Lantern Bearers

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

Cindy and I are currently working together on a subtitle translation project, for the short documentary films coming out of Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale project. Among the 1,001 Chinese people that Ai Weiwei shipped to Kassel, Germany, fifteen or sixteen filmmakers were included, and they’ve produced a series of small films about certain of the ‘artists’.

My first short film centered around Gouzi and Zhang Chi, which was a pleasant surprise as I’ve only known them, Gouzi in particular, by their writing. Gouzi is mostly famous for being drunk, it seems, and in fact the whole hour-long spot is sodden (the first shot is Zhang Chi blarging in someone’s bathroom). Most of it takes place at group dinners in various restaurants and living rooms around Beijing. The subjects represent a certain slice of Beijing’s literary community – 35 to 50, once hot young bloods, all devastated in one way or the other by the events of June 4th, 1989.

A surprising amount of the film touches on June 4th. After a couple crates of beer, dinner conversation begins to touch obliquely on the past – no one makes any burning declamations, but small recollections and bitter statements are bandied about, and develop into a tense interplay of humor, cynicism, anger and plain old wounded sorrow. There’s also a one-on-one interview with someone named Gao, who speaks more directly about his experiences on that day.

For the most part, these are damaged people. I think it’s safe to say that not one of them has become what he might have been. Their hopes and ideals have been defeated by violent politics, by public indifference, by consumerist culture, and now they make up a carnival of odd characters – poets of futility, tragic clowns, silent mourners.

At one end of the spectrum is Zhang Chi: a little bit pompous, a little bit vain, a little bit cowardly, but unquestioned lord of the gathering. Everyone seems to put up with him for the sake of his flamboyant energy. Gouzi, diffident and silent, is his natural counterpart. After a few beers he starts talking earnestly about Important Things: the most touching part of the film is when he gets determined to tell the camera his grand theories about Chinese society, and then turns out to be too drunk to remember them. After a few false starts, he returns morosely to his beer. Somewhere around here I’ve got an article by him called Mang Ke and Zhang Chi and I Are Drinking, which I’ll try to translate and post in the next few days.

Listening to the banter of the poets, writers and posers suddenly made me think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay The Lantern Bearers, about a society of young boys who carried bull’s-eye lanterns under their coats.

We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt and over them, such was the rigour of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more. … When two of these asses met, there would be an anxious “Have you got your lantern?” and a gratified “Yes!” That was the shibboleth, and very needful too; for, as it was the rule to keep our glory contained, none could recognise a lantern-bearer, unless (like the polecat) by the smell.

The boys, of course, are carrying their lanterns for the sheer pleasure of a shared secret.The shared secret of this particular society of writers is far less pleasurable, but operates the same way. The signs are surreptitiously displayed, the acknowledgement given. It’s an assurance that they bear the same scars; they feel the same vague sense of shame (however unearned); that certain things should and will be left unsaid. It is also a mutual recognition of hidden ideals that are still burning.


# 1.   

Lovely analogy. I love when I read things like this that tie Western literature and culture that of China. Maybe I'm reaching here, but I feel like it takes some of the edge off of the 'oriental exceptionalism' that tends creeps into Western sinology.

Did you ever translate the essay?

Nick Stember, March 25, 2013, 12:01a.m.


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