Zuolian: a time when leftist writers united to write, fight and die for social revolution

Shanghai was at the forefront of Chinese literary development before 1949.

Shanghai was at the forefront of Chinese literary development before 1949.

Home to scores of renowned writers, the city was the birthplace of many well-known literary works.

But writers, poets and intellectuals argued bitterly among themselves about ideologies, values and lines.

The purges started by the Kuomintang in April 1927 led to the arrest and execution of a great number of Chinese Communists and left-wing social activists. A reign of terror ensued.

Still, during the great debate on so-called revolutionary literature between 1928 and 1929, leftists could not form an alliance or seek common ground.

Lu Xun, widely canonized as the forefather of modern Chinese literature, and Mao Dun, a novelist after whom China’s best-known contemporary literature prize is named, had a lot to disagree about literary groups like the Creative Society and the Sun Society on the definition of revolutionary literature.

An advocate of revolutionary literature, Lu once claimed that “literature can surely be used as one of the means of revolution.” That, however, did not prevent him from criticizing writers from the Creative Society for “lacking elaborate analysis of Chinese society and revolution in their works.”

It was a hard time for the fledgling left-wing movement. In addition to waging military campaigns against the Communists, the KMT also did everything to silence left-wing criticism of the regime. Suppression of literary freedom was such that it finally forced Shanghai’s left-wing writers to rail against the tyranny of the KMT in one voice.

Ni Tao

Statues have been erected at the couryard of what was once home to Zuolian.

This was the background of the founding of the Alliance of Chinese Left-Wing Writers, or Zuolian. Circumstances surrounding its creation have largely eluded today’s generation. To discover more about its past, I recently visited a memorial of Zuolian on Duolun Road in Hongkou District. A conference held there on March 2, 1930, marked the birth of Zuolian. More than 40 writers attended. Standing in a spacious, marble-paved room, one can almost hear the echoes of those impassioned speeches made at the conference 88 years ago.

The broad disarray among leftists then prompted the Communist Party of China to offer instructions and guidance to help mediate their differences.

Lu gave a talk at the conference, in which he held forth on the need for literature and art to primarily serve peasants, workers and other commoners.

Ni Tao / SHINE

The entrance to the establishment is modest. 

Ni Tao / SHINE

 Lu Xun wrote a poem in memory of some Zuolian writers.

Vivid portrayals

His suggestions were adopted as the guideline for Zuolian writers. Not all their works were tirades against KMT oppression and social maladies. Instead, they were often vivid portrayals of society, and thus in keeping with the Zeitgeist. The topics of their works tend to be highly original: proletarian struggles against KMT transgressions; workers exploited by capitalists; rural poverty and destitution; the stress, austerity and absurdity of urban life.

Apart from authoring books and essays, Zuolian writers also published numerous translations of foreign writers’ works, including, among others, “Mother” by Maxim Gorky, “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque.

These translations first appeared in periodicals with names like “Sprout Monthly,” “Trailblazer,” and “Outpost.”

Copies of these publications today can be seen at the memorial. With Beethoven’s piano sonata playing in the background, I sauntered along the exhibits, trying to get a hint of the mood of their authors and the general social atmosphere from the titles. The establishment of Zuolian was a shot in the arm for left-wing writers frustrated by what they saw as the KMT’s betrayal of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s doctrine “To unite Soviet Russia and the Communists.”

It also became an inspiration for intellectual and artist groups of kindred spirits. Soon, the alliances of left-leaning playwrights, social scientists and artists came into being, which together played a huge role in propagating the Marxist-Leninist thought and the proletarian culture of the masses.

The import of foreign art forms like drama and film in the 1930s quickly captivated denizens of the city. The popularity of the new genres propelled left-wing playwrights and filmmakers to produce works of their own, among which were all-time classics like “Street Angel” (1937).

In 1930, a notable incident hastened the conversion of a few left-of-center playwrights to left-wing beliefs. The 1929 American film “Welcome Danger,” which depicts ethnic Chinese in the US as a lawless, despicable mob, triggered a protest and melee when it was shown in the Grand Cinema in Shanghai.

Hong Shen, a left-wing playwright, was beaten and taken into custody by Concessions police. But soon he was released thanks to pressure from angry protesters that besieged the police station where he was being held. The film was later pulled from cinemas in China.

This incident marked the beginning of censorship of foreign films. It also served as a rude awakening to playwrights like Hong who, educated in the West, had once nursed dreams of living their petty bourgeois existence.

Xia Yan, a prominent Zuolian member who was to become Shanghai’s Head of Publicity after 1949, revealed in his memoir that Hong, along with Tian Han, who wrote the lyrics of China’s national anthem, joined the leftist ranks because they felt those who most firmly stood behind them were left-wingers and the masses.

Persecution and sacrifice

That the left-wing movement became more vocal politically meant that persecution was on the way. Writers were often arrested, journals banned, and their base closed. The heaviest blow came in 1931, with the Incident of Five Martyrs.

At a secret meeting called in January to contest a decision to promote Wang Ming, an ideologue and dogmatist, to the top leadership, participants, including left-wing activists, were rounded up by police acting on a tipoff.

About three weeks later, 23 Communists were executed, and another 13 received jail terms. Among the executed were five Zuolian members: Rou Shi, Hu Yepin, Yin Fu, Li Weisen and Feng Keng. Those imprisoned were not freed until the Communists and the KMT joined hands for the second time to fight the Japanese invaders. A statue of the five martyrs now stands in a courtyard outside the conference room where Zuolian was born.

The looming War of Resistance Against Japanese Agression (1931-1945) had also influenced the style of Zuolian literature. Satirical pieces made way for the so-called “Nationalist” and “National Defense” literature.

In 1936, Zuolian was disbanded to make room for United Front Against Japanese Aggression. In fairness, Zuolian was not flawless in its operation.

For example, blind faith in the merit of armed rebellion and “flash rallies” — meaning swift assembling and dispersion of demonstrators — in big cities culminated in the arrests and deaths of a large number of its members. That said, Zuolian left a big legacy in bringing minds together and spreading the Marxist-Leninist thought in a divided country that craved new ideas for its salvation.


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