The Literature and Art of the People

Xi Jinping: The Governance of China II Updated: 2021-12-27

The Literature and Art of the People*


October 15, 2014


Socialist literature and art are, in essence, the literature and art of the people. In his speech at the 1942 forum on literature and art in Yan'an, Mao Zedong stressed that "This question of 'for whom?' is fundamental; it is a question of principle."1 Deng Xiaoping made the remarks: "Our literature and art belong to the people," and "It is the people who nurture our writers and artists."2 Jiang Zemin exhorted cultural workers to "create art in the context of the history created by the people, and create artistic achievements on the basis of the people's achievements"3. Hu Jintao emphasized, "The tree of art thrives only when our writers and artists place the people above everything else in their minds, always stand by the people, and adhere to the principle of putting people first in their works."4

The people are both the creators and the observers of history, and both its protagonists and playwrights. To speak for the people, literature and art must follow the right path of serving the people and serving the socialist cause. This is a basic requirement of the Party, and decides the future of China's literature and art. Literature and art can exert their positive energy to the full only by firmly upholding the Marxist view on literature and art, and truly putting the people first. To put the people first, writers and artists must take meeting the people's cultural needs as their aim and consummation of all work, and the people the central subject of their creation. The people are the best connoisseurs and critics of literary and art works, and serving them is the duty of all writers and artists.

Firstly, people need literature and art, and their needs are multifaceted. To satisfy people's growing material needs, we must increase the aggregate material wealth of society by building a stronger economy. To satisfy their growing cultural needs, we must increase the aggregate intellectual and cultural wealth of society by promoting cultural development. Material needs are primary needs, and the need for food precedes all others. That's why we say "Food is the god for the people."5 But this does not mean that cultural needs are insignificant. The biggest difference between humans and other animals lies in our cultural needs, which exist through the entire course of human life.

As living standards rise, the requirements for cultural products, including literary and art works, grow in terms of quality, taste and style. All fields in the cultural sector, including literature, drama, film, TV, music, dancing, fine arts, photography, calligraphy, acrobatics, ballad singing, storytelling and folk arts, should keep pace with the times, and cater to the current needs of the people. Their practitioners should commit themselves to creating passionate, moving works with touching images and superb lyrics that the people love, so that the public can enjoy a better cultural life.

Today the international community is paying increasing attention to China, with the desire to learn more about us – our outlook, our lifestyle, our values, our views on nature, the universe, the past and future, our joys and sorrows, heritage, traditions, norms, and temperament. This broad range of knowledge cannot be garnered merely through press releases, official reports, or individual trips to China by foreign citizens. In this regard literature and art have an irreplaceable role to play, and can serve as the ideal channel for communication.

Every novel, essay, poem, painting, photo, film, TV drama or musical piece offers a unique perspective on China for people in other countries, inviting, enticing and impressing them in its own way. Our cultural heritage such as Peking Opera, traditional music, calligraphy and traditional Chinese painting are all important avenues for the outside world to learn about China. Writers and artists should artfully tell Chinese stories, spread the Chinese voice, parse the Chinese spirit, and exhibit the Chinese image, giving foreign audiences a better understanding of China through their works. You are expected to promote splendid Chinese arts globally, introduce foreign audiences to the charm of Chinese culture, and in the course help them develop a better understanding of it.

Secondly, literature and art need the people, who are the fountain of literary and artistic creations. Works that are divorced from the people are rootless, senseless and soulless. Vladimir Lenin exhorted: "Art belongs to the people. It must have its deepest roots in the broad mass of workers. It must be understood and loved by them. It must be rooted in and grow with their feelings, thoughts, and desires. It must arouse and develop the artists in them."6 The people and their life are a bonanza for literary and artistic creations, offering inexhaustible inspiration.

The demands of the people are the reason for the very existence of literature and art. Whether an artist can produce excellent works depends on whether he or she can stand for and speak for the people. All literary and art works that caused a sensation in their times and have gone down in history reflect the call of their times and the aspirations of the people.

For instance, all classics of Chinese literature are suffused with compassion and concern for ordinary people, and ingeniously fuse artistic expression with humanistic vision. "The Pellet Song" in Origin of Ancient Poetry7sketches prehistoric hunting scenes; the Book of Songs8 depicts the toil of farmers in "The Seventh Month", the life of soldiers in "Gathering Thorn-ferns", and love between young people in "Crying Ospreys"; "Asking Heaven"9 explores the mystery of the universe; the Song of the Chile10 is about the life of nomads; The Ballad of Mulan11 lauds the wit and grit of women. They are all based on real life.

The best remembered lines of China's best-known writers invariably reflect people's heartfelt wishes in their times. Examples are "I sigh and cry, how hard life is for my countrymen"12 by Qu Yuan; "Where to find decent homes? To shelter all poor scholars on earth and bring a smile to their face"13 and "The rich wine and dine, the poor starve and die"14 by Du Fu; "Every grain on the plate comes from hard labor" by Li Shen15; and "For petty county officials like us, every concern of the people weighs in our heart" by Zheng Banqiao16.

It is the same with other cultures. Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest literary work in the world, records the quest for the law of nature and mystery of life by residents in the Tigris-Euphrates area. The epics of Homer17 sing praise of such virtues as bravery, justice, unselfishness and diligence. The Divine Comedy18, Decameron19, and The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel20 protest against medieval asceticism and obscurantism, and voice a yearning for emancipation of the mind.

These all point to the fact: Literature and art thrive only when they are firmly grounded in reality, and closely keep pace with the times. Their vitality lies in their conformity with the people's will and reflection of the people's concerns.

The people are not an abstract symbol but individuals of flesh and blood who have emotions, dreams, and inner struggles. How one person feels and thinks does not necessarily represent how the majority of people feel and think. Writers and artists therefore must humbly learn from the people and their life, their great endeavors and the colorful world they create, all of which provide nourishment for the artist's life and career, enabling them to constantly discover and create beauty. Writers and artists must keep the people's wellbeing in their minds, convey the people's joys and sorrows in their works, extol the people's endeavors, and cover the most beautiful souls among them, so as to strengthen their audience's expectations of and confidence in a better future.

Here I would like to share with you a story of mine. Before I headed for Zhengding County of Hebei Province in 1982 for a new appointment, many friends came to bid farewell. One of them was the writer and playwright of August First Film Studio Wang Yuanjian. He urged me to follow the example of Liu Qing of being close to local farmers and becoming one of them. In order to immerse himself in rural life, Liu Qing resigned from his position of deputy Party secretary of Chang'an County, Shaanxi Province, while remaining a member of the standing committee of the county Party committee, and moved to Huangfu Village. There he lived for 14 years, and wrote his novel The Builder of New Life. His immersion in rural life in the Guanzhong area of Shaanxi explains the lifelike characters in his books. Being so well acquainted with farmers, he immediately knew whether they would approve of any new policy concerning agriculture or rural residents.

Thirdly, writers and artists must have genuine love for their people. The results of their creations are decided by their attitude and stance. Those who feel no affection for the people will not work for them. Lu Xun21 was devoted to his people, as is testified by his famous lines "holding my head high in defiance of the enemy's attacks, bowing my head low in obedience to the people"22. Jia Dashan, a writer I got to know when working in Zhengding of Hebei Province, is another writer who loves the people. After his death I wrote a commemorative article. What impressed me most was his concern for the country and his countrymen wherever and whatever he was. "Though living at grassroots level, one is concerned for his state."23 Writers and artists should be aware that they will achieve nothing unless they are of the same mind with the people, share their fate, joys and sorrows, and willingly serve their interests. This is the sole path that writers and artists should follow, and it should also be their greatest joy.

Love for the people should not be lip service. It demands deep, rational convictions and concrete actions. Absolute, genuine, lasting love for the people is based on an acknowledgment that it is the people who create history, and on a willingness to dive deep into their lives and humbly learn from them. I stress "deep" here, because certain people only do it in a cursory manner, without putting their hearts into it. Our writers and artists must answer these questions: Who do we serve? Who do we rely on? Who am I? To bring down any invisible wall between you and the people, you should not only approach them physically, but also empathize with them emotionally.

The people are the source of all innovations in literature and art, directly or indirectly. "A grasp of mundane affairs is genuine knowledge, understanding of worldly wisdom is true learning."24 Arts can fly on the wings of imagination high in the sky, but artists must keep their feet firmly on the ground. There are hundreds or thousands of ways of creating art, but the most important and reliable is the one that is people-centered and reality-based. Without his panoramic and microscopic observation of the society of his time, Cao Xueqin could not have produced the encyclopedic classic A Dream of Red Mansions. Similarly, without his intimacy with and empathy for the underclass immediately before and after the 1911 Revolution, Lu Xun could not have created such memorable characters as Sister Xianglin, Runtu, Ah Q and Kong Yiji.

There is no sustained inspiration or passion for art to be found in an ivory tower. As a Soviet poet put it, homebound writers vainly rack their brains to the point of wringing water out of nails. We must dive deep into life, and discover the essence of it amid the people. Only after fully and thoroughly ruminating on and digesting life can we reconstruct it in fascinating works with thoughtful plots and compelling characters. "Meditating behind closed doors is no good approach to writing, going out and traveling spontaneously leads to good poems."25 All techniques and means of artistic creation must serve the content and the purpose of providing ingenious, incisive and engaging coverage of certain persons and events, or making strong arguments. Otherwise the techniques and means are worthless, and can even have an adverse impact on the results desired.

Life of course does not always run smoothly. It does not always meet our expectations, and evil phenomena exist. We should not shun these problems, but instead find the right approach to addressing them. Our ancestors warned that neither grief nor joy must go to excess26, and that all human feelings are subject to the constraints of propriety and morality27. Literature and art will not hearten people to press on if they simply expose the darkness and account for the status quo without extolling brightness and ideals and offering moral guidance. They should observe life from the perspectives of both realism and romanticism, dissipating darkness with light, and defeating evil with goodness and justice, so that people can see the better side of life, hopes and dreams ahead of them.

A good work of literature and art can stand the test of the audiences, critics and market as well. It puts social benefits before everything else, but also yields decent economic returns. Under the socialist market economy, many cultural products have to realize their values on the market. Economic result is therefore a factor that cannot be overlooked. It nevertheless comes second to social benefits. When the two collide, economic results must submit to social benefits, and market values must give way to social values.

Literature and art should not be slaves of the market or bear the stench of money. A good work is ideologically and artistically successful and well received by the market as well. To defend the aesthetic ideals and independent values of literature and art, we must set quantitative indexes at reasonable levels, including circulation, audience figures, click rate, and box office revenue. We should not overlook or negate these indexes, but neither can we be obsessed with them to the extent of blindly following the market trend wherever it takes us.

As some people put it, we should keep our eyes on the horizon of the wider world while keeping our feet on the ground of China, following the most advanced globally, and meanwhile facing the reality domestically. Only through this approach can we share the Chinese experience with all humankind, and make our unique contribution to world literature and art. These people are right. The Chinese people have built a civilization of more than 5,000 years, have pulled through wars to win independence and liberation, and under the leadership of the CPC have achieved notable successes in the course of revolution, nation building, and reform. The profound changes in this ancient country and the rich work and life experiences of its 1.3 billion people offer fertile soil for literary and artistic creation. There is so much to be written about them. We can find infinite strength from the motherland and the people as long as we firmly stay with them.


* Part of the speech at the Forum on Literature and Art.


1  Mao Zedong: "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art", Selected Works of Mao Zedong, Vol. III, Eng. ed., Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1965, p. 78. 

2  Deng Xiaoping: "Speech Greeting the Fourth Congress of Chinese Writers and Artists", Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. II, Eng. ed., Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1995, pp. 215 and 217. 

3  Jiang Zemin: "Promote Socialist Literature and Art", Selected Key Documents Since the 14th CPC National Congress, Vol. III, Chin. ed., Central Party Literature Publishing House, Beijing, 2011, p. 224. 

4  Hu Jintao: "Speech at the Ninth National Congress of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the Eighth National Congress of China Writers Association", Selected Key Documents Since the 17th CPC National Congress, Vol. III, Chin. ed., Central Party Literature Publishing House, Beijing, 2013, p. 618. 

5  Ban Gu: Book of the Han Dynasty (Han Shu). Ban Gu (32-92) was a historian and writer of the Eastern Han Dynasty. 

6 Clara Zetkin, "In Commemoration of Lenin", Lenin on Literature and Art, Chin. ed., People's Literature Publishing House, Beijing, 1960, p. 912. 

7  Shen Deqian: Origin of Ancient Poetry (Gu Shi Yuan). This is an anthology of ancient poems composed between the 21st century BC and AD 618. Shen Deqian (1673-1769) was a poet of the Qing Dynasty. 

8 Book of Songs (Shi Jing) was the earliest collection of poems in China. It contains 305 poems collected over some 500 years from the early Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC) to the middle of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

9  Qu Yuan: "Asking Heaven" (Tian Wen), Songs of Chu (Chu Ci). Qu Yuan (c. 339-278 BC) was a poet and statesman of the Warring States Period. 

10 Song of the Chile (Chi Le Ge) is a folk song of the Northern Dynasties (386- 581). 

11 The Ballad of Mulan (Mu Lan Shi) is a long narrative folk song of the Northern Dynasties. 

12 Qu Yuan: "The Lament" (Li Sao), Songs of Chu (Chu Ci)

13 Du Fu: "Song of the Thatched Cottage Broken by the Autumn Wind" (Mao Wu Wei Qiu Feng Suo Po Ge). Du Fu (712-770) was a poet of the Tang Dynasty. 

14 Du Fu: "Expressing Feelings in Five Hundred Words on the Way to Fengxian County from the Capital" (Zi Jing Fu Feng Xian Xian Yong Huai Wu Bai Zi). 

15 Li Shen: "Sympathy for the Peasants" (Min Nong Er Shou). Li Shen (772-846) was a poet of the Tang Dynasty. 

16 Zheng Banqiao: "Bamboos Painted at the Weixian County Government to Inspector Bao Kuo" (Wei Xian Shu Zhong Hua Zhu Cheng Nian Bo Bao Da Zhong Cheng Kuo). Zheng Banqiao (1693-1765) was a painter and writer of the Qing Dynasty.  

17 The Iliad and the Odyssey

18 Written by Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321). 

19 Written by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375). 

20 Written by Francois Rabelais (c. 1483-1553). 

21 Lu Xun (1881-1936) was a litterateur, thinker and revolutionary as well as one of the founders of modern Chinese literature. 

22 Lu Xun: "Self-Mockery", Complete Works of Lu Xun, Vol. VII, Chin. ed., People's Literature Publishing House, Beijing, 2005, p. 151. 

23 Fan Zhongyan: "The Yueyang Tower" (Yue Yang Lou Ji). Fan Zhongyan (989-1052) was a statesman and literary scholar of the Northern Song Dynasty. 

24 Cao Xueqin: A Dream of Red Mansions (Hong Lou Meng). Cao Xueqin (1715-1763) was a novelist of the Qing Dynasty. 

25 Yang Wanli: "Descending Hengshan Mountain and Looking Up at Jinhua Mountain" (Xia Heng Shan Tan Tou Wang Jin Hua Shan). Yang Wanli (1127-1206) was a writer and poet of the Southern Song Dynasty. 

26 The Analects of Confucius (Lun Yu)

27 Preface to Mao's Version of the Book of Songs (Mao Shi Xu).

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