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Striking a Chinese Conversation

SzeBookCvr.jpgIt takes a long time to read and digest a book like Chinese Writers on Writing. The Dresser encountered news of this writerly anthology edited and compiled by Arthur Sze at a Split This Rock panel, which took place in March 2010. Chinese Writers on Writing contains essays, poems, fiction, and interview excerpts from 41 Chinese writers. These works span from 1917 to present time. The work says a lot about politics on every level from personal to worldwide. It comments on the Cultural Revolution, the May Fourth Movement, the tension between mainland China and Taiwan, and many other events of importance. In many ways, this book is more an historical reference offering a barebones skeleton of contemporary Chinese writing than the usual anthology skimming the cream of the writing crop.


Important to know is that this anthology belongs to the series The Writer's World edited by the poet and critic Edward Hirsch. Other books in this series include Hebrew Writers on Writing (2008: edited by Peter Cole), Irish Writers on Writing (2007: edited by Eavan Boland), Mexican Writers on Writing (2007: edited by Margaret Sayers Peden), and Polish Writers on Writing (2007: edited by Adam Zagajewski). On September 29, 2010 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Dresser heard Hirsch read from his work and later speak with the audience. This gave the Dresser an opportunity to ask Hirsch to talk about The Writer's World. He said each anthology presents "a national conversation on writing" that often reveals the inside story about what writers of a particular nation are/were thinking.


While the Dresser is neophyte to the world of contemporary Chinese literature, she has probably read books (in English translation) by more Chinese authors than the average American reader. While this is not saying much, it does put in context a base from which the Dresser writes this essay. Her list includes books by such authors as Anchee Min (Red Azalea), Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress), Bi Feiyu (The Moon Opera), and Jung Chang (Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China). Authors of Chinese ancestry possibly more familiar to American readers are novelist Amy Tan and poet Li-Young Lee.

In Chinese Writers on Writing, probably the only familiar name to most English-speaking readers is Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Mao's contribution is an excerpt from "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art" in which Mao states that literature and art must be for the people and not an elevated expression for the elite. While literature for the people matches Mao's politics, one might also think about what Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) achieved by choosing to write such works as The Decameron in Italian vernacular versus the scholarly language of Latin. Periodically throughout history, writers--including Chinese writers as Sze points out--spurned elite audiences in favor of a broader base. It strikes the Dresser that while Sze's anthology comes from an academic source--Trinity University Press, this collection is reasonably accessible. One meets Chinese writers like Mo Yan (b. 1956) whose novel Red Sorgham was rendered into film by Zhang Yimou as was Yu Hua's (b. 1960) To Live. The main problem is that it is hard to hold onto an author for whom the reader gets a page of biography and then maybe only one piece of writing. This is precisely why the Dresser thinks this book could serve as an anchor for exploring some of the authors presented.


Sze has done a good job at capturing the modern Chinese ars poetica that involves a debate about whether contemporary writing should build or divorce from the literature of the past and whether it should take inspiration from Western literature. The Dresser might add that all good writing begins with the poetic impulse. This is what distinguishes literature from technical writing.

Sze begins the anthology with Hu Shi (1891-1962) and Lu Xun (1881-1936) who were both critics of old literature. In "Some Modest Proposals for the Reform of Literature," Hu Shi lays out eight tenets for his reform. Tenet 2 states, "do not imitate the ancients." Tenets 5, 6, and 7 prohibit hackneyed and formal language, allusions, and parallelisms. Lu Xun, who is considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese writing, broke with the tradition of the omniscient author as well as writing in vernacular Chinese. According to the literary critics, Lu Xun's story "The True Story of Ah Q"--the anthology contains an excerpt--is the first modern work to fully use vernacular Chinese [bai hua].


One recurring influence on contemporary Chinese writers in this collection that surprised the Dresser was French literature. This included Mao Dun (1896-1946) who helped promote in translation Gustave Flaubert, Émile Zola, and Honoré de Balzac; poets Dai Wangshu (1905-1950), Ji Xian (b. 1913), and Bian Zhilin (1910-2000) who were influenced by the French symbolists; poet Ai Qing ((1910-1996) who was influenced by modern French poetry; Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gao Xingjian (b. 1940) and Leung Ping-kwan (b. 1949). Of these writers, what sticks in the Dresser's head is what Mao Dun had to say about race:

"Literature and race are closely connected. ...the Oriental races [minzu] have a strong mystical streak, and their literature is thus also supernatural. ... The Teutons are tough and stoic and moreover have the quality of moderation; same is true of their literature. Even if they write a love story, when it reaches a sorrowful ending, the emotional intensity will never be as unbridled as would a Frenchman's. ... " from "Literature and Life"

The Dresser suspects that many modern Chinese writers have looked at French literature to learn how to release centuries of pent up emotions.


And yes, American literature has made its mark on various Chinese writers. For example, Yu Jian (b. 1954) points to Walt Whitman as an important influence. However, what got the Dresser's attention were his statements like "Metaphor becomes a means of transportation, disguising itself as poetry. ... Metaphor equals mask. Chinese culture is a 'metaphor culture.' Poetry today rejects metaphor."

Also the Dresser noticed quite a few of Sze's choices had some on campus experience at the University of Iowa which is known both for its international program for creative writing and for its Iowa Writers' Workshop where many American experimentalists gather for degrees and support. For example, in 1964 Taiwanese Yang Mu (b. 1940) known for his ability to blend old Chinese literary tradition with innovative writing attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop and went on to earn an Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa in 1966.


Of the 41 poets in Chinese Writers on Writing, 11 are women. What's interesting about the women who Sze selected is that they include women writing on subjects with female interest versus women writers who are noted for their experimental approaches. Ding Ling (1904-1986), who was influenced by Flaubert's Madame Bovary and a disciple of Lu Xun, was an activist for women's rights. While she gained favor with Mao and was included in his "Talks at the Yan'an Forum on Literature and Art," she also published an editorial lamenting how women were treated under Communist rule.

With "Black Night Consciousness," an essay written in 1985 by Zhai Yongming (b. 1955), Sze presents for the first time in English translation an important statement on feminist poetics. The essay begins:

"Now is the moment when at last I've become powerful. Or perhaps I should say that now I've finally become aware of the world around me and of the implications of my place in it. An individual and universal inner consciousness--I call this Black Night consciousness--has ordained that I be the bearer of female [nüxing] consciousness, beliefs, and feelings, and that I directly take that charge upon myself, and put it into what I see as the best work I can do on behalf of that consciousness. Namely poetry."

The Dresser calls attention to the word nüxing or nǚxìng (adding the Mandarin tone marks) 女性, which means the female sex. However, this word is not far from 奴性 [núxìng], which means in Mandarin servility. Surprisingly nú with a rising tone means slave while [nǚ] with falling and rising tone means woman 女. Given that Chinese culture has always been patriarchal and that even the language subjugates women, writers like Zhai Yongming have to wage a Sisyphean battle to make a place for themselves in the world of Chinese literature.

Wang Ping (b. 1957), the Dresser's met her and read some of her books at Split This Rock, is one such writer who discusses the barriers and joys of language. The anthology contains her essay "Writing in Two Tongues," which delves into the challenges of writing poetry in Chinese and English.

"Since my writing walks the tightrope between languages and cultures, there's no old word for me, be it English or Chinese. Every time I use a word, I enter a virgin forest. I cut and chop to open new paths. ... I dig for roots hidden treasure, forgotten history. ...

"As I make a new path in my virgin English forest, I also clear the old road in my Chinese one. When the two roads converge, I arrive at a new world of space and time, where the sun and moon shine together in the sky... Words freed from grammar and clichés, become flexible and fluid. A noun is a verb is a preposition is an adjective is a conjunction at once and all times. Words are no long abstract signs or signifiers..."
from "Writing in Two Tongues"

CIMG0379SzeHead.jpgThere are many gems in Chinese Writers on Writing. This anthology is a way to begin one's own conversation with modern day China, Chinese culture wherever it exists, and its writers. The Dresser tips her hat to Arthur Sze for the hard work he has done in this collection and to Ed Hirsch for having such a large vision of the world.


Comments (1)

Ellen Rappaport:

What a fascinating piece.

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