Op-Ed Contributors

Writers need more social conscience

By Wolfgang Kubin (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-09 07:23
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What I often hear or read in German-speaking countries about contemporary Chinese writers amounts to contempt. Though poets like Zhai Yongming, Ouyang Jianghe, Wang Xiaoni, Wang Jiaxin and Xi Chuan, may be the exceptions.

I have never read deeper condemnation of a Chinese writer than that of Gao Xingjian in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, first in 2000 and then last year. But, I have to confess, I'd prefer dying to writing Soul Mountain and winning the Nobel Prize for Literature for it, as the novel is a real shame.

What makes contemporary Chinese writers in general, suspicious in the eyes of German intellectuals, writers and scholars is that they do not seem to fulfill the duties of a true author.

From a German perspective, a writer has to be the servant of the language and sacrifice everything in its service. He/she has to forget about the market and success, and live only for his/her work. In fact, his/her achievements may be recognized only after his/her death. A true writer has to accept this.

Many Chinese writers today write a kind of "baby Chinese", which does not demand even a foreigner to use a dictionary. They squint at the market and entrench themselves behind walls, protected by guards. As part of the middle class, they do not live among the common people any more, and cannot, or prefer not to, speak about social problems.

What many Chinese writers lack today is the feeling of solidarity, which is actually is a socialist virtue. It has been lost among today's Chinese writers. Instead of helping their colleagues in distress, they prefer to blame them, or worse, praise themselves. Never was Cao Pi's saying more true than today: Those who are in literature despise each other.

Today's Chinese writers also lack a sense of responsibility for the fate of foreign literature in China. Any important German author since Goethe until now has been a translator and/or a go-between for foreign literature. For instance, it was the novelist Hans Christoph Buch who introduced Lu Xun in 1973 to a broader audience in Germany, so that the father of modern Chinese literature could slowly develop his great impact upon contemporary German literature. Since many Chinese writers do not know any foreign language well, they, in most cases, do not translate, nor do they introduce foreign literature to China.

True, translation is not only hard work, but also a time-consuming exercise. As a poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer, I nevertheless feel the urge to translate Chinese works, old or new. That is why I spend about 45 minutes a day on my own literary works, and dedicate the rest of the day to translating, teaching and researching Chinese literature and philosophy. I think it my duty.

In this respect, the late poet Zhang Zao, whom I published in book form (1999), is a warning for me. This multi-talented young man with a rich knowledge of foreign languages, including German, and superb Chinese, did almost nothing to promote German literature in China. He preferred, like many of his colleagues, to "enjoy life". I hope he becomes a deterrent to all.

For many reasons, contemporary Chinese literature is a real problem. Many best-selling Chinese authors are, from a German perspective, outdated. Their books may sell well even in Germany, but their readers do not include German intellectuals, writers or scholars, but people who are not interested in literature per se but in their descriptions of sex and crime.

As Chinese writers in most cases don't have command of a foreign language, they cannot read foreign writers in the original. That is why they cannot understand their own position vis--vis writers in other languages in world literature, which in the international market may be quite good, but which in the long history of world literature will vanish without trace.

That is why I think Wang Meng and Chen Xiaoming, during and after last year's Frankfurt Book Fair, were not right in saying that there was never a better time for Chinese literature than now.

The author is a Sinologist and professor at the University of Bonn.

(China Daily 10/09/2010 page5)