Ma Jian’s been doing quite a lot of speaking out recently; first there was his May 30th piece in The Times, condemning Chinese writers for their cowardice, and then this op-ed in the New York Times recently. Between the two of them I liked the New York Times piece better – it’s less shrill and better balanced, a realistic look at the state of Chinese society that is both furious and sorrowful. The bit from The Times, attacking writers, is a bit nasty:
Although officially they are government cadres, they refuse to admit their complicity with the repressive political system. One famous writer compares politics to a fly. “If its noisy buzz disturbs me, I can just shut the window and concentrate on my art.” When he travels to the West on book tours, he portrays himself as a dissident writer. He doesn’t realise that what he shut out was no mere fly. It was an entire landscape of morality.
There is little need for literary censors these days. The writers have learnt to do a proficient job of censoring themselves. Chinese fiction is in the main a fiction of compromise.
Reading something like this gives me an instant attack of the moral relativities. From a loftier moral standpoint than most of us can muster of a Tuesday morning, he’s absolutely right: China’s writers as a whole have failed the Chinese nation, and helped perpetuate the illusion that there is nothing deeply wrong with the country.
On the other hand, it’s unclear what, exactly, he’s asking of these writers. To push a little harder? Some writers are doing so, though not enough. To leave the country and lambast it from abroad? Several have taken this road; few of them have the slightest tangible impact on the advancement of freedom within China. To stand up and denounce the emperor for having no clothes? For a writer inside China to do that would mean self-immolation, and not the kind of bright funeral pyre that serves as a beacon for others, but the kind you find in the crematoriums, where the door seals tight and no one even notices the smoke. If Ma Jian had been inside China when he wrote those words, we would never have read them – it’s likely we would never have read anything he wrote, ever again.
He brings up Oser/Woser/Weise and her husband Wang Lixiong, identifying them as the new moral arbiters of China. I suppose this is true, to some extent, though ‘moral arbiter’ is a big title for a pair totally unknown to the majority of Chinese. Their heroism comes from the fact that there’s a solid contingent of Tibetans who want what they want, and support them in their struggles. A writer trying to speak for the Chinese people as a whole would fail entirely, one half of his effort foundering on official reprisal, the other half on public indifference. A leader needs people to lead, and I doubt any sizeable chunk of the population is going to stand up for the general cause of freedom in China. It’s not time yet for the grand reckoning; that’s an issue too large for anyone to own.
One the other hand, it’s clear that plenty of people are angry, and willing to get behind smaller, more local issues: local land theivery, poorly-built schools, tainted food. Those people are ready for heroes and leaders, and they’re getting them: lawyers, village chiefs and journalists. These are not the fights that most authors are well-suited to conduct.
So I thought the New York Times article rang more true: Nation-wide expressions of genuine emotion are becoming possible. The expression of one deep emotion will easily slide into the unearthing of other, equally powerful emotions. Grief over the earthquake does not somehow obviate outrage at past and present injustices, nor render outrage ‘tasteless’. All the past wrongs are still there, lying just below the surface.
The following lines struck me as both powerful and apt, and not only to 1989:
There is an expression in Chinese that says, “One can only stand up from the place where one fell [probably 在哪儿跌倒就在哪儿爬起来].” If China is to truly stand up and deserve its powerful position in the international community, it must return to the place where it fell.
PS. The last time I heard from Woser was few weeks ago, when she said her Skype account had been compromised, and we shouldn’t trust communication that appeared to come from her. I haven’t tried to contact her since.