How China’s 1942 Yan’an Forum Inspired the Culture of National Liberation in the Third World

Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research releases a new dossier on the legacy of the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art eight decades later.

On 2 May 1942, hundreds of China’s top writers, artists, and communist leaders gathered to discuss the most urgent cultural questions of the time. Dossier no. 52, Go to Yan’an! Culture and National Liberation, explores the history and enduring legacy of the three-week forum as well as the text that Mao Zedong published the following year summarising the fruit that it bore, entitled Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art. Why did tens of thousands of artists and writers make the long journey to the remote city of Yan’an, what were the intellectual debates of the time, and how did the cultural developments help bring the Chinese people and nation to revolution?

Talks is perhaps one of the most important systematisations emerging from the Third World on the role of art and culture and its theory, practice, mistakes, and lessons. It can be read as an exploration of Marxist aesthetics in the national liberation tradition, a proposal for socialist cultural policy, a manual for cadres carrying out cultural tasks, and a piece of literary theory or literature itself. Eight decades have passed since Mao gave his lectures on literature and art. What relevance does the Yan’an spirit hold today, especially for artists, writers, and intellectuals who seek to serve people’s struggles?

Don’t miss our latest dossier, Go to Yan’an: Culture and National Liberation.

The Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art (1942) called on intellectuals to serve the people, with the development of mass culture that ensured that peasants’ subjectivity was at the centre of China’s Revolution. … The story of Yan’an is not just a China story; it belongs to the Third World, to twentieth century history, to the socialist movement, and to all the poor people in the world.

– Lu Xinyu, professor at East China Normal University

Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research is an international, movement-driven institution that carries out empirically based research guided by political movements. It seeks to bridge gaps in knowledge about the political economy and social hierarchy to facilitate the work of political movements and engage in the ‘battle of ideas’ to fight against bourgeois ideology, which has swept through intellectual institutions from the academy to the media.

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Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian and journalist. Prashad is the author of twenty-five books, including The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. Read other articles by Vijay, or visit Vijay's website.