Last Frankfurt Post: From The National

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

There's plenty more to say about what went on at Frankfurt, but I said most of it in an article for the Abu Dhabi paper The National, which I will link to and leave it at that!


# 1.   

Enjoyed this enlightening and humorous piece, Eric.

Nonetheless, a bit disappointed to see no reference to the business of "exporting" Chinese books, i.e., how successful (or not) the Chinese delegation, China publishers and individual authors were in selling overseas rights to their books. That's an important aspect of such a fair!

One success was King Gesar, Alai's Chinese version of this Tibetan epic, which will apparently be published in English in the not-too-distant future.

It will be interesting to learn how many copyrights were in fact sold, and of course, if more than a handful were for Chinese fiction.

The Chinese authorities came across as uptight and anal (what's new?), but 1-2 years from now, this Frankfurt Book Fair may indeed mark a big upsurge in the publication of translated Chinese books worldwide.

Much the same happened for Turkey in the wake of the fair. But there was a notable difference in behavior at the fair itself: Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, a controversial writer in his homeland once prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness,", and Prime Minister Gül, both actually managed to speak at the same forum -- and sit on the same stage while his opposite took the microphone -- during Turkey's stint as guest at the book fair in 2008.

Such civility! Imagine if China applied to join the EU too...

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

Bruce, October 30, 2009, 5:55a.m.

# 2.   

The business aspect of things is certainly interesting, but that wasn't this article. I am trying to track down more information about that, however – I'd love to see a list of the purported 1,300 titles that were sold…

Sadly, Turkey and China are not analogous, and I suspect it will be a cold day in hell when a high-ranking Chinese official sits down with the likes of Rebiyah Kadeer, much less in a public forum.

Eric Abrahamsen, October 30, 2009, 6:10a.m.

# 3.   

So the writers continue their individual work, harassed, their integrity more or less intact, putting up with the narratives of others until they can get back to their own.

A great ending, Eric, a summary for our times. Perfect.

cindy carter, October 31, 2009, 2:55a.m.

# 4.   

Also, thanks for doing justice to the subtlety with which Li Er sees all sides of a situation. He's the real thing, an author - not a polemicist, apologist, martyr or victim.

Li Er, whose novel Coloratur had just come out in German translation, suggested that the officials are more aware than they seem: “Actually, they know how they appear to foreigners, but they have no choice. If you talk to any one of these officials privately they are quite reasonable, but in public they are required to stick to a script. When they make speeches and statements to the press, their real audience is back home, they are talking to be heard by their superiors and other government departments.” He added that a more enlightened diplomatic tone is almost impossible. “All decisions about what to say are made by a committee, they are handed down from above.

cindy carter, October 31, 2009, 2:56a.m.

# 5.   

Li Er's choice of words is so very Chinese. Culture/publishing officials apparently "have no choice."

Prior to the 1990s, maybe. Nowadays, choice has gradually (if grudgingly) become a basic human right here in China. Few people can say they are owned by their danwei any more.

If officials chose to stick to the Party Line at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair in their contacts with outsiders, that's their choice and they should be held responsible for the rubbish they spouted.

When the Chairwoman of the Chinese Writers Association, Tie Ning, was interviewed and said "What censorship? Artists enjoy great liberties in China," she deserved the roasting she received in the local media.

Given their unique history as a society which lived through Naziism and then Stalinist-inspired East Germany's dictatorship, the Germans understand -- in a very personal way -- how robotic "culture" officials and weak-willed intellectuals can contribute to the dumbing-down and silencing of artists and art.

My hat goes off to all writers and officials in China who realize they do have a choice (有办法!), and have the guts to speak their minds on the job and in their writing. It ain't easy, and there is a price to be paid, but freedom of expression is not "free" in any society.

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

Bruce, October 31, 2009, 4:50a.m.

# 6.   

The article only glances off the subject of Chinese officials and their bizarre sub-society, unfortunately – a subject which could fill a whole book.

I have a very hard time with these issues, to be honest. I feel that, morally speaking, I'm looking at one of those negative-space drawings where you either see two faces or a flower vase, but never both at once. By which I mean, I thunk back and forth from an idealist to a practical point of view. In the former mood, I completely agree with what Bruce is saying – there is no excuse for complicity; the world is full of examples of oppression met with bravery; one always has the choice.

But in a practical mood, I disagree entirely: the government is not waiting for some cumulative number of acts of defiance before it admits it was wrong and starts making amends. If it cedes authority it does so because it is forced to, not because it knows deep down that it should. There is no belief among those in power that they owe anything to anyone. They are not suppressing any awareness of their own wrongdoing. There is no conscience to prick.

In these circumstances, noble sacrifices are all but pointless. One sacrifice goes unnoticed, 100 sacrifices are cause for concern, 10,000 sacrifices means that things are seriously getting out of control, and it's time to call in the fixers to "fix" things. That's it. There will never be an opening into which someone can throw a "Have you left no sense of decency?" and bring the whole thing down. It's like something out of a sci-fi movie: the more you shoot it the stronger it gets.

I've said this before, but I think a writer like Han Han does far more than a writer like Ma Jian to advance the cause of freedom in China. Ma Jian is by far the nobler figure, but his voice is not heard, whereas when Han Han says "Hey kids, tell your teachers to fuck off!" he is heard by literally millions. When that generation of kids grows up, they'll be perhaps the first generation in two thousand years of Chinese history who are in the habit of saying "fuck you" to authority. The mind boggles.

Eric Abrahamsen, October 31, 2009, 7:53a.m.

# 7.   

Mr Humes, sir, a little calm:

1: "有办法!", or "Yo Banfa!" as the title was written, was a bloody fascinating book, being based, as it was, on Rewi Alley's diary entries in 1950 and 1951. The very early 50s is the period of modern Chinese history that intrigues me most, considering all that was written in or about that period is so full of an almost childish hope for a brighter future. And just look how it turned out....

2: If my boss asks me to help him find new teachers or help entertain visiting VIPs, of course I'm going to spout the "party" line. Why? Because he's my boss. He pays me, he gets my loyalty, that's how it goes. What makes it all especially easy for me is that I like my boss and I'm quite happy with what goes on here. The way I see it, Tie Ning and the other officials sent to Frankfurt are in the same position. They're paid to put a certain view across, so regardless of what they may personally feel, they're going to espouse the "party line". It's their job. You don't like what they have to say, and nor do I, but that's their job, so fair play.

Chris Waugh, October 31, 2009, 10:55a.m.

# 8.   

Despite having just ranted, and despite basically agreeing with Chris above, I have to say I'm with Bruce on the Tie Ning question (at last, my sympathy for Tie Ning runs out).

Sure, she was there at the behest of her employers. Sure, her job was to make China look good. Sure, the German journalist was being obnoxious. But good lord, can't she figure out that the hour is far, far too late to pretend there's no censorship in China? Has her camel fallen that far behind the caravan?

So this was one of the issues I addressed in passing – that officials (and in this case Tie Ning had her official hat on) are obliged to stick to the party line, even when it damages their own cause. Mo Yan was smart enough to first admit that the Writers Association was just a government body, and then go on to blunt his criticism by pointing out that the Association doesn't really do anything. He's "only" a writer, he has the freedom to dance around the Party line rather than glueing his toes to it. But Tie Ning does not have this freedom. She is not authorized to wink at the foreigners and say "well, just between you and me…" As an official she is Answerable, and the people to whom she answers would not give two shits that she actually improved the situation by admitting that hey, sure, there's a little censorship but we're working on it. They do not care in the slightest what foreigners think, they care that everyone keep their hands inside the bus at all times, and that's all. They are military people, they do not like their peas touching their mashed potatoes, if a soldier disobeys orders – regardless of whether she improves the situation by doing so – the soldier will be disciplined. And nothing would improve. That's the real problem: nothing improves, no lessons are learned. This is why the government will go along exactly as it has, making surface concessions without relinquishing an iota of essential control, right up until the moment it can't.

Eric Abrahamsen, October 31, 2009, 2:12p.m.

# 9.   

By the way, did you notice that there are videos on Youtube from Frankfurt, made by the Bookfair. Like this one, where they talk about their guest: "The Republic of China":

Anna GC, October 31, 2009, 9:07p.m.

# 10.   

RE:Eric Camels fallen Ha! The Camels have lost but refuse to admit it.

Joy, November 22, 2009, 4:18p.m.


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