Mao Tun, On Mao Tse-tung's Teachings on Literature and Art

In Commemoration of the Tenth Anniversary of the Publication of Mao Tse-tung's "Address at the Yenan Round-Table Discussion on Literature and Art"

Originally published in:
People's China 1952 n. 11 (1 June), pp. 5-8, 30-31

The author of this text is Mao Dun (矛盾, 1896-1981, pseudonym of Shen Yanbing, born as Shen Dehong; in this publication the transcription 'Mao Tun' is used), one of China's most famous writers of realist novels and short stories of the 20th century. He was one of the first writers to join the Communist Party after its foundation in 1921. From 1949 to 1964, he was Minister of Culture. He also was the editor of the monthly literary journal Chinese Literature. Mao Dun spent the Cultural Revolution under house arrest, but survived, and was rehabilitated. He was elected chairman of the Chinese Writers' Association in 1978. He established the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize for novels, first awarded in 1982. His former residence in Beijing has been preserved and is a house-museum nowadays. Among Mao Dun's best known novels are Disillusion (1928) and Midnight (1933).


It is just ten years since Chairman Mao Tse-tung's Address at the Yenan Round-Table Discussion on Literature and Art was published in May, 1942. This historic document brilliantly exemplifies the profound integration of Marxism-Leninism with the practice of the Chinese revolution. It criticised certain shortcomings involving matters of principle in the revolutionary literary and artistic movements during the long period from the time of the May 4th Movement until 1942. It clarified various confused and non-proletarian ideas on literature and art that were still current in cultural circles up to that time. It thoroughly solved a series of momentous questions of principle that for a long period had been in dispute and that had remained unsolved in literary and artistic circles. It pointed out clearly that literature and art should serve the people and, first of all, the workers, peasants and soldiers, and that to achieve this aim, literary and art workers themselves should remould their ideology; and that in order to remould their ideology, they must wholeheartedly throw themselves into the actual revolutionary struggle.


The publication of this document marked a great revolution in the literary and artistic circles of our country. It marked a great revolution in every sphere of the cultural life of our country.

The revolutionary literature and art of China had by no means been barren prior to the publication of this historic address. Nevertheless, from the point of view of creative method, they still remained essentially within the orbit of critical realism. A new era of revolutionary realism dawned with the publication of this document.

Outstanding artistic works were created in this period - The White-Haired Girl, The Rhymes of Li Yu-tsai, Sunshine on the Sangkan River, The Hurricane and others. But the significance and the greatness of the document goes beyond this. It is not only the supreme directive for our work in literature and art today. It will remain our supreme directive when we enter into the Socialist stage of our development. The valuable instructions given in this document concerning the dialectical solution of the question of popularisation and the raising of artistic standards, the correct instructions concerning the criteria of literary criticism, its penetrating critique of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois outlook on literature and art, on the question of the ideological remoulding of workers in literature and art, and on the question of the united front in literature and art, are not only classical and typical for China, but are so for all countries where the struggle continues between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary literature and art.

The facts have proved that whoever, in whatever place, genuinely understands and resolutely puts into practice Mao Tse-tung's teachings and directives on literature and art as embodied in this address, will make no mistake in his work, and will attain real achievements. Neglect of these directives, on the contrary, leads certainly to errors and defects in creative work. It is for this reason that, as the entire nation commemorates the tenth anniversary of this historic document, we must check up on our own work and our outlook on literature and art and intensify our study of it.

It cannot be denied that ideological confusion of a serious nature still exists in our literary and artistic circles. There are still serious mistakes and shortcomings in our work, some of which were first disclosed in last year's movement for the remoulding of literary cadres, and later in the movement against corruption, waste and bureaucratism. The causes of such mistakes are many, but in the main, they are the result of insufficient understanding

This article by Mao Tun (Shen Yen-ping), Minister of Cultural Affairs, was originally published in the Chinese press under the title Remould Our Ideology, Serve the Workers, Peasants and Soldiers.

p. 5

of Chairman Mao's directives on literature and art. We thought we understood them when in fact we didn't. This is why deviations or mistakes so often occur in carrying out our art policy. The main reason for these deviations or mistakes is our failure to carry out firmly the principle of literature and art "for the workers, peasants and soldiers."

It was in his Yenan address on literature and art that Chairman Mao raised the question of "whom to serve." "(It) --- would seem that this problem has already been solved by our comrades engaged in literary and artistic work in the various anti-Japanese bases," he said then, "...But actually, this is not the case. Many of our comrades have not found a clearcut solution." Even today, it can still be said that many of our comrades have not found a clear-cut solution to this question. The next question is "how to serve them (the workers, peasants and soldiers)." We all pay lip service to this principle by saying "popularisation first," by affirming that "we raise the standard of our work on the basis of popularisation and that our popularisation is based on the raising of the standard of our work." But what is expressed in our actual work proves that we have either looked down on popularisation or misinterpreted it, or vulgarised it, or divided popularisation and the raising of artistic standards into two separate things - "you'll do the popularisation; I'll attend to the raising of artistic standards." Some of us even went so far as to find a "raising of artistic standards" by trailing in the wake of the literature and art of the bourgeoisie. This was a whole series of mistakes.

In his Yenan address, Chairman Mao repeatedly warned us that this problem of "whom to serve" is the fundamental one. In order to take firmly a correct standpoint in this question and fulfil our work accordingly, all workers in literature and art coming from the petty bourgeois class must undergo a process of ideological remoulding. It is inconceivable that there should be any of us who have not yet read this address on literature and art or have not yet committed its ideas to memory. But the question is not whether one has read it or not, or whether one has memorised its contents or not; it is a question of whether or not we have exerted ourselves in accordance with its instructions.

Chairman Mao has told us that those literary and art workers who sincerely wish to serve the workers, peasants and soldiers, should first of all throw themselves into the actual revolutionary struggle so that their ideology and emotions may be remoulded. At the same time, they must study both MarxismLeninism and society. He further said that "by Marxism-Leninism we mean the living Marxism-Leninism that can be applied to the life and struggle of the masses and not that 'Marxism-Leninism' that is merely stored up in bound volumes." Therefore, the core of the problem lies in whether or not we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the actual revolutionary struggle. Today, no one would say, in so many words, that he is against throwing himself wholeheartedly into the actual revolutionary struggle. However, those who have "thrown themselves into the actual revolutionary struggle" have not necessarily all done so "wholeheartedly." At a certain moment, on a certain matter, they may be wholehearted, but at another moment and on another matter, they may not be so wholehearted but actually half-hearted. What does it mean to be wholehearted in this connection? By this we mean to be selfless, to hold firmly to the principle of serving the people - the workers, the peasants and soldiers, and as firmly to oppose all that is detrimental to the people, with no thought of making unprincipled concessions or compromises. Unless a person acts in this way we must say that his effort is only "halfhearted," in which case, although he may be said to be in the actual struggle, yet in fact, he is always playing the part of an onlooker. Such an onlooker's attitude seriously hinders one's ideological remoulding.

The following fact must be noted: the majority of our intellectuals who come from the petty bourgeoisie are brain workers. In the old society, they were constantly menaced by unemployment; their life was very unsettled; their financial situation was bad, so much so that from time to time they faced starvation. These circumstances signify that most of the intellectuals coming from the petty bourgeoisie were dissatisfied with the old society and therefore wanted the revolution.

The ever-present menace of unemployment and the uncertainty of life suffered by the literary and art workers coming from the petty bourgeois class is the same, if not worse, than that of the intellectuals engaged in other occupations. This explains why the literary and art workers of petty bourgeois

p. 6

origin have a revolutionary nature. A considerable number of them have, in fact, joined the revolution. But it is just because of this that all the literary and art workers and other intellectuals coming from the petty bourgeoisie retain in various degrees an attitude of resistance to the question of ideological remoulding. They think: "I have always been a brain worker and have never exploited anyone. I have always wanted the revolution. Am I not one of the working people? Why must I go through a process of ideological remoulding then?" This is tantamount to refusing to admit that one has any non-proletarian ideology, and, therefore, one does not feel the need for ideological remoulding. But this is wrong, because although, "economically, the intelligentsia has no conflict with the proletariat, nevertheless, in living conditions and in labour, it is non-proletarian. Hence, there is conflict between them psychologically and ideologically." (Lenin) This precisely describes the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. On the one hand, they easily "accept" the revolution, but on the other, they have considerable conflicts with the proletariat in the sphere of ideology. Whoever refuses to admit this fact will achieve little in ideological remoulding even though he has joined the revolution and thrown himself into the actual struggle. If a literary or art worker denies this fact, it is impossible for him to serve the workers, peasants and soldiers.

The two above-mentioned conditions - of being unable to throw oneself wholeheartedly into the actual struggle and the refusal to admit one's non-proletarian ideology - are the common defects of all literary and art workers coming from the petty bourgeoisie. They are also the major obstacles in the process of our ideological remoulding. Recent facts reveal that if one's ideology is not thoroughly remoulded, even if one has been living among the workers, peasants and soldiers, and thrown oneself into the actual struggle for a long time, one will not be able to resist corruption by bourgeois ideology when there is a change of environment and, in consequence, lose one's own standpoint and commit gross errors. We should draw lessons from these facts and realise clearly that ideological remoulding is a protracted and arduous process.

It is exceedingly dangerous to think complacently that one's ideological remoulding is completed after having spent several months in the countryside or working in a factory for half a year. Whether one is really remoulded remains to be tested in the face of concrete problems. For literary and art workers, this test comes when they start to create something. If a writer wants to examine whether his ideology has been remoulded or not, the best method is to keep on writing and seriously practice criticism and self-criticism. Writing - practising criticism and self-criticism - plunging deep into life, to learn from the workers, peasants, soldiers, writing - practising criticism and self-criticism-plunging into life again .... Only by this repeated cyclic process, can one gradually achieve a state of perfection and thoroughness in ideological remoulding.

The following question has been put forward:

When I am reading some one else's work, I can often discover quite a number of defects in it and am able to point out what is non-proletarian in its ideology. But when I come to do the writing myself, even though I do not present my characters in the form of workers, peasants and soldiers but with the thoughts and emotions of the petty bourgeoisie, yet, in comparison with people in real life, our fighting heroes or model workers, my characters are wide off the mark. To cut a long story short, it is because my writing is not of a high ideological level. But why is this so? Is it because my ideology has not been well remoulded and, therefore, I cannot produce work of a high ideological level?

This question is a common one and many people are distressed by it. It is what is meant by the Chinese saying: "The eyes look high, but the hands reach low." It must be said that it is dangerous if a writer's eyes do not look high. There cannot be a writer in the world whose eyes look low but whose hands reach high, that is to say, one who is not able to find faults in others' works but can be flawless in his own. Conversely, to look high is the prerequisite for the hands to reach high. The question is how to raise the hands to that new height.

But what is meant by the "hands"? Some regard it as the technique of writing, and put "eyes" and "hands" in opposition to each other. They say that "our eyes look high enough," that is, "our ideology is of a sufficiently high level." "Now we only have to raise our hands," that is, to "improve our technique." I do not quite agree with this view. Moreover, I think it is harmful to our progress.

Why do I not quite agree with it? It is because when a literary work shows ideological defects or its ideological level is not high,

p. 7

the fundamental cause is that the writer lacks the ability for profound thought; that is, his powers of observation and analysis are not keen, not penetrating or comprehensive enough. It is not a matter of technique. Technique is less important and is only part of the question.

Why then do I say this view is harmful? Because herein lies the root of the erroneous tendency of one-sidely concentrating on technique and placing technique and ideology in opposition to each other. The correct solution to the question has been pointed out in Chairman Mao's Yenan address on literature and art, and that is: study Marxism-Leninism and study society:

It is true that writers and artists must study literature and art, but Marxism-Leninism is a science that every revolutionary must study, and writers and artists are no exception. Besides, we must also study society, to study the various social classes, their inter-relations, their individual conditions, attitudes and psychology.

This address also says that:

To study Marxism-Leninism merely means to enable us to observe the world, society, literature and art from the point of view of dialectical and historical materialism. It does not mean that one should include outlines of philosophy in each of one's literary or artistic works. Marxism-Leninism embraces but does not replace realism in literary and artistic creation, just as it can only embrace but not replace the theories of atoms and electrons in physics.

On the basis of these instructions given by Chairman Mao, we can see that the first step must be to remould the ideology of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. This means, to uphold the principle of serving the workers, peasants and soldiers. If you do not have this standpoint or, having it, fail to hold to it firmly, even though you shout from the housetops about serving the workers, peasants and soldiers, what you really do is a very different matter.

But, even though you have this standpoint, it does not mean that you have mastered Marxism-Leninism. You must still study Marxism-Leninism. This is a science which every revolutionary must study, and writers and artists are no exception. Because writers and artists portray and represent living people and things in society, they also have to study society. That means to study the various classes in society, their inter-relations and individual conditions, their attitudes and psychology. In order to make a profound and comprehensive study of these, it is absolutely indispensable to have a viewpoint that is based on dialectical and historical materialism.

Hence, in considering this question of "the eyes look high but the hands reach low" we see precisely that, although the writer in question has gone through a process of ideological remoulding, he is still not adept at applying the principles of dialectical and historical materialism to the observation of society. This is where the crux of the matter lies, and not in whether his ideology has been well remoulded or not, as he puts it. To say he has not remoulded his ideology well means that there still remain non-proletarian ideological elements in his thinking. When these are reflected in his writings, it becomes a question of whether he has committed any mistakes in principle. So, fundamentally, this is not a question of whether his ideological level is high or low.

When we say that the ideological level of a certain piece of writing is not high, we really mean that, while there is no mistake in principle in such a work, nevertheless, the power of observation and analysis in it are not comprehensive and profound enough; the questions raised in it have not touched the essential core of social contradictions; it fails to distinguish between major and minor contradictions; it fails to express the universal nature of the contradictions on the one hand and the particular nature of the contradictions on the other; it also fails to express the unity and conflict of the various contradictions.

If a proletarian writer does not study Marxism-Leninism and is not good at applying the principles of dialectical and historical materialism to the observation of society, he will likewise not be able to produce a work of high ideological quality. That is to say, although a proletarian writer does not have to undergo the same process of ideological remoulding, he too must study Marxism-Leninism and society if he wants to produce work of high ideological quality. That is to say, ideological remoulding is one thing, and studying Marxism-Leninism and society is another. But the two of course cannot be mechanically separated from each other. The process of ideological remoulding includes the study of Marxism-Leninism and society, and ideological remoulding will be facilitated by the study of Marxism-Leninism and society.

p. 8

For all the intellectuals and writers and artists of petty bourgeois origin, the question of ideological remoulding is one of establishing a basic standpoint. Therefore, it must be considered a primal question. Because "without such remoulding, nothing can be done well," and one cannot succeed in the study of Marxism-Leninism and of society.

Chairman Mao Tse-tung's Yenan address on literature and art was directed at the ideological conditions and defects in work prevalent at the time in literary and artistic circles. It gave definite guidance on such questions as "whom to serve" and "how to serve," although the basic question of a creative method based on realism, that is, the question of studying society, was not sufficiently gone into. Nevertheless there are two philosophical treatises by Chairman Mao Tse-tung - On Practice and On Contradictions - published in July and August of 1937 respectively, which deal with this most fundamental question of a creative method based on realism.

While it is vital for those of us who are engaged in literary and artistic work to study the Yenan address, it is no less important for us to grasp the principles enunciated in On Practice and On Contradictions. We would be very much mistaken if we permitted ourselves to think that, since these are two philosophical treatises, they need not concern us as literary and art workers.

We have some experience of life; but have we not suffered the frustrating experience of not knowing how "to organise our materials," not knowing how "to generalise," how "to extract the essence of things," of how "to trim and to prune" our impressions, and has this not resulted, in the process of creative work, in not being able to avoid just cataloguing phenomena, in being not realistic but "photographic," scratching the surface of life, suffering from a lack of perspective and not being able "to see the wood for the trees"...? All these problems can be solved by applying ourselves to a study of On Practice.

On Practice teaches us that, as we immerse ourselves in life, our very first acquisition is a perceptual knowledge of things; that this, as it is called, perceptual knowledge is a superficial knowledge of individual phenomena, one-sided and partial in character, and that one cannot thereby penetrate to the substance of things and the laws governing the development of things; that perceptual knowledge sometimes tends to leave us with seemingly correct but in fact erroneous impressions. We must therefore not be content with the acquisition of perceptual knowledge; we must go a step further to raise our perceptual knowledge to the level of rational knowledge, that is, to an understanding of things in their entirety, a knowledge of their substance, and their internal relations; in other words, arrive at a relatively fuller and deeper knowledge of things.

When we have raised our knowledge from the perceptual to the rational plane, we can then see the various connections between complex and constantly changing social phenomena and the inevitable laws governing their development. Rational knowledge and perceptual knowledge are therefore "not only quantitatively but also qualitatively different." Nevertheless, rational knowledge must be based on a rich fund of perceptual knowledge. Without a rich store of perceptual knowledge, we will not be able to extract the sort of knowledge which will enable us to discover the laws for making generalisations about phenomena. This can be exemplified in the case of creation of typical characters in literature and art. To create a typical character of a certain stratum of society, it is necessary to make a close observation of at least a dozen or more people who live different modes of life but who belong to the same stratum of society. Only then can one make a generalisation and thus create a typical character of that stratum of society. Here the first step is a rich fund of perceptual knowledge. As a next step it is necessary to raise this perceptual knowledge to the plane of rational knowledge, by which we mean to make a "generalisation." After rational knowledge has been acquired, it must be put to the test and be further developed in actual practice. Only by so doing can we acquire correct knowledge which is at one with objective truth.

In the case of literary and artistic creations, it means a repeated process of writing and experiencing life, following one another, in a full cycle of tests. It is only through the process of actual writing that we can closely examine whether our cognition is comprehensive and profound, that is, whether our knowledge has been raised from the perceptual to the rational plane. Likewise, it is only after a return to an intimate experience of life following actual creative efforts that we can examine whether our rational knowledge conforms to objective truth - that is, to the laws governing the development of social reality. Herein lies the reason why the processes must be repeated and follow on one another. If one believes once one has written out one's impression of an experience that that is enough, and then goes on to search for new material for another creative effort, then this way of thinking is wrong.

Although perceptual knowledge is only the first step in the process of cognition; nevertheless this step can in no case be skipped. By trying to skip it, our literary and artistic creations will unavoidably suffer; they will be empty, dry and lifeless productions of an abstract character. Conversely, if we rest content with a mass of perceptual knowledge, then our literary and artistic creations fall into the quagmire of naturalism. Productions based on abstract conceptions are the result of doctrinairism, the fault of which lies in not admitting the necessity of starting from perceptual knowledge, or the necessity of putting rational knowledge to the test of actual practice. Naturalism in literary and artistic productions stems from empiricism. The fault in an empiricist is that, although equipped with

p. 30

a rich experience of life (perceptual knowledge), he does not raise this to the plane of rational knowledge.

Apart from a tendency to naturalism and to the creation of works based on abstract conceptions, there is still another rather common defect prevalent in our literary and artistic circles - formulistic works - works created according to stereotyped formula. Let us elaborate this point. In writing about the struggle of the new against the old, about the process of transforming backward elements and things, we do not know how best to integrate the universal and particular aspects of contradictions, how to reflect the general through the particular (that is to say, although what we write is limited to individual things, we should look beyond them so that the reader's cognition should not be confined to this or that individual thing), or how to distinguish and analyse major and secondary contradictions, and so on, thus letting our characters and plot fall into the rut of stereotyped productions.

There is a superficial similarity between formulistic productions on the one hand and naturalistic productions and productions based on abstract conceptions on the other, but in substance, they are different. (Of course, once a formulistic work has become formalistic, hardly any difference remains. The writers of such works have no experience of life; they plagiarise other writers in the presentation of the struggle between the new and old or the process of transforming backward elements; their characters and plots are artificially created and are therefore mere patch work.)

Formulistic work is produced chiefly because the writer, although possessed of rich experience of life, is not able to, does not know how, to raise his perceptual knowledge to the plane of rational knowledge. On Contradictions teaches us how to develop our thinking correctly,

To remould and to reconstruct them (perceptual knowledge), so as to form a system of concepts and theories by straining the refined from the crude, sifting the true from the false, deriving the yet un ascertained from the ascertained, and probing into the deep-seated from the superficial.*

The basic method is to explore in detail all aspects of the contradictions of objective phenomena on the basis of a rich fund of perceptual material. A study of On Contradictions will enable us to grasp the fundamental method of "studying society."

First of all, we must realise that:

The basic cause of the development of things does not lie outside but inside them, in their internal contradictions. The movement and development of things arises because of the presence of such contradictions inside everything. This contradiction within a thing is the basic cause of its development; the interconnection of a thing with, and its interaction upon other things is the secondary cause of its development.

Since the object of study of literary and art workers is the multiform and ever-changing development of society and life, they must understand that:

Social changes are mainly due to the development of the internal contradictions in society, namely, the contradictions between the productive forces and the relations of production, the contradictions between classes, and the contradictions between the old and the new; it is the development of these contradictions that impels society forward and starts the process whereby a new society supercedes the old.

Therefore, the presentation and the resolution of contradictions are the indispensable, basic tasks of any literary work. A literary work that does not reveal contradictions is unrealistic because life itself is fraught with contradictions.

But there are also the universal nature of contradictions and the particular nature of contradictions. The writer will present in his literary works solely the universal aspect, of contradictions if he sees only the universal nature of contradictions, without discerning the particular nature of contradictions; in other words, if he only undiscerningly observes the general aspects of things, (for example, if, in going to a factory, he only contacts the leading cadres in the management or in the executive committee of the trade union), without penetrating into the particular aspects of things (for example, by contacting individual workers in the factory, by getting a deep insight into the workshop and the various work teams), without uncovering the particular which is decisive for a full understanding of things. But "the contradiction in each form of motion of matter has its own particular nature." Any literary work which presents only the universal nature of contradictions will unavoidably fall into the mistake of one-sideness in depiction, for instance, being "without an understanding of the characteristics of each aspect of a contradiction," understanding only the proletarian side but not the bourgeois side; understanding only the side of the peasants but not the side of the landlords. . . and so on. This is what we call "to view the problem one-sidedly." Or,

Not to look at the totality of the contradictions and the characteristics of each of its aspects, to deny the necessity of penetrating into things to study minutely the characteristics of the contradictions, but to stand aloof and take a glance at a distance and, having roughly noticed some features of the contradictions, wish to start solving them.

This is a superficial way of looking at a problem. In literary creation, all mistakes committed by the writer in various degrees in producing work based on abstract conceptions or stereotyped formula are related to a writer's one-sided or superficial view of problems. The relationship between the universal and particular nature of contradictions has been summarised by Chairman Mao as follows:

The relation between the universal and the particular nature of contradictions is the relation between the common and the individual character of contradictions. By their common character is meant that contradictions exist in all processes and run through all processes from beginning to end... therefore, this is their common or absolute character.

*) On Practice by Mao Tse-tung, Supplement to People's China Vol. III, No. 11, p. 15. All the succeeding quotations are from On Contradictions.

p. 31

Search this site

Share this page