Han Dong Stands Alone

By Eric Abrahamsen, published September 24, 2010, 12:07a.m.

As mentioned previously I've been organizing some literary events for the Get It Louder festival, the first of which was last Tuesday. Originally meant to be a head-to-head between the writer Han Dong and Li Jingze, editor-in-chief of People's Literature magazine, it lost some of its drama when Li Jingze pulled out at the last minute due to an unforeseen and rather dramatic workplace incident.

Han Dong and I did it ourselves, recapping and extending onstage the conversation we'd had at dinner the night before, though without the assistance of red wine. I asked him to start with his involvement in the Rupture movement, and to talk about how artists' relationships with the critical establishment and publishing industry had changed over the past decade, from an era when writers felt the need to burn their bridges lest they be gentled over to the dark side, to today's situation, where it's much easier to maintain one's independence.

Talking about the government's push to disseminate Chinese culture abroad, Han Dong said he remained deeply leery of any "assistance" that came with strings attached—I asked if there was any kind of government assistance that he felt was fairly innocuous, and he said he doubted it. The problem inside China is that everything is still based on human relations: no help is given without strings attached, no work is published without a debt owed, and you can't get anywhere without being part of some kind of clique. The writer's career depends so much on his/her navigation of a social environment, and rarely is the work allowed to stand on its own merits.

That tied into a shot-in-the-dark question I threw out at the end: what was the biggest challenge currently facing Chinese writers as a group? Han Dong's unhesitating answer was a lack of professionalism. Both the ability to treat writing as a craft and a daily task, and also the kind of dedication that sustains writers through five years of no publication, or pushes them to work as hard on their second and third novels as they did on that first hit. Han Dong seemed to think that, put simply, the majority of writers just need to work harder.

A question from the audience took issue with the image of writing as a daily grind—weren't there authors who poured their souls into their creations, and even wrote themselves into the grave? Han Dong got more worked up than I think I've ever seen him: "Those writers are hopeless! Pouring your own life into your work—is that really necessary?! Are your books that good? Are you writing a new Bible?" The poor girl who asked the question looked quite flustered, but he got applause.

I would have liked to have had the establishment point of view thrown into the mix, but it was pretty good with Han Dong alone. We tend to have so much sympathy for the victimhood of Chinese writers, it's interesting that from his point of view, the major stumbling block to Chinese literature is the writers themselves…

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Comments

# 1.   

"writing as a craft and a daily task, and also the kind of dedication that sustains writers .... or pushes them to work as hard on their second and third novels...". Hmm, interesting. I've noticed a curious feature of some Chinese novels (one I've never seen elsewhere): the author in the Preface states how many drafts s/he wrote and the dates each draft was completed. A subtle way of underlining their dedication to the craft, methinks.

 Nicky Harman, September 24, 2010, 5:16a.m.

# 2.   

Fascinating summary and wish I'd been there. The difficulty of moving from reliance on relationships to pure merit - hell, never mind film actresses, even the so-called "progressive" and "rebellious" modern artists generally have to face that conundrum!

William, September 24, 2010, 5:42a.m.

# 3.   

Nicky: But it's an indication of how bad things have gotten, that it's worth mentioning in the preface! I think anyone who's tried translating much contemporary fiction would feel Han Dong's pain, though I guess I'm surprised that he identified it as Problem Number One.

William: I know, sometimes I get caught up in what's wrong here and forget that the same problems exist (to varying degrees) everywhere!

 Eric Abrahamsen, September 24, 2010, 11:39a.m.

# 4.   

Noting drafts is not anything new (although I've mostly seen this noted at the very end of the text rather than in the preface): Jia Pingwa does it, and I've got a science fiction novel by Song Yichang (祸匣打开以后, 1981) that notes that the first draft was done in Lanzhou in 1980 and an edit was performed in Beijing in 1981.

Possibly related to Han Dong's point is a series of recent reports in the mainstream media on netlit writers that have characterized the online writer's life as one of grim desperation, with long hours and unhealthy living conditions the inevitable effect of treating online writing as "a craft and a daily task." A reply by one writer in The Beijing News mentions that the pace of life has accelerated for pretty much everyone in China these days, so it's not surprising that writing is not a leisurely pursuit. I often feel that frequent publication (and the various factors contributing to the push to publish frequently), rather than lack of dedication on a day-to-day level, is to blame for books that could have stood more care and attention before their release in the wild (Han seems to have had this in mind, too, judging from the "five years of no publication" reference in the writeup).

 jdmartinsen, September 26, 2010, 3:05a.m.

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