Hope was Lost and Found | Sophie Xi

A Generation

The night has given me dark eyes

But I use them to look for light

– Gu Cheng, Mao’s Harvest

I have always been fascinated by this short yet concise poem as stated above. When I first read it in middle school, I felt perplexed by its deep connotations. How come, in the poet’s perspective, the night gives him dark eyes? Why does he use them to search for light? With a lack of understanding on the historical context, I found it somehow difficult to delve into the essential meaning contained in this poem.


Fortunately, my exploration on this poem wasn’t terminated after my childhood frustration. This week, when I was reading the book Mao’s Harvest, a compilation of literary writings published by authors of the Mao generation, I found the poem again, in the first section of this book. As my past two weeks of research on Communist ideology has benefited me to better understand the historical framework, I can empathize with Gu Cheng’s feelings now. Therefore, in this week’s blog, I am going to examine the disparity between two generations in Post-Mao era and scrutinize the changes in mentality under the framework of a coercive government.

First, let’s start by reading Gu Gong’s writing The Two Generations, his response to the “not understanding” poems of his child, Gu Cheng. Gu Gong was a member of the Communist party and an army poet. In his most famous poem, If Life Launched an Attack at You (This is not the official English translation of this poem because I couldn’t find it online), he suggested that despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that constantly appeared in our lives, we need to maintain a positive attitude because eventually people will convene and hold hands together. Given the cheerful and illustrious poems he heard when he fought in battles, Gu Gong’s poems were also imbued with soaring enthusiasm and energy. Before 1970s, writers were forbidden to publish criticisms against the government because they were expected to report only the glories of socialism (Siu and Stern, xxxviii). So ingrained had this thought been instilled in the minds of the older generation that Gu Gong was initially upset when he noticed the pessimistic undertone in his son’s poems.

Who is moving in the distance?

It is the clock’s pendulum,

Hired by the god of death

To measure life…

– Gu Cheng, Mao’s Harvest

Gu Gong was enraged when he read these lines because he couldn’t tolerate ugliness being depicted in poems. Along with many other writers who practiced “wounds” and “exposure” literature, Gu Cheng believed that poems should portray the “true self” of each individual. He pointed out that in the writings under Mao’s control, individuals lost the freedom of forming their identities as they were all characterized as interchangeable components of a giant machinery – “a pebble used to build roads,” “a gear valve,” or “a screw” (Siu and Stern, 13).

In the 1970s, the future for those who survived through Mao’s reign was obscure because a majority of the young generation didn’t have technical skills and professional training in the wake of Cultural Revolution. Some of the sent-down youth returned home from countryside, but couldn’t relocate themselves in the city any more.  Physically, they strived to make a living; mentally, they had to endure a sudden “faith vacuum” – they didn’t see any improvement in their society. In Pan Xiao’s Why Is Life’s Road Getting Narrower and Narrower?, the narrator confessed her state of confusion and skepticism towards Communism, which appealed to the “lost generation” in China (Siu and Stern, 4). When Mao was alive, he made several promises to his people and his country. People venerated him, viewing his statements as sacred as biblical texts and advocating the spread of the Little Red Book; however, after Mao’s death and the downfall of Gang of Four, the exposure of governmental corruption and economic blunders made the Mao’s generation feel betrayed. Consequently, Mao’s failed attempt at fulfilling his promise created chaos and led more people lost faith, not only towards the regime, but also with regards to their lives.


The emergence of new realism literature provided a shelter for those who aimlessly wander in the tides of humanity. This new form of writing gave an outlet for writers to let their voices heard. After this week’s study, I acquire a better understanding on Gu Cheng’s poem A Generation. Although his generation, without an equal access to education and a freedom of speech, had been strictly constrained in various aspects, Gu Cheng noticed the people’s resilience in the course of history. Despite the darkness in political system, they arduously seek to find light and to resolve difficulties. Writers of the new literature revealed the tragic stories happened to common people. Distinct from the articles published under Mao’s censorship, these writings might not instantly generate a sense of positivity, but if you look at them carefully, you can still discern their wishful waiting for a better future, such as this excerpt from Gu Cheng’s poem:

My voice is covered with

Glacial scars,

Only the line of my gaze,

Is free to stretch.

– Gu Cheng, Mao’s Harvest

In a nutshell, this week’s research leads me to explore characteristics of those who survived Mao’s era. The writings, essays, and poems that I have read over the past week have inspired me to write a fictional short story as my final project. I want to illustrate the struggles of two families, one in Eastern Europe and the other in China, as I believe through literature, I can more accurately depict the people’s perspectives on viewing the Communist system. .

Works Cited

Siu, Helen F., and Zelda Stern. Mao’s Harvest: Voices from China’s New Generation. N.p.: Oxford UP, 1983. Print.


All copyrights reserved to the author, Sophie Xi. 🙂

4 thoughts on “Hope was Lost and Found | Sophie Xi

  1. Max D.

    I think it would be interesting to link new-liberalism literature with the student protest in 1989. How does literature around that time reflect the cause of the protest? Since the event itself is still a taboo in China, why do you think that is?

    1. Sophie Xi Post author

      Many would argue that at the 1980s, there was an increase in restrictions imposed upon the individualism and freedom. Deng Xiaoping declared that democratic activity was a disrupting force against the country. New Realism literature, unfortunately, lasted only from 1979 to 1981.
      A great wise man (my middle school mandarin teacher) told me that reforms in literature usually sparked after a series of disasters, at a time when people could reflect on the past and ponder about the future. Admittedly, censorship in China is still unshakeable; however, literature in the 1970s encouraged writers to think about how to express voices under the framework of socialism, a tendency you might notice in the works of some modern-day artists, such as Mo Yan and Ai Weiwei.

  2. yanwenxu

    It’s very interesting to see a new picture of China’s communism from your blog. Both of my grandparents were born in the era when Mao and communism were the absolute right, so I can see some of their characteristics in your blog entry. And I think it will be great if you can incorporate some live stories from older generation and how they think about Mao and communism.


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