1954: Awakening from a Dream of Red Mansions

The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) is China’s most famous novel. It depicts the height of court power and wealth in an imaginary capital city, often thought to be loosely based on Nanking (Jiangning 江寧/ Jinling 金陵). The study of the novel, and the arcana related to it, is known as ‘Redology’ 紅學.

In the twentieth century, the novel would be a major source of cultural and political contention. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong, the novel was reassessed and became the focus for a nationwide scholastic and cultural debate that was part of Mao’s strategy to impose a Marxist-Leninist materialist view of the world, and of scholarship, on the new nation.

Mao regarded himself as something of an expert on the novel, claiming that he had read the book no fewer than five times. His last wife, Li Jin 李進 (Jiang Qing 江青), called herself ‘half a Redologist’ 半個紅學家.

On 16 October 1954, Mao wrote his ‘Letter Concerning the Study of the Dream of the Red Chamber‘ 關於《紅樓夢》研究問題的信. He had it circulated to the Communist Party’s Politburo and other political leaders. The cultural movement, or academic purge, that resulted from the circulation of this letter, and the denunciation of scholars who held opinions that differed from those that Mao supported, transformed China’s academic world and the public worldview of the nation. The effects of that letter, and the purge of China’s universities, are still felt today in the mass media and academia.

The Editor

Enclosed are two articles refuting Yu Pingbo. Please read them. 駁俞平伯的兩篇文章付上,請一閱。

It is the first time in over thirty years that a serious attack has been levelled against the erroneous views of the so-called authorities on The Dream of the Red Chamber. 這是三十多年以來向所謂《紅樓夢》研究權威作家的錯誤觀點的第一次認真的開火。

The authors are two Youth League members. At first they wrote to the Literary Gazette to ask whether it was all right to criticize Yu Pingbo, but they were ignored. In the circumstances, they were obliged to write to their teacher at Shantung University, their alma mater, and they received support. Their article refuting An Essay on The Dream of the Red Chamber was published in the university journal Literature, History and Philosophy. 作者是兩個青年團員。他們起初寫信給《文藝報》請問可不可以批評俞平伯,被置之不理。他們不得已寫信給他們的母校——山東大學的老師,獲得了支持,並在該校刊物《文史哲》上註銷了他們的文章駁《紅樓夢簡論》。

Then the matter came up again in Peking. It was suggested that the People’s Daily reprint the article in order to start a debate and carry on the criticism. This, too, came to naught because certain persons objected for a variety of reasons (the main ones being that it was ‘an article written by nobodies’ and that ‘the Party paper is not a platform for free debate’). In the end a compromise was reached and the article was allowed to be reprinted in the Literary Gazette. Later, the ‘Literary Legacy’ page of the Guangming Daily carried another article by the two young men refuting Yu Pingbo’s book, Studies on ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’. 問題又回到北京,有人要求將此文在《人民日報》上轉載,以期引起爭論,展開批評,又被某些人以種種理由(主要是「小人物的文章」,「黨報不是自由辯論的場所」) 給以反對,不能實現;結果成立妥協,被允許在《文藝報》轉載此文。嗣後,《光明日報》的《文學遺產》欄又發表了這兩個青年的駁俞平伯《紅樓夢研究》一書的文章。

It seems that a struggle may now be able to get under way against the Hu Shi school of bourgeois idealism in the field of classical literature, which has poisoned the minds of the young for more than thirty years. 看樣子,這個反對在古典文學領域毒害青年三十餘年的胡適派資產階級唯心論的鬥爭,也許可以開展起來了。

The whole thing has been set going by two ‘nobodies’, while the ‘bigwigs’ have ignored and obstructed it as is their wont; they go in for a united front with bourgeois writers on the question of idealism and become willing captives of the bourgeoisie. The case is almost the same as with the films Inside Story of the Ching Court[1] and The Life of Wu Xun when they were shown. Inside Story of the Ching Court, which has been described by certain people as a film of patriotism but is in fact one of national betrayal, has never been criticized since it was shown all over the country. 事情是兩個「小人物」做起來的,而「大人物」往往不注意,並往往加以攔阻,他們同資產階級作家在唯心論方面講統一戰線,甘心作資產階級的俘虜,這同影片《清宮秘史》[1]和《武訓傳》放映時候的情形幾乎是相同的。被人稱為愛國主義影片而實際是賣國主義影片的《清宮秘史》,在全國放映之後,至今沒有被批判。

The Life of Wu Hsun has been criticized, but up to now no lessons have been drawn; what is more, such strange things have happened as tolerating Yu Pingbo’s idealism while suppressing the lively critical essays by the ‘nobodies’. This deserves our attention.《武訓傳》雖然批判了,卻至今沒有引出教訓,又出現了容忍俞平伯唯心論和阻攔「小人物」的很有生氣的批判文章的奇怪事情,這是值得我們注意的。

Towards such bourgeois intellectuals as Yu Pingbo, our attitude should naturally be one of uniting with them, but we should criticize their erroneous ideas which poison the minds of the young, and we certainly should not surrender to them. 俞平伯這一類資產階級知識分子,當然是應當對他們採取團結態度的,但應當批判他們的毒害青年的錯誤思想,不應當對他們投降。


This is the official translation of Mao’s letter. It was first published in the fifth volume of The Selected Works of Mao Zedong in 1977 (《毛澤東選集》第五卷,人民出版社1977年4月第1版,第134-135頁). The English text has been modified in keeping with the style of this site. The original footnote has been retained.

[1] Inside Story of the Ching Court was a reactionary film which vilified the patriotic Yihetuan [‘Boxer’] Movement of 1900 and preached capitulation to imperialism. This film of national betrayal was extolled by Liu Shaoqi as one of ‘patriotism’. 《清宫秘史》是一部污蔑义和团爱国运动,鼓吹投降帝国主义的反动影片。刘少奇把这部卖国主义影片吹捧为“爱国主义”影片。