Richard Melson

July 2006

Mao Dun

Mao Dun

Mao Dun (Born on July 4, 1896 and died on March 27, 1981)

Chinese editor and author, communist ideologue,

one of the greatest modern novelists in China.

Mao Dun is best known as the naturalist author of ZIYE (1933, Midnight),

a massive novel about life in Shanghai, and the rural trilogy entitled

CHUNCAN (1932-33, Spring Silkworms).

--"None of the women and children were healthy looking. From the beginning of spring they had to cut down on their meager food, and their garments were all old and worn. They looked little better than beggars. They were not, however, dispirited; they were sustained by their great endurance and their great hope. In their simple minds they felt sure that so long as nothing happened to their silkworms everything would come out all right. When they thought how in a month's time the glossy green leaves would turn into snow white cocoons and how the cocoons would turn into jingling silver dollars, their hearts were filled with laughter though their stomaches gurgled with hunger." (from Spring Silkworms)

Mao Tun was born in Chekiang province. He studied at the University of Beijing (Peking), but did not graduate. His first writings started to appear in student magazine Xuesheng Zazhi. By the age of twenty-four he was already a well-known author. In 1920 Mao Tun and several other young writers took over the 11-years-old magazine Xiaoshuo Yuebao (Fiction Monthly). They started to publish western literature (Tolstoy, Chekhov, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Byron, Keats, Shaw, etc.) and make new theories of literature more well known. Although Mao Tun was a naturalistic novelist, he admired among others Leo Tolstoy, who combined in his stories the fate of an individual chatacter or families with historical upheavals.

--'"Hah. With the world all going to hell, people starving by the thousands - what does it matter if we do split up!" Ah To exploded. "In these times a man can die like a dog and no one will care. What's so terrible about splitting up!" He glared at his brother and sister-in-law as if he wanted to swallow down the irresolute pair in one gulp.'
(from 'Winter Ruin,' 1933)

SHI, Mao Dun's first work, consist of three slim volumes, HUANMIE (1927), DONGYAO (1928), and ZHUIQUI (1928). It portrays a generation of young intellectuals, who are caught up in the tidal wave of revolutionary fervor without a true understanding of the the nature of social change. Mao Dun himself had participated Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition (1926-28) to unite the country, but he fled to Kuling when the Kuomingtang broke with the Chinese Communist Party. In 1930s he helped to found the League of Left-Wing Writers, which was dissolved after a quarrel in 1936.

Among his masterpieces dealing with Kuomingtang period is the short story 'The Shop of the Lin Family.' In the story a shop in a small town is forced to shut down under semi-feudal backward economic pressures.

'Mrs. Zhu did not cry. Her sunken red-rimmed eyes glared, and she kept saying frantically:

"The poor have only one life, and the rich have only one life. If they don't give me back my money, I'll fight them to the death!"'
(from 'The Shop of the Lin Family')

Mao Dun's next major work, HONG (1929, Rainbow), was a story about a young woman who escapes from her bourgeois family to join the revolutionary May Thirtieth Movement in Shanghai.

Ziye was Mao Dun's magnum opus, which contained some 70 characters and numerous plot twists and turns. The main theme in the novel is the struggle between national capitalist Wu Sunfu and his rival Zhao Botao. In 1933 appeared the novel Midnight, which enjoyed immense popularity. It played a vital pioneering part in the development of revolutionary realism. It was published later in English and French.

In FUSHI (1941) Mao Dun told the story of a young woman who is a secret agent for the Nationalist Party, the Kuomingtang, during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-45). His other war novels include DIYI JIEDUANDE GUSHI (1937), about the siege of Shanghai in 1937, and JIEHOU SHIYI (1942), which depicted the Fall of Hong Kong. The trilogy SHUANGYE HONGSI ERYUEHUA (1942) was left unfinished.

--"Viewing her own simple dress, Miss Huang thought of the elaborate finery of the other girls in the office. She couldn't imagine how they managed, since the best paid of them only got sixty or seventy dollars a month, while some received no more than thirty odd. Even if she spent her entire pittance of a salary on clothing she couldn't keep up with them. Besides, she needed it all to help the family. Miss Huang felt like crying.
--I knew I wouldn't be very happy at this kind of a job but - but I never dreamed I'd be so miserable... Tears rose to Miss Huang's eyes."
(from 'First Morning at the Office,' 1935)

After the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, Mao Tun traveled to many places, started a literary magazine in Wuhan. He edited the periodical The Literary Front and wrote the novels Corrosion (1941) and Frosted leaves as Red as Flowers in Spring (1942), the play Before and After the Quinming Festival (1944), besides various short stories, essays and articles. He edited the literary page of the newspaper Libao in Hong Kong and worked as a teacher. In 1946 he visited Soviet Union. After 1943, Mao Dun did not produce major works of literature, but continued write articles and essays.

When the communist government took over in 1949, he was active on several commitees. Mao Dun worked as Mao Zedong's secretary and Culture Minister until 1964. He started the monthly Chinese Literature, which became the most popular literary journal for Western readers. In 1964 he was dismissed as Minister in connection with the ideological upheavals. However, Mao Tun survived the Cultural Revolution and he was later rehabilitated. His last significant novel depicted wartime terror in Chungking. In the 1970s he edited a magazine of children's literature and started to write his memoirs, which were serialized in the Party publication, the quaterly Xinwenxue Shiliao (Historical Materials on New Literature). The memoirs were not finished before his death on March 27, 1981.

For further reading: Mao Dun de wenxue daolu, ed. by Shao Bozhou et al. (1959); A History of Modern Chinese Fiction by C.T. Hsia (1961); Mao Tun and Modern Chinese Literary Criticism by Marian Galik (1969); The Genesis of Modern Chinese Literature Criticism by Marian Galik (1980); Realism and Allegory in the Early Fiction of Mao Dun by Yu-shih Chen (1986); Fictional Realism in the Twentieth-Century China by David Der-wei Wang (1992)

Selected works:

(serialized in Xiaoshuo Yuebao, starting in 1927,

published later as a trilogy under the title SHIH)

Mao Dun (July 4, 1896March 27, 1981) was the pen name of Shen Dehong, a 20th century Chinese novelist, cultural critic, and journalist. He was also the Minister of Culture of China. He is currently renowned for being one of the best modern novelists in China.

His most famous work is Midnight,

a grand novel depicting life in Shanghai, and Spring Silk Worms and Other Stories.

He adopted 'Mao Dun' , meaning "contradiction",

as his pen name to express his sigh for the contradicting revolutionary ideology in China in the unstable 1920s.

His friend Ye Shengtao changed the first word from X to Y,

which literally means "thatch", to prevent him from political persecution.

Early life

Mao Tun (1896-1981) - ALSO MAO DUN –

Pseudonym of Shen Yan-bing, original name Shen Mao Tun

Mao Dun was born in Tongxiang County, Zhejiang Province, China. His father Shen Yongxi taught and designed the curriculum for his son, but he died when Mao Dun was ten. Mao Dun's mother Chen Aizhu then became his teacher. He mentioned in his memoirs that "my first instructor is my mother". Through learning from his parents, Mao Dun developed great interest in writing during his childhood.

Mao Dun had already started to develop his writing skills when he was still in primary school. In one examination the examiner commented on Mao Dun's script: '12 year old young child, can make this language, not says motherland nobody'. There were other similar comments which indicate that Mao Dun had been a brilliant writer since his youth.

While Mao Dun was studying in secondary school in Hangzhou, extensive reading and strict writing skills training filled his life. He finished reading Illustrious Definite orders, Shi Shuo Xin Yu and a large number of classical novels. These novels influenced his writing style and his idea of writing.

Mao Dun entered the three-year foundation school offered by Peking University in 1913, in which he studied Chinese and Western literature. Due to financial difficulties, he had to quit in the summer of 1916, before his graduation.

The trainings in Chinese and English as well as knowledge of Chinese and Western literature provided by the fifteen years' education Mao Dun received had prepared him to show up in the limelight of the Chinese journalistic and literary arena.

Journalistic career

After graduation, Mao Dun soon got his first job in the English editing and translation sections of the Commercial Press, Shanghai branch. At the age of 21, he was invitied to be the assistant editor of Xuesheng Zazhi (Students' Magazine) under the Commercial Press, which had published many articles about the new ideologies that had emerged in China at that time.

Apart from editing, Mao Dun also started to write about his social thoughts and criticisms. To some extent, he was inspired by the famous magazine New Youths. Like in 1917 and 1918, he wrote two editorials for Xuesheng Zazhi: Students and Society and The Students of 1918, those were significant in stimulating political consciousness among the young educated Chinese.

At 24 years of age, Mao-Tun was already renowned as a novelist by the community in general, and in 1920, Mao-tun and another group of young writers took over the magazine Xiaoshuo Yuebao, which translated means fiction monthly, to publish literature by western authors, such as Tolstoy, Chekhov, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Byron, Keats, Shaw, etc., and make new theories of literature more well known. Despite the fact that he was a naturalistic novelist, he admired writers like Leo Tolstoy, for their great artistic style.

In 1920, he was invited to edit a new column: Xiaoshuo Xinchao (The Fiction-New-Waves) in Xiaoshuo Yuebao (Fiction Monthly). He even took up the post of Chief Editor of the Monthly in the same year and was obliged to reform it thoroughly, in response to the New Cultural Movement . His young writer friends in Beijing supported him by submitting their creative writings, translating Western literature and their views on new literature theories and techniques to the magazines. Wenxue Yanjiuhui (Literature Study Group) was formed partly because of this. The reformed Monthly was proved to be a success. It had facilitated the continuation of the New Cultural Movement by selling ten thousand copies a month and more importantly by introducing Literature for life, a brand new realistic approach to Chinese literature. In this period, Mao Dun had become a leading figure of the movement in the southern part of China.

On the notion of content reformation, both the innovative and conservative parties in the Commercial Press could not make a compromise. Mao Dun resigned from the Chief Editor of Fiction Monthly in 1923, but in 1927 he became the chief columnist of the Minguo yuebao. He wrote more than 30 editorials for this newspaper to criticize Chiang Kai-shek, and to support revolutions.

Political life

Inspired by the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, Mao Dun took part in the May Fourth Movement in China. In 1920, he joined the Shanghai Communist Team, and helped to establish the Chinese Communist Party in 1921. At first, he worked as a liaison for the party. He also wrote for the party magazine 'The Communist Party'.

At the same time, Mao Dun participated in Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition (1926-1928), the main purpose was to unite the country. He quit, however, when Chiang's Kuomintang broke with the Communists. In July 1928, he went to Japan in order to take refuge. As he returned to China in 1930, he joined the League of the Left-Wing Writers. Later, China went to war with Japan and he actively engaged in resisting the Japanese attack in 1937. In 1949, the communist government took over and he was responsible for working as Mao Zedong's secretary and Culture Minister until 1964.

As a literary man

Xiaoshuo Yuebao Reform was first contribution of Mao Dun to Chinese literature. The magazine then became a place where "New Literature" circulated. Many famous writers like Lu Xun, Xu Dishan, Bing Xin, Ye Shengtao, had their works published through it. Mao Dun started to support "New Literature" and "New Thinking". He believed that Chinese literature should have a place in the world.

The experience of political conflict broadened his horizon in literature, therefore the theme of his later writing was mostly based on this. He then helped to found the League of Left-Wing Writers in 1930. After that, he worked together with Lu Xun to fight for the right of the society and the revolutionary movement in literature. The harvest period of Mao Dun's writing is considered to have been from 1927 to 1937.

Shi, the first actual novel written by Mao Dun, was composed of three volumes, Huanmie (1927), Dongyao (1928), and Zhuiqui (1928). It is the story of a generation of young intellectuals, who are caught up in the world of revolutionary fervor without a true understanding of the nature of social change. Mao Dun participated in Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition (1926-28) in an attempt to unite China, but this failed and he fled to Kuling, when the Kuomingtang dissolved relations with the Chinese Communist Party. In the 1930s he was one of the key founders of the League of Left-Wing Writers, which was dissolved in a quarrel in 1936.

Mao Dun's next major work was Hong (1929), which became famous for having no more no less than 70 main characters and numerous plot twists and turns. In 1933 came his next grand work, Midnight, which gained great popularity, to a point that it was also published in French and English, and it allowed to develop a sense of revolutionary realism. He left a work unfinished, the trilogy Shuangye Hongsi Eryhuea (1942). After the initiation of the Sino-Japanese War War in 1937, Mao traveled to many places and started a literary magazine in Wuhan. He edited the periodical Literary Front and the literary page of the newspaper Libao in Hong Kong and worked as a teacher. After 1943 Mao Dun did not produce any major works, but still wrote some articles and essays. In 1946 he visited the Soviet Union.

In 1927, he published his first novel, Disillusion . His most famous and important novel, Midnight, was published in 1933. It is a naturalistic novel exploring the commercial world of Shanghai in detail. In addition, his fiction offered a sympathetic portrayal of working-class life and praise of revolution.

When the People's Republic of China was established by the Communist Party of China in 1949, he became active on several committees and he worked as the Secretary and then the Minister of Culture for Mao Zedong until 1964. He started the monthly literary journal Chinese Literature, which became the most popular for western readers. He was dismissed from his position as minister in 1964 due to the ideological upheavals. Despite this fact, Mao Dun survived the Cultural Revolution and was afterwards rehabilitated. In the 1970s he became an editor of a children's magazine, and began working on his memoirs, which were serialized in the Party publication, the quarterly Xinwenxue Shiliao (Historical Materials on New Literature), but he died in March 27, 1981 before he could finish it. His influence on Chinese literature continues to the present day because he used his savings to set up a fund called the Mao Dun Literature Scholarship to promote an atmosphere for writing fiction.

Mao Dun's achievements in literature were also seen at his 50th birthday, which was also the 25th anniversary of his literary life. More than five hundred guests came to celebrate with him. Russian and American friends also joined the celebration. Wong Roufei wrote an essay as congratulations on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. Mao Dun's influence and achievements in the literary field were witnessed. On the other hand, he was twice elected as the chairman and then once elected as the vice-chairman of the China Literary Arts Representative Assembly. His status in the literary field has been highly recognized. Although he suffered great pain from illness in his old age, he still kept writing his memoirs, called The Road that I Walked.

Besides his achievements, Mao Dun also had great influence on Chinese literature. The Mao Dun Literature Prize was created due to Mao Dun's wish that outstanding novels should be encouraged and communist literature should be promoted. It is one of the most honorable literature awards in China. Many famous modern Chinese literary authors like Wei Wei and Zhou Ke-qin have received the prize.

List of works

Mao Dun has over 100 publications throughout his life,

which includes short stories, novels, theories etc. Some of his most famous works include:

Short Stories

Long-short stories




Drama script

QianMingQianHou [Front and rear Pure Brightness] (1945)



published later as a trilogy under the title Shih)

about the New Fourth Army Incident

Further reading on Mao Dun

Available in HKU FPS library.


External links

by Fan Jun

Mao Dun: Chinese Writer

July 23, 2006