Copyright © by Su Zi, 7/29/09
When motivational speakers were in vogue, and employees required en masse to attend such assemblies, one such speaker pontificated this query upon a couple thousand teachers: Why are children not being taught Chinese? Despite the appalled silence that followed—reflective of more than that community, no doubt—listeners were exhorted into consideration of the influence of China upon American culture. Indeed, one cannot be an American consumer and effectively demonstrate xenophobia toward China; nor can one be a snob, because China produces goods across the economic spectrum.
Despite the ubiquitous nature of commercial products of Chinese origin, products made entirely or in part as a result of Chinese manufacturing (even Harley Davidson uses some Chinese parts), contributions to culture seem closer to tokenism than to the saturation in America of everything else Chinese. A shrewd awareness of culture available in America will immediately recognize consistency with the suppression of culture in America in general: reduced to that which qualifies as entertainment—movies and music—with meager offerings in all other arts. Not that work is not made, but America does not have a flowering of the arts, has not for decades; so much so that our citizenry’s value for the arts has been supplanted by other items, the more quickly consumed the better.
Nonetheless, literature –specifically novels—that are products of Chinese, or American-born Chinese, authors are sufficiently available in English to allow Americans deeper thought about China. Whereas and unfortunately, a large percentage of American citizens will prefer deafness to the voice of China – beyond their materials, shopping needs –there’s little argument that China has become a world leader, if not the world leader, in exported production globally. It is incumbent upon those of us for whom literature matters to consider thus China’s literary contribution.
From a global perspective, Nobel Literature laureate Gao Xingjian’s novel Soul Mountain ( Lingshan) illuminates both the author’s perspective on China and a point of view about the potentials of structure of the genre itself. For American readers, indeed for those readers for whom western hegemonic structure is an undisputed chronological thrust, Soul Mountain may prove disconcerting reading. Although the timeframe of the novel eventually encompasses most of a year, the reader’s perception of time is by and of the weather experienced by the protagonist, who remains unnamed. The novel itself is set in time through the protagonist’s interaction with the landscape – deforestation, the construction of a dam over the Yangtze River—which place it at the end of the 20th century; however, much of the book is set also in myth and history, which are written as part of the protagonist’s awareness. Because the novel’s point of view is entirely through that of the internal meditations of the protagonist, the reader becomes a dreamy inhabitant of this one human traveling.
Apparently, the translator of Soul Mountain, Mabel Lee, had some decisions regarding pronoun usage in the original text. The twelve paragraph translator’s introduction, which also places the novel during 1983, dedicates a paragraph of the three paragraph plot summary to the novel’s alternate use of I and you. In some sections, the novel’s use of you might be construed as the formal use of one, and perhaps thou. In other sections, the author addresses the reader and meditates about the writer-reader relationship: “In this lengthy soliloquy you are the object of what I relate, a myself who listens intently to me—you are simply my shadow”(312). A few lines further, the reader is addressed as “You who are the partner of my conversation transform my experiences and imagination”(312). Whereas the novel concerns itself in this passage with the ongoing relationship between the protagonist and a character who becomes a traveling companion, this later shifts directly to the author and reader: ‘the totality of my misfortunes also exist within you, the unlucky demon I have invoked […] having invoked you, it is impossible to get rid of you”(314). This naked authorial meditation becomes the novel’s climax, because the author posits the work as existing as a product of a dual-consciousness born of the author and reader.
It is through this dual consciousness that we view this trip through China; specifically the areas affected by a dam on the Yangtze River in the area of the Three Gorges, which the author says “lies on a geological fault and has many documented records of landslides throughout its history”(48). The focus of the novel is a view of what will be lost: “blocking off the river and putting up a dam will destroy the entire ecology of the Yangtze River basin but if it leads to earthquakes the population of hundreds of millions living in the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze will become fish and turtles”(48). The novel’s tone of imminent loss is explored ecologically through the author’s travels to nature reserves, but we, as Americans, are mostly inured to the pain of ecological destruction.
The novel also discusses the loss of history through the loss of physical location: “He shows me a four-thousand-year-old stone dagger, ground and polished to a jade-like sheen, which was unearthed in the area […] Along both banks of the Yangtze they have excavated many beautifully crafted stone implements as well as red pottery from the later period of the Neolithic Age” (306). The novel wonders at the value of that which is both priceless and worthless , of the value of culture and history: “ When this ridiculous dam is built, even this ancient Han Dynasty wall will be submerged so what meaning would there be in collecting the memories of people of remote antiquity “(308). It is the author’s search for meaning, taking the reader along the physical and internal journey of this meditation, that then leaves the reader with that same struggle. American readers, those for whom literature matters, are brought into sharp confrontation—through China’s self-destruction—with that of our own.
Although Gao XingJian is now an expatriate, Soul Mountain brings up a number of thematic elements that seem to both span into the past and prognosticate other literature. Within Chinese literary history, and predating Soul Mountain by two centuries is Shen Fu’s Six Records of a Floating Life. A literary text written autobiographically and episodically, with the episodes following themes of family, art and travel. Because of their archetypical nature, these themes are familiar even to dilettante readers; they are the traditional subject of glossy periodicals, whether or not the articles are intended for American audiences.
There is much in Shen Fu’s text that is echoed in that of Gao XingJian’s. In Shen Fu’s introduction to his section on travel, he states: “Thus there are famous scenic spots which I do not feel are anything extraordinary, and there are unknown places that I think are quite wonderful”(10). Although two hundred years separate the travels of Shen Fu to that of Gao XingJian, Shen Fu did travel the lower Yangtze River valley, which is half of the terrain traveled in Soul Mountain. For those with some sense of the impact of geography upon history, many of the places mentioned by both Shen Fu and Gao XingJian will be familiar. A 1971 Horizon article on The Long March detail Mao’s crossing the Yangtze River as “the most brilliant strategic episode”(75). Whereas Gao XingJian does not make direct reference to this recent history –preferring references that can also be found in Shen Fu—the terrain traveled in Soul Mountain is also of the upper Yangtze region, through which terrain it appears the Long March troops also traveled. Both Gao and Shen visited towns and temples, remarked on hotels, hired boats and food. Both authors were sensitive to the landscape, to the vegetation in a way that is not typical of the travel writing with which American readers may be accustomed.
More importantly is the attention paid, in both Soul Mountain and Six Records of a Floating Life, to the impact and influence of a higher mind: one gleans from both authors that an awareness—a deep education—in poetry and painting in an inestimable core value. Shen Fu describes a game at which participants gambled, not by who had the best poker hand, but by who wrote the best poem (65). At another time, painting was competitive entertainment:
Hsing-tan then took a sheet of blank paper, put it up on the wall, and painted in the shadows with heavy and light ink, depending on whether they were dark or light as they were cast on the paper. We took it down and looked at it in the daylight, and while it could not be considered a true painting, he had captured the natural serenity of the leaves in the moonlight. Yun treasured it and we all wrote inscriptions on it (66). Gao XingJian, on the other hand, is mourning a culture on the verge of extinction. The protagonist’s nominal explanation for his journey is one of anthropology: collecting folk songs. The endangerment of this oral tradition is explained by their loss and by the censorship of the songs in written form:
He says that he knew an old master singer who had a brass chest full of song books, amongst which was a complete set of The Record of Darkness .At the time they were confiscating old books and The Record of Darkness had been targeted in the search for reactionary and superstitious works. The old man buried the brass chest. A few months later he dug out the chest and found the books had gone mouldy so he spread them out in the courtyard to dry. He was seen and reported. The head of the forest district had the public security officials come and the old man was forced to hand over the whole set. It wasn’t long afterwards that he died. “Where else can reverence of the soul be found? Where else can we find these old songs which one should listen to while seated in quiet reverence or even while prostrated be found? What should be revered isn’t revered and instead only all sorts of things are worshipped! A race with empty, desolate souls! A race of people who have lost their souls!” I angrily declare(360-361). It is at such climatic moments that the sense of loss that pervades Soul Mountain is obvious to even the most obtuse reader.
To those few American readers for whom the resonance of literary works keeps us from having “empty, desolate souls”, the theme of the necessity, impact and influence of a higher mind –what in Chinese culture is called a scholar, and what in American culture is pejoratively termed as intellectual—is continued in the work of Chinese expatriated author Ha Jin. Two of his novels, The Crazed and In The Pond, consider the value of scholarly pursuits upon an individual’s self and social worth.
Politics and scholarship are historically at odds; only a flaccid mind will burn a book. Nonetheless, social and political forces have violence and torture in ubiquitous usage, and flaying the flesh to suppress the mind has provided the most criminal chapters in human history worldwide. Ha Jin’s The Crazed takes place in China during the time “some students are making big scenes in Beijing”(109), and is set at a university where “ some pseudo-intellectuals […] sole ambition was to enter officialdom”(104). The text’s debate, illustrated through the dark comedy of its characters, is of the worth of pure intellectual achievement, and what happens when ambition, ego, emotion and social constraint stymie the life of the mind. Told through the point of view of an insufferably callow graduate student, the core character is a professor who, addled from a stroke, speaks as oracle and foil to the ivory tower. A victim of politics and the egregious practices of the Cultural Revolution, Professor Yang’s view—and that of the novel—is a dark as his symbolic name.
In opposition to the futility of a scholarly mind is Ha Jin’s novel In the Pond, where the protagonist Bin finds ultimate solace and eventual success through use of his talented ink brush and awareness of poetry. Despite the Goldberg machine comedy of autocratic dunces plot, Ha Jin’s novel reaffirms how a scholar stymies the machinations of low-level managers. The systematic comedy pointedly delineates the dichotomy between the scholar-intellectual and the barbarous ignorance that seems to have the demographic majority. When Bin paints a gift to a reporter, Ha Jin’s description of Bin’s painting process shows awareness of technique and Chinese painting’s history (120). When Bin views his work, “He had recalled the process of creating it, and felt as if something had just gushed out of his chest and splashed onto the paper”(122). Later, when Bin presents the painting to the reporter Song, he is “mortified by the rough way Song had handled the painting […]Without doubt Song was ignorant of the fine arts, unable to appreciate real work”(125). Ha Jin furthers this when he has Bin muse: Every educated Chinese understood that a work of art could be neither eaten nor worn –it had no practical value at all and only showed the artist’s cultivation and personality. Presenting someone with a painting was something like a spiritual exchange and was absolutely appropriate and necessary for the occasion. Those cadres on the investigating team were benighted country boors (138). Indeed, Ha Jin’s characterization is symbolic, for although idiomatically different, even American rural people denigrate our “benighted boors” with the muttered oath “inbred”.
Although Ha Jin is an expatriated Chinese, thus an American immigrant, he writes in English while preserving a sensibility in concordance with Shen Fu and Gao XingJian, who must be read in translation. His point of view remains consistently with that of the voiceless, and it especially harrowing in the depiction of a soldier in combat with Korea in War Trash, or the existentially miserable doctor in Waiting. While Americans are absorbed with their own military minutia, the short stories set on the Russian front in Ocean of Words show Ha Jin’s insight into the brute idiocy and boredom of post soldiering anywhere, while maintaining particulars of Chinese sensibility and location. Thus and in many floating records, Ha Jin maintains this duality of consciousness. American culture is an exercise in tokenism, and literary anthologies used by educational institutions are blatant examples. As such, it is difficult to find a more widely anthologized work of Chinese sensibility than Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Kingston dedicates some twenty pages of the novel to the legend of Fa Mu Lan– a legend also appropriated by Disney corporation. While Gao XingJian makes multiple retellings of legends—especially thematic is a Wild Man of the Mountain—the legends in Soul Mountain are fluid, mixing with the protagonist’s dreaming, with poems, memories, history. Kingston’s dual consciousness is that of the child of immigration: a theme of portents whether or not the reader’s genetic origin is or is not that of China.
As for the duality of the Chinese immigrant, Ha Jin’s work A Free Life describes again the failed scholar, who finds Kingston and Long Island born author Gish Jen on a friend’s bookcase. Ironically, protagonist Nan spends time in a restaurant, which is also true of the protagonist in Gish Jen’s Typical American. While Kingston’s duality also contains of meditations on the role of women, Ha Jin’s characters ever meditate on the value of poetry, as in A Free Life when Nan muses: He wondered why Mr. Chu had let national pride supersede the value of his poetry, as though patriotism and literary arts should be judged by the same criteria. As an accomplished poet, he should see the function of his poetry was to transcend history and outlast politics and that a poet should be responsible mainly for the language he used”(95). Despite the character’s struggle in the outward world, Ha Jin’s texts illuminate nuanced struggles of mind that may be a more fluid reading experience for English language natives. Additionally, although Gish Jen employs a thoroughly enjoyable sardonic humor, Ha Jin’s jibes at the American literary world in A Free Life are delicious.
Although American culture remains vainglorious, it is always unwise to invest in narcissism. Whereas the scholar-intellectual ought not to be handicapped by benighted boors, and we are, hopefully, not yet in our own fascist book-burning revolution, literature of Chinese or Chinese-sensibility origin is worthy of diligent exploration. Whether or not the romance of feng shui influences the color of the kitchen paint, the reality of Chinese production is in the cabinets. Americans would be prudent to invest their higher minds in the work of Chinese and Chinese-sensibility origin authors as well.
References note: because Chinese family names—surnames—are listed first, but Americanized names list these second, the reference below are listed idiosyncratically:
Corrnelli Barnett “Mao’s Long March” Horizon Winter 1971
Gao XingJian Soul Mountain HarperCollins 2000
Gish Jen Typical American Houghton Mifflin 1991
Ha Jin Ocean of Words Vintage 1998
Waiting Vintage 2000
In the Pond Vintage 2000
The Crazed Pantheon 2002
War Trash Vintage 2005
A Free Life Vintage 2009
Maxine Hong Kingston The Woman Warrior Vintage 1989
Shen Fu Six Records of a Floating Life Penguin 1983
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