It's a giant leap from fiction writer to China's Minister of Culture. Yet Wang Meng, one of China's best-known writers, has reluctantly agreed to take the government's top post for arts and literature out of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party which, under different leadership, silenced him and his pen for almost 20 years.
In an interview with the Monitor, Mr. Wang indicated he could avoid the mistakes of his predecessors, whose ideological criticism of one of his short stories published in 1956 brought him four years of manual labor followed by 15 years in exile in the far-western region of Xinjiang. During that time he did no writing.
``In my case, I think I can keep a clear mind, because I have many experiences in my life,'' he said during a meeting in the makeshift lounge inside the Culture Ministry's compound.
The party's elevation of Wang Meng appears aimed at clarifying its policies toward literature and the arts at a time when there has been confusion over what the party sanctions, what it merely tolerates, and what it prohibits in the rapidly changing world of popular Chinese culture.
Since the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), Chinese intellectuals have sometimes openly debated Mao Tse-tung's guidelines, set out in a speech in 1942, for fostering ``correct'' literature and art that would support the revolutionary goals of the party.
Are Chinese writers still insecure because of these past excesses? ``Most writers don't have a sense of insecurity,'' Wang said. But he observed that the state's involvement in literature was a troublesome legacy. ``Historically, there has always been a problem with [the state's] arbitrary intervention in literature. That's why some writers still have worries about what to write,'' he admitted.
Wang Meng's own brand of political positivism, as exemplified in his short stories, includes touches of irony and sarcasm. He often exposes the shortcomings of China's massive bureaucracy while championing the ideals of his upbringing in the Communist Youth League during the early 1950s. His writings have made him a favorite author of some top Chinese leaders.
Since his rehabilitation and readmission to the party in 1979, Wang has risen rapidly to become vice-chairman of the All-China Writers Association and editor in chief of People's Literature, a leading literary magazine. Last fall, a month after he was made a full member of the party's elite Central Committee, he sounded the keynote of official concern at a writers' conference. He attacked recent trends in literature, which he said were bringing ``vulgar and unhealthy works'' to the public and undermining the publication of ``serious literature.''
Though Wang's appointment has not been announced officially, friends and critics have offered comments.
``Although he has to obey the party's principles, he won't overdo it,'' wrote Lu Keng, the editor of a Hong Kong magazine, Baixing.
Others are less sure. ``I think it's a setback for writer Wang Meng to be Minister Wang Meng,'' wrote author Tang Degang in the same issue of Baixing. ``He is a party member, and the communist rules are hard to break.''
But many writers and artists are encouraged. ``He will be the first minister of culture who knows the problems and frustrations of artists and writers and knows what culture is about,'' one writer said.
Wang has broadly hinted at his reluctance to step into such a politically sensitive role.
``The legend of Dr. Liang You-zhi,'' published in a recent issue of the literary magazine, October, tells of a man who was made a senior official against his will.
The fictitious Dr. Liang, a capable but self-taught medical doctor, was put forward by his colleagues to become president of a medical institute after more suitable candidates were disqualified, often for trivial reasons. When Liang finally was permitted to retire, it was on the condition that he accept the vice-chairmanship of a prestigious political organization. His reluctance to assume these responsibilities, and the way bureaucratic forces took control of his life, are the themes of the short story, told with wry humor and sarcasm.
Asked if there were parallels between Liang's advancements and his own, Wang said simply, ``All of my stories are drawn from my own experiences.''