NO sooner had the Chinese Communist Party congress issued a clarion call for economic opening than a group of writers met to test other limits.
In a bit of daring that would have drawn an official backlash a year ago, the intellectuals urged that hard-line Marxist restraints on literature be relaxed along with those on the economy.
Their manifesto drew limited press attention other than one headline that played on a well-known Chinese allegory for literati: "Old Phoenix Sings Anti-Leftism in Chorus."
Indeed, the "old phoenix," a group that includes prominent poets, novelists, playwrights, and critics, avoided demands for total free expression and measured their criticism out of fear that censors would clip their wings, one participant said.
Their censure was aimed carefully at hard-liners whom paramount leader Deng Xiaoping himself has attacked as he tries to consolidate capitalist reforms in communist China.
"The tendencies the writers criticized were in line with Deng Xiaoping's speeches ... and the 14th party congress," explained the only participant who agreed to an interview. Others said it was too soon to speak to a foreign publication.
Three years after the Chinese government crushed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square and quashed a cultural revival, intellectuals are sensing a relaxation in artistic controls.
Only 10 months ago, just before Deng and his reformists staged a comeback against Communist ideologues, criticism of political leaders and such black periods as the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen massacre was unwise. Culture was to be used only to herald the heroic Communist everyman.
Then in February, Deng undertook his watershed tour of China's economically booming south and launched his offensive for economic change and more opening to the outside.
The leader and his reformist allies gradually edged ideologues out of propaganda organs and key cultural posts, and in August, Li Ruihuan, a prominent liberal who heads the party propaganda machinery, announced that Chinese people "must emancipate [their] minds to promote a literary and artistic boom."
Still, for many intellectuals, the promise of change remains precariously balanced. It depends on the rule of the elderly Deng, whose death could trigger a bitter power struggle. Reformers have yet to solidify their power base, Chinese intellectuals say.
"After June 4 [the 1989 crackdown,] Chinese literature was in shackles. Now it seems like those shackles have been removed, but we are only allowed to dance within the confines of the cage," says a prominent author. "When there is freedom of writing, then writers can fly out of the cage."
In the meantime, intellectuals are savoring a modicum of openness as a flourish of plays, films, and journalism test the boundaries of tolerance.
"Romulus the Great," a play about the last days of the Roman empire that has a strong ring of contemporary truth for many Chinese, has been well attended.
"Judou" and "Raise the Red Lantern," two internationally acclaimed films by director Zhang Yimou, can finally be screened in China. Both fell afoul of censors for eroticism and highlighting Chinese feudal oppression.
In a series of articles published in a pro-Deng Shanghai newspaper, a novelist and former culture minister called for greater literary freedom and acceptance of works previously considered "politically incorrect." And newspapers and press officials have begun de-bating the merits of a more vigilant press, particularly to attack corruption and inefficiency.
Yet even in the wake of Deng's political triumph at the Communist Party congress last month, China remains in an ideological flux, intellectuals say. Deng and reformists may call for economic liberalization, but they remain adamant about the need for Communist dictatorship.
Many literati remember the Hundred Flowers campaign of the 1950s as a double-edged sword. Those who initially responded to Mao Zedong's urging for free expression later became targets of a hard-line persecution.
More recently, China's artistic blossoming in the 1980s, accompanying economic and political change, was brutally suppressed by the government in the Beijing crackdown three years ago.
Within days of their seminar, the liberal writers faced a muted counterattack from their more conservative colleagues who called their own conclave.
At the conservative seminar, writer Zhong Jinwen cited the example of a professor selling pancakes to make extra money. "If he is doing this, how can he perform his duty of molding the soul?" he asked.
"It is a practice in China that before going out the door, Chinese tend to look at the weather. I don't know why the sky for literature is always overcast and makes people feel uncomfortable," writer Chen Rong said at the liberal seminar.
"Is it true that a spring wind never blows over the path of literature? Do we need another southern China speech about literature?" she said referring to Deng's watershed speeches earlier this year.
"There has been a little opening up since the party congress," says a political scientist who asked to remain anonymous. "The new officials are slightly better in terms of commitment to economic reform. But you cannot expect freedom of the press anytime soon."