Ma Jian

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

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.


# 1.   

"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."

Writers seem to rarely make good leaders - they're kind of opposite social orientations, aren't they? But I'm not sure writers can't contribute to these fights, by creating a language in which they are discussed and developing an understanding of how such situations work. Yan Lianke's latest was surely an effort in this direction? Right now, people barely have the vocabulary to talk about Chen Guangcheng and Zhou Litai. A few novels with lawyers in them could soon help right that situation.

I completely agree that the fight needs to be fought, and is being fought, at the local level; but I reckon this is the level at which writers are uniquely well placed to help, because you don't need a mass movement to get compensation for your land; you don't need a leader to demand that women have the right not to be forcibly sterilised. All you need is a decent alternative narrative to pure state control that people can understand and follow. And creating narratives is definitely what writers do.

Phil, June 7, 2008, 12:34a.m.

# 2.   

" 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. " Eric Abrahamsen, above

" In China, every aspect of life is political, including literature. " Ma Jian, Times Online

I would tend to agree with both of these statements. But I think one of the reasons they are (sadly) true is that both Ma Jian and the Communist Party have very demanding, and narrow, expectations of what a writer is and should do.

Ma Jian seems to want writers in China to live up to his, and Mao Ze-Dong's, ideal that writers should "serve the people," as the latter stated at the (in)famous Yenan Forum in 1942. We should not forget that Ma Jian is now based in the West and can presumably survive on earnings from writing what he pleases, and Mao Ze-Dong made his living as an emperor, not a literati.

Over the years I have seen that this expectation to serve the people is a heavy burden for most artists in China, misdirecting, even crushing their creativity and yes, pushing them towards self-censorship. I find many writers here limited not just in what they create, but even in terms of what they can actually "see" in society at large. Because for them, perhaps, there is little point in seeking to perceive things openly and without pre-judgement, when one knows that those perceptions will have to be airbrushed or massaged or even massively re-packaged before they can appear as published literature.

So, for my part, I would recommend that writers here get on with their lives precisely as they see fit. I don't expect French, Japanese or American writers to be totally politically engaged, or to serve on a 24/7 basis as the conscience of their respective nations; so it seems unfair to hold Chinese writers up to that standard.

As Chinese writers just say "No" to the politicized concepts of "writer" shared (ironically) by the likes of Ma Jian and the Party, they will gradually find their voices and their consciences. Inevitably, the writing will become dramatically more diverse, more critical and, simply, more genuine.

Bruce Humes

 Bruce, June 7, 2008, 2:25a.m.

# 3.   

Thanks, Eric (and Bruce and Phil) for this useful discussion. I want to raise a slightly different issue. On Tuesday 3 June, I attended an English PEN event in London entitled "Chinese whispers...are Chinese writers free to face up to the difficult issues facing their society in the twenty-first century, or are they forced to speak in a whisper?...” [this was one of several suggested topics, but basically the only one discussed.] English PEN says it "campaigns to improve the understanding of freedom of expression as a fundamental human right" ( so you would expect the discussion to be focussed more on politics than on literature, as indeed it was. All the more important, then, that the debate should be balanced and the speakers well-informed. The three Chinese speakers were Ma Jian, Liu Hong Cannon and Diane Wei Liang (the latter two writein English). I was disappointed, not to say infuriated, by the evening: it was dominated by a rant from Ma Jian, similar in tone and content to his 30 May Times article. I wrote down the following sentence (Ma Jian said it in Chinese, Flora Drew interpreted): Chinese writers can only do three things in China today - collaborate, remain silent or leave the country. This is a misleading and skewed statement in my judgment, and insulting to many writers in China. Why does it matter? Because Ma Jian is probably the most politicised and most vocal of diaspora Chinese writers. People do listen to what he says. Some of the audience came knowing very little of what life is really like in China - and went away knowing just as little, it seemed to me. (For example, towards the end, someone asked whether the three speakers were able to return to China. Diane and Liu Hong looked at each in some surprise, and said, yes, they go back every year. Even Ma Jian said that he could go back, just not publish there.) With the number and the quality of cultural events on China available this year in the UK, we should surely be able to leave the Cold War behind and talk about China as it really is, in all its complexity. In fairness, please let me emphasise that Diane and Liu Hong expressed completed different views, when they could get a word in edgeways. Also, Ma Jian writes much better than he speaks - however good the interpreter, it can't be easy engaging in a debate where everything needs to be interpreted for you.

 Nicky Harman, June 7, 2008, 7:03a.m.

# 4.   

I'm now reading Ma Jian's novel, Beijing Coma, translated by Flora Drew. It's only the latest in a series of Chinese novels, stories, memoirs, and essays I've tackled in the last few months, hoping to get a better feel for the texture and customs of Chinese society. A few I will mention, all well known, are Wild Swans, Dictionary of Mcau (sp? -- don't have it in front of me), Serve the People, Red Dust, and The Corpse Walkers. So I am only a beginner.

But as I am widely read in Western literature -- having been reading it for half a century -- there is already one generalization I feel comfortable in making:

The literature of the Cultural Revolution and of the Maoist era in general is far superior to the literature of the Holocaust and to the literature of the old Soviet Union under Stalin. Not that the tragedy was any greater but the Chinese people can write! They put Primo Levi and Solzhenitsyn to shame. Western readers by and large have no idea of the verbal talent that was nourished in China during the second half of the 20th century. There was indeed a cultural revolution and not just in China but in world literature. There has really been nothing like it since the modernist movement in Europe in the first half of the last century in my humble opinion. The only thing that prevents it from being more widely recognized and appreciated is the barrier of the language, which to a Westerner appears at first sight frightfully strange and impenetrable. But with good translators the richness, the humor, the emotions, the sex and the love (!) turn out to be as universal as anything in a Tolstoy or a Joice and better than Bellow and Updike.

This is just my opinion of course. But I know good literature when I see it and this is some of the best ever written. Keep translating!

Luke Lea, July 21, 2012, 7:46p.m.

# 5.   

That should be Joyce, of course. I wrote my thesis on Ulysses.

Luke Lea, July 21, 2012, 7:48p.m.

# 6.   

And please do email me:

Luke Lea, July 21, 2012, 8:03p.m.


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