A Meeting at the Beijing Capital Theatre

The Capital Theatre in Beijing

On a visit to China in October 2018 before the pandemic, I attended a play at the Beijing Capital Theatre. The play was ‘Huabian’ (‘哗变’ or ‘Mutiny’), based on the novel ‘The Caine Mutiny’ by Herman Wouk. This post is not about the play, however, but rather about a meeting held in this Theatre in 1957 during the ‘Anti-Rightist Campaign’.

I attended the play in 2018 partly because it had received good reviews and it was indeed a good production, but mainly because I wanted to see the inside of the theatre itself. I had passed it many times on walks around central Beijing and I was aware that it was built in 1954. After attending the play there in 2018, however, I seldom thought of it again until just a few days ago when I read an essay by the famous Chinese novelist, Ba Jin, in which he described a meeting he attended there in 1957. The essay is entitled ‘Remembering Xuefeng’ (‘纪念雪峰’) and it was first published in April 1979 in Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao newspaper.

Ba Jin was born in 1904 and died in 2005, at the age of 100. He was one of the leading Chinese writers of the 20th century, and wrote many novels, short stories and essays. I purchased one of his essay collections in Chinese entitled ‘Suixiang Lu’ (‘随想录’, or ‘Random Thoughts’) in a book store in Shanghai in 2019. The book contains numerous essays on Ba Jin’s own fate and that of other Chinese intellectuals and writers in the various ‘movements’ that began in the 1950s and culminated in the Cultural Revolution. One of those essays is about Feng Xuefeng (1903 to 1976).

Feng Xuefeng was a poet, writer and editor, and also a long time member of the Communist Party of China. He was a close friend of Lu Xun and an authority on his work. After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China he became the head and chief editor of the People’s Literature Publishing House, vice-chair of the China Writers’ Association and the chief editor of Literature and Art News. He was also well known in China for his relationship with the writer Ding Ling. When he met her in the late 1920s, however, she was already in a relationship with the writer Hu Yepin and the three of them agreed that Ding Ling should remain with Hu. Not long after that Hu Yepin was himself arrested and shot by the Kuomintang government because of his pro-communist leanings. He was one of the ‘Five Martyrs of the Left League’ who were all executed at the same time in 1931 despite appeals to Chiang Kai-shek to spare their lives.

Ba Jin begins his essay by describing how he first met Feng in 1936. Ba Jin had previously read and admired Feng’s poetry that had been published in the collection ‘Hupan’ (‘湖畔’, or ‘Lakeshore’) in 1922, when Feng was just 19 years old. Ba Jin had also heard in 1928 that Feng had joined the Party. They did not meet however until they both became involved in the planning for Lu Xun’s burial following the latter’s death in 1936, when they attended a dinner together. Ba Jin describes Feng as ‘upright, sincere and well intentioned’ (鲠直/gengzhi,真诚/zhencheng,善良/shanliang). He did not have the arrogance (架子/jiazi) of a typical Party member but was amiable and easy to approach. Ba Jin says he had certain faults, however, in that he was not cool-headed and could act impulsively. Ba Jin also describes how Feng worked indefatigably in various Party roles and in publishing, in addition to his poetry and novel writing.

Ba Jin next describes meeting up with Feng in Beijing in 1957. At that time the Anti-Rightist Movement had already started. Ba Jin had travelled from his home in Shanghai to attend a meeting in Beijing. He got in touch with Feng before returning to Shanghai, and Feng invited him to his home for a visit. Ba Jin later became aware that Feng had already been targeted by the Anti-Rightist Movement, but he did not know that at the time of this visit. He and Feng had a long talk about their many common interests. Ba Jin asked some questions about the Anti-Rightist Movement that Feng answered in a straightforward way. Feng then asked Ba Jin to go out for dinner with him. They went to a restaurant at the Xin Qiao Hotel (now the Novotel Beijing Xin Qiao Hotel near Chongwenmen where I once stayed myself). Ba Jin realised from Feng’s lack of familiarity with the menu that he seldom dined in restaurants and recalled that Feng had been known for his “hard working and plain living style” when they were both living in Chongqing during World War II. After dinner Feng appeared extremely reluctant to see Ba Jin leave and pressed him to accompany him and his wife for a walk around the area near their home. Thinking back on Feng’s behaviour that night, Ba Jin realised that he had likely already become the object of criticism and had premonitions of the disaster that was about to come crashing down on him.

Ba Jin then returned to Shanghai, but was back in Beijing one or two months later to attend the last session of the Party members’ group of the China Writers’ Association. That session was held in the Beijing Capital Theatre. Ba Jin says that when he arrived at the Theatre, there were already many people sitting in the stalls area, including Feng who was sitting at one end of the front row. Ba Jin was now well aware that Feng had become the target of criticism as a ‘Rightist’. Ba Jin says he could not understand how that could be so, but he nonetheless went up on the stage where he and another writer by the name of Jin Yi gave a joint talk. Ba Jin says the purpose of the meeting was to criticise three people: Ding Ling, Feng Xuefeng and Ai Qing (all famous writers who had spent time at the Party’s wartime base in Yanan) and label them as ‘Rightists’. [The Chinese term Ba Jin uses to describe the ‘labelling’ process actually means ‘to put the hat of a Rightist’ on the person in question.] Ba Jin and Jin Yi then proceeded to criticise each of the three writers, repeating the descriptions others had used before them. They described Ding Ling as “a bookist”; Feng Xuefeng as a person who “had placed himself above the Party”; and Ai Qing as a person who “focusses on making contacts with people high and low”. In 1958 Feng was stripped of his Party membership and removed from his editorial roles.

The stalls area of the Capital Theatre in Beijing. Feng Xuefeng sat at one end of the front row at the meeting in 1957.

Ba Jin goes on to explain why he participated in this criticism. He says he “had faith in other people” (i.e., who had previously criticised the three writers), but he also wanted to protect himself from becoming a target of criticism. He says that he had made a speech before the Anti-Rightist Movement began in which he had said: “At the present time, if someone is exposed, if they are criticised, then no-one will dare to stand up to defend them out of a sense of justice”. Ba Jin says he was concerned that if anyone who heard him say that “exposed” it, then he too could become a target of the Anti-Rightist Campaign. This was not an unjustified concern on Ba Jin’s part. He and his wife both suffered persecution during the Cultural Revolution some years later. Ba Jin spent several years in a ‘niupeng’ (‘牛棚’ or ‘cattle shed’ – a type of detention house set up for educated people during the Cultural Revolution), while his wife was required to sweep the streets around their home. Their house in Shanghai was twice invaded and searched by Red Guards.

Ba Jin goes on to express huge regret for what he said that day in 1957 at the Beijing Capital Theatre. He says that every time he has thought of what he said in the many years since the meeting was held, it is like “a needle constantly stabbing at his heart” for which “he blames himself”. He says he sometimes imagines hearing the sound of shouting and looks around to see the ghosts of so many people who died unjustly hovering behind him. He finally asks: “How can I account to myself for this?”

My Thoughts on Ba Jin’s Essay

Ba Jin’s participation in the criticism of Feng Xuefeng at the meeting in Beijing in 1957, and Feng’s own fate were by no means exceptional in China during the period between 1950 and 1978.

Ba Jin was not immune from criticism despite his fame as a novelist and short story writer. Like most other Chinese writers and intellectuals he was forced to participate in the criticism of people who were targeted by the Anti-Rightist and other ‘Movements’. Back in the early 1950s, Ba Jin and Ding Ling for example had both been involved in criticism of the writer and editor Hu Feng. Many of the critics, just like Ba Jin, were later targeted for criticism themselves.

Feng Xuefeng was also one of many long-term members of the Party who were singled out for criticism and expelled from the Party despite their decades of service to the Communist cause. The reasons for this were often extremely arbitrary and had nothing to do with their own merits or demerits as individuals. These are well known historical facts, of course, but that does nothing to compensate the great number of talented, committed and hard working individuals who suffered so much.

There are many other people I could write about whose stories are equally distressing, but I decided to write this particular article because of the two locations in Beijing that figure in Ba Jin’s essay that I have previously visited myself: the Beijing Capital Theatre and the Xin Qiao Hotel.

Michael Ingle – michaelingle01@gmail.com

About Michael Ingle

Retired lawyer studying the Chinese language and history of the mid-20th century
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