Writers Should Be Students of the People
In an important address at a meeting on cultural inheritance and development, President Xi Jinping stressed, “The best way to carry our history forward is to create new historical achievements, and the greatest respect we can show for civilization is to create new forms of human advancement.” Serving as students of the people and promoting high-quality literary development in the new era are requirements we must fulfill in order to create a new culture for this era and build a modern Chinese civilization.
Socialist literature and art are essentially the literature and art of the people. The people are the beating heart of literary and artistic creation, which makes learning from the people imperative for literary creation.
Makers of history
The great tide of history surges ceaselessly forward because it brings together all the sacrifices, efforts, and wisdom of millions upon millions of people. Modern Chinese history is a chronicle of successive generations of Chinese people and noble-minded figures engaging in courageous struggles and arduous explorations in order to save the country from destruction. It is a chronicle of remarkable achievements made by the Chinese people under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC). As Mao Zedong pointed out, “The people, and the people alone, are the motive force of world history.” After the Opium War of 1840, China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The country endured intense humiliation, the people were subjected to untold misery, and the Chinese civilization was plunged into darkness. At this critical moment of national peril, the CPC stepped forward to represent the fundamental interests of the Chinese people. It earned their endorsement and support and won national independence and the people’s liberation, thereby establishing a new China that would be run by the people. Working under the leadership of the CPC, the Chinese people established a socialist system through self-reliance and hard work after the founding of a new China in 1949, pioneered a new path in the form of socialism with Chinese characteristics after the launch of reform and opening up in 1978, and achieved a tremendous transformation, going from standing up and growing prosperous to becoming strong, after the beginning of the new era in 2012. In doing so, they have steered the nation onto an irreversible course toward rejuvenation. President Xi has emphasized, “Before the people, we are always students. Therefore, we must seek advice from them. We must fully respect their wishes, experience, rights, and role.” It has been proven in practice that the people are the makers of history and that their power is invincible. The people’s endeavors to make history represent both the lifeblood and essence of literature.
Vessels of life
People and life are one and the same thing. In this magnificent era when the East is riding high, the great ship of our nation has navigated numerous obstacles to sail into vast seas and is now steaming toward an even brighter future. These broad vistas and bright prospects have been created by the people. It was they who produced a string of transformative feats and miraculous achievements. Their dreams and pursuits, their will and desires, and their hardships and successes have blended to make life brim with passion and energy and have given shape to the Chinese path, spirit, and strength. President Xi has pointed out, “The raw materials for literary and artistic creation can be found in the lives of the people; they are an inexhaustible source of inspiration for all literary and artistic creation.” The people, life, and literature and art thus constitute an organic whole. Literature is not a castle in the sky, a rootless tree, or a stream with no source. Rather, it is people’s lives that serve as the soil and roots for literature, providing it with constant nourishment.
Inheritors of civilization
Civilization is the sum of all the material and cultural wealth created by humanity. Maxim Gorky once said, “The people are not only the force that creates all material value, but also the only inexhaustible source of cultural value. In terms of time, beauty, and creative genius, they are always the primary philosophers and poets.” Each civilization transmits the cultural genes of a country or nation. China’s culture possesses a long history, and its civilization is both profound and extensive. Traditional Chinese culture flows like a mighty river through the cultural genes of the Chinese people. It flows from the patriotic sentiment of “doing all possible to save the country from peril regardless of personal fortune or misfortune” and from the people-centered mindset captured in the poignant lines “Long did I sigh to hold back tears; so saddened I am by the grief of my people.” We see it in the noble character of demonstrating virtue in the face of adversity, in the innovative spirit of “improving oneself every day, day in and day out, and forever building on improvement,” and in such works as the Book of Songs and the Songs of Chu, as well as the poetic expositions of the Han Dynasty, the poetry of the Tang and Song dynasties, the operas of the Yuan, and the novels of the Ming and the Qing. All of this has shaped the cultural face of the nation and cast the cultural foundations of our people. The integration of the basic tenets of Marxism with China’s specific realities and with the best of its traditional culture has led to the creation of a new unified cultural entity. Just as Chinese modernization infuses Chinese civilization with modern vitality, Chinese civilization imparts a rich heritage to Chinese modernization. The people have created not only a new world but a new form of human advancement. Literature is the interpretation and expression of civilization, as well as its fabric and essence. Only by carefully understanding and carrying forward this great creation can we properly shoulder the cultural mission of building a modern Chinese civilization.
The photo shows prominent author Zhou Libo (1908-1979) working alongside villagers in Qingxi Village, Hunan Province. CHINA WRITERS ASSOCIATION
The artistic lives of all eminent artists and writers originate from the people. The maxim “Writers must be students of the people” is far from an empty slogan or a theoretical abstraction; rather, it is imbued with a highly specific meaning.
Learning from the people’s great endeavors
The people are both the makers and witnesses of history, both its protagonists and its playwrights. The author of Ordinary World, Lu Yao, once said, “The hundreds of millions of ordinary yet great people living in this country have created our history. To a large extent, they have also determined life as it is and its future direction.” All the struggles, sacrifices, and creations of the people are a specific, minute representation of the times. From classic works that relate to the history of the CPC like The Red Sun, The Red Crag, Keep the Red Flag Flying, Builders of a New Life, Song of Youth, Great Changes in a Mountain Village, Defend Yan’an, and Tracks in the Snowy Forest, to works like Ordinary World and The Human World, the literature of the People’s Republic of China has given rise to many highly influential and recognized works that embody the life of the times and record people’s real experiences in pursuing a bright future and a better life. People are the core subject of literature. Whether it is set in the age of spears and warhorses, in the days of robust production and development, or around personal trials echoing the dreams of the times, no work of literature can be conjured out of thin air in the solitude of a writer’s study. Instead, it must be gleaned from people’s concrete endeavors. The China of today is undergoing momentous changes, and the people’s creations have far exceeded the imagination of literature. If writers fail to learn from the people, they will be unable to grasp or understand people’s new lives, and literature will be rendered empty and hollow. Being a student of the people means drawing on their efforts in creating this era as a source of literary inspiration and material. Writers should depict the posture of the people in the currents of the times, perceive the general trends of our era from their practices, and compose a chronicle of the times that will complete the elevation of artistic creation. While the life of an individual is narrow, that of the people is vast. And while personal emotions are insubstantial, those of the people are profound. Only by moving in step with the people to get the measure of the times can writers ensure the literature of the new era is abundant in content, broad in representation, and vast in scope.
Learning from the people’s enterprising spirit
If literature is to bolster people’s inner strength, it must draw vitality from the people. The sparks of energy the people create through their endeavors combine to generate a powerful beacon for the ethos of the times. As the ancient saying goes, “Literature is the device for threading the Dao.” In this context, Dao refers to the faith of the nation and the ethos of the times. This Dao does not spontaneously arise but is molded by the people and is deeply rooted in their hard work. The ethos of the times can only be found in the people themselves; it flows among them and is carried forward by them. The foundation for a writer’s creative work is laid by studying the people’s boundless enthusiasm for life, their hard work and courage, their unyielding tenacity, their optimistic spirit and drive for self-improvement, their noble commitment to righteousness over personal gain, their selfless dedication, and their broadmindedness and deep affection. The people are a concrete entity, as are the ways in which they create, carry on, and interpret the ethos of the times. President Xi has pointed out, “The people are not an abstract symbol, but specific individuals—flesh and blood with feelings, passions, dreams, and inner conflicts and struggles.” We have seen the ethos of our times embodied on the front lines of poverty alleviation and rural revitalization, at various posts across all sectors where people are engaged in hard work, and in people’s everyday lives. To be a student of the people is to absorb the essence of this ethos from the people and to refine our expression of it, using it to illuminate our writing and underpin our work.
Learning from the people’s artistic expression
The people are not merely the subjects of literary expression but also the driving force behind its creation. They not only shape history and define eras but also constantly move with the times to create new artistic forms and discourse styles in daily life. The novelist Zhao Shuli (1906-1970) was profoundly moved by the vitality of the language used by the people. He found himself drawn to the master storytellers in the fields of the countryside. This led him to appreciate the allure of writing the things he heard verbatim and basing his work on spoken discourse. In doing so, he gave birth to literature with a very distinctive Chinese style and feel. In today’s new era, we are seeing the convergence of diverse forms of art and the merging of various modes of expression. The internet, big data, and artificial intelligence have broadened the horizons of literature and art, giving rise to new innovations. As a result, people have become more dynamic and vibrant in their expressions, and new voices and discourses have emerged from video comment sections, online posts, short commentaries, long essays, and even images and videos. This new contemporary context is reshaping our lexicon and discourse styles and creating new textual structures and forms of literary expression. In the face of this dynamic landscape, those who ignore and place themselves above such developments will fail to hear the voices of the people and to absorb their forms of expression. Writers must uphold fundamental principles and break new ground, learn from ongoing linguistic explorations and expressive practices, and draw on the fresh materials and nutrients provided by popular discourse innovations. Doing so will help writers to continually open new avenues of thought and renew the language of literature.
Whether or not writers can successfully serve as students of the people is an essential question. The answer to this question not only concerns the quality of literary work but more importantly, the nature of literature and art. To be students of the people, writers must do the following.
Actively resonating with life
There are myriad methods of literary creation, but the most fundamental, crucial, and reliable method is to anchor oneself among the people and in life. The people are the ultimate origin of art, and literature cannot grow without their nourishment. People’s experiences, emotions, and dreams are ultimately manifested through life. Therefore, if writers do not embrace life, they will not be able to accurately depict the people. If they are not firmly grounded in life, they will not be able to put pen to paper. In order to write the novel Builders of a New Life, Liu Qing spent 14 years in Huangfu Village, Shaanxi Province. In attire, appearance, and demeanor, he became just like the people of the Central Shannxi Plain. Life is not about individualism or solitary existence, nor about private trivialities or personal storms, but about the overall trend and climate of the times and the people’s practices; it is about the spirit and emotion of countless people across vast expanses. If they share in the joys and sorrows of the people and resonate with life, writers will be able to write with confidence and their work will come alive. The poet Ai Qing once said, “For me, the highest praise is to be called a son of the people.” “Writing poetry,” he explained, “is not about credit. Do farmers leave their names on the rice they plant?” As such, only by clearly standing with the people and having broad horizons can writers make the leap from the “individual self” to the “collective self” and establish a grand perspective on history and the era as they delve into life and root themselves among the people. Doing so will enable them to elevate their thinking and open up new creative possibilities. Only then can writers transform the “them” into “us,” and become one with the people in life, on an emotional level, and in a literary sense.
Online literature and derivative products are displayed at an online literature industry expo, part of the 2023 China International Online Literature Week in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. The event, which kicked off on May 27, 2023, was jointly hosted by the China Writers Association, the People’s Government of Zhejiang Province, and the People’s Government of Hangzhou City. Under the theme of “Colorful Asia, Wonderful World—the Spread of Chinese Online Literature in Asia,” it aimed to further develop the capacity to promote Chinese online literature internationally. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER XU YU
Sincerely learning from the people
In addition to being the protagonists and consumers of literature, people are also the drivers of literary creation. Many of the works in the “Airs of the States” section of the Book of Songs are derived from folk songs. Thus those who gave voice to the earliest poetry of the Chinese civilization were just ordinary, nameless laborers. Since the start of the new era in 2012, people’s willingness and ability to write have surged thanks to economic and social development, the popularization of humanities education, the flourishing of cultural life, and new forms of media dissemination, giving rise to a constant stream of new literary groups and individual authors. Non-professional writers have emerged as a new force and become a new growth area for literature. The poetic sentiments penned by deliverymen during breaks in their rounds, career anecdotes written by couriers navigating city streets, and diverse life observations composed from a nanny’s viewpoint all offer distinctive thematic perspectives. The sincere and candid narrative styles of such writers, their forthright and unembellished means of expression, and their earnest love for literature are a true manifestation of the abovementioned Dao. They are a testament to the role of the people as teachers and present valuable lessons for writers to earnestly absorb.
Willingly inviting the people to evaluate one’s work
The era provides the questions and writers put forward the answers, which the people then evaluate. More than just the subjects of artistic representation, the people are also the expert judges of aesthetic works. A work of excellence can only fully realize its literary value if it is read by the people, inspires them, and appeals to them. If people do not read a work, its value will have no basis. Only by fully mobilizing the reading public at large can literature retain vitality and endure. Literature in the new era should play the role of uniting people, serving them, and providing them with a stronger source of inspiration for realizing the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. More importantly, it should express concern for the people and take their approval as the ultimate goal. During the writing process, writers must regard whether the people will like something or not as an important consideration and criterion and keep striving to improve the readability of their work. After a work is completed, writers should also actively get in touch with and embrace the people to bridge any lingering gap between a work and its readers. This way, writers can provide the reading public with the best forms of cultural nourishment.
To be a student of the people is a glorious honor and mission for writers and holds major practical significance for promoting high-quality literary development in the new era.
Writers should express the people’s sentiments and opinions and represent the people while standing firmly with them
Resolutely standing on the side of the people means that writers should not target their literature solely toward their peers and the literary circle. Instead, they should always present it to the vast and profound reality of the people’s lives and contemporary development. Writers must represent the public at large, voicing the common aspirations of the majority of people in this era. Only by being a student of the people and learning from them can writers broaden their perspectives on life, increase their practical experience, enrich their knowledge, and extend the reach of their art. Only then will their creations have a firm footing and avoid becoming products of one’s vanity and individual vicissitudes. As students of the people, writers must care for people’s wellbeing and give voice to their innermost emotions. Only then can writers be people-centered in their work, always stand with the people, discern evolutions in our nation’s development, serve as harbingers of our era, and truly weave their literary creations into the endeavors toward national rejuvenation.
Writers should use the pen of the present age to continue the people’s creative endeavors
It is the people who have created, inherited, and safeguarded China’s traditional culture. Our cultural traditions and heritage are found not only in ancient books and artifacts, but also in the people’s efforts to make history, in the identity and consensus among the overwhelming majority, in family traditions passed down for generations, and in people’s daily practices and lifestyles. One could say that the cultural river of the Chinese nation flows through the Chinese people. Therefore, only by being a student of the people can writers accurately understand the essence of traditional Chinese culture and firmly anchor their creative work in its profound depths. In the process of learning from the people, writers should seek to gain extensive insights into Chinese cultural life and to discover and understand traditional Chinese culture anew. They should draw nourishment from this culture and promote its creative transformation and innovative development to see it emanating new life in a new historical context and promote the development of a modern Chinese civilization.
Writers should vividly capture the flavor of people’s lives through artistic innovation
Artistic innovation is not an experiment in novelty, nor is it a sudden whim created in isolation, but the result of being faithful to life and true to the people. The source of creation lies in the changes in real life, as the people are always the first to sense social and life changes. They keenly perceive all that is unfolding. If writers humbly learn from the people, write passionately about new changes, and give expression to the joys and sorrows of the people, they will hold the key to artistic innovation. Only by being a student of the people will writers gain access to a wealth of inexhaustible material, endless inspiration, and continuous motivation for their creative work. There is always something we can learn from others. Only by continuously learning from the people can writers build up a full emotional range and ignite their creative passion. In this way, writers will be able to enter the realm of creative freedom and truly spread their creative wings.
Writers should earn the respect of the people with noble aspirations and a broadminded perspective
The people are the teachers of writers—they can be the teachers of just a single word or teachers forever, in both art and life. Writers should not become preachers on a pedestal, but should truly bow down to be the servants and good students of the people. For a writer, the wisdom of the people is true wisdom, and staying humble before the people is a profound form of cultivation. In their relationships with the people, writers should set aside any pretence of playing the master or being infallible. They must overcome any prejudices or narrow-mindedness, properly handle the relationship between themselves and the collective, and learn to see things from the overall perspective of history and the present era. In doing so, they can transition from the “individual self” to the “collective self” in their work and progress from expressing emotions and interests on a personal level to portraying the emotions and affections of the people at large. Moving forward with the people, writers must constantly work to temper and improve themselves, seek to experience all manner of trials while never letting their lofty aspirations wane, and eliminate all artifice in order to remain true to their authentic selves. Developing honest interactions and deep connections with the people, writers should seek to refine and elevate their minds, cultivate a noble character, and become artists who excel both morally and artistically and who enjoy the people’s respect.
Writers should repay the people for their creative gifts by striving relentlessly for the pinnacle of literary achievement
The achievements of writers stem from the nourishment provided by the people, and the literary heights writers reach are only possible with the people’s support. Only works that are recognized, appreciated, and loved by the people can truly be considered to have reached the summit of literary achievement. History has shown that the people have always served as mentors and guides for Chinese literature. Going forward, literary development will continue to prove that it is the people who lay the solid foundation and generate the tremendous momentum needed for literature to flourish. Writers should regard improvements in quality as the lifeline of literary work, fully dedicate themselves to literary creation, and strive tirelessly for excellence. They should seek to create outstanding works that are worthy of our great era and our great nation, enrich the cultural lives of the people, and provide them with stronger inspiration. A tree can reach towering heights when its roots run deep, and a river can flow for thousands of miles when its source is vibrant. The closer the connection between writers and the people, the more prosperous literature will be. Writers should remember the instructions of President Xi and follow the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. They should maintain firm cultural confidence, remain good students of the people, and tell the stories of China in an engaging way. They must consciously shoulder the missions of upholding socialism with Chinese characteristics, rallying public support, fostering a new generation of young people with lofty ideals, developing Chinese culture, and better presenting China to the world. They should integrate their literary work into the process of creating a modern Chinese civilization and strive to reach a new literary peak in the new era to provide an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 16, 2023)