Talking about China - Ma Jian and Confucius

By Nicky Harman, published

I originally sent this as a comment on Eric's piece about Ma Jian's recent articles, but am now posting it with a few added comments:

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 in the short time available.] 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 well-informed.

The three Chinese speakers were Ma Jian, Liu Hong Cannon and Diane Wei Liang (the latter two write in English). I was disappointed, not to say frustrated, by the evening's event: 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. A one-dimensional rant does nothing to increase understanding. (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 - it is obviously more difficult to engage in debate where everything needs to be interpreted for you, no matter how good the interpreter.)

Can there ever be a well-informed debate about China when most of the participants are non-specialists? Well, take for example, the discussion which followed Jonathan Spence’s first Reith lecture this week on Confucius, on BBC Radio 4*. Index on Censorship, Amnesty and the church were all represented in the audience, and the basis of the lecture may have been historical, but the ensuing discussion focussed on contemporary moral and political issues. It did not matter that those who asked questions had clearly come prepared to say their piece, no matter how distant the link to Confucianism; the discussion was interesting on many levels, and one hopes it succeeded in opening up the debate about China in people's minds.

*Still available here as a podcast; a half-hour lecture was followed by half an hour of questions.


# 1.   

The discussion following the lecture was more interesting than the speech itself, but I have to say that this was not much of a stretch as Jonathan Spence is an incredibly boring public speaker. The man speaks in such obviously pompous tones as to make him quite painful to listen to.

FOARP, June 12, 2008, 11:02a.m.


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