Issue 129, Winter 1993
Wang Meng, one of China’s most influential post-revolutionary writers, came to international literary prominence after overcoming twenty years of internal exile in forced labor camps. Labeled a ’’rightist” in 1937 when he was in his early twenties after he had published a short story mildly critical of the government bureaucracy, Wang Meng was banned from writing and spent the next two decades in and out of thought- reform-through-manual-labor camps. He finally ended up in the remote region of Xinjiang in western China. Undaunted, he set himself to learn the local Uighur language through attending mass ritualistic recitations of Mao j quotations. Having learned the language, he was later able to translate Uighur writing into Mandarin Chinese. Later, he incorporated his experiences in the Xinjiang region into the series of highly regarded stones and sketches known as the Yili Interlude.
In 1979, following the death of Mao and the launching of the Deng Era of Reform and Opening-Up, Wang Meng was rehabilitated as a professional writer; he was one of the best known and most innovative figures in contemporary Chinese fiction. Once classified as an ’’enemy” by the government, he was appointed minister of culture in 1986. ’’Now lam loaded down with more and more work, ” Wang said at the time. ’7 have less and less time for myself, but I will never put down my pen. ” And he never did. While serving as Minister of Culture, Wang Meng wrote outstanding fiction as well as literary criticism. His name has been widely associated with the introduction of the stream of consciousness into Chinese narrative technique. His work introduced parody in the guise of the mock-heroic antics of an absurdist protagonist named Chairman Maimaiti. The travails of Chairman Maimaiti were the precursor of Wang’s celebrated story “The Stubborn Porridge ’’published here for the first time in English. The story originally appeared in The Chinese Writer early in 1989 and won the Hundred Flowers Literary Prize of 1990/1991.
Following the June 4, 1989 crackdown on the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square, Wang Meng stepped down from office. Soon after he was attacked in the government-controlled press. The September 14 edition of Wenyi Bao, the official hard-line newspaper of the Writer’s Union, printed a letter to the editor supposedly decoding “The Stubborn Porridge. ” The anonymous letter claimed that while purporting to be a story about the disastrous reform of a family menu, “The Stubborn Porridge’’ was actually an attack on Deng and his reforms. The letter claimed that Wang’s story suspiciously coincided with the “clamor of a handful of people who persisted in bourgeois liberalization and advocated the conversion of public ownership into private ownership. ” To further make its case the letter also quoted a Taiwanese source as saying that the story was a “veiled satire of the Chinese Communist system under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. ”
Wang Meng immediately wrote a sharp rebuttal to the paper claiming that the letter was a political frame-up, reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution. He questioned the motive of the letter writer in arbitrarily linking Deng’s name to a distorted interpretation of his text. He also demanded an apology and that measures be taken to dispel the adverse publicity, plus payment for damages. When he received no reply, Wang Meng, in an unprecedented move for a writer in a country known for stringent censorship of the arts, particularly considering the recent crackdowns, decided to sue the anonymous letter writer and the editor-in-chief of Wenyi Bao (believed by some in the Chinese intellectual community to be one and the same) for libel.
Despite the media attention, the Intermediary Court of Beijing refused to handle the case, claiming that the whole a^air was just a debate ’’between different points of view’’ and did not warrant a civil suit. Reportedly, the Central Committee Propoganda Department then issued an order to China’s newspapers banning them from reporting on the lawsuit. But several newspapers ignored the ban and reported on the controversy, triggering what became known as ’’Porridge-mania’’ across China and creating a huge demand for copies of The Stubborn Porridge. ’’Articles began cropping up in newspapers and magazines nationwide examining porridge from every conceivable angle. It is in that spirit that we present Wang Meng’s “The Stubborn Porridge.”