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New Youth and Old Nightmares

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

2015 has been a good year so far when it comes to contemporary Chinese literature in translation, thanks to the publication of English-language editions of novels by two of China’s most important contemporary writers: Yan Lianke and Yu Hua. Yan’s The Four Books, very ably translated by Carlos Rojas, is an ambitiously complex work. Structured around the presentation of fragments from a quartet of texts, it presents a fancifully told but historically grounded, often harrowing account of the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958–61). The action takes place within a brutally run reeducation camp for wayward intellectuals, China’s answer to the Soviet gulags. Its inmates, who suffer from starvation and endure many kinds of daily indignities, are given simple names derived from their preconfinement occupations: The Theologian, The Author, The Scholar, and The Musician. The camp’s overseer, known just as The Child, is a mysterious and cruel figure.

Yu’s The Seventh Day, rendered into pitch-perfect English by Allan R. Barr, whose previous translation credits include the same author’s brilliant nonfiction book China in Ten Words (2012), is a more modest novel. An intriguing minor work by a decidedly major author, The Seventh Day is set in contemporary China and filled with straight-from-the-headlines accounts—which some Chinese critics have claimed will be too familiar to domestic readers to be of interest—of the tragic deaths of ordinary people. Some are driven to suicide by economic hardship; others are trapped in faultily-built structures that collapse; many suffer at the hands of the rich and well connected. One distinctive thing about them is that they are described as hovering in a gentle purgatorial zone after death, where they enjoy a sense of communal solidarity there that they often failed to find while alive. They have the ability to make forays back to earth to see what is happening among the living.  

Given the subject matter of the two novels and the magical realist dimension of each, it seems fitting to structure this post around playing a now familiar game, but giving it an alternative reality twist. The game is to speculate on what the Great Leap’s instigator, Mao Zedong (1893–1976), would make of today’s China. The twist is that I won’t follow the well-traveled ground of describing the real Mao’s possible disgust at finding the still nominally Communist country he once led being filled with malls selling luxury goods, but instead ponder the reaction to the present of the ghost of a Mao imagined, counterfactually, as dying early in his adult years. Straining belief, I will pretend that he did not live beyond thirty and that, despite never leading the country, China somehow ended up just as it is now.

This conjuring up of a Mao with a shortened lifespan allows me to conform to a key conceit of The Seventh Day: that the only deceased who can follow later events are those for whom no one mourns and whose corpses await proper burial. The real Mao has long been entombed in grand style in a crystal sarcophagus. And despite the human toll taken by some of his policies, such as the mass starvation tied to the Great Leap’s push for farmers to devote more attention to backyard steel production than to growing crops, he has never lacked mourners. What, then, would our ghost of a Mao who died young make of today’s China?

To begin this exercise, it is worth focusing on two old texts that mattered a lot to progressive youths of his generation, and which are similar in spirit to Yu and Yan’s new books. One of these is Xin Qingnian (New Youth), a periodical launched in 1915 by Chen Duxiu, a radical progressive who would go on to help found the Chinese Communist Party. The other is A Call to Arms, a 1923 collection of short stories by Lu Xun (1881–1936), which includes such well-known works as the darkly comic “The True Story of Ah Q” and the Gogol-inspired “Diary of a Madman,” the most important piece of fiction ever carried in New Youth. The relevance of these texts for Mao is clear. New Youth’s editor was one of Mao’s mentors. Lu Xun was Mao’s favorite modern author.  (Though Mao did once admit that, had the iconoclastic writer lived past 1949, he might well have ended up in prison—presumably one much like that where The Four Books is set.)

The contributors to New Youth, which mostly carried essays, were a varied lot but tended to agree on the following things. China was in a state of crisis. The 1911 Revolution had usefully changed a decaying dynastic state into a republic, but failed to solve fundamental problems of corruption and inequality. Intellectuals should be open to the best ideas coming from any part of the world. And Confucianism, with its veneration of hierarchy and tradition, was a stifling belief system, key flaws of which included its patriarchal aspects.

The tales in A Call To Arms gave expression via fiction to these assumptions.“The True Story of Ah Q,” for example, treats the 1911 Revolution in a manner that anticipates George Orwell’s Animal Farm: as an upheaval intended to end all forms of bullying that just changed the identities of the bullies. In “Diary of a Madman,” the eponymous lunatic may be the only person who sees things as they are. His most disturbing delusion, or greatest insight, is that the phrase “people eat people” is hidden between every line of the Confucian canon.

The ghost of a young Mao, whose worldview had been heavily shaped by writings by Lu Xun and other contributors to New Youth, would find much about China in this year of that periodical’s centenary perplexing. How could a ruling Party whose founders included the robustly cosmopolitan Chen Duxiu be intent on purging university classes of harmful “Western” values? How could a ruling party, with a genealogical tie to New Youth, have detained without due process five feminists, as if their efforts to raise awareness about enduring forms of inequality between the sexes was dangerously subversive? How can China now have an official writers’ organization that awards a prize named for the anti-Confucian Lu Xun and a government that wants to blanket the world with Confucius Institutes?

One thing the ghost of a young Mao might be pleased rather than dismayed to discover is that there are still writers whose work carries on in the New Youth and Call to Arms spirit.  And while some have ended up in prison or exile, others, including Yan and Yu, live and work on the mainland—albeit in cities where some of their best writings cannot be sold in bookstores. Yan has only been able to publish his most recent novels in Hong Kong and Taiwan, due to their searing treatment of the most taboo of contemporary topics, or, in the case of The Four Books, equally charged historical ones. Yu’s fiction, including the The Seventh Day, does not take a similarly direct approach to hot button subjects, and hence it can be published on the mainland. His forays into nonfiction, by contrast, often tackle sensitive themes and periods in a direct fashion, rather than in the sort of glancing, allusive or playful manners that is sometimes allowed.  These works, China in Ten Words included, can only circulate on the mainland in digital samizdat form.  

How exactly do Yan and Yu’s latest novels embrace the New Youth and Call To Arms spirit? This is easiest to answer with The Four Books. It is robustly cosmopolitan in nature, with each of its quartet of texts-within-a-text showing the influence of or explicitly name checking international authors and books.  One of its four “books” uses Biblical language, while another reworks the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In the other two—both attributed to “The Author,” one being his snitch’s account of misdeeds by fellow prisoners, the other material he has gathered for a novel—a host of foreign titles, from Romeo and Juliet to Don Quixote, are mentioned as works that The Child seizes from inmates and gleefully burns for their allegedly seditious content. Or sets aside, supposedly to fuel future bonfires, but more likely, we suspect, for him to read for pleasure on the sly.

A Call to Arms finds its way into one list of contraband texts, and this is apt as The Four Books can read as a sequel to “Diary of a Madman.” For all its complexity of structure, it strives to make the same simple point as that Lu Xun story: there is something rotten at the core of a hallowed Chinese tradition, albeit in this case not Confucianism but Maoism. And cannibalism comes into play in Yan’s work as well, but not in a merely metaphoric sense.  Desperate people literally ate one another in some places during the Great Leap Famine, and this is among the hard-to-believe yet true historical incidents Yan weaves into his novel.

As for The Seventh Day, the main link to New Youth and A Call To Arms lies in its presentation of China as in a deep state of crisis. Of texts from Mao’s youth, it most resembles “The True Story of Ah Q.” Like that classic work, it encourages readers to think about how supposedly liberating and uplifting transformative events, in this case both Mao’s 1949 Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s more recent Reforms, can leave ordinary people as unable to protect themselves from vicious predators as they were under the old order. 

In 2015, we find Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping quoting canonical works by Confucius and the mature Mao in a promiscuously approving fashion, while trumpeting the notion that a happy “Chinese Dream” is being realized. Yan and Yu’s novels, by contrast, carry forward the canon-questioning approach of key works that Mao read as a youth—and wrote as well, at a time when, among other things, he penned an essay criticizing the effects the traditional patriarchal marriage system had on young women. They also highlight the need to be attentive to the nightmarish as well as dreamlike qualities of life in the People’s Republic of China, past and present. In doing this, they bring to mind a famous line about dark as opposed to sunny fantasies from an Irish book whose final chapters came out in serialized form just as New Youth was being launched in China. The Four Books and The Seventh Day remind us that in 2015 “history” can still seem for some Chinese, as it did in 1915 for both some of their compatriots and for the hero of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, like a “nightmare from which” they are “still trying to awake.”

Published Jul 1, 2015   Copyright 2015 Jeffrey Wasserstrom

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