Literary Encounters in Changsha
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
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
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.
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
"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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