Writers of all stripes tend to dislike discussing their formative years and experiences. Getting to grips with the job of translating one’s understanding of a subject into something publishable tends to be painful enough, without then raking over the process in retrospect. This can lead to a sense, however, that somehow writers arrive fully-formed, with a gift for observation and understanding which requires little practice or refinement. This feeling can be particularly acute in regard to those who write on China, the “university in which no degree is ever granted”, to adapt Stanley Karnow’s phrase, where the gulf between ignorance and understanding often appears so vast.
A few years ago, President Xi Jinping gave a speech which offered his views on the role art should play in Chinese life.
How does one quantify something as ephemeral as faith? We have become familiar with accounts of China which predicate their analysis on statistics—hard numbers seeming one of the few means of offering an objective view of the scale and complexity of the country. And certainly when it comes to faith in modern China the numbers are striking: 300 million people, or thereabouts, now consider themselves a follower of a faith of some kind—almost a quarter of the country.
One need look no further than Britain’s impending departure from the European Union for an example of how once apparently dormant elements of a nation’s self-image can be reawakened. An abiding historical sense of aloofness and suspicion of Europe, which seemed to have been quelled by the forces of globalisation in recent decades, has emerged in the last year with renewed vigour. Evident also in the appeal of Trump to persistent American notions of exceptionalism, the flattening of specific cultural characteristics engendered by globalisation seems not to have greatly shifted the fundamentals of how these countries view both themselves and the outside world.
Richard Kirkby’s China memoir Intruder in Mao’s Realm has a hint of the nineteenth century about it: frank and scrupulous in recording quotidian detail, it is a refreshingly unrefined book, in the manner of those accounts returned by Victorian missionaries and travellers after visits to unknown lands.
Integral to the misguided conception of China as unknowably complex is the sheer scale of its history. While historians of the United States, for example, need to cultivate a knowledge base which extends back a few centuries or so, scholars of Chinese history must contend with a national story of anything between three thousand and five thousand years, depending on what you consider “China” to be. Either way, the terrain of Chinese history seems deeply forbidding to the non-specialist, who is left asking the question: how much of China’s history do I need to know in order to understand the country today?
In the author’s preface to Flock of Brown Birds, Ge Fei writes of his response to those who have told him that they do not understand the work: “I don’t blame you. I’m not sure I understand it either.”
Straightforward comprehension is, however, far from the point in this slight novella. Self-consciously inspired by the work of Borges and Kafka, Flock of Blown Birds functions to some extent as obscure allegory, but most closely resembles a dream in its circular logic and narrative inconsistencies.