Sometimes I think it should be renamed the Anti-China Propaganda Purveyor. That's how much you can rely on the New York Times Book Review to promote literature that portrays the Chinese Revolution in general, and the Cultural Revolution in particular, as world historic horrors. This coming Sunday, March 8, they do it again, with a front-page celebration of Yiyun Li's new novel The Vagrants, replete with a bright red background behind a nasty graphic full of Maos and death's head skulls.
So much, once again, for any pretense at hewing to the line that true art can't be political. This novel, like scads before it that were crafted to turn the reader against the People's Republic and were all equally hailed, is deeply political. But somehow when the politics are counterrevolutionary the art-can't-be-political line is suspended.
What these books won't tell you are a few minor facts. Like that the Chinese Revolution of 1949 freed nearly one billion workers and peasants from deadly poverty, starvation, illiteracy. Or that it ended the patriarchal, misogynist tradition of foot-binding for women, enabling millions of women to walk normally--that's right, literally to walk--for the first time. Or that the Cultural Revolution brought literacy to millions of peasants, workers and soldiers, opened up the arts to proletarian expression and higher education to those who had never before had access to it.
Or that, since 1949 (and before, when Mao and the Red Army were marching toward victory), U.S. imperialism has had People's China in its sights as a primary enemy both because of the dangerous example it provided the world's people of the possibility of revolutionary social change and, especially in the recent period, because it is an economic rival. And that the U.S. arts establishment has happily served its role as propagators of this enmity.
In the case of China, as with Cuba, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Vietnam, or the USSR before its fall, the most reliable and effective spokesartists for U.S. imperialism are those who immigrated to this country. What nobody here gets a chance to see are the books, movies and various other artistic expressions by the people who remain in the country in question, the vast majority by the way, the patriots who defend their countries and stand against imperialism's efforts to destroy the work they are trying to do. The art exists, but we never get to see it--especially not the books, because after all what U.S. capitalist publisher is going to translate and put out a novel that shows the beauty, the glory, the transformation of poor people's lives that result from the revolution?
This is above all the case with China. There, despite all the setbacks of the last 25 years, despite the leadership's reprehensible turning away from many of the key principles of the 1949 Revolution and of the Cultural Revolution, despite the terrible inroads of imperialist enterprise, U.S.-owned above all, and the resulting deterioration in conditions for Chinese workers--despite all this, there remains a flourishing mass communist movement that is engaging in a struggle to reverse the backward trends, a class struggle to restore and renew the gains of the Revolution. This movement includes millions of young Chinese women and men. There can be no doubt that they are writing novels. But we don't get to see them. Not in this country, where the impression is deliberately manufactured that the people of China hate the Revolution. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. What they hate are the inroads of capitalism. You'd never know it, however, from reading the NYTBR. (UPDATE: Now that I've gone through the whole Book Review I find that the entire thing this week has a China-bashing theme. It's not two pages, it's five, including the centerfold features. Blech.)
Here are some of the wonderful, classic books in English about the great Chinese Revolution, all of which I've read and highly recommend to anyone who wants a genuine insight into what it meant for a billion people, what a beacon of hope it was and what vast change it wrought. Unfortunately, they're mostly out of print (and I'm not letting my copies out of my sight!), but used copies may be available for those who care to dig.