Book review: Milestones on a Golden Road, by Richard King

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 February, 2014, 6:13pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 February, 2014, 5:05pm

Milestones on a Golden Road: Writing for Chinese Socialism, 1945-80
by Richard King
HKU Press
3.5 stars

David Bartram

It can be difficult, and not always desirable, to separate art and politics.

For example, we have to ask whether the art that glorified Mao Zedong's doomed bid to turn China into a communist utopia can be viewed in its own right, without considering the millions of people who died as it was being produced.

History tells us that this is a distinction few can bring themselves to make. In Milestones on a Golden Road, Richard King says the government-approved socialist literature written in China during the Mao years isn't of interest only as historical context, but as a body of work with genuine literary value.

The "golden road" is a recurring metaphor during this period for China's march towards a perfect form of communism. King also uses it to map his own journey through the era's literature, stopping off at key moments such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to examine fiction from the period.

One of the highlights along this road is Hu Wanchun's A Man of Outstanding Quality, which tells the story of a perfect revolutionary hero, Wang Gang, who endeavours to almost single-handedly repair a rail line. King explains how the story was used during the Great Leap Forward as a way of inspiring both personal and national betterment.

Hu was a Shanghai steelworker trained by the party to write inspiring tales for fellow workers. However, his story of proletariat triumph is not reflected in reality; the forced industrialisation and collectivism of the Great Leap Forward caused famines which killed tens of millions.

King interviewed most of the writers discussed. Of a meeting with Hu during the 1990s, he described the author as regarding himself as a creative force responding to social change, rather than a cog in the party's propaganda machine.

At other points, King examines Zhou Libo's The Hurricane, an early piece of socialist realism which follows a party cadre and a peasant who team up to defeat an evil landlord. And then there's The Golden Road, Hao Ran's Cultural Revolution-era opus that was not fully published until 1994.

Hao Ran - born Liang Jinguang - was a peasant writer allowed to publish during the Cultural Revolution; the first two volumes were released in 1972 and 1974. At about 2,700 pages it is a remarkable achievement for someone who received only three and a half years of schooling. Although it would take a brave person to wade through The Golden Road today, King notes its flag-bearing significance at a time when literature had almost died in China.

This is an interesting study that does an excellent job of explaining the historical context behind the writings. It does, however, seem unlikely that the literature featured is ever going to be revisited en masse especially when we have many more dynamic and challenging authors coming out of China today.



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