Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Zha Jianying interviews 1980s mainland Chinese kulturati

By Cindy M. Carter, published

Bashi Niandai Fangtanlu (八十年代访谈录), Sanlian Shudian, 2006. 453 pages.

With a roster of interviewees that includes poet Bei Dao, author Ah Cheng, rock musician Cui Jian and filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang, Zha Jianying looks back on the cultural, artistic and social legacy of 1980s mainland China. Essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary China, the book is also filled with fascinating trivia: Who knew that poet/essayist Mang Ke once worked in a paper factory? Or that before cycling around Beijing to make their deliveries, he and the other founders of the influential samizdat literary magazine “Today” took the precaution of altering their bicycle license plates in case they had to make a quick getaway? The interviews are generally very frank, and yield some candid admissions (film critic Lin Xudong’s reservations about Jiang Wen’s films, for example, or his championing of Wang Bing’s “West of Tracks” and Jia Zhangke’s “Xiao Wu” as the two finest Chinese films to emerge in this decade) as well as some startling omissions (Bei Dao’s refusal to discuss contemporary Chinese poetry in any detail).

Unfortunately, the book is not yet available in English translation. Here is a blurb (translation mine) from Zha Jianying’s e-mail interview with poet Bei Dao:

Zha Jianying: Some contend that the 1980s were an era of mainland Chinese idealism, and that the present age is one of pragmatism and materialism - an era in which the vast majority of mainland Chinese intellectuals, artists and writers have either been co-opted by the status quo, seduced by wealth and fame, or simply lulled by the prospect of security and respectability. Would you agree with this assessment? In commenting about a Chinese artist who had traded in a rebellious youth for a career in business, you once wrote: “In the end, commerce trumps everything.” Do you think that the commercialization of our society has eroded rather than nourished, corrupted rather than sustained, contemporary Chinese art and literature?

Bei Dao: I think that’s a bit of an oversimplification. The 1980s posed their own problems; they also gave rise to the 1990s crisis. What you’re implying is that the idealism of the eighties failed to take root. In the 1980s, intellectuals born and raised during the Chinese Cultural Revolution were just beginning to make their mark, but they had yet to establish their own traditions. Nor had they managed to overcome the obstacles that prevented them from carrying on the traditions of the May Fourth Movement (1919), a period in history that constitutes a cultural lifeline for Chinese intellectuals. Any nation in the process of modernization will, at some point, be afflicted by commercialization. The question is: how do we maintain our principles in such a constantly shifting environment?

Zha Jianying: Do you ever feel nostalgic for the 1980s? What are your hopes for the future of Chinese poetry?

Bei Dao: No matter what, I will always feel a certain nostalgia for the 1980s, despite the various crises we weathered. Every nation prides itself on a certain cultural or literary high watermark: the “silver age” of Russian literature in the early 20th century is but one example. I think that the 1980s represented the high point of 20th century Chinese culture. I fear that we may have a long wait before we see such a flowering again, and that our generation may not live to see it. The renaissance of Chinese art and literature in the 1980s grew out of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. As the saying goes, “seismic cataclysms unearth new springs”; were it not for the Cultural Revolution, the eighties would never have played out the way they did. But more important is the way the curtain fell: in the tragi-heroic finale to the 1980s, we witnessed the vitality of an ancient culture, its aesthetic and artistic significance and its latent potential. For all these reasons and more, we have just cause to be proud.

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