Biography in English

Shen Yen-ping (1896-), known as Mao Tun, the foremost realist novelist in republican China. He ceased to function as a creative writer in 1949, and he served from 1949 to 1965 as minister of culture in the Central People's Government.

Ch'ingchen, a suburban district of T'unghsiang hsien, Chekiang, was the birthplace of Mao Tun. He is known to have had one younger brother, Shen Tse-min (q.v.). His father, a member of the gentry who was interested in Western mathematics, encouraged Mao Tun to prepare for a career in science and technology because he believed that a traditional education in the Chinese classics would be of no help in the eventuality of the partition of China by foreign powers. However, he died when Mao Tun was nine years old, and the boy soon began to devote most of his time to the study of Chinese literature. He attended middle schools in Huchow, Chiahsing, and Hangchow.

At the age of 17, Mao Tun went to Peking, where he enrolled in the preparatory college course at Peking University. He completed the three-year course in 1916, at which time financial difficulties compelled him to discontinue his schooling and accept a position as a proofreader at the Commercial Press in Shanghai. He soon was promoted to editor and translator, and, during the period from 1917 to 1920, he contributed many articles and translations to the Hsueh-sheng tsa-chih [student magazine], a Commercial Press publication.

In November 1920 Mao Tun, along with Chou Tso-jen, Cheng Chen-to, Yeh Sheng-t'ao, Hsu Ti-shan (qq.v.), and seven other writers, founded the Wen-hsueh yen-chiu hui [literary association]. The group persuaded the Commercial Press to give them editorial control over the Hsiao-shuo yüeh-pao [short story magazine], a monthly devoted to traditional Chinese writing, and Mao Tun became its new editor. The renovated magazine began publication in January 1921, and it became one of the most influential publications in China. Although the Wen-hsueh yen-chiu hui was popularly known for its advocacy of realism and "literature for life's sake," the primary task of its founding members was to establish writing as a serious profession and to counter the spirit of playful dilettantism prevalent among the more traditional writers. As editor of the Hsiao-shuo yüeh-pao, Mao Tun wrote a monthly summary of foreign literary news, critical essays on modern Chinese literature, and introductory articles on such foreign authors as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bjornson, Petofi, Sienkiewcz, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Byron, Keats, and Bernard Shaw. Because he knew only Chinese and English, he used secondary sources for his information about most of these authors. Nonetheless, he endorsed Emile Zola's naturalism and made frequent use of Hippolyte Taine's theory of race, milieu, and moment as determining factors of literary expression. He became convinced of the spiritual vitality and technical superiority of Western literature, and he had little use for traditional Chinese literature. In his two essays on the national literary heritage, included in the Hua-hsia-tzu [chatterbox] of 1934, he expressed doubts about whether modern practitioners of fiction could learn much from such classical novels as the Shui Hu Chuan {The Water Margin) and the Hung Lou Meng {Dream of the Red Chamber) because he thought that their narrative techniques were too elementary. He condemned more recent traditional-style fiction as being degenerate and the new pai-hua [vernacular] literature as being sentimental in his 1922 essay "Tzu-jan chu-i yü Chung-kuo hsien-tai hsiao-shuo" [naturalism and modern Chinese fiction].

In 1923 Mao Tun resigned from the Hsiaoshuo yüeh-pao, but he continued to contribute critical essays and news articles to it. According to one source, the Commercial Press was dissatisfied with his editing; other accounts state that he quit voluntarily in order to engage more actively in politics. However, other than the fact that in 1923-24 he taught a course in fiction at Shanghai College, a newly opened center of Marxist training staffed by such leading Communists as Ch'en Tu-hsiu, Ch'ü Ch'iu-pai, Yün Tai-ying, and Teng Chung-hsia (qq.v.), there is little evidence that he participated in any political activities at that time. During the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925 he protested, more as an indignant patriot than a political organizer, with many other writers against the presence of foreign powers in China. Although he moved in Communist intellectual circles, he did not see any need to modify his literary beliefs to accommodate his political radicalism. It is believed that he never joined the Communist party.

Mao Tun left Shanghai in 1926 and went to join the Northern Expedition at Canton, where he served under Wang Ching-wei as secretary to the propaganda department of the Kuomintang Central Executive Committee. He later returned to Shanghai to serve as chief editor at the Kuo-min t'ung-hsin-she [national news agency], and in late 1926 he joined the victorious Northern Expedition forces in Wuhan, serving as editor of the Hankow Min-kuo jih-pao [national daily]. After Chiang Kai-shek began to purge the Kuomintang of Communists in April 1927, the left-wing Kuomintang members followed suit and broke with the Chinese Communist party. Mao Tun fled Wuhan and went to Kuling in July, supposedly to recuperate from an illness. In August, he secretly returned to Shanghai with his wife, nee K'ung Te-chih, whom he had married some years before.

In the period between September 1927 and June 1928 Mao Tun wrote three novelettes: Huan-mieh [disillusion], Tung-yao [vacillation], and Chui-cKiu [pursuit] , which were immediately serialized in the Hsia-shuo yüeh-pao and which were published as a trilogy in 1930 under the title Shih [eclipse]. Because he could not then disclose his identity, he adopted the fashionable Communist term Mao Tun [contradiction] as his pseudonym. The new name achieved immediate national fame upon the public's enthusiastic reception of the three works. In Shih, Mao Tun wrote about Chinese youth's participation in the Northern Expedition: its initial fervor, its ineffectual idealism, and its eventual despondency and despair. Huan-mieh depicts its young heroine's recoil from the revolutionary experience, with all its frivolity and anarchy, and her resignation to the romantic delirium of personal happiness. Tungyao tells of the paralysis of the well-meaning hero, Fang Lo-lan, as he vainly attempts to steer a middle path between reactionary and revolutionary demagoguery in a liberated small town in Hupeh. Chui-ch'iu portrays the futility and bitter nihilism of a group of intellectuals in Shanghai, once participants in the Northern Expedition.

The great success of the trilogy prompted Communist critics to launch an attack on the author for his so-called petty-bourgeois decadence and unwarranted pessimism. In the essays "Ts'ung Ku-ling tao Tung-ching" [from Kuling to Tokyo] and "Tu Ni Huan-chih" [on reading Ni Huan-chih], Mao Tun admitted that the novelettes reflected a period of crisis in his own life, but defended his right to depict truth as he saw it. He countered the charges of decadence by arguing that the revolutionary writer should regard the petty bourgeoisie as his primary audience because the proletariat is illiterate and therefore beyond the reach of literary communication, but he agreed that disillusionment and nihilism are inherently undesirable states of mind.

Mao Tun lived in Tokyo from the summer of 1928 until the spring of 1930. In addition to the essays defending his trilogy and several largely unfavorable sketches of Japanese life, he wrote five short stories in the style of Shih which were collected and published in 1929 as Yeh-chiang-wei [the wild roses]. These stories record the vacillation and exasperation of young women caught in the conflict of old and new. During this period, Mao Tun also wrote a second novel, Hung [rainbow], published in 1930, which traces the evolution of Chinese youth during the May Fourth and May Thirtieth movements. Although the novel begins in the literary style of Shih, its latter half shows the influence of Chinese Communist rhetoric. Hung is a study of an earnest idealist, Mei, and her quest for a meaningful life. The first third of the book, which depicts the protagonist's struggle against feudalist tradition (in the person of her detested husband), is a masterpiece of psychological realism. Upon his return to Shanghai in the spring of 1930, Mao Tun became a founding member of the League of Left-Wing Writers. By this time, he had recovered from his earlier despondency, had enthusiastically come to the support of proletarian literature, and had discarded his ornate style for a simpler prose. A few of his political fables written in the early 1930's in the guise of historical tales (about Ch'en She, the anti-Ch'in rebel, and about the heroes of Shui Hu Chuan) were of some literary interest, but his two novelettes San-jen hsing [three men] and Lu [the road] were of negligible value. Because Mao Tun was forced by illness in 1930 to limit his activities, he began to take a keen interest in the stock market in Shanghai and associated with relatives and friends in the business world. He also learned of Communist activities in Shanghai. Later, he embodied these observations and researches in a novel entitled Tzu-yeh [midnight]. The first edition, published in 1933, also bore the English title The Twilight, a Romance of China in 1930. Tzu-yeh was immediately acclaimed by Communist critics as Mao Tun's masterpiece. Its protagonist, Wu Sun-fu, a powerful industrialist with strong faith in national capitalism, is determined to consolidate his silk empire during a period of world-wide depression. However, his investments in his home town have been destroyed by Communist-organized banditry, and his main silk factory is plagued by continual Communist-led strikes. To offset his losses, he speculates on the stock market, only to be ruined by a formidable rival strongly backed by foreign capital. The novel is an impressive study of the complex life of Shanghai, with its capitalists, factory workers, bourgeois youths, and stranded feudalists, even though the proletarian material sometimes is inadequately presented in the absence of personal knowledge. Despite its wide range, Tzu-yeh has been called a very different and much less impassioned work than Mao Tun's earlier Shih. Whereas Shih vibrates with felt life, Tzu-yeh is a piece of Zolaesque research, a naturalistic confirmation of the Communist thesis about China's foredoomed endeavor to build national capitalism while in a semi-feudal, semi-colonial state. Its large number of capitalist and feudalist characters are nearly all caricatured to support this thesis.

During the Sino-Japanese conflict at Shanghai in 1932, Mao Tun lived for a short time in his native town of Ch'ingchen. Although Mao Tun had always excelled in his depiction of city life and had rarely touched upon the rural and small-town experience of his childhood, he now decided to write about peasants and tradesmen. The resulting stories were ranked by Communist critics with Tzu-yeh as outstanding examples of socialist realism in the 1930's. Some of these stories, especially "Linchia p'u-tzu" [Lin's shop] and "Ch'un-ts'an" [spring silkworms], both written in 1932, are notable for their compassionate quality and for their portrayal of doomed modes of traditional existence. Another story, "Hsiao-wu" [little witch] of 1932, although it received less Communist acclaim because of its frank references to sex, is a grim story of a brutally abused concubine. Because all of the stories are propagandistic in purpose, Mao Tun's essays of this period, collected in 1934 as Ku-hsiang tsa-chi [home town sketches], provide more candid and truthful reporting of a harassed peasantry suffering the economic consequences of the Sino-Japanese conflict in Shanghai. Mao Tun did not produce any memorable writing during the years 1934-36. He produced a short novel in 1936, To-chueh kuan-hsi [polygonal relations] and two collections of short stories, P'ao-mo [froth] of 1935 and Yen-yün chi [smoke and cloud] of 1937. Most of the stories are satires on Shanghai businessmen, their wives, and their secretaries. One exception is "Ta-pi-tzu ti ku-shih" [the story of big nose], which is about a young beggar in Shanghai living on garbage and occasional thieving. The story was written in the jocular, anecdotal style of Lu Hsün's "The Story of Ah Q,," with further obvious borrowings fromCh'angT'ien-yi, who was noted for his comic stories about city children.

When Chou Yang (q.v.) disbanded the League of Left-Wing Writers in the spring of 1936 and, in support of the united front campaign, established the Writers' Association, Mao Tun joined the new group. It called for a realistic style, the use of resistance to the Japanese as the central theme of writings, and the slogan "Literature for National Defense." In July 1936, however, Mao Tun joined Lu Hsün, Hu Feng (q.v.) and the 64 other writers who formed the Chinese Literary Workers Association in issuing a rival declaration which called for "People's Literature for the National Revolutionary Struggle," for he had come to believe that the directors of Communist literary policy in Shanghai were subverting literature to accommodate whims of the Chinese Communist party. After a prolonged, bitter feud that become known as the Battle of the Slogans, the two writers' groups resolved their differences sufficiently to issue a proclamation of unity in October 1936.

After the Sino-Japanese war began in 1937, Mao Tun went to Changsha by way of Hong Kong and then to Wuhan, where he and his friends founded a magazine called Wen-i chen-ti [the literary front]. He moved, along with the magazine's headquarters, to Canton in February 1938; not long after, he moved to Hong Kong, where he also began to edit the literary page of the daily Li Pao. A new novel, eventually titled Ti-i-chieh-tuan ti ku-shih [story of the first stage of the war], about the siege of Shanghai in the summer of 1937, was serialized in the Li Pao. Although industrialists, financiers, bourgeois intellectuals, Trotskyites, and feudal remnants were again his characters, the book was not considered a success. At the end of 1938 he went to Urumchi to serve as dean of the college of liberal arts at Sinkiang University and possibly to promote Sino-Soviet relations in that border region. According to Communist sources, he went there at the invitation of a good friend, the journalist Tu Chung-yuan (q.v.).

In May 1940 Mao Tun left Urumchi for Yenan, where he lectured at the Lu Hsün Institute. In October of that year he left the Communist capital and traveled to Chungking. In the spring of 1941, following the New Fourth Army Incident, he left Chungking for Hong Kong, where he arranged for the serial publication in the journal Ta-chung sheng-huo [life of the masses] of his novel Fu-shih [putrefaction], with the purpose of exposing the National Government's role in bringing about the New Fourth Army Incident (see Ho Lung). The novels also accused the Kuomintang of employing secret agents to trap Communist underground workers in the Nationalist interior. Although Fu-shih lacks the vitality of Hung and Shih, Communist critics termed it the author's second greatest novel, inferior only to Tzu-yeh.

At the end of 1941 Mao Tun and his family went to Kweilin, where he wrote a series of sketches of life in Hong Kong before and after its Japanese occupation entitled Chieh-hou shih-i [jottings after the ordeal], published in 1942, and the first part of a trilogy, Shuang-yeh hung-ssu erh-yüeh-hua [maple leaves as red as February flowers], published in 1943. Although, according to the author's postscript to a recent edition, the completed work will show the progress of Communist youth from the May Fourth period through the Kuomintang purges of 1927, the first volume has little to do with Communism. It studies the careers of several tradition-bound and reformist youths against the economic background of a small town in Chekiang during the early republican period. Temporarily disengaged from his propagandist concerns, Mao Tun showed a surprising recrudescence of psychological skill in depicting the marital difficulties of two young couples and the thwarted idealism of the hero, Ch'ien Liang-ts'ai.

Late in 1942 Mao Tun moved to Chungking, where he served under Kuo Mo-jo (q.v.) on the cultural work committee of the political training board of the National Military Council. He did little serious writing in the years 1942-44 except for several short stories later collected in the volume Wei-ch'u [grievances] and published in 1945. Though they have received little critical attention, they are ironic and compassionate studies of the impoverished middle class in the interior done in a style suggestive of Chekhov. In the spring and summer of 1945 Mao Tun completed a play, Ch'ing-ming ch'ien-hou [before and after the Ch'ing-Ming festival], which proved to be his last major creative effort. It is a study of the tribulations of average Chungking citizens against the background of the war-profiteering officials and industrialists in the last year of the war. Mao Tun returned to Shanghai soon after the War in the Pacific had ended. From December 1946 to April 1947 he toured the Soviet Union with his wife, and he subsequently published a record of impressions of the trip entitled Su-lien chien-wen-lu [what I saw and heard in the Soviet Union]. Upon his return to Shanghai, he soon left for Hong Kong, where in 1948 he founded the pro-Communist Hsiao-shuo yueh-k'an [fiction monthly] . Following the Communist capture of Peiping in 1949, Mao Tun, along with Kuo Mo-jo and many other Communist and leftist writers then in Hong Kong, was invited to attend the All- China Congress of Writers and Artists. Kuo Mo-jo was elected chairman and Mao Tun vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Literary and Art Workers. Mao Tun also became chairman of the Association of Literary Workers (subsequently renamed the Writers' Union). Soon afterwards, he was appointed minister of culture in the Central People's Government. In 1954 he was elected a deputy to the First National People's Congress. A founding editor of the leading literary journal of the 1949-53 period, Jen-min wen-hsüeh [people's literature], and of I-wen [translations], he later joined with Yeh Chun-chien in editing the English-language journal Chinese Literature. Mao Tun ceased to function as a creative writer after 1949. Moreover, he had not completed any serious work in the 1946-48 period: the novel Tuan-lien [discipline] was -partially serialized in the Hong Kong Wen Hui Pao and then abandoned. And yet when the War in the Pacific ended, he had been only 49 years old, a writer in his prime. The works he produced during his residence in Kweilin and Chungking—Shuang-yeh hung-ssu erh-yüehhua, Ch'ing-ming ch'ien-hou, and Wei-ch'u—have been called markedly superior to his novels and stories of 1934-41. Writing under the shadow of a vigilant censorship during this period, he had to refrain from overt political propaganda. On the other hand, one critic believes that the new note of artistic restraint and sympathetic realism was due more to individual choice than to external political pressure, especially in view of the fact that his creative silence coincided with the new Communist era. Despite his undoubted Communist sympathies, Mao Tun was a writer deeply committed to the literary ideals of Western realism and one who drew his creative sustenance mainly from the capitalist and feudalist life that he knew. He was particularly noted for his competent grasp of city manners, his preoccupation with sensuality and finance, his romantic idealism tinged with melancholy and pessimism, and his extreme superficiality whenever he depicted ideal characters and situations in the expected style of socialist realism. During the Hundred Flowers campaign, Mao Tun, in his official capacity as minister of culture, attacked the conformity of the Communist literary product, but he was criticized for his outspokenness during the ensuing anti-rightist campaigns.

After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Mao Tun delivered many reports and addresses at conventions of literary and art workers, one of which was his long address entitled "Reflect the Age of the Socialist Leap Forward, Promote the Leap Forward of the Socialist Age," to the Third Congress of Chinese Literary and Art Workers in July 1960. He traveled abroad many times to attend cultural or literary conferences of Communist or Afro-Asian nations. As an older and well-established writer, he advised young writers to write well and learn the rudiments of literary art, and he has encouraged and praised many new writers of fiction. Mao Tun wen-chi [the works of Mao Tun], an eightvolume collection published in 1958, includes all of his novels and short stories. In December 1964 Mao Tun was removed from office as minister of culture on charges of ideological heresy in connection with a film, by Hsia Yen based on his "Lin-chia p'u-tzu." The film allegedly weakened the class struggle by generating sympathy for a bourgeois shopkeeper.

Biography in Chinese


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