China's leader warns artists, writers to be 'upright' and avoid 'vulgar' work

Writers in exile reject Xi Jinping's ideological wish list as a demand for propaganda.
By Cheng Yut Yiu and Jane Tang
China's leader warns artists, writers to be 'upright' and avoid 'vulgar' work A man places a painting on the wall of a mental health-themed art exhibition in Shanghai, Aug. 10, 2021.

China's writers and artists should avoid producing "vulgar" work that paints the Chinese people in an "ugly" light, ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping told a recent literary and artistic conference.

Writers and artists should ensure that they behave in a "moral and upright" manner, while producing work that "extols goodness, truth and beauty," Xi told the 11th National Congress of China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and the 10th National Congress of China Writers Association in Beijing on Dec. 14.

"Our artists and writers must practice morality and decency, have good taste and be responsible," Xi said.

"I hope that the majority of literary and artistic workers will hold onto their original aspirations, keep their mission in mind, live up to the times, live up to the people, and make new and greater contributions to the comprehensive construction of a modern socialist country and the realization of the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation," he added.

He called for literary and artistic works that live up to Chinese aesthetic standards and spread "Chinese values."

"You shouldn't ridicule the people, still less demonize them with ugly brushstrokes," Xi told the conference. "Literature and art should be popular, but not vulgar or kitsch."

"The makers, followers, and advocates [of art and literary] must innovate, but they must not engage in anything weird or ridiculous," he said. "[They] shouldn't be contaminated with filthy lucre, nor enslaved to the market."

"We must emphasize taste, style, and responsibility, be upright, act innocently, and extol truth, goodness, and beauty, and pinpoint falseness, evil and ugliness," Xi said.

Liao Tianqi, vice chair of the PEN International Peace Committee, said Xi's comments are in effect a set of demands on writers and artists to produce propaganda for the CCP, similar to his requirement that the media belong to the ruling party.

"Literature should be about expressing human nature, not marching to the tune of those in power," Liao told RFA. "Some literature does tap into weaknesses in society and in human nature."

"Expressing such things doesn't mean you are exaggerating human evil, or social ugliness ... it's better than that; it's calling society's attention to the way society treats disadvantaged groups."

Xi's comments were far more prescriptive than during his 2016 appearance at the same conferences, during which he merely asked writers to avoid "historical nihilism" when writing about modern and contemporary Chinese history.

Freedom, privacy of thought

In a separate interview two days earlier, U.S.-based writer Han Xiu accused the CCP of "ruining 5,000 years of Chinese civilization."

She also warned that it is hard to write without the freedom and privacy of one's own thoughts.

"Writers don't just need to have freedom in the environment where they live; it also matters whether their thoughts are free or not, or whether there is some kind of yardstick telling them what is the right way to write and what is not," Han said in an interview with RFA's "Viewpoint" program.

"In such a complicated environment, you must have your own standpoint," she said. "If you stick to that, and write what you want to write, then you have creative freedom."

"There are no artists who are subject to no restrictions at all, and many sacrifice their personal happiness and their independence of personality," Han said. "But they won't sacrifice their independence of thought or their creative freedom."

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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