Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000, first got into trouble with the Chinese authorities in 1981, when he published A Preliminary Discussion of the Art of Modern Fiction. He was put under surveillance, and the process began which was to end in the banning of his work and his exile from China. The offensive thing about Gao’s book was that he advocated the influence of modernist techniques on contemporary fiction. Chinese writing under communism has, by decree, had a heavily social-realist and propagandistic bias; modernist ideas were until very recently seen as decadent, corrupt, and inherently capitalistic.
The Western novelist, secure in what Jonathan Franzen got in trouble for calling “the high art tradition,” can feel a twinge of envy on hearing about the condition of the novel in Chinese—not about the state persecution, and certainly not about the fact that the state so readily bans books, but about the sense of precariousness and energizing danger surrounding the whole question of fictional aesthetics. Over here, the only precarious and energizing issues seem to be the size of the advance, the details of the launch, and occasionally the author photo. But where we in the West may think of the modern literary novel as a sedate form, prone to self-regard, in China it is an edgy young genre, riding the cusp of sociocultural change and on the look-out for trouble.
As for the precise nature of the trouble, well—it varies. For some months now, the hot topic in Chinese literary circles has been the rumpus around K, the eleventh book by the youngish (b. 1962) writer Hong Ying, whose earlier works include the novel Summer of Betrayal and the memoir Daughter of the River. The impact of her new book began with its title, which is the same in Chinese as it is in English; that is to say, the title in Chinese is the English letter K. Since Chinese has no equivalent for English letters, this title has the impact not just of being in a foreign language, but of being unpronounceable and incomprehensible—as strange to the mind and eye as it would be to publish an American novel with a Chinese character as its title. When we add to this the novel’s explicit and lengthy descriptions of sex, which by Chinese standards are super-lengthy and super-explicit, and the fact that the novel is based on real people, it is clear that we have here a kind of avant-garde trifecta, combining experimental gestures, sex, and the glamour of fact.
K takes place in China in 1935–1936. The novel tells the story of a love affair between Julian Bell (Virginia Woolf’s nephew, formerly Anthony Blunt’s lover, a teacher at Wuhan University, and subsequently a heroic casualty of the Spanish Civil War) and a Chinese woman writer called Cheng Lin. The title comes from Bell’s real-life habit of referring to his girlfriends by letters of the alphabet; K is K because she was his eleventh lover. In the novel, Cheng Lin, “K,” is the wife of Bell’s boss in the Wuhan English department, Professor Cheng; she is editor of the Wuhan Daily Literary Supplement; and she is, thanks to her studies of a secret manuscript belonging to her father, an adept in the lost, legendary, astonishing mysteries of the Daoist Art of Love—a sort of Chinese Kama Sutra, only more so. Her husband is impotent, so when she and Bell fall for each other, she sets out to give him and the Art a thorough workout.
This is all described at length, with pauses while we are filled in on how Julian’s lectures are progressing (“He invoked the new critical concept ‘stream of consciousness,’ but this only had the effect of confusing them further”), with many a sideways nod toward Bloomsbury and English literary culture. (“He did not want to hang around the hotel any longer, and remembered that friends in London had suggested he go and see Sir Harold Acton, who was teaching at Beijing University. So, armed with Acton’s address he set forth.”) Bell pays a visit to the front lines of the Chinese Civil War, posing as a war correspondent, and contemplates writing a novel with the “self-mocking title” Hamlet in China; the affair drifts toward disaster, as we know it must.
Hong Ying has written a lively, light book, not without its moments of inadvertent comedy but nonetheless interesting in its portrayal of liberal Chinese intellectual life before the multiple catastrophes of war with Japan, civil war, Communist revolution, and Cultural Revolution. None of this sounds too shocking—but the book has been in big trouble, caused by that combination of sex and the label “based on a true story.” K was first published in Taipei in 2001. It was eagerly latched onto in China, both in pirated editions and in the form of extracts in Writer magazine and Sichuan Youth Daily. Last year, however, Chen Xiaoying, a Chinese woman resident in London, launched a lawsuit against Hong Ying, who also lives in London, claiming that the “unbearably pornographic” book had caused her “spiritual damage” by libeling her late parents, the Kuomintang cultural official Chen Xiying and the poet Ling Shuhua—the models, she said, for Professor and Mrs. Cheng. The lawsuit was brought in China because it is only there that the dead can be libeled: the legal protection lasts for three generations after death and according to Hong Ying, “everybody in China understands that it is designed to protect the reputation of the leading figures of the Chinese Revolution.”
This law, obviously, has ruinous implications for the writing of fiction and history in China; if there is one thing that Chinese intellectual life did not need, it was a new way for books to be banned. The case was heard in June last year, and the verdict was handed down on December 3: Hong Ying was found guilty of “defaming the dead,” told to pay a 124,000-yuan ($15,000) fine, and ordered to apologize in the Chinese press (at her own expense). Hong Ying’s opinion is that the ban means “a return to a chaotic, conservative, and totalitarian state.” It’s hard to disagree. A lawsuit heard in Manchuria, between two people who live in London, over a novel published in Taiwan, giving a fictionalized version of events which happened three quarters of a century ago between people all of whom are dead—welcome to the world of the twenty-first-century Chinese literary novel.
By comparison with this new form of legal suppression—effectively, a type of privatized censorship—Gao Xingjian got into difficulties with the Chinese state in the old-fashioned way, by having ideas they didn’t like. His already mentioned interest in modernism, which is what started the trouble, is one crucial source for the energies on which he draws in his two novels—his “two great novels,” according to the Swedish Academy—Soul Mountain (1990, translated into English in 2000) and One Man’s Bible (which was published in Chinese in 1999). Another reason for the force of these books is the fact that the novel is not highly regarded in the hierarchy of classical Chinese literature. The ranking genres are poetry, philosophy, history, chronicle, biography, and the world’s broadest and most inclusive tradition of belles lettres—memoir, travel writing, nature observations, general reflections. From this perspective, the novel is a younger, brasher form, with a glamorous whiff of disreputability.
The impact of Gao Xingjian’s first novel, Soul Mountain, came from the way that it took all the different kinds of writing in the Chinese tradition and fitted them into a single book. It is an autobiographical novel which describes a journey taken around South and Southwestern China (basically, around Sichuan) by a narrator who is divided up into multiple protagonists, the principal ones being “you” and “I” and “she.” The voices are all reflections of one consciousness, a self which has fragmented under the impact of loneliness—in other words, “I” makes up “you” to have someone to talk to, and then “As I listen to myself and you, I let you create a she, because you are like me and also cannot bear the loneliness and have to find a partner for your conversation.”
This may not make the Western reader’s pulse quicken: for us, such experiments are not news. What makes Soul Mountain work, however, is that it is at least as interested in the world as it is in itself. The multiple-self experiments are subjugated to the prime concern of the book, which is to get in as much of China as it can. Gao’s travels took place over ten months, and were undertaken after he had been diagnosed as having lung cancer (the disease that killed his father) and then told that the diagnosis was a mistake. At the same time he came under ferocious attack during the campaign to “oppose spiritual pollution.” (His 1983 play Bus Stop was described as “the most pernicious work since the foundation of the People’s Republic.”) These events are barely sketched in the novel, but they give the book an impetus, an atmosphere of relief and new beginning: the narrator is glad to be alive, glad to be out of Beijing, glad to be traveling.
The novel is bursting with voices and stories and legends and information: bandits and shamans and wild men, doomed lovers, Daoist masters, Buddhist mendicants, sexual fantasies, encounters with traditional singers and village cadres, and a group of bored, listless soldiers whose job is radar-tracking giant pandas. (“There was a journalist who kept going on about the giant panda being as cute as a pet cat and got into the enclosure to have his photo taken with his arms around one they’d caught in the ranger station at the foot of the mountain. He got his genitals torn off and was immediately driven to Chengdu, fighting for his life.”) In Mabel Lee’s translation the writing is inevitably flat—literary Chinese being perhaps the hardest language in the world to render into English—but the sheer interest of the different experiences in Soul Mountain, its human fullness, gives it life.
When a book sets out to get it all in, however, we inevitably wonder what has been left out. Soul Mountain is full of rural China, myths and stories and journeying, but it leaves us wondering about urban China, about politics, about contemporary Chinese history, and about the life of the narrator himself. The answers come in One Man’s Bible, which is about all those things, and which was written after a radical change in Gao’s life: in 1987 he left China to attend a conference in West Germany, and did not return. He settled in Paris, and began supporting himself as a painter. As his work became known in the West, through exhibitions and translations and productions of his plays, Gao began to travel and to lead the life of a participant in conferences; it is this life which is the backdrop to One Man’s Bible, which he wrote in Paris between 1996 and 1998. The book’s plaintive, poignant first sentence is, “It was not that he didn’t remember he had once had another sort of life.”
One Man’s Bible has alternating sections. Again there is a distinction between “he” and “you,” though it is one which is much more clear-cut than the multiple selves and voices of Soul Mountain. “He” is the old self, the Gao who—we learn—lived through, and narrowly survived, the torments of the Cultural Revolution. He is the only survivor of his family, one which
had been decimated; it was too gentle and fragile for the times…. The members of this big family died of illness, drowned, committed suicide, went insane, or followed their husbands to prison farms and simply passed away, so that the only person left was a bastard like him.
“You” is the narrator of the novel, the Gao of the present day, who begins the novel in bed in a hotel room in Hong Kong in 1996. At the time the novel begins, “the things you’re writing nowadays don’t have much to do with China.” “You” is in town to oversee the production of one of his plays, and is simultaneously carrying on a turbulent affair with Margarethe, “a white German woman with very dark hair and long eyelashes.” She is sexy but troubled, and it is her insistence on hearing about the narrator’s past that starts him on the work of memory that constitutes the greater part of One Man’s Bible.
The “you” sections of One Man’s Bible are off-putting, full as they are of the narrator’s philosophy (“Life is irrational; so, must a rationale be formulated for human existence before people can be people?”) and his sex life—Margarethe in Hong Kong, Sylvie in Sydney, Linda in New York. (“You embrace her, sniff her, and fondle her all over. You rub your semen, her tears, and your mixed sweat onto her belly, breasts, and nipples. You ask her if she’s happy.”) According to the Swedish Academy, Gao “is one of the few male writers who gives the same weight to the truth of women as to his own”—which can only be one of the Academy’s rare moments of absurdist humor.
On the other hand, the family and personal history that makes up the “he” sections of the novel, most of the book, is perhaps the most powerful thing Gao has written. He was born in the South in 1940, during the early days of the Japanese occupation, and his life from childhood parallels the trajectory of hope, disillusionment, and disaster experienced by China under the Communists. At first, the narrator’s temperamentally apolitical family welcomes the Communists: “Incessant war, bombing, fleeing as refugees and fear of robbery all seem to have gone forever.” The corrupt Nationalists were not missed. The first glimpse of trouble comes when, at age seventeen, he begins going to a university, and “attended a struggle session against rightist senior students.” He doesn’t find out for some years that while he was at the university his father was investigated and spent time in a “reform-through-labor farm”:
His father’s problem was that he had written a hundred-character piece on the news blackboard where he “spoke freely” in response to the Party’s call for people to freely voice their views to help the Party improve people’s work habits. At the time his father did not know that this was called “luring snakes out of their lairs.”
China gradually descends into madness, first undergoing the Great Leap Forward—during which Gao’s mother, after working herself to exhaustion on a farm, drowns, at the age of thirty-eight—and then the Cultural Revolution. This is often described as if it were a single extended convulsion; one of the most valuable things about One Man’s Bible is the way that Gao takes us through the unfolding sequence of events as it was lived, with the full sense of danger and unpredictability belonging to “the Chaos” (as many older Chinese now call it). “At first, the ‘destruction of the four olds’ by the Red Guards, which had started in the middle schools, seemed to be children having a ruckus.” (The “four olds” were old ideas, customs, culture, and habits.) But Mao encourages the Red Guards, telling the inflamed teenagers that “it is right to rebel,” and soon the turmoil is spreading. The narrator’s room is searched; he has been tipped off by a girlfriend and hidden incriminating evidence, but his roommate, Old Tan, has written some “heartrending classical poems” which “constituted irrefutable evidence of ‘anti-Party, anti-Socialist longings for the paradise of the past,’” and Old Tan is arrested.
With the danger this close and this immediate, there is nowhere to hide. The narrator burns all his writings—an extremely sensible precaution, without which he certainly would not have survived—then joins and becomes a leader of his own faction, effectively rebelling against the rebels:
Everyone seemed to be like ants in a hot frying pan, frantically running around and advocating rebellion. The old Red Guards announced they had rebelled against the Party committee and were now known as the Red Revolutionary Rebel Column, and even the political cadres had established their own Battle Corps. However, as people scrambled to find some way out, they were all much the same in their switching of loyalties, betrayal, opportunism, revolution, and rebellion.
There is fighting between the various factions, a situation which only begins to resolve itself when a yet greater danger arrives, in the form of the army. “This was no longer the Red Guard violence of two years ago, or the armed fighting between factions of people’s organizations. It was now leisurely, and directed by army personnel, and like a strategic plan of war, it was planned, coordinated, and fought in stages.” The attack on Ox Demons and Snake Spirits, as supposed counter-revolutionaries are called, gathers even more venom:
At the time, there were so many denunciation meetings and so many slogans to shout, but one had to be careful not to make mistakes when shouting the slogans. The meetings were usually at night, when people were weary and tense. However, making a mistake in shouting a slogan instantly made a person an active counterrevolutionary. Parents had to repeatedly instruct their children not to draw anything carelessly, and not to tear up newspapers. The front page of news- papers always had the Leader’s portrait on it, so it couldn’t get torn, soiled, trodden on, or be hastily grabbed to wipe one’s bottom if one was in a hurry to take a shit. You didn’t have any children, and it was best that people did not. You only had to control your own mouth, ensure that what you said was always perfectly clear. And, especially when shouting slogans, you had to be vigilant and under no circumstances stumble over the words.
The narrator tries to flee from these nightmare circumstances by applying to work in the country, at the May Seventh Cadre School labor farm. But his past follows him there—a big part of the trouble seems to be that his father once owned a gun, thirty years before—and he flees again, this time to the life of a peasant, living in a mud hut in the country as a subsistence farmer. He manages to come under the protection of a local cadre, a like-minded literary man, and he survives, even though he is denounced by his own wife, a much younger woman whom he married out of pity, but who turns him in to the authorities when she reads a fragment of his secret writings. And then, as if in a miracle, the Cultural Revolution ends, and Mao dies, and he is able to begin writing again. This would count as a happy ending if we didn’t already know what happened next.
Unlike Gao Xingjian and Hong Ying, Ha Jin writes in English, his adoptive tongue since he settled in America after the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989; this is one of the things that make his work seem so distinctively Chinese. Since a language embodies the rhythm of thoughts, the shift from one language to another in translation often leaves a work hanging: for instance, Gao’s sentences read perfectly clearly in translation, but the reader can tell that they were not formulated in English, and at the same time some of its Chineseness has been lost en route. There is a feeling, not an unpleasant one, that we are encountering a kind of psychic Esperanto. Ha Jin, on the other hand, working without the prism of translation, is able to capture the texture of ways of thinking which are, well, different.
It was common knowledge that after studying a foreign language for some years, some women tended to become effusive, romantic, and even warmhearted. This must be one of the reasons why the girls in the Foreign Languages Department were usually more attractive than those majoring in other fields.
This texture is difficult to describe but easy to perceive, and it is one of the qualities that give Ha Jin’s work a charm apparent on every page.
The narrator of The Crazed is Jian Wan, a graduate student about to take the extremely competitive exams which will allow him to move to Beijing and study for his Ph.D. Jian is a likable, absent-minded young man whose only wish in life is to marry his fiancée, Meimei, move to Beijing, and lead the quiet life of a literary scholar, one of the great Chinese visions of the good life. Unfortunately, just as his exams are imminent, his teacher and prospective father-in-law, Mr. Yang, suffers a severe stroke. Jian is ordered by Secretary Peng, the novel’s baddie, to spend his days sitting by his mentor’s hospital bedside. This is a disturbing task, because Yang has lost control of his mind, and spends his time ranting against the state of China, complaining about his unhappy life, and blurting out all sorts of details about his marriage that Jian would prefer not to know. As the exams loom closer, Jian becomes more and more disillusioned with the prospect of life as a scholar, and begins to contemplate instead the idea of becoming a state official—again, a very traditional Chinese choice: “As a scholar, you’re just a piece of meat on a chopping board, whereas others are cleavers and axes that can hack you at will.”
The action of the novel takes place in the early summer of 1989, as Jian’s fellow students are staging the protests that are to end in the Tiananmen Square massacres. Jian could hardly be less interested in politics, but as his love life and career take a sharp turn for the worse he becomes embittered, and he heads off to Beijing at exactly the wrong moment, the day before the army moves in:
I had no grand purpose or dream of democracy and freedom; nor did I have the sense of responding to our natural exigencies. My motive was mainly personal—I was driven by desperation, anger, madness, and stupidity. First, I meant to show Meimei that I was not a coward and could go to the capital at any time and in any way I chose. Second, I wanted to puncture a hole in this indestructible cocoon that caged me; somehow I felt that the right place to plunge a knife in was Beijing—the sick heart of this country. I was crazed, unable to think logically, and was possessed by an intense desire to prove that I was a man capable of action and choice. So I set out for the capital with a feverish head.
Up to this point the novel has had an engagingly old-fashioned structure, with the dying scholar’s progressive revelations being balanced with Jian’s unfolding anxieties about his future; now, however, events take a sharp lurch into disaster. The Crazed overbalances at this point, and does not have the perfect poise and timing of Ha Jin’s earlier novel Waiting. But that, I suspect, is part of the point. Jian would prefer to be a comic character, and The Crazed would prefer to be a comic novel, a beautifully observed comedy of ambition, love, and academic manners (it could even have been called Hamlet in China); but life, or modern China, does not give Jian that option:
Ever since I boarded the train back, a terrible vision had tormented me. I saw China in the form of an old hag so decrepit and brainsick that she would devour her children to sustain herself. Insatiable, she had eaten many tender lives before, was gobbling new flesh and blood now, and would surely swallow more. Unable to suppress the horrible vision, all day I said to myself, “China is an old bitch that eats her own puppies!”