Three Steps Back

One Saturday in October, several dozen of China's most outspoken men and women converged on an artists' colony in the mountains outside Beijing at a meeting of the unofficial Chinese branch of the global writers' association PEN International. The occasion: the awarding of a literary prize to author Zhang Yihe for her account of the traumatic anti-intellectual purges of the late 1950s. Such a gathering shows how far contemporary Chinese cultural life has come from the brutal days described in Zhang's book, when participants in similar events were sent to prison.

But last week, three of...

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