. students started to demonstrate in Tiananmen Square. a seaside town. some went into exile or were jailed. But Wang felt dread. the nineteen-eighties— idealistic. fragile—came to a crashing end as the tanks arrived in Tiananmen Square. but he made no renunciations. On June 4th. he promptly gave up the fellowship and flew back. On September 4th. and waited outside the campus gate until she persuaded her class not to join the demonstrations. composing moody.

He wrote to Jiang Zemin. It’s hard to convey how unsettling the charge was. was still the supreme power at the time. Conservative publications denounced him. directly triggered by such suspicions: in 1965. Many liberals cheered Wang. “because he thinks that you have to be petty to handle a petty guy. In the post-Tiananmen years. I mentioned Tiananmen to him just once.” His eyes glinted behind his glasses. to be a hooligan to fight a hooligan. reporting a remark I’d heard about his “soft landing. had privately written to him when he was a newly appointed cultural minister.” It was a lofty statement of principle. a historical drama written by a Party intellectual was accused of being an oblique attack on Mao. . hard-liners pushed the idea that his “Tough Porridge” was actually a veiled attack on Deng Xiaoping. the post- purge head of the Chinese Writers’ Association. he filed a libel lawsuit. having been beaten). So when the accusation about Wang’s story began to spread. who. and he laughed. The charge was absurd. The reality.” in which writers use allegory to criticize high officials. but Mao took it seriously. Wang responded forcefully. he ordered the newspapers to denounce the author (who eventually died in custody. the Party chairman. China has a long tradition of yingshe.” Wang corrected me: “These are the exact words: ‘He flipped a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree backward somersault and landed standing on his feet. The Cultural Revolution was. and the self-fuelling paranoia grew into a frenzied nationwide campaign. some of his former colleagues. we both knew. Liu wrote later. Wang disregarded the rules about privacy in publishing the letter. “shadow assassination. Wang was the subject of investigations. distanced themselves from him. indifferent to the real risk of persecution that Wang faced. but he doesn’t seem to understand that this will make all of us hooligans together.In all the years I’ve known Wang. ostensibly retired. including his vice-ministers. With Wang newly vulnerable. in fact. and. wasn’t so comfortable. devastatingly. he released an obsequious letter that one of his hard-line opponents. Not Liu Xiaobo.

Wang was allowed to attend a writers’ event in Singapore. Wang gratefully resumed the life of a full-time writer. He could be overbearing. autobiography. whose “hooligan style” some had condemned as subversive. Then came the Liu Xiaobo attack—the notorious “Black Horse” essay—and the ferocious backlash it inspired. In a series of brilliant essays on several interlinked debates over the “commercialization” of culture. reviews. his house with a courtyard (later. In the same unsparing spirit that Wang wrote of intellectuals under Mao. and recall the glee with which he mocked various cultural luminaries. at a small hot-pot dinner celebrating his release from prison. He provoked an argument after he told a fashionable young novelist at the table that the eminent critic who’d discovered and championed him was nothing but an ignorant trend monger. criticism. market reform. the fengsha was briefer. which are accorded to all former officials by rank. and even translations of some John Cheever stories. He retained his benefits and the perks. He put himself under a harsh light. In the fall of 1991.“I lived through fengsha for more than two decades.” Wang told me. he eloquently defended cultural diversity. self-aggrandizement. and an end to China’s authoritarian traditions. Wang still had. he was appointed to be a member of the Zhengxie. a car. A year later. But his critical lance was accompanied by genuine courage and political conviction. the political consultation body for the government. and a driver at his disposal. “It’s an awful state to be in. His role in Tiananmen wasn’t simply that of a cheerleader or provocateur: he tried to negotiate with the Army for the students’ peaceful withdrawal from the square. analyzing his own complex motives: moral . I first met Liu in early 1991. not least his own. he also championed a hugely popular and controversial young novelist named Wang Shuo.” This time. And he may be the only Tiananmen leader who published a book exposing the movement’s moral failings. and factionalism that beset the student activists and their intellectual compadres. and at times unbearable. short fiction. Liu detailed the vanity. lectures. verse. a large apartment). a secretary. courtesy of the state. producing novels.

What was Wang thinking. who wrote a caustic piece about Wang at the time. opportunism. exuberant and witty at its best. Wang’s act was luojing xiashi: “dropping a stone over someone’s head after he falls into a well.” He was particularly incensed by the suggestion that China’s problems should be blamed on the lack of courage among its intellectuals and writers. even executed or driven to suicide. propelled by Deng Xiaoping’s push for “marketization. as experienced by his generation of revolutionary intellectuals. the last of which appeared in 2000. a yearning for glory and influence. he recalled in a memoir that his main fear was the recurring spectre of the Cultural Revolution.passion. More than a decade later. Critics complained that Wang’s narrative style. he was on guard against any thinking that might push China back onto the “ultra-leftist track.” Deng had said— literary journals found themselves with a dwindling readership. But even within the literary community the “Seasons” series was little admired. The culture fever of the eighties had given way to a focus on economic growth. told me that he still finds the assault unforgivable. had grown .” On the political front. They constituted a fictional chronicle of the People’s Republic. The rise of a lively pop culture—one increasingly drawn to the Internet and new media— further dampened public interest in serious fiction. But Wang also chided himself for rushing into these debates with too little sympathy for the other side. when he directed his lordly disdain at someone whom the state had all but silenced? The liberal Shanghai intellectual and historian Zhu Xueqin. The reception was lukewarm. While the population turned to the absorbing business of accumulating wealth—“To get rich is glorious. the Party enforced a no-debate policy. keeping a tight lid on the intellectuals and the media. “Why are you so bloodthirsty?” he demanded.” The controversy affected Wang deeply. when so many of them had been persecuted. In his mind. Wang’s most ambitious writing project of the nineties was four interlinked novels he dubbed the “Seasons” series.

a murky torrent. the entire world. It excited all of mankind. That’s why the Berlin Wall was covered with West German Red Guards’ posters. . he felt. got rid of all ropes and rules. He clearly felt that the true value of these novels hadn’t been understood. I said that I hadn’t read it yet. taken from a long passage on Mao: In the context of the Chinese revolution and the world revolution. greatly admired Mao Zedong. widely admired for his laconic style. and later. and California’s Berkeley established the People’s Republic of Berkeley. and forthright . here’s a sample. .” and he’s far from the only one to think so. the writer Malraux. Fumbling for a response. Nobody else. His language lacked polish and restraint.garrulous and showy. . Once when I was with Wang and Cui. “Mao is China’s Hitler. of history created in search of a little new meaning. Descriptions were heaps of hyperbolic adjectives and set phrases. the thinking of the avant-garde. It was a carnival of will power. once told me. the boxing fans all over the world watched on live television: Tyson tattooed his arm with a portrait of Mao. Mao Zedong’s poetic rhapsody. It was a little cruel. It was a carnival of heroism and idealism. would have written about the Chinese revolutionary experiences with such candor and sympathy. It would have been more accurate to say I wasn’t able to finish it. Although the Party’s legitimacy remains bound up with Mao. . If you’re wondering whether an important literary work has fallen victim to critical trends. what is the reader to make of the suggestion that the Cultural Revolution was just “a little cruel”? A leading contemporary Chinese novelist. of concept and language. Mao Zedong let the young people liberate themselves to the extreme for a time. but I could sense his disappointment. Setting aside the overwrought prose. Wang was quick to change the subject. she mentioned one of the “Seasons” novels and asked what I thought of it. . But is all that obedience and rigidity not cruel to life and to youth? The Cultural Revolution was indeed thoroughly thrilling. [the Cultural Revolution] was a people’s carnival. . and the French Culture Minister. many years later.

You know his poetry and calligraphy. It’s an argument with consequences. Wang can’t take that final step. Mao wenti.” Zhu Xueqin says. even though at that time he could have taken it over with a brigade. if you recall all the tortures that took place at the Chinese courts. one ultimately should reject Mao. Even in aesthetic terms. China’s future will be determined by which of the contending interpretations of Mao’s legacy prevails. But you want to talk about Mao’s cruelties? Well. So he left a window open to the West and got China out of the big socialist family. “Mao had once helped Wang. Some contend that.” Other writers offer various explanations for Wang’s reluctance to condemn Mao. So it’s notable that. refined Mandarin vernacular with his crude. strident sloganeering. “As a politician. he certainly had plenty of predecessors! But this is not yet the time for a real discussion about Mao. after decades of Communist rule.” has seriously contaminated Chinese writing. Mao has been widely condemned: critics hold him responsible for violating the elegant. And I think he did two great things. “Blaming China’s problems on Mao is simplistic. “Maospeak. The first was leaving Hong Kong alone in 1949. Still. all those slow-cutting executions in past dynasties. In a sense. The second was breaking up with the Soviet Union. Why? He’s too .public criticism of him is still forbidden. “It’s very human that Wang feels grateful. as the “Seasons” series makes clear. after looking at Mao’s good and bad sides. Mao’s good deeds and bad deeds were both determined by China’s history and culture. Wang’s assessment stops well short of condemnation. many intellectuals consider him a cynical despot and his rule the greatest catastrophe in Chinese history. He was a political and literary genius.” Wang told me.

” Xie Youshun.calculating. born in the decade straddling the fifties and sixties. Yet why did he feel compelled to reaffirm a faith that has brought so much destruction and delusion? One afternoon last winter. where he had just autographed copies of his new book. since denouncing Mao is quite fashionable among intellectuals these days. grew up in the Cultural Revolution. “They tend to be hard on their own biological fathers but absolutely devoted to their spiritual father figures. I recognized my father. enthusiastically participated in the campaigns. himself included. when Wang was being interviewed on television. his face solemn on the screen. skepticism. and said.” Others think the explanation is generational. Then he cited a line from a famous poem by Bei Dao: “I do not believe!” “Well. told me. “Brainwashing? Do you think anyone can take out my brain and give it a wash?” He went on to explain that he chose to embrace revolution and Communism. I was also touched because Wang is one of the few Chinese writers who have taken personal responsibility for their youthful zealotry. who. I was touched. Wang is not talking out of political expediency. It’s true loyalty. a noted young literary critic from Fujian. But. watching Wang defending his generation’s dignity and their choice to believe. his voice rising slightly. I had tea with Wang in Beijing’s Sanlian café. men and women who. Dressed in dark slacks .” Once. personal salvation through romantic love—struck all the keynotes of our journey from Mao’s little red children to bitterly disillusioned adults. “I can say this about my generation: We believe!” Bei Dao is the Allen Ginsberg of my generation. In Wang’s avowal. There was unsparing honesty and courage in such writing. Wang chortled.” Wang said. but Wang would describe in mordant detail how nearly all the intellectuals. Chinese writing about the Maoist purges tended to depict the sufferings of innocent victims. the host asked him whether he’d been brainwashed by Communist ideology. The themes of his early poetry—alienation. until his death. “This is a common phenomenon among Wang’s generation of educated Chinese. was willing to revise but not renounce his faith.

“And what are the two things that excite young people the most? Sex and revolution!” I pointed out that. “Jianying. the Cultural Revolution.” . “You see what I mean? It’s the same with the Chinese revolution.” The great famine. smiling. “Churchill once said. plenty of the social and moral ills—corruption and inequality—of old China persist.’ So.” He took a sip of tea and looked at me closely. “If the Communists hadn’t won.” he said. “Yes. “isn’t it possible that we Chinese would have suffered less on the path toward modernization?” Wang wouldn’t admit to regrets.’ “ Wang replied. what happened happened a long time ago. Let me tell you about my recent visit to Beichuan”—the center of the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake. despite the revolution’s immense human costs. I’m not interested in these ‘what if’ questions. Wang looked both alert and relaxed. but if you have to govern China it won’t last more than three days before the country falls into chaos and you lose your own head. don’t they?” he said. ‘I support democracy not because it is so good but because it would be worse without it. “I stood there looking at the ruins. And then he sighed.” I persisted. to him. as inevitable as the eruptions of Mother Earth. the cult of Mao and the Red Guards’ mania. “My view of the Chinese Communist Party is the same: I support it not because it’s that good but because it would be worse without it. it must shake heaven and earth.and a black jacket with a mandarin collar. and it’s absolutely terrifying! Experts tell me a great earthquake like that is caused by an interlinked assortment of underground movements that have been happening for a thousand years. he saw the upheavals as inevitable. frowning. I’m talking about its inevitability. Tragic. they still do. when it finally erupts. awe-struck. but also somehow magnificent. “China has a long tradition of violent dynastic changes. I once told a friend. I asked him about the persistent criticism that he is an apologist for the Chinese government. I’m not talking about the legitimacy of the Chinese revolution. That’s why. which swallowed up tens of millions of lives: all these are. ‘You are a very capable man.

. History will not stop its forward march for fear of paying a price. the destructive passions were dissipated. and the Party had turned toward a constructive path. sentimentally. they show an attentiveness to the details of ordinary life. “The dear mother may beat her child.” Wang’s stories about Uighur life. for the mother’s anger will fade and she will hold her child and cry over it. But I have no right to feel depressed. sponsored by the Chinese Writers’ Association. the tone is of gentle comedy and black humor amid disaster. . she insists on having a “deeper discussion” with Wong. you could feel Wang’s genuine respect for a culture and a people. Wong mentally rehearses his response: “Those who are terrified by the horrors. Reading them.” Last summer. because I am a master of today’s China. “I am a master of today’s China”: that’s not something Wang ever said to me. You may feel depressed.” The protagonist. but there was no avoiding the pride. Why not be positive and look ahead? As the protagonist in one of his best-known short stories. are among the most moving of his fictional works. “Hard Times to Meet.” put it. Without narrative indulgence. Local branches were hosting a program to commemorate Wang’s writings about Xinjiang and to give the writers an opportunity to gather fresh materials from the “grass roots. please go away. he felt in belonging to the élite of this new China. Wong. . I wondered what remained of such connections. I joined Wang and a group of other writers on a nine-day trip across Xinjiang. is a prominent Chinese official who meets with an old friend. Preoccupied by the horrors of the Chinese revolution. “Salute from a Bolshevik. seemingly an authorial alter ego. and the responsibility. realist language.The conversation reminded me of a story that Wang published in the nineteen-eighties. The revolution was over. a Chinese woman who lives in the United States.” And yet Wong is made so uneasy by the prospect of this conversation that he goes on a trip to avoid her. . but the child will never resent his mother. the moody beauty of nature. You have the right to feel depressed. Given his cosseted existence. a series of Chekhov-like tales written in simple.

” she said. you just can’t be your real self even if you want to. “and get stabbed in a back alley!” Whenever I asked questions about Han-Uighur conflicts. From arrival to departure. enjoyed sumptuous meals with endless rounds of liquor. and remarked that Wang sounded like “a different Wang Meng. a member of our group overheard Wang laughing and talking in Uighur with the chairman of the Xinjiang regional government. the one from Bayandai!” Later. to Xinjiang!” He was almost shouting. We stayed at four-star hotels. and the two men embraced for a long time. we were looked after. “That’s right—that Uighur-speaking Wang Meng is the real Wang Meng! And the real Wang Meng will always belong to Bayandai. When we reached Bayandai. There was no free time to roam the streets or meet people on our own. Local officials and guides accompanied us everywhere.” The Uighur official replied. a mob of paparazzi descended on him and followed him every step of the way. that’s the real Wang Meng. and a large crowd of onlookers. Toward the end of the program.W. An elderly man came up and buried his face in Wang’s shoulders and started sobbing. event.This was my first C. attended regional literary festivals. . watched folk performances. He was a former village head who had known Wang thirty years earlier. our hosts looked away and changed the subject. “You could be lost. One day.A. Police cars escorted us when we moved from one town to another. an anxious local guide found and reprimanded us. He talked about how. What made the scene nearly surreal was the forest of TV cameras and their glaring lights. at certain times in China. “Oh. The Uighur audience applauded long and hard. a couple of writers and I decided to venture out by ourselves to a Uighur neighborhood. Wang related this exchange to a largely Uighur audience who packed a conference hall to hear him. listened to speeches by local officials. the Uighur village where Wang used to live in the nineteen-seventies. and it was an eye-opener. he grew emotional and started chopping the air with his hand. Two hours later. As he spoke.

But such moments were rare among the daily procession of pomp and vacuous speeches. just hours after we left Xinjiang. By the end of the riots. Wang kept mute on the subject. reality intruded. Wang was a guest in several talk- show segments that month. the crowd cheered wildly. He was warm.” region under heavy military patrol. I promise Iʼll run escalated. I often wondered how Wang really felt about the extravagance and artificiality of our tour. telling a few well-worn stories from his Xinjiang years—like the one about the time he and a Uighur friend sat by the highway and shared a bottle of liquor. he described his deep personal bond with the Uighurs. In October. laughed. self- deprecating. nearly two hundred people were dead. drinking from a bicycle-bell cup. a Uighur boy danced up to Wang. Wang started dancing. too. there was genuineness and spontaneity in the way that Uighurs interacted with him: they grabbed him. During one. cried. A staged routine had been transformed into an occasion of real merriment. the Chinese media celebrated the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. nostalgic. Riots broke out in the region’s capital. One day. hugged him. followed by a troupe of singers and dancers dressed in colorful costumes.Despite the fame and status he had acquired. Uighur style. and almost two thousand injured. The boy beamed. during a kitschy “folk” ceremony in a plaza near Kashgar. most of them Han. As ethnic tensions “Please donʼt tell my husband about us. and engaged him in rapid Uighur conversation. the government placed the away with you. swinging his arms and body and tapping his feet in perfect rhythm. The message was about ethnic harmony and Han- . On July 5th. triggered by a brawl in southern China in which two Uighurs were slain.

The riots went unmentioned.D. Supine acquiescence or intransigent opposition—are those really the choices? .” he told me. “If only China gets to develop in peace for another twenty years. that it was important to be able to continue to do one’s work. and later asked me to caution my brother about his exaggerated expectations. Liu. “Well. “China is pitiful—any leader who talks about democracy loses his power. two policemen followed Jianguo wherever he went. A Shanghai scholar told me that after he decided not to sign—he didn’t want to jeopardize a scholarship fund that he was setting up—Liu told him that he fully understood and respected his decision.” If the great accommodator allowed himself dreams of social transformation. still so paltry. he was gracious toward those who declined to sign. He used a classical formula: “Buyao yilan zhongshan xiao!” “Don’t stand on top of a mountain and think that everything is beneath you!” Recalling Wang’s earlier portrait of the cocky black horse. at least it seems we won’t go back to the Maoist age. Liu tamped down Jianguo’s enthusiasm. talked headily about plans for mobilizing China’s dissidents. Even as he solicited signatures for Charter 08. Jianguo. undeterred.” He added. once a firebrand who equated moderation with capitulation and politeness with servility.Uighur friendship. The year before our tea at the Sanlian café.P. devotees of social transformation had been growing less averse to accommodation. then the situation will be different. The slightest stir of the wind and grass makes the government nervous. At the dinner. had matured. the country is a paper tiger. For a few months after his release. Jianguo. But he was mindful of the limits that the state media imposed on discussions of China’s ethnic policies. I couldn’t help smiling. “With per-capita G. I’d been at a welcome-back dinner that Liu Xiaobo hosted for my brother. Wang’s pragmatism reminded me of something he had said to me once when his spirits were low. But now?” He sighed. who had just served a nine-year term in prison for pro-democracy activism.

which can also be translated as “slave material. everything comes from the ‘state. and all others are subservient. Some liberals take a gentler view. obedient premier: “Zhou was a beloved figure among Chinese people because he had a charming personality. but the word she used was nucai. a Chinese poet who now lives in the United States. have .” Zhang Er. and arrives at an ideal balance. “China is still a culture of master and servants: one person rules from the top. What he embodies is zhongyong zhidao. takes a reasonable measure of all things under heaven.’ when even your shit needs to be handled by the government’s hygiene department. alluding to a tradition in which a true gentleman is one who avoids extremes. who now stress their independent spirit.” he once wrote. how can you really boast about your distance?” With his warmth and wit. says that Wang reminds him of Zhou Enlai. That’s what makes him such a contentious figure.” She chose the pejorative term carefully. Wang humanizes the state. says. a Hong Kong monthly that’s vociferously critical of the Chinese Communist Party.” He was using a Confucian term. because she regards Wang as a contemporary example of a long Chinese tradition in which the best and brightest of the country loyally served the imperial court.” The Chinese word for “servant” is usually puren. the food you eat. Unlike many Chinese liberal intellectuals. his optimism. Wang does not try to separate himself from the state. he comes out as a mainstream moderate. his professed faith in (and gentle criticisms of) the Party. the middle way. It is also at the center of the controversies about him. One of them told me. the editor of the magazine Open. Jin Zhong. he was in the service of great evil. but he never challenged Mao. ultimately. “The People’s Republic of China has never been an object outside of me. Wang is just an outstanding servant. “When the water you drink. and. Mao’s loyal. There is even a sense in which Wang and Liu Xiaobo.Wang’s relationship with the Chinese state is ultimately at the center of his work and life. seeming opposites. “If you look at his whole career as a writer and an official.

matured into a champion of nonrevolutionary political reform: he continued to be critical of the government but gave it credit for economic reforms and for those instances where it displayed tolerance. You see it in popular TV lectures on the Analects. orderly and controllable. In an article published last February. the theatricality and sonorous rhetoric—represents a return to an old imperial manner. in the post- 1989 era.been participants in a common cause. Zhongyong zhidao: for all the radical attempts of the past century to sweep China’s “feudal tradition” into the dustbin of history. he wrote that political reform “should be gradual. Confucianism—with its emphasis on benevolent rule. from his radical anti-Communist youth. and Wang himself shows no signs of slowing down. So much of the contemporary culture of the state—the bureaucracy. Wang gave a talk at Harvard’s Asia Center. he said. peaceful. two weeks before Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize was announced. than between Chinese and American military officials. Confucius was also an indefatigable traveller. he lamented to me how little dialogue there had been. In September. and social harmony—is enjoying a major revival here. The fact that the two men have moved toward the center surely says a great deal about where China is today. Certainly Wang’s own sensibilities and talents are continuous with the Confucian tradition. It’s in the new government slogan of “building a harmonious society. Before he arrived. the power hierarchy.” Liu said at his trial. in the vogue for reading classics among schoolchildren and adults. refinement. between Chinese and American writers—less. in best- selling books about Confucianism and Taoism.” that “the order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy. . having battled against the hard-liners throughout his official and literary careers. in the state-funded establishment of Confucius Institutes abroad.” Wang—often from within the palace gates—has been a nimble and persistent advocate of liberalization and tolerance. “I have no enemy and no hatred.” in Premier Wen Jiabao’s penchant for peppering his speeches with classical quotations. He had prepared his talk in English. Liu.

Perhaps it was too much to ask for regrets. Times are different.” And. which reminds me of Barbra Streisand’s song in ‘The Way We Were. he replied. “I think perhaps he is right. so has China. he described his childhood deprivations and his youthful involvement in the Chinese revolution. Wang. compassionate toward the people. the age at which Wang joined the Communist Party. in the manner of an emissary from an earlier. I’m sure you had no toys when you were a kid. what else could you do except join the revolution?” Wang smiled. When he criticized the boy for spending too much time on computer games. He recalled a conversation he had had when his grandson turned fourteen. Departing from his prepared script. If you had a childhood without toys. tell me. his legacy—his achievements and compromises—will be assessed accordingly. he pledged to all his friendship. At Harvard. would we? Could we?” And he continued. “I’d like to tell you. devoted not to changing the system but to making it work better. But I firmly believe that all governments in the world have an obligation to provide sufficient toys and good books for the children and young people. the world has changed. the young people have the right to join a revolution.” The audience applauded loudly. he said. “I have mentioned the past the hopes of speaking across a chasm. he repeated some of the famous lyrics: “If we had the chance to do it all again. really does evoke the image of the good official from the Confucian literati: someone loyal to the emperor and the state. “Poor Grandpa. But Wang was not finished. soberly. and said.’ “ As the audience laughed. As with all who dedicate their lives to serving a great center of power and culture. like many of his protagonists. Otherwise. diligent in his duties. ♦ . courtlier era. I can’t imagine that my grandson’s generation will copy my path in life. to overthrow that useless government. I would and I could as I did. if I had the chance to do it all again.