One would think—what with this year being the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare—that a treatment of the playwright in China would be inevitable. And so it has proved: Nancy Pellegrini’s The People’s Bard has just been released as the latest Penguin China Special.
While the communication of ideas across cultures is itself generally a good thing, it inevitably involves the transmission of both good and bad ideas.
Richard Jean So, an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, in his new book Transpacific Community, describes the development and evolution of a cultural, literary network between certain writers and activists in China and the United States beginning in the 1920s and continuing through World War II. It included on the American side, Agnes Smedley, Pearl Buck, and Paul Robeson, and on the Chinese side, Lin Yutang and Lao She. The network’s growth was fostered by what Jean So calls “a new era in media technologies and the rise of a ubiquitous discourse of ‘communications’”, which enabled literary and artistic works to be transmitted more readily between East and West.
Google vs. Baidu. Amazon vs. Taobao. Whatsapp vs. WeChat. And, most recently, Uber vs. Didi.
There is clearly a divide between China and the rest of the world when it comes to internet companies. Homegrown Chinese tech firms have fought off American challengers attempting to enter the Chinese market. Chinese firms have tried to expand their presence abroad. Alibaba had the largest IPO in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. Tencent is trying to market WeChat to non-Chinese consumers, and has invested significant stakes in Western video game companies, including an outright purchase of League of Legends’s developer Riot Games.
Jack Ma once described online shopping as a dessert in the United States, but the main course in China. That’s one of a set of key differences between developed-economy e-commerce and that of China, differences that escorted eBay out the Chinese door and kept Amazon as a minor player here, while the Alibaba Group has become the world’s largest retailer, the company with the largest IPO ever (US$25 billion in September 2014, though NTT DoCoMo’s 1998 IPO of $18.1 billion is about the same in current US dollar terms) and the nexus of around two-thirds of all parcels delivered in China. Writing for Harvard’s Working Knowledge in May 2014, Professors William Kirby and F Warren McFarlan assert that Alibaba “has done more for China’s small- and medium-sized enterprises than any government policy, ministry, or bank.”
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.
Reading and translating Taiwanese poet Ling Yu reminds me much of American writer, environmentalist, and activist Terry Tempest Williams’s wisdom: There is an art to writing, and it is not always disclosure. The act itself can be beautiful, revelatory, and private.
In my opinion, Ling Yu’s poetry contains the above qualities: perhaps aware of how several poets in her country and language are prone to cultivating celebrity fame and fan culture, or capitalizing on Facebook or Twitter to sustain their poetic careers and publicity, Ling Yu strives to create a Beckettian lyricism and silence—in life and her art. What results is a poetic voice that often does not need to be loud or echoey in order to assert its confidence, passion, and weight. On the contrary, it may be heard and felt through the imagery or ambiance it evokes, hence an overall Impressionist effect that comes across as distinctly moving yet oblique.
Well-researched and devastatingly beautiful, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an ambitious book that articulates the reverberating impact of totalitarianism in communist China, as well as the transforming power of friendship and humanity.