Chinese Whispers

Contemporary Chinese fiction through an Indian lens

Mo Yan won the latest Nobel Prize for Literature for his works that merge “folk tales, history and the contemporary”. ULF ANDERSEN / GETTY IMAGES
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01 September, 2013

WHEN MO YAN WON the latest Nobel Prize for Literature, I was struck by a curiosity that the prize is perhaps meant to trigger: I hadn’t read Mo Yan and was wholly ignorant about contemporary Chinese fiction. So I ordered his novella Change (2010) from Seagull Books. The title had been put out as part of their ‘What Was Communism’ series, with a cover designed in-house that prominently mentioned the win. Change (and Mo’s Pow!, also published by Seagull) turned out to be the only examples I could find of Chinese fiction independently sourced and published in India. Most Chinese literature available to us, I discovered in the coming months as I looked for more to read from that country, travels here through Western channels—either reprints of Western editions or these editions themselves, priced for Indian markets.

This is to be expected, given that American and British publishers are the source of virtually all the international fiction we read in English. We’ve grown used to discovering first the Russian writers, then the Latin American, and lately the African via Western selections and translations. This traffic is so old and so commonplace it doesn’t surprise us. Yet it’s worth wondering why two countries that share such a long border and seemingly many a cultural trait, not to speak of being gripped today by similar economic and social upheavals, can only access each other’s novels based on the tastes, fashions and economics of Western publishing.

It could be argued that the nationality of a book’s publisher has no effect on the reader’s experience of the text. This may be true: that Western publishers are the gatekeepers of what we read from China doesn’t change our way of reading, but it does exert a considerable influence on what Chinese fiction gets widely circulated in the English-speaking world. Pankaj Mishra wrote in these pages three years ago, in his essay ‘National Identities and Literature’, of his hope that “one day soon a Chinese novelist aspiring for an international reputation will be able to steer clear of the misery of the Cultural Revolution or the massacre in Tiananmen Square (perennial publishing favourites in the West).”

This tendency (to write what the West expects and recognises) as well as its constant accompaniment (the anxiety that writers are pandering to Western expectations of a country’s literature) are all too familiar to us in India. Both are blind alleys, the tendency as limiting as the anxiety is counter-productive. Yet they both also open up interesting questions. How, for instance, has the English-speaking West come to have such a large stake in the translation and transmission of Chinese literature, or in giving Indian literature in English global currency?

The term ‘world literature’ and its origin as an object of interest is usually attributed to the German poet Goethe, who was the first to insist that Europeans make space in their reading for literatures from around the world. Goethe embodied the 19th century European interest, following the rise of colonialism, in all things foreign, especially the cultures of the Orient; at the same time, this championing of world literature was the result of his own specific interest as a writer in reading translated works as well as in having his own work translated. “National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach,” he wrote. His views resonated with Marx and Engels’, who foresaw how bourgeois, capitalist modes of production and consumption would override national boundaries; the good news, they said, was that the shrinking of “national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness” would contribute to the development of a world literature.

Ma Jian’s work has been banned in China but widely translated into European languages. ULF ANDERSEN / GETTY IMAGES

But while the West has, in the 20th century, gone on to consume international literature from a supposedly neutral point of view, one that sees all the varieties of literature produced outside the West as simply ‘world’ literature, the case is more complicated in formerly colonised countries that are still seeking to elevate themselves to independence from or parity with the West, and which are therefore less inclined to put aside “national one-sidedness” in favor of “world literature”. Further, literature in Asia has itself served the cause of achieving these freedoms. As Mishra points out in the essay mentioned above, “Much of modern Indian or Chinese literature is inconceivable without the political movement for freedom from foreign rule … Rabindranath Tagore [and] Lu Xun … were deeply engaged with anti-colonial campaigns in their respective countries.” Given this history, it’s unlikely that our—or China’s—experience of world literature will be similar to that of Western Europe’s in the 19th century or America’s in the later decades of the 20th, when the assertion of women’s and minority rights made it necessary to rethink the white-male-dominated literary canon. As scholar Harish Trivedi has recently pointed out, challenging the belief that world literature is a European concept, “the chief proponent of the idea of conceptualizing and syllabizing a corpus of World Literature in our times is the American academy.”

In India, the task of developing our own modern literatures seems to have made us less sanguine than the West about the graspability of world literature. Indian efforts to bring world literature to local audiences have tended to be sporadic, showing us glimpses rather than an image of the whole. When the Sahitya Akademi journal Indian Literature was launched in 1957, it featured an essay on Yugoslavian writer Ivo Andric, and pieces on contemporary American poetry and the 11th century Japanese classic TheTale of Genji. This showcasing of international writing as a matter of course says a great deal about how its editors imagined the role of a leading Indian literary journal. Somewhere along the way, however, this slant disappeared.

Outside English, readers in some Indian languages, such as Malayalam and Bengali, have shown a consistent interest in reading world literature in translation. The modern European masters were translated into Malayalam from the 1920s onwards and the Latin Americans in more recent decades. In Bengali, alongside translations from European languages, Japanese literature, following Rabindranath Tagore’s interest in that country, has long been available in translation.

In the 1980s, Indian bookshops and government-sponsored book fairs were inundated with cheap editions of Russian literature in translation, especially children’s books and science and maths texts—a propagandist move on Russia’s part, but for those who grew up in that era a treasured part of their education. More recently, new English fiction from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh is being published in India, alongside some works in translation from these countries, giving us, for once, a chance to read foreign literatures not necessarily filtered through the West.

Perhaps there will come a time when our readerly interest in our neighbours expands to include China, a time when we seek a more direct relationship with world literature and not only one via London and New York, and when the economy of our publishing can support these developments. Until such time, we will read of Chinese literature what the West reads. The question that remains is: how do we read it?

IN HIS WELL-KNOWN 1986 ESSAY, ‘Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism’, the American critic Fredric Jameson argued that third world novels, to be properly appreciated, ought to be read as national allegories. Unlike in the West, where the split between public and private means that politics in fiction can only be the projection of individual subjectivity, in the third world, “the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society”. Through the stories of the Chinese writer Lu Xun, whom he considered the country’s greatest ever, Jameson shows how allegory allows the third world novelist to offer “a complex play of simultaneous and antithetical messages”. It is through this that the text becomes political—by struggling with the aesthetic dilemma of how to represent the enemy within these fraught societies, and by revealing a set of concrete and yet open-ended perspectives on the future.

Jameson believed that the third world novelist’s allegories are driven by a passion to change the nation; other critics would argue that the point is only to describe it. Amit Chaudhuri, in his book of essays on Indian literature, Clearing a Space (2008), discusses how literatures other than Western European, American and English have historically been viewed as national literatures. This implies that in such texts, “the everyday and the particular become signs of, at once, nationality and the exotic”. He challenges this way of reading and writing non-Western literatures by arguing for, in relation to writers such as Tagore, the poetic not as a signal of the exotic but a way of creating a dwelling place for the self in the world. Indian literature becomes modern when it becomes inward, when the self seeks a home in it rather than trying to construct a national landscape out of it.

Wang Anyi’s fiction, which is not widely read in the West, presents a view from below of Shanghai life. KASIA WANDYCZ / PARIS MATCH / GETTY IMAGES

Jameson and Chaudhuri’s contrasting ways of understanding ‘national literature’ both take into account the effects of capitalism. Marx and Engels were nothing if not prescient: the capitalist system of production has comprehensively overridden national boundaries, resulting in the state of affairs we today call globalisation. But globalisation does not just lead to the worldwide dissemination of books, it affects how these books are framed and read. Where we earlier had something like an ‘internationalist’ non-Western literature—the possibility of a work being at once local and transnational: think RK Narayan or Pablo Neruda—we now have both the rapid transmission of this literature as well as the growing tendency to read it as representative of a national culture. As Chaudhuri writes, “‘Internationalism’ is a way of reading, and not a demography of a readership; and what we’re witnessing is not the rise of internationalism, but its interruption and eclipse, and its replacement by a new mythology of travel, displacement, movement, and settlement, with, paradoxically, its new anxious awarenesses of the ‘other’, the foreign, and the native.”

It is this new globalised context—a context which makes world literature both increasingly easy to access and yet a sign of the unfamiliar and exotic—that writers are grappling with, particularly writers in those countries with a recent history of anti-colonial nationalism. They must now face the question of how their literature is read in relation to how their nations are viewed.

“In my view, for a writer of the present to strive to emphasise a national culture is problematical,” said Gao Xingjian, best known for his novel Soul Mountain (1990), in his 2000 Nobel lecture ‘The Case for Literature’. The France-based Gao, the first Chinese author to win the prize, made a passionate appeal to uphold the autonomy of the writer, talking about how the value of literature resides in the solitary, frail, individual writing voice. The apparent weakness of that voice—the fact that it is not a window on the nation, a herald to the future or a chronicler of the past—is the test of its authenticity. Writers are not heroes; they write primarily for themselves and only by doing so can they speak truthfully to and of wider human experience.

By contrast, Mo Yan, in his Nobel lecture, ‘Storytellers’, throws in his lot not with the solitary, conscience-driven artists that Xingjian describes, but with the traditional storytellers of the kind he grew up listening to in the village market square. He responds to the controversy over his win—he was faulted for not being critical of China’s policies and not supporting dissident Chinese writers—by portraying himself as a folksy teller of tales, someone whose imaginative sources are in the village where he spent the first two decades of his life.

Xingjian and Mo Yan’s differing ways of asserting the value of storytelling reveal how two writers might think about the idea of literature in a culture in which, as developments over the past century have shown, there is a great deal at stake in being a writer. To be a Chinese writer of their generation is to belong to a milieu where writers have been killed, exiled, punished, or sent to work as farmhands—a milieu in which there is a real and proven connection between a writer’s work and his fate. At the same time, given their very different aesthetics, Xingjian and Mo Yan seem to be cautioning us against assuming that there is anything like a recognisably ‘Chinese writer’.

Chinese literature forms a relatively new component of the international fiction distributed in India. The growing Western interest in Chinese literature obviously follows from the Western interest in China—in the breakneck speed of the country’s economic development and its aspirations on the world scale, as well as the policies of its authoritarian government and the struggles of its peoples. Given that our access to how people think and feel in China is limited by government control, literature naturally becomes a crucial point of entry to the country. After reading Mo Yan’s novella Change, I turned to the latest works in translation by other contemporary Chinese writers and inevitably found myself reading these novels and short stories as a window onto China. At the same time, because I was largely limited to books published in the West and written by those aware of their Western audience, it was also interesting to see how these writers negotiated this position—how they subverted or fulfilled expectations that readers might have of them.

It turned out that though the nation was present in most of this fiction—the entity called ‘China’ which these authors either took us on a tour of or implicitly created for us through their narratives—they were not all open to being read as national allegories along the lines Jameson had prescribed. And while these books were known and feted in the West, their authors also seemed to be in active dialogue and debate with Western readers, rather than only telling them what they expected to hear. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while trying to create that private dwelling place in the world through their fiction, these writers were also unable or unwilling to let go of their common history.

Bi Feiyu’s novel Three Sisters contains strong depictions of village life, folk wisdom and the rhythms of the seasons. ULF ANDERSEN / GETTY IMAGES

WHEN MAO ZEDONG LAUNCHED his Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, he actively sought to enlist young people in his violent mission to destroy society’s bourgeois elements. Reforms in schools and universities were one means of eliminating differences between worker, peasant and intellectual. At the start of the revolution, examinations for university admissions were scrapped; students would henceforth be admitted not on merit but on the recommendations of their work units. Alongside, students were drawn into the paramilitary Red Guard, a force which ended up killing hundreds of thousands of people.

A young person in Maoist China was subject to extreme control but, as Mo Yan seems to suggest in his autobiographical novella, Change, to be cast away from the system was perhaps worse. So when he is kicked out of school he does not know what to do except creep back into the school building every day. Eventually he joins the army, where his prospects for promotion are bleak. But it is 1978, Chairman Mao has been dead two years, and the universities have opened up again. His unit is given a slot for the entrance exams to an engineering college and Mo Yan is chosen as the unit’s candidate. He toils for months in preparation only to be informed by his political instructor just before the exam that the “slot we’d been promised has been rescinded. I expect you to deal with this setback with the proper attitude.” This failure intensifies Mo Yan’s dream of becoming a writer and he starts to publish short stories while still in the army. By the time he is eventually admitted to a graduate programme in literature ten years later, in 1988, he is already a fairly well-known writer. “I’d figured out what literature was all about and I knew that, for a writer, the writing itself was what mattered, not educational background or college degree.” He does not attend class and that’s the end of it.

On the face of it, Chinese American writer Yiyun Li—who grew up in China but now lives in the United States, writes in English and is a generation younger—has little in common with Mo Yan. Her moving collection of stories Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (2010) opens with a novella called ‘Kindness’. A sensitive, lonely, middle-aged woman in Beijing is recounting her childhood and especially her two years of compulsory service in the army in the 1980s, after high school. Unlike Mo Yan whose dream, till he becomes a writer, is to be accepted by the system—stick on in school or become a truck driver or field officer in the army—Moyan, the protagonist of Li’s story, child of a young eccentric mother and an old overworked father, suffers through her army service because she cannot fit into the system. She is able to follow the army discipline to a fault and is even an excellent shot with the rifle; yet she sticks out because she is unhappy and because her unhappiness has no explanation. “I did not know a single thing that could be called the matter. How do you unravel a mess of yarn when you don’t even see the yarn?”

Like their authors, a generation separates the young Mo Yan of Change from the teenage Moyan of ‘Kindness’. The first character’s life and circumstances could be seen as a precursor to the second’s—both taken together presenting an image of the radical changes in China since the Cultural Revolution. Change is a picture of life in a China newly freed from Mao, where collectivisation is breaking up and a prosperity beginning to show “like bamboo after a spring shower”. Mo Yan marvels at the changes between then and the unimaginably more prosperous China of today, but these developments do not seem to have affected his inner being. We are not surprised when he accepts a bribe at the end of the book for he has come across throughout as a sardonic character who sees wisdom in going with the times. Li’s ‘Kindness’, meanwhile, yields glimpses of the China of the 1980s and 1990s—like the lines in which Moyan stands as a child, waiting to buy rationed food, and the much sought after Lux soaps newly imported into the country.

Even though they capture a great deal about life for a young person within the Chinese system, it is personal quests that drive these narratives. In Change it is an old Soviet-made truck from the 1950s, a relic from the Korean War, that is the one true love of the narrator’s life, while in Li’s novella, with its descriptions of the novels of DH Lawrence, the search for individuality through the reading of fiction is an implicit theme. Both writers, it turns out, resist telling their stories in ways that can be read as reportorial accounts of Chinese life—Mo Yan by refusing to write social realism about the well-advertised, dark side of change in China and Yiyun Li by favouring interiority and the search for love over social critique.

Wang Anyi is almost exactly the same age as Mo Yan and one of China’s best known writers, although not widely read in the West, perhaps because she does not seem to be in pursuit of any larger truths about the nation. Wang has a quietly lyrical style and presents a view from below of Shanghai life. Reading her stories and novellas in the collection The Little Restaurant (2010), one discovers a writer who has elevated descriptions of the day-to-day life of ordinary, working people to a form that is at once poetic mediation and social documentary.

Many of the stories in the collection uncover the effects of political changes on everyday life. The Cultural Revolution threw into question the social status, role and rights of people. For the characters in Wang’s stories who have lived through the revolution, the upheaval brings not philosophical enlightenment—re-education, in Mao’s words—but an anxiety about what, in a material sense, they have a right to own. So in the novella ‘Nest Fight’, a woman who has worked as a maid all her life is locked in conflict over a room of her own with her once prosperous and upper-class but now impoverished ex-employers. In ‘The Story of Ah Qiao’, a poor family that took over the apartment of a richer one during the Revolution finds, after the overthrow of the Gang of Four, that it’s now time to give the apartment back.

The Eurasian Han Suyin was uniquely well-placed to write about Sino-Western encounters. ULF ANDERSEN / GETTY IMAGES

…a bitterness rankled in their hearts. Production was halted and people lost their lives in the Cultural Revolution; after so many years of tumult, there was a sudden reversal and everything returned to the status quo ante. It appeared that the revolution had been much ado about nothing after all. Come to think of it, it was always the poor who suffered most…

Wang’s stories have a clear-eyed, unsentimental quality; unlike Yiyun Li’s brooding, melancholy, psychologically complex characters, hers are not alienated from society, and yet inevitably experience a divide between inner life and judicious outward appearance. As she says of Shanghai’s migrant traders in the title story, “It’s to their advantage not to antagonize the locals, if only because harmony breeds profit, as merchants like to say. They have to take it under the chin in order to gain a toehold here, no matter how rotten they feel inside.”

Ma Jian, whose work has been banned in China but widely translated into European languages, forms an interesting counterpoint to Wang Anyi, Mo Yan and Yiyun Li in that he is openly opposed to Chinese authoritarianism, and his fiction is clearly written as social critique. Jian lives in exile in London and writes in Mandarin. His previous novels include Beijing Coma (2009), about the Tiananmen Square protests, and Stick out your Tongue (2006), a collection of stories about Tibet. His most recent novel, The Dark Road (2013), is an account of a moneyless village couple in flight from brutal family planning officials bent on implementing the one-child policy through forced abortions and birth control. The young Meili is a victim of an interminable struggle between the state, which wants to curtail her child-bearing capacities, and her husband, Kongzi, a seventy-sixth generation descendant of Confucius who considers it his sacred duty to beget a male heir.

Ma Jian lived and worked incognito among family planning fugitives in order to write this novel, and it has the distinct feel of an ethnography: its characters both live out their lives as violators of family planning laws as well as periodically inform the reader—through their own talk or the slogans they see and hear all around them—about what these laws are, the punishment for breaking them, the ways in which people try to circumvent them, and the horrifying statistics regarding abortions.

Ma describes the couple’s makeshift life in striking detail as they drift down China’s waterways for nine years while Kongzi’s dream of having a son is repeatedly thwarted. Unlike Mo Yan’s cheerful nostalgia for the progressivism of the immediate past—the imperious Gaz 51 truck running down the peasants’ chickens and an awe-inspiring dumpling-making machine in Beijing—Ma depicts nostalgia for a much older China. The classical poetry that Kongzi takes comfort in, with its delicate imagery of the beauties of the natural world and the gentle yearnings of the traveller, is in stark contrast to the China he and Meili experience, which comes across as little more than an enormous toxic wasteland. Rivers are polluted with effluents, dead animals and murdered infants; fish are poisoned or extinct; whole towns are reduced to rubbish dumps to make way for monstrous dams; vegetables are soaked in pesticides; adulterated milk, contaminated rice and soy sauce made, incredibly, with fermented human hair are common; and babies are born deformed. Against this backdrop, what keeps Meili going is the dream of reaching a place called Heaven Township, a promised land so polluted by its large-scale cottage industry of dismantling used electronic goods dumped by the West that its men are impotent and family planning officials don’t bother with its women.

China’s Confucian traditions were suppressed during the Cultural Revolution. But, as Kongzi notes, in the China of the present no new revolutions are possible because people have become prosperous and “faith in Communism is dead. The Party has no ideology to legitimise itself now, so it’s bringing back capitalism and Confucianism to fill the void.” From Meili’s point of view, though, the cultural changes might appear less significant. In the China of the present she must labour on the sly to produce a son; if she were a young village woman in a rigorously communist China she would still have been expected to produce sons to prove her worth.

This indeed is the fate of Shi Guifang in Bi Feiyu’s Man Asian Literary Prize-winning novel, Three Sisters (2010). Guifang is the mother of seven daughters and considered good for nothing until, in the spring of 1971, she has her eighth child, a son. Her husband, Wang Lianfang, a Party Secretary and sound materialist, believes that the lack of a son tells badly on him too. “To him, women were external factors, like farmland, temperature, soil condition, while a man’s seed was the essential ingredient. Good seed produced boys; bad seed produced girls. Although he’d never admit it, when he looked at his seven daughters his self-esteem suffered.”

Their eldest daughter, Yumi—proud, intelligent, and deeply ashamed of her father’s persistent liaisons with the village women—is set on marrying a well-placed man and leaving the village behind. But Yumi is abandoned by her aviator fiancé after her father is caught in bed with a soldier’s wife and stripped of his Party Secretary position. So Yumi settles for marriage to an elderly widower—the deputy director of the Revolutionary Committee in charge of the People’s Militia—and moves to Broken Bridge town.

Bi describes Broken Bridge town through a wonderful tableau of its main street, which is a lively open-air market until 8 am and thereafter undergoes a metamorphosis. The middle school PA system announces “Beijing time—8.00 A.M.” and then

the general store opens its door, and the purchasing co-op opens its door. The post office, the credit union, the commune offices, the hospital, the farm tools factory, the blacksmith and carpentry shops, the provisions branch, the grain-purchasing station, the transport office, the culture station, and the livestock-purchasing station—every unit subsumed under the nation slowly opens its big iron door for business … the street has become an integral part of the “nation,” involved in the functions and powers of the “state.”

This is an apt metaphor for the novel, too, in which, over and above the orderly structure of the nation, lie the private, often surreptitious, lives of men and, especially, women. Like Ma Jian in The Dark Road, Bi Feiyu’s focus here is on the journey of the outbound village woman; he is a writer known for his sensitive depiction of the lives of Chinese women. He has a wonderful feel for village life—folk wit and wisdom, the rhythms of the seasons and their correspondence with agricultural patterns, and the peasant’s ceaseless labouring. Bi is also pointed about the deliberate, almost ritual, cruelty lurking underneath the village’s communist façade. Everyone kowtows to Wang Lianfang’s family while he is the Party Secretary but as soon as he loses his job, two of his young daughters are brutally raped. In fact, rape recurs throughout the novel—all the three sisters of the title are subject to forced sex and each in turn uses sex as a means of holding on to her precarious social position.

Unlike The Dark Road, however, some of whose characters can come across as props to illustrate the long catalogue of ills plaguing Chinese society, Three Sisters is also a study of the mind games between sisters. The complex manipulations between the women—particularly the responsible and authoritarian Yumi and her pretty, seductive, third sister, Yuxui—reveal both unquestioning devotion to family as well as the battle with family in order to establish one’s own place in the world. The ultimate savagery is visited upon family by family, while communism features as a kind of pompous and bumbling stage presence, its rousing slogans merely concealing the ancient human rites playing out behind the scenes. This is personified in Guo Jiaxing, the deputy director of the Revolutionary Committee, who is a thoroughgoing communist; he “was not concerned about individual people, not even himself … The concepts of birth, old age, sickness, and death bored him; as did thoughts about the daily necessities—the oil, salt, vinegar, and soy sauce—of life.” However, the revolutions in the characters’ humdrum lives, including Guo Jiaxing’s own, are not of a historical nature; they take the form of exactly these ordinary things.

THE OPPOSITE IS THE CASE with celebrated Chinese American novelist Ha Jin’s latest work, Nanjing Requiem (2011), which is about ordinary people made heroic in historically revolutionary circumstances. Jin learnt English by listening to the radio while working as a railway telegraph operator in China and began writing fiction in English upon moving to the United States for a university degree. His work has been hailed for its spare, evocative style, in evidence in Nanjing Requiem. The novel is a reconstruction of the infamous Japanese takeover of Nanjing in 1937, known as the Rape of Nanjing. It recreates the selflessness and courage of the real-life American missionary Minnie Vautrin, who saved the lives of ten thousand Chinese women and children during the siege by turning Jingling Women’s College, of which she was dean, into a vast refugee camp. The locals revere Vautrin, but she and other brave Westerners, who repeatedly petition the Japanese officials on behalf of the suffering Chinese, are denounced as Japanese collaborators by the communists who will eventually take over the country.

Chiang Kai-Shek, the general ruling China when the war broke out, was a convert to Christianity. After the takeover by the communists and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Christianity would not be as favoured as it was in the generalissimo’s time. Nanjing Requiem is set at a critical moment, therefore. The well-endowed Jingling College, set up with the aim of becoming “China’s Wellesley”, is a symbol of the dreams of Western academics and missionaries. The novel is a snapshot of Christian China; its first-person narrator is an English-speaking Chinese Christian woman, a college administrator called Anling Gao, who describes for us Minnie Vautrin’s day by day struggle to do her best for the people in the midst of the horrific violence.

Ha Jin’s latest novel reconstructs the Japanese takeover of Nanjing in 1937 in his spare style. ULF ANDERSEN / GETTY IMAGES

The novel is utterly convincing as a document of the times, and yet the portrayal of the Westerners as the only people with conscience and agency in a city from which all educated Chinese have fled does make one pause. Dr Chu, a Chinese doctor, who also leaves the city but later returns, declares that “the cause of Nanjing’s tragedy was clear and simple, and no one but the Chinese men should be held responsible—because they couldn’t fight back the invaders, their women and children were subjected to abuse and killing, so a foreign woman like Minnie had to step up to save lives and to do superhuman work”. This may well be true but in order to represent it, Ha Jin leaches from the novel all sense of Chinese life—ways of thinking, speaking, feeling, remembering—outside the Christian framework.

And the foreigners are responsible not just for saving lives in Nanjing. Despite the horror visited upon them, the Chinese do not keep a record of the atrocities and it is left to the Europeans and Americans to smuggle out reports and film footage so that the world can know what Japan has done. This “Chinese fashion of forgetfulness” is a cultural habit influenced by Daoism, feels Vautrin, a problem that only Christianity can address. To her, “Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism were all secular religions. What this country needed was Christianity, she often told me, and I shared her belief,” Anling Gao says. It might be going too far to suggest that Ha Jin shares this belief. Clearly, though, he does have faith in the supposedly Western institution of the historical record; Nanjing Requiem is an attempt to tell things like they were for locals and missionaries alike.

“I love China. I have always loved the Chinese people … I just cannot understand so many people going over to the communists. Even among our best Christians.” Thus say the missionaries a decade after the fall of Nanjing. The writer recording their bewilderment as they flee from civil war in China and take refuge in Hong Kong in 1949 was Han Suyin in her famous autobiographical novel Many Splendoured Thing (1952).

Writing six decades before Ha Jin, Han Suyin documented Western responses to China during the upheavals of the mid 20th century. This particular novel picks up where Nanjing Requiem leaves off: one of the most interesting discoveries to be made from it is how even half a century ago Chinese writers resisted being read as representatives of or commentators on Chinese reality, especially its politics.

The half Dutch-Flemish and half Chinese Han was uniquely well-placed to write about Sino-Western encounters. She was born in China, trained to be a doctor in China and England, and wrote novels in English. When Han died in November last year—and The Hindu obituary described her as, in later life, “an ambassador for China-India relations after her marriage to an Indian colonel” and reported that she had lived in Bangalore in the 1960s—I looked around for her books and was delighted to find a stack of old Penguin editions in Bangalore’s Blossom Book House.

Many-Splendoured Thing is Han’s best-known work: a Flaubertian description of the vistas of Hong Kong and the lives of the many Westerners in it as well as an exploration of her own divided heart as a ‘Eurasian’. She creates a brilliant collage of the culturally variegated, financially booming world of Hong Kong—the English businessmen waiting for the dust to settle, confident that they’ll be able to do trade with the Reds (“So long as they behave decently and will trade with us. We’ve never yet refused to trade with anyone.”); their wives who say things like “Hong Kong would be a wonderful place if there were not so many Chinese about”; the rich, upper class Chinese from Shanghai who have escaped the communist advance and set up home in Hong Kong, thus contributing to the boom; wounded soldiers of the Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Party which is fighting the communists; the poor of the island who live in hovels and on the street; and of course the missionaries, many of whom are second generation (they were born in China and cannot imagine leaving).

Her English lover, Mark Elliot, tells Han Suyin that she ought to write about the tormented Chinese soul. Her reply captures perhaps the difficulty of any writer on China:

If I should write anything, my critics will say: This is not Chinese … They will read politics into my non-political statements, and dispute the meanings of my words … People now search books for the political opinions of their writers, and are prejudiced by the use of words to which they have been conditioned by newspapers, but which they do not understand. And since people always want an answer before they have begun to frame a question, they only get opinions, for or against.

Given that in our own time, too, our knowledge of China is conditioned by the limited information about the country available to us through newspapers, there is every danger that, as Han feared, we will read Chinese novels only to find out if their authors are for or against their country.

“THE CHINESE THINK, act, and feel almost exactly like us; and we soon find that we are perfectly like them, except that all they do is more clear, pure, and decorous, than with us,” Goethe is reported to have enthusiastically declared after reading a Chinese novel.

Is it possible to have a different view on China from India? Might we read Chinese literature neither out of eagerness for an exotic difference nor to come away amazed at a common humanity, but rather with the awareness of certain cultural, historical and social affinities and a curiosity about how their writers and ours interpret them in fiction? Given these affinities, could we approach Chinese literature more organically and not, following the Western model, as one more instance of ‘otherness’ to be annexed to the compendium of world literature?

The immense devotion to family, not to speak of the obsession with male children, which runs through all these works, will be instantly recognisable to an Indian reader. Wang Anyi’s migrant workers, creators of a subculture in which solidarity is pervasive and cheating collective; Mo Yan’s description of the staggering growth of Chinese cities; Ma Jian’s account of the deep-seated and inhuman corruption within the system; Ha Jin’s comment on how Eastern religious attitudes make us indifferent to our past; Han Suyin’s belief that there are three species of human beings (Chinese, non-Chinese who have been to China, and others)—all of this has echoes in our experience. The hunger for material prosperity and self-advancement is our theme too, as are the shocking inequalities that economic growth has created. Like China, we resist the West and are influenced by it; and many of our writers, like theirs, have made the journey there. Some like Ha Jin and Yiyun Li write only in English; others like Gao Xingjian and Ma Jian live in the West but write in Mandarin.

However, if, based on my reading of this handful of books, I was to name one element common to them, and one striking difference from contemporary Indian literature by the middle classes, especially in English, it is how convincingly the Chinese writer enters into experiences distinct from those common to his or her class, background and gender. The Cultural Revolution plays out in these novels in several complex ways. It features not just as a grim fact of Chinese history or a signpost of authoritarianism, but also more subliminally. The experience of urban students and intellectuals who, under Mao Zedong, did time in the villages seems to have permeated the consciousness of all the writers I’ve discussed, even those who came of age later.

Meili’s emotional torments over her repeated pregnancies; Yumi and Yuxui’s subtle cat-and-mouse games in a world dominated by men; Minnie Vautrin’s consuming guilt over a single Chinese girl who loses her mind after being raped by Japanese soldiers—each is an authorial feat. These female characters are not elevated, stereotyped or pitied by their male creators; they are the result of approaching women not as objects of sympathy or interest but from deeply subjective positions.

The Revolution takes the most oblique and interesting form in Chen Cun’s novella The Elephant (2010). Chen is a Shanghai-based writer who was also sent to work in the countryside, an experience that ruined his health. He only mentions this fact in The Elephant, which is ostensibly about a writer trying to write a novella about an elephant. Chen meditates on how he is free to write about anything he likes, in this case the story of an elephant in the shadow of Kilimanjaro, and yet how difficult it is to make the best use of this freedom.

The Elephant is an avant-garde work that has nothing obviously ‘Chinese’ about it and is thus unlikely to make it to the lists of mainstream Western publishing houses. (Like Wang Anyi’s The Little Restaurant, it is available in English through a translation project initiated by the Shanghai Writers’ Association.) Yet it was the most refreshing of the novels I read. It is a wry reflection on artistic freedom by a writer whose body was deformed by forced labour. It is an allegory not about the Chinese nation, but about a theme that the Chinese writer, we would do well to remember, has as much claim to as a literary modernist anywhere in the world—the wholly playful and open-ended and yet deeply serious nature of the art of fiction.

Correction: The phrase "blind allies" has been corrected online to "blind alleys".