In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Revolutionary Literature under Mao

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference
  • Journals
  • Soviet Influence and Socialist Realism
  • Yan’an and Its Legacy

Chinese Studies Revolutionary Literature under Mao
Richard King
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0019


This article includes literature (principally fiction, but also poetry, spoken drama, opera, and popular performances), cultural policy and debate, and the history of the Communist Party’s relations with cultural intellectuals for the years 1942–1976. The starting point is Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” delivered in May 1942, when China was politically divided and at war with Japan, and the period ends with Mao’s death in September 1976, an event closely followed by the arrest of his widow and her closest associates in a coup the following month. Mao’s “Talks” set the tone for the entire period, demanding the subordination of the arts to the Party’s mission as currently defined, and insisting that culture serve the Party’s constituency of “workers, peasants, and soldiers.” The “Talks,” variously interpreted, remained Party policy through the civil war period (1945–1949), and following the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. The new communist state established a Soviet Union–style cultural bureaucracy, and the most fortunate writers, performers, and artists were rewarded with official recognition and state sponsorship; also imported from the Soviet Union was the doctrine of socialist realism, with its requirement for loyalist and heroic works celebrating the nation’s prospective progress along the road to the glorious future of communism. Throughout the Mao era, the authorities sought to sponsor a new socialist Chinese culture, with varying degrees of tolerance for indigenous traditions and Western influence. The Communist Party and its leader believed in the power of the arts to support, and in the wrong hands to undermine, the cause of socialism; Mao intervened periodically in cultural matters, and many of the political campaigns that disrupted the period had cultural components. The effect of mercurial and often vindictive policy changes on writers and artists could be devastating: the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of Mao’s last decade (1966–1976) saw the persecution of many of the nation’s leading cultural figures; virtually no writer or artist had an uninterrupted career. Chinese cultural histories customarily view the Yan’an and civil war period as distinct, and they divide the period from 1949 to 1976 into the seventeen years before 1966 and the Cultural Revolution decade that followed. Although this periodization overstates the discontinuity of cultural policy and artistic output, it will be observed for convenience here. A note on Romanization: English-language publications from China prior to 1979 use a modified, and inefficient, version of the now little-used Wade-Giles Romanization; after 1979, Chinese publishers converted to the now conventional pinyin Romanization. For Western scholarship or translations, the transition from Wade-Giles (in its more precise form) to pinyin took place at around the same time.

General Overviews

Chinese conventions have “contemporary” (dangdai 当代) literature beginning with the Mao era; of the first twenty-seven years of the People’s Republic, the “seventeen years” to 1966 have been given greater attention, with the decade following often dismissed as a cultural wasteland. The relevant sections in Hong 2007; Chen 2001; and Zhang, et al. 1999 follow this chronology, though they address the content differently; Hong 2007 is the only translated volume. Chen 2016 presents a brief overview. Goldman 1967 and Goldman 1981 offer a history of the Communist Party’s treatment of intellectuals, including writers and artists, throughout the period, and favor those punished for dissent. The chapters in McDougall 1984 address a range of literary and artistic forms, while King 2013 focuses on representative works of fiction from 1945 to 1980. Hsu and Wang 1980 offers a wide range of material in translation. The essays in Wang 2011 present key concepts in the official culture of the period.

  • Chen Sihe 陈思和. Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi jiaocheng (中国当代文学史教程). Shanghai: Fudan Daxue Chubanshe, 2001.

    The first third of the book covers the period of this bibliography, with eight chapters on the output, principally fiction, of the seventeen years; areas addressed include rural and military writings and interpretations of modern history, and chapters on debates and conflicts are included. The style is more discursive and analytical than simply historical. A single chapter deals with the Cultural Revolution, concentrating on “underground” works unpublished at the time.

  • Chen Xiaoming. “Socialist Literature Driven by Radical Modernity, 1950–1980.” Translated by Qin Liyan. In A Companion to Modern Chinese Literature. Edited by Yingjin Zhang, 81–97. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2016.

    Review of the period from early works of Chinese socialist realism to the immediate post–Cultural Revolution years, in a volume largely dealing with works from other times. Mentions key works and their context in political and cultural movements. Struggle between classes is seen to dominate, and the emphasis is increasingly on heroic characters with revolutionary fervor. Immediate post-Mao writing is seen to expose recent trauma while exploring new forms of expression.

  • Goldman, Merle. Literary Dissent in Communist China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674188839

    A pioneering history of political turmoil in the arts in the 1940s and 1950s, from the suppression of literary opposition in Yan’an following Mao’s “Talks” through the early campaigns of the People’s Republic to the Hundred Flowers campaign, the Anti-Rightist campaign, and the Great Leap Forward; the narrative is one of Communist Party repression of courageous dissent.

  • Goldman, Merle. China’s Intellectuals: Advise and Dissent. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

    Follows the project of Goldman 1967 from the late 1950s to the end of the Cultural Revolution, with conflicts seen to pit liberal intellectuals against radical intellectuals, each with their patrons in the leadership, and extending the range of intellectuals to include philosophers and scientists as well as those in the arts.

  • Hong, Zicheng 洪子诚. A History of Contemporary Chinese Literature. Translated by Michael M. Day. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004157545.i-636

    The fullest Chinese review available in English to date; the first half details major works and authors, as well as literary policy and debates, from the War of Resistance to the death of Mao. A chronology of events and publications is included. The translator has added a glossary, bibliography, and a list of works cited with their Chinese titles. Translated from the original Zhongguo dangdai wenxue shi (中国当代文学史) (Guangzhou, China: Jinan daxue chubanshe, 1999).

  • Hsu, Kai-yu, and Ting Wang, eds. Literature of the People’s Republic of China. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

    Representative translations for the period of short pieces and extracts from longer ones, in fiction, theory, critical essays, and drama, with poetry particularly well served. In six sections, arranged chronologically from the Yan’an years to the end of the Mao era. Features introductions to each section and to authors (quite long for major figures) and a chronology of events in literature for the years 1949–1979.

  • King, Richard. Milestones on a Golden Road: Writing for Chinese Socialism, 1945–80. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013.

    Analysis of eight works of fiction and their creative process, supported by author interview material, in literary, historical, and political context, from four key periods: the civil war, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and the immediate post-Mao years. Attention is paid to the literary sources of the fiction.

  • McDougall, Bonnie S., ed. Popular Chinese Literature and Art in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

    Multiauthor work covering a very wide range of literary forms—opera, film, and comic dialogues as well as poetry and fiction—for the whole Mao era, with an overview by the editor of the first three decades of the arts under communist rule.

  • Wang, Ban, ed. Words and Their Stories: Essays on the Language of the Chinese Revolution. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.

    Analysis of the origins and changes in meaning of slogans, literary terms and concepts, and other key words in Chinese historiography, political discourse, and cultural criticism in the Mao era, including socialist realism, the three prominences, typicality, reality, and worker-peasant-soldier literature.

  • Zhang Jiong 张炯, Deng Shaoji 邓绍基, and Fan Jun 樊骏, eds. Zhonghua wenxue tongshi (中华文学通史). Beijing: Huayi Chubanshe, 1999.

    A comprehensive history of Chinese literature. The final three of the work’s ten volumes deal with contemporary literature, including both Mao-era and post-Mao writing: poetry in Volume 8; fiction and drama in Volume 9; and film scripts, the essay, and reportage in Volume 10. Fiction writers are grouped by generations or shared concerns, with writers who spent time in the communist liberated areas before 1949 being the best represented for the Mao era. The ten years 1966–1976 are, for a work of this length, summarily dismissed.

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