Wang Rong (1919 to 2004) And His Fateful Play Review

Wang Rong in 1984

Wang Rong (王戎) was a Chinese actor, writer and reporter whose life was turned upside down in 1955 when he was implicated in the unjust case against ‘Hu Feng’s Counter-Revolutionary Clique’. The material in this post about Wang is taken from an article of reminiscences that he wrote for the book “Hu Feng and I’, edited by Hu Feng’s daughter Xiao Feng (published in 1993), plus a short biographical entry about Wang that appears before the article and was presumably written by Xiao Feng.

Wang was born in 1919 in the city of Kaifeng in Henan Province. He later moved to Shanghai but left for Changsha in Hunan Province after Shanghai fell to the Japanese in late 1937. He later moved on to Chongqing, where he started to write and became an actor in a local theatrical company. He also met Hu Feng in Chongqing. Hu Feng advised him to redirect his writing efforts from poetry to reportage, but they had only one meeting together. Wang returned to Shanghai after the end of WWII, where he worked as a reporter, first for the Xinmin Evening Newspaper, and later for the Xinhua news agency. In 1952 Wang became an editor in the Shanghai Central Film Script Office.

Wang wrote a novel called ‘He Died Under a Shoulder Pole’ (based on his experiences in the Kuomintang army during WWII), that was published in 1946 by the Wenhui Daily newspaper in Shanghai. He later wrote three plays, ‘Who Is the Assassin?’, ‘A Korean’ and ‘Unity’, that were all published in Wuhan.

In 1955, Wang was implicated in the case against the alleged ‘Hu Feng Counter-Revolutionary Clique’ and was jailed for two years, on the grounds that he ‘opposed Mao Zedong’s thinking on literature and the arts’ and ‘supported Hu Feng’s counter-revolutionary thinking on literature and the arts’. In 1958 Wang was sent to Gansu Province and from there to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region for ‘reform through work’. The first time Wang was able to return to Shanghai was in 1978. He was then 59 years old (having been jailed at the age of 36). He went to the home where he had lived with his mother in 1955 and they did not at first recognise each other. His mother (who was then 83) said when he arrived at the door “Who are you looking for?”. Wang replied “Does the Wang family live here?”. His mother replied “You are…my second son!”

There is no further biographical information about Wang Rong in the book ‘Hu Feng and I’, apart from a statement that he had retired by the time that book was published. I have been unable to find much additional information about Wang from other sources, either. There are fairly detailed entries in Baidu Baike (the Chinese equivalent of Wikipedia) in relation to most of the people who were implicated in the Hu Feng case, but there is no such entry for Wang Rong. Jia Zhifang (whose article of reminiscences in the book ‘Hu Feng and I’ I translated in my last post) says in his diaries that Wang was a frequent visitor at his home in Shanghai during the 1980s. I have also been able to find the photograph of Wang Rong that appears at the beginning of this post (the photo appears on page 186 of the book ‘Storm in the Sun: Introductions, Script and Reviews’, edited by S. Louisa Wei and published in 2009 by Blue Queen Cultural Communication Ltd. in Hong Kong). That photograph was taken in 1984, when Wang would have been 64 or 65. I have also discovered that he died in 2004, at the age of 85. It appears however that he did not publish any further written work after he returned to Shanghai in 1979, apart from the article for ‘Hu Feng and I’. He may simply have retired or taken on a minor job to see him through to retirement. The unfortunate reality is that he (like many others who were implicated in the Hu Feng case) spent the prime years of his life either in jail or doing ‘reform through work’ on farms in the remote countryside. He did, however, survive to return home and to write his article of reminiscences for the book ‘Hu Feng and I’. Tragically, numerous other members of the Hu Feng ‘clique’ did not survive to write about their experiences.

My main purpose in writing this post, however, is not to tell the story of Wang Rong. It is to describe (based on his reminiscences) how he was implicated in the case against the ‘Hu Feng Counter-Revolutionary Clique’ in 1955 because of a review he wrote in 1945/46 about a play in which he appeared as an actor in Chongqing. That review, and two other articles that he wrote in reply to criticisms of his review, were later distorted by senior cultural figures in China and directly led to Wang first being imprisoned in 1955 and then sent to Gansu and Xinjiang for a lengthy period of ‘reform through labour’. He was only released and allowed to return to Shanghai in 1979, after effectively losing 24 years of his life. Apart from those fragments of information, there appears to be little else available. That is unfortunate, as it is clear from his article written for the book ‘Hu Feng and I’ that Wang was an intelligent man with diverse abilities and wide interests.

This post is not primarily about Wang Rong, however. It is about the way in which a fairly innocuous play review he wrote as a young man in 1945 was subsequently distorted by important cultural figures in China and used as ‘proof’ of his involvement in ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. While the distortion of published material was common in China during the Cultural Revolution and the other ‘movements’ that preceded it, the account in Wang Rong’s article is a detailed and very clear example of it.

The Story of Wang Rong’s Play Review and Its Aftermath

In 1945, Wang Rong was an actor in the Chinese Arts Theatre Company located in Chongqing. During that year the company presented two plays: ‘Before and After Qingming’ by Mao Dun, and ‘Fragrant Flowers on the Horizon’ by Xia Yan. In November 1945, the Xinhua Daily Newspaper published notes of a meeting at which the plays were discussed. One of the people who spoke at the meeting was referred in the notes as ‘C Jun’ (‘C君’). C Jun asked whether the play ‘Before and After Qingming’ could be accused of being ‘sloganistic’ or ‘formulaic’. He said no on both counts and went on to say that the main problem confronting people in literary and arts circles in China was not sloganism or formalism but was instead the trend against politics. He said that some people were using their opposition to sloganism and formalism to hide their opposition to “politics, rationalism and Marxism”. C Jun concluded that he would prefer a play like ‘Before and After Qingming’ even if it indulges to some extent in sloganism and formalism, rather than a play that leaves people confused and fails to put across a clear message.

Wang Rong, who was 26 in 1945, says in his article that he did not agree with these views expressed by C Jun. Wang never found out who exactly C Jun was, but he strongly objected to C Jun’s saying that a person who opposed sloganism and formalism was using that as cover for being against “politics, rationalism and Marxism”. He did not initially intend to put his views into writing, saying that he considered his cultural level to be ‘not high’, as he had only completed the higher level of primary school in the Chinese educational system of the time. Wang had however by this time met the well known Chinese actor Shi Yu (石羽) as well as the theatre critic and journalist Zhang Ying (张颖). Zhang Ying was also Zhou Enlai’s secretary (representative) in Chongqing at the time. Wang says that, with their help and encouragement, he embarked on a course of independent study and also came to understand the reasons why radical change was needed in China. [Note: It was common in China at this time for intelligent individuals who had received some education but had been unable to pursue further studies for financial or other reasons to pursue independent study.] Zhang Ying had left Chongqing in 1943 to go to Yanan while she recovered from a lung condition. She was replaced as Zhou Enlai’s local secretary by Chen Shunyao (陈舜瑶 – Interestingly Chen lived on until 2019 when she died at the age of 102; she was the wife of Song Ping, who later became the head of the Organisation Department of the CPC). Chen and Wang became friends and she asked him what he thought of the Xinhua report of C Jun’s and others’ views on the play ‘Before and After Qingming’. Wang told her that he did not agree with what C Jun had said and she encouraged him to write an article setting out his own views. She also said this would be a good opportunity for him to practise his writing skills.

Wang Rong therefore set out to write a short article that he entitled “Speaking About ‘Before and After Qingming'”. He delivered it to Chen Shunyao who arranged for it to be published on 19th December 1945 in the arts supplement of the Xinhua Daily Newspaper edited by He Qifang [何其芳 – b.1912 d.1977 – a poet and essayist who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution as a ‘capitalist roader’]. Wang describes his article as ‘shallow and superficial’ and as an ‘exercise in writing’. Possibly for those reasons he does not directly quote any of its contents. The gist of what he said however was reflected in a memoir article published by Mao Dun (the author of ‘Before and After Qingming’) a full 40 years later in 1986, a part of which Wang Rong does quote. [Mao Dun’s memoir article was published in ‘New Literature Historical Materials’ Volume II in 1986]. Mao Dun related in his memoir article how the performance of his play in Chongqing in 1945 sparked off a controversy in which two different types of views were expressed by critics. He says one group of critics was typified by Wang Rong, who considered that “realist literary writing” should focus not on “political tendencies” but rather on “the close blending together of the writer’s subjective consciousness and objective reality”. It should reflect the “struggles of real life” and avoid “abstract concepts” and “empty slogans”. Mao Dun says the other group of critics considered the play had certain defects but overall was a “realist work” with “intense political inclinations”. It seems likely that the terms quoted above by Mao Dun were taken directly from Wang Rong’s original play review, or were along very similar lines to what Wang wrote. The concept of “the close blending together of the writer’s subjective consciousness and objective reality” was at the heart of Hu Feng’s literary theory, with which Wang would have been familiar at the time as a result of reading issues of Hu Feng’s literary journal ‘July’.

A week after Wang Rong’s article was published in the Xinhua Daily Newspaper on 19th December 1945, another article about Mao Dun’s play, written by Shao Quanlin, was published in the same paper. [Shao Quanllin was a prominent Chinese writer and critic who was later persecuted for his own views on literature during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison in 1971.] Shao’s article accepted that the play ‘Before and After Qianming’ had a formulaic quality, but his main purpose in writing the article was to criticise the views Wang Rong had expressed in his own article. Wang does not directly quote any of Shao’s criticisms, however. Wang says he felt there were things he needed to say in response, so he wrote a second article entitled ‘Subjective Consciousness and Political Inclinations’, that he submitted to the Xinhua Daily Newspaper. He Qifang arranged for that article to be published on 9th January 1946. Wang does not quote from the contents of this article.

Wang Rong returned to Chongqing shortly after that, where He Qifang asked him to meet with him. He told Wang that he should not carry the dispute any further and said he (He Qifang) would write an article himself to bring it to a conclusion. He Qifang’s article, entitled ‘In Relation to Realism’, was published in the Xinhua Daily Newspaper on 13th February 1946. Wang read it after he moved back to Shanghai and says it was very long, taking up a whole page of the newspaper. This article was also critical of Wang Rong, but somewhat measured in its criticism. Wang quotes the following two sections from the article:

Section 1

I know that Wang Rong was not at all concerned about common struggle and fierce conflict; he was not at all concerned with ordinary integration of the subjective conscientiousness with objective reality. Instead he was concerned with a particular type of and a radical writer’s integration of the subjective consciousness with objective reality. … I also know that when our friends in the Kuomintang rear area refer to ‘realism’, they are not at all talking about ordinary realism (or rather capitalist realism), rather it is a specific kind of realism that requires radical writers to adopt the position of the broad masses of people, and also requires Marxist writers to adopt the position of the proletariat.”

Section 2

I have also thought over and over again, when Wang Rong used literary expressions like ‘burn’, ’embrace’ and ‘struggle’, was the meaning he wanted to express no more than to emphasize what we commonly refer to as the importance of integrating theory and practice, especially the importance of practice? If that was the case, there are no problems with that.

[Please note the underlining in the above excerpts from He Qifang’s essay was added by Wang Rong and did not appear in the original essay.]

Wang wrote another article (his third) in response to the criticisms in He Qifang’s article of 13th February 1946. That article was entitled ‘An Arts And Literature Issue’, and it was published on 16th April 1946 in a periodical called ‘Grains of Wheat’ edited by students from St John’s University in Shanghai. Wang again does not quote from the contents of this (his third and final) article.

Four years later, in 1950, He Qifang published a collection of his essays entitled ‘In Relation to Realism’. He Qifang included Wang Rong’s first and second essays as an appendix to this collection, but he left out the third essay and said nothing about it. Wang says this gave readers the false impression that He Qifang’s essay published in February 1946 marked the end of the controversy and that Wang had nothing more to say. He Qifang also stated in his introduction to the essay collection that Wang’s two essays (set out in the appendix) were an ‘open rejection’ of Mao Zedong’s thinking in relation to literature and the arts, as set out in Mao’s famous ‘Speech at the Yanan Arts and Literature Symposium’. [I will not describe this speech in detail, but in essence Mao said literature and the arts should primarily serve the interests of the revolution and the workers, peasants and soldiers. Mao in effect regarded literary qualities as secondary to political qualities.]. It goes without saying that accusing a person of ‘openly rejecting’ Mao Zedong’s thinking was a very serious charge, especially coming from an important literary figure like He Qifang. As noted below, this charge later had grave consequences for Wang Rong.

He Qifang’s ‘In Relation to Realism’ essay collection was republished in 1956 and 1959. There were differences from the original 1950 edition, however. For one thing, He Qifang did not include Wang’s first two essays that had been included as an appendix in the 1950 edition. For another, He Qifang deleted the first of the sections that Wang quoted above (Section1). He retained the second section (Section 2), but changed it to read as follows:

Wang Rong would perhaps defend himself by saying that his purpose in using literary expressions like ‘burn’, ’embrace’ and ‘struggle’, was nothing more than to emphasize what we commonly refer to as the importance of integrating theory and practice, especially the importance of practice. But such a defence would be futile.

[Please note as above that the underlining in the above excerpt from He Qifang’s essay was added by Wang Rong.]

Wang Rong points out that He Qifang left out the expression “I have also thought over and over again” and replaced it with “Wang Rong would perhaps defend himself”. He Qifang also deleted the expression “there are no problems with that” and replaced it with “such a defence would be futile”.

Wang Rong points out that He Qifang’s statement in the introduction to the 1950 version of his ‘In Relation to Realism’ essay collection, that Wang’s essays were an ‘open rejection’ of Mao’s thinking in relation to literature and the arts, was later used as evidence that Wang was a ‘counter revolutionary’. This in turn led to his arrest in 1955 and in 1958 to him being sent off first to Gansu Province and later to the Xinjiang Autonomous Region for 20 years of ‘reform through labour’.

Wang only discovered in 1979, from a person who had been involved in the reinvestigation of his case, that his original ‘crime’ had been the writing of his three essays in 1945/46. After his arrest in 1955, one of his colleagues in the Shanghai Central Film Script Office, who also had the surname Wang, had written an article for the Liberation Daily (解放日报, the official daily newspaper of the Shanghai Party Committee of the CPC) “exposing his crimes”. Part of the article is quoted by Wang Rong and reads as follows:

“Wang Rong was born into a family of reactionary army officers. Near the end of the Anti-Japanese War, he wormed his way into Chongqing’s theatrical circles. Posing as a radical young actor he got to know many radical figures in literature and the arts, while at the same time following Hu Feng in his damaging activities. In 1946, in the guise of ‘criticising’ the staging of the play ‘Before and After Qingming’, that was then all the rage in Chongqing, he published two articles: “Speaking About ‘Before and After Qingming'” and “The Subjective Consciousness and Political Inclinations”. In these articles, following Hu Feng’s example, he vented his anger at the political inclinations and political standards of the play, and recklessly advocated the so-called ‘subjective fighting consciousness’.”

Wang Rong was finally rehabilitated in 1980, a full 25 years after his arrest in 1955. In 1955, he had been 36 years old; by 1980, he was 61 years old. Wang quotes the formal rehabilitation decision that was issued to him in 1980 by the Shanghai Public Security Office in full:

“Wang Rong, pseudonym Xiao Mei, male, born in 1919, a native of Xiangyin County in Hunan Province, from a family engaged in public administration. He is a professional person, now working on a farm in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. On 8th June 1955 he was arrested and investigated in connection with the Hu Feng counter-revolutionary clique case. On 25th August 1956 he was found to be an ‘ordinary member of the Hu Feng counter-revolutionary clique’. In 1958 he was sent away for work and reform. // After re-examining the case, we have found that the original decision that Comrade Wang Rong was an ‘ordinary member of the Hu Feng counter-revolutionary clique’ and the later decision to send him away for work and reform were both mistaken. We hereby correct those mistaken decisions and restore his reputation and his original wage scale.”

Wang says he was given a payment of 300 yuan as compensation for the troubles he had suffered, but he was given nothing to make up for his loss of wages over the previous 25 years. Wang also relates a conversation he had later on with a colleague. The colleague said that, were it not for the Cultural Revolution, Wang would probably still be in Xinjiang in the work and reform brigade. Wang replied saying that was not correct. He said that were it not for the Third Plenary Session of the Party’s Eleventh Central Committee, he would definitely still be in the Xinjiang work and reform brigade, and he might well have died there. Wang went on to say he could only thank the Party, not the ‘Cultural Revolution’. [NB: The Third Plenary Session took place in December 1978 and ushered in the Deng Xiaoping regime and the new era of ‘opening up to the outside world and reform’.]

At the end of his article of reminiscences, Wang sets out a quote from the document that the Central Committee of the Party issued on 18th June 1988 when it finally accepted that the criticism of Hu Feng’s thinking on the arts and literature had been mistaken. The document said:

“We should properly settle all issues in relation to Comrade Hu Feng’s thinking on the arts and literature and the views he espoused, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution on academic freedom and freedom to criticise, and the Party’s policy of ‘letting a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend’. Literary and arts circles and the broad mass of readers should reach proper conclusions through normal rational criticism and discussion.”

It should be noted the above document was issued a full 33 years after Hu Feng was first imprisoned. Wang’s final comments are somewhat guarded: “I wholeheartedly and warmly raise both my hands in support of the above principles. But is it possible for this type of rational criticism and discussion to be implemented in fact? I am now over 70 years old, but I am waiting, I am waiting…”

My Comments:

  • Wang Rong was clearly a confident, intelligent and sociable young man in the mid-1940s when he found himself working as an actor in Chongqing. He had become acquainted with people of influence in the CPC and he was also very interested in literature. He met Hu Feng only a few times. The first meeting took place in 1945 in Chongqing, when he asked Hu Feng for his views in relation to a poem he had written. Hu Feng told him his poem was not very good and advised him to refocus his efforts on reportage. Wang engaged in no correspondence with Hu Feng however and they were by no means close friends. Wang wrote his first article about the play ‘Before and After Qingming’ because he was encouraged to do so by Chen Shunyao, who was Zhou Enlai’s private secretary in Chongqing during the mid-1940s.
  • Wang was nonetheless later found to be a member of ‘Hu Feng’s counter-revolutionary clique’. This resulted in his arrest and subsequent being sent to Gansu and Xinjiang for many years of ‘reform through work’.
  • During his long period of imprisonment and ‘reform through work’, Wang could not understand why he had become implicated in the anti-Hu Feng case. It was only after he was released in 1979 that he discovered it was because the statements he made in his play review in 1946 about such things as the integration of the ‘writer’s subjective consciousness and objective reality’ had been deemed to be evidence of counter-revolutionary activity.
  • In a normal time and a normal place, Wang’s abilities, and particularly his sociability, would no doubt have set him up for a successful career in the arts or the media. Getting to know people like Shi Yu, Zhang Ying, He Qifang and Hu Feng would have been wholly positive career moves. But China in the 1940s and 1950s was far from a normal time and place. Wang Rong does not say if he had read Mao’s 1942 speech at the Yanan Symposium on Arts and Literature (he could have done so as it was available in the Kuomintang zone by 1945). If he had read it, he might have realised that writing about literary theory could be a risky activity. However, he was encouraged to write about the play in 1945 by Zhou Enlai’s private secretary in Chongqing. How could he have imagined it would lead to problems for him?
  • Wang Rong’s story is a good demonstration of the importance of the written word and how it can be distorted and used by powerful people to secure their own ends. That can happen many years after the words were first written. Could it happen again? Given the tenor of his remarks at the end of the article on which I have based this post, Wang Rong believed it could. And not necessarily in China alone.

Michael Ingle –

About Michael Ingle

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