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Beijing writers face a dilemma
(That's Beijing)
Updated: 2004-04-02 09:03

The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Imagine Emerson, if he were still alive, strolling down Wangfujing on a lazy Sunday afternoon and popping into the gargantuan Wangfujing Bookstore, one of Beijing's largest. He wanders the first floor, weaving amongst stacks of dictionaries, runs his hands over copies of Shanghai Baby (Shanghai baobei'er), and casts a puzzled eye upon the best-selling Shei Dongle Wode Nailao?, better known in the West as Who Moved My Cheese? He considers - and, being Emerson, dismisses - innumerable volumes promising instant success and personal wealth. He ventures the second floor, where children's books share space with 'cultural education' materials, or even the third floor - English teaching manuals. Being old, he probably doesn't make it to the fourth floor, and the modest shelves of China's modern literature.

Literature's dual roles as a society's bellwether and as a tool for change have been noted by many more than just the great Emerson - foreign media often look to the published word in their quest to pin down the elusive 'character' of modern China. What usually turns up these days is on the order of Shanghai Baby, Wei Hui's racy account of sex and fashion in China's front-running city, or Mian Mian's similarly themed Candy - works of dubious literary value, but which nevertheless reveal certain aspects of contemporary Chinese culture.

But surely there is more to modern literature than this. In the great chain that runs from Tang Dynasty poetry, Dream of the Red Mansions, Lu Xun, and the 'Scar Literature' movement of the 1980s, is the next link really to be Rock Stars I've Slept With? Where is the literature that, as Emerson might say, "affords us a platform whence we may command a view of our present China"?

If the world of words is coming up short, it is not a recent development. "Starting from around 1989, Chinese people's collective knowledge suffered a great blow," explains Zhang Qiang, a professor of Chinese literature at the Beijing Language and Culture University. "Before that time, writers played the role of spiritual guides to the people, going before them and pointing the way. After 1990, writers found themselves unable to satisfactorily capture political and social realities in their art. That period saw the beginning of a great change, as writers left the Mainland or gave up the craft of writing altogether."

Concurrent to this faltering among the literati came a precipitous and much decried decline in popular 'literary taste,' usually blamed on the sudden acknowledgement of economic growth and personal wealth as viable, even admirable, goals. "During that time, people were most concerned with immediate, obvious gain, and not with the 'improvement' of the nation or the people," says Professor Zhang, echoing a chorus of critical and scholarly complaint. "From 1992 until the present, the great mass of people has put literature to one side, often forgetting it altogether." Much is said about a 'nation of peasants' and the 'education of readers.'

Accusing readers of poor taste does seem easy given what's popular these days. Besides racy confessionals, popular books tend towards the practical. Though China doesn't have an official best-sellers list, things like the Trial Implementation of Communist Party Internal Regulations (required reading for most government bodies), dictionaries, computer textbooks and memoirs are all flying from the shelves. "What do you expect?" asks Professor Zhang. "There are so many problems these days - who has time to read? And the people whose lives are more comfortable - well, they just want to be entertained."

Blame should not rest entirely with readers. Writers, caught in the turmoil of a changing society, often have difficulty putting their finger on the new pulse. Consider Wang Shuo, one of the literary giants of the 80s, who professes to no longer have any opinions about literature, and whose recent publications have focused on debunking great painters; or Wang Meng, whose latest work, Qing Hu, while beautifully written, reads like an older author's awkward attempt to 'get in touch' with the newer generation. Writers in their 20s or early 30s have difficulty getting published, or find themselves writing for niche audiences. A recent media phenomenon features even younger writers - in their teens or early twenties - making headlines with books protesting their teachers' inflexibility, or detailing their love for rock music.

The traditional supports for Chinese writers - the Chinese Writers Association (Zhongguo Zuojia Xiehui) - and the vital connections that members were once assured, are weakening. Though the Association still awards literary prizes (the most important being the Maodun and the Luxun Prizes for Literature), it is seen more as a bureaucratic hassle than a support by most young writers. Asked about the Association, Professor Zhang flaps his hand dismissively, saying "Disband! Disband!" In this interim period between solid government support and a healthy, functioning market for literature, many writers of the day resort to the internet or word of mouth to get read, or simply don't publish.

Following are excerpts of talks with three Beijing writers on the subject of modern Chinese literature, the duties of a writer, and the future of the written word. They come from very different perspectives: Liang Xiaosheng is an older, very prolific writer who also holds some political posts, Bi Shumin belongs to a school of female writers who came to prominence in the 1980s and turned from writing about social issues to stories of a more personal nature, and Yin Lichuan talks about some of the difficulties, and opportunities, facing younger authors in China today.

The Stalwart

Liang Xiaosheng, one of Beijing's most prolific writers [file photo]
Liang Xiaosheng is one of Beijing's most prolific writers, having published steadily since the early 80s. He has written a great variety of material: novels, short stories, plays, television scripts and poetry. His better-known works include Snow City (Xue Cheng), Bitter Love (Ku Lian), and the television series Growth Rings (Nian Lun).

that's: Give us your impressions of modern Chinese literature.

LX: First of all, let me explain something. In the 18th and 19th centuries, much of Western literature was 'humanist literature.' Its subject was reality - it reflected the actual conditions of society at that time, and its aim was to provoke criticism and reform. This literature had a huge impact on those countries' societies. Later, I mean more or less the 20th century, literature changed, became a function of individual writers, and it began to address more personal issues such as love, happiness and human needs; it even brought in psychology.

China is different. The literature produced after 1949, and again following 1976, is political literature - very similar to literature in the West 200 years ago. People in the West may think, 'Chinese writers are always writing about society, why are they so behind? We did that 200 years ago.' But Chinese writers, my generation of writers, have to do this. That's the era we're in. We don't understand your Western literature - sitting around drinking coffee and talking about how bored you are - we're not like that.

There is a tear in China's 1.3 billion people. Some are getting rich, and beginning to live like Westerners - broader society can no longer truly affect them. They want to read western-style literature, amusing and diverting. Accordingly, a new group of writers has begun to write for them.

But there are a great many writers in China who still write this 'humanist literature.' I myself mostly write in this old style, but the problem is that while the majority of Chinese people still belong to this old society, not all that many of them read novels. To be honest, literature about society's ills is not written for the ones who suffer. It is written for the ones in the first group, to tell them what's going on beneath them, so they can do something about it. But they're the ones with money - they can read what they like. Fewer and fewer read those kinds of books.

that's: Can writers make the transition from the 'old' to the 'new' society, or will we have to wait for a new generation of writers?

LX: Of course a writer can't just set himself a course and never stray. I've written absurd novels (Fu Cheng, Floating City), and I'm working on something called Shangxin Jiuba (Broken-heart Bar), about middle-aged Chinese people. Middle-aged people always want to ask young people, 'what exactly is it that you want? What will satisfy you?' But middle-aged people, especially the wealthy ones, rarely ask themselves this question. So that's something a little different. But I don't think I'll ever completely change. I'll never write about what young people want. At this age, what right do I have to write about young people? I can't keep up with their feelings, and I don't need to. Neither do I think other writers have been very successful at going from writing about social problems to more modern issues. Look at Wang Meng's Qing Hu - young people think that's a historical novel. I think we'll have to wait for the new generation.

But on the other hand, the phenomenon of very young writers - middle school students, high school students - becoming extremely popular is not real literature. We have to distinguish between a publishing phenomenon and a literary phenomenon. These young writers are publishing hits - packaged and marketed. This isn't literature.

What China needs more than anything is imagination. I don't know why, but the Chinese people, including writers, lack imagination. We need to fix this problem.

The Poet

Yin Lichuan, a female young author first noticed for her literary criticism [file photo]
Yin Lichuan is a young author who was first noticed for her literary criticism, and has since published a great deal of short stories, essays and poetry. She was a member of the Lower Body poetry group, and much of her poetry can only be read online. Some of her more popular works include the novel Jianren and 37_8, a collection of essays.

that's: What do you like to read?

YL: I love classical literature, and ever since I was young I've liked Chinese literature from the 1920s and 30s, that period of upheaval. Language was changing from classical Chinese to baihua, foreign influences were entering and politics were changing. It was chaotic, and writers had to forge a new path if they were going to be successful. Writers were heavily steeped in traditional Chinese culture, but forced to address new problems, and new influences. Not like in the 1980s, when novels almost entirely imitated the Western style.

that's: What do you like to write?

YL: Poetry. I write stories, novels and essays, of course, but I think poetry is the most immediate, mostly because of its tight connection to language itself. Novels require society, social customs, history and environment. They require time, and this is difficult in China because modern Chinese cities only have about 20 years of history - hardly enough time to develop real customs and social conventions. But with poetry, you follow the language - and Chinese is such a beautiful language - and can write something immediate, like your emotional response to some scene, with no obstructions. I write poetry, and my friends write poetry, and we put it online. It would be nearly impossible to publish a book of poetry.

that's: Talk about the difficulties of getting read.

YL: We need a real market for literature. Although the market brings a lot of trash along with it, it is a necessary start. Readers need to be trained - to be taught what good literature is. The market is also a great way to develop readers' interest in good literature, in good Chinese literature.

On the other hand, if I'm not being read, that's probably because I'm not writing well enough. Good literature can be read by intellectuals, by peasants, by my parents. I want to be a people's artist, but I haven't reached that state yet - the things I write are only read by a small group. It's not like in America, where trends like black humor or a writer like Salinger can be widely appreciated. China isn't mature like that yet, and unusual writing will only be read within certain cliques. But if writing is truly excellent, it will be read by everyone, and it will slowly create its own market.

that's: How does Chinese literature appear in foreign eyes?

YL: A foreign journalist friend once told me that the Chinese book that had been translated most was Shanghai Baby. That's fine, I guess, but to use this book as a yardstick for other Chinese authors is unfair, and kind of laughable - it makes China look stupid. I think we Chinese understand the West far better than the West understands us.

What western media looks at isn't literature, but a social phenomenon. I wish they'd read the books first, and then talk about the books, not try to dig up what significance the books have for our society. Books mainly about sex... well, how much can one say about sex? And besides writing about sex, how much talent do these writers actually have?

The Physician

Bi Shumin, a physician-turned-writer [file photo]
In 1969 Bi Shumin was sent to Tibet as an army medic in the PLA and stayed there for 11 years. Her writing career began in 1987 with the publication of Death in Kunlun (Kunlun Shang), a fictional novella based on those experiences. She was a doctor for twenty years, acts as vice-chairman of the Beijing Writers Association, and opened a psychological clinic more than a year ago. She has written steadily all her life.

that's: Tell us something about the impulses behind your writing.

BSM: From the very beginning my nature has been to be interested in other people, to think of them as fascinating and mysterious, all with their own internal logic. The nature of writing is also to talk about people, about the connections between people and nature, people and the universe. Literature is the study of people.

But before I was a writer I was a doctor, and before that I was a medic in the army. When I was a high school student in Beijing, a little older than 16, I had to leave school and join the army. I was sent to northern Tibet, maybe because I was in good health, and our unit was stationed at a juncture between a group of mountains, at an elevation of 5,000 metres. To a 16-year-old girl, 35 years ago, it was an intense shock to be totally cut off from the world. It felt like Mars, like the earth had only recently solidified, without a scrap of human habitation. I stayed there for 11 years.

While I was there, Tibet's environment had a great influence on my future writing. At night you saw the stars - they were enormous. During the day you saw the endless wilderness and you thought 'for a thousand years, for ten thousand years, all this has been perfectly self-sufficient. A life of one hundred years is insignificant to these mountains.' I came away from this with the intense feeling that life is fleeting, and precious - not only my own, but other peoples'. After I returned to Beijing, I wanted to tell everyone what I had learned in Tibet, so I started writing. Although every one of my books is different, this is the one thing that doesn't change: the sense of solicitude for other people.

Now I run a psychological clinic, and in some ways the impulses that drove me to write are the same ones that brought me here: an interest in the workings of people's souls and a desire to help them. I try to encourage young people to cherish life, to have the same sense of purpose that living in Tibet gave me. I try, both through my work and my writing (Yuyue Siwang, Appointed Death) to overcome the Eastern taboo against talking about death, and to help people see it as a natural thing.

that's: What are your thoughts about recent changes in Chinese society and literature?

BSM: Real literature is not very highly appreciated these days; this is simply a reality. Considering China's present state, with its high-speed development, people are bound to pay more attention to practical things. I think part of it is readers' tastes, and the practical considerations of their lives, but another part is that modern Chinese literature - literature that can really shake people, that can grasp the essence of society, that can leave a truly deep impression - well, there's not much. But once a person's basic needs are satisfied, once their lives are stable, I believe that the appreciation for art will return.

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