Artists and their guides in the government


Zhao Dan’s famous roles

In an article discussing the current predicament of Chinese-language horror movies, film critic Yang Jian quotes an opinion piece written in 1980 by Zhao Dan, one of the most famous Chinese screen actors of the mid-20th Century. Zhao’s piece, which was published in the People’s Daily under the title “When Control is Too Specific, There is No Hope for the Arts,” argues against a strict censorship regime in the arts.

Zhao Dan (赵丹) first found fame as an actor in the 1930s, appearing in classics like Street Angel and Crossroads. After the revolution, he played the lead in biopics of herbalist Li Shizhen, high-commissioner Lin Zexu, and composer Nie Er. In 1960, he was cast as Lu Xun in a biographical drama that was never completed, sidetracked first by an official push to make films about the post-revolutionary period, and then by the Cultural Revolution.

Frustrated by interference from officials who were ignorant of the arts yet held positions of power over artists, Zhao wrote an essay highly critical of arts censorship, emboldened by the knowledge that he did not have long to live: “There is nothing left to be afraid of,” he writes in the closing paragraph. He died on October 10, two days after the essay was published.

Although the situation that Zhao describes in his essay has changed slightly, many artists still feel that state guidance of the arts is too specific and that government attempts to create art by a show of hands have not ceased.

When Control is Too Specific, There is No Hope for the Arts

by Zhao Dan / PD

People’s Daily has launched a discussion on “Improving the Party’s Guidance of the Arts and Invigorating the Arts Professions.” When I saw “improving” and “invigorating” in the headline, I was overjoyed. When I read in the editor’s note, “The Party’s guidance over work in the arts must be improved, and through improvement strengthened. We are unshakable on this point,” I was worried. I do not know the scope of that “we” in the note. I only know that there are some artists – people devoted to the Party’s ambitions – some dauntless artists who feel a reflexive sense of unease whenever they hear the words “strengthen the party’s guidance,” for through the accumulated experience of successive campaigns, each instance of strengthening is another round of suffering, willful interference, to the point of “total dictatorship.” The memories are fresh and give a particular impression. Try to avoid that sort of “strengthening” from now on.

My feeling is that strengthening or improving the Party’s guidance of the arts implies strengthening the Party’s control and implementation of arts policies, or to be more precise, how the Party will unshakably carry out the “two hundreds” policies. *

And will the Party engage in guidance over specific artistic creation? How will it do so?

The Party can exercise leadership over the rules for the national economic plan, and the party can direct how agricultural and industrial policy is carried out, but there is no need whatsoever for the party to guide how to plant a field, how to construct a stool, how to mend trousers, or how to stir-fry, and no need whatsoever to direct how to author an article or perform a role. Art is the concern of artists themselves, and if the Party governs art too closely, art has no hope and is lost. The Gang of Four kept such a tight control over art that it governed an actor’s belt or patch of cloth, to the point that there were just eight plays left for a population of 800 million. Shouldn’t we take warning from this negative example?!

Which author became so on the instruction of the Party? Did Lu Xun and Mao Dun write solely because they were obeying the party’s command? Did they write only what the party told them to?! Then who told Marx what to write? Life and struggle – the progress of history – produced a culture and formed an age of artists and thinkers, “whose brilliance lasts a hundred years.”* The essential character of the arts – its philosophy – is not something that any party, faction, organization, or branch can control. Insisting on such specific control simply causes trouble for itself. It’s a thankless task that is a disaster for the arts.

At all levels, leaders in charge of the arts say that they are “upholding the Party’s cultural policies and upholding revolutionary thinking in literature and the arts,” as if the artists themselves are blind, deaf, and befuddled. Otherwise, thirty years after the founding of the country and sixty years after the May 4th New Culture Movement, with a proletarian cultural army supposedly several-million strong, why would guidance need to be sought from a layman before the central government, and practically every province, district, county, commune, and factory, feels at ease? Such logic is incomprehensible! Especially when there are more laymen the higher up you go, yet power is more concentrated. As a result, as laymen are transformed into experts, the million-strong arts army has to change in step. And then there are those leaders unwilling to make the change, because once they transform into experts, can they still remain leaders? Besides, the hectic pace of life means that you can’t keep up with the experts: it takes effort to do so, and then there are additional obstructions, to the point that the relatively popular works of contemporary art and literature largely remain at the level of blunt truths related as neighborhood gossip.

Should associations of arts and literature and all arts bodies mandate the use of a particular ideology as the sole correct set of guidelines? Should the aim be one work in particular? I say we ought to think things over and discuss them carefully. It is best, I think, not to have any. In the history of art, from ancient times to the present day, when one school is feted and a hundred others rejected, there is no possibility for art to flourish.

At the third session of the Fifth NPC and CPPCC, there was a heated debate among delegates about the system issue. The term “system” (体制, or structure or institution) was one that we artists were originally unfamiliar with, but later on we came to realize that although we might not want to deal with the “system,” it desperately wants to manage us. It pushes us, compels us to deal with it for real.

I could ask, which other nation in the world is like ours, where layman officials make up such a large proportion of the arts sector? In this society of ours, it’s hard to say who is supporting whom, because apart from farmers and young people (and some seniors and women), pretty much everyone has an “iron rice-bowl.” So why the death-grip on the control of artists by non-artistic officials? Some of those non-artistic officials may have a function in another position, but the pool is so packed that the master swimmers have no room to do anything, and can only jam in upright like a candle. All officials who “guide the arts,” if they are dedicated to their jobs, need to hold opinions of their own and make statements about artistic creation. But uniformity is difficult. Take the filming of Lu Xun, for example. Since I did a screen test in 1960, I’ve grown out my beard, shaved it off, and grown it out again over the course of twenty years. In a big country like ours, a picture like Lu Xun, whose third and fifth parts differ in style, subject matter, and perspective, ought to be filmable, but it is hardly even talked about today. This is not an issue of a failure on the part of one actor’s artistic life; the protracted delay of Lu Xun has implications for the birth of new Lu Xun-style artists.

Artistic creation is highly individual. Art cannot be created by a show of hands! One can critique, criticize, encourage, or praise. From a historical standpoint, art is unlimited, and it cannot be limited.

Habit is not truth. Nor should bad habits be followed as if they were an immutable system. Despite level upon level of review, the censors cannot censor up anything worthwhile. Throughout history, no viable work has been created through censorship! On the film issue, I relapse into speaking out whenever there is controversy. Sometimes I wish I could control myself and not speak out. For me, there is nothing left to be afraid of. But now that I’ve prattled on like this, what good will it do in the end?

September 1980, on his sickbed

Zhao’s essay falls into the debate over “writing about reality” (写真实), in which critics of the time discussed how art ought to portray the world. It is worthwhile to note that on the same page of that issue of the People’s Daily, just below Zhao’s essay, was a piece by Lu Guishan titled “Do not only emphasize ‘how to write’ and ignore ‘what to write’.” Lu also name-checked Lu Xun, albeit in support of the opposite position:

Writing about negative, ugly things especially requires selection and filtering. Lu Xun said, “Naturalist description only makes people as uncomfortable as ‘swallowing a live fly’.”

Therefore, I’m afraid that one cannot simply say, “Whether a work of art achieves ‘essential reality’ depends not on the sort of social phenomena it depicts, but in how it is written.” Granted, “how it is written” is important, but “what to write” cannot be overlooked.

Lu’s central argument is that although ugliness and negative phenomena do exist in society, they are not mainstream and thus lack the “essential reality” that a work of art ought to have.

Thirty years later, the authorities still come down hard on art does not reflect mainstream experiences — witness Zhang Hongsen’s criticisms of several major art films in 2007, or the latest anti-vulgarity campaign. Although Zhao’s words may have been applauded by officials as dissimilar as Wen Jiabao and Hu Qiaomu, the “system” has yet to take the spirit of his criticism to heart.


  1. “双百”方针: The traditional expression, “Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend” (百花齐放,百家争鸣), serves as a policy that encourages a diversity of opinions and ways of expression in the arts and academia. Most famous because of its use in the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956-57), the policy was revived in the 1980s after the Cultural Revolution. Premier Wen Jiabao devoted a large portion of a 2006 address on the arts to the Two Hundreds policy (Chinese text).
  2. 各领风骚数百年, a line from “On Poetry” (论诗) by Zhao Yi (赵翼, 1727-1814), a short poem on poetic creativity: “Li Bai and Du Fu are on the lips of all, but these days it seems like nothing new. Every age sees new talent emerge, whose brilliance lasts but a hundred years.” The poem’s observation on the process of renewal and change in literature has often been quoted for its political subtext.
Links and Sources
This entry was posted in Censorship and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.