ZHAO SHULI (1906—1970)
ZHAO SHULI (1906—1970). Novelist. Zhao Shuli is undoubtedly the most celebrated name in the so-called potato school, a term given to writers, mostly of rural origins and active in the 1940s and 1950s, who represent peasant life in northern China with simple and straightforward language. Zhao owed much, if not all, of his success to the Chinese Communist Revolution and its professed literary policy to serve the needs of the peasants who were the backbone of its success. Zhao’s reputation was established against this political and historical background.
Growing up poor in a peasant family in a village of Qinshui, Shanxi Province, Zhao had deep roots in rural life and understood its customs and traditions. As a child, he learned the Chinese classics from his grandfather, a failed Confucian scholar turned peasant, and from his father he acquired a lifelong love for Bangzi, a local opera, and the knowledge of herbal medicine. Until he attended, in 1925 at the age of 19, the Number Four Normal School of Shanxi, which was located in Changzhi, a small city close to his hometown, Zhao had lived in this agrarian society cut off from the outside world. While in Changzhi, he eagerly read progressive magazines such as Xin qingnian (New Youth), Xiaoshuo yuebao (Fiction Monthly), and Chuangzao zhoukan (Creation Weekly), as well as Chinese translations of books and brochures such as The A.B.C of Communism by Nicolai Bukharin and Evolution and Ethics by Thomas Huxley. Zhao joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1927. His writing career began with some stories written in imitation of Western literature, which was a typical practice in his generation shaped by the new culture of the May Fourth Movement. Influenced by Lu Xun and in response to the call of the left-wing movement to create a literature that dealt with real social issues, Zhao turned to his rural roots. Unlike most of the left-wing writers, Zhao came from the countryside and was familiar with the art forms that the country folks loved to see and hear. He argued that for progressive ideas to reach the countryside, two stumbling blocks had to be removed: the first, the old storybooks representing Confucian ethics and superstitious traditions; and the second, the prejudice among the cultural elite, who considered popular forms of folk entertainment vulgar. His mission was to create a new literature to replace the traditional tales that, in his view, were poisoning the peasants’ minds. This new literature had to be understood and embraced by the peasants. Unlike most of the literature at the time, which dealt with the sentiments of the educated youth in a refined language, his stories would contain the smell of the yellow earth, written in a language that the peasants, like his father, would understand. Mao Zedong’s talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art in 1942 helped catapult Zhao to the forefront of literature and art at the Communist base.
“Xiao Erhei jiehun” (Little Erhei’s Marriage), published in 1943, is considered one of his best works. Set in the Communist-controlled Taihang Mountain area during the Sino-Japanese War, the story tells about a young peasant couple, Erhei and Xiaoqin, whose parents are opposed to their marriage because according to local superstition their fortunes do not match. In the end, love triumphs and the young couple, protected by the new marriage law, are able to wed. Encouraged by the success of the story, Zhao went on to write “Li Youcai banhua” (Rhymes of Li Youcai), in which he treats the power struggle between the landlord class and the poor peasants. In the character of Li Youcai, an awakened peasant, there is the shadow of the author’s father, also a village musician. Li’s rhymed ballads represent the old form of entertainment, now fully transformed to serve the cause of the revolution. This character crystallizes the proletarian artistic enterprise envisioned by the author.
“Xiao Erhei jiehun” and “Li Youcai banhua” firmly established Zhao’s position as the preeminent peasant novelist. Their successes led to the novel Li Jiazhuang de bianqian (Changes in Li Village), written in 1945, which focuses on the growth of a young peasant boy as he and his fellow villagers fight against the Japanese army and its puppets. During the 17 years between the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution, Zhao produced more short- and medium-length stories and another novel, San li wan (The Three-Mile Bend), all reflecting rural life. Although none of them reached the same level of success as his earlier stories, he was proud that his writings were in complete harmony with the party’s policies and with the progress of Chinese society. His self-confidence was shattered in 1966, however, when the storm of the Cultural Revolution swept across the country and he became a victim. Zhao Shuli was tortured and died in prison in 1970. See also SOCIALIST REALISM.