Self-Portrait, by Zhang Xinxin
Returning to Beijing after the Cultural Revolution, Zhang Xinxin burst on to the literary scene in the early 1980s, winning both acclaim and criticism. She is best known internationally for the book Chinese Lives: an oral history of contemporary China, a collection of interviews of people from all walks of life in the mid-1980s, which she co-authored with Sang Ye, 1986, and which was very soon translated into ten or more languages. Where is she now? – she's in the United States, and on weibo. She continues to write, her most recent publication being the novella IT84, published in Shanghai Literature in December 2015.
Many years ago, when I was writing, and working in movies and TV, from screen to stage, I started to think of my own life as source material. To examine that material, I needed time and distance. You could say that self-imposed exile was the option I chose. It turned out to be a much longer journey than I imagined. In 2011, when my autobiography - Me - was finally ready for publication, my editor changed the genre to “autobiographical fiction” – my story touched on sensitive parts of modern Chinese history, and would not have passed the “non-fiction” censors.
Today, looking half way across the world, I see China entering another Cultural Revolution, and I find it more terrifying than before. I am no longer a little girl in a book. I am in a safe place far, far away, unable to help the journalists, lawyers, volunteers, priests, and workers fighting to get paid. I can use the internet as much as I want, but I cannot question things freely online. I saw the birth of the Cultural Revolution as a 12-year-old; I took part in the “blood line” debate on family background; I knew that Yu Luoke [an early critic of the Cultural Revolution] had been arrested, then publicly tried and executed. Whereas today, we have to guess at what's happening… – Zhang Xinxin
This piece was first published in Chinese in Zhang Xinxin’s column 'My Virtual Career', in Shanghai Literature, February 2011, as an introduction to her book Me.
Thirty years ago (am I really so old?!) I was considered to be a totally self-obsessed writer. The novels I wrote were all about me. You can say what you like, I smile.
Twenty years ago I started to write an autobiographical novel. About me. With the title Me. As I was writing, I began to understand why some authors write autobiographical novels in the way that artists paint pictures of themselves. The image of oneself mirrored in one’s memory is a convenient model, available at any hour of the day. No need to make an appointment or to pay. No need to worry about the model getting tired or needing a break. So much material, at such little cost!
I had studied directing, so I looked back at all the things I had at my disposal in the theatre: actors, photography, lighting, sound, make-up, props. In those days, writing was just an extension of myself, something I did in the middle of the night and in the long winter and summer vacations. So many interesting things came in and out of my head that I didn’t have time to write them down. All those stories floating about in mid-air—was it really worth the effort of writing them down, I asked myself. Like clouds, the stories floated on and dispersed.
Then, twenty years ago, I landed on this side of the Pacific with none of those things. All I had at my disposal was a pen and some paper. I took stock of the situation, and decided to bank what I had and write. I was astonished to see myself sitting there so sedately, like a proper writer. The image of myself took me by surprise!
Picturing myself in the novel: Portrait of myself in the mirror of illusion (1)
In painted self-portraits there is seldom any scenery. For example, in Rembrandt’s self-portraits there is nothing in the background; the focus is all on the portrait. But an autobiographical novel needs some reference points to expand the readers’ imagination so they can build up a picture of the main character.
I tried to look at myself from my husband Steve’s perspective. I was born in the year Stalin died; Steve is a U.S. baby boomer! When I looked at myself through his eyes, I discovered that the red songs we sang in my youth, the red dancing, and queuing all night in the dead of winter to buy tickets for the revolutionary ballet sure PK’d his Woodstock! He wasn’t the only one getting high. In his eyes, my Red Guard experience was like being in the Nazi SS; and while he was sailing through high school, university, post-grad studies, and learning about the world, I was the one with the title of 'educated youth'! It was so different from what I saw with my Chinese eyes!
Picturing myself in the novel: Portrait of myself in the mirror of illusion (2)
I had been a farm worker and a soldier in the Chinese army; I tried picturing myself in a Steinbeck novel and in an American war movie. But I realized I had not held either occupation for very long. I was a farm worker for only a year. Then three months into being a soldier, I was wounded and spent the next year and a half in hospital pyjamas. In fact, the longest job I held was my five full years as a nurse in the mobile medical unit at the frontier.
Picturing myself in the novel: Portrait of myself in the mirror of illusion (3)
I imagined myself in the colonial novels of Conrad and Kipling. I saw myself in those stories, in people of my own age.
Yes, I am an opportunist, constantly trying to break into a new occupation, leaping about and not getting dragged down. When I look at my contemporaries who were sent to the countryside for ten years—who were outsiders in the same place for ten years—it seems that their eyes are glazed over with a depressing grayness. I wonder if their thinking has become slower and narrower? Or, perhaps being tied to the same place, they are more rooted than me? Is their experience of the rhythm and value of life different from mine? Individuals respond to their environment in different ways; a month or ten years, does it make much difference? My characters are my background, or you could say I am the background for my characters. I am the scenery, a little bridge for the lives of others to walk over.
When I read the story I wrote about myself, I began to unwind, to stretch out. My parents—my late father, a writer, and my news-photographer mother—had both been present for key moments in history. Why had I not seen this before? The experiences of my parents’ parents and my grandparents’ parents allowed my story to stretch even further back in time. My story was older than me; it went back over a hundred years, perhaps even as far as a thousand years. As I wrote, a sense of pride rose inside; my experiences of growing up had been so much richer than Steve’s smooth path! But why, when I felt so exhilarated while writing, did I feel so stupid, as though I were heading for oblivion again?
In the US, I had tea in the morning, then coffee, and a glass of red wine in the evening. The glass of wine became the torch keeping me going. I couldn’t write any more. I didn’t feel comfortable. So I put my story to one side, like an artist puts a draft to one side, but comes to look at it from time to time, maybe looking at it in the mirror, until suddenly something falls into place, and it’s time to pick up the brush and start painting again. In this respect, painting in oils is very convenient, you can just paint over what was there before. Writing a book over a long period of time was a similar experience: I started with a ball-point pen, but when I changed to a keyboard, there was no trace of any reworking. But it wasn’t reworking. It was deleting. I was deleting myself, removing myself to the trash can, never to be seen again. So I put it away, and started to write other things, to do legal translation, to write TV dramas, anything but Me. I put it away for eight years and didn’t look at it once, but it stayed in my mind, and I thought about it from time to time.
The journey across the world had altered my words. Think of Chinese gales and storms, rain and snow, of crying ghosts and howling wolves in the context of English, and music, and bills to pay. The impact on my writing was overwhelming. I felt I had nothing left, nothing at all. At that critical moment in the creative process, when I would have to re-examine everything that was familiar to me, I opted out. I walked away from the props of my past, I abandoned the people closest to me. At that moment, I needed a couple of thoughts and a text editor more than I needed a lover or readers. No one could possibly know the taste of my loneliness at losing the people I could talk to about writing, who could appreciate the cultural situation in which I found myself and could understand my responses to it. Words, Chinese words—Chinese characters—were the only thing that kept me warm on my long journey. They were the fixed coordinates on my voyage across the sea. They were my treasures, my luxury, my pleasure. They were also essential for keeping myself going, for moving forward. But whenever I saw artists busily sketching away in some part of the world, I felt ashamed that I was not putting my head down and getting on with it.
Did I change the text much? After twenty years I was ready to show people the manuscript. My first readers were literary editors born between the 1930s and 1980s. Each of their responses was a refraction of myself in the mirror. On my own Odyssey, my Voyage across Rivers and Lakes, I had treasured every gust of wind and every shower of rain. I listened, I watched, I tried to sniff out why she/he had reacted in that way. I imagined her/his time and experience, and compared them with my own worries and preoccupations. I left holes in the bigger historical picture because I was not trying to write 'historical material.' But my biggest concern, where I felt most isolated and most vulnerable, was that there were gaps and flaws when I compared the cultures of East and West. I wanted to be light-hearted, I wanted to leap about, I wanted to nourish it, take care of it. I wanted to find a rock-solid editor who would be the opposite of me, who would correct me, improve me. If I could take that first step, then the personal life journey of the first reader-editor would put the wind in my sails.
Twenty years ago, when I put down my pen and started out on my journey, there had been a period of heavy repression. Twenty years later, I was watching my novel race off to the Celestial Empire, proud of its success at becoming the second-largest economy in the world, but with a cultural background so barren. . . .
While I was writing my autobiographical novel, my father, my writer-father, silently read through the first draft. Over all those years he said nothing, knowing only too well the hardships, secrets, and sacrifices of the creative process. As I buried my head in the final revisions, my father left us. . . .
When we look closely at a painted self-portrait, we are drawn to the artist’s focus, to the self-examination, the self-observation. In an autobiographical novel, with its countless pages of rows of characters all neatly arranged, with all their strokes in precisely the right order, there are silent black waves rising and falling on the white sea of paper. As readers scan those pages, do they give a thought to the journey behind it?
Does anyone know that I am an imposter? In the box marked 'occupation', people put me down as a 'writer', but it’s a complete misunderstanding. I don’t belong in that category of advanced creatures. Even as a child, I hated analyzing our writing in class, using primary-school vocabulary, 'getting the message' of an article, 'analyzing the paragraphs', decoding the magic of the text. I didn’t want to read crippled words in dismembered texts; I wanted the adventure of reading for pleasure. So, I am a semi-literate reader, one who has never really understood the great truths about texts. To be honest, it was only when I was a nurse and was teaching myself medical English that I began to pay any attention to my own language. A Chinese sentence doesn’t need a subject?! Is that an inversion?! But I find it is the structure of the text that is the most complicated thing. It requires the greatest mental effort. The structure is the crucial thing; the details come second. However, I’ve always thought that the novel is a very crude art form. The characters, scene, and dialogue are like bricks—it just needs a labourer to put them together. Thank goodness for Microsoft Word, which makes the writing flow so easily (and you can read it so easily), or I’d find it a real effort! When Zhang Chengzhi saw my handwritten manuscript, he described it being like a 'picture', and it’s true, it was like a picture, with sentences scribbled all over the page, and none of them joining up. It would have shocked him.
I am not a 'writer' because, first things first, I can’t bear the standard appearance of writers. Surely you have noticed those dark photos of authors, with that slight droop in the face. All that ruminating on words has an adverse effect on their digestion. Chinese medicine calls it weak spleen, I think. Lots of authors seem to have this appearance, don’t you think, not just Chinese ones? I don’t want to be like that! I don’t see this condition in mathematicians, poets, and monks; they have nice, clear profiles. Maybe it’s because they have purer things on their minds. Novelists have to carry so many characters around, so many scenes, so many wicked thoughts, it’s no wonder they produce so many toxins. I don’t want to self-destruct, and I certainly don’t want to destruct my readers’ desire to read.
[Now for the bombshell] Dare I say it? That I have always thought that my story—of growing up in the hell of the non-stop political mass-movement that has been part of China’s disastrous modern history—could be a really good read. Yes, a really good read. What is the point of writing something ugly and tedious, in that style that only Chinese people read, about themselves? Why is our international cultural image seen as boring, arrogant, and nauseating? Of course, I’m aware that when I think and write like this, the reader and the reflection in the mirror are likely to think of me as a stranger in my own land, and when I look in the mirror, I see that there is some distance, and some clarity.
A painted self-portrait is a concentrated moment in time. A written self-portrait allows space for the passing of time. The growing-up stage merely forms the handle of the mirror in which I see myself—the suicidal maniac, the truant, the happy little pig, the monster in the Cultural Revolution, death’s accomplice. I am being pulled in more directions than 'The Eighteen Songs of the Nomad Flute'. I need a nineteenth song. Am I growing up in the torrent of life? Or remembering the sweet taste of the past? Or reincarnating my way out of oblivion?
When I started writing about myself, the concept of reincarnation was not even a dot on the horizon, and yet it has somehow become the theme of the book!