Something is definitely afoot here in China. A few years ago I gained the distinct sense that China was at a crossroads. Many possible paths were open, which people discussed endlessly. Such times are both dangerous and potentially creative. Now there is a greater sense of purpose and the path seems to be clarifying. More later, but let me note a few points here.

First, the anti-corruption campaign has been invoking Mao’s directives for cadres and leaders to live simple lives, without seeking personal gain. Yesterday, the government adopted a revised version of the guidelines against bureaucracy and extravagance. These include travelling ‘without pomp’, education and management of staff, guidelines on vacations, and so on. They are based on the core values of loyalty, honesty and frugality. The purpose: ‘To forge an iron, one must be strong oneself‘. In other words, a main focus of the campaign is to build a strong, united party, for the sake of a major move forward.

Second, in a direct echo of Mao’s famous lecture at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art, Chairman Xi called on artists and writers to create great works of art, both distinctly original and beating with the heart of the people. This follows his earlier statement to let philosophy and the social sciences flourish, and guidelines for journalists in promoting public life and socialism with Chinese characteristics. I personally prefer these two statements:

Promoting socialist core values should be fundamental to artists and writers, who should firmly resort to Chinese people’s thoughts, emotions and aesthetics to create works catering to the times, featuring notable Chinese elements.

Literary and artistic work should be people-focused, and artists and writers should serve the people and socialism.

This of course directly invokes Mao’s directive that literature and art should serve the people.

I must admit that I find all of this quite exciting, a great time to be involved in China.


When I wonder at the travesty of dumping whole libraries in Eastern Europe after 1989 (worse than the torching of the ancient Library of Alexandria), I remind myself that at least it means I can get them cheaply via second-hand bookshops (not a small bonus, I tell you). All the same, positions that were openly debated have been forgotten, needing reinvention as though they were new discoveries. For instance, here’s Stefan Morawski, from 1965, in a piece called ‘Lenin as a Literary Theorist’:

Absolute freedom of the artist is an illusory freedom. Artistic work is inevitably entangled in the ideological battle. Conscious choice is always better than unconscious commitment. And in our time, there is no possible choice that is more humanistic than alliance with the people struggling for a communist society. What that alliance will be like is another matter. It may be party writing in the sense of the public advocacy of communist ideas; but it may also be an approach to those ideas via categorical criticism of the capitalist system.

Developing these ideas of Lenin’s, we could also say that this alliance may appear in creative work that directly attacks the central problems of ideas of our times, but it may also take the form of active participation in the process of democratization of esthetic culture (e.g., in the sphere of architecture and the applied arts) . The alleged absolute independence of the artist is a fictional freedom; true freedom is every development and extension of esthetic values that are valuable from the point of view of the cultural needs of socialist society. Conscious commitment to the battle for socialism, with varying emotional coefficients and varying intellectual orientation, is always at the same time a battle for artistic de-alienation.

Goelet (1999) writes of ancient Egypt:

By now it is a well-worn truism among Egyptologists that the Egyptians were intensely religious, yet had no word corresponding to our term ‘religion’; that they had a highly developed aesthetic sense, yet had no single word for ‘art’; that they ran a stable, complex, and highly bureaucratic society, yet had no equivalent to the term ‘the state’. The common theme behind all these observations is that we frequently fail to realize that the Egyptians might have viewed the world entirely differently from the way we do.

He goes on the discuss what a ‘town’ or ‘city’ might mean, suggesting that the settlement was really an afterthought to a temple and a quay on the Nile.

My favourite volume of the Marx-Engels Collected Works (MECW) is volume 2, the early, often brilliant and usually entertaining works written by Engels when he was in his late teens and early twenties. I am now re-reading it for pleasure … and for a possible article on ‘Marxism and Sex’. On the playwrite, Karl Gutzkow, Engels writes:

Alongside [Gutzkow’s] intellect there is, however, an equally powerful heat of passion which expresses itself as enthusiasm in his productions and puts his imagination in that state of, I would say, erection, in which alone spiritual creation is possible.

‘Modern Literary Life’, March-May 1840, p. 84 (MECW, vol 2).