Please click on the image
Thanks to Charles Laughlin for his eloquent and far-reaching defense of literature. A defense, at least a deeper discussion of art and literature, is what has been missing from the debate. We’ve had apologies of Mo Yan 莫言, or the Nobel prize 諾貝爾獎. From himself, in his storied speech. From commentators, including me. I said debate in China is the best thing, perhaps the only thing, that comes from this prize. But what kind of debate? And why? Shouldn’t we be glad about the attention for Chinese literature, and for literature in China? Isn’t it enough to read more, and read more carefully?
Nick Kaldis has observed that Anna Sun’s article was the first attempt to debate Mo Yan and the current situation of Chinese literature in literary terms. Charles has pointed out the crucial flaws. The concept of Mao-speak or Mao-ti 毛體 came up in the 1980s in the context of a renaissance of culture, writing, philosophy, debate- everything that had been missing in the Mao-aftermath. Charles has emphasized that new literature in the 1980s, like the fiction of Yu Luojin 遇羅錦, Dai Houying 戴厚英, Zhang Wei 張煒, Zheng Yi 鄭義, Zhang Jie 張潔, A Cheng 阿城, Wang Anyi 王安憶, Liu Suola 劉索拉, Zhang Xianliang 張賢亮, Han Shaogong 韓少功, Jia Pingwa 賈平凹, Can Xue 殘雪, Ma Yuan 馬原, Yu Hua 余華, Ge Fei 格非 and many others, along with the critical writing, philosophy etc. around it, was supposed to overcome the effects of Mao-speak. Charles has also shown how Anna Sun’s view deliberately blocked out major portions of Chinese literature in many centuries, including the last 100 years.
But let us go back to the 1980s. In hindsight, it was very naive to believe that art and literature could renew the nation. What nation? What kind of nation, stemming from which revolution? It’s very easy and futile now to say all the hope of renewal was naive. The hope ended in 1989, and has been ending ever since, in the selling off of land 地, air 空氣, culture 文化, heritage 傳統, water 水, people 人 – with steadily worsening consequences. On the other hand, art and literature are still involved in an ongoing renewal, with very interesting results.
The only flaw in Charles’ essay, from my point of view, is what I’ve said before, too many times perhaps. I believe that ideology isn’t harmless. Questions involving ideology and philosophy aren’t harmless. At least they were thought of as relevant in the 1980s. Copying Mao’s seminal 1942 speech on literature and art in 2012 is just a ritual, yes. But what do Mao Zedong, the “Yan’an Talks” 延安講話, the involved concepts and the furious critique of ritual obeisance signify in the first place?
Are they all more important than reading more art 藝術? Maybe not. Still, how about a little theory 理論? What is ideology 意識形態? Lacan’s 拉岡 answer, according to Žižek 齊澤克, comes down to emptiness 空虛. No, this is not about Buddhism 佛教. Ideology is what people hold on to in their hearts and minds, in order to belong. To belong to a group. To have an answer, the hope of an answer, a meaning. Do you need to know what your ideology is all about, where it came from, what it involves? Not really. It’s there. Like the believe that everyone is entitled to buy automatic weapons. Every citizen.
In the 1980s, such questions, or more intelligent ones than I can elaborate here, there and anywhere, were asked a lot. A very, very big hope was involved. That’s where Liu Xiaobo 劉曉波 comes from. That’s where Wang Shuo 王朔 comes from. That’s where Yu Hua 余華 comes from. With some writer’s, it’s not always obvious where they come from. Liu Zhenyun 劉震云 and Feng Xiaogang 馮小剛, who are known for lively comedies, with sometimes well-hidden serious issues, have just released “1942”, a film about famine 飢荒. Man-made famine, mostly. And campaigns. Campaigns to unite the nation, to beat intruding foreigners.
It is rather obvious where Gao Xingjian 高行健 comes from, when you hear him speak. Some Weibo 微博 users did that last weekend, for a comparison in Nobel literature speeches 諾貝爾文學演講. Gao’s Nobel speech was available, copied on Chinese servers, which had not been policed very severely in this case, apparently. Gao Xingjian’s Mandarin has a southern accent. He is not hard to understand, but it’s not the kind of Mandarin Mo Yan commands, rather effortlessly, it seems. Mo Yan is the Writer’s Association’s 作家協會 vice chairman 副主席. The chairwoman is Tie Ning 鐵凝. I like her stories, they are very much about memory. But I haven’t heard her speak in public. Don’t know if a shining, booming Mandarin like Mo Yan’s is the standard at official cultural associations these days.
Is it obvious where Mo Yan comes from? Everybody knows where he comes from, we know his aunt, father, wife and brother, as far as they have been interviewed and compared to how they might appear in his novels. That’s what Mo Yan said in his speech. Is that all we need to know? Mo Yan spoke about is mother. It was very moving, at least to me. It’s a great text, that speech. Censorship-resistant. Available in six or seven languages on the official website. Which is blocked 被阻擋 in China, of course.
Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan are very different in their language. Everyone who has read Soul Mountain 靈山 and One Man’s Bible 一個人的聖經 in the original knows that. Mo Yan and Gao Xingjian are very different in their attempts to overcome Mao-ti. Both have written great novels, in my experience. Both stay away from day-to-day political issues and debates. But Gao Xingjian emigrated in order to write and paint in peace, comparatively. Mo Yan worked on his spoken Mandarin. Ok, that was unfair, I don’t know how he sounded in the 1980s. His novels from back then are great, especially The Garlic Ballads. Liu Xiaobo liked Red Sorghum 紅高粱, because it was very sexy, in the 1980s. I like The Garlic Ballads 天堂蒜薹之歌, and The Republic of Wine 酒国. Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out 生死疲勞 and Big Breasts And Wide Hips 丰乳肥臀 are fascinating, too. All stories about more or less recent decades. Sandalwood Death 檀香刑 is a 19th-century-story. Sex, gore and folklore. Very well done. And maybe as moving as Mo Yan’s words about his mother.
Yu Hua’s first novel Cry In The Drizzle 在細雨中呼喊 has a guy running amok in China’s 1970s. The hero’s father, if I remember correctly. Gao Xingjian’s Nobel made many exiled and self-exiled writers and other culture workers think about their paths. Maybe the prize was for all of them, in a way. Is Mo Yan’s prize, in a symbolic way, a reward for everyone in China? Depends on your ideology.
(Sorry, I am not sure where exactly Žižek 齊澤克 published what I’ve related above. Maybe in Has Someone Said Totalitarianism?)