Wang Shiwei’s “Wild Lilies” (1942)

Wang Shiwei (1907-1947) attended Beijing University in 1925 and joined the CCP the following year. By the 1930s, he had gained a reputation as a talented translator of world literature and as a fiction writer in his own right. With the outbreak of the war against Japan in 1937, he fled to Yan'an. There, he translated a large number of philosophical and political works, including works by Marx and Lenin. In the spring of 1942, he published several articles painting life in Yan'an in an unfavorable light. The most famous of these, "Wild Lilies" [Ye BaihehuaJ, was featured in the literature section of the Liberation Daily on March 13 and 23, 1942. In response to Wang Shiwei's, Ding Ling's, and others' criticisms, the CCP leaders initiated a political rectification campaign in April and May. It quickly became clear that Wang Shiwei was a main target. He was publicly criticized, then arrested, and ultimately executed in 1947.


  • 1. What is Wang Shiwei's primary criticism of life in Yan'an?
  • 2. Why would CCP officials be upset by Wang Shiwei's description of Yan'an (and the comparison it made with areas outside Yan'an)?

While I was walking alone along the riverbank, I saw a comrade wearing a pair of old-style padded cotton shoes. I immediately fell to thinking of Comrade Li Fen, who also wore such shoes. Li Fen, my dearest and very first friend. As usual my blood began to race. Li Fen was a student in 1926 on the preparatory course in literature at Beijing University. In the same year she joined the Party. In the spring of 1928, she sacrificed her life in her home district of Baoqing in Hunan province. Her own uncle tied her up and sent her to the local garrison—a good illustration of the barbarity of the old China. Before going to her death, she put on all her three sets of underclothes and sewed them tightly together at the top and the bottom. This was because the troops in Baoqing often incited riff-raff to defile the corpses of the young women Communists they had shot—yet another example of the brutality, the evil, the filth and the darkness of the old society. When I got news of her death, I was consumed with feelings of deep love and hatred. Whenever I think of her, I have a vision of her pure, sacred martyrdom, with her three layers of underclothes sewn tightly together, tied up and sent by her very own uncle to meet her death with dignity. (It seems rather out of place to talk of such things in tranquil Yan'an, against the warbled background of [the Beijing Opera] "Yutang Chun" and the swirling steps of the golden lotus dance; but the whole atmosphere in Yan'an does not seem particularly appropriate to the conditions of the day—close your eyes and think for a moment of our dear comrades dying every minute in a sea of carnage.)

In the interest of the nation, I will not reckon up old scores of class hatred. We are genuinely selfless. With all our might we are dragging the representatives of old China along the road with us toward the light. But in the process the filth and dirt is rubbing off on us, spreading its diseases.

On scores of occasions I have drawn strength from the memory of Li Fen—vital and militant strength. Thinking back on her on this occasion, I was moved to write a zawen [essay] under the title "Wild Lily." This name has a twofold significance. First, the wild lily is the most beautiful of the wild flowers in the hills and countryside around Yan'an, and is therefore a fitting dedication to her memory. Secondly, although its bulbs are similar to those of other lilies, they are said to be slightly bitter to the taste, and of greater medicinal value, but I myself am not sure of this.

What is Lacking in Our Lives?

Recently young people here in Yan'an seem to have lost some of their enthusiasm, and to have become inwardly ill at ease.

Why is this? What is lacking in our lives? Some would answer that it is because we are badly nourished and short of vitamins. Others, that it is because the ratio of men to women is eighteen to one, and many young men are unable to find girlfriends. Or because life in Yan'an is dreary and lacks amusements.

There is some truth in all these answers. It is true that there is need for better food, for partners of the opposite sex, and for more interest in life. This is only natural. But one must also recognize that young people here in Yan'an came with a spirit of sacrifice to make revolution and not for food, sex, and an enjoyable life. I cannot agree with those who say that their lack of enthusiasm, their inward disquiet even, are a result of our inability to resolve these problems. So what is lacking in our lives? Perhaps the following conversation holds some clues.

During the New Year holiday, I was walking home in the dark one evening from a friend's place. Ahead of me were two women comrades talking in animated whispers. We were some way apart so I quietly moved closer to hear what they were saying.

"Fie keeps on talking about other people's petty-bourgeois egalitarianism; but the truth is that he thinks he is something special. He always looks after his own interests. As for the comrades underneath him, he doesn't care whether they're sick or well. He doesn't even care if they die, he hardly gives a damn! ... Crows are black wherever they are. Even Comrade XXX acts like that."

"You're right! All this bullshit about loving your own class. They don't even show ordinary human sympathy! You often see people pretending to smile and be friendly, but it's all on the surface, it doesn't mean anything. And if you offend them, they glare at you, pull their rank and start lecturing you."

"It's not only the big shots who act that way, the small fry are just the same. Our section leader XXX crawls when he's talking to his superiors, but he behaves very arrogantly towards us. Often comrades have been ill and he hasn't even dropped in to see how they are. But when an eagle stole one of his chickens, you should have seen the fuss he made! After that, every time he saw an eagle he'd start screaming and throwing clods of earth at it—the self-seeking bastard!"

There was a long silence. In one way, I admired the comrade's sharp tongue. But I also suddenly felt depressed.

"It's sad that so many comrades are falling ill. Nobody wants people like that to visit them when they fall ill, they just make you feel worse. Their tone of voice, their whole attitude they don't make you feel they care about you."

"Right. They don't care about others, and others don't care about


If they did mass work, they'd be bound to fail."

They carried on their conversation in animated whispers. At this point our ways parted, and I heard no more of what they had to say. In many ways their views were one-sided and exaggerated. Perhaps the picture they drew does not apply widely: but there is no denying that it is useful as a mirror.


Egalitarianism and the System of Ranks

According to what I heard, one comrade wrote an article with a similar title for his departmental wall newspaper, and as a result was criticized and attacked by his department "head" and driven half-mad. I hope this story is untrue. But since there have been genuine cases of madness even among the "little devils" [orphan children who acted as personal assistants to the Communist cadres], I fear there may be some madness among adults. Even though the state of my nerves is not as "healthy" as some people's, I still have enough life in me not to go mad under any circumstances. I therefore intend to follow in the footsteps of that comrade and discuss the question of equality and the ranking system.

Communism is not the same as egalitarianism, and we are not at present at the stage of Communist revolution. There is no need for me to write an eight-legged essay on that question, since there is no cook crazy enough to want to live in the same style as one of the "heads." (I don't dare write "kitchen operative," since it sounds like a caricature; but whenever I speak to cooks, I always address them in the warmest possible way as comrade kitchen-operatives"—what a pitiful example of warmth!) The question of a system of ranks is rather more difficult.

Those who say that a system of ranks is reasonable use roughly the following arguments: (1) they base themselves on the principle of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their worth," which means that those with more responsibilities should consume more; (2) in the near future the three-thirds government [the "tripartite system" under which the Communists nominally shared power with the "petit bourgeoisie and the enlightened gentry" in the areas under their control] intends to carry out a new salary system, and naturally there will be pay differentials; and (3) the Soviet Union also has a system of rank.

In my opinion all these arguments are open to debate. As for (1), we are still in the midst of the revolution, with all its hardships and difficulties; all of us, despite fatigue, are laboring to surmount the present crisis, and many comrades have ruined their precious health. Because of this it does not yet seem the right time for anyone, no matter who, to start talking about "to each according to their worth." On the contrary, all the more reason why those with greater responsibilities should show themselves willing to share weal and woe with the rank and file. (This is a national virtue that should be encouraged.) In so doing, they would win the profound love of the lower ranks. Only then would it be possible to create ironlike unity. It goes without saying that it is not only reasonable but necessary that those with big responsibilities who need special treatment for their health should get such treatment. The same goes for those with positions of medium responsibility. As for (2), the pay system of the three- thirds government should also avoid excessive differentials; it is right that non-party officials should get slightly better treatment, but those officials who are Party members should uphold our excellent traditions of frugal struggle so that we are in a position to mobilize even more non-party people to join us and cooperate with us. As for (3), excuse my rudeness, but I would beg those "great masters" who can't open their mouths without talking about Ancient Greece" to hold their tongues.

I am not an egalitarian, but to divide clothing into three and food into five grades is neither necessary nor rational, especially with regard to clothes. (I myself am graded as "cadres' clothes and private kitchen," so this not just a case of sour grapes.) All such problems should be resolved on the basis of need and reason. At present there is no noodle soup for sick comrades to eat and young students only get two meals of thin congee a day (when they are asked whether they have had enough to eat, Party members are expected to lead the rest in a chorus of "Yes, we're full"). Relatively healthy "big shots" get far more than they need to eat and drink, with the result that their subordinates look upon them as a race apart, and not only do not love them, but even. . . . This makes me most uneasy. But perhaps it is a "petty bourgeois emotion" to always be talking about "love" and warmth"? I await your verdict.

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