Li Tuo 李陀

Li Tuo 李陀 is a cultural critic and editor who rose to fame as part of the ‘Culture Fever’ 文化热 in the 1980s, a term that covers the diverse range of academic, artistic, literary and publishing enterprises that defined intellectual life in that decade.

Born into a rural Hohhot family in Inner Mongolia in 1939, at the age of nine Li Tuo went to Beijing with his family, where his mother worked as a servant for a high-ranking Communist official family. A biographical account states that the family adored the young boy, treated him well and sent him to a primary school attended exclusively by children of top officials. Li was in the same class as Zeng Qinghong, the influential Politburo member and close ally of Jiang Zemin who served as China’s Vice-President from 2003 to 2008.

After graduating from the prestigious 101 Middle School next to the ruins of the Garden of Perfect Brightness in 1958, Li went to work at a heavy machinery factory where he spent the next two decades. During this time, he wrote stories and hoped to pursue a literary career. His first work was published in 1975. In 1979, he was admitted to the Chinese Writers’ Association, thereby becoming an officially recognized writer. The same year, he co-authored with the film director and his then wife, Zhang Nuanxin (张暖忻, 1940-1995) a widely-discussed article, ‘On Modernizing the Language of Film’  谈电影语言的现代化. By the early 1980s, Li had established his reputation as a literary critic and prize-winning fiction writer. At this time, he gave up writing fiction and turned to literary criticism. He became a prominent and outspoken figure in the literary world that was growing alongside and in competition with the Party-state cultural apparatus.

His admirers speak of Li Tuo’s charismatic personality and his dedication to mentoring the work of emerging writers. This image of the generous maestro is a familiar archetype in Chinese intellectual culture, inspired by prominent thinkers and writers of the May Fourth era  (roughly 1917-1927), most notably Lu Xun. In the 1980s, Li’s home was a regular gathering place for literary aspirants, several of whom later achieved fame as writers, including Yu Hua 余华 and Su Tong 苏童. During his tenure as Deputy Chief Editor of the influential journal Beijing Literature (1986-1989), he published innovative writing, for which the journal enjoyed an avant-garde reputation in the 1980s. He also edited a number of anthologies to showcase leading literary currents of this post-Mao period: ‘root-seeking’ literature (中国寻根小说选), experimental literature (中国实验小说选), and the new realism (中国新写实小说选).

His demeanour and style were not, however, always appreciated. More unruly members of the rambunctious literary sphere of the 1980s lambasted Li for his obsession with discovering and claiming a unique appreciation of new talents; some mockingly called him ‘Grand Master Tuo’ 陀爷. The literary firebrand and later dissident Liu Xiaobo pilloried imperious new cultural authorities in the following terms:

The famous in China are much taken with acting as benefactors of others who caress and suckle the unknown. They use a type of tenderness which is almost feminine to possess, co-opt, and finally asphyxiate you. This is one of the peculiarities of Chinese culture… . Some people have the talent to excel, but shying from the dangers of going it alone, they instead seek out a discoverer (Bo Le 伯乐). They look for support, for security, so they can sleep easy; lunging into the bosom of some grand authority or other, and doze off in their warm embrace.

During the tumultuous year of 1989 Li was among the intellectual shock-troops in favour of radical change; he did not stay around to face the consequences of the feverish agitation that so many intellectuals had encouraged. Following his discrete departure for the US, Hao Ran (1932-2008), the Party writer who enjoyed unrivaled fame during the latter years of the Cultural Revolution, was appointed Chief Editor of Beijing Literature. The journal’s subscriptions fell sharply.

Li lived in the US for the next five years. During this time, he produced numerous essays, expressing his increasing ambivalence about the country, its culture, its values, democracy and ‘the West’ in general. He professed admiration for the American way of life but was at pains to point out that the prosperity required to sustain it came through exploiting Third World countries and environmental degradation. In one article, for instance, he wrote that his love of well-trimmed American lawns turned to disillusion when he learned about the quantities of pesticide required to maintain them (not to mention the labour of non-legal immigrants to keep them manicured; see 现代文明背后的野蛮, 天涯, 2007).

For his limited understanding of North America, Li is recognised by many as an astute observer of Chinese intellectual life. He made his first trip back to China in 1994, and has divided his time between China and the US thereafter, being one of many intellectual zealots who critique the West while enjoying the privileges bestowed by a Green Card.

As a critic, he is best known for his essays on Maospeak, Mao wenti 毛文体, a term he coined in 1989 (the term ‘Maospeak’ or Maoyu 毛语, was previously used by Geremie Barmé in a series of conversations with Chinese intellectuals in 1987). He attracted controversy when he examined the influence of Maospeak on the ideas and language of eminent Chinese writers. (On the limitations of ‘Maospeak’ as a concept, see Geremie R. Barmé, ‘New China Newspeak‘ in the China Story Lexicon on this site). Li’s 1993 article, ‘Ding Ling is Not So Easy: the complex role of intellectuals and their discursive behaviour under Maoism’ 丁玲不简单——毛体制下知识分子在话语生成中的复杂角色 (今天, 1993.3) generated considerable debate. Of Ding Ling (1904-1986), one of China’s best known woman writers and an intellectual luminary who suffered twenty-five years of harsh treatment under Mao, Li wrote that she had so thoroughly absorbed Maospeak that it infected the way she thought and spoke.

This article was re-published in Yesterday’s Stories 昨天的故事 (Oxford, 2006), an anthology of writings by Li  and other writers that had first appeared in the 1990s in the highly regarded magazine Today 今天. Li was a regular contributor to the magazine’s ‘Rewriting Literary History’ column. Li also co-edited, with the poet Bei Dao, The 70s 七十年代 (Oxford 2008, Sanlian Joint Publishing, 2009), a book of interviews in which cultural figures who achieved fame and success in the 1980s, the first decade of Reform-era China, looked back on their formative influences in the 1970s. In 2000, Li co-founded Horizons 视界, a journal seen as a vehicle for ‘New Left’ ideas. Li’s own writings reflect the critical views published in the journal of a world despoiled by ‘late capitalism’. He has also continued to write on Chinese literary history and the politics of language use in China. As Geremie Barmé has remarked, ‘Like many intellectuals of the globalised New Left, Li too is adroit at navigating the authoritarian Party-state system of the mainland while achieving a measure of intellectual kudos among fellow travellers in international academia.’

Li Tuo is currently a research scholar at the East Asian Languages Cultures Department at Columbia University. His wife Lydia H. Liu is Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at the same university.

Additional links

  • Liu Kunya 刘琨亚, Shenzhen Evening News 深圳晚报, 李陀:只做批评家, 25 November 2006.
  • Beijing Youth Daily 北京青年报, 李陀:种种现实 一种目光, 29 July 2009 – In this interview Li Tuo comments on China’s media culture: the net, TV, film, and literature.
  • Horizons 视界