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from the August 2008 issue


Ma Jian, the dissident Chinese author living in London, recently attended a talk by another Chinese author who raised his ire. Writing in the Times on the nineteenth anniversary of Tiananmen, Ma Jian described this author's recollections of 1989: "He said with a self-satisfied smirk that he was asleep in bed when it took place, and that he never joined the marches because he found them exhausting." To Ma Jian, the author's "carefree denial of the meaningful role of an artist in society" was and remains unforgivableóa contemporary complicity with the government's historical sins. Nine years after that "self-satisfied" author slept through the Tiananmen massacre, he gathered a group of his writerly friends and initiated a movement attacking the authority figures of the Chinese literary world: the editors, professors, and critics who were the government's proxies in the campaign to quash "undesirable" writing.

The author's name was Zhu Wen, and the movement was known as Duanlie, meaning "break." Duanlie demanded the release of no political prisoners, advocated no reforms, ascribed no blame for the Chinese government's fifty years of crimes against its people. It is unlikely that Ma Jian would view Duanlie as suitable atonement for Zhu Wen's earlier, apolitical, sins. And yet, to some extent, the movement has to be viewed as revolutionary.

Modern Chinese writers with a mind to dissidence are faced with an unpleasant choice. Direct confrontation with the government on politically sensitive issues generally results in the abrupt disappearance of those writers from the literary scene. There is no such thing as noble sacrifice, or the heroic triumph of the individual over the system. Subversive writers go straight to jail, and when they come out, fifteen or twenty years later, they are generally good for little besides reading quietly at home and starting at loud noises. During those years, a writer can expect zero sympathy (or even awareness), except that mustered by a spouse or, in some cases, by PEN. Their plight is as much due to public indifference as government control, which is what makes it so uniquely dismal.

Under these conditions, the issue of courage versus cowardice rarely even comes up; the unspoken consensus is that the ideal of living by one's conscience is unrealistic, a dangerous waste of energy, and even a little tasteless. The only serious remaining question is: How much are writers willing to compromise? Following the events of 1989 and the subsequent freeze in China's political climate, a large proportion of Chinese writers went into jail, out of the country, or ceased writing altogether.

Those who continued were obliged to commit some degree of self-censorship, trying to guess what might trigger the displeasure of the censors, and what might slide by. One of the most prominent examples of this is Yan Lianke, whose novels about the military and China's AIDS problem have been banned or published in heavily altered form. "My greatest worry is that self-censorship has drained my passion and dulled my sharpness," he told the Guardian in 2006.

The Duanlie movement began May 1, 1998, when Zhu Wen and Han Dong met up to discuss a plan: a questionnaire they would circulate among fellow writers. By May 5 they had a draft questionnaire; on May 10th they began mailing. In the first three questions, respondents are asked their opinions on literary critics and professors, and the literary giants of the second half of the twentieth century. The response was a flood of bitterness and scorn, as Zhu Wen and Han Dong had anticipated: the questionnaire was not a survey, but a call to action.

As Han himself said in a 1999 interview, Duanlie was not about any particular style of writing, and the works of its members have little in common. Zhu Wen and Wei Hui seem primarily bent on challenging the moral values of Chinese society, writing of easy sex or the emptiness of traditional family connections. Lu Yang is one of the few Chinese experimenters in metafiction, subverting the traditions of the story. Han Dong has retreated into a Zen-like calm, writing quiet stories about countryside and city.

Duanlie: "Split"; "Broken"; "Break." Any revolutionary movement involves a break, of course, but from what, exactly? At first glance, Duanlie seems aimed at assassinating the old guardóoverthrowing the ideologically hidebound, and ushering in a new age of the young bloods. Except that, in China's political climate, such an overthrow is essentially unthinkable. Asked during a conversation this past June what it would take to effect a real changing of the guard among critics and professors, Zhu Wen answered immediately, with a smile: "The complete overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party."

"What we were doing," he continued, "was distancing ourselves from the establishment. Toward the end of the 90s many of us were gaining a reputation, and it was as if all those establishment figures were waving to us, 'Come join us, come join us!' We couldn't stomach that thought, and decided we had to cut ourselves off from them entirely."

In this they were successful. The furor raised by the Duanlie movement lasted for years, and Zhu Wen says that even today many literary critics refuse to touch the works of Duanlie writers. Despite this, a Duanlie series of ten volumes of prose and twenty of poetry published by the Shaanxi Normal University Press appeared over the next few years. The publishing industry, Zhu Wen acknowledges, now operates on principles beyond simple political deference, and over the past few years, in particular, it has become easier to publish. Professors, critics, and members of the writers association may be precisely as politically motivated in 2008 as they were ten years ago; the difference is that it's now possible for writers to make their way without the blessing of officialdom.

But the moral question of dissent has become no easier to address. As China's economy strengthens, so does the illusion that nothing is essentially wrong with the country. The hardest questions of government repression, corruption, and culpability have been excised from mainstream social discourse so cleanly that a new skin has grown over the woundóit is now possible to talk about rebellion, counterculture, and individualism again, but these terms have new referents. Chun Shu, the twenty-five-year-old author of Beijing Doll, affects a punk's pose on the cover of Time; to her, rebellion means dying her hair a color that will shock her teachers. Being an "individual" in China is now comparable to what it has often become in the West: the careful juxtaposition of corporate products. In this atmosphere, the would-be dissident writer despairs of touching the wounds that lie nearest the heart of Chinese society. The selective memory that has allowed China's urban middle class to enjoy the fruits of prosperity in peace has, among the younger generations, become genuine amnesiaóeven if an author could publish the grand accusation, it might sound to many like the overblown ravings of a paranoiac.

The remaining options are not attractive. Many of the Duanlie writers keep the faith in their own, low-key waysóLu Yang's writing is shot through with glints of unexplained torment, and Han Dong's quiet attention to the beauty of language carries the air of protest. Other writers, most notably Yan Lianke, survive by self-censorship and by addressing injustice in the mid-levels of society, avoiding the powder keg of the central government.

Silence or exile, for some, are still the only viable choices. Zhu Wen mentions offhandedly that in 1999, a year after the Duanlie movement began, writing began to strike him as a meaningless activity, and he put it aside for a while. Asked what finally changed his mind and got him back into it, he looked surprised and replied, "Nothing. I'm still not writing."

Copyright 2008 by Eric Abrahamsen. All rights reserved.

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