Jia Pingwa records album of jazz standards, writes Cultural Revolution novel...
By Dylan Levi King, published
Western critics have expected Chinese authors to unambiguously answer political questions, to stake out their positions, to be in opposition to Mainland China's prevailing social order. Chinese books are mostly translated into English and published by university and academic presses to support Western ideological claims, and everybody stopped reading them a long time ago.
So, if I had to jot a list of reasons that Jia Pingwa has never really been translated into English in a major way... somewhere on that list, I'd note a cultural conservatism that doesn't appeal to Western readers of Chinese fiction, and I'd also list a general ideological subtlety. When Jia Pingwa's Turbulence dropped, it was met with kindhearted confusion, and reviews of it still resorted to calling it a critique of "the bureaucracy that hamstrings modern China." They had nothing else to say. Okay. What if Jia wrote a novel set during the Cultural Revolution?
Just like you've always wanted to hear Rod Stewart rip into "My Funny Valentine," there are those that are stoked to have, say, Mo Yan tear into the central government's family planning policy or have Jia Pingwa really get into the Cultural Revolution.
Jia's early writing, which is not very highly regarded (even by Sun Jianxi, really), is often set casually during the Cultural Revolution ("casually" because it's not the Cultural Revolution of Scar Literature or Western imagination). He has never really laid into the subject, as, I guess, he's been expected to. But... he has now.
In the preface to his upcoming novel Ancient Kiln, he explains his motivation:
It happened after I turned fifty. That was around the time when those old friends, who had always been there, started to die off. That was around the time when those trips to the crematorium to see them off started to become routine. Old age suddenly crept up on me. Things changed: I started to like the feeling of having a bit of money in my pockets. I stopped sleeping in late.
Old age has a few lessons to teach: stop grinding away in the same old rut; if you aren't going to sit down and eat, give up your seat at the table； you don't always have to try to make an impression; if you don't need to put in an appearance, just stay home; and, as you get older, try not to become prejudiced and old fashioned; don't bother being jealous of other people. Now, these are the sorts of rules I can abide by--I can try my best to abide by them, at least; I've learned a bit of self-control. But as the aging process rolls on, the one thing that slips from one's grasp is memory. As time marches on, the actual events are buried deeper in the past, but the memories of those events actually become clearer.
Pondering memory, a few idle thoughts: when talking about the human lifespan, is it fair to say that it's actually double what we imagine it to be? Perhaps one lives a hundred years of reality and a hundred years in dreams. It's impossible to live forever, in either realm.
In the physical world that we inhabit, we can gain a sort of immortality through our children. They are our biological copies. And, in the immaterial world, we can float, through dreams, to any period in time. Lately, the period of time I've been floating back to is my childhood. I was a child of the late-1960s, when China was living through the unprecedented events of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
The events of that era are so clear in my mind that I wonder why our society's collective memory seems to have misplaced the Cultural Revolution. In the arts, there have been countless treatments of the Qing, the Ming, the Tang, the Han, and the Qin Dynasties, but there has been no serious interest in the Cultural Revolution-- or perhaps there is interest but nobody can bear to dredge up the details.
Of course, there is a political element to interrogating the events of the Cultural Revolution. But, like those other extinguished dynasties, it's all history now, isn't it?
Perhaps. But, unlike the distant histories of the Qing or the Tang, I find reminders of the Cultural Revolution hard to avoid.
Every year, when I go back to my hometown, I can't help but notice the faint outlines of revolutionary slogans, painted on the crumbling walls. When I pass by the old elementary school, I remember the struggle sessions held there. While villagers were publicly denounced, I was pressed into service, acting as a scribe, scribbling notes.
One day, walking through a nearby village with a local, he pointed out a cluster of poorly built shacks. He said: They used to live there, the ones that hung your father up and beat him. Back then.
I said: Any of them still around?
He said: They died a long time ago. All of them.
I said: Dead, eh? All dead.
And I turned and left.
In that village, the majority of those who had lived through the Cultural Revolution were already dead. The rest had grown old. I caught glimpses of their withered faces as they walked in the narrow village lanes or worked in the fields. They moved about unsteadily, leaning on crooked canes.
One day, when I went down to the river to fish, I saw two of them: old men with legs thin as tree branches, crossing the river with loads of firewood on their backs. The current threatened to sweep them away and they held each other, hand in hand, as they crossed. It was an emotional scene, and, as they approached, I realized that I knew them. During the Cultural Revolution, they had been members of rival groups. During their internecine struggles, they had fought violent battles. I'd heard that one of them had attacked the leader of the other group with a brick. As revenge, the rival group cut down a toon tree that grew in the yard of the attacker. The tree had been old, with a trunk as thick as a rice bowl.
On a walk through the village, I happened upon another of those old faction leaders. He was sitting alone, drinking in his courtyard. He was drinking his own home brew, distilled from his own crops. The fingers that held the cup retained the strength of his youth but his face had softened over the years. As I walked past the gate, he called out to me, using a childhood nickname. Hey! You're back, eh? How long has it been? Couple months? Come and have a drink with me.
The sun was warm and the courtyard was silent. A gust of wind suddenly cut down the alley, whipped through the courtyard and was gone. Back in those days, I knew, terrible violence had been perpetrated here. But now... nothing. There were no bloodstains. There were no rotting corpses. There were no tattered scraps of revolutionary posters. There were no clubs or bricks. Everything was gone. No trace. The past, like the wind, had blown through and was gone.
One day, I asked my brother's grandsons: Have you ever heard of the Cultural Revolution?
They all said: Nope!
I kept going. I asked if they knew the name of their grandfather's grandfather.
They said: No idea!
Exasperated, I asked: You don't know a whole lot, do you?
Whether or not they know the name of their grandfather, or his grandfather's grandfather, they are still the product of that man, a biological copy. The Cultural Revolution is something far more ethereal. If it disappears from our collective memory, maybe it will truly be gone. What has allowed for memories of that time to simply evaporate?
After I turned fifty, memories of my childhood came to my mind so easily. Perhaps it's different for other people. Perhaps their memories don't float up so freely. Maybe their memories are kept locked away, safely out of reach. I wonder, though... when those bent old men totter back home on skinny legs and sit down to drink away their lonely old age... what do they chew on while they sip their liquor?
If you lived through the Cultural Revolution, its mark has been left on you. Whether you were the persecuted or the persecutor, you were branded by the age. On one of those visits to my hometown, I came up with the idea of writing down my own recollections.
I had a few reasons.
First, I think of memory as precious rainwater. A rare rainfall must be conserved. I wanted my writing to serve as a cistern. The book would be a place where my memories were stored.
Second, I was never satisfied with those accounts of the period that were written shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution. They were too official and formulaic.
Third, and most important, I decided that, since I have the ability to turn my memories into literature, I have an obligation to do so. Many of the people that lived through the Cultural Revolution have already died; many were unable or unwilling to record their memories. Among those that are still alive, there are those that won't or can't write down their experiences. And among those that will write about it, some still bear grudges. They will be writing to settle old scores.
I have no scores to settle. When the Cultural Revolution began, I was thirteen years old and had recently returned to the village. I was too young and had been away too long for there to be any bad blood between me and anyone in the village. When I was at school, I'd joined in the revolutionary activities, writing and pasting up posters. But when I returned to the village, I excluded myself. Anyone bearing the surname Jia was under suspicion. Our family was the target of all the village's various factions. After my father was the subject of direct denunciation, I was extremely careful of everything I said.
Although I mention the care I took in keeping a low profile, I was also young enough that nobody really bothered to pay me much mind. I was definitely a victim, but I was also a witness.
What I witnessed doesn't reflect the entire Cultural Revolution. I only saw how things looked in a rural village. But if the spark of the Cultural Revolution didn't come from the impoverished countryside of China, then how did the flames of revolution spread so quickly through the lowest levels of Chinese society?
My observations are merely my own. They come from the moments in my life that marked me most profoundly. They are the memories of an individual-- don't the memories of individuals compose the memory of a nation?
It is fair to say that the Cultural Revolution was a major political and historical event. For literature, though, one can simply say it was a chaotic time. But it was full of the things that make great literature: it was dramatic. When I stand back and approach the event as literature, I return to those years, standing on the sidelines. I didn't understand what I was seeing, then. I couldn't make any sense of it. Forty years later, I feel the same. Intellectually, the closer I approach the events, the less I understand them. I am like the man who climbs the the mountain to see the moon better. The higher he goes up the mountain, the higher the moon seems to soar above him.
I can only approach the Cultural Revolution through my own experiences and my own writing.
In the preface, Jia talks about Gulu Village, the novel's fictional setting:
Let's look at Gulu Village [the novel's setting], named for the ancient kilns, where the local people fire their porcelain. It's a remote place, set in a picturesque landscape replete with treed slopes and wildlife. Despite the incredible poverty of the village, the people are hardworking. The villagers developed their talents and the village became known for--among other things--its pottery and porcelain.
Poverty, though, leads to a certain backwardness. The people of the village are crude. They are stupid. They are cruel. They have been beaten into submission by poverty. The village coasts along, propelled by an eternal inertia. Sometime, long ago, it was set into motion, and it will continue in motion, for no particular reason. When modernity arrived and communal life was pressed on the village, the ancient conflicts continued. The village was no longer a village: it was re-organized as a people's commune.
The villagers were like birds protecting nests. The men were always swooping about, trying to protect their traditional households, their virtuous wives and filial children. A casual observer might have noted that their wives were far from virtuous and their sons and daughters were anything but filial.
The relationships between villagers calls to mind the story of the village blacksmith that makes his living forging knives and daggers. One day, of course, he is stabbed in the back.
The villagers of Gulu leaned on each other, when they had to, and when the time was right, they stabbed their neighbor in the back. Love and hate became tangled up.
In Gulu Village, everyone bore a grudge. Everyone, in the end, was looking out for themselves. Everyone had their own particular way of looking at the world. Everyone had their own, individual dreams.
If one person splashes, they can make some waves. If enough people join in, they can cause a tidal wave. It's like walking across a pontoon bridge. Even if nobody intentionally shakes it, enough frightened people stampeding across it will capsize it.
Jia can't quite sum up the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. He starts out positive: "Looking at the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, one could say that if there was no Cultural Revolution, those great ideological changes that occurred in Chinese society would never have taken place. If there was no Cultural Revolution, there would never have been the opportunity for the social transformation that took place afterward." But it's followed by something far from hopeful: "I often wonder, could there be another Cultural Revolution in China? That's not merely a rhetorical question. It comes back to me again and again. Like the aftershocks I felt from the recent earthquake in Sichuan, the question has the power to shake me awake and leave my heart racing."
Jia has never turned a blind eye to the chaos of modern Chinese society, and has enthusiastically described the social fuckedupness of rural China and life for economic migrants in China's cities. He's one of the few big names writing a hardcore vision of modern China as seen by its most marginalized citizens. But even in the grimiest rural derangement described in a novel like Qin Qiang, there is no polemic, no dogmatism.
Jia's view of the Cultural Revolution is ambiguous, possibly reflecting his own experience of it. His education was derailed and his family suffered through years of poverty and intimidation, but Sun Jianxi, Jia Pingwa's foremost biographer, paints a picture of the author being transformed by the experience of rural life during the Cultural Revolution. Sun quotes a letter that Jia sent to a friend during the early-1970s, when he was trapped in the countryside, exiled from the city: "I've gone totally back to the soil. All I can speak now is the language of the countryside. I wouldn't have the nerve to sit down and have a conversation with some sophisticated intellectual from the city."
The first volume of Sun's biography, An Uncommon Genius is Born (Huacheng Press, 2001), details Jia's experience during the late-1960s and early-1970s:
In Jia Pingwa's sophomore year of junior middle school, the Cultural Revolution arrived. Everyone was making plans, including Jia. Following a gang of local ruffians, he hitched a ride on a truck headed to the provincial capital, Xi'an. He walked up Xi'an's Liberation Road with a busted straw hat and a floral print bed roll tied to his back with a length of rope. His father had given him a bit of cash to spend, and he had ration coupons enough to exchange for a sack of corn. The gang of country boys, fresh from the mountains, arrived at Xi'an's Northwestern Polytechnical University. ... He finally began to see something of the world. ... He saw trains, and ate white rice and steamed buns. For the first time, he ate fermented vegetables and tofu. He wondered why people in the city would leave their food to rot before eating it and suspected it might be a trick to cheat a boy who had freshly arrived from the countryside.
Before he left, wanting to experience more exotic tastes of the city, he stepped into a local restaurant. The place was known for yangrou paomo, a lamb stew sold with steamed buns that are torn up and soaked in the soup. Jia bought the stew and the buns, but spread chili sauce over the buns instead of sprinkling them into his soup. As he gnawed on the stale buns, he saw another diner laughing. Jia quickly slurped his soup and hurried out. Even country boys can get embarrassed!
During the summer of 1966, Jia's father was publicly criticized during a study session at the Bureau of Education. Jia realized that the Cultural Revolution was not going to be fun and games.
In 1967, Jia was forced to end his studies and return home.
He was expected to work. At fourteen years of age, and having been raised in the countryside, he was expected to be able to do basic farm work. But he was still tiny for his age, skinny and undernourished. That was the time of the Learn from Dazhai campaign and communal labour. Workers were paid with workpoints. The brigade leader assigned Jia to work with the women of the commune but there was friction there, too. ... The brigade leader eventually gave him a job as a runner, performing whatever odd jobs needed to be done, but he still received fewer workpoints than the women of the commune. After a few months, Jia slowly improved and was awarded a raise. This small success was very important to him. He walked down the lanes of the village with new confidence, his head held high.
His body was weak, but he had a big heart. Although he couldn't swing a pickax more than a few times, he had no trouble wielding a brush or pen. He helped out local families, writing letters and doing accounts, earning himself a meal here and there. During these years, he was already looking beyond the ghost stories he heard told in the bachelor dormitories. He loved the stories he found in books. They seemed far more refined than any of the stories he heard in the village. He hunted down every book that was available in the village, often dragging his father to the homes of family friends to request to borrow the few books they had left. When he had attended school in the county town, he had scoured the school's library, until it was eventually raided by the Red Guard. Jia's search for books wasn't merely to fill the emptiness of village life--even then, a love of literature was growing in him. During the day, Jia exhausted his body doing farm work, and at night exhausted his mind with intellectual pursuits. He practiced calligraphy, memorized Tang and Song Dynasty poems, and wrote out pages from a compendium of classical essays. These were the smoldering embers that would be stirred into the flame of talent later in Jia's life.
In the summer of 1970, Jia tried to enlist in the army, but was turned down--not for political reasons, Sun insists, but because he had flat feet. The same summer, construction on a massive reservoir began near Jia's village:
He hurried to the site, looking for work but was only able to find a job dragging rocks from a quarry. He only worked three days before he was sent home. Anyways, he decided, was no way to make progress in the world.
Later, working for the commune again, Jia had occasion to go to the construction site, carrying messages from commune leaders. One day, he arrived just as a meeting of local officials was set to commence. Coincidentally, the banners to announce the meeting had been left unpainted. The usual calligrapher was away. Seizing his chance, Jia volunteered his services. He grabbed a brush and decorated the banners with his bold calligraphy. One of the leaders of the reservoir project was impressed with the work and offered Jia a job. The job extended far beyond merely writing signs and posters. Jia also started doing radio broadcasts and began work on a newsletter titled "From the Front Lines of the Construction Site." He took on the role of editor, reporter, art director, type setter, printer, and even delivered the paper.
Jia worked at the reservoir construction site, doing a wide range of cultural work, but saw more and more of his friends and classmates leaving the village.
Late at night, Jia would climb the hills near the village and gaze into the stars. On these late night walks, he worried what his future might hold.
Jia's classmate Wang Jiamin has kept a poem that Jia sent to him during that time. The poem reads:
The moon rises / Casting its soft silver light / The mountain breeze rustles my clothes / I pull out my pen and write these heartfelt words: / Around me, the desolate hills / Above me, the vast Milky Way / When this work is done, where will I go? / The Dan River flows silently.
He wrote another friend a letter, in which he expressed his feelings about that time: "Everytime I see one of our friends going out into the world, I'm jealous. I have a longing to leave. I'm not going to accept fate and go work as a farmer. I know that I have to make something of myself."
Once, while Jia was working at the reservoir, a university student came to survey the site. He had made a name as a streetcorner poet in Xi'an. He took notice of Jia's newsletter right away, but Jia didn't emerge to take credit. Standing behind a workshop shed, he could only watch as the famous poet from the city, exuding literary grace, surveyed his work. That once-famous poet still lives in the Shangluo area, teaching literature. The poet saw that the newsletter had been prepared by a "Pingwa." Perhaps he was among the first to recognize the talent of this "Pingwa," but perhaps he didn't realize that that incident gave Jia Pingwa the confidence to enter the literary world.
Jia had published a poem in his newsletter and received quite a few compliments. Some readers suggested he submit it to one of the provincial newspapers. Thinking of the poem and the striking figure of the streetcorner poet, Jia wrote out his poem again and returned home to borrow a few cents from his mom, promising to pay her back double in a week.
His mother counted out the coins he would need to send the letter. After mailing the manuscript, Jia waited each day for the postman to arrive with the provincial newspapers. When Shaanxi Report came in the mail, he would study it from front to back, checking for his name. After a month and no news, he asked a university student that had returned to the village. The student laughed, "The editor wiped his ass with your poem a long time ago." Jia lost all hope. Becoming a poet, he realized, wasn't that easy. He had borrowed his mother's money. She had forgotten and he pretended to forget, too. That was the first time he had formally submitted a piece of writing. It was 1970 and Jia was 19 years old. Life at the reservoir construction site had improved. Whenever he was lucky enough to receive a few meat buns, he would carefully tear open the bread, remove the meat, wrap it up, and bring it home. He would rush home and give it to his mother, saying that it was for his father. His mother would break down in tears.
In 1970, Jia's father was deemed a "pre-liberation counterrevolutionary" and discharged from his government job. After his dismissal, he stopped receiving his salary. His health worsened and he was forced to borrow money to see doctors.
Sun's narrative jumps to early 1972 and a Jia Pingwa emerging, once again, from the countryside. It's a new Jia Pingwa, though, who marches into the city under a red banner, calling out slogans in a booming voice.
During his work at the reservoir site, Jia Pingwa had impressed local leaders. He was chosen to go to Xi'an to attend university. He nervously boarded a long-distance bus to the city. As the bus passed through the Qinling Mountains, Jia saw the deep green trees and wildflowers of the countryside in full bloom and felt poetry welling up again. He took this as a good sign.
Jia entered the Chinese department at Northwest University. At university, Jia continued writing and submitting works to local papers. His short story, "A Pair of Socks," co-written with a classmate, was published in 1973, in Art for the Masses. Sun makes the case that Jia's experience of the Cultural Revolution is what created the Jia Pingwa that we know: steeped in the language of the countryside, inspired by folk art and tied to rural life.
Liu Jun interviews Jia Pingwa for China Daily.
A CCTV10 Renwu segment about Jia Pingwa, 人物贾平凹, in which Jia returns to the reservoir site.
"Jia Pingwa and dick jokes".