Writer drops bombshell with tales of treachery

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 April, 2009, 12:00am

Prominent writer Zhang Yihe has dropped a bombshell in intellectual circles, with her writing revealing how some of the mainland's most celebrated literati betrayed and snitched on their fellow writers during the era of Mao Zedong .

The articles set off a fierce debate among intellectuals over the shameful informant culture, which reached new heights during the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. People were encouraged to spy on one another - even among family members.

Zhang's articles, including The Past is Not Like (Dissipating) Smoke, won international fame but were banned on the mainland. She came under fierce attacks from both conservatives and liberals alike for going too far and damaging the reputations of respected cultural heavyweights.

The writer is in town to attend a literature seminar at City University today.

In her controversial work, Zhang revealed how her father - Zhang Bojun , a well-known scholar - was under the watch of his best friend Feng Yidai for decades after a paranoid Mao launched a nationwide campaign to weed out 'rightists' from every walk of life. For years, the family were unaware of the betrayal of Feng - a famous translator who died in 2005. He made a shocking written confession in 2000, admitting he had been spying on his friend for the Communist Party.

The revelation devastated Zhang Yihe. Her father, once a personal friend of Mao, was purged and labelled a 'top reactionary rightist'.

His fall marked the start of the 'anti-rightist campaign' in 1957, in which thousands of free-spirited intellectuals were purged, exiled and subjected to years of bitter hardship.

That dark period of history was largely consigned to the dustbin until a former Shanxi provincial high court official wrote an article recently. Li Yuzhen claimed he 'accidentally' acquired classified files of Nie Gannu - a top essayist and poet jailed in Shanxi during the Cultural Revolution as a political prisoner from 1969 to 1976.

An amateur poet and admirer of Nie, the judge discovered the essayist had been jailed for life based on information from his friends, who spied on him closely from 1962 to 1967. Nie died in 1986.

Mr Li detailed his findings in a lengthy article, but did not name the informant. It was published in February, but did not receive much attention - until Zhang Yihe revealed in the Southern Weekend last month that Huang Miaozi , one of the most famous contemporary calligraphers and a close friend of Nie, was the man who snitched on him.

Huang, 96, is one of the mainland's few living cultural legends and enjoys a reputation for his easy-going lifestyle and benevolence. The revelation caused shock in intellectual circles.

Zhang Yihe followed up her first article with another published in the same newspaper, revealing that Feng had 'deliberately stayed around [my father] in order to snitch on him and other intellectuals'. She said he did this to win his own rehabilitation from the authorities.

She cited evidence gleaned from Feng's diary - published in 2000 - that the public had overlooked because it was full of ambiguous references and was hard to decipher without proper background knowledge. She said she believed Feng was in great mental suffering over his betrayal and wrote in his diary as a 'confession' to her father.

The revelation turned public perceptions of Huang and Feng upside down. Many now regard them as 'informants'. It also triggered a debate, with some urging sympathy for what they had done and others demanding more thorough research to get to the bottom of the matter.

Huang has not responded as he is in hospital. But many of his supporters have criticised Zhang in newspapers and internet forums, slamming her 'ruthlessness' in disclosing details from that difficult time.

But Zhang Yihe stands firm. 'I write what I find and speak what I think,' she said. 'I will be responsible for my words and feelings. In an age of the rule of law, questions [surrounding my allegations] will be answered when all the classified information is made public.'

She said her aim was to 'let people remember that what they have done in the past will not just go away as time passes by'.

'The past is not simply gone. It shapes the reality we face today,' she said last week. 'As long as students are still told to report teachers' remarks in classrooms, telephone conversations are still tapped, and personal mailboxes still monitored, informants and surveillance are not historic products. They are what we have to face in everyday life.'