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China Bans ‘Soft Burial’, an Award-Winning Novel About the Deadly Consequences of Land Reform

A banner in a literature criticism seminar in Wuhan calls “Soft Burial” a “poisonous plant”. Image from Fangfang's Weibo.

The Chinese government has recently banned the sale of an award-winning novel, “Soft Burial,” written by Fang Fang about China’s land reform in the 1950s.

The novel tells the story of an old woman who suffered from amnesia after she witnessed her husband’s entire family driven to take their own lives during the Chinese Communist Party's nationwide land reform, which aimed to eliminate the landlord class not long after the People's Republic of China was established in 1949. The buried memories haunt the woman throughout her life, and her son decides to investigate her past.

The suicides tied to the land reform are not an invention of the novel. In addition to public executions, the class struggle resulted in tens of thousands of landlords and better-off peasants killing themselves. There are no official records of exactly how many were killed during the land reform, but estimates by Chinese and US scholars have ranged between 1 and 5 million.

“Soft Burial,” originally published in 2016, won the 2016 Luyao Literature Award, a tribute to its historical realism. Fang Fang explained the title of the novel in her postscript:

人死之后没有棺材护身,肉体直接葬于泥土,这是一种软埋;而一个活着的人,以决绝的心态屏蔽过去,封存来处,放弃往事,拒绝记忆,无论是下意识,还是有意识,都是被时间在软埋。一旦软埋,或许就是生生世世,永无人知。

When people die and their bodies are buried under the earth without the protection of coffins, this burial is called a “soft burial”; as for the living, when they seal off their past, cut off their roots, reject their memories, either consciously or subconsciously, their lives are soft buried in time. Once they are in a soft burial, their lives will be disconnected in amnesia.

Ahead of the announcement of the Luyao award on April 23 2017, a literature criticism seminar organized by the Worker, Peasant and Soldier reading group in the city of Wuhan concluded that the novel is a “poisonous plant”:

攻击土地革命运动……为封建地主阶级招魂……是一株反共大毒草!

An attack on the land reform… aimed at resurrecting the spirits of the landlord class… and hence a poisonous plant against communism.

Similar gatherings that are critical of the novel have also taken place in other cities, including Zhengzhou.

Former Chinese Communist Party leaders have also published their rebukes of the novel. Former head of the Central Organization Department Zhang Quanjing wrote a political struggle-style piece denouncing it, titled “Soft Burial is a reflection of ideological class struggle in the current terrain”:

方方的小说无视土改的这个本质方面,给土改泼了一大盆脏水,这是对历史的歪曲,是历史虚无主义在文艺领域的典型表现,是‌‌‘和平演变’与反‌‌‘和平演变’斗争的具体表现。‌‌

Fang Fang’s novel ignores the essence of land reform and pours dirty water onto the campaign. This is a distortion of history, a typical expression of historical nihilism in the literature and art fields, a concrete example of the struggle between “peaceful transformation” and anti “peaceful transformation” [of the political system].

Lieutenant General of the People’s Liberation Army Zhao Keming extended the criticism to a number of contemporary novels:

历史虚无主义思潮尽管受到党和人民的有力抵制和批评,但仍在以各种形式滋长蔓延。除了在历史研究领域,在讲台、论坛上不断欺骗毒害人们,近些年在文学创作领域也表现得十分猖獗。为地主阶级翻案、控诉土改的小说《软埋》只是其中最新出版、最露骨的表达罢了。在此以前,有《活着》、《生死疲劳》、《白鹿原》、《古船》等等。长期以来,这些作品基本上没有在主流媒体上受到有分量的分析批评,也未听说其所在单位党的组织对此有过批评指正,有的人反而获得了很高的地位、炫目的光环,有很多粉丝和吹鼓手。这就在客观上产生了一种导向,写这类颠覆历史的东西可以出名得利,可以风光无限。‌‌

Though historical nihilism has been criticized by the party and the people, it has been spreading in different forms. In addition to the poisonous historical research, university lectures and public forums, it has been very rampant in the field of literature. “Soft Burial” is just the latest published novel to explicitly attempt to vindicate the landlord class and criticize the land reform. Before its publication, novels such as “To Live,” “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,” “White Deer Plain,” “The Ancient Ship,” etc., have not been criticized in mainstream media. The writers have not been denounced by their leaders in their work or party unit. Some of them have even reached high positions, received praise from fans and followers. Objectively, this has given birth to a trend that sees subverting history in writing is the ticket to success and a bright future.

The wave of criticism culminated in the novel's ban.

However, a digital copy was circulated online and won readers’ applause. Many found the novel inspiring and wrote their commentaries on social media. Quite a number complained that their comments were reported, deleted and “soft buried.” Below are a number of comments still circulating on the popular platform Weibo.

A reader from Chengdu said:

故事讲得很好[…]原来不相关的人都联系起来。但是看着结尾很不爽,居然不探究真相,任由父母的历史湮没。懦弱和不孝啊。但也许是故意为之,让读者也有一种软埋的感觉,因为这才是真实的生活。

The story is well told…unrelated characters come together in the end. But I really don't like the ending, why not dig into the truth, why let his parents’ history remain buried? Such a coward and lack of filial piety. Maybe this is the writer's intention, to let the readers feel the sense of soft burial because it is a reality that we are facing in our lives.

A reader from Shandong reflected:

没有一件事,会有它真正的真相。
重要的不是真相是什么,而是我们用什么态度去面对它。
我们或许永远无法公正的评价那个年代,但是我们有权利去质疑它。
一个国家应该开放的去面对自己的历史,否则历史的包袱只会越来越沉重。

No incident has absolute truth.
What matters is not the truth, but our attitude towards truth.
Perhaps we can never evaluate the past in a fair manner, but we have to right to question it.
A country should be open to confronting its history, or the historical baggage would become too heavy to bear.

And Fang Fang’s novel inspired one Anhui reader to write about his family history:

我的曾祖父少年在地主家做学徒,因聪明勤快,后来自己办木厂染坊、买田,家境逐渐殷实富足。直到土改,我家应算是富农,绝称不上地主。之所以被划为地主,是因为当时的土改负责人与我家有仇,强把我曾祖母家的地加在我家头上。我曾祖母家倒是地主,但她家的田地是她兄弟的,跟我曾祖母、跟我家哪有什么关系?欲加之罪,何患无辞!我不知道曾祖父是怎么死的。但我知道我的曾祖母,这位传统大家庭的女主人,是被活活饿死在自己床上的。

我曾祖父的父亲是晚清举人,一生教书,死后留下几大竹篾筐书,土改时候全被烧掉 。
我的祖父土改前在县城高中读书,读医农科,成绩优异,准备保送复旦。但土改时被扣上“地主少爷”之名,只得落寞归乡,一生面朝黄土。虽然在六十年代教过几年书,但这几年教书的经历,反而又让他在文革中受了不少罪。

我家世代耕读之家,土改一役,书被烧尽,田被收走,真是绝人活路,后来几十年困顿窘迫,其间血泪,倒向谁人控告与哭诉!

My great-grandfather was a servant working for a landlord. Because he was smart and diligent, he opened his own woodwork and dyeing workshops, bought land and became rich. He was a rich peasant but not a landlord. But he was labelled as a landlord during the land reform because he was at odds with those who led the reform. When they calculated his property, they included the land owned by my great-grandmother's family. Her family was a landlord but the land was owned by her brothers and had nothing to do with him. It was an excuse for revenge. I don't know how my great-grandfather died, but my great-grandmother was starved to dead in her own bed.

The father of my great-grandfather was a literati in the late Qing Dynasty. He was a teacher his whole life and left behind loads of books. They were all burned into ashes during the land reform.

My grandfather was studying medicine and agriculture in high school in town. He was getting ready to go to Fudan University. But he was labelled as the son of landlord and had to return to the village and became a farmer. He taught briefly in the 1960s but because of that, he was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution.

My family background is that of peasants and literati. Because of the land reform, all the books were burned, land confiscated. There was no other exit for them. They had suffered for many decades and shed tears and blood and they could not even cry and tell their stories aloud!

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