Zhao Dan, 66, China's most famous film actor who was a leader in the battle for cultural freedom in China, died of cancer Friday, two days after his deathbed attack on Communist censors was published in the party organ, People's Daily.
Zhao Dan had been a fixture in China's stage and screen since the late 1930s when he costarred with Mao Tse-tung's wife-to-be Jiang Qing in Ibsen's "A Doll's House." In 1966 the vindictive Madame Jiang ordered him to solitary confinement for five and one half years, apparently because his acting career eclipsed hers early on.
He returned from imprisonment in poor health and had not performed since then. However, he wrote two books and directed one play and was preparing to resume filming when it was diagnosed last summer that he had cancer of the pancreas.
On Wednesday People's Daily published an article Zhao dictated "on my sickbed" in a continuing series of famous artists' commentaries on China's evolving policy toward art and literature. There has been bitter controversy among the intelligentsia this year over the Chinese Communist Party's continuing defense of the Maoist dictum that art must serve the party.
Zhao, an accomplished painter as well as an actor, was especially bitter toward the Gang of Four. His outspoken views on party interference in cultural affairs and their publication in the intellectuals' series in People's Daily suggest that for the moment at least the party has decided its direct control over creative art must go in the name of modernization. For China that could be, if sustained, a remarkable turnabout.
Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng, never considered a patron of the arts, made an unannounced visit to the actor's bedside the day before he died.
"It is perfectly right for the party to have leadership over the working out of the policies on national economy, agriculture and industry. In the case of literature and art it is absolutely unnecessary for the party to exercise its leadership," Zhao wrote. "Is it necessary for the party to show people how to farm, how to build a stool, how to sew a pair of trousers or cook dinner? It is the same with writing an article or performing a play. Leave literature and art to the writers and artists," he said.
"No country in the world," Zhao went on, "employs so many nonprofessionals to keep an eye on the professionals. I really think that they would have contributed more to the country if assigned to something else."
Zhao, was a versatile player, at home in Shakespeare as well films. In China his best-known movies were "Sweet Angels" and "Crossroad." He was most recently seen in the United States in the precultural-revolution film "The Opium War" in which he played a patriotic nobleman who held off the British invaders of Canton in 1842 until personally undone by imperial court machinations back in Peking.
He was twice married. His first wife divorced him during an earlier period of imprisonment by a warlord in northwest China where he went during the war against Japan. His second wife was an actress and author. He is survived by his wife, the children of both marriages and two children he adopted.