Deng Xiaoping
Original publication:
Translation: Official, revised by Roderic Day.

Concerning Problems in Literature and Art (1981)

A short time ago I told Comrade Hu Yaobang that I wanted to talk with the propaganda departments about problems on the ideological front, especially those in literature and art.

The Party’s leadership on this front — including literature and art — is a remarkable achievement, and that should be recognized. There is also a tendency towards crudity and over-simplification in our style of work, which cannot be denied or ignored. However, a more important problem at present, I think, is the latitude given to wrongheaded trends, and the feebleness of our critique of them. People fear backlash because, as soon as you criticize something, you’re accused of “brandishing the big stick.” It’s not easy for us to carry out criticism, and it’s even harder to carry out self-criticism. Self-criticism is one of the three major features of our Party’s style of work — one of the chief characteristics distinguishing our Party from other political parties. And yet, for quite a number of our people, it presents difficulties.

Prior to the Sixth Plenary Session of the Central Committee, the General Political Department of the People’s Liberation Army raised the issue of criticism of the film script Unrequited Love. I have been taken aback by some other things I’ve read recently too. A young poet made an irresponsible speech at Beijing Normal University. Some students commented that although the Party organization had done a lot of ideological and political work among the students, that speech blew it all away. The university’s Party committee took note of the matter, but no action was taken. This led a female student to write a letter to the committee, criticizing our weakness on the ideological front. Recently in Urumqi, Xinjiang, a person in charge of the preparatory group for the formation of the local federation of writers and artists talked a lot of nonsense. Many of his views went far beyond certain wrong, anti-socialist statements criticized during the anti-Rightist struggle of 1957. There are many other examples.

To put it in a nutshell: these people want to abandon the road of socialism, break away from Party leadership, and promote bourgeois liberalization. Let us recall our historical experience: in 1957, the anti-Rightist faction was greatly expanded, and this expansion was a mistake, but it was in fact necessary to oppose the Rightists. We all remember the aggressive attitude of Rightists then, and that’s the attitude of some people today. We are not going to launch an anti-Rightist campaign again. That said, on no account should we give up serious criticism of erroneous trends. Similar problems exist outside of the circles of literature and art. Some people are on the wrong ideological track. They make statements contrary to Party principles and are neither honest nor upright. This, however, accrues them the admiration of some people, who are in turn eager to publish their articles. This isn’t right. Some Party members don’t act in accordance with Party spirit, and instead insist in factionalism. They must not be allowed to influence others, let alone to become leaders. Some people now fancy themselves heroes. Before they were criticized, they didn’t attract much attention. But once they were criticized, they began to be sought after.

This is an abnormal trend, and we must work seriously to reverse it. Of course, this trend has socio-historical roots. It can be understood primarily as a reaction to the 10-year turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, but it is also linked to the penetration of bourgeois ideas from abroad. That said, each individual scenario must be analyzed concretely, on a case-by-case basis. At present, the main problem is not so much the existence of this trend, but rather that we are too soft in countering it. There is laxity and weakness. In tackling this present problem, past experience teaches us that we must refrain from launching campaigns. We must analyse each case on its merits, and treat each person who has made errors appropriately, according to the nature and seriousness of their mistakes. Methods of criticism must be studied. Arguments must hit the nail on the head. We must not resort to broadsides and generalizations. That said, there must be ideological work — criticism and self-criticism. We must not lay aside the weapon of criticism.

After that young poet delivered his speech at Beijing Normal University, some students said that if we allowed things to go on this way, the country was doomed. The poet and us stand on opposing sides of an issue. I have seen the movie Sun and Man, which follows the script of Unrequited Love[1] Whatever the author’s motives, the movie gives the impression that the Communist Party is bad, and that the socialist system is bad. It vilifies the latter to such an extent that one wonders what has happened to the author’s Party spirit. Some say the movie achieves a fairly high artistic standard, but that only makes it all the more harmful. Such works and the rhetoric of the so-called “democrats” actually play a similar political role.

The core of the Four Cardinal Principles is to uphold Communist Party leadership. Without the leadership of the Communist Party there definitely will be nationwide disorder and China will be torn apart. This is a lesson from history. Chiang Kai-shek was never able to unify China. The keystone of bourgeois liberalization is opposition to Party leadership, and without Party leadership there will be no socialist system. In confronting these problems, we cannot re-take old roads and resort to mass campaigns. We must instead master the weapon of criticism.

It was right for People’s Liberation Army Daily to criticize Unrequited Love. The criticism was necessary, and it must be affirmed. The articles, however, were not always entirely reasonable, and some of their arguments were not carefully thought out. The Literary Gazette should publish several high quality articles to comment on both Unrequited Love and other related problems. Ultimately, one cannot declare a criticism incorrect simply because the methods used are not good enough.

Some young people are discontented with certain social conditions today. There is nothing strange about this and it is nothing to be afraid of. But we must guide such young people, or they may go astray. It is good that many young writers have emerged in recent years, and they have written a number of fine works. But we must admit that among some of them — and among some middle-aged writers too — there are bad tendencies, and that these have an adverse influence on young readers, listeners, and viewers. Our veteran writers who adhere to the socialist position have the responsibility to unite and to give proper guidance to the new generation. To fail at this task is to let these new generations down. If we don’t do this well, contradictions will intensify and result in major disruptions. In short, we must uphold Party leadership, and we must champion the socialist system. Both Party leadership and the socialist system need to be improved, but this should never entail capitulation to bourgeois liberalization or anarchy.

Can you imagine what sort of influence Sun and Man would have if it were shown publicly? Some people say that not loving socialism is not the same as not loving one’s own country. Is the motherland something abstract? If you don’t love socialist New China led by the Communist Party, what motherland do you love? We do not ask all our patriotic compatriots in Hong Kong and Macao and in Taiwan and abroad to support socialism, but at the least, they should not oppose socialist New China. Otherwise, how can they be called patriotic? Of every citizen — and every young person — living under the leadership of the government in the People’s Republic of China, however, we demand more. Above all, we demand that writers, artists and ideological and theoretical workers in the Communist Party observe Party discipline. Yet today many of our problems stem from inside the Party. If the Party can’t discipline its own members, how can it lead the masses?

We insist on the policy of “letting a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend,” and on handling contradictions among the people correctly. This does not change. The “Left” tendency still exists in the guidance of our ideological and cultural work, and we must resolutely guard against it and correct any deviations. That said, this in no way means that we stop practising criticism and self-criticism. In order to correctly handle contradictions among the people we must start from the desire for unity, so that the criticism and self-criticism carried out leads to a new unity. The policy of “letting a hundred flowers bloom, a hundred schools of thought contend” cannot be separated from the practice of criticism and self-criticism. In criticizing, we must be democratic and reason things out, but criticism should never be dismissed offhand as “brandishing the big stick.” We must be very clear on this question of criticism and self-criticism, for it is important in the upbringing of the next generation.

The few works and views that I have mentioned here are just some examples. There are other works containing similar views, as well as certain tendencies towards bourgeois liberalization among theorists, but I am not going to elaborate on them here. [2] The important question is: Why is it that Unrequited Love and the speech by the young poet have the support of some people? That is something our comrades on the ideological front should ponder.

Since we began stressing the need to uphold the Four Cardinal Principles, comrades in our ideological circles have become clearer in their thinking. Because of this, and also because of the resolute steps taken to get rid of illegal organizations and publications, the situation has improved. But we must remain alert. Some people are raising a banner in support of Comrade Hua Guofeng, while actually trying to overthrow the entire system. The present struggle is very complicated, and it’s necessary to sharpen our vigilance.

It is no longer necessary for People’s Liberation Army Daily to continue its criticism of Unrequited Love. The Literary Gazette should publish some first-class articles on the subject, and they should be reprinted in The People’s Daily.

In short: Our entire Party, army, and people of all nationalities, under the firm leadership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, and on the basis of the “Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party Since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China,” [3] must unite, march as one, and work hard, so that our ideological, literary, and other fronts continue to achieve new victories.

  1. Sun and Man (1980) at TMDB. [web] 

  2. See: Another View of Tiananmen (2021). [web] 

  3. Communist Party of China, 1981. Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party since the Founding of the People’s Republic of China. [web]