China’s economic rise and military might have triggered a global scramble to learn about a nation that has eluded understanding for centuries. Businessmen have attempted to demystify its economic progress by hastily mastering Mandarin. World leaders descend on Beijing more and more frequently. Roads are literally being built through our own country to allow access through China’s Great Wall and firewalls.
And yet, China remains shrouded in mystery. Not only for those who try to understand it from a distance, but even for those who were reared by it and within it.
The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature is one such attempt to look into the mystery by University of California professor Yunte Huang. The leafy compendium features almost 100 literary selections from 42 authors, all writing from 1912 onwards. At over 600 pages, Huang is right to call it ‘big’. Even so, the title pays cheeky tribute to Mao’s Little Red Book, the pocket-sized collection of 267 aphorisms from the chairman. During the country’s bloody Cultural Revolution, it was virtually mandatory to have a copy on one’s person at all times.
Flippant as it may seem, it serves the deeper purpose of recognising the communist leader’s influence in making, breaking and then remaking literature in China. The anthology is divided into three parts: the first curating content from the Republican era (1911-1949), the second from the Revolutionary era (1949-1976) and the third from the post-Mao era (1976 to the present). The three sections are distinct in subject matter, tone and narrative techniques and are testament to how vulnerable literature is to political context. Huang does a great service to his reader by preceding each selection with the writer’s biography to underscore this influence. Few, if any, writers were spared. Some starved to death, others were assassinated. Many were exiled and those who stayed were often subjected to hard labour for years.
####An anthology of 20th century Chinese literature offers insight into the country’s endurance and rapid rise
Tracing the nearly four decades following the demise of the Qing dynasty, the first section is a veritable tasting menu of a literary community starving to expose their country’s state of affairs. Lu Xun’s ‘A call to arms’ contains a dark metaphor where China is compared to an “iron house” whose occupants will all ultimately suffocate to death. ‘A madman’s diary’, again by Lu, is a story comprised of 13 fragmented journal entries, which reveal the fears and paranoia of a man driven to insanity by the hypocrisy of the cold-hearted Confucian tradition. The protagonist of ‘Malady of spring nights’ by Yu Dafu is a living, breathing allegory to China’s economic frailty, irresponsible spending and confinement. Xiao Hong’s ‘Tales of Hulan river’ discuss a community’s myth-making and selective mourning where a woman losing the use of one eye (because she cried so much over the broken leg of a donkey) is lamented more than an abandoned newborn baby dying of starvation in a nearby paper mill. Heavyweights like Ba Jin, Ding Ling and Mao Dun all make appearances as well.
Artists, writers and poets often feel the responsibility to manifest a new national consciousness following the subversion of received wisdoms. This canon is no exception. But perhaps Wen Yiduo hinted at what would follow in his poem ‘The dead water’ where he proscribes, “This is a ditch of hopelessly dead water/A place where beauty can never live/Might as well let vice cultivate it.”
And with the advent of the so-called Cultural Revolution, it relentlessly did.
The second section, while spanning 27 years, only offers 11 “revolutionary” works. This seems deliberate on Huang’s part, demonstrating the stifling of artistic license during the height of Mao’s rule. Early on, the editor poignantly observes that “communism may have done much damage to literature, but at least it takes art seriously, so seriously that it wants to control all forms of artistic expression”.
And perhaps again, Huang makes the calculated decision to include poetry by the communist leader himself. Mentioning Mao’s oft-quoted idea to “let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend” feels particularly ironic when Huang includes his saying “a revolution is not a dinner party … [it] is an act of violence”.
Wang Meng’s ‘The young man who has just arrived at the organisation department’ is a brave comment on the laziness and incompetence of the Chinese bureaucracy. Initially lauded as symbolic of Mao’s Hundred Flowers ethos, the leader proved too thin-skinned and it was relegated to an expression of the Rightists’ discontent with the party.
A standout selection is an urgent scene from a model opera entitled ‘The red lantern’, which depicts the revolutionary war experience of Maoist guerrillas living under the Japanese regime. The narrative depicting the virtues of the communist struggle could be interpreted as a propaganda piece, as it vilifies the enemy through its own jingoistic message.
The third section cataloguing post-Mao era literature reads like a battlefield that has just seen war, still hot from the fighting and bloodshed. Authors cautiously peek from behind the trenches, slowly testing the laxity of the new limits and carefully measuring their victory in new-found freedoms. Language is reunited with nuance and subtlety, and the room for interpretation broadens. Even so, there is a reason why Huang refers to this period as “scar literature”. As he picks at it, he reveals a skin that is ready to start anew, even if still too raw for the rest of the world.
Poetry is represented significantly, particularly that belonging to the Misty school. Formats and layouts are experimental, true to the innovative style of Yu Jian’s and Che Qianzi’s poetry. Ma Yuan’s ‘Thirteen ways to fold a paper hawk’ is wry and deadpan, and the narrator often interrupts himself with his own digressions, countering the trend in previous stories.
This is where part of the tragedy lies. Just as Chinese authors began to rear their heads, for what Hai Zi calls a “hopeful future”, the Tiananmen Square massacre reeled their ambitions back in. Nowhere is this better emulated than in Yu Hua’s ‘On the road at eighteen’, a short story tracing a young man’s brief journey from idealism to forced cynicism. As the protagonist remarks, “I’ve encountered quite a few people along the road, but none of them has known where the road goes.”
Nevertheless, the third section also features Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s ‘Soul mountain’, which feels like vindication. Not that China’s authors craved the approval of Western audiences, but it reflects how themes and the vernacular of the text had become universal enough to spill beyond China’s borders to great success.
While The Big Red Book triumphs as a buffet for the unacquainted reader, it suffers from presenting portions that tantalise but do not satiate. The samples presented are not always self-contained and seem interrupted. Upon reading the final sentences of a few works, the reader often turns the page in search for an ending that feels more finite.
But that is perhaps Huang’s point. The anthology acts as a springboard for further exploration of Chinese literature, and accomplishes the task of imparting a respectable amount of knowledge of what the editor calls “the soul of modern China”.
What the communist regime and writers had in common is an unflinching acceptance of the power of literature. As Huang adds in his introduction, “Chinese writers have tried, often at the cost of their lives, to come to terms with a world gone awry, a culture in crisis and a nation on the brink of annihilation.” This journey to unpack their surroundings is fully cognisant of its political context. If literature in China was supposed to provide an escape from the misery of their lives, it only reflected their truth back to them. Maybe, when a “national dream [goes] bad” this is the responsibility of the art community.
And maybe, China’s soul endures because its writers carry this burden.
The reviewer is a journalist.
The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature: Writings from the Mainland in the Long Twentieth Century
(SHORT STORIES and POETRY)
Edited by Yunte Huang
W. W. Norton & Company, US
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 13th, 2016