One 3,000 years and 2 lots of 30 years Han Dong Trans. Nicky Harman



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One 3,000 years and 2 lots of 30 years
Han Dong

Trans. Nicky Harman
Thank you all for coming to my talk today.
When Chinese literature is mentioned, most people think of China’s long history. Chinese literature certainly has a long tradition, one which can be traced back about 3,000 years, in fact. But today I’m going to talk not about 3,000 years, but about two periods of 30 years. These 60 years make a very short tradition, but this ‘mini-tradition’ has had a far more direct and profound impact on Chinese literature today than the 3,000 years which preceded it.

The first 30 years ran from 1949 to 1979, that is, starting with Mao Zedong and finishing with Deng Xiaoping. In those days, there was only one kind of literature – one which served politics. Any piece of writing at odds with the official ideology was criticized or banned, and regarded as flouting the law. The smallest slip-up on the part of the author and he or she would be ousted from the Writers Association, and sent to prison or to a Reform through Labour camp. Authors like this became outcasts - the victims of the anti-Rightist campaign of the 1950s, are one example. The vigilance of Party functionaries and the whims and fancies of certain leaders meant that there were no fixed rules even for writers who were willing to toe the Party line. Writing was a dangerous business. You were required to court disaster, but you had no idea when or where or why it would strike. The dictatorship of the proletariat was the sword of Damocles suspended over the heads of authors. No one knew when it would fall, but fall it would, and blood would be shed. Such was the fate of authors whose works were published. Well then, could you just write and not try and get published? No way. Someone would be sure to report you, and very likely it would be your sleeping partner, your wife, husband or children, or a friend you’d known for years. There was a crime then known as counter-revolutionary thinking. It not only meant that you couldn’t write things down; if you even had an unorthodox thought in your head and you were fingered, you could end up with a prison sentence. It was an age when you did not dare reveal anything about yourself even in your private diary: literature was chopped off at the root and became just another object.


The most extreme point was reached during the Cultural Revolution. The population of China then was 800 million – ‘800 million people, one author’ as we used to say. This was no exaggeration: there really was just the one living author whose works were permitted publication. There was one dead one too, Lu Xun, whose works were approved by Party leaders. His were the only classics permitted publication. Lu Xun died before 1949. It’s widely believed (and obviously true) that, had he lived on, he would have ended up in hell not heaven. During the Cultural Revolution, anything considered feudal, capitalist or revisionist was prohibited and destroyed. That 3,000-year-old literary tradition fell into the category ‘feudal’. ‘Capitalism’ meant western capitalism, and ‘revisionism’, the ideology of the former Soviet Union. Before the Cultural Revolution, and especially in the 1950s, Russian literature had been practically the only foreign writing which Chinese authors had access to, but after the break between the two countries, Soviet literature was regarded as unsafe and was gradually banned.
Let me digress for a moment. This year is the 200th anniversary of the great scientist Charles Darwin. I believe he enrolled at Edinburgh University when he was 16 years old to study medicine. Leaving that aside, I want to tell you about a news story I recently read which has a bearing on Darwin’s theory of evolution: in 1971, some Italian scientists released five pairs of geckos onto an islet in the South Adriatic Sea. 30 years later they went back and were astonished to discover that they had undergone the type of genetic change that in other animals would have taken a million years. In three decades, these little 6-inch long chappies had developed a completely new digestive system, a bigger head and a more forceful bite.
What I am getting at is that we should not underestimate what can happen in the space of 30 years. If geckos, shut away in an inhospitable environment, can change into a new kind of animal in three decades, then so can Chinese literature. In the 30 years from 1949-79, 3,000 years of literary tradition simply evaporated, turning literature into something completely different. Its practitioners faced external political pressures – and internalised them to the extent that they were transformed into an inner need and self-discipline. It was all part and parcel of an adaptive process without which writers who were, after all, essentially adaptive creatures of biology, could not have survived. This 30-year evolution of a 'new digestive system' in Chinese writers is one part of this literary ‘mini-tradition’ and we have to take it into account, pitiful though it is.
Imagine if a Chinese author were to stand here today and present themselves as heir to that 3,000-year tradition. You shouldn’t believe a word they say. If they’re 60 this year, that tradition was dead by the time they were born. If they’re 80 this year, it was dead by the time they were 20, but you can believe some of what they say. If they’re 100 years old – well, then you can believe everything they say. Except that at 100, I doubt they’d have the strength to come and blether on the way I’m doing here today.
Luckily, we are now in the second 30-year period – from 1979 to today, 2009.

From the end of the 1970s and throughout the 80s, as China opened up to the outside world, there was an accompanying liberation in people’s thinking. In the literary domain, an enormous numbers of books by Western authors flooded into China in translation. A new generation of writers fell on them and devoured them, overcome with feelings of ravenous hunger and in a rush of heady excitement. Inevitably, the choice of books to translate and read was made unsystematically and indiscriminately – different periods, regions, languages and types of writing were all lumped in together. Anything Western must be good – the very fact that it was from the West was a mark of its worth, in other words ‘The foreign moon was rounder than the Chinese moon…’. Any overseas writer fortunate enough to visit China in those days was unconditionally praised, fawned on, even worshipped. It was rare for anyone to express doubts or reservations or offer a dissenting opinion. The same Chinese writer would accord the same value and stature to two Western writers who had a completely different outlook and style. Chinese literature was a soup, Western writers were just the nutrients to be stirred into it. 1980s writing was filled with enthusiasm and excitement, forming an eclectic, crude mixture. There was a mad rush to write new experiences down, but there was little real desire to examine the underlying ideas and writing techniques, or find new ways to deal with reality. New writing was short on substance; instead authors got carried away with a bizarre array of writing styles. Still, it was an amazing time to live through. I miss the atmosphere of the literary world of the 1980s even though I don’t rate its achievements very highly. We were living a fantasy, and not a very glorious one either.


One thing I do want to comment on is the genesis of the unofficial publication Today, edited by the poet, Bei Dao. Today was enormously significant, especially when you consider that even now publications by private individuals are still in principle illegal. The inaugural issue appeared exactly 30 years ago this year – in 1979 – and was the first in a series of what the poet Xi Chuan has called the ‘small journals’. In the decade following the first issue of Today, unofficial journals published by groups of like-minded individuals really took off and became the normal outlet for poetry, in particular. In Xi Chuan’s opinion, the experience of writers who have had their work published in these ‘small journals’ is quite different from those who have not. This is not just because they provided a space for free expression – they also marked out their writers as people who set themselves apart from official literature. You might get your writing published in the official, state-controlled presses and go to work at the Writers Association, but you were not one of them. You were an independent spirit, you did not have to depend on official favour. This tradition of ‘small journals’ has now spread to the internet, where poets have set up their own websites and chat rooms. The question of how significant the internet has been for freedom of expression and the independence of writers in China is a separate one which I am not going to go into here, except to say that access to the internet has become so pervasive that the system no longer exercises the tight, or hallowed, controls over writing that it used to. Incidentally, mainstream literary criticism and research based in universities has ignored both the ‘small journals’ and internet publishing. The former are not mentioned at all, while internet publishing is treated as a fad. I believe that there are ulterior motives behind this.
In the 1990s, almost every aspect of Chinese society underwent a radical shake-up as the process of what we call 'marketisation' intensified. Literature was no exception to this trend. The writing environment has been completely transformed. As the novelist Zhu Wen put it, China may not be the world’s poorest country any more, but the Chinese are definitely the people who are driven craziest by poverty. I couldn’t agree more. But there is a difference between the two - poverty is a lack of material goods, whereas being driven crazy by poverty is a state of mind, greed. This pursuit of riches has become the new Chinese world view, the new dream. In my opinion, greed has become the motive force for material modernisation, and not only in China. In the West too, we have the spectacle of civilisation being built on greed. The difference is that China is still at the stage of primitive accumulation, and this cupidity is especially naked, unadorned and untamed. Literature has largely been abandoned by Chinese readers, because it is of no practical use. Guides to making money, playing the stock market, dealing in real estate, business management, social skills and so on top the list now, followed by books on health, collecting antiques, feel-good books - ‘chicken soup for the soul’ - and memoirs of famous people. Anything of a practical nature. Once when I was in the airport, I saw a crowd of people gawping at a TV screen where an academic was giving a talk on the Daoist philosopher Lao Zi. He asked his listeners: Do you want to get rich? Of course you do. What do you do if you haven’t any capital? Shall I tell you a very simple way? Make friends with someone wealthy!’ I really don’t remember that Lao Zi had any such ideas. But nowadays, even Lao Zi has to sell himself to get heard, and even an academic needs to ‘sell’ Lao Zi in this way to make money!
There’s something else happening too: the literary world is fragmenting in the face of huge pressures. Some writers are just following market trends and turning out best-sellers which satisfies the readers’ needs for emotional release or a quick stimulus. Most of the readers are young people, and the books are not only written badly, they’re vulgar – written for shock-value. Other authors write for the Party-controlled ‘system’. That way they get the right to be heard. With official backing, they do well in market terms too…It’s all pretty similar to other forms of official corruption. China is unique in the power and legitimacy of officially-approved literature, which carries on the tradition of the first 30-year period, 1949-79, although there have been some changes in tactics and the latitude allowed to such writing. The market for literature is exactly like any other kind of market – unsound and utterly corrupt, and you can’t treat this as a purely market phenomenon. But however harmful the marketisation of literature has been, it has a positive aspect too: only the market is powerful enough to stand up to the system. Every aspect of China today is full of paradoxes, and literature is no different. On the one hand, the system conspires with the market to the detriment of idealism in writing. But on the other, these two forces hold each other in check. A rift has developed between them, giving independent writers space to eke out an existence. Putting it simply, the fiercest attacks on the market do not come from independent authors. Instead they come from within the political system, because there is a power struggle between the system and the market. Almost all the system’s rising stars are also the rising stars of the market though the reverse does not necessarily apply. There’s no denying that in this power struggle, the system has the upper hand – its power is decisive.

I haven’t time here to go further into the points I have raised. What I do want to say is that the hope for Chinese literature can only lie with the small number of authors who work away quietly on their own – even if they are almost unknown. The second 30-year period is now over and – I’ll say it again – don’t underestimate what 30 years can do. It’s long enough for you to develop a new digestive system! Chinese authors now have access to information, means of communication, stores of knowledge and real-life experience, all benefits we have enjoyed during 30 years of reforms, 1979-2009 – and we have open access to our 3,000 year-old tradition too. We can’t retreat from reality any longer. In terms of the drama of life and themes for our work, this period beats any other. The responsibility falls on each one of us as an individual to make use of all this in our own writing. The recent pronouncement by the German sinologist, Wolfgang Kubin, that ‘contemporary Chinese literature is rubbish’, had the Chinese literary world up in arms. Not a single one of the literary big shots has admitted to having any responsibility for contemporary literature. I would, if I was speaking on behalf of Chinese writers. Disgrace or glory, we all have to take responsibility. That’s the only way we can see hope for the future.


Once again, thank you for coming to listen to me today!

27-04-2009 Edinburgh University, Scotland


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