‘The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you. China’s future belongs to you.’
Excerpted from The Paper Republic Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature. Republished with permission. Available in print and e-book, this guide features detailed biographical entries covering almost 100 of the most important writers working in the Chinese language today, from Anni Baby to Zhang Yueran, by way of Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan, complemented by in-depth essays.
Mao’s slogan was still ringing in my ears as I entered the university in September 1993 for the first time. I was barely 20, but I had the ears of an 80 year old. I guess not only me. In those days, many young people could recite those lines, even if they were self-styled punk youth.
In the same week, I was reading a translation of Sylvia Plath’s poetry. I was captivated by passages such as: ‘Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell. I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.’ And then another poem titled ‘Daddy’: ‘Every woman adores a Fascist, The boot in the face, the brute.’
It felt to me that however loud and important Mao’s speech was supposed to be, these lines sounded much louder. Exceedingly loud and shockingly private. But at the same time, they were incredibly quiet. This poetry was quiet because it was private. It would never ever be broadcast in our schoolyard with its loud speakers blasting in every direction. Dying is an art, like everything else. Sure, I understood that. But – ‘I do it exceptionally well’ – I was not sure what Plath meant. Then the less obscure lines ‘Every woman adores a Fascist…’, I could see that very well. It was clear. Wasn’t it? I loved that kind of literature. So I told myself: if I could write that kind of poetry, a private and personal one, the opposite of Mao’s, I would be pleased. I would feel that I managed to achieve something unique, even with a boot in my face.
I had had some naïve belief that an interesting writer should also be a Lebenskünstler, a life artist.
So in the following years, with the sounds of Beijing’s most intense period of urban construction continuously rumbling around me, I wrote one novel after another in a similar manner—quiet and private. First was Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, then Village of Stone. Since I was allergic to a certain post-revolutionary language, I wrote my books in the borrowed styles of Western authors: Plath, Joyce, Calvino, Borges, Woolf, Beckett, and Duras. Always in the first person voice, monologues, no history, no plots, no traditional beginning or ending. At the same time, I was looking around, searching for a familiar language that I could naturally connect to. Then I discovered two Chinese writers: Liu Suola and Chen Ran. They were Beijing-based, both were in their 30s and wonderfully attractive to my young eyes. Their style (defined as avant-garde in the 1990s) was the most direct influence on my early writing.
I had had some naïve belief that an interesting writer should also be a Lebenskünstler, a life artist. Liu Suola was a Renaissance woman who fitted my idea of a modern artist. She was a composer and musician, a graduate of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Since the 1980s, she has never stopped writing novels and performing her music on stage. Liu’s novels are a verbal symphony of impressive staccato and scherzo movements. Her debut novel You Have No Choice, is about young musicians in an art academy and how they confront a traditional collective society. After I read the novel, I suddenly became aware that I was ‘an individual’ with a different identity from others, especially from older generations. Of course I had that awareness from reading Duras and Salinger. But Western voices seem to be rooted in individuality and singularity. It was difficult to turn their voices into mine. But Liu Suola’s prose resonated with my reality as a young artist in the 1990s. I was studying at the Beijing Film Academy and dreamt of becoming a new Eisenstein or a female Godard. Alone and away from my home province, I was surrounded by underground artists, including the soon-to-be world-renowned filmmakers of the Sixth Generation. I saw how my classmate Jia Zhangke made his first short film before he conquered the Cannes Film Festival, and I collaborated on a screenplay with Wang Xiaoshuai before he won awards at Cannes and the Berlin Film Festival. One thing was for sure: you had to learn to shout or scream with big lungs in a society like that. All of Liu Suola’s novels were loud individual statements, yet delicate and risky, for that sort of voice could be easily muffled by the state censorship of the time.
Even though the trauma of the Cultural Revolution seemed to have been deflected by economic forces in the 1990s and early 2000s, any stylistic voices about private lives were still viewed as ‘negative’ by patriarchal critical establishments in China. If your preference (such as mine) was to read interior, private narratives, you often had to go back to the pre-Mao era. To Eileen Chang and Lu Xun, and earlier still, to the folklores and dramas of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, or the love poetry of the Tang and Song Dynasties. But in 1996, in one of the Sanlitun cafés, I read Chen Ran’s Private Life. I was immediately taken with her prose. She wrote nothing grand or serious, but every sentence revealed a naked honesty and a unique femininity. Her self-reflective manner and seemingly very quiet world suggested a true modernity to me. To encounter her work was so inspirational for me. I had been stuck in the mud of translated Western work, or repetitive Chinese family sagas from state writers. How many sweeping family sagas could I take, I asked myself? One is enough, ten is suffocating. Chen Ran’s work suggested a beautiful quietness and interiority which I could only encounter in the works of Duras or Calvino. And in real life, in Beijing at the time, the concept of ‘cool’ replaced the word ‘modern’ for performance artists and newly emerging punk rock musicians. Writers seemed to be the last group to be cool, at least from a superficial glance. But just look at the author’s photo published on the back of Chen Ran’s novels, that was definitely what ‘cool’ was meant to be. In the headshot, she had an alluring expression. One side of her hair was shaved up above her ear, the other side long and soft. She was a real punk (in a mysterious manner, the opposite of Liu Suola’s style). But just like Liu, in my eyes, Chen was an embodiment of artistic cool. I thought to myself then: wouldn’t it be great if I could write and live like that? To lead a private and artistic life, away from ideology.
But how should Westerners read contemporary Chinese literature? Where to start?
By the time my own novels were published in the late 1990s, I confronted similar critiques to those that Chen Ran and Liu Suola had faced. The mainstream critics, especially the male academics, accused me of narcissism (zilian) and anti-socialness (zibi). These negative views were also directed towards writers such as Mian Mian and Wei Hui, two women writers based in Shanghai who had caused a sensation with their narratives about drugs and sex. I wondered, if we were considered narcissistic and anti-social, what would they make of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Woolf and indeed, Plath? Do we need to change society in order to alter the opinions of the powerful literary pundits? Are we supposed to believe that reflecting on a personal life is mere exhibitionism? Even worse, should we still surrender to the idea put so forcefully by the character of the commissar Strelnikov in Doctor Zhivago: ‘The personal life is dead in Russia, history has killed it.’ So was that it? There was no resurrection of personal life in the most populated country in the world?
Even if history had killed the personal life, writers like Bei Dao, Yang Lian, Yu Hua, Zhu Wen, Wang Anyi, Hong Ying, Alai, and so on have managed to recover personal lives from the ashes of collective memory. So have artists from other media, such as cinema, visual art, music , etc. It was during that period of complex social changes that I became immersed in the works of Wang Shuo, Tie Ning, Su Tong and Chi Zijian, and revisited older generation authors such as Mo Yan, Wang Meng, Jia Pingwa, Liu Heng, and Yan Lianke. Obviously, sweeping historical gestures are more pronounced in the novels of older generation authors. Their narratives rooted in the tradition of agricultural life directly reflect the trauma of the Mao era. Some of these works have been successfully adapted into epic films that reached international film festivals. Films based on novels like Mo Yan’s Red Sorgum, Ah Cheng’s King of Children, Li Bihua’s Farewell My Concubine, Yu Hua’s To Live, Bai Xianyong’s Taipei People, and many more. As a result, they effectively promoted Chinese literature to the Western world.
I still have a problem with calling a writer a novelist. ‘Novelist’ suggests a certain limitation imposed by the current consumer-driven publishing industry.
But how should Westerners read contemporary Chinese literature? Where to start? What are the most accessible forms? Before I came to the West, I never considered ‘the novel’ – a medium book-sized 300 page narrative paperback – as a central literary form. I felt that the standard novel format has been a sort of commodity, an industrial mainstream product. The forms I was used to (perhaps this is even more the case for older generations) were short stories, essays, and poems. Very often, you could grab some newspaper or magazine in the street and read a beautiful essay in a column by a well-known author. But that sort of spontaneous prose had disappeared. Looking back into the past, there were many wonderful texts written in that manner. Lu Xun is a perfect example. His essays are masterpieces of the last century. They are short and concise, each is like the punch of a fist, but the blow is softened by reflective memory. His short stories such as A Madman’s Diary and The True Story of Ah Q were powerful antidotes to social ills. They were short, originally published in newspapers and magazines, and were not aimed at garnering literary prizes or status. Such forms, once a vital part of street life and public discourse, can now appear in the virtual domain of the iPhone and the internet (though its objectivity needs to be questioned).
I still have a problem with calling a writer a novelist. ‘Novelist’ suggests a certain limitation imposed by the current consumer-driven publishing industry. Some of my favourite Chinese writers were at the same time intellectuals and filmmakers. Zhu Wen is a great example. His short stories have a distinctive satirical style just like his independently-produced underground films. Since the 1980s, novelists and sociologists such as Wang Xiaobo and Li Yinghe initiated a strong social debate about gender and sexualities in China. Poet and filmmaker Yin Lichuan, blogger Murong Xuexun, writer Fang Fang and so on belong to the era when literature has become embedded in social media and other forms of expression subject to state approval. Indeed, every writer is, or should be, a poet, a social commentator and a public intellectual. These are essential to the nature of writing and being an author and cannot be ignored when we talk about contemporary Chinese literature.
So far we have been looking at the recent past. But I would like to use this introduction also to anticipate future trends. To really grasp all that’s going on in contemporary Chinese literature we need a new lexicon. We are living in the time of multilingualism and mass migration. The idea of ‘national literature’ gives us a picture of writing confined to islands, a cultural essence that is fixed, tribal, and immobile. With multilingual and transnational identities having become state-of-the-art with the new generation, we cannot continue this kind of lazy labelling. We have to ask ourselves in what sense there is Chinese Literature rather than a literature of a multitude of voices variously engaged with China. Being inclusive is always wiser than being exclusive. If we do pay attention to writers from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, and indeed, from overseas, migrant as well as the exiled writers, then we can release ourselves from the imprisoning concept of ‘national literature’ and its false identity. This in turn allows us to introduce readers to a much wider and diverse literary territory. After all, reading is about encountering and engaging with the other. Through diverse reading, we are able to uncover the hidden memories of Chinese labourers immersed in the sugar cane fields of Cuba or in the goldmines of Ghana. We meet Ha Jin in Boston and Gao Xingjian in Paris. And we should also be joyful that these writers are not satisfied with delivering China-only subjects. Shan Sa lives in France and writes in French, her topics range from the 1989 Tiananmen Movement to European history; Ma Jian lives in Britain and writes about China in all sorts of real and surreal ways, yet he is a monolingual writer in a traditional sense. The same goes for Liao Yiwu. Liao is exiled in Germany but offers some of the most honest and painful accounts of Chinese society. Then there are those international voices with Chinese roots, who bear double identities linguistically and culturally, such as Amy Tan and Qiu Xiaolong, Jung Chang and Yan Geling. Not to mention the forthcoming generation of new Chinese writers, the ones I have taught in Columbia University and the City University of New York. Some of these Chinese students even write in their third language, and their stories have amazed me. To me, the ‘outcast’ writers who are manifestly Chinese but refuse to be defined by a single language and nationality can offer us very exciting literary dialogues. These outsiders’ transnational qualities truly bridge the still deep chasm between the East and West.
For the same reasons, I believe translators and transnational writers are crucial to building dialogue between divided worlds. One of my favourite lines from Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot is: ‘For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice.’ Obviously, T. S. Eliot speaks much more clearly than I do about the ever-changing character of literary identities. I am therefore borrowing T. S. Eliot to express my deep gratitude to the translators who have devoted their time and energy in bringing Chinese literature to the world, and in particular, the translators and editors of this book, The Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature. I believe that its scope will expand each year as our horizon expands, allowing us to wonder at the discovery of the unknown.