Sunday, October 30, 2005

Red Dust

Last week I attended a talk given by the Chinese "writer in exile" Ma Jian 馬建. His most famous book is his record of his travels around China during the mid-1980s, Red Dust. I haven't read the whole thing, but I got through about half of it before the talk. I read a review of it when it first came out and always meant to pick it up but never got around to it until I heard he was coming. The novel (autobiography?) is perverse, funny, and compassionate--a nice break from the typical "scar literature" 傷痕文學 that often finds popularity outside of China.

In it, he is living in Beijing, living what I found to be a surprisingly bohemian lifestyle--hanging out with artist and writer friends drinking late into the night, talking about esoteric literature, hiring a nude model to paint, listening to banned Teresa Teng tapes. (Hey, she may have been the Chinese version of the Carpenters but at that time getting caught with her music would get you five years in jail. Not to mention, when you juxtapose her slow, sappy love ballads against the state-mandated "glory to the working man" stuff, you can almost see what the CCP was afraid of.) He does decent work at his job as a photographer for a propaganda publisher, and the bosses try to cut him some slack for his scruffy appearance and loose hygene routines, he's an artist after all, but he's messed up a few times. His photo of workers on a bridge construction project showed the bridge's chipped paint. He used yellow for the title of a publication--"yellow book" means "pornography" in Chinese.

Deputy Chen slaps his hands on the table. "Such a large patch of yellow! You are trying to suggest that we are a federation of pornographic trade unions!"
The conference room falls quiet. The Table in front of me looks very heavy. "What is a pornographic trade union?" I ask quietly.
"It's bourgeois, young Comrade Ma. You have committed a fundamental error, fundamental!"

He is asked to give a self-criticism, but instead prepares a statement about how he does the work of four or five people and puts himself at the top of the list for "Beijing's Number-One Model Worker." His bosses are furious, his love life is already in a mess, so he goes wandering toward the West. He has taken lay Buddhist vows, so he heads toward Tibet. The book is about his adventures "On the Road."

Ma's talk was entitled "Literature and Politics in Contemporary China." He talked about writers of sensationalistic, apolitical literature like Mian Mian and Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby) who have been causing a storm in China. (Last time I was in China, a couple years ago, it seemed like there was a copycat "____ Baby" book for every major city.) A genre of novels about fighting corruption has also become very popular recently, he said. (I think the term he used was 反腐小說.)

But in his view, Chinese writers like himself who live outside of China have an obligation to rebel against the restrictions of Chinese society. He said something similar in an article in the Guardian: "China is completely lacking in self-awareness and as someone who has stepped outside that society, I have a responsibility to write about it as I see it." That's why he called his last novel The Noodle Maker: Chinese people, he said, are like the dough being stretched and pulled into noodles by the hands of the noodle maker.

I admire him for his writing and his stance, but at the same time, I thought there was something a little sad about this. If a Chinese artist only gains awareness after leaving China, but is then obligated to write about that society, then that artist will never be truly free to word as he or she wishes. Would China ever be able to produce a writer with the wild imagination of a Murakami Haruki? For that matter, is Japanese society any more aware than Chinese society? If rebellion against the communist state mandated social realism, that would be a bit ironic.

I know very little about modern Chinese lit-- eighteenth century is the new stuff as far as I am concerned. But someone in the talk said all the best writers and poets in China since ancient times were dissidents of some sort who ended up exiled or executed. Did the oppressive society spawn their genius or crush it?

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