About Terror, Ten Years After Srebrenica
by Stephen Schwartz
I spent many years, too many, as a Marxist revolutionary; and then I broke with the radical left. I freed myself of an emotional or sentimental attachment to the sagas of revolution.
But long after my departure from the left I read the story of the writer Wang Shiwei, and it well deserves recounting.
Born in 1907, a member of the Chinese Communist Party since 1926, Wang Shiwei never gained a great reputation as a Marxist intellectual, although he was a translator and fiction writer of much talent. He had associated with the Chinese Trotskyists, who were relatively many. Stalin turned his back on their sacrifices, and they were all eventually expelled from the Communist organization. Wang was his own kind of dissenter. He thought, in a way much like that of the French surrealists, that the real revolution would have to take place in the human soul, and that without such an understanding Stalinism would ruin any Communist victory.
In 1937 Wang went to Yanan, headquarters of the Chinese Red Army under Mao Zedong, to work as a journalist and translator. At the beginning of 1942, the bloodiest of all Stalin's imitators, Mao, ordered a campaign for "rectification of cadres' aimed, he said, against bureaucracy in the Communist movement. A group of intellectuals in Yanan, including the woman writer Ding Ling, who had been imprisoned by the Chinese Nationalists for three years, began criticizing the abuses of the Chinese Stalinist leadership. They defended the freedom of culture and the independence of literature from bureaucratic dictation. Of the group, Wang Shiwei expressed himself most sharply.
The dissident intellectuals alarmed the Mao-Stalinist bosses, and the most critical were denounced by Mao himself in the unfortunately famous "Yanan talks." Some of the nonconformists then engaged in self-criticism and renounced their antibureaucratic writings. Wang joined in the self-criticism.
It wasn't worth the trouble. Wang was "tried" -- the only member of the circle to encounter such a fate. He was the least known, the most critical, and considered am incurable Trotskyist. Worse, he rejected abandoning his criticisms.
In the "indictment" against him, the following supposed crimes were alleged: Wang had described Stalin as stupid and unattractive; he had condemned the great purges and Moscow trials; he had refused to describe the Trotskyist Opposition as fascist and Nazi agents, and insisted that his friends, who were genuine Trotskyists expelled from the party, remained "communists in the broader human sense;" he said that a workers' party was something different from a peasant party with working-class leaders, and he criticized the alliance of the CP with the Chinese bourgeoisie.
Wang refused to renounce his ideas even before an assembly of a thousand people, which remained in session for seven days. He fell into the void; some said he was send to work in a match factory. He was executed in 1947, as admitted by Mao in 1962.
Wang Shiwei's literary works include an essay in the classical Chinese style, on the need for criticism and intellectual independence, titled The Wild Lily. There he recalled the courage of Li Fen, a Communist woman executed by the Nationalists in 1928. Before her death, she put on three sets of underwear, sewed up from top to bottom, because the Nationalist troops were frequently incited to rape the corpses of Communist women they shot.
In memory of this woman, Wang wrote, "the wild lily is the most beautiful of the flowers in the hills and countryside around Yanan... although its bulbs are similar to those of other lilies, they are said to be slightly bitter to the taste and of greater medicinal value."
The wild lily was Wang's symbol for free criticism, and his essay is today the most widely-read document among the young Chinese rebels, who see in him the forerunner of all the victims in the terrible events in China in the 1960s and 1970s, when Mao imposed his so-called "cultural revolution," as well as the massacre of 1989 at Tiananmen.
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I first read The Wild Lily before the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia. I never forgot it. Many years passed, and, having worked ten years as a reporter, I went to live in Bosnia-Hercegovina after the fighting there ended. I investigated the rapes and mass murders committed against Muslims there, and often recalled the story of Li Fen, and her fear of the indignities that awaited her after death.
Ten years went by since the massacre in the Bosnian "enclave" of Srebrenica. Bodies have been exhumed, and a memorial has been set up there.
One cool day early in 2005, in Washington, I read a poem by William Empson, the English poet who knew China well, and was a hero of my parents when I was a child.
Empson wrote, in a poem titled "Ignorance of Death:"
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Li Fen put on three sets of underwear, sewed up from top to bottom, because the Nationalist troops were frequently incited to rape the corpses of Communist women they shot.
"The people who dig up/Corpses and rape them are I understand not reported."
This is the time into which I was born, and in Mandelstam's words, this time "surrounds me with fire."