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Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung

Chairman Mao's Talk to Music Workers

24 August 1956

[This is Chairman Mao's talk to responsible cadres of the National Association of Music Workers and some other comrades.
Source: Long Live Mao Zedong Thought, a Red Guard Publication, 1967]

The art of all the nations of the world is similar with respect to fundamental principles, but different with respect to form and style. The art of the various socialist countries each has socialism as its content, but each has its own national character. They have both similarities and differences, common features and individual characteristics. This is a natural law. All things are like this, no matter whether they belong to nature, society, or to the realm of the intellect. Take the leaves of a tree: at first sight they all look much the same, but when you examine them closely, each one is different; to find two absolutely identical leaves is impossible.

Class struggle, social revolution, the transition from capitalism to socialism have the same fundamental principles in all countries. But when it comes to some of the minor principles and manifestations which are dependent on the major principles, then each country is different. The October Revolution and the Chinese Revolution are like this. With respect to fundamental principles the two revolutions are similar, but with respect to the form in which these principles were manifested, the two revolutions have many differences. For example, in Russia the revolution developed from the cities to the countryside, while in our country it developed from the countryside to the cities. This is one of the many differences between the two revolutions.

The art of the various nations of the world each has its own peculiar national form and national style. Some people do not understand this point. They reject their own national characteristics and blindly worship the West, thinking that the West is better in every respect. They even go so far as to advocate 'complete Westernization'. This is wrong. 'Complete Westernization' is impracticable; it will not be accepted by the common people of China. The arts and the natural sciences differ in this respect. For example, removing the appendix and taking aspirin have no national form. This is not the case with the arts: with them the question of national form does arise. This is because art is the manifestation of people's lives, thoughts and emotions, and it bears a very close relationship to a nation's customs and language. Historically the artistic heritage has grown up within the framework of the nation.

Chinese art, Chinese music, painting, drama, song and dance, and literature have each had their own historical development. In rejecting Chinese things, the people who advocate complete Westernization say that Chinese things do not have their own laws, and so they are unwilling to study or develop them. This is adopting an attitude of national nihilism towards Chinese art.

Every nation in the world has its own history and its own strengths and weaknesses. Since earliest times excellent things and rotten things have mingled together and accumulated over long periods. To sort them out and distinguish the essence from the dregs is a very difficult task, but we must not reject history because of this difficulty. It is no good cutting ourselves off from history and abandoning our heritage. The common people would not approve.

Of course this by no means implies that we do not need to learn from foreign countries. We must learn many things from foreign countries and master them. We must especially master fundamental theory. Some people advocate 'Chinese learning as the substance, Western learning for practical application'. Is this idea right or wrong? It is wrong. The word 'Learning' in fact refers to fundamental theory. Fundamental theory should be the same in China as in foreign countries. There should be no distinction between Chinese and Western things in fundamental theory.

Marxism is a fundamental theory which was produced in the West. How then can we make a distinction between what is Chinese and what is Western in this respect? Are we to refuse to accept Marxism? The practice of the Chinese revolution proves that not to accept Marxism would be bad for us. It would be unreasonable not to accept it. In the past the Second International attempted to deny and revise the fundamental theories of Marxism and put forward some arguments for this, but they were completely refuted by Lenin. Marxism is a general truth which has universal application. We must accept it. But this general truth must be combined with the concrete practice of each nation's revolution. It was only because the Chinese people accepted Marxism and combined it with the practice of the Chinese revolution that they won victory in the Chinese revolution.

We learn foreign things because we want to study and develop Chinese things. In this respect natural and social science are similar. We must master all the good things from foreign countries and then apply them and, in the process, develop them. In the field of natural science we must do our own independent creative work, and use modern scientific knowledge and methods from abroad to sort out China's scientific heritage, until we can form our own schools of thought. Take, for example, Western medical science and other related modern sciences such as physiology, pathology, biochemistry, bacteriology and anatomy. Can you say we do not want to study them? We must study all these modern sciences. But some of those who have studied Western medicine should also study Chinese medicine, and use their modern scientific knowledge and method to put in order and study our ancient Chinese medical methods and materials. They should also combine Chinese and Western medicine and pharmacy to create new unified Chinese medical and pharmaceutical sciences.

If this applies to natural and social science, how much the more should it apply to the arts. We must learn from foreign countries and absorb the good things from foreign countries, but when we have learnt them we must use them to study and develop the arts of the various peoples of China, otherwise our work will benefit nobody. Our aim in studying foreign arts, studying their fundamental theories and techniques, is to create a new socialist art of the various peoples of China, which will possess its own individual national forms and styles.

We must acknowledge that in respect of modern culture the standards of the West are higher than ours. We have fallen behind. Is this the case in respect of art? In art we have our strengths and also our weaknesses. We must be good at absorbing the good things from foreign countries in order to make good our own shortcomings. If we stick to our old ways and do not study foreign literature, do not introduce it into China; if we do not know how to listen to foreign music or how to play it, this is not good. We must not be like the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi [1] who blindly rejected all foreign things. Blindly rejecting foreign things is like blindly worshipping them. Both are incorrect and harmful.

In learning from foreign countries we must oppose both conservatism and dogmatism. We have already suffered politically from dogmatism. Everything we copied from abroad was adopted rigidly, and this ended in a great defeat, with the Party organizations in the white areas losing one hundred per cent of their strength and the revolutionary bases and the Red Army losing ninety per cent of their strength, and the victory of the revolution being delayed for many years. [2] The reason is that there were some comrades who did not take reality as their starting-point, but dogmatism. They did not combine the fundamental theory of Marxism-Leninism with the concrete practice of the Chinese revolution. If we had not rejected this kind of dogmatism the Chinese revolution would not have won today's victory.

In the field of the arts we should also learn this lesson and take good care not to let dogmatism get the better of us. To study foreign things does not mean importing everything, lock, stock and barrel. We must accept things critically. We learn from the ancients in order to benefit the people of today, and we learn from foreigners in order to benefit the people of China

We must learn good things from foreign countries and also learn good things from China. Half bottles of vinegar are no good: we must change two half bottles into two whole bottles.[3] We must master both Chinese and foreign things and combine them into an organic whole. Lu Hsün did this. He was very well versed in both Chinese and foreign works, but his brilliance was not primarily in his translations but rather in his creative work. His creative work was akin neither to foreign things nor to old-style Chinese things, but it is still Chinese. We should study Lu Hsün's spirit, master both Chinese and foreign things, absorb the good points of Chinese and foreign art, fuse them together and create a new art with a characteristic national form and style.

Of course it is not easy to make a successful combination of Chinese and foreign things. It is a process which takes time. There are some Chinese things into which it is possible to blend foreign things. For example, in writing novels, the language, characters and background must be Chinese, but they need not be written in the Chinese 'instalment' form.[4] You can produce some things which are neither Chinese nor Western. If what comes out is neither a donkey nor a horse but a mule, that would be not bad at all. When two things combine, their form is changed. It is not possible for them to remain completely unchanged. Chinese things will change. Politically, economically and culturally, the face of China is undergoing big changes. But however much they change, Chinese things will always have their own characteristics. Foreign things also change. After the October Revolution, the face of the world underwent a fundamental change. After the Second World War this change developed in a new direction. We must give our attention to the critical acceptance of foreign things, and especially to the introduction of things from the socialist world and from the progressive people of the capitalist world.

In short, art must have independent creative qualities; it must be distinctly imbued with the character of the times and also with the national character. China's art must not look more and more to the past, nor must it become more and more Westernized. It must increasingly reflect the characteristics of the times and of the nation. In trying to achieve this we should not shun experimentation. Especially in a country such as China, with a long history and a large population, it is even more necessary to carry out such experimentation as will serve the needs of the various nationalities the better. We do not want complete uniformity. Uniformity leads to writing to formulae.[5] No matter whether they are foreign or local formulae, both are lifeless and are not welcomed by the common people of China.

We have here the question of the treatment of bourgeois intellectuals who have received a Western education. If we do not tackle this question properly, it will have an adverse effect not only on art, but also on the whole revolutionary cause. The Chinese national bourgeoisie and its intellectuals consist of a few million people. Although their numbers are not great, they possess modern culture. We must unite with them, educate them and remould them. The comprador class has its own culture, which is a slave culture. The landlord class also has its culture -- feudal culture. The Chinese workers and peasants, owing to their having been oppressed for a long time, still do not have much cultural knowledge. Until the tasks of the cultural and technical revolutions have been completed, the bourgeois intellectuals have comparatively more knowledge and skill. Provided our policy is correct and we educate and remould them, we can get them to serve the cause of socialism. Can we educate and remould them? We can. Many of the people here present were bourgeois intellectuals in the past who have crossed over from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat, so why should not they too cross over? In fact there are already many who have crossed over. We must not fail to unite with them, educate them and remould them. Only if we do this will they be of benefit to the revolutionary cause of the working class, to the socialist revolution, and to socialist construction.

You who are here present are all musicians. In studying Western music you have many important responsibilities. The ordering and development of Chinese music must depend on you who study Western-style music, just as the ordering and development of Chinese medicine depends on Western-style doctors. The Western things which you study are useful, but you should master both Western and Chinese things, and should not 'completely Westernize'. You should devote attention to Chinese things, do your utmost to study and develop them, with the aim of creating our own Chinese things with characteristic national form and style. If you grasp this basic policy your work will have a great future.


1. In 1898, the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi (1835-1908) resumed control of the administration, which she had relinquished to her nephew the Kuang Hsü Emperor in 1889, and crushed the 'Reform Movement'; she encouraged the Boxers in their attacks on foreigners.

2. This passage refers primarily to the defeats suffered by the Chinese Communists in 1933-4, which ultimately led them to abandon their bases in Kiangsi and neighbouring provinces and embark on the Long March. Mao blamed these reverses on the faulty tactics imposed by the Moscow-trained 'Returned Student Faction' in the Chinese Communist Party, and on the Comintern military adviser Otto Braun (Li Te), and their failure to take account of differences between Chinese and Soviet conditions. Lurking in the background is, of course, the memory of the bloody catastrophe to which policies dictated by Stalin had led in 1927.

3. There is a Chinese proverb: 'A half bottle of vinegar shakes; a full bottle does not .' Here, Mao is obviously using this metaphor to indicate that what China needs is a true synthesis of Chinese and European elements, not simply the juxtaposition of disparate ideas and styles.

4. Traditional Chinese novels, such as Water Margin, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or the Dream of the Red Chamber (translated by David Hawkes under the title The Story of the Stone, Penguin, 1973), grew out of the story-teller's art. The chapters therefore tend to be broken at a high point in the action, and to conclude with some such sentence as: 'If you want to know how the hero got out of this fix, read (or listen to) the next instalment.'

5. Literally, to writing eight-legged essays. This highly artificial, stilted form in which candidates in the imperial examinations were obliged to cast their compositions from the fifteenth century onwards, has become a metaphor for pedantry and formalism in general. For Mao's most extensive attack on this vice, see his speech of 8 February 1942, 'Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing', in Selected Works (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1961-5), Vol. III, pp. 53-68.

Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung