Literary Encounters in Changsha

Chinese Conversations

Authors in China, still remembering - if not haunted by - the Cultural Revolution seem to have adopted a rather cautious way of literary expression. Living with numerous ouside contacts, in the face of an unknown kind of "modernity", under the scrutiny of an attentive government and the ever-present menace of censorship, writing has become an intellectual survival course.

By Nicholas Martin

Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province in southern central China, is certainly not one of the world's major cultural spots. Far away from cultural centres like Beijing and Shanghai, far away too from the coast, it has only been opened to the outside world relatively recently. To a European it can easily appear a quite uneducated, unsophisticated place. That impression, whilst, post Cultural Revolution and post Maoist de-education, not completely wrong, is however deceptively simple, as a meeting with several writers and journalists from the provincial writers' association illustrated. The meeting had been organised for me by my good friend and interpreter Tang Meixiu. The writers in turn were all friends of a friend of hers. Such informal connections, relationships and friendship networks still form the backbone of Chinese society, and having access to such a guanxi (relationship) system often proves invaluable, as in this case.
The writers turned out to be Xiang Xu, a poet, essayist and columnist, Cao Jian Quan, a freelance writer, and Shali Zhang, a novelist and editor of a nurses' magazine. We had agreed to meet in the lounge of an upmarket business hotel, and soon we were all sipping tea and getting to know each other over literary small talk. It soon became clear however that they were not very keen on having our conversation recorded, as I had wanted to, hoping to turn it into an interview. Indeed, they rather preferred the idea of an informal chat to an ‘interview'. After all, we were strangers. Such reluctance to commit anything definitely to the record, at least not upon the first meeting, seems by no means uncommon in China, and my interpreter had hinted at the possibility earlier. This reluctance does not appear to spring from any concrete fear of surveillance and repression (all agreed that they did not feel much by way of government supervision and control, though they also seemed reluctant to venture any major political pronouncements). Rather it seems to spring from a general caution bred by 50 years of government control, censorship and repression (though all this is less acute than before and today one could hardly classify China as a totalitarian state), as well as from a cultural style generally more reserved than Europe's styles.

A nation without history

"What is your main impression of China?" was one of the first questions Xiang Xu asked me. "A nation without history", I answered, "at least that is one major impression. Take Changsha for instance. It is extremely difficult to find a house or a building older than 30 years, apart from a handful of heritage sites, and there seems to be a similar blank in people's minds. On the one hand, they are extraordinarily conscious of being ‘Chinese' – far more than people in Germany are of being ‘German' or ‘European' – and very aware of stemming from a quite ancient culture. But they do not seem to have much of a concept of what ‘Chineseness' actually means, or what defines their culture. Especially, there seems to be little discussion, or indeed interest, in the question of what a Chinese modernity could look like."
"I totally agree. This nation is like a young man who lives in a very beautiful, ancient house. But it has fallen into disrepair, the windows are broken, the roof leaks, and it is cold and unheated. So he sells part of it and tears the rest down to build a modern building, which is vulgar and ugly, but warm and in good repair. Only with time will he notice that the old house was in fact beautiful, and much of it worth preserving. But then it will be too late."

To Changsha's misfortune, Mr Xiang's simile is literally true, very true in fact when I think of the ugly, grayish-brown or dirty-white buildings that dominate the city. For the locals this spells progress, and one has to admit that this is very easy to criticise when sipping tea in the comfort of a four star hotel's lounge. When one actually has to live in the broken old house, it becomes another issue altogether.
"And is it too late already?" "For many things, yes."

Fleeing from the nightmare of history

But there are other reasons too for China's overriding focus on the economy at the expense of culture, apart from the desire for a higher standard of living. As Shali Zhang went on to explain, the market economy offers people an area in which they can work, create their life styles and earn money relatively free from interference by the government or the traditionally very hierarchical, authoritarian and restricitive society. Culture, by contrast, is a field in which the individual is much more liable to clash with social or political forces.
Another reason for China's almost blind focus on the economy is maybe the fact that the economy does not have a past. And in today's China, the past is still a place where people fear to tread, into which society prefers not to inquire too closely. One may not like what one finds. From the first purges in the early 1950s, by way of the Cultural Revolution to the Democracy Wall of the late 1970s, onwards to Tiananmen in 1989 an immense amount of wrong has been piled up. And looking back beyond Liberation in 1949, one finds only more of the same – bitter civil wars, a world war, coups and rebellions; betrayal and denunciation, violence and cruelty. Millions have died, and many millions more have suffered – or perpetrated. Perhaps China's passionate belief in the future and apolitical ‘development' is only comprehensible against the backdrop of these traumas, the unconcerned ignorance of my students about their country's deeper past only a veneer, concealing the nation's all too great awareness of the nightmares that lie behind, still only dormant.

Will they ask their parents?

To what extent have these traumas been discussed, especially, in how far has there been a discussion on responsibilities and guilt of the ‘small fish'; the neighbour who denounced, the hooligan red guard, I wanted to know, briefly outlining Germany's attempts to deal with its past.
"No, there has been very little discussion of it, and certainly no attempt to discuss individual responsibilities on a lower level. Too much might be remembered, and then people might not be able to control their grief and anger anymore," Tang Meixiu explained. Instead, one tries to lose one's history, disappears into the shifting forms of the vast jungle that is modern China, never to be seen again. Of course, as she explained in a similar discussion some weeks previously, it is different in the villages, where the people cannot move so easily. Here villain and victim may still be living door to door thirty years on, and old hates are passed down.
"I do not think that the next generation will question its parents as sharply as maybe occurred in Germany", Shali Zhang added, "that is not really a very Chinese thing."
The prevalent attitude is instead to let sleeping dogs lie, both for practical reasons (the dogs may be too fierce to handle), and more general cultural reasons. Reflections on guilt and sin have never been major traits of Chinese culture – one prefers to move on. Even the language is apparently not well equipped to discuss psychological issues. "Yes, definitely" Mrs Tang immediately confirmed, "our language is much less suited to such discussions. You see, China never really developed something like the highly psychological discourse on sin and guilt that Christianity in Europe did."

Into the Space Ship

But if culture is not a major concern of the Chinese public today, and the phenomenal public interest during the 1980s in also avantgardist literature is indeed gone, where does that leave China's literati?
"I write for myself, and for anyone who is interested. If the general public is not interested in my writing, well, that's tough for it. Amongst China's intellectuals and artists there certainly still is considerable interest in literature, and amongst all the arts, literature and writers are still the most respected", Cao Jian Quan responded, echoing a confucian legacy that still accords great respect to the scholar and writer. As his comments also show, the deeply elitist elements in this legacy are also by no means dead. This elitism is by no means uncommon amongst China's intellectuals, and there are more reasons for it then just tradition – the "pseudo-populism" (Jianying Zha) that China's leaders have exploited to degrade the intellectuals ("the workers and peasants are the best teachers of the intellectuals") is certainly one.
"I think we must distinguish between two types of literature; an ‘art for art's sake'-literature and a socially involved literature", Mr Shalin suggested, continuing, "at the moment it is certainly true that China's writers have very much retreated into the ivory tower, away from society and social involvement." This seems to be both a reaction to blatant disinterest in their work on part of the ‘average Chinese', and to the fact that writing a too socially involved literature can still be a risky occupation. The risks are not necessarily government persecution (though this of course happens as well). I remember what a friend had told me about another writer from Changsha, Wang Yuewen, who wrote the novel Guo Hua a couple of years back. In it he portrayed very explicitly the corruption in the city's administration. Whilst he has not suffered any official persecution as a consequence (and the novel has not been banned), it has made him an outcast, and a man treated generally with suspicion. In a society in which so much still depends on friendships and connections, such a loss of favour can create a multitude of problems.
They did not appear to be overly concerned about the current withdrawal. "I think the retreat into the ivory tower is not necessarily a bad thing. It can grant a degree of reflection and contemplation that may make it possible to strike to the heart of the truly human, and examine it more closely", ventured Cao Jian Quan. My contention that the whole business of literature could then conceivably also take place in a space ship left the three relatively unperturbed. "Yes, conceivably", Mr Cao agreed.
However, also space ships need fuel, which in this case means money. If the public is not interested in serious literature and marketisation has left publishers without state subsidies, but with a need to now publish books that actually make money, then where does that leave the writers? "Well, these days we all have to do extra work to earn money, you cannot be only a writer and hope to feed yourself", Mr Shali explained the new situation succinctly.
"Maybe in the future things will be different," ventured Xiang Xu, who had remained largely silent during this discussion, "I think this retreat into the ivory tower is essentially a transitory affair, a response to lacking public interest. But that will change as the population becomes more educated, and that will also help finance writing. Maybe, in the future, with a greater public appreciation of literature, a truly profound realist literature, in the tradition of the great Russian realists, will become possible."

17. April 2002

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