Discursive Heat — Humanism in 1980s China

The following essay by Gloria Davies 黃樂嫣 is from A New Literary History of Modern China, edited by David Der-wei Wang, Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2017. We are grateful to the author, David Wang and to Belknap Press for permission to reprint this material.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
30 July 2018


Chapters from A New Literary History of Modern China

We are grateful to Belknap Press for permission to reprint four chapters from A New Literary History of Modern China:

See also Silent China & Its Enemies — Watching China Watching (XXX), China Heritage, 13 July 2018.


Note: Where relevant, Chinese characters and links have been added to the text. Minor stylistic modifications in keeping with the in-house style of China Heritage have also been made.

‘A Heart as Pellucid as Water’ 持心若水, in the hand of Ouyang Zhongshi 歐陽中石


Discursive Heat
Humanism in 1980s China

Gloria Davies 黃樂嫣


17 January 1983: ‘I am Human.’


On January 17, 1983, an article entitled ‘In Defense of Humanism’ 為人道主義辯護 appeared in the influential Shanghai daily Wenhuibao 文匯報, causing a hubbub among avid readers of intellectual prose in the early years of ‘reform and opening up’. It has since become one among a handful of articles frequently cited as representative of Chinese critical thinking of that period. Its author, Wang Ruoshui (王若水, 1926-2002), was then deputy chief editor of the Communist Party’s premier newspaper, the People’s Daily. A committed Marxist, Wang first attracted public notice in 1979 for arguing that Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was a form of ‘socialist alienation’ 社會主義異化. Wang identified three aspects of this alienation — cognitive, economic, and political — and traced each to Mao’s absolute rule from 1949 to 1976. ‘In Defense of Humanism’, which Wang completed in the summer of 1982, was a passionate call for an end to socialist alienation. He presented humanism as essential for China’s recovery from a ‘total dictatorship’ 全面專政. Socialism, Wang argued, must rid itself of the ‘cruel struggles’ mandated under Mao and become henceforth synonymous with humanism.

For Wang, humanism meant, among other things, ‘mutual respect, mutual loving care and mutual help’. He began the article with an adaptation of the Communist Manifesto’s opening statement, changing it to read, ‘A specter is haunting the Chinese intellectual world — the specter of humanism.’ [See also Spectres in the Seventh Month, China Heritage, 4 September 2017 — Ed.] The articles conclusion remains frequently quoted by mainland social critics as a catchcry for political reform:

A specter haunts this vast land of China —
‘Who are you?’
‘I am Human.’

一個怪影在中國大地徘徊 ——

In 1983, Wang was far from alone in criticizing Mao and his thought. In the Party leadership’s portentously entitled and much anticipated ‘Resolution on Certain Questions in the History of Our Party’ 關於建國以來黨的若干歷史問題的決議 released in June 1981, the once-exalted chairman was posthumously cut back to distinctly human proportions. The document declared Mao to have been, in word and deed, 70 percent correct and 30 percent wrong. Freed from Maoist orthodoxy by state sanction, Party and non-afiiliated intellectuals alike now flexed their minds on the question of ‘what is to be done’, and contending views flourished as they had not since 1949. In their discussions, humanism, which Mao had hitherto disparaged as a bourgeois conceit, acquired a brand new authority.

‘Humanism Fever’ became the first of many ‘fevers’ 熱 that would characterize the 1980s. There were the general fevers of ‘culture’, ‘knowledge’, and ‘intellectualism’; thematic ones like ‘alienation fever’, ‘methodologies fever’, and ‘root-searching fever’; and fevers centered on particular authors and works such as the ‘Fever over One Hundred Years of Solitude’ (Gabriel García Márquez’s [1927-2014] work had struck a powerful chord among mainland readers),  ‘Weber Fever’, ‘Sartre Fever’, ‘Nietzsche Fever’, and ‘Freud Fever’. For reasons of space, this account of the 1980s is confined to the fever over ‘Humanism’. But ‘Humanism’ is also the best overarching rubric under which to subsume the multifarious spectrum of ‘Fevers’ that seized intellectual China in that decade.

The term ‘Fever/ 熱’ now refers to fads and trends, but in the early 1980s, it carried a lingering connotation of enthusiasm 熱情, a much-lauded emotion in Chinese revolutionary discourse. Under Mao, enthusiasm meant the ardor needed to wage class war. When the first post-Maoist humanists denounced that ardor as a form of state-induced derangement, it was not the emotion per se that they rejected but its misdirection to serve an oppressive state. They sought above all to raise consciousness of the ills that had beset society under Maoist politics. As their publications multiplied in tandem with rising demand, their optimism about the transformative powers of language grew. A large majority of intellectuals found the idea of invoking a ‘specter of humanism’ desirable. Like Wang, they were increasingly convinced that, if more and more people could be drawn to declare, ‘I am Human’, the cold and inhumane world that repressive rule and dogma had forged would be dispelled.

In this self-assigned, collectively embarked on mission of post-Mao intellectuals to return life and warmth to the People’s Republic, writers were especially prominent. A mountain of realist works explored existential ills and alienation from self, family, and society under Maoist rule. Dai Houying’s (戴厚英, 1938-1996) 1980 novel Oh Humanity! 人, 啊人! was an early prime example of this genre. Dai wrote in the novel’s postscript that she sought to ‘give voice to the concept of humanity’ precisely because she had previously been duped into denying it. Party theorists promptly accused the author and her work of distorting reality. As the attacks intensified, Oh Humanity! gained domestic notoriety along with international interest. It became a centerpiece of the broader discourse on humanism and one of China’s most talked-about books of the 1980s. Humanism signified intellectual optimism about life after the Cultural Revolution. It grew out of the power vacuum opened up by Mao’s death in September 1976. Hua Guofeng (華國鋒, 1921-2008), who succeeded Mao as the new Party chairman (subsequent leaders would avoid using this title in favour of ‘Party General Secretary’), was fearful of being undermined by Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing (江青, 1914-1991), and her ‘extreme leftist’ allies — the so-called Gang of Four — and consequently moved quickly to arrest them in October 1976. A two-year contest for control of the party and national politics then ensued between Mao loyalists led by Hua and supporters of Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平, 1904-1997) far more sweeping reform agenda. Both sides were mindful of the enormous destruction that Mao’s ‘permanent revolution’ had wrought on China’s economy and society. After three decades of Communist Party rule, China remained poor and government institutions were in disarray. The rival factions agreed that economic reform was the government’s most urgent task but differed on questions of approach and scope. Deng’s triumph over Hua in 1978 enabled market mechanisms to be introduced more rapidly and widely than the rival Hua camp would have allowed. The new Deng-led leadership declared the arrival of a ‘new era’ 新時期 and introduced a greatly modified ideology: one that made extensive but eclectic use of Mao’s words to focus on ‘modernization’. Whereas Mao had insisted on ‘Class Struggle’ 階級鬥爭 in the 1960s and 1970s, his successors now invoked his earlier dictum from the 1940s to ‘Seek Truth from Facts’ 實事求是 as the requisite attitude for a rapidly modernizing China.

‘Socialist Alienation’ and ‘Socialist Humanism’ were keywords in the new conceptual vocabulary that grew out of this state-led process of distancing mainland public culture from Maoist doctrine. The process itself, officially named the Movement to Liberate Thinking 思想解放運動 [The first movement to liberate thinking was led by Mao Zedong in Yan’an. — Ed.], was described by the historian Xu Jilin (許紀霖, 1957-) in 2000 as something of ‘a Lutheran-style rebellion within the orthodox Marxist-Leninist world’ of party culture. The rebellion, confined as it was to rhetoric, was curtailed from the outset by nervous state censors who clamped down on anything that gave them pause. By late 1983, Wang, despite his party credentials and voluble support from the eminent cultural commissar Zhou Yang (周揚, 1908-1989), had become a casualty of the leadership’s mounting unease. He was dismissed from his post at the People’s Daily as part of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign launched that year [which was led by Party ideologues like Hu Qiaomu 胡喬木 and Deng Liqun 鄧力群, who had first come to prominence in the Yan’an Rectification-cum-Thought Liberation of the early 1940s. — Ed.]. In the 1940s and 1950s, Wang’s patron Zhou had been instrumental in establishing Mao Zedong Thought as state orthodoxy. In the late 1960s, despite his loyalty to Mao, he fell victim to the Cultural Revolution. Zhou’s 1980s’ defense of humanism hence carried a poignant charge: he now disavowed the doctrine he had zealously propagated for the better part of his career.

In the 1980s, censorship and harassment notwithstanding, an independent or non-official 民間 discourse flourished as the economic reforms widened. It began with privately circulated underground writings but was increasingly brought into the light of publishing with the backing of progressive senior party officials. The ‘leaning’ 掛靠 arrangement was a game-changing innovation of 1980s Chinese intellectual life: whereas publishing was entirely state controlled in the Maoist period, the emergent post-Maoist market economy allowed non-offlcial publishing ventures to be openly pursued under the sponsorship and supervision of a friendly state agency or institution serving as the ‘leaning’ unit. In the mid- to late 1980s, this ‘leaining-in’ intellectual marketplace hosted a wide spectrum of views. Three group enterprises — the publishing ventures Toward the Future 走向未來叢書 and Culture: China and the World 文化: 中國與世界, and the independently funded Academy of Chinese Culture 中國文化書院 — became particularly prominent. Several key contributors to these three enterprises have since become leading public figures in the Chinese-speaking world.

Disquisitions on alienation and humanism were complemented by an abundance of translated works, literary and academic, firing imaginations and stimulating the production of new fiction, experimental poetry, critically engaged research, and reflective essays on major life questions. Literary depictions of rural and urban society and everyday experience now drew on cosmopolitan insights into existential dread and institutionalized oppression. Writers like Jean-Paul Sartre, George Orwell, Milan Kundera, and Franz Kafka found particular favor in China. In fiction and poetry, the exploration of China’s ancient past and regional cultures grew fashionable, eventually becoming what was known as the ‘root-searching’ 尋根 movement. These works, such as Red Sorghum 紅高粱 (authored by the 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mo Yan [莫言, 1955-]), suggested an entire way of life developed out of continuing human attempts to master and tame a thoroughly primeval nature, even as nature inevitably compels people to fit their lives around it. In scholarship, calls abounded for a thorough reinvestigation of the Chinese intellectual tradition. The writings of the then-Beijing-based philosopher Li Zehou (李澤厚, 1930-) fueled debates about the causes of and remedies for China’s cultural and economic stagnation. In particular, Li’s thesis of ‘Western Learning as Foundational, Chinese Learning as Functional’ 西體中用, a neat inversion of the Self-strengthening’ motto of nineteenth-century Confucian reformers, 中體西用) caused a stir.

Li argued that modernization, as a universal developmental process based in Western science and technology, required a specific mode of being or “subjectivity” (a signature concept of the 19805) to succeed in China: a subjectivity in which Marxist theory and Confiacian ethical thinking would be productively integrated. In effect Li affirmed human potential (as the potential to develop an autonomous and specifically Chinese subjectivity) against state indoctrination. His ideas inspired a raft of publications on the importance of ‘cultural subjectivity’ 文學主體性 (in the sense of an informed understanding of the positive and negative effects of different forces at work in the mainland cultural environment) of which the literary scholar Liu Zaifu (劉再復,1941-) was the initiator and chief exponent. Li’s ideas also accorded, initially, with the party leadership’s articulation of market reform under one-party rule as a matter of ‘building socialism with Chinese characteristics’ 建設具有中國特色社會主義. When Deng Xiaoping first used this phrase in September 1982, his description of the process as one of ‘integrating the universal truth of Marxism with the concrete realities of China’ 將馬克思主義基本原理與中國實際相結合 fitted Li’s ‘Western Learning as Foundational, Chinese Learning as Functional’ like a glove. But with tightened state control following the purge of the student-led democracy movement on June 4, 1989, Li’s works were banned on the grounds that they encouraged ‘bourgeois liberalism’ 資產階級自由化. He left China in 1992.

By 1986, Culture Fever 文化熱 had become the term of choice for the burgeoning intellectual discourse and related forms of cultural production (spanning the spectrum from art exhibitions to literature, to film and television, and to conferences focused on ‘modernization’ 現代化 and short courses on Confucianism and other aspects of traditional Chinese thought) that had developed alongside China’s economic reforms. In academic circles, Culture Fever was hailed as a New Enlightenment Movement 新啟蒙運動. Academics and graduate students sharing the thrill of discovering the human condition anew soon generated an ever-expanding critical vocabulary, drawn from hitherto inaccessible works and as much from Western as from Chinese sources, ancient and contemporary, with discussions focused on how humanistic thinking would set things right in China. In particular, the idea of democracy as a fundamental human need and right took root and grew. As economic reform progressed, the status quo of one-party rule was vigorously, albeit obliquely, debated. There were those who defended it as a benevolent ‘New Authoritarianism’ 新權威主義, arguing that strong leadership was required to deliver a viable constitutional democracy along with economic prosperity. There were others who supported a transition to one or another form of Western-style democracy, in the name of New Enlightenment.

The discursive heat generated by these contentious voices in the late 1980s, coupled with an inherited Chinese intellectual disposition to style oneself as ‘Worrying’ 憂患 on the nation’s behalf, provided the initial energy for the student protests that would erupt and swell in the spring and summer of 1989. At any rate, by decade’s end, the critical tenor of Culture Fever had grown far more insistent than Wang Ruoshui’s plaintive defense of humanism in 1983. The intricacies of Culture Fever and its links to the 1989 Protest Movement focussed on Tiananmen Square in Beijing have spawned thousands of articles, books, commentaries, and dissertations in different languages, not only because Culture Fever has become an important part of recent intellectual history but because a humane, free society, the shining prospect of which guided the passions of the Culture Fever intellectuals, remains elusive. Those passions have weakened and turned instead into nostalgia for the 1980s, which has been a notable feature of recent Chinese intellectual discourse. The Specter of Humanism that Wang invoked lingers on, not least in the form of online buzzwords such as ‘Speak Human Language’ 說人話 [or ‘speak like a real person’, see Davies, Fitting Words (2013)], which since 2012 has been widely used to disparage the language of China’s one-party state as ‘inhuman’.


  • Geremie Barmé and John Minford, eds., Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience, 2nd ed. (New York, 1988)
  • Chen Fong-ching and Jin Guantao, From Youthful Manuscripts to River Elegy: The Chinese Popular Cultural Movement and Political Transformation, 1979-1989 (Hong Kong, 1997)
  • Jing Wang, High Culture Fever: Politics, Aesthetics and Ideology in Deng’s China (Berkeley, CA, 1996)
  • Xu Jilin, ‘The Fate of an Enlightenment: Twenty Years in the Chinese Intellectual Sphere (1978-98)’, trans. Geremie R. Barmé and Gloria Davies, in Chinese Intellectuals between State and Market, ed. Gu Xin and Merle Goldman (London, 2004), pp.183-203



Further Reading (Editor’s Recommendations):