Freedom to Read and Oppressive Contexts in China

By Canaan Morse, published

Only a thought, which seems to me worthy of being aired:

After all these years, I find it harder to read Chinese literature while I am here in China than when I am elsewhere. China’s living social context actively limits my freedom to read. By this I mean the ability of the reader to remove himself and the work from a social context that tells him what he ought to think, so that the text may rise from the water of the reader’s emotions and present itself again as something with independent tensile strength. Now, I don't know that separation is particularly valued now; a straw poll of my memories suggests that more emphasis is placed on engagement with foreign cultural contexts, both for readers and writers, and especially as regards mainland China. I also don’t wish to presume that freedom to read and freedom to write are the same thing, but they are connected, and when I consider how much easier it is for me to enjoy Chinese literature when I am away from the country and its excessive, falsified cultural dick-waving, I wonder how right those people are who point fingers at Ma Jian, Ha Jin and the other diaspora writers to criticize them for “not knowing what’s going on in China now.”

I was home with my family in Maine last Christmas, the first time I’ve celebrated that holiday there in three years. While I was there, I became engrossed with the poems in Jade Ladder, the new anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry that Brian Holton put together with W.N. Herbert and Yang Lian. I also attacked the “huaben” novels of the 清平山堂话本校注 with a fervor I hadn’t been able to muster during the previous semester in Beijing. The texts and their tradition re-presented themselves to me in a much more innocent way than they ever did while I was actually in China. I was able to love their Chineseness. This experience must resound in some way with other long-term expatriates: while we are out of the country, Chinese things and events draw our attention with unusual power because they seem to speak for themselves. I say “they speak”; really, it is the viewer speaking to himself. This is freedom to read.

After New Year, I came back, and resumed my defense against outward assault. Mo Yan’s face was plastered on newspaper pages and subway advertisements. His play, “Our Jing Ke,” is now being performed at the National Theater. They’ve given it time on the subway TV screens—square-jawed actors with bright pink and blue robes and overdone eyebrows falling dead into each other’s arms. Back at university, professors reject the tools of Western literary theory and call for the establishment of rules that will correctly explain the grand Chinese tradition. Well-paid officials in the General Administration of Press and Publication who have never written a poem or story in their lives wave bundles of money around and proclaim that Chinese literature is “going out” into the world, while even more powerful officials proclaim “The West” is maintaining a cultural offensive against China. 著名 this, 伟大 that, 万岁万岁万岁.

All of a sudden, I feel complicit in something. It becomes harder to open my books and engage a text in the wholehearted way a reader should because I feel like some sort of traitor; the blind and contemptibly untruthful voices that crowd each other nearly everywhere in the city of Beijing demand they be given their own authority, and I as a reader find it difficult to justify my own appreciation for a book, a poem or any text when I am being forced, or when positive criticism of it appears to be pandering to power. It may be small-minded of me that I can’t laugh at made-up, hocus-pocus cultural jingoism; perhaps it’s only valuable as an observation, namely, that forced interpretation is absolutely everywhere in today’s Beijing.

I would argue that context can be vicious, and our relationship to it fickle. Removal from it is essential, to me at least, as a reader. Haven’t writers found the same to be true, at times? Xi Chuan pointed out to me that he thinks most about China while he is abroad. Robert Frost wrote his sharpest poems about America while he was in London. Separation seems to be the key to an autonomous perspective, Barthes’ “sideways glance,” which Lucas Klein has paraphrased elsewhere. Western Sinophiles should keep this mind, especially those who join in the Chinese chorus of discontent against writers who seem unconnected to “the current reality” of China today. Being inside the system in no way ensures better writing. Writers are readers first, and their own first readers at least. The media and message here are not only poisonous, they are polarizing, and leave very little headspace in which to hold onto the text and oneself.


# 1.   

Maybe it’s time to revisit Jonathan Spence’s article “Arthur Waley: the explorer who never left home”?

Helen Wang, February 23, 2013, 10:46p.m.

# 2.   

In my experience this has been the case too. The most productive reading experiences I've had while here have actually been books from OTHER places which have more than tangential relevance to conditions here now: Dickens, and Murakami Ryu. I find myself reading much more Chinese stuff when abroad, and fear I'm doomed to a kind of pendulum relationship.

William, February 27, 2013, 2:46p.m.


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