The French writer and philosopher Voltaire once said: “We have a natural right to make use of our pens as of our tongue, at our peril, risk and hazard.” On the eve of the nineteenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacres, it was evident that there are few who feel the perils of free speech more profoundly than writers in China. This English PEN event welcomed three remarkable writers to discuss the complex and sometimes harrowing aspects of repression and dissent in China today.
Once described by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian as “one of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature,” Ma Jian has certainly experienced the full weight of China’s censorship. His softly spoken words, expertly translated to the audience by his wife Flora Drew, were by turns lyrical and wise as he related his story.
fter 30 years as a painter, Ma took on his first job as a photojournalist for a Chinese Trade Union magazine, which he said gave him access to a reality completely different to the one taught in his education. Following on from this, he travelled to the most remote parts of Tibet and wrote an extraordinary account of his ventures in his first novella Stick out your Tongue. From the moment it was published Ma became the target of a political campaign, was denounced as an example of “bourgeois liberalism” and “spiritual pollution” and the book was promptly banned. “From that point my voice disappeared from China and I became a non-person,” he said. He moved from China to Hong Kong (through self-imposed exile) and then even further a field to London, where he now lives.
Ma’s books are still banned in China, except for Red Dust (a remarkable account of the author’s three-year exploration of China following the death of Mao Zedong), which was published under a pseudonym. Even then, Ma could not escape China’s censorship and discovered that by eliminating just one word, editors could obliterate a whole ideology. One event in his book describes a rape scene that takes place on the streets on 4 June, a metaphor for the Tiananmen massacres. The editor changed the date to 5 June. In another part, a dog is quoted as saying, “chairman Mao was a human being after all.” The editor cut this on the grounds that “a dog cannot pass judgement on Mao.” Ma found it disturbingly apparent how something so small and subtle could have such an immense effect on literature and thinking.
For Ma, there are only three possibilities left for writers in China: remain silent, say as much as you’re allowed to say, or face exile. He accused some writers of treating politics like a fly that can be swatted away and ignored. “If its noise disturbs you can shut the window and get on with your work, it’s something you can choose to forget about. But Chinese writers are living under this repressive system […] can you write pure literature under this system?” he asked. While conceding that there are “many good writers in Chinese mainland,” he feels that “behind that there’s no moral heart, they’re not giving a vision, not speaking on behalf of readers or giving any independent voice.”
He went so far as to say that writers should be anti-establishment. “Some of the greatest works of Chinese literature are by those who have been expelled or outcast from the system they are in opposition to.” And while those who have left China have the luxury to be able to write in freedom, he feels “it can have a feeling that you’re a fight that’s lost its opponent or a seed that’s lost its earth.”
Diane Wei Liang (author of The Eye of Jade, which centres on the daily survivals of ordinary Chinese people) hotly disagreed, even suggesting that it is “slightly simplistic” to parallel poetry with a political system. “There were great Chinese writers in recent history who had not become exiled and still wrote wonderful stories and beautiful poems,” she contested.
While she agreed that suffering can create great fertile ground for literature, it does not necessarily have to be political. “Literature is not politics, it’s the human condition and emotions. A good writer has to reflect that with acute observation and empathy. The power of literature is not through a political voice but a human voice that touches everyone, the darkness and inhumanity. I see that as the role of literature and hopefully that is what Chinese writers can carry on.”
Diane’s youthful aspirations to become a writer had been restricted by her mother who had always been adamant that writing was “the most dangerous profession in China.” While her childhood was shadowed by the memory of being in a labour camp with her parents, she gained a newfound freedom when the Cultural Revolution ended and she was allowed to go to university in Beijing. From that point, she found her experience of living in China was fairly non-representative. “I didn’t feel there was a lot of repression. I felt privileged and felt it was a duty to look at philosophies and political issues and see where China was going.” The importance of debate was so significant she even thought the word “café” meant “debating salon.”
Even during the government crackdown in 1986-88 when universities were closed, Diane et al went underground, the debates continued and friends became editors of underground magazines. It was only after she participated in the Tiananmen Square protests that she realised her freedom had been very unique. “We had seen the tanks, the blood and the soldiers patrolling the streets, we couldn’t go out in the streets or we might have been shot.”
It was after this event that she felt particularly compelled to write. “I felt I had to write about Tiananmen, my friends, what had happened to them, and what kind of impact it had on all of us.” Even though she no longer lives in China, Diane maintains that she never feels an outsider. “My characters are all Chinese, I write about China, I’m back there. I am with them in the fictional world like a trip I take every day that I can’t do physically. When I write I don’t think who I’m writing for, it’s real time, I’m living their lives.”
Liu Hong, whose epic novel Wives of the East Wind was praised by The Guardian as ‘a warm, understated novel’, was so passionate in her response she started speaking in her mother tongue. Rather than writing for China and all it represents, she said she writes for herself, “for a soul mate who will understand me and not judge me.” Liu felt she came from a very different background to Ma’s, “one that was not political but very personal.” She grew up in a remote area of North East China, which, she claimed, made her feel “a bit of an outsider,” but also meant she could look at things from a different perspective. Although she wrote when she was young – she kept a diary in English so her parents could not read it – it was not until she had been living in England for a few years that she began to write. “I started writing as I wanted people to know the sense of China impacted by political movements and everyday life, ordinary people’s lives. I loved the creative freedom of fiction,” she said.
Chair Hari Kunzru, the novelist and Deputy President of English PEN who famously turned down the John Llewellyn Rhys prize on the grounds that it was backed by the Mail on Sunday, related a depressing conversation with Yan Lianke, author of Serve the People! (an iconoclastic novella desecrating the Maoist symbol which was banned in China in 2005 for slander). Asked how Western counterparts can help Chinese writers, Lianke said Western groups’ interventions into Chinese politics were “inept” and “counterproductive” and suggested it was “better to do nothing.”
While Diane seemed to agree that “sometimes a very simplistic and well-meaning approach from the West has a rather negative affect on China,” Ma argued that all progress China in terms of liberation has been thanks to the infiltration of Western ideas. “That has pushed China towards progress. In this situation the Western journalists who go to China are treated as enemies to expose the dark side. If they are hostile that’s a problem with China not the West. Every day you hear the West apologising to China, from Sharon Stone to the President, this situation is getting worse and worse. This situation allows you to make a comparison between different moral systems. You have to make a choice.”
So, asked Hari, what should non-Chinese people do in hope for freedom of expression?
For Diane, after Tiananmen, most changes happened not through overt political writing but through engagement. “The more you put politics into literature the more you destroy the possibility of literature flourishing in China.” She suggested that if a piece of contemporary Chinese literature that addresses political and social visions is successful in Britain, it will leak back to China and will have an effect.
However, Liu was clearly depressed about the situation. “I don’t know what’s best to do. The sad thing about China is that you have popular fiction, which is very entertaining but very few are writing serious literary fiction in China. How can we help Chinese writers in China?” she asked. “That is a very difficult question. I urge everyone to think intelligently about it. That requires great understanding of the system, the culture, it’s not as simple as black and white.”
With warm thanks to all participants for their brave and honest words and, as always, to Waitrose for very kindly supplying the wine.
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/chinesewhispers/