Return from two decades of silence

"To me, all food is delicious, and all girls are beautiful, everywhere I go." Wang Meng, the writer, laughs as he says this, as if he were, indeed, the eternal youth that some people say he is.

Yet comments like this, uttered with childlike spontaneity during a nearly two-hour interview, seem to vary from others made during the same interview.

For instance: "I chose the path of revolution when I was small boy. I never regretted having chosen it. But I realize now, after the experience of the Cultural Revolution and the 'gang of four,' that I never expected the path I chose would prove so difficult."

The first comment reflects the laughter and the love of life that is Mr. Wang's most appealing characteristic.

Mr. Wang can eat almost anything, from raw fish to hot tamales -- most unusual for a Chinese. He drinks in each fresh experience (whether it be a Uighur festival in northwest China or Dutch treat during a visit to Indiana University) with all the eager wonder of childhood. Of the Dutch treat, he says , "I was invited to dinner, and then asked to pay. I felt a little strange, but not at all badly."

The second comment reflects the pain so many of Mr. Wang's generation experienced. Utterly repelled by the corruption and cruelty of the Kuomintang warlords, and committed since childhood to the communist revolution, this generation then underwent the searing experiences of the Cultural Revolution. In Mr. Wang's case, the pain was more Cultural Revolution. In Mr. Wang's case, the pain was more mental than physical.("I never underwent the jet-fighter treatment," he says, referring to one particularly humiliating type of physical abuse common during the Cultural Revolution).

But still the pain was real. The China he loved seemed to be bent on destroying itself, with the revered leader of the Communist revolution, Mao Tse-tung, pointing the way.

"Chairman Mao was a great figure," Mr. Wang says today, "almost too great. In his later years, his thinking became separated from actual life. But all of us have been so deeply influenced by him that if we deny him altogether, we are denying our own selves."

Today the Cultural Revolution is over. But its memory cannot be easily exorcised. Many of Mr. Wang's novels and stories deal in one way or another with lives unalterably changed by the experience. What happened? Where did we go wrong? How can we put things right again? This is the theme of Mr. Wang's most representative recent work. "The Butterfly."

Slender, with a long face and Puckish eyes that look out through silver-rimmed glasses. Wang Meng is probably the most original and innovative of China's post-revolution generation of writers. These came of age after the Communist victory and the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949.

Wang Meng burst onto the literary scene in the mid-1950s with works such as "Long Live Youth!" and "The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department." The latter was an attack on bureaucracy within the Communist Party. It proved highly controversial.

By 1957, Mr. Wang, then only 23 years old, had been branded a rightist. From then on, for 20 long years, he was not allowed to publish any of his creative works.

Wang survived the "wilderness years" and used them to deepen his understanding of the vast, ancient land he loved. "A land that stretches 8,000 li [2,400 miles], and 30 years of storm and stress: Here is my starting point," he writes in an introduction to a collection of his most recent works.

He survived by deliberately cutting his links with Peking, the city in which he was born and served his revolutionary apprenticeship (he joined the Communist underground in 1948, in his 15th year). He traveled 2,400 miles westward to Xinjiang in central Asia. There he worked in an agricultural commune whose membership was almost entirely Uighur, an Islamic, Turkic people. He learned their language, including their Arabic script.

Chosen deputy leader of a production brigade (a collection of hamlets), he spent his days at the river with his fellow workers building small irrigation projects, or in the uplands killing locusts. At night he was invited to his neighbors' feasts and festivities.

"I am not a Muslim, but I respected their customs," he says. "And what could be more marvelous than drinking milk tea with my neighbors under the apple trees?" His wife, who accompanied him into exile, was given a job teaching in Ining, headquarters of the Ili Kazakh Autonomous District. Mr. Wang's commune was eight kilometers from the city. He bicycled to his wife's home every weekend, carrying eggs (which he sometimes dropped and smashed) or a leg of mutton.

Wang spent 10 years altogether in the commune, a period he now looks on as a kind of "reference point from which to judge the life of city dwellers, of intellectuals, and of the Han [ethnic Chinese] people." He found the Uighurs warm and full of fun. "So long as you can crack jokes, you will never go hungry in a Uighur community," he says.

"In the city, young people love to talk about democracy. In the remote countryside. It is the leg of mutton that counts," Wang says. "In politics there are many slogans, but my life in the commune taught me which ones are important and which ones are irrelevant."

After a number of years as a translator of Uighur classics into Chinese in Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang, Mr. Wang finally returned to Peking in 1978. The "gang of four" had been arrested, the Cultural Revolution was over. A new life of creative activity awaited him.

The past three years have been a time of intense literary output, as though he was rushing to catch up with all the years he was forced to be silent. He has experimented with techniques new to China, such as stream-of-consciousness. His sharp jobs at corruption in high places, at "feudalism" and "bureaucratism," seen as all too visible in countless aspects of present-day China, have irrirated some party stalwarts while winning praise from the young.

He is also music more conscious than in his youth of the difficulties of revolutionizing China, of catapulting it into the modern age. In "The Butterfly" he shows himself understanding both the hero (a veteran revolutionary and rehabilitated vice-minister) and his rebellious son.

Wang Meng has many times described himself as engaged in a process of exploration, of self-discovery. "A friend recently expressed dissatisfaction with my laughter," he wrote not long ago. "He said that I use laughter to cover up contradictions and smooth out the thorns in myself. Is this true? Is it false?

"It is for the reader to decide. But I most sincerely feel that we have wept far too long; that we have the need to laugh and the right to laugh. To laugh can be a higher and more complex expression of feeling than to cry. Animals can cry (as with sheep facing slaughter) but only man knows how to laugh."

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