The “Five Martyrs of the League of Left-Wing Writers” is how they are referred to today. And as that name suggests, they were five Chinese writers associated with the league of that name: Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng – executed on 7 February 1931, 90 years ago this month by the Kuomintang in the “White Terror” period that followed the 1927 Shanghai massacre. Eighteen other communists were executed on the same day, including a pregnant woman.
Some have suggested that the five may have been betrayed by others in the Communist Party of China (CCP) at that time, perhaps as a result of a power struggle. 90 years after these Chinese writers were slain, their memory and legacy is still important in the year that marks the centenary of the CCP, as well as the 140th birth anniversary of Lu Xun, China’s greatest modern writer.
The League of Left-Wing Writers was an organization of writers formed in Shanghai, China, on 02 March 1930, at the instigation of the CCP and the influence of the celebrated author Lu Xun. Other prominent members included Ding Ling, Hu Feng, and Mei Zhi. The purpose of the League was to promote socialist realism in support of the Communist Revolution, and it eventually became very influential in Chinese cultural circles. Lu Xun delivered the opening address to the organizational meeting, but he became disillusioned when it quickly became clear that he would have little influence. Other members included leaders of the Sun Society and the Creation Society, and Zhou Yang, who became Mao Zedong’s favorite literary figure – and who, after 1949, zealously enforced political orthodoxy. The League articulated theories on the political role of literature that foreshadowed Mao’s influential Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, and engaged in running debates with the “art for art’s sake” Crescent Moon Society.
Due to the League’s prominent political views, it was quickly banned by the Kuomintang government. On 07 February 1931, the government executed five members of the League: Li Weisen, Hu Yepin, Rou Shi, Yin Fu, and Feng Keng. They are known as the Five Martyrs of the League of Left-Wing Writers.
The League was disbanded voluntarily in 1936. This was mainly in order to encourage authors to unite across political boundaries and face the rapidly increasing threat from Japan.
It was evening. The jail was deserted. The prisoners’ chains would sometimes rattle up just because of their turning from one side to the other and this silence would break. This was the daily routine and when the sun would sink far in the horizon in the evening, then the noise of the jail would also end as if the grim shadow of death has silenced the humans. But the evening of the high-walled jail of Shanghai on 07 February 1931 was different from all other evenings. The sun had sunk too on that evening. All prisoners were shut inside their respective narrow and dark chambers, but despite that, there was some light tremour in the silent and still atmosphere. Many of the prisoners had had their faces to the doors. This light trepidation in the joyless and continuous silence of the night was surprising them. They were impatient to know the cause of these light footsteps, slow laughs and strange conversations in that grim darkness of night end. But now this noise was increasing and the sounds of the closing and opening of the strong and heavy iron doors was getting louder and with it the amazement of the prisoners was also increasing. And outside the chambers between the long and high barracks, 5 people were stepping slowly and they were surrounded by an armed squad.
The League articulated theories on the political role of literature that foreshadowed Mao’s influential Yan’an Talks on Literature and Art, and engaged in running debates with the “art for art’s sake” Crescent Moon Society
They were stepping towards death but despite that, life was bursting forth from their faces and despite the armed guards, no one could have said that who would win in this struggle between death and life; these 5 unarmed persons or the whole army of Chiang Kai-Shek.
On the gruesome night of 07 February 1931, this armed squad, their savage power and their bayonets which were detrimental to culture, won. They were successful in forever silencing the 5 progressive young writers of China. These 5 persons who were jailed in Shanghai and executed in the darkness of a grim night 90 years ago at the hands of Chiang’s executioners, were writers. They had faith in progress and revolution; they believed in life; they trusted in human greatness so they went to the gallows silently, smiling. For they knew that death wails for the perpetuity of life but this death is temporary.
Who were these 5 progressive writers? None of them was aged more than 35 years. They included Hu Yepin, the husband of Ding Ling; the same Hu Yepin whose tales of romance were talked about but till now people had imagined him to be the lover of only Ding Ling, a beautiful woman and writer; but he did not present the gift of his life before this beautiful woman and writer, rather before his philosophy of life, the welfare of his people and revolution. They also included a 24-year old young and beautiful novelist Feng Keng. The same Feng Keng whose face still had beauty and youth too; who also had a bright future in front of her but despite this she kept smiling till her last breath. As if she were mocking death.
They also included 21-year old Li Weisen and 22-year old Yin Fu, just graduated from college: they had emotions too but the fire of emotions could not be cooled by death. They did not worry in the jaws of death; they did not deviate from their writings. They did not carve new philosophies for conservatism. The ruling class tried to defame them. Eventually pens from their hands and tongues from their mouths were seized. But despite this whatever they wrote, they did not delete and what they had once deleted, they did not rewrite.
This kind of brutal attack on any movement by the ruling class is the greatest proof of the popularity of that movement. And when in 1931 the executioners of Chiang had made this assault on progressive writers, the movement of such writers in China had become an active one. This movement had to pass through various periods for it to be acknowledged.
The rise and fall of this movement could have influenced us to some degree in colonial South Asia. But the high mountains of the Himalayas, Chiang’s dominance, the American dollar, British politics and the fear of our rulers were impediments in its path.
But many of these lofty and serious hurdles are being removed one by one. The new springs that are bursting from the ancient land of Kong Fuzi (Confucius), Mozi and Sunzi (Sun Tzu) can benefit us – and today this storm which is rising from the other side of the Himalayas is fulfilling the whole of Asia. Who is there who will not welcome this revolution?
(to be continued)
Note: All translations are by the writer.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader, currently based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at email@example.com
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org