"Father! You love this country of ours, you can't bear to leave it . . . but does this country love you?" This haunting, tortured question in the film "Bitter Love" by Bai Hua has become the focus of a new, comprehensive criticism carried by the official People's Daily Oct. 7.
Writers in China have already battened down their hatches for a long, cold winter.
One literary observer commented that for some time to come, works dealing with the period of chaos officially known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) or with the antirightist campaign 10 years earlier are not likely to see the light of day.
"There are just too many taboos -- it is impossible to do a really good piece of creative writing on these periods," this person said. The case of "Bitter Love" (Sometimes called "Unrequited Love") has sputtered along since early this year, when party leaders including Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping are said to have been enraged when they saw a private screening of the film.
"Bitter Love" is the story of an artist, Ling Chenguang, who grows up in poverty in the old China, becomes a successful painter in the United States, then returns to China out of patriotism after the advent of the People's Republic. At first honored, he is persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. He dies a fugitive in a wasteland, his last footsteps tracing a question mark on the snow.
The two points that most upset party leaders were said to be the daughter's comment opening this article, and the juxtaposition of images of a golden Buddha blackened by years of incense-burning with those of a frenzied crowd waving Chairman Mao's famous "little red book"
Among the angriest were said to be Army leaders, many of whom feel that even the limited criticism of Mao encouraged by Mr. Deng and his associates and enshrined in a Communist Party resolution in June has gone too far. The Liberation Army Daily fired a blast against "Bitter Love" April 20. The Peking Daily and other regional papers reprinted the criticism, but the prestigious People's Daily did not.
Bai Hua is said to have received well over a thousand lettes of support after the Liberation Army Daily's blast.
A soldier in the Army before he became a writer, Bai Hua was criticized during the antirightist campaign in 1957. He was forced to remain silent for more than 20 years. In recent years he has been a writer attached to the Wuham Military District.
The film has never been publicly screened. But it apparently has been making the rounds of various literary and other units in an effort to get someone of note to make a public criticism. Although a number of respected literary figures are known to dislike the film on artistic rather than political grounds, no one in these literary circles has so far come out with anything but the most lukewarm criticism.
The literary establishment has had its fill of politically inspired campaigns , and few people are willing to join what to them looks like a new one. Their conspiracy of silence irritated party leaders, apparently prompting party Chairman Hu Yaobang's harsh criticism Sept. 25 of "bourgeois liberalism" and those who fail to speak out against if.
Meanwhile a compromise of sorts is said to have been worked out. Instead of more blasts from Liberation Army Daily, the national literary magazine Wenyibao (Literary and Art News) would write a reasoned critique of "Bitter Love." The people's Daily would, in turn, carry this critique. That would take the controversy out of the purely political arena back into the field of literary criticism.
The Wenyibao critique is said to have gone through several drafts and to have had problems with getting the right person to sign it. Eventually it came out under the signatures of Tang Yin and Tang Dacheng, both deputy editors of the magazine.
It is a long article, dealing successively with the question of the motherland, of the personality cult of Mao (the blackened Buddha), of the film's composition and techniques, and of Bai Hua as a writer.
On each of these points "Bitter Love" and its author are criticized. But the main point is that Bai Hua has broadened what should be an attack on the purged "gang of four" headed by Mao's widow into an attack on the motherland itself. In sum, says the critique, the film gives the impression that "the Communist Party is bad, and that the socialist [i.e., communist] system is bad."
Is this the last word on "Bitter Love"? Will Bai Hua be given a public opportunity to defend himself? Must he publicly acknowledge his errors before being forgiven?
The only encouraging thing that can be said about this affair is that so far, for all the harsh words that have appeared in print, Bai Hua was not been forced to recant, to stop writing altogether, or to become a nonperson. He is said to be a forceful personality and may yet be heard from anew.