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This thesis begins life as a gift. It would not be possible for me to acknowledge fully the encouragement and the intellectual generosity from Dr. Q. S. Tong, a most respected teacher whose profound influence and compassionate toughness of mind have in the first place led me to undertake this project. The final production of this thesis demonstrates in many ways the luxury and good fortune of benefiting from Dr. Tong’s supervision. Since his lively lectures dated back to 1998, there have been between us continuously exuberant discussions and debates that are marked with memorable moments. Patiently and persistently, Dr. Tong has laboured to add substance to the breadth of my knowledge and has been a source of inspiration and support over the past years. I hope that Dr. Tong will find his confidence and trust well placed. The confluence of two currents – one flooded with wisdom and the other curiosity – which Plato has understood as the only true ideal form of human relationship, might be hard to achieve; but, in my experience of learning and growth, I certainly find myself coming close to it. I am especially grateful to Dr. Douglas Kerr, whose erudition, critical acumen, and sense of humour have played an important part in the formation of my intellectual make-up, and to him for his extra efforts and time in doing weekly reading sessions with us. I have profited much from a number of courses by Dr. Xiao-ying Wang, who is among the first to lead me to and through the study of literary and cultural theories. Many thanks are due to Dr. Wendy Gan and Dr. Elaine Ho for their teaching and support throughout these years. I am obliged to Zhu Xiaodi, author of Thirty Years in a Red House, who has generously provided me with useful information about his memoir. I would also like to thank Professor Rüdiger Ahrens for his comments on Chapter Two of my thesis, a slightly different version of which has been accepted for publication in Symbolism: An International Annual of Critical Aesthetics, under the title: “Writing the Self in ‘the Language of the Other’: Chinese Memoirs and the Politics of English.”
The completion of this thesis has proven the power of love and friendship. I owe much to the loving care of my parents, and thank them for their being always there. To Mrs. Julie Ma, who opens my eyes to stories, I owe special thanks. I would like to thank Lo Wai-chun for his superb patience; my first group of tutorial students – Christina, Kwok-hung, Priscilla, and Salina – for their cheerful company and friendship; and David for his sweet care. My ultimate thanks, as always, go to Rita; for her and other childhood friends – Phoebe, Lindy, and Faye – I am confident that we have grown too old and too close to require another sentimental word. I am deeply indebted to Mrs. Catherine Li, who alone occupies a unique place in the course of my personal and intellectual growth, for her special attention and compassionate support ever since I came under her guidance. This thesis is dedicated to her with respect and affection.
Foreword: The Commodification of Memory
You won’t find a sexier or a stranger account of Mao’s China. Cleo, Review of Red Azalea1
Around the mid 1980s a substantial number of Chinese nationals started to write, beyond the borders of their motherland and against the backdrop of a remembered China, about their traumatic experience of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and have since accumulated a significant repertoire of Chinese writing in English abroad. Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans are often considered to be the forerunners of these Chinese memoirs in English.2 Marketing strategies to promote them – for example, to display them collectively in a prominent location in the bookstore – reinforce the general perception of these Chinese memoirs as a discursive formation that deserves a special place in the history of literary production. Book reviews and blurbs have played a crucial role in tagging and labelling these memoirs. When introducing new books to the market, they make generous reference to Wild Swans, setting it as the benchmark for the memoirs to come and thus increasing its popularity that its predecessors have clearly not enjoyed. Janice Nimura, for example,
Cleo, Review of Azalea by Min, in Azalea, back cover.
See bibliography for a list of Chinese memoirs in the category. The term “Chinese memoirs” refers to those memoirs that are set against the background of the Chinese Cultural Revolution and are written mostly by Chinese nationals who moved abroad after the Cultural Revolution. The list is by no means a complete one, and surely there will be more of the Chinese memoirs to be published in the future. Excluded from the category are such Asian American writers as Amy Tan and Jade Snow Wong.
rates Spider Eaters as a book that “belongs on the shelf next to Wild Swans.”3 The back cover of Daughter of China excerpts this review: “Closer to Jung Chang’s groundbreaking Wild Swans than many other memoirs, Daughter of China […] adds to the small number of Chinese memoirs that are really worth reading.” To Gary Krist, the New York Times book reviewer, Wild Swans is a “masterpiece” about a “turbulent era” in China.4 Julia Lovell of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, levels the publication of Wild Swans with Gao Xingjian’s Nobel laureateship, regarding the two occasions as rare moments when Chinese literature emerges from the sidelines of western literature. Commenting on Alex Hamilton’s list of top hundred selling paperbacks of year 1994, published in the Guardian on January 10, D. S. points out that Wild Swans, along with another holocaust novel Schindler’s List and two American hits The Client and The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous, is one of a few top titles and “appears to have become a permanent feature of the bestseller lists.”5 This is perhaps a most literal example of how history is circulated on the surface, and how in this postmodern era the label becomes more important than the product, and the packaging more essential than the contents. By drawing on Jung Chang’s “authority” in speaking about her personal history, book reviewers together with publishers make the Chinese memoirs, for the first time, into bestsellers.6 Despite their extraordinary popularity and special prominence in the west, however, such issues as how these Chinese memoirists discursively represent, reinvent, and reassert the self through writing have attracted little systematic critical or scholarly attention. More generally, of course, critical scholarship has yet to address the phenomenon of large-scale production and global circulation of “third world” selfrepresentations – autobiographies, memoirs, confessions, etc. Postcolonial critics, for example, are preoccupied with the question of colonialism and cultural imperialism and focus their attention mainly on the politics of writing in English within the nationstate framework. The Chinese memoirs describe, for me, more than only the experience of some individuals and the ways they have been traumatized and deflected during the Cultural Revolution. There seems between self-representation and cultural
Janice Nimura, Review of Spider by Yang, in Spider, back cover.
Gary Krist, “The Great Leap Backward,” The New York Times, late edition, July 8, 2001, 6, section 7, column 2. D. S., “NB,” in Times Literary Supplement, January 13, 1995, Times Literary Supplement Subscriber Archive Online. See Cohin Thubron, Review of Swans by Chang, in Swans, back cover.
imagination a direct link that leads to a new dimension of our understanding of history, a dimension that has been hardly commented on by traditional historians. Writing about the self in the form of memoir requires the textual self to appear in, and as, history. And when it is done in a specific geopolitical space, for example, in a liberal capitalist society like the U.S., the foundational ideology of which is in conflict with communism, the act of writing implies the need to subscribe the self to a foreign language and a different socio-political construct. Therefore, to provide information in these memoirs about the Cultural Revolution and for that matter about China is a necessary but not sufficient condition for their production and success in the global market. What has contributed to the phenomenal success of the memoirs? What exactly is it in these memoirs which has seized the western imagination about the Cultural Revolution and Communist China? Is their success due to the riveting representations of what some of their authors call “the tragic experience of human suffering” and “the triumph of the human spirit” through suffering? Or is it because the global conditions have made it possible for their publication and circulation in the first place? Does their success have anything to do with the literary form and devices employed by their authors?7 Is there a conflict between the memoirs’ “being-in-themselves” and their adaptation to English as the language of expression and writing? In what sense are they histories and in what sense are they personal recollections? Are they neither or both? If they can be read as histories as they have been in the west, what changes have taken place in historiography that have enabled the emergence of these memoirs as both history and popular culture? Why does history written in the form of personal narratives – biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs – win out to form the bulk of “non-fiction” sales? Does the production of history for commercial purposes mean that the rules of exchange – the instrument of expression, the taste of the masses, and the condition of the market – take precedence over the referential function of historical writing itself? More fundamentally, we must ask: In what ways and to what extent are these Chinese memoirs really about China or even relevant to China? It should be noted from the outset that this thesis is not primarily concerned
Stanley Karnow probably thinks that both factors contribute to the value of Life and Death in Shanghai: “I felt revived by [Nien Cheng’s] struggle to endure, which exalts the triumph of the human spirit over mindless inhumanity. Her narrative deserves to rank with the foremost prison diaries of our time, and therein lies its universal value.” Karnow, Review of Life & Death by Cheng, in Life & Death, back cover.
with history in general or with the Cultural Revolution in particular, but with the politics of writing, with the way a historical event is represented in the form of transborder best-selling memoirs and with the related issues such as self-representation, fictional history, popular culture, global capitalism, and readership. Equally important for me is the need to treat in this thesis the Chinese memoirs collectively and discursively, more as cultural and political productions than historical ones. Therefore, I do not intend to be thorough in my discussion of the texts, not just due to the limitations of space and time given for the writing of this thesis, but because conceptually conceived this thesis can only focus on what seems to me to be the important aspects of this emergent literary formation in order to show their relevance to some of our current theoretical concerns and critical preoccupations.
History, literature, and popular culture To some late-modern critics, mass society is characterized by its constant oscillation between “eclecticism” and “superficiality.” Its art, observes Gianni Vattimo, often works to “exhibit” a “lighter” reality, in which the “split” between truth on the one hand and fiction, information, and images on the other is less real than it may appear. Nothing seems to have any meaningful depth, and all becomes formal. This “aesthetic formalism” may be understood as a result of capitalist cultural reaction to the emphasis on content characteristic of traditional historiography. Indeed, writing in a society of the spectacle, one has to know how to exhibit “a lighter reality.”8 Almost all the memoirists claim to provide eyewitness account of the Cultural Revolution and of what they have experienced under the Communist Party and Mao Zedong, but what they present with reference to the past constitutes only part of the significance of their memoirs. If for a historian, the past offers no more than a record of given facts, for the Chinese memoirists the past is not just a source of their writing: it demands to be presented and packaged with skill and in an attractive form. It is exactly the practice of conflating history and literature, matching content with form that manifests the power of literary representation and makes personal stories far more appealing than grand historical and social narratives. In order to keep their readers in one sitting when reading the memoirs, the Chinese authors make use of
“The society of the spectacle” is “the society in which reality presents itself as softer and more fluid, and in which experience can again acquire the characteristics of oscillation, disorientation and play.” Vattimo, The Transparent Society, trans. David Webb (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1992), 59, see also 57.
literary devices that enable their readers to experience the mundane as dramatic, and the everyday as aesthetic.9 The success of their memoirs requires thus a two-step operation: first, the transformation and incorporation of personal experience into social history; second, the telling of personal stories as popular narratives. Wild Swans is a handy example of the product of that operation:
Significantly, despite its status as a ‘true story’, Wild Swans conforms to one of the genres of popular fiction; it is a family saga telling the tale of a Chinese family over three generations from a domestic, feminine point of view.10
Lucy Hughes-Hallet considers Wild Swans to be a “good historical fiction”:
An extraordinary story, popular history at its most compelling. [Chang’s] readiness to record life’s small pleasures as well as its looming horrors, it is a part of what makes Wild Swans so fascinating.11
For Penelope Fitzgerald, Jung Chang is “the classic storyteller,” describing “the almost unbelievable” experience of the Cultural Revolution “in measured tones.”12 In a way, as I will elaborate in Chapter Four, one can say that the possibility and fashion of writing the self as history, especially since the publication of Wild Swans in 1991, is in part the result of a profound change in the practice of history writing. The aesthetic form neutralizes the solemnity associated with the writing of the past, especially a traumatic past. Personal histories or family sagas are at the doorway of history proper: “Biographies and autobiographies form the bulk of non-fiction sales. The second most successful book overall of 1993 was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans.”13 I believe, however, there is a slight difference between history proper and non-fiction, just as there is one between an “innocent” person and a “not guilty” one. As nonfictions, the Chinese memoirs are often classified as history, because the ground on which they can be contested as non-history is lost. In other words, the frame of refer-
With reference to the techniques of writing first-person narratives, Franz Karl Stanzel observes that “many first-person narrators go far beyond transcribing [what] they have experienced themselves by letting the narrative arise anew from their imagination. During this process the boundary between recollection and creation is often suspended. Reproductive memory and productive imagination prove to be two different aspects of one and the same process.” Stanzel, A Theory of Narrative, trans. Charlotte Goedsche (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 215. 10 Scott McCracken, Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction (Manchester and N.Y.: Manchester UP, 1998), 44. 11 Lucy Hughes-Hallet, Review of Swans by Chang, in Swans, unpaginated.
Penelope Fitzgerald, Review of Swans by Chang, in Swans, unpaginated. McCracken, Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction, 43.
ence that we used to have in making the distinction between history and non-history is no longer accepted. Lying in the little gap between history and non-fiction is the rhetoric of fiction. Now history, as one might expect, is also an aesthetic construction, in which narratives, historical and fictional, are all united to create the effect of the real. Western scholarship on the history of the Communist Party itself has demonstrated such a change since it first impacted on western understanding of China and Chinese politics in the mid-twentieth century. Earlier on, it often centred on the role that Mao played in the founding and development of the Chinese Communist Party. Two thirds of the Communist Party’s history accounted by western scholars, as Hai Feng observes, is a record of Mao’s activities.14 Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China, for example, “enjoy[s] a more useful life than most journalism” and wins “sympathetic attention” because it is a “uniquely” sourced reportage on Mao and his comrades.15 At the beginning of the 1990s, the “MaoCraze” in the west underwent a shift in emphasis:
In western minds, views of Mao have not so much blended the good parts with the bad, but evolved according to how much and what kind of information was coming out of China. Much of what dribbled out about Mao during his early years was filtered through sympathetic chroniclers like Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, and tended to show him – not without some justification – as a romantic and heroic rebel. But as it emerged that Mao’s victims numbered tens of millions, the damning comparisons with Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot have become harder for supporters [of Mao] to fend off.16
As western scholarship on “the Mao Phenomenon” has began to pay attention to individual small voices, the warm reception of the Chinese memoirs in the west demonstrates that critical analyses of modern and contemporary Chinese history can no longer depend solely upon the official monologue of the Communist Party. There is, after “the epistemological crisis,” a more direct link between individual experience and history writing, which is a recognition of the value of the “authentic articulation”
Feng, “The MaoCrazy West,” in Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, ed. Geremie R. Barmé (N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1996), 239-40. 15 “I had found Mao Tse-tung and other leaders at an especially favorable moment, in a lull between long years of battle. They gave me a vast amount of their time, and with unprecedented frankness provided more personal and impersonal information than any one foreign scribe could fully absorb.” Edgar Snow, Red Star over China: The Classic Account of the Birth of Chinese Communism (N.Y.: Grove Press), 16. See also Harrison Evans Salisbury, The Long March: The Untold Story (Cambridge: Harper and Row, 1985).
Richard West, “Under Western Eyes,” The Spectator, January 27, 2001, 54.
of the personal voice.17 The “hybridisation” and “privatisation” of history are most manifest when the discourse of history proliferates in the form of popular art; analogously, what cultural pedagogy and literary devices do to history is in turn governed by what popular taste does to the process of history production. The fact that all of the memoirs in question are bestsellers to varying degrees illustrates the taste and consumption power of mass society. Indeed, for Lawrence Levine, personal histories gain their presence and popularity from the narrative power of popular fiction:
[U]ntil historians supplemented the ubiquitous printed record with the materials of folk and popular culture, they would never be able to recover the voices of those who had been rendered historically inarticulate because they were not adequately represented by printed sources or at least by the kinds of printed sources traditionally used by American historians.18
The popularity of the Chinese memoirs has more to do with their authors’ use, interpretation, and rendition of history in response to the popular taste than with their understanding of the past. It is the forces of popular culture and the market that transform and “cannibalize” Mao’s legacy from the debris of history. The Mao phenomenon weathers the test of time partly because the figure of Mao, once spiritually and nationalistically potent, has now come through a gradual process of “secularisation” and become more “earthly” and approachable. As an icon in western popular art, Mao travels between online exhibitions, shopping malls, and auction markets.19 If collecting Mao buttons was once indicative of the Chinese’s loy17
For a discussion of the “epistemological crisis,” see, for example, Roger Chartier, “History between Narrative and Knowledge,” in On the Edge of the Cliff: History, Language, and Practices, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1997), 13-27. 18 Lawrence Levine, “The Historian and the Icon: Photography and the History of the American People in the 1930s and 1940s,” in The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History (N.Y. and Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993), 189. McCracken makes another interesting observation: “Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (no. 13) surprised commentators with its popularity when it was first released in hardback; yet it speculates on subjects like black holes and time travel which are the raw material for science fiction. Another explanation is that A Brief History of Time or Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene are ‘trophy’ books. That is, they are bought to look good on the bookcase, but are not actually read.” McCracken, Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction, 43. Elsewhere, R. F. Foster makes a similar observation: “It seems clear that hitting the jackpot [i.e., the best-selling list] requires not so much that people read a book as that ‘readers’ buy a book to satisfy a felt or perceived need. Actually finishing the book may not be necessary. One suspects that very few people know how Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, or Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, or Dava Sobel’s Longitude, ends.” See Foster in her review of Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir, “The million-dollar blarney of the McCourts,” The New Republic, November 1, 1999, 29.
See “Picturing Power: Posters of the Cultural Revolution” by Harriet Evans and Jeffrey
alty to Mao and their sense of commitment to the ideology of the Revolution,20 it is now a way of making money, a proof of one’s sensitivity to the demand and desire of the public. Those who are engaged in the business of reviving and collecting Mao artefacts do so “with dreams of fat profits from foreigners.”21 In January 2000, Dealer Justin Schiller sold a wool banner of Mao to an American businessman in Hong Kong for HK$11,700.22 In December 2001, the Little Red Book, which was once a daily necessity for the Chinese, and from which Nien Cheng often enlisted help during her imprisonment in the Cultural Revolution,23 was sold for US$15,535 at a book sale at Sotheby’s in New York. “While the Chinese view [artefacts from the Cultural Revolution] as “artefacts of a nightmare time,” Schiller thinks that the westerners, “on the other hand, collect them as intriguing artefacts, decorative but historical.”24 The year 1991 is an important one, marking the beginning of the “Mao phenomenon,” that is, the revival of the Mao cult both inside and outside China. In mainland China, the first series of Mao images appeared in “most unexpected places,” hanging from vehicle rearview mirrors “like amulets.” Mao images – badges and portraits – are found in nowhere but curio shops “among mass-produced laughing Buddhas, cloisonné bracelets, and cheap lacquerware trays covered with frolicking pandas,” appealing to “westWasserstrom, <http://kaladarshan.arts.-ohio-state.edu/exhib/poster/exhibintro.html> (College of the Arts, The Ohio State Univ.), created on September 23, 1999; updated on March 7, 2000; clipped on July 6, 2003. See also Leung Wai-kin, “[A Wool Banner of Mao estimated to sale at 3.5 million],” Ming Pao, July 3, 2003, A10, Hong Kong; my translation; and Rita Reif, “Mao Under the Hammer,” South China Morning Post, March 21, 2003, C5, Hong Kong.
See Liang and Shapiro, Son, 93-4, 113-4. “In those days, there was nothing more coveted and more difficult to get than a Chairman Mao button, since few people outside of the Red Guards themselves could make the long journeys to the Revolutionary sites where they were distributed” (113). When Liang met Cousin Bing for the first time, what drew his attention “most of all was a beautiful Chairman Mao button.” Knowing that the button was from Shaoshan, one hundred li from Shuangfeng County, Liang “resolved that someday [he] would go too, even if [he] had to walk there” (93-4). Orville Schell, The Mandate of Heaven: A New Generation of Entrepreneurs, Dissidents, Bohemians, and Technocrats Lays Claim to China’s Future (N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1994), 281. See also Barmé, Shades of Mao: The Posthumous Cult of the Great Leader, 19-23. See Reif, “Mao Under the Hammer,” C5.
See Nien Cheng, Life & Death, 262, 306, and 364-5. “On temporary platforms everywhere, the young Revolutionaries were calling upon the people in shrill and fiery rhetoric to join in the Revolution, and conducting small-scale struggle meetings against men and women they seized at random on the street and accused of failing to carry Mao’s Little Red Book of quotations” (159). Reading from the Little Red Book becomes part of the strategies for survival during the Cultural Revolution: “To ask for instructions was to read passages from the Little Red Book, to check was to read again from the same book and to report was also to read from the same book. In short, three times a day, every day, every Chinese, except babies, had to read from Mao’s book of quotations” (231).
See Reif, “Mao Under the Hammer,” C5; emphasis added.
erners with a fascination for socialist kitsch.”25
Commodification, standardization, and inter-textuality Ours is a great age of global capitalism, so much so that even history is lured into commercialized systems of signification and meaning production. The goal of history writing is no longer the simple satisfaction of the contemporaries’ need to know about the past, but the creation of curious desires for it, not the desire for the past per se, but for the past in the form of commodities, reified and ahistorical.26 Under the condition of such economic calculus that transforms everything into either fictional works of art or commodities, one is reminded of what Oscar Wilde once said: “[n]othing in life interests me but the mask.”27 It is no accident that almost all the covers of the Chinese memoirs I have come across have on them three decorative details – the colour red, old photographs, and some Chinese characters – images or artefacts by which history is represented in a standardized and visual aesthetic form. See the Illustrations on pp. 103-8 of the thesis. Iconographically, the colour red and the author in uniform (as shown in the authors’ old photographs) are more visually distinctive images of the Revolution than the Chinese characters, which, though also an important form of aesthetic representation,28 are less historically specific and are related to Chinese culture more generally. I would therefore just focus on the red colour and old photographs and suggest that their symbolic use bears a special relevance to the Cultural Revolution and the China under Mao. These images of cultural artefacts and visual symbols on the covers of the memoirs are significant, not just because they are thematically suggestive, but because they totalise the individual memoirs into a single category and in so doing intend to foretell or even replace the stories. “The art of ornament,” Paul Valéry points out, creates a space where “the opposition of art and nature come closest to being cancelled
Schell, “Chairman Mao as Pop Art,” 280.
See, for example, Fredric Jameson’s application of the Marxist notion of reification to mass culture in “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text 1, no. 1 (1979): 130-148. 27 Oscar Wilde, quoted in W. B. Yeats, Autobiography (London: Macmillan, 1972), 205.
Most covers of the Chinese memoirs have Chinese characters “written” on them, showing usually the Chinese names of the authors and/or Chinese “translations” of the book titles or sometimes a Chinese poem or an old Chinese proverb.
out, with customary meaning and function giving way to a world of pure relations.”29 Rather than giving readers concrete information about the Cultural Revolution, the colour red and the image of the author in uniform serve as a basis on which readers make a series of inductions. Hovering between different forms of metaphorical signification, these visuals are themselves “objects of knowledge,” frozen moments of constructive thought and memory.30 One can instantly recognize a Chinese memoir and know, even though unable to judge, what it is about by its cover. This is precisely the effect that the book-cover is meant to create: “A cursory look” at Zhu Xiaodi’s book, for example, “confirms his place in the company” of the Chinese memoirs: “The title is appropriately red, and there is a selection of photographs featuring the author’s family in unsmiling group poses and the author himself, from infancy to adulthood as he returns from America to his birthplace.”31 The consistency in the design of the covers of the Chinese memoirs leaves on the reader the impression that they work on the basis of a common denominator and they are situated in the realm of a collective mentality where all personal narratives coexist in a single discourse and become more significant when read with reference to one another. In addition, extracts from reviews printed in visibly catchy spaces on the book-covers make cross-reference to other memoirs, giving readers reassurance and information as to what they are buying. This “inter-textual” potential suggested by the book-covers of the memoirs is above all what gives them firm residency in popular culture. Chapter Four of this thesis will show how the memoirs foretell the fate of the protagonists, make up for their life by nesting real life experience in the narrative structure of the western popular genre such as the Bildungsroman. Popular texts never exist in “splendid isolation,” Tony Bennett observes. The popular cultural phenomenon of James Bond, for example, has to be assessed in the context of “a range of texts,” including the series of James Bond films and novels.32 In a way, the Chinese memoirs are written with much
See A. Richard Turner, Inventing Leonardo: The Anatomy of a Legend (London and Basingstoke: Papermac, 1995), 138. See T. G. Ashplant and Gerry Smyth, Explorations in Cultural History, eds. T. G. Ashplant and Gerry Smyth (London: Pluto Press, 2001), 3-10, esp. 5.
Richard King, Review of Thirty Years by Zhu, China Review International, vol. 7, no. 1 (spring 2000), 281; emphasis added.
See Tony Bennett’s notion of “inter-textuality” in Bond and Beyond: The Political Career of a Popular Hero (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987), 44-5; see also Dominic Strinati’s discussion of Bennett in An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture (London and N.Y.: Routledge,
less interest in history than in the taste of modern readers, who prefer easily palatable pabulum without the need to care about historical truth. With regard to the expectations of the Chinese memoirs, Carolyn See has the following to say:
If you care at all about the history of China in the twentieth century – or even if you don’t, come to think of it – Wild Swans is riveting. It’s blindingly good: a mad adventure story, a fairy tale of courage, a tall tale of atrocities […]. This is [a] calm and measured story, but it reads like a bestseller. You can’t, as they say, put it down.33
As might be expected, therefore, what could be written and shared is neither determined by the past nor guided by the principle of historical accuracy or social responsibility, but depends on whether it can satisfy the popular taste. If, according to Roland Barthes, the pleasure of reading is derived from “skimming and skipping,” readers have all legitimate reasons to be openly careless about details in the Chinese memoirs.34 In fact, without the need to read the memoirs from cover to cover, readers can more or less induce or deduce from the aesthetic form, to which the covers and the narrative codes both contribute, that the Chinese memoirs, as a body of literature, belong to the same genre, confront the same structural constraints, write about the same subject matter, and adopt the same victim perspective. It should be noted, however, that these memoirs, unlike popular realist novels, do formally have a reality, a concrete “outside,” a historical basis on which they are constructed. As Zhu Xiaodi says in an interview, “As an Asian-American, you need to think of how you represent the community.”35 That outside reality is rendered secondary, only because the memoirs, as “third-world” texts produced for and circulated in the west and the global market, are often “already written” by discourses, or by what John Fiske calls “a common stock of a culture” – knowledges of morality, politics, art, history, psychology, and so on.36 This is a complex argument that needs to be dealt with in the space of a chapter. Chapter Three will discuss how American culture and
Carolyn See, Review of Swans by Chang, in Swans, unpaginated.
Roland Barthes writes, “our very avidity for knowledge impels us to skim or skip certain passages (anticipated as ‘boring’) in order to get more quickly to the warmer parts of the anecdote (which are always its articulations: whatever furthers the solution of the riddle, the revelation of fate): we boldly skip (no one is watching) descriptions, explanations, analyses, conversations[.]” Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1976), 11.
See Eric William Schramm, “Right, But Wrong?: An Interview with Zhu Xiao Di,” Sampan, 19.
John Fiske, Television Culture (London: Routledge, 1987), 143.
its politics of sympathy give rise to the Chinese discourse of victimhood. Here I shall only summarize the argument by drawing on Fredric Jameson’s famous essay, entitled “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism Age.” In the essay, Jameson locates the meaning of third-world literature outside the individual story, in its relationship to “futurity and to some collective project yet to come.”37 For Jameson, “third-world” literature
must be situational and materialist despite itself. And it is this, finally, which must account for the allegorical nature of third-world culture, where the telling of the individual story and the individual experience cannot but ultimately involve the whole laborious telling of the experience of the collectivity itself.38
Indeed, the Chinese memoirs are neither marketed as mere personal narratives nor read as such. On top of giving the authors a sympathetic response, western readers give credit to the memoirs’ inter-textual relation as well as their incisive analysis of the political situation. J. Chen considers Zhu Xiaodi’s Thirty Years in a Red House an “outstanding academic book” because:
Following in the footsteps of Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1986), Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991), and several other collections on personal/family experiences during China’s communist revolution, Zhu’s book provides another excellent account of life in Mao’s China. […] Zhu goes far beyond his family’s ordeals, linking personal and family experiences to a broader comprehension of the [Chinese] nation’s public history. The result is this highly readable and thoughtful illustration of Chinese society under Mao’s rule. For anyone who is interested in learning more about China’s modern history, this book is a welcome addition.39
The Chinese memoirs are meant and indeed are read as alternative history to the official account of the Cultural Revolution. History now is understood as comprising many separate “small stories” rather than a single official narrative. Ironically, however, the Chinese memoirs, in forcing readers to take them collectively, refuse to acknowledge that they are separate “small histories,” refuse to acknowledge, that is, that history at large is a patchwork of discourses that coexist.
More red in the west
Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text 15 (summer 1986): 77. 38 Ibid., 85-6; emphasis added.
J. Chen, Review of Thirty Years by Zhu, Choice 36, no. 1, September 1998. This is by no means the only review that focuses on the political and public elements in Zhu’s memoir, and Thirty Years is of course not the only memoir valued for its political nature.
Without exaggeration, every cover of the Chinese memoirs has a patch of redness on it. Titles of the Chinese memoirs that make literal reference to the colour red are numerous: Born Red: a Chronicle of the Cultural Revolution, Red Azalea, Red China Blues, Red Flower of China, Red Scarf Girl, Thirty Years in a Red House, and Vermilion Gate; those that are printed in red include: China’s Son, Daughter of China, Life and Death in Shanghai, Red China Blues, Spider Eaters, and Wild Swans (the Chinese subtitle). Covers where red has a preponderant presence include Red Azalea, Red Flower of China, Son of the Revolution, To the Edge of the Sky, and Vermilion Gate. While the repeated use of the same image creates the sense that the Chinese memoirs belong to one big family, the image itself is both concrete and specific thematically. The red colour that constitutes half of the cover of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory might be an aesthetic choice;40 in the case of the covers of the Chinese memoirs, however, there is no such thing as pure aestheticism. At the most fundamental level, the colour red, as a primary colour and a cultural-political symbol, functions to draw the reader’s immediate attention to itself. A default image of blood, 41 the predominant colour of the national flag of China, and the synecdoche of the Cultural Revolution, the colour red is a cultural, political, and historical cult icon, and more so in the eyes of the west. It might be argued that the cultural connotations of “red” have historical residence in western psychology. At the height of the anti-Bolsheviks sentiment, the Americans often react to their own fear of communism rather than to communism as a real threat. The Red Scare of 1919-20 is an example of how communism, in American history, is imaginatively constructed by the spell of red as an evil force. Referring to Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, Robert K. Murray diagnoses the Red Scare as a manifestation of some sort of psychological problem: “This book is the story of a phenomenon. I use the word ‘phenomenon’ because the Red Scare following World War I was precisely that.” Studying the then “historical” event as a “national hysteria,” Murray concludes that the two years exemplify “what happens to a democratic
See the cover design of Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory by The Athlone Press Ltd. (London, 1997).
While the word “blood” occurs 20 times in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition of “red,” the latter occurs 12 times in that of the former. Pointing out “red as blood” as a “frequent simile,” the OED establishes the relationship between the colour red and blood as one that is “familiar in nature.” See “red, a. and n. I.1.a,” in OED, eds. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), OED Online (Oxford UP), March 2, 2002, <http://oed.com/cgi/entry/00199859>.
state and its people when faith and reason are supplanted with fear.”42 Elsewhere, Murray Burton Levin describes the Red Scare as “a nationwide antiradical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America is imminent.”43 Finally, an empirical investigation into “What did happen” in the Red Scare reports that newspaper headlines, large-scale strikes, bomb plots, etc. in those two years were often by-products of “myths” and “pseudoevents” created by “the power elites of capitalism.”44 These concurrent attempts to equate the American anticommunist sentiment with the sense of fear and the disease of hysteria are also a reading of the American apprehension of communism as a hallucination.45 In American popular imagination, the Red Scare is a manifestation of “deep-seated forces and fears which often lie dormant below the surface of American thought.”46 To submit oneself to the ideology of communism is, in the American sense, to “regress” from proper white to improper red, to undergo a spiritual “re-lapse” into the dangerous unconscious.47 The force of propaganda and popular culture no doubt also contributes to the
Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (N.Y.; Toronto and London: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), ix; emphasis added. 43 Murray B. Levin, Political Hysteria in America: The Democratic Capacity for Repression (N.Y., London: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1971), 29. 44 Levin, Political Hysteria in America, 44, and 91-140.
In the chapter where Levin analyses the effect of the Red Scare on the American mind-set, he writes: “The Red Scare was phantasmagorical. It was a dream. It was magic. […] It was hysteria. The fundamental quality of the Red Scare is the enormous imbalance between the nationwide anxiety and the objective danger. The anxiety was massive. The danger was miniscule.” Levin, Political Hysteria in America, 91. 46 Levin specifies those forces as “nativism, antiintellectualism, a deep and abiding popular identification with capitalist clichés, a disturbing sense of rootlessness and fear of status loss, xenophobia, and a shallow committment to variety and dissent.” Levin, Political Hysteria in America, 88. To Robert Murray, they are “the seeds of excessive hate and intolerance, which for the most part have remained dormant in modern American society,” and can be “suddenly developed into dangerous malignancies that spread with lightning rapidity through the whole social system.” Murray, Red Scare, ix. In the western medical discourse, the disease of hysteria is etiologically acquainted with a “wandering womb.” OED associates hysteria with the female reproductive organs and defines it as a disturbance caused by a suffering womb: “ad. Latin. hysteric-us, ad. Greek belonging to the womb, suffering in the womb, hysterical (f. womb), esp. in , , hysterica passio.” See “hysteric, etymology,” OED Online, August 3, 2003, <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/-00110730>. When later translated into the language of Christianity, hysteria was understood as a “manifestation of innate evil, the result of original sin” (Bronfen 106), a “godless abomination” (Haynes 7). See Elisabeth Bronfen, The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1998), 105, 106ff, and ft. 4; John Earl Haynes, Red Scare or Red Menace? (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee: The American Ways Series, 1996).
course of the event. Michael Barson and Steven Heller in their full-page colour book Red Scared! tour contemporary readers through the decade of American/Soviet adversity. By examining how the printing of bright-colour and eye-catching propagandas, journals, magazines, pamphlets, etc. and the production of “red” Hollywood films actualise imagined historical events, Barson and Heller warn against the danger of having a soiled public psyche in the society, as it can be manipulated to feed up fictional hallucinations. The cultural phenomenon of the Red Scare draws attention to the fact that American readers are not only inclined to believe in what they read, they possess a kind of “bottom-up productivity” and like to relate their sense of reading to reality. Flipping through Barson and Heller’s book, I am immediately attracted to their collection of “Red Readings: Bolshevism on our Bookshelves” (152-3); for, like the Chinese memoirs, all the covers of the listed books there are patched with the same eyecatching redness. The possible link between the “Red Readings” and the Chinese memoirs lies in cultural representation; between there and here, then and now, I see the same colour performing the same function of warning against communism as a dangerous cause and ideology. The case of the Chinese memoirs show that the colour red is a cultural representation whose two-way associations with the Cultural Revolution in China and with the great Red Scare in America act powerfully upon the western imagination of Chinese social experience. The colour red on the covers of the Chinese memoirs may, or may not, make reference to America and its history of “mental illness,” and there are other ways to understand how personal history can be more interestingly “coloured” for use, interpretation, and reassessment after its exportation to a foreign culture. However, while I have no intention to suggest that the Chinese authors and the American publishers collaborate in plotting a “red conspiracy,” it is important to show numerous possible psychological and emotional effects of colour red and to draw attention to the Americans reactions to redness. In short, though there is no end to the number of possible associations with the colour red, what is certain is that if the memoirs were not produced in and for the west, they would have been less red. Considering the Chinese memoirs as narratives that describe in detail a disastrous period brought about by the practice and ideology of communism, is it possible not to consider them in relation to the American fear of communism? If, according to Lawrence Venuti, themes of anti-communism are popular ones in the Euro-American world, we must stay vigilant to the cultural politics of represent-
ing the Cultural Revolution as a lesson for all human beings worldwide.48 It could even be argued, and I will, that the memoirs enjoy a popular appeal in the west partly at least because of their authors’ ambivalent relationship with their homeland. In these Chinese memoirs, events under Mao’s regime are remembered, recorded, analysed and interpreted from a critical perspective. If the colour red has once been the colour of revolution in general, connoting youthful passion, health, and hot blood, it is now used to represent the violent nature and cold-bloodedness of the Cultural Revolution, the hysterical impulse of communist policies. Such renditions and appropriations of the image work to meet the needs and taste of capitalist culture. By describing in detail and making claims to a “red” past, in which large-scale violence and madness play a significant part, the Chinese authors feed on, and feed up, their readers’ imagination of what life is like under the Communist Party.
The author in uniform: the private and the public My discussion of the colour red attempts to show how cultural artefacts and symbols are both souvenirs from the past and bearers of historical meaning. If the meaning of every literary production is given by the reading public and the culture to which it belongs,49 what enables and motivates the act of memory and writing in the first place? Carsten Jensen, a journalist who went to China, acknowledges from the start that Wild Swans “had revealed to me how little I knew about China” and tries wisely not to compete with her or the other native interpreters of the Chinese personality.50 Among the three stories in Wild Swans – of her grandmother, of her mother, and of Jung Chang herself – the last one is “the most interesting to read, perhaps because it is
“Between 1950 and 1970, twelve English translations of Guareschi’s writing were issued in the United States, and most of them were enormous best-sellers. […] Gaureschi’s antiCommunism was undoubtedly a key factor in his popularity.” Venuti, The Scandals of Translation: Towards an Ethics of Difference (London: Routledge, 1998), 127-8. 49 “[I]n the culture industry every element of the subject matter has its origin in the same apparatus as that jargon whose stamp it bears,” and “[t]he attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favors the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it” (129, 122). See Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Allen Lane, 1973), 120-2, and 129-30. 50 “Reading Jung Chang’s eye-witness description of the Cultural Revolution had revealed to me how little I knew about China. In Wild Swans Jung Chang maintains that by the time the Cultural Revolution had come to an end China was an ugly country. Whereas Europe had entrepreneurs and architects, China had the Red Guard.” Carsten Jensen, I Have Seen the World Begin, trans. Barbara Haveland (N.Y.; San Diego; London: Harcourt, Inc., 2000), 14.
so immediate – [the author] is telling her story.”51 An “insider’s” story is usually considered to be more informative and intriguing especially if it is about illicit acts and mischievous deeds. The Chinese memoirists’ experience forms an important basis on which they claim the right of authorship. As Chapter Three will discuss with more details, the good sales of these cross-border memoirs are indicative not only of the western reading public’s desire for “classified” information about China, but also of its pleasure derived from finding out every secret about China. Whether their stories are about their parents who are communist cadres as Jung Chang’s and Aiping Mu’s are, or about themselves as Red Guards like Ji-li Jiang, Gao Yuan, and Zhai Zhenhua, or about the “illicit sexual” relationships such as those that Xu Meihong and Anchee Min are engaged in, these memoirists show no hesitation to capitalize on their experiences during the Revolution and to emphasize that their accounts of these experiences, “firsthand” and “transgressive,” could only be produced by the insiders and should be recognized as such. Photographs play a major role in manifesting and sustaining the authors’ discursive power derived from their authenticity as insiders. As Paul Jay observes, “visual memory” recorded in photographs can help authenticate the cultural imagination of identity in self-narratives. 52 This is perhaps why Robert Worden in his review of Thirty Years in a Red House observes that Zhu’s “[f]amily photo album illustrations enhance the visual effect of this extremely interesting book.”53 Almost all the covers of the memoirs have on them photographs or portraits of the authors, and most of them show the authors in uniform. Xu Meihong and Jan Wong, for example, show themselves in the uniform of the People’s Liberation Army (the PLA) and the Red Guards respectively – green army jackets and trousers, flat caps featuring a red star at the front, a pistol on the belt. Jung Chang, herself not a PLA, shows her mother in uniform. In trying to give herself a military touch, Liu Hong, author of Startling Moon, supports herself with a straight back and carries in her right arm Mao’s Little Red Book. The cover “photo” of her is a computerized construction, showing Mao in the image of the
Sara Robinson-Coo Idge, “Phenomenal!” Member Review of Wild Swans by Chang, in Epinions.com, created on February 10, 2000, clipped on August 7, 2002, <http://www.epinions.com/>; emphasis original. See Paul Jay, “Posing: Autobiography and the Subject of Photography,” in Autobiography and Postmodernism, eds. Kathleen Ashley, Leigh Gilmore, and Gerald Peters (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1994), esp. 191ff.
Robert Worden, Review of Thirty Years by Zhu, Washington Journal of Modern China 6, no. 2 (fall 2000): 120.
red sun at the back. The cover of Red Flower of China captures in a full page Zhai Zhenhua in the PLA uniform, holding a gun and standing in a forward-looking pose. Whether wearing an army uniform or adopting a posture, the five authors mentioned above have chosen a military image for the effect of representing a disciplined social self. This act of posing is integral to the construction of a state-ordered identity and deserves more serious attention. In one instance, Anhua Gao herself comments on what a government uniform means to the Chinese:
In China the judicial uniform is a sign of importance and power in the eyes of the people, which nobody dares ignore. Even top officials make concessions if they are ever confronted by a person in such a uniform.54
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes makes an important comment on the function of the photograph as “an extended, loaded evidence” of the fact that the “object [in the photograph] has indeed existed and that it has been there where I see it.”55 Because the uniform makes reference to a specific time and political reality of China, the continuous reprint of the same image on the book-covers produces the dual effect of contextualising and collectivising the memoirists’ Chinese experience and identity for the easy consumption of western readers, anchoring them upon a past, a trauma, a historically recognizable site.56 The army uniform, though symbolic of the authors’ commitment to the Cultural Revolution, is a piece of historical evidence that shows how they as individuals were drawn into the political movement and therefore why they should not be held responsible for their part in it. Susan Sontag points out rather precisely that uniforms “suggest community, order, identity (through ranks, badges, medals, things which declare who the wearer is and what he has done: his worth is recognized), competence, legitimate authority, the legitimate exercise of violence.”57 They are, for Sontag, an emblem of the “legitimate authority” of the government over its subjects. Although the memoirists as authors do not hesitate to exercise agency in the act of writing, in par54 55
Gao, Edge, 359.
Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage, 1993), 115; emphasis added. 56 In the context of writing a background essay for a historical photographs exhibition, Lawrence Levine points out the effect of image reprinting: “when seen alongside other photographs taken on the same subject at the same time by the same photographer, the photographs would assume more meaning than when seen as isolated shots.” Levine, “The Historian and the Icon: Photography and the History of the American People in the 1930s and 1940s,” in The Unpredictable Past, 256.
Sontag, Under the Sign of Saturn (London: Vintage, 1996), 99.
ticular in determining which part of their experience should be selected or overlooked in their narratives, when coming to the point of describing themselves as participants in the Cultural Revolution, they nonetheless take care to suppress that agency through the narratives of self-incrimination. Both Chapters Three and Four of this thesis will discuss, for different purposes, the Chinese authors’ anxiety about their dual role of creators and victims of their history, and how that duality might threaten the authors’ legitimacy of adopting in their writing the victim perspective as both a narratorial strategy and a political positioning. In brief, the memoirists make sure that readers understand them as historical victims “defaced” by the ideological and political razor of the Revolution.58 The generic choice of writing memoirs rather than autobiographies is itself suggestive of the writer’s intention to transform the experience of the self (memory) into the experience of the public (history); it, in effect, grants to personal stories the status of the official and the national. Reading the memoirs as examples of “the historical novel,” we see that most characters in the memoirs are more “flat” than “round.”59 A lot of them represent a type or a typicality. The “flatness,” or “blankness,” of Jung Chang’s father, for example, is reflected in the way he is described as a “typical” revolutionary; he is, like many Chinese then, a product of the Maoist revolution. As a complete and selfcontained world, the political environment of the Cultural Revolution gives the characters a “place” in the narrative and gives the memoirs a form.60 Chapter Four will discuss the way the memoirs impose on personal narratives a structure of action that coincides with the development of history rather than with that of the individual in question. The memoirs give the impression that the Cultural Revolution occupies the
See Paul de Man, “Autobiography as De-facement,” Modern Language Notes, vol. 94, no. 5 (December 1979): 919-30.
Most of the characters in the memoirs fit into the mould of a flat character, singledimensional and linear, identified by their function within the specific historical context of the Cultural Revolution. Playing the dual role of a neighbour and a spy, Mrs. Chu in Life and Death in Shanghai is secretive and selfish, and remains so till she disappears from the narrative. “In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as ‘I never will desert Mr. Micawber.’ There is Mrs. Micawber – she says she won’t desert Mr. Micawbber, she doesn’t, and there she is.” E. M. Forster, Essentials of the Theory of Fiction, eds. Michael J. Hoffman and Patrick D. Murphy (London: Leicester UP, 1996), 36-42.
“The epic individual, the hero of the novel, is the product of estrangement from the outside world. When the world is internally homogenous, men do not differ qualitatively from one another.” Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1971), 66.
whole content of the writers’ life, as if no personal experiences of the Chinese authors can be of more interest in comparison to their relation to the event. The beginning of the memoirs nearly always coincides with that of the Cultural Revolution, and the conclusion falls at around the time the writers depart from China. The Chinese authors, it seems, are “apocalyptic writers” who “live” and “die” with the Cultural Revolution.61
Central to the discussion of the role cultural icons play in relation to history writing is the question about the material and political nature of personal history: how history is ever-present in the way it is reified, commodified, iconicized, and taylorized to meet various interests of different social or cultural groups. The memoirists write the self as history in order to exert control over the production of the knowledge of the self. The closeness of the memoirs to the life of the victims, whose voice, the Chinese authors claim, better informs our understanding of history, is the result of their attempt to elevate their personal stories to the level of public history. Implicit in the act of writing is then the attempt to rediscover sympathetic understanding and individual experience that the official historiography has hitherto neglected or suppressed. “In truth history – as something given, as a reality, a suprapersonal power,” Georg Simmel urges us to recognize, “represents no less an oppression of the ego by an external agency.”62 As more individuals come to write history, and as history is produced for the popular consumption of the market, our relation to history and to the past as represented in history is getting ever more faint. Instead of assuming that individuals write history and that first-hand experience provides truth, this thesis attempts to show that authors of history are subject to the conditions and effects of the discursive processing of their experiences. The popularity of the Mao souvenirs as cultural artefacts in the last few decades of the twentieth century evidences perhaps the fact that history is increasingly decorative and works of history cannot be meaningfully understood unless they are themselves appropriately contextualised. What the book-covers of the Chi-
In “The Modern Apocalypse” Frank Kermode calls W. B. Yeats an “apocalyptic poet” because Yeats sees in war “the means of renewal.” For Yeats, earthquake, fire and flood at the end of an age should not be taken literally, they mark the end of one era because “out of a desolate reality would come renewal.” See Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (London, Oxford and N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1966, 1981), 98-9. Simmel, “How is History Possible?” in On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, ed. Donald N. Levine (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), 4.
nese memoirs reveal is that the context of writing is primarily a medium for rendering visible an ineffable force that motivates writing and reading. Whether embodied in cultural artefacts or narrated in popular memoirs, history is constructed in a discursive field, wherein representations of the past are regulated by market forces and through social interactions. Neither a single narrative nor a single discourse can, therefore, lay claim to “truth” in the absolute sense of the word. It is in this sense that discursive historical writing is necessarily a kind of “aesthetic” and “decorative” construction and the context of the discourse in question is where one should seek “truth.” As Gadamer asserts:
the nature of decoration [of art] consists in performing that two-sided mediation; namely to draw the attention of the viewer to itself, to satisfy his taste, and then to redirect it away from itself to the greater whole of the context of life which it accompanies.63
In effect, the discursive field/context, textual or historical, defines the limits of what can be said about the past and how to say it with some degree of “warrantability.”64 For the Chinese memoirists abroad who are confronted with their own set of discursive constraints and considerations, the context of writing is never historically contingent. In the order of the following chapters, I will focus on three conditions of possibility for the writing of the Chinese memoirs: the constitution of global capitalism that ensures international circulation and consumption of the memoirs, in particular in relation to the choice of language of writing, the ideology of liberal capitalism that furnishes the memoirists with “better” reasons for writing, and the post-cold war conditions that give the Cultural Revolution a timely and topical existence. These are, in turn, the historical-materialistic forces that define the western critical and cultural imagination of the Cultural Revolution, in which anything associated with communism and for that matter China is as dangerous as it is exotic.
Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, trans. Garrett Barden and John Cummings, 2nd edition (N.Y.: Crossroads, 1975, 1984), 139; quoted in Gianni Vattimo, The End of Modernity: Nihilism and Hermeneutics in Post-modern Culture, trans. and intro. Jon R. Snyder (Polity Press, 1998), 83.
See Tony Bennett, “Outside Literature / Texts in History,” in The Postmodern History Reader, ed. Keith Jenkins (London: Routledge, 1997), 224.
Writing the Self “in the Language of the Other”
The Chinese are excessively keen on phonetics, because they have a great variety of dialects – such a great variety that they don’t feel any nationalist resistance when they start talking a foreign language. William Empson1
Student of I. A. Richards and “much in favour of Basic English,” Empson might have good reasons to find the “great variety” of Chinese dialects “frightfully hard to learn.”2 But if Empson’s proposed reason for the Chinese receptivity to English is more speculative than real, what leaves his observation still relevant to our understanding of the politics of English learning in China is the fact that Chinese, as the case of the Chinese memoirists shows, are indeed more anxious about their own agency in mastering English as a second language than about it as an agent of cultural imperialism. For the Chinese memoirists writing in English, English is not just a new linguistic medium of expression, but an enabling and empowering force of creativity and freedom. “English allows me to enjoy the absolute freedom of creativity, to write without self-censorship,” says Annie Wang, author of Lili, in an interview. “In this new language environment, there are no expectations from my old readers, nor cultural or political pressure.”3 Liu Hong speaks with no irony of English thus: “I liked the sound of English, and there were no negative overtones, like colonialism, where I lived. […] Chinese language and culture are like the soil that gave me nutrients, but
1 2 3
Empson, “Teaching English in the Far East,” London Review of Books, August 17, 1989, 18. Ibid. Wang, South China Morning Post, October 20, 2001, Hong Kong.
“In the Language of the Other”
English is the language that has made me free.”4 Readers familiar with the postcolonial critique of cultural imperialism may have questions about whether a “foreign” tongue can function as the language of creativity and represent fully the Chinese subject. What is there inside its system that has made English such a language of freedom and creativity? Questions of this kind, although frequently raised in postcolonial debates over the politics of English, do not seem to be a serious concern for Annie Wang or Liu Hong and indeed for many other “exiled” Chinese writers. The phenomenon that these Chinese memoirists choose to write in English in the post-imperial era poses a challenge, and adds a new dimension, to the postcolonial critique of the politics of English, for it urges, and indeed requires, us to consider the issue of linguistic imperialism beyond the history of British colonialism and beyond the nation-state framework. As English is no longer under the monopoly of the British, and as the concept of nation-state slowly gives way to the weight of globalisation, the debate over the relationship between mother tongue and national identity must be resituated in the new global context, and the phenomenon of the continuing spread of English should be considered in close relation to the constitution of global capitalism that has enabled English to function as the de facto international language.
Beyond the postcolonial paradigm The adoption of English, while not a problem to this group of Chinese writers, has been a serious concern for writers from former colonies and has generated a series of debates among them over the politics and global spread of English. Such debates constitute a discursive part of the postcolonial critique of the cultural practice of colonialism and are often concerned with how the indigenous languages are marginalized, suppressed or even devastated in those former colonies.5 The debates between Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o, which lasted for several years, foreground the difficulties and paradoxes the postcolonial critique of English is faced with. In his celebrated essay “The African Writer and the English Language,” written as an afterword to a collection of papers from “A Conference of African Writers of English Expression,” which was held in 1962, Achebe broaches the issue of whether
Hong, “These Words of FREEDOM,” South China Morning Post, March 23, 2003, Hong Kong.
Robert Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism (Oxford and N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1992), 18.
“In the Language of the Other”
English can serve as a bearer of indigenous culture.6 Arguing that any attempts to arrive at a tentative definition of “African Literature” are in themselves problematic, Achebe distinguishes “national literature” from “ethnic literature,” proposing English as the language of the former (75). He explains that his proposal of English as the language of the national literature of Nigeria and that of some other countries in Africa is a response to “the reality of present-day Africa” (76). And that reality is, Achebe continues, that these new nation-states have been “created in the first place by the intervention of the British” (77). Since English is a “world language which history has forced down our throats,” a constructive discussion of the relationship between English and African culture should focus on finding ways to make the best use of English for the present and future (79). Taking into account the shaping influence of history upon human action, therefore, Achebe is in favour of the idea of English as a unifying and liberating force. The essay ends with several working examples of African English, showing how the creative writer, as an artist conscious of his role as a cultural ambassador, is capable of “fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience” (82). Ngũgĩ and Obi Wali, whom S. N. Sridhar regards as “ultranationalist critics,”7 have, however, difficulties sharing Achebe’s liberal attitude toward English. In response to Achebe’s essay, Ngũgĩ, in “The Language of African Literature,” holds that “authentic” cultural identity can only be written in the indigenous language and that a “specific culture” can only be transmitted by the “particularity” of a language that belongs to “a specific community with a specific history.”8 It is perhaps predictable that debates of this kind, though helpful in improving our understanding of the linguistic situations in these former colonies, will not lead to a consensus over whether or not English should be replaced with an indigenous language as the vehicle of “national literature.” That English is historically constituted and most widely used in these colonies is a given and a reality, which, as Achebe suggests, should be perhaps recognized in the first place before investigations into the politics of English could start. The long debates between Achebe and Ngũgĩ reveal the
Achebe, “The African Writer and the English Language,” in Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975), 74-84. 7 Sridhar, “Non-Native English Literatures: Context and Relevance,” in The Other Tongue: English Across Cultures, ed. Braj B. Kachru (Oxford: Pergamon, 1983), 293.
Ngũgĩ, “The Language of African Literature,” in Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature (London: James Currey, 1986), 15.
“In the Language of the Other”
complexities of the politics of English in those former colonies and at the same time perhaps the unproductiveness of this kind of debates if conducted only within the critical framework of nation-state and linguistic identity. What is ironical is that these debates, staged and conducted in English, are enabled by the very object of inquiry that is at the same time a means of inquiry. Perhaps a conference on English should acknowledge in the first place the paradox that the participants have to share a common language before they can decide whether that common language should be used. Jürgen Habermas’ notion of “performative contradiction” is useful here for the understanding of the ironic situation created by these African writers’ inability to escape from their instrument of engagement – English, which not only has given rise to these debates but also has provided a means through which they can be staged. Habermas writes:
The totalising self-critique of reason gets caught in a performative contradiction since subject-centered reason can be convicted of being authoritarian in nature only by having recourse to its own tools. The tools of thought, which miss the “dimension of nonidentity” and are imbued with the “metaphysics of presence,” are nevertheless the only available means for uncovering their own insufficiency.9
Critical studies of “third-world literature” needs to make it known that a country with a colonial history is, as Sudipta Kaviraj says, “historically instituted by the nationalist imagination” and by the imperial language that has always already been part of the national and cultural identity of the native land.10 Despite their critical orientations toward English, we hear those postcolonial critics and writers speak English at the conference, even though it was held in Uganda, Africa. We also see African writers preoccupied with language standards and their application to emergent “third-world literature.” Decolonisation only allows more young scholars and critics to participate in the discursive debates over the use of English, but has failed to get rid of the set of
Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), 185. Along a similar line of thought, Michel Foucault draws our attention to the processes through which a discourse is formed and to the historical conditions of possibility that give rise to it. Foucault understands language use in terms of the relationship between the language system and its user, that is, in terms of how the user’s thought and intellectual make-up are constructed by the language itself, by what Michel Pêcheux refers to as “the ideological meanings and values that fill our linguistic creativity.” See Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London and N.Y.: Routledge, 1989), 31-6; cf. Pêcheux, Language, Semantics and Ideology: Stating the Obvious, trans. Harbans Nagpal (London: Macmillan, 1982), 111. 10 Kaviraj, “The Imaginary Institution of India,” in Subaltern Studies: Writings on South Asian History and Society, vol. 7, eds. Chatterjee, Partha, and Gyanendra Pandey (Delhi and N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1993), 1.
“In the Language of the Other”
protocols of academic debates defined in English, let alone English itself. I have no intention to valorize the two polemics presented by Achebe and Ngũgĩ. What I am concerned with here is the framework in which the issue of the politics of English has been approached in the postcolonial context. English continues to spread across the globe and consolidate those parts of the world it has conquered after the period of active imperialism and colonialism. Notwithstanding the collapse of the British Empire after the Second World War, English has never stopped to be the dominant language. “The biggest spurt in English writing,” writes Sridhar not without an ironic undertone, “has come in the years immediately surrounding the demise of the British Empire.”11 This is perhaps nowhere more manifest than in those places outside the sphere of British colonialism. In China, for example, the spread of English has never stopped, even during the Cultural Revolution, a period in which the country is perceived as radically hostile to anything western. Though the postcolonial critique of the spread of English has no obligation to deal with the case of China in order to legitimise its agenda, the complexities of the politics of English cannot be adequately comprehended without considering its global presence; it is by no coincidence that English is spread to China. Kachru observes that at present there are “many more English-using Chinese [in China] than the total population of the United Kingdom, if we estimate just five percent of the Chinese using English.”12 The limitations of the postcolonial critique of the politics of English lie in its reluctance to reach beyond its own paradigm to engage with the problem of English in other political, social or historical contexts, its limitations, in other words, lie in its tendency to localize the issue of the global presence of English, and confine it exclusively to the historical practice of colonialism in those former colonies. In A Cultural History of the English Language, Gerry Knowles provides a brief historical account of three different ways in which English spreads over the globe: first, English is transplanted from Britain to its colonies; second, it is introduced as a second language alongside existing national languages; and third, it interacts with native languages.13 Whereas the exportation of English to and its implementation in colonies
Sridhar, “Non-Native English Literatures: Context and Relevance,” 291.
Kachru, “World Englishes: Agony and Ecstasy,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 30, no. 2 (1996): 139. Knowles, A Cultural History of the English Language (London and N.Y.: St. Martin's Press,
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take on the first and third paths, English voyages to non-colonial regions through the second. Implicit in Knowles’ model is the distinction between the factors contributing to the spread of English as a colonial language and those that contribute to the spread of English as an international language, without losing, of course, the historical sense that British colonialism has paved the way for the internationalisation of English at the present time. The continual expansion of English in places like China, a phenomenon predicted by John Adams and referred to by people like Kachru, has yet to be adequately explained.14 China has never been a colony, and the acceptability and popularity of English there, especially after the Communist Party took over power in 1949, necessarily invites us to think if there are other routes by which English expands its territorial influence apart from those mentioned by Knowles.15 If Britain’s first settlement in Botany Bay, Australia in 1788 marked the beginning of the global journey of English, the end of the colonial era does not conclude that journey with a final destination.
English and politics of transgression Although those Chinese memoirists, as mentioned above, are not burdened with the historical baggage of English,16 their knowledge of English and their later adoption of
1997), 139-140. 14 John Adams (1735-1826), cited by Kachru in 1992, predicted that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the close of this one.” Kachru, “The Second Diaspora of English,” in English in its Social Contexts: Essays in Historical Socio-Linguistics, eds. T. W. Machan and C. T. Scott (N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1992), 230.
Alma Rubal-Lopez brings to our attention some “potentially significant variables” that, although ignored in previous studies of the relationship between colonialism and the spread of English, may be affecting the spread of English. He singles out the case of China as a “perfect” yet “difficult” example of a non-colony where English is used as a second language: “China is a perfect example of a polity in which the spread of English has not been extensively studied even though this area of the world is one in which English is currently spreading most rapidly. Little is known about the spread of English in this nation because […] studies of English-language spread are usually conducted on former colonies of the United States or Britain rather than on a nation like China, which, although it had economic ties with both the United Kingdom and the United States, cannot by any means be considered a colony or either of these two world powers.” Rubal-Lopez, “A Comparative Analysis of Former Anglo-American Colonies with Non-Colonies,” in Post-Imperial English: Status Change in Former British and American Colonies, 1940-1990, eds. Joshua A. Fishman, Andrew W. Conrad, and Alma RubalLopez (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996), 38-9.
For those exiled Chinese writers, the choice of English is more related to how the act of writing can be performed against a set of pragmatic constraints – from practical concerns about writing materials and readership to their anxieties about career advancement and survival. Coming to the U.S. in 1987 and now working at Harvard, Zhu Xiaodi, for example, is con-
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English in writing are necessarily historically conditioned. Many of them started to acquire some knowledge of English during the Cultural Revolution, especially in its later phase. There is a double irony here: the Cultural Revolution not only provides them with a subject to write about, but also, in many cases, makes it possible for them to acquire a language in which to write about it. While discontents about the political and social chaos during the Cultural Revolution are prominently represented in their memoirs, the “exiled” Chinese writers do not always acknowledge the fact that it is during this chaotic period that many of them took “advantage” of the political and social anarchy and started to learn English. The Cultural Revolution, in other words, has created a specific social and political vacuum that allowed individual Chinese to develop an officially illegitimate interest in English. In those years when a desire for almost anything foreign was considered a capitalist “decadent” pursuit in China, English, whether as the national language of Britain or its cultural institution, is no exception. “I dared not read English now, or do any kind of study when the Cultural Revolution began,” says Anhua Gao, author of To the Edge of the Sky.17 “[T]o speak to [foreigners] without authorization was a criminal offence,” Jung Chang, later an English major at Sichuan University, recalls.18 In times of the Party’s internal power struggle, things foreign were ritualistically sacrificed: “Zhou and Deng had been making tentative efforts to open the country up, so Mme Mao launched a fresh attack on foreign culture” (619). As a result, Chang concludes that “there was almost no way to learn [English]” (621). For some, however, to learn English is an act of resistance and a silent challenge to the authority, and the sense of danger involved in learning English offers a form of excitement and self-fulfilment amidst the barrenness of intellectual life during the Cultural Revolution. Although it was prohibited to tune in to foreign radio broadcasts at the time, thousands of English-learners in China became loyal listeners of the BBC and the Voice of America. “Those of us who listened surreptitiously never dared to talk about what we heard even before the Cultural Revolution,”19 for, as Jung Chang
stantly perturbed and frustrated by his inability to communicate fully in English. The language problem becomes for him a natural barrier to the advancement of his career. See Chow Zhuzhi, The World Daily News, June 17, 2000. 17 Gao, Edge, 147.
Chang, Swans, 621. Cheng, Life & Death, 608.
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makes clear, “[w]e could be put into prison” for doing so.20 Zhu Xiaodi, author of Thirty Years in a Red House, obviously took pleasure from this act of political transgression: “My father found out what I was doing, but he didn’t stop me. He just asked me to be very careful, and not to turn the radio too loud.”21 Playing the role of a father who is supposed to represent the state authority at a domestic level, Zhu Qiluan, the author’s father, fulfil his duty only by defining more strictly where and when it is possible to talk about the “taboo.”22 Precisely because of official suppression, English learning was more than just a matter of acquiring linguistic skills, and became an act tinged with political and perhaps moral adventurism. Christopher Cox understands Zhu’s acquaintance with English as a result of his disappointment with the Cultural Revolution:
Given the way the political winds kept shifting in China, it’s no wonder the young man came to regard communism with a jaundiced eye. He poured his energy into the study of English and the ideas he encountered in the works of Hawthorne, Shakespeare and de Tocqueville. His teachers worried he would become a “white professional,” a capable person who did not follow the Party line.23
Forbidden knowledge is often a source of excitement, and the political suppression of foreign culture during the ten dark years has given a strange prominence to it. Speaking of her experience of “learning English in Mao’s wake,” Jung Chang remembers, after eighteen years, “the thrill of being given permission once, just once, to look at a copy” of The Worker (the paper of the minuscule Maoist Communist Party of Britain), which would otherwise be “locked up in a special room.”24 Zhu Xiaodi considers it a source of transgressive pleasure to read a few more English books than his classmates. Without being apologetic, he “confesses” that “forbidden fruit always tastes better.”25 Because English was “designated as the evil to be eliminated” during the Cultural
20 21 22
Chang, Swans, 621. Zhu, Thirty Years, 133-4.
“To listen to foreign broadcasts had always been taboo in Communist China.” Cheng, Life & Death, 608. Cox, “‘Red House’ Gives Inside Look at Communist China,” Lifestyle, February 15, 1999, 37, Boston Herald. 24 Chang, Swans, 621.
Zhu, Thirty Years, 187. “Father told me that he had read [The Communist Manifesto] in English when he was young. […] I knew that in his time communist books were forbidden by the government. One could be put in jail or even lose one’s head if detected reading them by the police. Of course, if the books were in English, few policemen could tell they were about communism. His story sounded so marvelous that I immediately liked the idea of reading The Communist Manifesto in English” (131).
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Revolution, the desire for it – a desire the society could not and dared not recognize – was kindled and intensified. Largely because he was a politically “backward element,” Wu Ningkun was “left out” from various bustling faculty and student activities and happily found “time to finish reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace and the Moncrieff translation of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.”26 With China just about to recover from the Revolution, Zhu Xiaodi gained a year’s time for self-studies before he was assigned a job after his graduation from secondary school in the summer of 1975: “I knew I would have some time to myself, and it felt great. I spent most of my time reading foreign literary works that had been translated into Chinese.”27 Exiled to the edge of the Himalayas, Jung Chang began her first serious study of English out of boredom and disillusionment with the Revolution: “[T]here was no fun outside. I longed for something to read. But apart from the four volumes of The Selected Works of Mao Zedong, all I discovered in the house was a dictionary.”28 And now considering herself “among people who had benefited from the Cultural Revolution,” Chang thinks the activity of learning English gives her reason enough to feel “nostalgic” for her years in the countryside and the factory “when [she] had been left relatively alone” (623). Like Chang, Rae Yang’s acquaintance with English results more from the circumstantial than the intentional. A Red Guard herself, Yang was fed up with going to factories and people’s communes. Considering those trips “worse than futile” and an “interruption” of studies, Yang detached herself as much as she could from school and concentrated on her studies at home. It was when she “relax[ed] behind closed doors” that she found time for translations of foreign masterpieces. Having given a oneparagraph-long list of the books she has read, Yang concludes that the list not only reflects her taste, but shows what has been available to her during the Revolution.29 The secret desire for English and its continuing presence during the Cultural
26 27 28 29
Wu, Tear, 21. Zhu, Thirty Years, 162. Chang, Swans, 518.
Yang, Spider, 95-102. See also Chang, Wild Swans, 103: “Of the foreign books I read in translation, my favourite ones were La Dame aux Camélias, Les Misérables, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, A Tale of Two Cities, War and Peace, The Captain’s Daughter, The Gadfly, How Steel Was Made, The Scarlet Letter, Life on the Mississippi, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and all the rest of Jules Verne’s science fiction, plus the detective stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Thousand and One Nights, the Greek myths, and Shakespeare’s tragedies.”
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Revolution testify to Foucault’s remarkable observation that official repression, even at its worst, is discursively “productive.”30
English and cultural capital “[K]nowing English is like possessing the fabled Aladdin’s lamp, which permits one to open, as it were, the linguistic gates to international business, science, and travel.”31 Although commenting on the pervasiveness of English in our global experience, Kachru, in equating the “magical” power of English today with that of “Aladdin’s lamp,” seems ready to let go of the implications in the constitution and propagation of English as a desired tongue. And it reveals perhaps a certain political unconscious to take English as a form of cultural capital. For my purpose here, it is important to examine the relationship between English as a language of transnational and transcultural knowledge and English as a formation and discourse of power, to examine the “context of situation” in which the choice and use of English are understood as beneficial and the global spread of English is made possible. What English can do for this group of Chinese memoirists is already shown in the fact that they have chosen English in the production of their memoirs and more significantly in their view of English as the only effective medium of cross-linguistic representation – a fetishism of language which takes English as commodity and embodiment of success. For Anhua Gao, the only true teaching from Karl Marx is that knowledge of English language is “a weapon in the struggle of life,”32 and thanks to her excellent English, Gao managed to get a job as a translator in the Electronics Import and Export Corporation of Jiangsu Province at the time she, left as a widow, was in a financial plight (309). Being “the only foreign-language speaker out of a staff of twelve,” Gao enjoyed “great face” among colleagues (378). But English offers far more than just that. “Through taking a postgraduate course abroad,” says Aiping Mu, “I could further improve my educational qualifications and gain an adequate knowl-
In his study of sexuality, Foucault observes: “there was a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex, […] an institution excitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail.” See The Will to Knowledge, vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley (London: Penguin, 1998), 17-8, and 29-30.
Kachru, The Alchemy of English: The Spread, Functions and Models of Non-native Englishes (Oxford: Pergamon Institute of English, 1985), 1.
Gao, Edge, 262.
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edge of English, which would open more options in the future, so that I need not rely on jobs offered by the state.”33 The myth of English as a “neutral choice” has little to do with the linguistic structure inherent in English, but a lot with class and social divisions in a society which has accepted the use of English for different reasons and considerations.34 In his study of the historical formation of the literary canon, John Guillory examines the politics of language acquisition and provides a useful point of entry into the issue of the relationship between social development and the spread of English.35 “What one learns to read is always another language,” Guillory observes, “and because that language is unequally distributed, it is a form of capital.” There is, Guillory argues, an innate relationship between linguistic stratification and social stratification: the former is “constructed upon” the latter and also “reproduces,” within a specific institution of reproduction, that is, the school, social relations that are hierarchical in nature (61-2). As a consequence, the unequal distribution of linguistic competences creates an internal social distinction between the literate and the illiterate. The sense that literacy in English creates social distinction manifests itself pointedly, though in a different manner, in some of the Chinese writers’ desire for the ownership of English. While the acquisition of English skills appears to Da Chen’s mother to be “too fancy” and “exotic,” “nothing sound[s] better than that” to Da Chen himself, author of Colours of the Mountain. This is because “crippled by political
Mu, Gate, 767.
Kachru claims: “[English] has acquired a neutrality in a linguistic context where native languages, dialects, and styles sometimes have acquired undesirable connotations. […] It was originally the foreign (alien) ruler’s language, but that drawback is often overshadowed by what it can do for its users. True, English is associated with a small and elite group; but it is in their role that the neutrality of a language becomes vital.” Kachru, The Alchemy of English, 89.
Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago and London: The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993). Although Guillory is primarily concerned with the politics of the formation of the literary canon, his analysis of the unequal distribution of literary language and the effect it has on the reproduction of social relations is useful as it helps to explain the way Chinese understand English as cultural capital. Guillory makes a more general comment on the apparatus of education and the social function it performs: “The system of educational institutions reproduces social relations by distributing, and where necessary, redistributing, knowledges” (56). Pierre Bourdieu examines the function of education in maintaining social order and argues that a person lacking in academic qualification is perceived as intrinsically handicapped. He writes: “The educational system, an institutionalized classifier which is itself an objectified system of classification reproducing the hierarchies of the social world in a transformed form.” Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1984), 387.
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mumbo-jumbo,” Chen would have been “shovelling mud for life and living way below the international poverty line” if he had not had the chance to study English, and subsequently the opportunity to enrol in an institution in Beijing.36 Immediately after the Cultural Revolution,
[t]he radio talked about young heroes who had overcome severe difficulties and had made it to prestigious colleges. There was heroism, glamour, money, and cushy jobs awaiting those who crossed the threshold. A college education was money in the bank – getting there was as rare as hitting all six numbers in the lottery.37
Conscious of what English as a form of cultural capital can offer, the Chinese writers not only see the possession of it as a mark of social distinction but also strategically propagate it as an agency ensuring privileges and enabling social mobility. “I had long believed that there were advantages to learning English that were greater than just the ability to speak another language,” Zhu Xiaodi confesses, “Now as a teacher, I wanted my students to benefit as well.”38 Nien Cheng offered, during the period of the Cultural Revolution, regular English lessons to a few eager learners. Her students included youngsters who later used English as a travelling ticket to America and others who considered English a stepping-stone for personal advancement, economic and social. Teaching English has been considered a desirable profession; being proficient in English allows one to enjoy a wider portfolio of jobs. Two of Nien Cheng’s students – a crippled girl and a former Red Guard – strove hard to acquire the qualification required to join the army of middle-school English teachers. Shortly following the death of Mao, the English Department of the Foreign Languages Institute in Shanghai, as those elsewhere across the whole nation, acquired prominence. 39 On their way to recruit qualified teachers, the Party Secretary of the Institute told Nien Cheng: “There is now a great need to teach our young people foreign languages, especially English.”40 Literacy in English as a symbolic order of social distinction generates more than just “the money in the bank.” Under the sway of the instrumental reason governing
36 37 38 39
Chen, Colours, 227. Ibid., 285. Zhu, Thirty Years, 209.
“Many changes occurred, beginning in 1979,” observes Zhu Xiaodi. “In the cities, small private enterprises could take on second jobs. One booming market was continuing education, and evening classes mushroomed in the large cities. College teachers were in high demand, especially English teachers.” Zhu, Thirty Years, 211. Cheng, Life & Death, 608.
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the use of English in the global context, these Chinese writers have reasons to choose English in their self-representation, and these reasons reveal how the adoption of English actually encourages critical reflections upon the Chinese society from which these writers come and about which they write. For those who have brushed up their English during the Revolution, their experience of English reaches beyond the level of language skills and allows them to think more seriously about the values, cultural, political or symbolic, embedded in and embodied by English.41 Zhu Xiaodi, later a student of Nanjing Normal University, sums up: “In college, I had learned much more through English than I had learned about English.”42 It may be worthy our effort to ponder the difference between what Zhu has learnt “through” English and what he has learnt “about” English. Knowledge of English produces a more critical consciousness of Chinese society in which English was once banned. “English was a tool that could open our minds for perceiving things we would not otherwise be able to see,” Zhu claims (187). And as he read more in English, he “became more critical of our society and the political system.” Likewise, Jung Chang, who started to learn English during the Cultural Revolution, has “benefited enormously” from her ability to read English:
With the help of dictionaries which some professors lent me, I became acquainted with Longfellow, Walt Whitman, and American history. I memorized the whole of the Declaration of Independence, and my heart swelled at the words ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are equated equal,’ and those about men’s ‘unalienable Rights,’ among them ‘Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ These concepts were unheard of in China, and opened up a marvellous new world for me. My notebooks, which I kept with me at all times, were full of passages like these, passionately and tearfully copied out.43
In English, Chang experiences “the thrill of challenging Mao openly in [her] mind for the first time.”44 After a decade of internal turmoil, the west and its civilization seem to be “rediscovered” in China and become a source of inspiration for some Chinese. If indeed the west is the beacon of hope for the Chinese, English language becomes the passport to the land of freedom. Having moved and decided to remain abroad,45 some Chinese memoirists feel they can write about their past without the fear of censorship. “Abroad, memory becomes an opportunity – however danger ridden –
41 42 43 44 45
Ibid., 506, see also 579, 608. Zhu, Thirty Years, 209. Chang, Swans, 631; emphasis added. Ibid.
“I had decided already that I would never come back. I would die elsewhere, in some country that would accept me.” Cheng, Life & Death, 651.
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for a new kind of self-becoming that benefits from forcible distance from the mother tongue,” asserts Vera Schwarscz.46 What English has created for them is the opportunity to enter a cultural and political space of freedom. “Speaking for and on behalf of millions of Chinese,” Zhu claims that “the best and most realistic hope was to go abroad, either on a short visit or as a permanent immigrant […], that seemed to be the only chance to enjoy modern civilization.”47 This is one of the reasons why he chose to study English.48 For these Chinese writers who are still entangled in the web of horrible memories, writing in English is an experience of psychological condolence and allows them to reach a readership that would readily understand and sympathize with them. Nien Cheng, for example, needs a “new language environment” precisely because she feels “a compulsion to speak out and let those who have the good fortune to live in freedom know what [her] life was like in Communist China.” As Cheng has suffered unjustly, it would seem better and safer to stage, far away from her home country and in a foreign language, her recollections of the traumatic past and her open challenge to China’s inhumane treatment of political dissidents. The psychological and emotional distance created by writing in English provides, in addition to the geographical and the temporal ones, a linguistic buffer which absorbs Cheng’s pain from the past.49 Once back in Beijing and detached from the circle of his western friends, Wu Ningkun found it “practically impossible to continue working on” his memoir, for his mind “simply declined to function in a sterile climate.”50 A person who has not lived through a colonial history perhaps also needs a “tongue for sighing.”51
“No Solace from Lethe: History, Memory, and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century China,” in The Living Tree: The Changing Meaning of Being Chinese Today, ed. Tu Wei-ming (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994), 65.
Zhu, Thirty Years, 212.
“I was interested in many areas, including electronics and English. Finally, for two reasons, [father and I] decided that I should pursue an English major. First, my English was already much better than that of most of my peers, so I had a considerable competitive advantage. Second, with a good command in English, I might have a better chance to study abroad in the future.” Zhu, Thirty Years, 179. Cheng, Life & Death, 656. Wu, Tear, x.
49 50 51
Not without a sense of irony and perhaps humour, Achebe addresses the social effect of colonialism: “on the whole [colonialism] did bring together many peoples that had hitherto gone their several ways. And it gave them a language with which to talk to one another. If it failed to give them a song, it at least gave them a tongue, for sighing.” Achebe, “The African Writer and the English Language,” 77.
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Global production in English Indeed, it is English that has created these Chinese writers’ identity, has defined them as authors of their narratives about themselves and about the nation; it is English that has made them known to us. For sure, their choice of English as the language of transnational self-representation must have been rooted in their earlier experience of the language either as forbidden knowledge or as a subject of institutional study in China. The fact that English has allowed this group of writers to achieve wide international visibility shows that English, as they see it, is a form of empowerment, not just because it gives them a language to articulate but because it catapults them into the global system of circulation. We may wonder where Wild Swans, for example, would be published if written in Chinese. Would it still have the good fortune of being translated into twenty-five languages and sold over seven million copies world-wide and of reaching the number one in the best-sellers lists over a dozen of countries? Crossing not only one but multiple national borders, not only spatial but temporal boundaries, English has established itself as the international language of knowledge production, of the internet and of international corporations after the demise of the British Empire.52 Speaking of English in the context of globalisation, Joshua A. Fishman writes: “the half century following the collapse of the former British, French, and American Empires has been witness to one of the most vigorous and lasting periods of economic expansion in world history.”53 The rapid growth of transnational corporations and the demand for linguistic uniformity reinforce each other. English has swiftly mastered the changing situations in the second half of the twentieth century: discarding its role as the “mask of conquest” and reinventing itself as the language of multinational enterprises and global capitalism.54 The success of these Chinese memoirs must be considered, therefore, in close
Ferguson observes: “When the need for global communication came to exceed the limits set by language barriers, the spread of English accelerated, transforming existing patterns of international communication.” Ferguson, The Other Tongue, ix. 53 Joshua A. Fishman, “Introduction: Some Empirical and Theoretical Issues,” in Post-Imperial English: Status Change in Former British and American Colonies, 1940-1990, eds. Joshua A. Fishman, Andrew W. Conrad, and Alma Rubal-Lopez (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1996), 7.
Gauri Viswanathan elucidates the relationship between the institutionalisation of English in India and the exercise of colonial power. English teaching participates in the colonial project by way of controlling the minds and the practices of the “natives”: “In the name of teaching the mechanics of the English language, the British government saw no violation of its own injunction against religious inference by providing religious instruction indirectly.” Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 3, and 78.
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relation not only to what they have to say about their authors and about China, but also to the global conditions under which they become popular readings. It is worth noting that most of the Chinese memoirs are not distributed in mainland China, and all of them are first published abroad, receiving funding from international publishing enterprises: Bantam Books, DoubleDay/Anchor, Flamingo, Indigo, Penguin Books, Vintage, to name just a few. The expansion of international corporations – publishing houses among them – blurs national boundaries, facilitates transnational movements, and puts the memoirs in the global systems of production and circulation. The function and importance of English, just in light of these publishing factors alone, should be so manifest to the Chinese memoirists, who desire to reach the largest possible numbers of readers. Despite, more often because of, the need to abandon their mother tongue, the “exiled” Chinese writers, who manage to resort to English as an alternative vehicle of expression, enjoy, in most cases, privileged access to the international book market and a reading public larger than one that could possibly be pooled together in their homeland. The impressive sales of the Chinese memoirs written and published in English necessarily contribute to the debates about English as a discourse of power operating in the global market, especially considering the fact that “modern Chinese writing in English translation has not made much impact in English-speaking countries.”55 English allows these Chinese authors not just to have a sense of fulfilment and to achieve a high degree of international visibility, but to join the international community of English. Entitled “How the book came to be written,” the prologue of A Single Tear details how the project of recollecting and translating the author’s experience is done, and has to be done, in the community of English. A Single Tear would never have been written, Wu says, “without the sustained and inspiring support of [his] family and so many dear friends.” The “friends” referred to include Bill and Ann Burton, his American hosts, Sam and Marilee Anderson, his American neighbours, Professor Derek Brewer, Chairman of the Faculty Board of English and Master of Emmanuel College, Valerie Myer, a distinguished writer based in Cambridge, and Richard Bernstein of New York Times. Apart from the “inspiring support” that Wu receives from his friends, William Robinson and Eldon E. Fahs, president and vice president of Man55
W. J. F. Jenner, “Insuperable Barriers? Some Thoughts on the Reception of Chinese Writing in English Translation,” in Worlds Apart: Recent Chinese Writing and its Audiences, ed. Howard Goldblatt (London: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1990), 177.
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chester College in Indiana, together have made Wu an “alumnus-in-residence” at their college for the year in which Wu, the “returned-expatriate,” while enjoying “lifesustaining humane values,” wrote his memoir in English.56 The prologue is in a way an elaborate acknowledgement of his friends, neighbours, reviewers, colleagues and publisher in America, who have “made” Wu “promise” to write an autobiographical essay and urged him “to make the fragment part of a whole” (ix-x). In short, it is the very luxury of the western environment that has, on the one hand, created for Wu a measure of expression, and on the other, compelled him to write in the language of his hosts. As part of the strategy of recognizing the west that provides the conditions of possibility for writing, almost all notes of acknowledgements in the Chinese memoirs pay special tribute to those who have helped their authors “search for the right word.” Tokens of gratitude to westerners, mostly Americans, who have helped the Chinese authors in the area of language, are unfailingly and lavishly paid. Standard lines like the following abound in the acknowledgements of these memoirs: “Thank you: Michele Smith for helping me with my English since I arrived in the United States,”57 “I feel fortunate to work with my agent, Peter Robinson of Curtis Brown, and Alan Samson, my editor at Little Brown and Company (U.K.). I treasured their wise advice about my writing.”58 Liang Heng, co-author of Son of the Revolution, is a college graduate majoring in Chinese language and literature. Having no formal training in English, Liang’s contribution to the memoir, one can reasonably assume, is restricted to a recounting of his experience as “a good representative of his generation” and has to leave the final representation in writing to his co-author, and wife, Judith Shapiro, “whose writing skill and knowledge of what a foreign audience needs to know about China,” we are told, “make this book a delight to read.”59 Xu Meihong’s “ordeal” was first written by Elizabeth Fernandez of San Francisco Examiner, who suggested the possibility of a book. And the experience indeed appeared later in the form of a book, after of course Xu received “enthusiastic” and “constant encouragement and support” from Sandra Dijkstra and substantial help from Larry Engelmann, Xu’s American husband and co-
56 57 58 59
Wu, Tear, xi. Min, “Acknowledgements,” in Azalea, unpaginated. Mu, “Acknowledgements,” in Gate, unpaginated. Jerome Alan Cohen, Foreword to Son by Liang and Shapiro, in Son, x.
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author.60 Co-authorship, or rather a “division of labour,” which Adam Smith considers to be the foundation of modern capitalism, between Chinese as the source of information and their western partners as the “vehicle” of expression, is already indicative of some of the Chinese memoirists’ embarrassment arising from their inability to express fully in English.61 Unlike those writers from former colonies, who are inescapable from colonial education in English and are preoccupied with issues of political morality and national identity in language choice, a lot of Chinese writers are burdened only by the anxiety over their belated and limited exposure to English and their incompetence in the use of English.62 They are not so much concerned, as Ngũgĩ would be, with the possible “danger” of English “preying” on peculiarities of the indigenous and national language as with their acceptability to their western readers in the global market. Zhu Xiaodi’s appreciation of the constructive role the editor has played in the production of his memoir might be seen as a special example of the effects of linguistic “intervention.” He writes:
American editors can almost rewrite authors’ original manuscript. The value of the author lies primarily in providing unique materials that no one else can, and the editor is responsible for polishing and improving the style of writing. American writers themselves are used to, and appreciate, the editorial practice of massively revising and even reconstructing their manuscripts, an experience which [I] also share.63
Zhu’s experience of the editor’s active involvement in the production of his memoir unveils a process in which the collaboration between editor and author is more than just a linguistic intervention on the editor’s part. The collaboration between Chinese and western writers provides perhaps an example of what Fredric Jameson calls “late capitalism,” in which there is, for the first time in the history of capitalism, “a new international division of labor.”64
Xu Meihong and Larry Engelmann, “Acknowledgements,” in Daughter, vii.
See Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, vol. 1, eds. R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981), 25-30.
Writers from former colonies are confined to writing in English, to the extent that some feel even more at home in English than in their native tongue. “The majority of African writers,” Sridhar points out, “write only in English.” Sridhar, “Non-Native English Literatures: Context and Relevance,” 293. 63 See Zhu Waiye, “Westerners Understand China through Reading: Zhu Xiaodi Talks about his New Book Thirty Years in a Red House,” Sampan, December 4, 1998, 44; my translation.
Folker Frőber, quoted in Arif Dirlik, “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” Critical Inquiry 20 (winter 1994): 348.
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Jung Chang’s gratitude to Jon Halliday, the editor of Wild Swans and husband of Chang, makes one wonder how much of the story originally conceived by the author has survived the editing:
Jon Halliday has helped me create Wild Swans. Of his many contributions, polishing my English was only the most obvious. Through our daily discussions, he forced me into greater clarification of both the stories and my thoughts, and helped me search the English language for the exact expressions. I felt safer under his historian’s knowledgeable and meticulous scrutiny, and relied on his sound judgement.65
As the above piece of acknowledgement reads like an apology, it tells the reader, before the actual text begins to tell its own story, how Chang, as a non-native user of English, has been placed in a “disadvantaged” position unable to perform fully the task of an author, and how, with the help of her “editor,” she is able to claim to the authorship of the book. Chang’s submission to Halliday’s forceful editorial intervention is perhaps suggestive not only of the author’s inability to find “the exact expressions” and her inability to tell the story or to tell the story in the right way, but more tellingly, of the Chinese writer’s desire to identify, at least linguistically, with her host country. For some, like Nien Cheng, the question of English competences is more related to an anxiety about recognition, that is, about whether their use of English is acceptable to native English users.66 As assistant to the manager of Shell’s Shanghai office responsible for translating and drafting “more important correspondence the company had with the Chinese government agencies,” Nien Cheng should not have found the linguistic barrier to be a serious challenge. The most rewarding moment for her in the struggle to write in English is perhaps when Arthur Miller recognizes her narrative power and “her amazing mastery of English.”67
The case of exiled Chinese writers writing in English illustrates that linguistic hegemony could be developed quietly, as one group of people are compelled to learn the language of another, and as these Chinese memoirists seek identification with their
Chang, “Acknowledgements,” in Swans, unpaginated; emphasis added.
In an attempt to establish the relation between language as “symbolic capital” and a “recognized power,” Bourdieu writes, “The linguistic relation of power is never defined solely by the relation between the linguistic competences present. And the weight of different agents depends on their symbolic capital, i.e., on the recognition, institutionalized or not that they receive from a group.” See “Price Formation and the Anticipation of Profits,” in Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, ed. John B. Thompson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991), 72. Miller, Review of Life & Death by Cheng, in Life & Death, back cover.
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American and British friends, neighbours, editors, and partners. In the collection of more than twenty Chinese memoirs, the imperial history of English is nowhere addressed. There is no sense that these writers are concerned with their identity, linguistic, national or ethnic, and for them, the act of writing in English does not seem to entail a loss of the self. This striking lack of interest in the political implications of the imperial history and the current global dominance of English can perhaps be explained in terms of these writers’ freedom from the experience of British colonialism. Taking for granted the legitimacy of writing in English, therefore, they feel free from the need to defend their language choice, a choice which is made in the recognition and acceptance of English as an instituted language of cross-cultural articulation and representation. But let us not forget that Chinese do have a language choice. Although the most widely-studied language in China today, English is not and has never been, as in the case of Africa, the national language of China.68 Those postcolonial critics and commentators, who are constantly troubled by the state of English in the former colonies, have yet to explain the continuing spread and use of English after the demise of the British Empire, to delineate the path by which English is spread to non-colonies like China, and to address the phenomenon of the general trend of “consensual acceptance” by the Chinese writers of the hegemonic dominance of English as the de facto world language. The debates between Achebe and Ngũgĩ mentioned at the beginning of this chapter is significant for my purpose here, not just because the issues and questions raised by them can help account for Chinese writers’ choice of English against the discursive postcolonial critique of cultural and linguistic imperialism, but more importantly because they direct our attention to the differences between writers from former colonies and Chinese writers, in terms of their attitudes toward English and their preoccupations and concerns with regard to the spread and politics of English. Edward Said, in his recent memoir Out of Place, speaks of his ambivalences
Foreign languages in China are often studied as additional languages, and there is little concern about cultural imperialism at the back of them. In Kachru and Nelson’s “circles model” that describes the global situation of English, China belongs to “the expanding circle,” in which English is “widely studied but for more specific purposes including reading knowledge for scientific and technical purposes.” Kachru and C. L. Nelson, “World Englishes,” in Analysing English in a Global Context, eds. A. Burns and C. Coffin (London: Routledge, 2001), 13; see also Kachru, “The Second Diaspora of English,” 230-252. English in China has been regarded as a transnational linguistic system and a language of modernity rather than the language of certain nations. Learning English, for most Chinese, is neither a threat to their Chinese identity nor a reminder of British imperialism.
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and ambiguities in relation to his split linguistic identity as a result of his early colonial education. “More interesting for me as author,” Said writes,
was the sense I had of trying always to translate experiences that I had not only in a remote environment but also in a different language. Everyone lives life in a given language; everyone’s experiences therefore are had, absorbed, and recalled in that language. The basic split in my life was the one between Arabic, my native language, and English, the language of my education and subsequent expression as a scholar and teacher, and so trying to produce a narrative of one in the language of the other – to say nothing of the numerous ways in which the languages were mixed up for me and crossed over from one realm to the other – has been a complicated task.69
Like Said, the Chinese memoirists produce narratives of the self “in the language of the other” and from “a remote environment,” but unlike Said they have shown no awareness of the kind of “split” that Said has experienced. Language “choice” – whether it is Achebe’s, Ngũgĩ’s, or the Chinese writers’ – is not subject only to the history and practice of colonialism, neither is it just a matter of personal preference. For the writers from former colonies, that choice is made for them, and their adoption of English is innately linked to the history of the British Empire. In contrast, English in China is received with relatively less hostility, and most of the time is welcomed as a language of modernity at different stages in the modern history of China.70 The situation created by global capitalism, of which English is a discursive part, helps to explain the proliferation and global consumption of the Chinese memoirs.71 As the English language enters into this new phase of “late capitalism,” it serves not only as a tool of various socio-political projects such as cultural imperialism, nation69 70
Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (N.Y.: Vintage, 2000), xi-xii.
Travelling to China through a route and in a manner less patently imperialistic than the one it took to former nation-states, English has often been received by Chinese with relatively little resistance if not some enthusiasm. English has no doubt occupied a privileged position internally in China, especially prior to 1949. Cf. Phillipson, Linguistic Imperialism, 30-1. There is a good amount of research done on the spread of English to China through trade, education, or the implementation of language policy. See, for example, Robert Hall, Pidgin and Creole Languages (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1966); Q. S. Tong, “The Bathos of a Universalism: I. A. Richards and His Basic English,” in Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulation, ed. Lydia H. Liu (Durham and London: Duke UP, 1999), 331-54; Zhou Xiaoyi and Q. S. Tong, “English Literary Studies and China’s Modernity,” in English in China: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Special Issue of World Englishes 21, no. 2 (2002): 337-348. Y. F. Dzau’s English in China (Hong Kong: API Press Ltd., 1990) is perhaps the most comprehensive study of English in China. Despite their differences in orientation and emphasis, scholars all agree that China has been hospitable to English.
Addressing a more general situation of Chinese writing in English, Cheng Chin-Chuan writes, “English is used primarily in international communication, and written English in China appears in publications mainly for international consumption.” Cheng, “Chinese Varieties of English,” in The Other Tongue, 126.
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building, or postcolonial resistance, but also as a commodity, a form of capital and power, whether discursive, social, or economic. In the studies of the politics of English, therefore, before we can return to the historical causes of the spread of English, it is important to recognize in the first place that the power has already fallen into the hands of the privileged. This is not to legitimise the global domination of one language, but on the contrary is to show how the empire of English has reinvented itself after the demise of the British Empire as the language of what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call a new global empire,72 and to remind us of how this fact alone requires a new set of discursive articulations about the politics of English.
For Hardt and Negri, “Empire” is a concept that has no geographical or temporal boundaries. See Empire (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2000), esp. xiv-xv.
The Community of Sympathy
‘I’ll be waiting for you in San Francisco,’ he said. ‘I’ll be there,’ I said. There was a slight pause, and then we both spoke at once: ‘I love you.’ […] And so my old life ended and my new life began. Xu Meihong & Larry Engelmann1
Analyzing the place and function of English in the system of global capitalism, the previous chapter has attempted to show how English makes possible the global production and circulation of the Chinese memoirs. Such a factor alone, however, cannot fully account for the memoirs’ phenomenal popularity in the west. How much pleasure – whether aesthetic, tragic, or voyeuristic – these victim narratives can generate depends on how successfully they can seduce their readers into a willing identification with the narrators. In the case of the Chinese memoirists, the sympathetic identification with readers is achieved mainly by the narratives’ control of judgment: the power of the Chinese victim narratives, for those who feel it, lies very often in the authors’ critical attitude toward the ideological make-up and the practice of communism in China. The Chinese memoirs are popular victim stories. From the memorable image of Jung Chang’s father, who, known to all as a “man of iron,” bursts into tears in front of a whole courtyard of inmates to the dramatic tension of Wu Ningkun’s five-year-old
Xu and Engelmann, Daughter, 358, and 362.
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child crying at the sight of Wu, who has become “horrible” looking as a result of starvation and over-work, the representations of the Chinese as innocent victims rendered miserable through no fault of their own, invariably elicit sympathy. Given an appropriate “aesthetic form,” Herbert Marcuse argues, “the language of the oppressed” will persist “in its own universe,” “in its own right,” and “in a subverted form” to strike a “political fight against the established society.”2 Wenying Xu attributes the popularity of the Chinese memoirs to this “critical potential” of theirs:
The number of Mainland Chinese legally entering the United States has been soaring since 1978. […] This growing community has found almost no voice in its newly adopted country other than through the publication of personal narratives of China’s political upheavals. Nien Cheng’s sensational 1986 autobiography Life and Death in Shanghai marked the beginning. It was followed by Liu Binyan’s A Higher Kind of Loyalty (1990), Jung Chang’s Wild Swans (1991), Anchee Min’s Red Azalea (1994), and more. This body of literature by immigrants from the People’s Republic of China represents a new and distinctive form of writing by Chinese writers in the Englishspeaking world, one which bears an especially heavy burden of social responsibility because of its critical potential.3
Xu’s account of the world’s geo-political situation in the early 1990s shows how the circulation of the Chinese victim stories as capitalist mass productions is politically and contextually determined: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the proliferation of personal narratives of the political upheavals in former communist countries since then have coalesced into a public display of a universal desire for liberal capitalist humanism under a “new imperial order” dominated by the U.S.4 In other words, the waning of communism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet bloc is the context in which Chinese political dissidents become invariably identified as the object of sympathy. Focusing on the cultural and social construction of post-Mao China and employing sympathy as a trope in relation to the discursive representation of victimhood in the Chinese memoirs, this chapter explores the political nature of the western, especially American, moral responses to the Chinese memoirists and their stories. It is my contention that the victim identity of the Chinese memoirists is ideologically useful, because it helps to reconfirm the political morality of the U.S. in the international community of sympathy.
Herbert Marcuse, Counter-revolution and Revolt (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), 81; emphasis added. 3 Wenying Xu, “Agency via Guilt in Anchee Min’s Red Azalea,” MELUS 25, no. 3 (fall 2000): 203.
See Hardt and Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2001), 160-182, esp. 178-182.
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The gulf between hearts That the Cultural Revolution is an archetype of human catastrophe, an iconic image of destruction, and a crime against humanity, is the general assessment within and outside China. Feng Jicai describes the Revolution as “the sudden calamity of 1966” in which “the world would never again see such a vast gulf between one person and another, a gulf between human hearts.”5 A lot of the memoirs describe the destructive power of the Revolution with special emphasis on the way human relationships are utterly destroyed in it. William A. Joseph recommends Gao Yuan’s Born Red for its detailed account of the breaking down of human bonds during the Cultural Revolution: “Some of the book’s most powerful moments tell of family ties and friendships sundered by class struggle.”6 On this particular theme Nien Cheng elaborates in great detail:
[O]ne of the most ugly aspects of life in Communist China during the Mao Tze-tung era was the demand by the Party that people inform against each other in peacetime and denounce each other during political campaigns. This practice had a profoundly destructive effect on human relationships. Husbands and wives became guarded with each other and parents were alienated from their children. This practice inhibited all forms of human contact, so that people no longer wanted to have friends. It also encouraged secretiveness and hypocrisy. To protect himself, a man had to keep his thoughts to himself. When he was compelled to speak, often lying was the only way to protect himself and his family.7
For Cheng and indeed many other Chinese memoirists, the Cultural Revolution is a time of state paranoia that turned the world upside down. Husbands, wives, children, friends, neighbours, and colleagues denounced one another, and together they destroyed the possibility of the formation of a harmonious and compassionate community. There were, between individuals, only hard encounters defined by alienation, mistrusts, and betrayals. “The past ten years had taught all of us that anyone, even friends and family, might turn against us.” 8 Nanchu, author of Red Sorrow, was “stabbed in the back” by Lang, her then close friend at university, whose heart had once “beat [in] the same rhythm” as Nanchu’s.9
Feng, “A Written Testimonial about the Cultural Revolution,” in Modern Chinese Writers: Self-Portrayals, trans. Philip Williams, eds. Helmut Martin and Jeffrey Kinkley (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1992), 15-6.
6 7 8 9
William A. Joseph, Foreword to Red by Gao Yuan, in Red, x. Cheng, Life & Death, 352-3. Ye, Leaf, 264. See Nanchu, Sorrow, 221, and 228-33.
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The brutality and the absurdity of the Cultural Revolution not only made natural human relationship impossible but radically destroyed the unwritten law of respect for family and friendship in China. Often, love of the Communist Party was in conflict with the love of family. “Father is close, mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao.”10 It is not uncommon that children coming from families entangled in political problems cut off their ties with their parents. Having been nominated twice in vain for the membership of the Chinese Communist Party, Tan, whom Nanchu secretly admired, “severed all relations with his family and refused to write his father,” who was then, according to the party secretary of the Heilongjiang Military Farms, a “historical counterrevolutionary.”11 During the Cultural Revolution one was alienated not only from others but also from oneself. The collective force of the society spared no one and threw all into the state politics. No Chinese could be considered as a single entity, and the meaning of the existence for an individual had to be defined in relation to his/her function as part of the state machinery:
Like many Chinese, I was incapable of rational thinking in those days. We were so cowed and contorted by fear and indoctrination that to deviate from the path laid down by Mao would have been inconceivable.12
About the role and function of the masses and the way they were flocked into this “national madness,” Jung Chang has the following to say:
[Mao] understood ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment, and knew how to mobilize them for his ends. […] He ruled by getting people to hate each other. In doing so, he got ordinary Chinese to carry out many of the tasks undertaken in other dictatorships by professional elites. Mao had managed to turn the people into the ultimate weapon of dictatorship.13
Every aspect of the self, Chang recollects, appears to be monitored in political terms. Having realized that her name Er-hong is pronounced in the Sichuan dialect the same way as “faded red,” a political term that describes second-rate political subjects in Mao’s China, Chang wants her name to have “something with a military ring to it” and
Chang, Swans, 339.
Tan’s father has been a loan clerk in a British bank before 1949. During the Cultural Revolution, those who were labelled as “historical counterrevolutionaries” were not far from dead men or dead women, for they were often subject to daily persecution and humiliation in political prisons. See Nanchu, Sorrow, 109. Chang, Swans, 404. Ibid., 659.
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settles on “Jung” (pronounced “yung”), an old and recondite word for military arts and associated with the image of knights.14 Some of the memoirists actively participated in the Cultural Revolution, and there is a visible textual anxiety in their memoirs. What is suggested is, it seems, that victimizers themselves are also victims and therefore could not, and should not, be responsible for their misbehaviour and wrong-doings in the Cultural Revolution. It is observable that the identity and idea of victim are often arbitrarily defined in these memoirs: “Those who persecuted others, even beat or tortured them, were victims too, after all. […] In fact, many were caught on the wrong side in the power struggles and were persecuted in their turn.”15 Individuals caught in the event took turns to play the role of a victimizer and that of a victim, depending on which way the political wind blows. The memoirists who have been Red Guards such as Ji-li Jiang, Jung Chang, and Gao Yuan often present themselves as enjoying torturing others yet ignorant about the cost of what they were doing. As a result, victimizers have as much need as victims do to find an explanation for their “misdeeds” and to justify their “moral lapse.” For a lot of the Chinese memoirists, the haunting memory of the extremely confusing experience continues to remain after twenty years and has become a source of threat to their emotional and psychological tranquillity. After “all the persecution, insults, lies and betrayals,” the victims of the Revolution lost the ability to love or even the measure of expression for love. In the end, Ye Ting-xing no longer knows how to deal with matters of the heart, for after a long period of “humiliating psychological torture,” she becomes “a cold and insensitive creature not fit for this world.”16 “I want to tell [my mother] I love her too. But it’s too late! In the past when she was alive, I did not even know I loved her. Nor did I ever try to talk to her so she and I might become friends.”17 This inability to find the right expression of love and to own up to their “misdeeds” becomes at the end the most tragic aspect of the whole experience. The pity readers feel for Jung Chang’s father, as Chang seems to suggest, comes from the realization that he is, after all, not “a man of iron,” but rather, a man who is deprived of the right to experience, if not the opportunity to understand, human passions. The ideological indoctrination, along with his unbent manliness, blinds him for years,
14 15 16 17
Chang, Swans, 356. Jiang, Scarf, 270. Ye, Leaf, 190. Yang, Spider, 276.
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turns in on him, and tragically undoes him.
In search of sympathetic love Lonely and trapped in the ruins of the past, some of the Chinese authors suffer from a powerful sense of hopelessness to the extent that they cannot express or experience love in China and have to search for better living conditions elsewhere. Rendered homeless and loveless, feeling betrayed after a long time of tremendous hardship under the communist regime and hostile encounters with the state bureaucracy, Xu Meihong owes her present happiness and comfort to Larry Engelmann, her American husband, and to America. Almost all the memoirs are written with the hope to liberate themselves from the prison-house of memory of the Cultural Revolution and to erase once-and-for-all the memory of the “years of disappointment” that keeps haunting them, “whatever they do, wherever they go.” Ji-li Jiang writes The Red Scarf Girl because “[a]fter thinking so much about that time,” she wants “to do something for the little girl” she has been, and “for all the children who lost their childhoods” as she did.18 Given the memoirists’ sense of purpose in writing, I would like to read their productions collectively as a “textual space” which at once separates and connects the past and the present and which allows them, through the act of writing, to keep themselves at an appropriate distance, both temporal and spatial, from their memories so that they may start a new life. Unlike the Chinese officers in the Public Security Bureaus who respond to Xu Meihong’s request for a passport with “unconcealed contempt” and give her more difficulty than professional assistance, the California senators and congressman “express concern” over the well being of Xu. Having experienced only frustration in dealing with the Chinese government, Xu “cannot understand” why the Californians were “being so kind and spending time on [her] case” until Larry assures her that “that’s the way it’s supposed to work.”19 In such sharp contrast to the Americans’ natural tendency to kindness, helpfulness and efficiency are corruption, hostility and rigidity so characteristic of Chinese behaviour and bureaucracy.20
18 19 20
Jiang, Scarf, 266-8. Xu and Engelmann, Daughter, 351.
See Ye Ting-xing’s description of Michael, the English teacher as an example of American courtesy: “Unlike Chinese men, [Michael] would open the door for women students, insisting that we go ahead. He thanked us for our efforts in studying, and even for wrong answers in class. Amazingly, he would apologize when he sneezed, whereas some of my classmates
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While marriages and romances in China, as a lot of the memoirs record, do not stand the test of the Cultural Revolution, those failed marriages, in a strangely twisted way, often lead to the understanding and attainment of true love elsewhere. Rae Yang’s “first love” during the Cultural Revolution “opened [her] eyes”: “It made me see traps in the ground, webs in the sky, poison in sweet chitchat, daggers in heart.”21 For Ye Ting-xing, her less than satisfactory relationship with Xiao Zhou, her exhusband in China, encourages her to search for a better pair of ears who would listen to her. Realizing that she is “betrayed” and could no longer share her “pent-up feelings” with Xiao Zhao, Ye asks: “who else could I turn to?” 22 Bill, the Canadian teacher who would share Ye’s secret, answers her call in fewer than twenty pages:
I found myself going to see him more and more and beginning to talk about different things, from my tutoring to my readings in English literature and sometimes about college and classroom politics. Only then did I come to realize what a talker I was, and I was amazed that I had so many things to tell an outsider. His frankness and intelligence were refreshing and helped me to express myself both more and better. (435)
In front of Bill, Ye realizes her attraction to the outsider and at the same timer her estrangement from home, where there is only Xiao Zhao, whom Ye feels “compelled to stick with” out of a sense of duty:23
[M]ore and more I realized that my feelings toward Xiao Zhao had become more obligation and duty […]. I had never felt for him what I did for Bill, had never experienced a passion like that in my life. Bill was the one person in the world from whom I didn’t need to hide anything. (361)
Even from the start, Ye’s love for Bill is a different experience from what she has once
looked bout indifferently after spitting on the floor. His behavior was new to me. I had grown up in an environment in which it seemed that, without shouting and yelling, nothing would be done, in which politeness and common courtesy were labeled phony bourgeois rubbish.” Ye, Leaf, 264.
Yang, Spider, 256.
“I found myself keeping thoughts inside instead of sharing them with [Xiao Zhou]; holding back the expression of opinions instead of stating them freely – especially on political matters. If I couldn’t share pent-up feelings with my own husband, who else could I turn to? A deep fear had grown within me, a dread of loneliness.” Ye, Leaf, 328.
Having already divorced Xiao Zhou by the time is writing her memoir, Ye confesses that it is only because “it was evident to all around [them] that [they] would share a future,” Ye and Xiao Zhou got married. But when they were alone, “[they] didn’t talk much about [their] future as a couple” (262). The marriage does not seem able to kindle Ye’s passion for Zhou: “Xiao Zhou told me one night at dinner that he had been accepted by the Party. I was speechless. He hadn’t even told me he had applied. After all the long talks we had had about our suffering on the farm, the attacks on his parents during the Cultural Revolution, the humiliation of my parents and family, he had gone and joined the Communist Party. […] For the first time since I had been married I felt lost, betrayed by the person I had loved and trusted with my life.” Ye, Leaf, 326.
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had with Xiao Zhou. Quite contrary to her desire to talk with Bill, Ye responds to Xiao Zhao, her then “first someone to talk to” on the farm where she is exiled, with a markedly different attitude in their first conversation. Although still considering Xiao Zhao then “a kind and sympathetic listener,” she is reluctant to engage in a heart-toheart talk with him: “Xiao Zhao asked me about my house arrest, but I gave him no details” (201). As it turns out, while Ye’s marriage with Xiao Zhao proves to be both unhappy and feudal – unhappy because it is feudal, her affair with Bill is “moving and dramatic.”24 As the embodiment of “frankness” and “intelligence,” the husband from afar is from the outset a promise of a substitute homeland: “it felt so good being close to him” (343). Without the company of Bill, Ye “fell ill with a high fever;” and for him and his love, she “woke up days and nights soaking wet from nightmares or painful longing” (365). As presented in the memoirs, sympathetic love provides the condition of possibility for the establishment of an ethical relationship between people of different ethnic origins. The racial difference between Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro turns out to be much less a problem than that of social and class stratification in China:
Our language, race, and culture were entirely different, but they seemed far less significant barriers between us than had questions of salary, occupation, and political status between me and the Chinese girls.25
Little Gao, Liang’s first girl friend, daughter of the Assistant Commander of the Xiangtan Military District to the southwest of Chang-sha and the former head of public security for the Henan Province, is above all the representative of “the Chinese girls” Liang refers to.26 Whereas “reality,” “life,” and “fate” are barriers dividing Liang and Gao, with Judith, who is at once a dancer, a teacher, an expert, and an American, Liang resolves that he will “stake everything on this love, even if it mean[s] going
24 25 26
Review of Leaf, by Ye, in Leaf, back cover. Liang and Shapiro, Son, 277.
“I had learned enough about her to be concerned about our relationship. Her military name was the first warning, and as I came to know more about her, I felt more than ever that we were from two different worlds. Her father was no ordinary officer, but the Assistant Commander of the Xiangtan Military District to the southwest of Changsha. During the period of martial law imposed in late 1967, he had been in charge of public security work for the whole of Henan Province. […] Little Gao herself had been in that group of high-ranking cadres’ children who had become unusually young soldiers when the order came for Educated Youth to go to the countryside. While I was descending to peasanthood, she was rising to the greatest possible Revolutionary glory, a career in the army. How could there fail to be a great distance between us?” Liang and Shapiro, Son, 250-1. For more details of the social and class divide between Liang and Little Gao, see also 245, 252, and 259-267.
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to prison.”27 So far, I have been reading the memoirs as a textual space within which the authors effort at exorcising the ghost of the past and contrasting it with their happiness of the present. Implicit in the memoirists’ belief in what writing about the past can do for the self is perhaps the assumption that the west is a hospitable land where people are warm and generous hosts and that westerners are disposed to sympathize with the Chinese as they play the role of political dissidents or victims of the Maoist regime. It seems, for the Chinese memoirists at least, that the U.S. is “the Promised Land,” and that there is a natural relation between the journey to love and the necessity to go into a foreign space. In the memoirs the westerners, in particular Americans, are almost always perceived, defined and portrayed as capable of sympathetic understanding, and the west, in particular the U.S., as “the Promised Land” of freedom and compassion. Often, as suggested in the relationship between Ye Ting-xing and Bill in A Leaf in the Bitter Wind, the figure of the foreign lover and the prospect of a new life abroad both imply and answer each other:
One night before [Bill] left he asked me if I had thought about going abroad to study. Both of us knew what he meant. […] I told him yes, I wanted to be with him and I wanted to leave China.28
Why is there such a discursive effort in depicting the west as capable of extending its “fellow-feeling” to the ex-communist “other”? Why, despite his deep-rooted suspicion of communism, does the western confidant in the memoir never fail to respond sympathetically to the post-Mao Chinese? Questions of this kind call for a more critical analysis of the Chinese memoirists’ autonomy of writing abroad. I would argue that the textual space within which the Chinese, as authors and immigrants, find love and sympathy might also be read as an allegorical manifestation of the wider social and political context of the U.S. itself.
Sympathy has special salience in the U.S. as it resides in the very origins of its
political formation. In his draft of “Declaration of Independence,” Thomas Jefferson proposes sympathy as a form of social control. Because the moral sentiment, accord27
“I saw the enormous difference between my love for Judy and my love for Little Gao, for where my love for the commander’s daughter had become more and more painful until I no longer had the strength to pursue it, my love for the American expert gave me such confidence that I felt I could take on the world.” Liang and Shapiro, Son, 277. Ye, Leaf, 464; emphasis added.
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ing to Jefferson, relies on natural passions rather than an autocrat’s tyrannical control, it operates in an “automatic mechanism” that finds “great confidence in the human personality.”29 For the memoirists who write to counteract the ghost of the Cultural Revolution, Jefferson’s declaration promises them emotional security. In a way, their optimism in search for love and sympathy outside China and Chinese communities is partly derived from their belief in the cultural and political superiority of the west. As subjects cultivated in the community of sympathy, Americans are often assumed to have a natural and irrepressible compassion for the suffering other, and this is why in the U.S. races of different cultural, political and ideological orientations come together naturally and on equal terms. In The American Crisis, Thomas Paine claims that sympathy alone has held the nation together in the moment of crisis. “We had no other law than a kind of moderated passion,” Paine writes, “no other civil power than an honest mob; and no other protection than the temporary attachment of one man to another.”30 Indeed, a liberal society marked by its radical individualism and emphasis on democracy, America must recognize the need to protect the collective against warring claims of different individuals; and sympathy comes in as one key figure that promises a balance between self and society.31 This aspect of American humanism is testify to by Anhua Gao in To the Edge of
The social contract assumes that human beings act in accordance with the “Laws of Nature”: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson, “The Declaration of Independence,” July 4, 1776, 141. The British society, as represented in To the Edge of the Sky, shares a similar social ideal of equality, emphasizing the importance of law and order. While money, as Gao observes, is “the key that unlocked the door to [her] freedom,” “nothing in this world, not money, not politics or anything else” but “the truth” would work in the British embassy, where Gao and Harry, Gao’s then husband-to-be, are asked to testify their love in front of “a cool, detached young man.” Gao, Edge, 393. Paine, Collected Writings (N.Y.: Library of America, 1995), 124.
Alexis de Tocqueville distinguishes individualism from the traditional understanding of selfishness. In contrast to selfishness, individualism, according to Tocqueville, is “a novel expression,” “a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the masses of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.” Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2 (N.Y.: Vintage, 1945), 104. Karl F. Morrison recognizes sympathy as a third possibility that combined features both of individualism and collectivism: “This third possibility neither left personality isolated and incommunicable in the will, nor transcended it with general reason. Instead, it permitted individual persons, while remaining themselves, to be fused with others in heart, in spirit, or in soul. Through the centuries, the signature of this appetitive or sympathetic union was the simple declarative sentence, ‘I am you.’” Morrison, “I AM YOU” The Hermeneutics of Empathy in Western Literature, Theology, and Art (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1998), 44.
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the Sky, where the doctrine of natural sympathy is presented as constituting not only the keystone of human bonding but a definitive national quality as embodied in by Harry, the “western husband.” Gao’s elder sister Andong, who has been exiled to inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution, apparently gets fixated, after her meeting with Harry, on the idea of marrying a western husband. It is basically in terms of the national origins that she differentiates good husbands from bad ones:
[Andong] envied me my happiness and the fact that I had found a western husband. […] [I]n one of her rages, she astonished me by blurting out that she wanted a western husband too! I couldn’t believe my ears as she ranted on about her plan to divorce Zhan, whom she had loved so deeply for so many years.32
There are reasons why the Gao sisters want to be married to westerners. Almost all the westerners represented in the memoirs enact the spirit and culture of sympathy and are therefore themselves an embodiment of western liberal humanism. 33 One good example comes from Judith Shapiro. Compassionate, intelligent, humorous, carefree, and sympathetically interested in the common everyday life of the Chinese, Judith, later wife of Liang Heng, comes to China first as an American and then as an American expert. As she listens to Liang’s family history “with such sympathy, such horror, and such tenderness,” she plays the American Superman: “That at the heart of it all, kindness begets kindness, and no matter how dark the world gets […] no matter how dark.”34 The closeness of the couple is reflected and defined by the kind of space within which they reside: the more intimate the couple becomes, the further Liang moves away from China, and the closer he moves toward America. Like the dramatic first encounter between Rene Gallimard and Song Liling in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Liang first met Judith in a public performance, where Judith danced like an “exotic fairy”:
At last the curtain parted on something called “Insect Dance.” A contorted green figure was crouched in the center of the stage, looking completely unlike a human being. It gradually awakened and began to pursue and consume invisible smaller creatures. Then, moving infinitesimally slowly, it rose to one leg with its foot in its mouth, collapsed,
Gao, Edge, 390.
To be American is “by no means an inert fact,” Said argues. “It meant and means being aware, however dimly, that one belongs to a power with definite interests in the Orient, and more important, that one belongs to a part of the earth with a definite history of involvement in the Orient almost since the time of Homer.” Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 1978), 11-2.
Customer’s Review of Superman, quoted by Eddie Berganza (ed.), “It’s Superman,” in Action Comics, double-sized anniversary issue, no. 800, April 2003, 2.
The Community of Sympathy rolled, and rose again. Having repeated this several times, it seemed to have exhausted itself, and it returned to its original position as if to sleep. I applauded wildly. I had never seen any “dance” without music before, and this was abstract, humorous, and eerie all at the same time. I felt as if a new and fresh world had opened up. (273)
There is, between the performer and the audience, a distance that must be kept to ensure curiosity and pleasure. The setting, structural and institutional, of the theatre makes sure the audience, down there sitting, knows that the performer is “for your eyes only.” First time exposed to the American form of “immeasurable freedom,” Liang “couldn’t grasp what was at the heart of [the dance],” he only knew: “I wanted to see more.” For Liang the “new and fresh world,” though theatrical and distanced, is not an abstract dramatic representation, nor is the “Insect Dance” pure entertainment. In Liang’s reading, Judith’s “large” and “free” movements are indicative of something far more significant about America. For him, as for most Chinese memoirists, the westerner in China does not only come from abroad, he or she is the very embodiment of western culture and values. As if by chance, the distance between Liang and the “exotic fairy” is reduced and later annihilated. Accompanied by a friend, Liang makes his way “up the steep hill” to the apartment of Judith, “screws up” his “courage,” and finally manages to see – at the doorway – Judith in person: “Close up, Teacher Xia [Judith’s Chinese surname] looked much less foreign than she had on stage” (274-5). Finally, Liang manages to “ask Teacher Xia about herself.” He is “so attracted by [Judith’s] comfortable warmth” that he cannot resist going to her apartment a second time, and this time, alone. Friendship develops more rapidly and comfortably in private space. Judith’s apartment, the building that “seemed so tranquil compared with the noisy dormitory,” soon becomes the resort for Liang’s inner thoughts, as it becomes increasingly personal until Liang is completely attached to it, and as Judith becomes, in the eyes of Liang, the spirit of it: “It was difficult for me to tear myself away from her apartment, and I found myself making excuses to go there. I suppose my love for her began then” (275-6). Much as Liang wants to achieve total identification with the America teacher and gives Judith “everything,” he takes all possible measures to keep the third eye from their private space:
Inside Judy’s apartment, we had many ways of deflecting suspicion, the first step being to fill in the cracks in the door with toothpaste. […] We could also use an inner room with a convenient lock on it. […] A cement ledge in the bathroom just big enough for a man to lie on was essential in emergencies. (278)
When the couple feels confined “within the same four walls,” they go out to city parks
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and the countryside:
We would take our bicycles […] and, with me at a safe distance in the lead, ride out until we were well beyond the city limits. We could picnic […] on the dry hills above the rice fields, incurring, at worst, only the startled glance of a boy or a water buffalo. (278)
Whether the same four walls, the inner room, the cement ledge in the bathroom, the city park or the countryside, they are the sites where western humanity and loving American sympathy befall, providing the couple the luxury of intimacy and privacy so rarely found in the Chinese society. Within the space defined, Liang feels comfortable to open himself up and even driven by “an overwhelming desire to talk about the subjects [he] avoided with [his] classmates” (276). There are, between Liang and Judith, therefore, unreserved conversations that give the “wounded” Chinese finally a sense of self-importance, respect, and confidence:
I shared my past with her in great detail, omitting nothing. She was so moved by my story that she wrote it all down, evening after evening, until she had two notebooks full. As she listened and wept with me, I felt her feelings and respect growing, and at the same time my wounds seemed gradually to dry up and heal, my self-hatred and self-pity decreasing and becoming light. (276-7; emphasis added)
The space of American sympathy is and has to be safely fortressed; for it is in that space that the Chinese and their personal stories escape from the constraints imposed on them by the Chinese government. When Liang leaves Judith’s apartment, he feels that he “had been in some other world just now, a world of equality and respect, and it had made [him] forget the harsh world of political judgements that was [his] reality” (276).
The “positional superiority” of the sympathetic other In relating the culture of sympathy to the very origins of the political formation of the U.S., the previous section attempts to show the irony of the assumption, commonly held by the Chinese memoirists, that America is naturally a “Promised Land” for immigrants. My intervention stands there for two reasons: first, there is an authority differential between the Chinese self and the sympathetic other; second, there is clearly a dialectical relation between the Chinese memoirists’ search for sympathetic love and their exclusive focus on victimization in their personal narratives. In the west, “dissidence is still the best recipe for hype: western audiences love whatever the Chinese government hates,” a commentator observes in The Economist.35 Indeed, it is observ35
“From Mainland to Mainstream,” in The Economist, August 11, 2001, Books and Art section.
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able that there is a marked difference between Chinese literature written for and read in mainland China and that produced and consumed in the west, and a case in point is Wild Swans.36 While western culture produces the “exotically repressive China,” the Chinese memoirists internalize and reproduce the western representation of China as self-representation. It is not difficult to imagine the satisfaction of Larry Engelmann, when he manages to rescue Xu Meihong, who has once been commissioned as the first lieutenant of the PLA, “from a grim life, marry her and bring her to America.”37 Without further elaborating on the manner in which the Chinese authors stage themselves as objects of sympathy, I would suggest that the act of self-positioning as victims is calculated for specific literary and political effects. For one thing, the writing of the Chinese memoirs often has more to do with the memoirists’ needs than with the historical past. Like the Chinese memoirists, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a survivor of a traumatic event in history. She left Germany in 1933 for Paris and went to New York in 1941. Arendt’s traumatic experience as a Jew in wartime Germany figures prominently in her reflections on the question of life and survival – a recurrent theme in her writings on political history and metaphysics. Invoking Aristotle, Arendt writes, “The chief characteristic of this specifically human life, whose appearance and disappearance constitute worldly events, is that it is itself always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story, establish a biography.”38 Nonetheless, unlike the Chinese memoirists, Arendt had written neither an autobiography nor any novels based on her personal experience.39 This is not to suggest that survivors of a tragic historical event should all be like Arendt avoiding sentimentalising their personal experiences, but rather to argue that in contrast to Arendt, the Chinese memoirists’ representations of their “obvious and pointless physical suffering” are meant to be both emotionally affective and politically effective. One could even argue that their use of
However popular Wild Swans is in the west, it is nonetheless “still” banned in China. See Lucy Hodges, “Swan’s song of Chairman Mao; Perspective,” in The Times Higher Education Supplement, issue 1278, May 2, 1997, 16. It might also be another point of interest that Jung Chang has taken away her long-awaited biography of Mao Zedong from HarperCollins to Random House. News reported that her decision came after HarperCollins abandoned in February 1998 East and West, a memoir by former Hong Kong governor Chris Pattern, due to Pattern’s criticism of the Beijing government. For details, see Asiaweek, August 28, 1998 and The Economist, October 17, 1998.
37 38 36
Xu and Engelmann, Daughter, 371.
Arendt, The Human Condition, intro. Margaret Canovan (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1998), 96-101. See Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt: Life Is a Narrative, trans. Frank Collins (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 2001), 6.
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the past, like their adoption of English that I discussed in the previous chapter, is a travelling ticket to America, a sine quā nōn of acceptance into the west. It should be clear by now, I hope, that sympathy works both upon natural human compassion and human conscience as a moral foundation of the relationship between the strong and the weak; its operation, in effect, has to be sustained by the asymmetrical role expectations between the sympathizer and the sympathized. In the structure of sympathy, the Chinese memoirists as victims, dissidents, and exiles in the U.S. play an indispensable role in exhibiting and staging the superiority of American political and social morality. Adam Smith argues that sympathy is contingent upon imagination because it is only “by imagination that we can form any conception of what are his [i.e., the victim’s] sensations,” and without imagination, our senses “never did, and never can, carry us beyond our own person.”40 The bonding between Anhua Gao and Harry is an exemplification of Smith’s model of sympathy:
Despite our cultural differences, we discovered much common ground. We shared each other’s sorrows and placed our hope in the future. I felt sad for him when I learned that his ex-wife, whom he had loved dearly, had divorced him and married another man. He felt compassion for me when he heard my sad story. […] He […] said he had nothing to offer me but his whole heart. I wrote back: ‘Harry. What else on earth do I need more than a real priceless heart? The only thing in this world that cannot be bought is a genuinely loving heart of another human being.’41
The sympathy Gao and Harry feel toward each other leads to their imaginative identification as they project the self into the position of the other, and the imaginative nature of this sympathetic identification entails a kind of moral sentiment that turns out to be much more than a mere sharing. In the process of trying to feel the same sad feeling as Gao feels about her story, Harry is ready to experience imaginatively the same abuses and unfair treatments Gao has gone through. In Smith’s words again: “It is the impression of our own senses only, not those of his [i.e., the sympathized], which imaginations copy” (11-2). Through this act of attaching the self’s own state of psychology to the suffering other, the boundary between the self and the other is dissolved; the marriage between Gao and Harry embodies an ultimate form of human
Sympathy is the first “moral sentiment” that Adam Smith delineates in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments, wherein Smith establishes the relationship between imagination and sympathy as a causal one: “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. Knud Haakonssen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002), 11.
Gao, Edge, 386.
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identification. In more extreme cases, the Chinese memoirists embark on a confessional revelation of their and the Party’s “mischiefs” done to foreigners during or immediately after the Cultural Revolution. Having been “cashiered from the military and exiled to the countryside for reeducation,” Xu Meihong as an ex-PLA officer has a lot to tell her American readers about the Chinese government’s “skills in lying to escape and survive in an enemy country”; and just as much, her guilt about having cheated and exploited the “completely innocent” American teacher: “I felt ashamed because he had no idea that I was repeating our conversations to the security people.”42 Xu’s confessional tone strikes home the power of the sentimental representation of the self – the power to produce and categorize the self as an object of study, that is, as a guilty subject awaiting salvation. Such confessions, ironically, will be even more sympathetically received. Like the priest in the confession box, Bill in A Leaf in the Bitter Wind assumes the role of a seemingly “passive receiver” who holds together in the instance of listening the personal story of Ye Ting-xing. Seemingly detached, Bill is in a position to show by means of gestures that Ye is the source and the bearer of her own conflict:
I found that my [Canadian] teacher is a good listener, with understanding but without doctrine. […] Bill sat in his chair and listened attentively, seldom giving his personal advice, but letting me find a solution by talking the problem out.43
Encouraged by the “silent” presence of Bill, Ye is self-positioned as one who seeks advice and gives the listening other the role of authority, who can offer, but strategically delays giving, advice. Bill’s reluctance to give his personal advice, although somewhat expected, ironically swings the balance of the subject-object relation in favour of the silent other. This first interplay between Bill and Ye, though appearing monological, initiates an increased flow of interpenetrating consciousness from Bill to Ye: “I had tried – and failed – to put aside my feelings for Bill. I wanted to be with him and I wanted to leave China” (361, 365). Having apparently done no more than bringing Ye to express herself “both more and better” until she comes to realize “what a talker” she is, Bill brings into Ye’s consciousness an individualism that works to challenge the Chinese writer’s earlier acceptance of the Chinese practice of order and propriety in life:
Xu and Engelmann, Daughter, 340, 171. Ye, Leaf, 340-1.
The Community of Sympathy His frankness and intelligence were refreshing and helped me to express myself both more and better. […] But one night in May, when I was alone in my room, I realized that I was very attracted to Bill. The sudden revelation terrified me. I was a wife and mother. (341)
That Ye acquires a sense of the self and self-consciousness through a dialogical interaction with Bill reminds readers of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “subject of address,” or Dostoyevsky’s “inner man,” who knows the self only at “the moment of recognition.”44 When performed in silence and strategically deferred, sympathy seems to become even more effective, because unexpressed, it becomes seductive. Appearing a second time in the form of a text (a letter), the “presence” of Bill is once again obscure and delayed; important decisions, it seems, are left for Ye alone to make:
At the end of October, he wrote to say that he wanted to fly to Shanghai on his Christmas break, but that he wouldn’t book his ticket until I told him my decision: should he come or not? His letter caused me many sleepless nights, but in the end I decided that, for the first time, I was going to do something different. I had always gone along with rules and regulations, meeting the standards of others. I wrote to Bill with a big yes.45
This is a typical moment of a cultural and ideological encounter between American individualism and Chinese collectivism. Bill feels not just with Ye, but into Ye. Ye’s “big yes” to Bill announces the final move in the staging of a supreme individual capable of independent thinking, or in other words, Ye’s acceptance of Bill’s proposal is her final farewell to the state indoctrination. After all the misgivings and sufferings, Ye finally “comes to her sense” and decides for herself, for the first time, “to do something different,” which really means, ultimately, to leave China.
The discourse of victimhood and the community of sympathy Now that they are part of the western discourse and community of sympathy, the Chinese authors readily adopt a new vocabulary and perspective that would allow them to speak more easily about their involvement in the Cultural Revolution. The representation of the self as the victims indoctrinated and imprisoned by the revolutionary ideology bears special significance for the American culture of liberal humanism. However,
“It is impossible to master the inner man, to see and understand him by making him into an object of indifferent neutral analysis; it is also impossible to master him by merging with him, by empathizing with him. No, one can approach him and reveal him – more precisely, force him to reveal him – only by addressing him dialogically.” Bakhtin, quoted in Bruce Dorval and David Gomberg, “Psychotherapy as the Construction of Interpenetrating Consciousness,” in Bakhtin: Carnival and Other Subjects: Selected Papers from the Fifth International Bakhtin Conference (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1993), 127. Ye, Leaf, 362; emphasis added.
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in order to represent themselves as victims, the Chinese memoirists have to deal with and clarify the difficult issue of their own role in the Cultural Revolution. While the Cultural Revolution, as the memoirists recollect, leads to the political and moral paralysis of Chinese society, the event is paradoxically made possible by the active but innocent participation of the victimized. “Almost everyone, including young children, had participated in brutal denunciation meetings. Many had lent a hand in beating the victims.”46 When subscribed to the theory of millenarianism, the Cultural Revolution can be described as an event dominated by the deprived and oppressed groups, who, like a group of immature and disorganized “children,” have not yet attained political consciousness and lack the means of political organizations. 47 As the Red Guards brought the Revolution from their schools into society and brought violence into all walks of life, the social event, in the eyes of Xu Meihong, for example, was one of a carnivalesque type and “truly” overturned all constituted forms of order. Not only the class structure but also the familial order was toppled over: when Xu thinks about those times now, it seems to her that “everyone was reduced to the mental status of children, and children were raised to the status of adults.”48 Given mass participation is a feature of the Revolution, the memoirists need to show that individuals alone should not take any responsibility for the historical tragedy. The “real” cause of the Cultural Revolution is, many of the memoirists take care to emphasize, the external conditions – the power struggle within the leadership of the communist government, for instance – which determine the social behaviour of individuals. They make the same efforts to present the ordeal and the loss of individualism as a result of Mao’s manipulation, and Mao serves as an appropriate historical figure they can conveniently hold responsible for the Revolution:
Mao was sowing seeds for his own deification, and my contemporaries and I were immersed in this crude yet effective indoctrination. […] It was very hard to work behind the rhetoric, particularly when there was no alternative viewpoint from the adult popula46 47
Chang, Swans, 662.
Millenarianism focuses on crowds and crowd behaviour in revolution. Related to the study of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it discusses the way revolutionary populations, led by a charismatic leader or a prophet, completely reject existing order. See Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels for an understanding of millenarianism as a prepolitical phenomenon arising in traditional societies and among the backward strata of more advanced societies. For a discussion of the psychological elements in millenarianism which tend to produce outbreaks of collective hysteria and irrationality, see Norman R. C. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (London: Secker and Warburg, 1957) and Sylvia L. Thrupp, Millennial Dreams in Action: Essays in Comparative Study (The Hague: Mounton, 1962). Xu and Englemann, Daughter, 262.
The Community of Sympathy tion. […] The near total lack of access to information and the systematic feeding of disinformation meant that most Chinese had no way to discriminate between Mao’s successes and his failures, or to identify the relative role of Mao and other leaders in the Communists’ achievements.49
If the Cultural Revolution manifests the working of “ugly human instincts such as envy and resentment,” these ugly instincts, Jung Chang emphasizes, are not constitutive of Chinese nature; it is Mao who knows how to mobilize their destructive potential for his ends. “In bringing out and nourishing the worst in people, Mao had created a moral wasteland and a land of hatred,” writes Chang.50 Manifested in the memoirists’ narratives is a collective will to powerlessness. Wild Swans gives Colin Mackerras the impression that the China under Mao’s regime was “a country dominated by politics in its cruellest forms.”51 David Shambaugh recommends Wild Swans for “[a]nyone wishing to refresh his memory about the atrocities and machinations of the Maoist period.” 52 “Whether hoping for personal gain or merely fearful of being thought politically backward,” Nien Cheng observes, “people felt compelled to become a part of the Proletarian Cultural Revolution.”53 It is, as Yang now reflects, her ignorance and blind faith that gave her strength and inspiration in the past. “Now the time had come for the underdogs to speak up, to seek justice!” Thinking that the Cultural Revolution was a moment of liberation when students were allowed “to think with [their] own head and say what was on [their] mind,” Yang “took up a brush pen, dipped it in black ink and wrote a long dazibao,” accusing Teacher Lin of “lacking proletarian feelings” and “treating [students] as her enemies.” When biking to universities and middle schools all over Beijing to read dazibao, Yang noticed people smiling at her. And proud of herself, she smiled back. But now, thirty years later, as Yang leaves China for the U.S., she settles on writing a memoir about the mistake of the past: “I believe as a human being, Chinese or American, I have responsibilities […] to make the lessons we learned with such tremendous sacrifice known and remembered by people in the world, including the younger generations in China.”54 In Hegel’s terms, cited in Mao Zedong’s “On Contradiction,” Yang has gone
49 50 51
Chang, Swans, 346-8. Ibid., 659.
See Mackerras, Western Images of China, revised edition (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999), 110113. 52 Shambaugh, “Background Books,” Wilson Quaterly 17, 2 (spring 1993): 36.
Cheng, Life & Death, 146. See Yang, Spider, 115-129, 285.
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through a “negation of negation.” In a very specific way, perhaps, part of the suffering endured by “the lost generation” comes also from the memoirists’ strategy of writing the self as a part of the government’s propaganda machine, dehumanised and self-alienated. The image of millions of Chinese as “mindless ants” blindly following Mao is actually what all the Chinese authors tend to represent.55 And why not? “No matter what a man does,” Charles Cooley, an American sociologist, points out, “he is not fully sane or human unless there is a spirit of freedom in him.”56 What I would like to suggest here is that American individualism and the concept of freedom are essentially linked: as “mindless ants,” it seems matter-of-fact to the Americans that individual Chinese should not bear responsibility for the Revolution. It might seem paradoxical, but the Chinese memoirs that are written within the apparatus of sympathy actually aggravate suffering rather than alleviate it. In the course of shaping western readers’ understanding of and response to the suffering self, the Chinese memoirists are somewhat trapped within the plot of a past epidemic. There is no doubt that the memoirists are at least nostalgic for their unique experience of trauma and find in it what Kirby Farrell calls “heroism.” Nanchu feels that it is her “responsibility” to tell “the unique experiences” that belong to her and her generation. As she salvages her ownership to the historical event, she romanticizes her victim experience and gives a poetic account of her authorship:
I believed that the world should know and remember our stories. Our power to face, endure, and survive in times of immense human tragedy should be praised as exemplary of the universal spirit of mankind. The human spirit could be tortured, misused, and persecuted, but it could never be broken.57
It is worth rethinking the assumption that life produces the autobiography. In an interview where Jung Chang talks about her new book – a biography of Mao Zedong, she says:
Two Englishmen were central to unlocking [my] ideas: [my] husband and George Orwell. […] The first book I sought out was 1984. I chanced upon a little extract of Animal Farm when I was in the last months of my time in China. It was a new textbook that had somehow got into China. I felt a sense of shock and of my mind opening up.
Mobo Gao points out that it is simply “not sophisticated enough to just blame Mao, or a handful of evil people” for what happened during the Cultural Revolution, because “to do that is to condemn millions of Chinese to the status of mindless ants.” Gao, “Maoist Discourse and a Critique of the Present Assessments of the Cultural Revolution,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 26 (1994): 18. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (N.Y.: Schochen Books, Inc., 1964), 188. Nanchu, Sorrow, 256-7
The Community of Sympathy Somehow George Orwell seemed to know about Mao’s China.58
Can we not suggest, as Paul de Man does, “that the autobiographical project may itself produce and determine the life and that whatever the writer does is in fact governed by the technical demands of self-portraiture and thus determined, in all its aspects, by the resources of his medium?”59 When exported to the west and transformed by culture, suffering becomes an object of aesthetic delight: Wild Swans arouses in Minette Marrin “a complex mixture of admiration, despair and delight at seeing a luminous intelligence directed at the heart of darkness.”60 For R. F. Foster, “the jaw-dropping success” of Wild Swans testifies to “the eternal human sense of gratification through selfbetterment; mingled, perhaps, with the equally eternal human tendency to console ourselves by reading about the efforts and the tribulations of others.”61 The popularity of the Chinese memoirists and their memoirs in the west reveals more than the working of political sympathy, but the working of a culture that is obsessed with the suffering of the distanced, and the exotic, suffering. Whether it is Liang Heng, Anhua Gao, Xu Meihong, or Ye Ting-xing, the Chinese victims’ secret longing for, and identification with, the value of liberal capitalist humanism leads them to reflect critically on communism as a political and social practice. Near the end of the memoirs, almost all Chinese, martyrs or victims, feel less optimistic about China than they once were. Upon graduation from the PLA academy, Xu reflects on her training, “When we first came to Nanjing we were young and innocent and red and they told us we were national treasures. And we were.”62 And if ever there should remain some hopes for China to “change for the better,”63 or “for progress and stability,”64 they are crushed by Jung Chang. “Now, 20 years after Mao’s death, there is no planning for China’s future, no detailed work being done about the thorny issue of China’s contested borders, no solutions being put forward for the regions that want to break away. The country still operates from day to day,” says Chang in an interview in 1997.65
See Jung Chang, “Deconstructing Mao,” Sunday Morning Post, August 3, 2003, The Review, 1, Hong Kong.
De Man, “Autobiography as De-facement,” Modern Language Notes, vol. 94, no. 5 (December 1979): 920; emphasis original. 60 Marrin, Review of Swans by Chang, in Swans, back cover. Foster, “The Million-dollar Blarney of the McCourts,” The New Republic, October 20, 1999, 29.
62 63 64 65 61
Xu and Engelmann, Daughter, 306. Zhai, Red Flower, 244-5 Cheng, Life & Death, 661. See Lucy Hodges, “Swan’s song of Chairman Mao; Perspective,” in The Times Higher Edu-
The Community of Sympathy
The Chinese authors, assuming the victim identity, write out of an urge to search for an emotional outlet and find in literature the license to establish links and intimacy between people. In a textual space, they build an intimate relationship with their “others,” usually westerners, who play in their life various roles: secret sharers, partners or lovers. Between Chinese and westerners, there is a community in which potential differences are cancelled and the emotional aspect of life is prioritized and desired. In the end, most of the Chinese “victims” are able to move beyond the past and find a better future in the west. But if indeed, under the western influence, the Chinese memoirists have worked to become a reformed and recognizably western subject – loving, compassionate, and free – the question of who is writing becomes all the more urgent. Is it the pre-formed self or the re-formed self that writes? Trapped in the perpetual tension between the question of autonomy for writing and the feeling of self-inadequacy, the Chinese authors have to demonstrate that behind their memoirs is a mind that is critical of China and yet essentially Chinese. If the pre-formed self entails “Orwellian lunacy” that sunders the stability of self and self-consciousness required for memoir writing, what is evidently present in the re-formed self is the ideology of western liberalism that poses questions about the values previously upheld by the pre-formed self. When ethics and politics become one, the moral sentiment of sympathy is often secularised and brought in as an agent for political and social union. Frank Chin, in a different context, warns the Chinese writers abroad against politicised love: “America might love us. But America’s love is no good. It’s racist love.”66 Although the discursive representation of victimhood is, in the final analysis, the caring of the self, the self reinvented through writing in the end performs the function as, in Jean-Paul Sartre’s words, a “Being-for-Others,” whom Sartre considers to be those who have abandoned the responsibility of freedom by adopting the form in which others see and label them.67 In their readiness to stage their experience of suffering, the Chinese authors get caught in the web of discourses of emancipation and immigration that contradict each other; they have yet to show how the self, in the process of searching for undercation Supplement, issue 1278, May 2, 1997, 16. Chin, “Back-Talk,” in Counterpoint: Perspectives on Asian America, ed. Emma Gee (Los Angeles: Univ. of California, Asian American Studies Center, 1976), 557.
See Sartre, “What is Literature?” in Essays in Aesthetics, trans. Wade Baskin (N.Y.: Philosophical Library, 1963).
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standing and identification and in the demonstrative act of moving from one country to another, overcomes this contradiction.
Writing the Self as History
This history is not in a simple external relation to the work: it is present in the work, in so far as the emergence of the work required this history, which is its only principle of reality and also supplies its means of expression. This history […] gives the work its reality, but also that which it is not, and this is the most important. Pierre Macherey1
Before the publication of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, by no stretch of imagination could one, as Howard Chua-eoan writes in Time, “make visible, intimate and immediate the pain and horror that are cloaked in the silence of China’s recent history.”2 Since the publication of Wild Swans in 1991, the history of the Cultural Revolution has got cloaked in a wave of textual mourning. What remains in history – in the writing of these personal stories – is a lingering sense of sorrow over the tragic quality of the experience, which has to be told and retold, as if there is an insuppressible desire to narrate, a desire which, like that of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner,3 has generated an
Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (N.Y.: Routledge and Kegan Paul Inc., 1978, 1986), 93-4. Howard, Review of Swans by Chang, in Swans, unpaginated. Coleridge’s “Ancient Marina” is about how a ship was driven by storms; how the Ancient Marina killed a Sea-bird out of boredom; how he was then followed by strange Judgements; how he, after his return to his own country, was compelled to tell his story to any one he came across: “Forthwith this frame of mine [i.e., the Ancient marina’s] was wrenched / With a woeful agony, / Which forced me to begin my tale; / And then it left me free. // Since then, at an uncertain hour, / that agony returns: / And till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me
The Self as History
extraordinary collection of personal histories circulating in the global market. A new paradigm of history writing seems to have emerged. History is now discursively presented in a reticulate pattern, including personal and “small voices.” It is these voices, Saul Friedländer argues, “that reveal what was known and what could be known.”4 It would be practically impossible to prove all disprove how much truth there is in the caveat that only a survivor is able to supply an authentic story of the past suffering, and my study is not meant to be another attempt to present and interpret the unsaid or to suggest that the subjective and the interpretive are privileged over the objective and the empirical in these memoirs. In the following, I would like to consider the memoirs collectively and inter-textually, as part of a discursive field that is productive in nature, that generates discourses, that fills – and also creates many more – lacunae in what we know about this turbulent period of time in China.
History, literature and collective memory In one of the front pages of A Single Tear, low down printed in small fonts, an editorial note claims: “The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.” Just a few pages later, however, the author Wu Ningkun himself writes in the Prologue: “To be worthy of the suffering and survival, the least I could do was to render a truthful account of our experiences over the three tragic decades, an account that, though intensely personal, will contribute to a compassionate understanding of history and men.”5 This inconsistency between editor and author with regard to the truthfulness of the memoir shows how two contrasting polemics meet and how the conflicting elements – truth and fiction, knowledge and opinion, objective representation and expression of human compassion – merge within the circumference of a few hundred pages, and raises more serious questions about the distinction between history and fiction.
burns.” S. T. Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Marina,” in Coleridge: Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (London: Oxford UP, 1967, c1912), LL578-585. See the editorial notes by E. H. Coleridge, Coleridge: Poetical Works (London: Oxford UP, 1967, c1912), 186, n3. 4 The quote in full reads: “Indeed, [voices of the victims] are essential if we are to attain an understanding of this past [i.e., Germany under the Nazi regime]. For it is their voices that reveal what was known and what could be known; theirs were the only voices that conveyed both the clarity of insight and the total blindness of human beings confronted with an entirely new and utterly horrifying reality.” Friedländer, Introduction to Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, vol. 1 (N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1997), 2.
Wu, Tear, x; emphasis added.
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What is claimed to be true and first-hand is now read as make-believe. The case of A Single Tear exemplifies only the most placid but by no means a rare moment when history comes to terms with fiction. The Chinese memoirs together present a case where the contour of history as a notion and a practice is reshaped and extended. Wild Swans, another case in point, proves just how extensive it branches out into a variety of literary genres. Being a “real-life saga,” “riveting and extraordinary epic,” “historical fiction,” “domestic drama,” “fairy tale of courage,” “tall tale of atrocities” and “almost unbelievable tale,” it invades almost all the territories in the neighbourhood of the genres concerned.6 The idea that there is a fictive dimension to human history owes its intellectual debt to Aristotle, whose understanding of history is recapitulated and redeployed by Hannah Arendt:
The task of the poet and historiographer (both of whom Aristotle still puts in the same category because their subject is πρãξις) consists in making something lasting out of remembrance. They do this by translating πρãξις and λέξις, action and speech, into that kind of ποίησις or fabrication which eventually becomes the written word.7
In contemporary understanding, history is considered “largely a lie.”
Veyne makes the claim that “history is a true novel”; Eric Hobsbawm notes, in more concrete terms, the “shift” in the focus of history writing “from recovering fact to recovering feeling, from telescope to microscope.”8 Moving away from larger historical perspectives, in particularly from economic and social ones, historiography has been increasingly assimilated into culture since the nineteenth century, losing its disciplinary claim on historical facts in proportion to its increasing tendency toward literary representation. History is ultimately a literary construct, argues Hayden White, who is among the first few to develop what Keith Windschuttle calls the “poetics of history” by drawing our attention to “figures” and “conventions’ that enable history to have the
See, for example, Martin Amis, Edward Behr, Howard Chua-eoan, Richard Heller, Lucy Hughes-Hallet, Caroline Moorehead, Carolyn See, Judith Shapiro and Colin Thubron, Reviews of Swans by Cheng, excerpted and clipped in Swans, back cover and unpaginated. 7 Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (London: Penguin, 1977, 1983), 45. 8 See William S. Walsh, “The Incredibility of History,” in Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincottt, 1892), 461-467; Veyne, Writing History: Essay on Epistemology, trans. Mina Moore-Rinvolucri (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1984), x; Hobsbawm, “Old Marxist Still Sorting Global Fact from Fiction,” The Times Higher Education Supplement, July 12, 2002, 19.
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meanings it does.9 In Metahistory, White goes so far as to systematize the impact literary narratives have on history, proposing that historical events could be represented in any number of ways, depending on a range of factors, a prominent one of which is a heavy reliance on story-telling as a means of communication.10 Under the influence of White, the literary critic Stephen Greenblatt coins the term “new historicism” and argues that history is fundamentally a combination of (literary) text and (historical) context under which the former is produced. Historical truth, or rather, the realistic effect, is manifested when the representation of the past is mediated through literary conventions.11 When reading the Chinese
Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How a Discipline is Being Murdered by Literary Critics and Social Theorists (Paddington: Macleay Press, 1996), 232. The term “poetics of history” is genealogically linked to Aristotle’s notion of “poetics” and Russian formalism, both of which endeavour to develop a theory of literature, or what Hayden White calls, “the content of form.” Cf. Aristotle, Poetics, intro., notes and trans. Malcolm Heath (London: Penguin, 1987, 1996), ix, 17; and Heath Malcolm, Introduction to Poetics (London: Penguin, 1996), xxvii. In 1973, Hayden White published Metahistory, where he expands four fundamental types of poetic tropes – metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony – that, according to him, determine the kinds of interpretations historians make. For general discussion of the notion of literary history, see Peter Munz, The Shapes of Time: A New Look at the Philosophy of History (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1977). For disagreements with White about the main task of the historians, see Arnaldo Momigliano, “The Rhetoric of History and the History of Rhetoric: On Hayden White’s Tropes,” in Comparative Criticism: A Yearbook, vol. 3, ed. Elinor S. Shaffer (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981), 259-268. In the essay, Momigliano argues against White’s assumption that all historians are rhetoricians. By drawing on the biographical facts of himself as a Jew, Momigliano makes a distinction between empiricist history and literary history. See also Noël Carroll, “Interpretation, History, and Narrative,” in History and Theory: Contemporary Readings, eds. Brian Fay, Philip Pomper and Richard T. Vann (Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998). In the essay, Carroll mounts a critique of White’s explication of generic types, which, for her, are inadequate because they try to put all historical narratives under the same category. In “Interpretation in History,” White singles out four theorists of historiography – Hegel, Droysen, Nietzsche, and Croce – who depart from “the myth of objectivity” and break new grounds in terms of their preoccupations with the interpretative element in every historical narrative. See also White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP), 1978, 52ff. For a more detailed theoretical discussion of the problem of objectivity, see three essays: Thomas Haskell, “Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric versus Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream”; J. L. Gorman, “Objectivity and Truth in History”; and Chris Lorenz, “Historical Knowledge and Historical Reality: A Plea for “Internal Realism.” All of them are collected in History and Theory: Contemporary Readings, eds. Brian Fay, Philip Pomper, and Richard T. Vann (Malden, Mass. and Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 1998). The volume is recommended by Dominick LaCapra as “one of the best sources for contemporary views of historiography on the part of both philosophers and historians.” LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001), ft. 2. 11 White sees some particular similarities between fictional representations of the past and supposedly “real” accounts that circulate as “history” in western societies: “Although historians and writers of fiction may be interested in different kinds of events, both the forms of their
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memoirs, readers are therefore advised not to make judgement only on the basis of their representational accuracy, but to look into how the narratives attest to some of the rules governing literary practice and why a certain way of narrative structuring of daily life has an edge over others. Among the various forms of narrative structures, the realist novel, according to Roland Barthes, gives the contemporary age “a taste for the realistic effect.”12 The Chinese memoirs attest to Barthes’s observation. Whether thematically or structurally, most of the memoirs express and reflect upon personal growth, invariably bearing resemblance to the western popular literary genre of the Bildungsroman. A lot of the Chinese writers, evidently inspired by such popular nineteenth century western novelists as Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, translate their lived experience into the stories of the self as a young “rebel.” Their memoirs follow the structural pattern that often begins with a young man/woman striving to realise a set of social ideals in his/her homeland, only to find, in the end, disappointments in their pursuit and signs of hope elsewhere. Zhai Zhenhua gives the following synopsis of her memoir:
This book tells my story. From my idealism and patriotism before the Cultural Revolution to my excitement and frustrations as an active participant in it to my disillusionment with Mao Zedong when I was exiled to the countryside.13
The significance of the Chinese stories as a kind of Bildungsroman lies in the way it preserves the validity of the experience of the individual. Characters in the memoirs are carefully selected, and each has a strong and personal relation with the authors themselves. Most of the time, the central character/narrator in a memoir is the author, and the centre of the unfolding events recorded in these memories, whether historical and/or narrative, is generally steadily focused on their authors. Anthony Greenwald has referred to the phenomenon of the writers’ tendency to magnify selfimportance as the manifestation of the working of a “totalitarian ego.”14 Some Chinese authors satisfy their own “totalitarian ego” as they play the role of insiders and
respective discourses and their aims in writing are often the same. In addition, in my view, the techniques or strategies that they use in the composition of their discourses can be shown to be substantially the same, however different they may appear on a purely surface, or dictional, level of their texts.” White, Tropics of Discourse, 21. For James Olney, the truth effect is sustained by “a special order of reality.” Olney, “Some Versions of Memory / Some Versions of Bios: The Ontology of Autobiography,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1980), 27.
12 13 14
Barthes, “The Discourse of History,” in The Postmodern History Reader, 122. Zhai, Prologue to Red Flower by Zhai, unpaginated.
Greenwald, Psychological Perspectives on the Self (Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1982).
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witnesses to the historical event. Those who come from families of high-ranking party officials put to use their privileged access to exclusively and internally circulated information. Xu Meihong, for instance, talks about her experience as a member of the elite intelligence corps of the People’s Liberation Army. Her “compelling” story, “beautifully” told, provides a “vivid insight into the life inside the rigid walls of Communist China” and becomes, for Aimee Liu, “a must-read for anyone with even a passing curiosity about the inner workings of Communist China.”15 Through writing – the manipulation of information – the narrative self enjoys a sense of self-importance, drawing on whatever resources they have for laying claim to first-hand and “censored” information. The stories of the Chinese self are “emplotted” to resemble a journey of selfgrowth and development, which corresponds closely with the development of the self into maturity through experience of crisis or disillusionment. Nearly all writers – especially Ji-li Jiang and Xu Meihong who tell the story of a Red Guard and that of a PLA member respectively – share a beginning where they are charged with ideals, patriotism and enthusiasm (before or at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution), a middle that delineates their subsequent frustration and disillusionment (during the Revolution), and an end of their “liberation” and sense of freedom in the post-Mao period abroad. While real life is nested in fiction, it is, in a way, also foretold by the narrative structure. The narrative form of the Bildungsroman does not only add to personal histories a literary quality but actually becomes a constituent part of the life structure of the memoirists. In a journal article interestingly titled “When your mother asks for another book,” Becky Wai-Ling Packard talks about her “family literacy practice.” On one occasion, she introduces to her mother Wild Swans precisely because:
my mother admitted that she would love to read the ending of a book first to know whether it was worth reading. I introduced the idea that she could read Wild Swans by Jung Chang.16
Without the need to attend to details, readers actually know the fate of the protagonists as they know the genre, that is, they know how the memoirs should be written. Almost all memoirists, as Bildungs-heroes, arrive at a destination where the self acquires
Liu, Review of Daughter by Xu and Engelmann, in Daughter, back cover; emphasis added.
Packard, “When your mother asks for another book: Fostering intergenerational exchange of culturally relevant books,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, April 2001, 5.
The Self as History
a sense of satisfaction in life. Like that of Jane Eyre’s, the ending of the Chinese memoirs is often “timely,” straightforward, and fulfilling – at the point where the authors are preparing for a new life in the west. Details about the writers’ life abroad are, however, often glossed over in just a few lines, at most a paragraph, and in extremely general terms. Zhai Zhenhua’s account is a specimen of the fairy-tale type of ending: “[I]n Montreal I met Professor Charles B. Daniels of the University of Victoria, fell in love and remarried happily. […] I love Canada because it is a free country.”17 Ji-li Jiang provides just another:
During my first few years in the United States I was continually astonished at the freedom Americans enjoy. One Halloween evening I was watching the parade at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. I was amazed to see that all the celebrators were enjoying themselves so freely. They had no fear of being criticized by their bosses or arrested by the government of expressing themselves, even if they criticized or mocked the president.18
Thus the present when the authors sit writing is the point at which the narrative ends. Such an ending, in turn, bars readers from questioning the Chinese writers’ adaptability to their new life abroad and encourages the inference of a “happily ever after” ending. Described in short, unambiguous, and self-referential terms, the west seems always positive and paradisiacal. Because Jung Chang has “found love and fulfilment and therefore tranquillity” in London, “[t]he past was no longer too painful to recall.”19 Adjusting to her “new life of freeway driving, supermarket shopping and mechanical banking” in Washington, Nien Cheng “live[s] a full and busy life” in the “atmosphere of freedom and relaxation.”20 On the contrary, everything associated with the past and with China – before enlightenment – is, for Ye Ting-xing, an embarrassment. Invited to an American delegation’s reception suite, Ye, who was then translating for Senator Robert Dole, “couldn’t believe her eyes” when her client offered her a piece of cake: “The cake had cream topping and it sat inside a tin. How was it made? I wondered. Was the topping added before the cake was sealed in or after the tin was opened?”21 The wonder of the little cream cake denotes Ye’s disbelief in and her marvel at the “very friendly” Americans’ novelty. The sideline incident might at first appear to be comical, but the fact
17 18 19 20 21
Zhai, Red Flower, 245. Jiang, Scarf, 271. Chang, Swans, 673. Cheng, Life & Death, 656-7. Ye, Leaf, 411.
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that a cake with cream topping inside a tin in the 1980s is a “wonder” to Ye turns out to be seriously lachrymose. The comic is basically satiric in intent; rather than a “wonder,” it is a symbolic moment when the “folly” of the Chinese self that is exposed. The examination of the memoirs with reference to the generic conventions of the Bildungsroman is only one way to see how history writing relies on story-telling, or how narration participates in historical representation. However, although this should not lead to the conclusion that these memoirs are just a collection of personal memories that are of little historical significance and value, they are often real historical documents that offer “remarkable insight” into the heartaches of the Cultural Revolution.22 Thirty Years in a Red House is recommended by David Warsh as “a splendid lesson in 20th century Chinese history,”23 and by Han Suyin as “a good book” because “it tells us more truth about this great land of China and its people than many other books [Han has] read in the past thirty years.”24 Customer reviews collected by Amazon.com converge on the point that Anchee Min’s Red Azalea is “a must read if you don’t know anything about Communist China and/or if you love a good (true) story,”25 because it reveals to readers “the depths of truth in the time period under Mao.”26 As a required reading for a college course on Asian history, Red Azalea is, for a reader from New York, “an important piece of writing” that s/he would “recommend not only to students interested in Chinese history, but to anyone who enjoys a real hu-
Myers, “Book Greatly Enhanced Understanding of Chinese Politics,” Spotlight Review of Thirty Years, by Zhu, Amazon.com., created on November 2, 1998, clipped on February 21, 2003, <http://www.amazon.com/>. Warsh, Editorial Review of Thirty Years, by Zhu, Amazon.com, clipped on February 22, 2003, <http://www.amazon.com/>. Elsewhere, the memoir is chosen as one of the syllabus texts by Dr. Beatrice Spade for the course on “History of Modern China” in the Department of History at Univ. of Southern Colorado. It may be interesting to note that the three main objectives of the courses are: first, “to provide [students] with an understanding of modern Chinese history”; second, “to encourage [students] to write knowledgeably about the subject”; and third, “to introduce [students] to the joys and the pitfalls of using the novel and the biography as source material for historical understanding.” For information, see <http://chass.colostatepueblo.edu/history/-courses.html>, clipped on September 25, 2001.
Han, Editorial Review of Thirty Years, by Zhu, Amazon.com, clipped on February 22, 2003, <http://www.amazon.com/>.
Ibagwell from Alazandria, va U.S.A., “Fascinating!” Customer Review of Azalea, by Min, Amazon.com, created on December 26, 2002, clipped on May 16, 2003, <http://www.amazon.com/>. 26 Liz from Tallahassee, Florida, U.S.A., “Absolutely Powerful,” Customer Review of Azalea, by Min, Amazon.com, created on January 11, 2002, clipped on May 16, 2003, <http://www.amazon.com/>.
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man story with historical reality.” 27 Nicole D. Sollman certainly finds voyeuristic pleasure in reading the “heartbreaking and erotic” secrets of Min: “At times I couldn’t believe she was willing to let the reader know some things that many authors may have kept private,” and is ready to take textual details as truth: “Although this book is normally found in the fiction section of the book store, I think it is helpful in teaching the readers about what China and Mao were actually like.”28 It seems then that history and the Chinese memoirs complement each other. Or it could be said, alternatively, that the Bildungs-heroes of the Chinese memoirs are the Cultural Revolution itself. In his Foreword to Zhu’s memoir, Ross Terrill, having acknowledged Zhu’s effort at telling “the story of himself and his family,” considers Thirty Years in a Red House “original” because of Zhu’s ability to incorporate the family saga into the national history:
[Zhu] merely tells the story of himself and his family. But he does so with a beautiful sense of the interactions between private and public life, and a knowledge of Western literature and culture that gives his story a universal ring.29
Now one may wonder how the contemporary trend of history writing has taken literary productions as discursive history and discursive personal memories as history itself; one may wonder, in other words, why the reading public today displays, as Coleridge would put it, a “willing suspension of disbelief” about the memoirs, which is abundantly manifest in many of the book reviews that still regard the Chinese narratives as a reservoir of the insider’s knowledge.30 In the case of the Chinese memoirs as a discourse that writes the self as history and that conflates the private and the public, what is written as history and what could be read as such have to be considered in close connection with the notion of collective memory, which, according to Avishai Margalit, is more concerned with the affective function of social interactions. Collective memory “integrates and calibrates the [potentially] different perspectives of those who remember the episode” with its ability to
frisky2000, “Tremendous,” Customer Review of Azalea, by Min, Amazon.com, created on January 3, 2000, clipped on May 16, 2003. <http://http://www.amazon.com//>; emphasis added.
Sollman from Denver, CO United States, “A Better Understanding of Life under Mao,” Average Customer Review of Azalea, by Min, Amazon.com, created on April 22, 2003, clipped on May 16, 2003, <http://www.amazon.com/>. Terrill, Foreword to Thirty Years by Zhu, in Thirty Years, x. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, ed. George Watson (London: Everyman’s Library, 1906), 169.
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situate history in a matrix of narratives that complement and reinforce one antoher.31 Writing collectively about a shared experience, the memoirists’ representations of the Cultural Revolution are deeply influenced and informed inter-textually. The introductory chapter of this thesis has touched upon the question of intertextuality without considering it from the point of view of the authors themselves. So far, my discussion is limited to the issue of how the Chinese memoirs are culturally and literarily coded for the easy consumption of the western reading public. This being so, it must be acknowledged that the memoirs are given a form and a structure of meaning by the Chinese authors themselves, who impress their readers with the simple fact that their narratives, no matter how radically personal, bear striking similarities to one another. Son of the Revolution, the one that seems to adopt a relatively less critical attitude toward the Cultural Revolution, assigns more space to the descriptions of the “deep joy” children and adults shared in seeing Mao, of the “excitement” in challenging teachers, and of the “adventures” in travelling free within China, etc., but it describes them more with a satirical intent than with a genuine interest in giving details. When the excitement of “the adventures” is over and free travelling becomes aimless “wandering,” the author Liang Heng finds his experience of revolution an “agony of confusion” that rewards him only with more skills in fighting than opportunities of real learning.32 In the end, he, like many other memoirists, concludes with a load of questions about what the Cultural Revolution has brought about:
Why should two good people like my parents be forced to divorce each other? Why should Liang Fang [i.e., the author’s sister] raise a machine gun against her fellow teenagers? Why did the peasants fear the cadres so terribly if they were representatives of our great Communist Party? Why were people so determined to make me and Peng Ming look like counterrevolutionaries when we wanted only to make a contribution to our country? Why had the Revolution given us all so little when we had sacrificed everything for it?33
These questions sum up what all the Chinese writers try to understand at the end of their memoirs – their regrets, frustrations, and disillusionments in China on the one
Margalit, The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2002), 51. Cf. Maurice Halbwachs, “Social Classes and Their Traditions,” in On Collective Memory, ed. and trans. Lewis Coser (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), 120-66; Alon Confino, “Collective Memory,” in Encyclopedia of Social History, ed. Peter N. Stearns (N.Y.: Garland, 1994).
See Liang and Shapiro, Son, 125-7, and 158-160. Liang and Shapiro, Son, 207.
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hand, signs of hope and sense of renewal in the west on the other.34 As I stress the importance to approach the various personal narratives of the Cultural Revolution collectively as a discourse and to read each of them as an insertion into one big inter-text system, it is my intention to suggest that the “epistemology” of discursive history is founded on the good organization of the relations between texts. While the memoirists preserve memories of the Cultural Revolution through writing their own personal stories, in doing so, they also produce a common “totality” of thoughts and a series of narratives that mutually illuminate one another. Whatever details about the Revolution the memoirs purport to provide, it is always in relation to the same objective of a discursive formation and through repetition in the process of continuous reproduction that those details work to perpetuate the effect of the real.
“Effective history” Lives are lived, stories are told; once a story is told, there are always more stories to tell. The study of the Chinese memoirs as collective memory is not to propose a history that is now able to recognize, in self-reproduction, what has hitherto been hidden and ignored and therefore is necessarily more complete and authentic. The idea of history as an act of “digging out real facts” has become a dead metaphor; for to see the memoirs as having “emerged” as alternative history is to glide over an important assumption that Foucault holds about discursive history: what is true is only when it is useful to the self. The analysis of history, or rather history writing, must be done together with the understanding of its use at the present time. History is always “a history of the present” subject to interpretation by those who, in a specific era, have the discursive interest and power to formulate and reformulate it.35 In “On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life,” Nietzsche discusses some fundamental uses of history and shows an irrevocable link between history and its users:
Certainly we need history. But our need for history is quite different from that of the spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge. […] That is, we require history for life and
See, for example, Gao Yuan, Red, 131-2 and Zhu, Thirty Years, 205.
Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (London: Allen Lane, 1977), 30-1. See also Michell Dean for a discussion on the Foucaultian notion of “presentism,” in Critical and Effective Histories: Foucault’s Methods and Historical Sociology (London and N.Y.: Routledge, 1994), 28-36.
The Self as History action. […] Only so far as history serves life will we serve it.36
Since there are, in Nietzsche’s pointed slogan, no facts in themselves but only interpretations,37 there is no discovered past per se but only “effective history.” Foucault combines the idea of “perspective knowing” with those in The Will to Power and argues that all history writing is subjective because it is a “tool of power”:
History becomes ‘effective’ to the degree that it introduces discontinuity into our very being – as it divides our emotions, dramatizes our instincts, multiplies our body and sets it against itself. ‘Effective’ history deprives the self of the reassuring stability of life and nature, and it will not permit itself to be transported by a voiceless obstinacy toward a millennial ending. It will uproot its traditional foundations and relentlessly disrupt its pretended continuity.38
Understanding the case of personal stories as “effective history” in the poststructuralist context, the Chinese authors, in their struggle against the official historiography, have fostered “an insurrection of the subjugated knowledges” and given birth to a multitude of “small” histories mortgaged not to the understanding of truth but to various personal, practical, and political ends. In so far as the poststructuralist platform is mounted, any form of discourse, irrespective of the function and nature of it, is related to power. Jean-François Lyotard declares that the grand narrative, “regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation,” which purports to fix history in a structure of pattern and development, “has lost its credibility.”39 The humanist question of the legitimacy of historical narratives has given way to the new goal of augmenting power through laying claims to truth, which, to Lyotard and a lot of other contemporary cultural critics, remains “the only credible goal.”40 The Chi36
Nietzsche, Preface to On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1980), 7.
Nietzsche holds that there are no facts but interpretations. “Against positivism, which halts at phenomena – ‘There are only facts’ – I would say: No, facts are precisely what there is not, only interpretations. We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself.’” Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (N.Y.: Random House, 1967), 267. 38 Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy and History,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (London: Penguin, 1984), 87-8. Originally, “effective history” is a term Nietzsche used to critique traditional historiography. Nietzsche opposes an anthropocentric understanding of history, which supports the notion of a rational, transcendental human subject, located both at the beginning and the end of history and giving history meaning. Nietzsche prefers “genealogy” to “history” and argues that history has no stable essence or that the essence of it is fabricated in a piecemeal fashion. Cf. Frank Cameron, “On the Use and Abuse of ‘Morality’ in Nietzsche,” in Nietzsche and the ‘Problem’ of Morality (N.Y.: P. Lang, 2002), 26-36.
Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Manchester: Manchester UP, 1986, 1997), 37. Ibid., 46. “The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?’” (51). It
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nese writers, in writing about the Cultural Revolution in retrospect, play a role more of the genealogist than of the historian; that is, the memoirists do not attempt, as historians do, to bridge the gap between narrative time and historical time, instead, they struggle to lay claims to historical knowledge, which, as Foucault formulates in Discipline and Punish, is always and necessarily linked to power.41 The memoirists write about themselves and others. Harmon and Holman give a handbook definition of memoirs that draws attention to the genre’s innate relation with a collective memory: a memoir is about “the recollections of one who has been part of or has witnessed a significant event,” and it is usually concerned with “personalities and actions other than those of the writer.”42 Those “other” things the Chinese authors write most about include the victims and the dead of the Cultural Revolution, with whom they have developed a deep personal relationship, and for whom they bear a sense of moral responsibility. In a sense, the Chinese memoirs are obituary addresses as they strive to commemorate and revitalize the memories of the dead. Life and Death in Shanghai is written in remembrance of Nien Cheng’s daughter Meiping. To her grandmother and father “who did not live to see this book,” Jung Chang dedicates Wild Swans. A Leaf in the Bitter Wind is, as it should be understood, dedicated to the memory of Ye Ting-xing’s parents and especially her great-aunt Chen Feng-mei, to whom she has yet words unsaid.43 For her “dearest Grandma, who would be so happy if she could see this book,” Ji-li Jiang writes Red Scarf Girl. Wu Ningkun writes A Single Tear partly because he wants to pay tribute to his late mother-in-law Li Wang
is worthy to note that The Postmodern Condition is, as the subtitle states, “a report on knowledge”; it attempts at answering the question – “What is Post-modernism?” – raised by the government officials of higher education and research in Quebec.
It is of interest to note that Foucault calls the genealogist “the new historian.” See Windschuttle, The Killing of History, 129. The idea of knowledge and power as “integrated with one another” is most explicitly formulated in Discipline and Punish. “Modern humanism is,” Foucault argues, “mistaken in drawing this line between knowledge and power.” Just as it is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, “it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power.” See Foucault, Power / Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-77, ed. Colin Gorgon (N.Y.: Pantheon Books, 1980), 52ff. William Harmon and Clarence Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 7th edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996), 313.
“I never saw Great-Aunt again after I left Shanghai that hot August day. She died in May 1989, shortly after she had returned to live out her days in Chen Family Village. I often wonder if she knew all along the dilemma I faced when she told me that Qi-meng [Ye’s daughter] was lucky to have a mother like me. How I wish Great-Aunt were still alive so that I could tell her how wrong she was when she said I grew up without a mother’s love. All my life, either living at home or torn away from it, I had always had her love, a love no less than any mother would give.” Ye, Leaf, 484-5, see also 480-1.
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Ciyin, “who taught him the meaning of love and suffering.” This list of dedication notes can go on. Some of the memoirists play the role of a detective who endeavours to find out the truth about the past out of private interests and concerns. That Nien Cheng as a clear-headed and tough survivor is doubly manifest in her refusal to give in to her tormentors during the long years of her solitary confinement and in her effort to fight for justice in a hostile and aggressive world. Dissatisfied with the official verdict on her daughter’s death, Cheng sets off single-handedly in solitary search for a poetic truth:
I would find out how [my daughter] died, I told myself. […] However I would have to be careful because if the authorities found out my intentions they would want to stop me. Nobody must know what I intended to do.44
As Cheng works at the back of state officials who seem to “have so many problems to deal with that are urgent and pressing,” her distrust of the social values and her hostility toward the police force are characteristics of a hard-boiled private detective, therefore typically American and individualistic.45 Determined to find out the true cause of Meiping’s death, Cheng visits the Shanghai Athletics Association building, where Meiping was said to have jumped out of a ninth-floor window:
What I had discovered was very different from what I had been told. […] I could see the top floors of the buildings across the street. I stared at those narrow windows with iron bars and wondered what was the truth about my daughter’s death. I felt sure there was something more to it than what I had been told.46
At the end, the official verdict is modified because of and according to Cheng’s almost instinctive suspicion that “[suicide] was not the sort of thing a healthy young woman would even think of.”47 It becomes clear in the memoir that Cheng’s private search for truth is not the same as an effort to present an eyewitness account of history, as there is no substantial basis on which to examine Cheng’s intuition that Meiping was beaten to death. The effect is almost inevitably that historical truth is sacrificed to the author’s feelings: she is above all a mother. In the end, history and truth are recon44 45
Cheng, Life & Death, 443.
In an interview with Rushworth M. Kidder, Nien Cheng makes clear her view on the high ground of values and ethics with close reference to the American belief in individualism. “One should basically know what is right and what is wrong – and, when you know that, be courageous enough to stand for what is right,” she says. “That is the way to live – not to compromise with what is wrong.” See Kidder, “Nien Cheng: Old Values in a New China,” in Shared Values for a Troubled World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 1994), 215.
Ibid., 472; emphasis added. Ibid., 443.
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structed on the basis of her intuition and the fragments of evidence that remain. The evaluation of history writing can no longer be made by validating and evaluating evidence, but, as White argues in Metahistory, must be made on grounds that are ultimately moral and aesthetic:
Placed before the alternative visions that history’s interpreters offer for our consideration, and without any apodictically provided theoretical grounds for preferring one over another, we are driven back to moral and aesthetic reasons for the choice of one vision over another as the more “realistic.”48
The idea that reality is sustained on moral and aesthetic grounds subscribes the practice and notion of history, beyond the epistemological level, to the need to specify the “use-value” of small historical narratives, the effect of which can be assessed according to their usefulness and relevance, and the presence of which testifies to the pragmatic nature of history writing. For Wu Ningkun, history writing is an attempt at reclamation: to write about the self is to redeem the past and to demand from it an explanation, because to render a truthful account of the past is, for Wu, “the least [he] could do” to make “the suffering and survival” a “worthy” course.49 Starting from the inward self, his journey into the past takes on the process of internalising history and arrives at an abstract concern over history and man in general. Understanding the Chinese authors as victims who “often lose a sense of the order and location of the traumatic experience” to the extent that they “do not understand fully what happened to them and why,”50 we are more sensitive to Hong Ying’s urge “to impose order on a confusing world so as to know how to survive in it.” Writing is, for Hong Ying, “the only way” to “cure” herself; it offers a psychotherapeutic consolation through which she can at once return to and keep a distance from the past, and thereby to re-experience the trauma without the threat of real danger.51
White, Metahistory, 433.
In order to come to terms with life, Nietzsche argues that one would need to have “the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken moulds.” Nietzsche, “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life,” 62.
Craig R. Barclay, “Autobiographical Remembering: Narrative Constraints on Objectified Selves,” in Remembering Our Past: Studies in Autobiographical Memory, ed. David C. Rubin (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996), 113. 51 See Matthew Bond, “Life Story: How I Discovered my Secret Father Brought up in a Slum by the Yangtze River, Writer Hong Ying Talks to Matthew Bond about her ‘Long March’ to Escape,” The Daily Telegraph, October 10, 1998, London.
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For the memoirists, the act of writing about their past is a way of self-liberation and self-reinvention. As discussed in the previous chapter, as many of the Chinese authors have been at once victims and victimizers during the Cultural Revolution, the act of writing helps attenuate a host of psychological and emotional anxieties that typically beset a “reformed” self’s aim to critique what the self has held dear in the past. The past to Ji-li Jiang is a figure of loss, and the errors of it provide a moral lesson for the present self that is freed from suppression and domination. The common thread that runs through the memoirs is an underlying wish that the past will never be repeated and a hope to find a way of salvaging the self from the wrong deeds committed during the Revolution. In the memoirs, following every section devoted to the accounting of Chinese suffering and misdeeds, there is a section devoted to selfreflection; there is, as Wayne Booth calls “a second self” who acts as an “improved” self commenting on the self in action in the past.52 Rae Yang crystallizes this dilemma by making visible the distinction between past and present. In her memoir, she italicizes the parts that are meant to show what she thought and how she felt when the events were unfolding and leaves in regular font style other parts that show her understanding of such events afterwards.53 For Yang, reflecting on Chinese practices has to be done by measuring them against those in America:
Now as I was leaving the county, I could quit backdoor dealings at last. […] I was glad that henceforth I would be competing with others fair and square. If I won, I would feel happy rather than guilty. If I lost, I would double my effort. No complaints. I knew that in the United States competitions were very tough and there was no iron rice bowl.54
The description that emphasizes the “hardship” Yang endures in the States and the regret that there is no prospect of earning an “iron rice bowl” as Yang would in China is ironic and self-referential. For now outside China, Yang’s satisfaction derived from being able to compete with others “fair and square” reveals, paradoxically, how much Yang suffers from the guilt of having resorted to the use of “guanxi,” to knocking on
“Narrators like Cid Hamete, who can speak for the norms on which the action is based, can become companions and guides quite distinct from the wonders they have to show. […] [T]he telling is itself a dramatic rendering of a relationship with the author’s ‘second self’ which in strictly impersonal fiction is often less lively because only implicit.” Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd edition (London: Penguin, 1983), 212. Yang, Author’s Note, in Spider, unpaginated.
Yang, Spider, 284. Almost all memoirists mount a critique, even as they are at the same time participants, of “back door” dealings and bribery that so characterize post-Mao China. “Back doors in America lead only into people’s kitchens,” remarks Jung Chang ironically. Chang, Life & Death, 656.
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back doors, to putting on a smiling face, to begging people “to intercede for [her] up and down and all around” back there in China.55 At the same time, as the back jacket of the memoir reminds readers of the fact that Yang has secured the post of Associate Professor of East Asian Studies at Dickinson College, University of California, shows just how much an individual in America can count on professional merit for success and career. Operating in three main registers – commemorative, self-assertive, and therapeutic, the memoirists have transformed history into what Nietzsche calls “the will to power.” As the memoirists bring historical facts and personal values into a single frame of analysis, they make no distinction between genres. Now that the process of remembering, perception and representation participates in the production and consumption of history, both the “accountability” of history writing and the sentimentality of personal reflections contribute to the understanding of the past. It is obvious that the Chinese memoirs have to be considered part of “the instinct of self-preservation” that makes possible the self’s “growth” and “durability.”56
History lost and found There is perhaps a natural relation between history and self-care. But if history is used for the care of the self, to what extent can we still be confident that history speaks the truth? With regard to the fact that the Chinese writers seem only able to write abroad, it is important to consider such a condition of writing, for it is often that condition which stages the spectacle of history, gives incentives for witnesses to and participants of history to become interpreters of historical events, and makes history writing possible. A critical reflection upon the memoirs’ own historical constitution is not only helpful but needed.
Yang, Spider, 283.
Defining “truth” as a concept invented by the Greeks, who made use of the concept to justify their right to rule, Nietzsche equates all “claims of truth” to “claims for power.” “Truth,” in the Nietzschean sense, is subject to “appropriation” and becomes a matter of “interpretation” done in the favour of the culturally, economically and politically dominant group. Having asserted that there are no facts but interpretations, Nietzsche immediately adds that every “interpretation” is a “will to power.” When Nietzsche insists that “the will to power interprets” and “life is precisely Will to Power,” he identifies interpretation with the essence of life. Hence, if the essence of life is the “will to power,” then the interconnection between the notion of interpretation and the notion of the “will to power” restricts every description of human experience to self-interest, or defines it at least as one substantiation of an existential necessity. See Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), 21-26.
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It is almost an established notion that Wild Swans is the founding text of the Chinese memoirs. Winner of various major prizes: the NCR Book Award U.K. (1992), U.K. Writers’ Guild Best Non-Fiction (1992), and Book of the Year U.K. (1993), Wild Swans is the first major memoir that has succeeded in reproducing, in massive quantities and across three continents, the Chinese experience in the mainland, and the memoirs written after it frequently refer to it as their prototype, as the forerunner of a “generic” variant that has a loyal readership. The celebrated status of Wild Swans, as I mentioned in Chapter One of the thesis, is reflected in the fact that Jung Chang, a sought-after “referee,” is frequently invited to comment on newly published Chinese memoirs. Top on the front cover of Adeline Yen Mah’s Falling Leaves lies Chang’s endorsement: “Charged with emotion […] a vivid portrait of the human capacity for meanness, malice – and love.” Although Life and Death in Shanghai has earned more attention than Son and has received the Christopher Award in 1987, Wild Swans eclipses it: “Life and Death in Shanghai may have pioneered the style,” but, for Yoon Suh-kyung, “Wild Swans cemented it as a genre.”57 Nonetheless, the real fact is that Wild Swans is actually the third born in the family of the Chinese memoirs,58 having Son of the Revolution, published in 1983, as her big brother that is known to a far smaller circle of readers.59 Since both Son and Wild Swans narrate the same historical experience and are intended for a similar readership, Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro have reasons to ponder why the price-winning Chinese author Jung Chang can catch immediate public attention to her memoir while theirs has almost sunk into oblivion. It is of special significance to consider the strikingly different fortunes of the Chinese memoirs. The “Great Buy” Packs promoted by Amazon.com suggests the weight of Wild Swans.60 As part of the promotion tactic, the company sells at a discount two books in
Yoon, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 12, 2001, 64.
Three years after the publication of Son in 1983, Grafton published Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, which adds to the series of Chinese memoirs the second volume. 59 Sharing a similar subject matter with Wild Swans (published by Simon and Schuster in 1991 and available in a paperback edition from Anchor, Doubleday, 1992), Son of the Revolution is an account of the author’s childhood and adolescence in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution. Co-written by Liang Heng and his American wife Judith Shapiro in 1983, the memoir begins with Liang striving to become Mao’s “good little boy,” only to find disillusion and bitterness after a tumultuous struggle. Upon destruction of everything previously held dear, Liang finds consolation and hope in his wife and America. Though the first Chinese memoir published in English, it has failed to serve as a generic model for later publications.
Amazon.com, Inc. is a virtual company with its headquarter in Washington, Seattle. It has, in the past few years, grown arguably domineering. It started off with the mission “to use the
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a pack, in which the “combined item” is often a bestseller. The table below shows the bookseller’s understanding of the Chinese memoirs as a body of texts, of which Wild Swans and Thirty Years in a Red House seem to be most popular among buyers:
Record of Amazon.com “Great Buy” Packs as on Aug. 8, 0261
A Leaf in the Bitter Wind A Single Tear Born Red China’s Son Daughter of the River Falling Leaves Life and Death in Shanghai Red Azalea Red China Blues Red Scarf Girl & & & & & & & & & & Red China Blues Wild Swans Thirty Years in a Red House Sounds of the River Thirty Years in a Red House Chinese Cinderella Wild Swans Becoming Madame Mao Wild Swans A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
both authors reside in Canada
by the same author by the same author by the same author published in the same year; by the same publisher
Son of the Revolution
Thirty Years in a Red House
While almost all Chinese memoirs are sold with a book of their own kind, Son is packed and sold with John Hersey’s Hiroshima.62 The “dislocation” of Son seems to suggest that it is not considered as a member in the family of the Chinese memoirs. First published in 1946, Hiroshima has neither a recognizable connection with writings about China nor an obvious ground upon which it can be compared with Son. Apart from Hiroshima, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Better Smith remains the only example that is included in the category without an obvious relation to Chinese studies; but the case may be explained away by the fact that Smith’s novel was published in the same year by the same publisher as Red Scarf Girl.63
Internet to transform book buying into the fastest, easiest, and most enjoyable shopping experience possible.” Since its “opening” in 1995, it has become, it claims, “the leading online shopping site” to which “millions of people in more than 220 countries’ gain access. See “About Amazon.com,” in Amazon.com, August 8, 2002, <http://www.amazon.com/>.
Titles of the memoirs are arranged in alphabetical order. Five memoirs (Colours, Red Flower, Sorrow, Edge, Gate) are not available in the “Great Buy” promotion package. First published in the New Yorker, 1946. It is interesting that on September 4, 2002, Amazon.com’s “Great Buy” promotion pack offers Red Scarf Girl to be bought with Diary of a Madman and Other Stories (trans. William A. Lyell) by Lu Xun, who, although not a member of the Communist Party, was, to Mao Zedong at least, “a model for Chinese revolutionaries.” See <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0064462080/ref=pd_ecc_rvi_sc_1/1044760829-6644710> for more information on Amazon.com’s “Great Buy.” For reference on Mao Zedong’s endorsement of Lu Xun, See Mao, “Talks at the Yan-an Forum on Literature and the Arts,” in Lun wenxue yu yishu (Beijing: Renmin wenxue chubanshe, 1960), 81.
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If the “Great Buy” Packs of Amazon represents only the bookseller’s ambiguous attitude toward Son, the “Listmania List,” compiled by customers who wish to recommend books related to China and the Cultural Revolution, is an additional source of reference. Among four “Listmania Lists”: “Cultural Revolution Themes” by Yu Chen-li, “Some of the China-related books that I have read” by Jared English, “Books About the East” by Gary Selikow, and “Cultural Revolution Personal Histories” by Adam Johnson, Son appears only once, in Adam Johnson’s list, while Wild Swans appears in all four. It is quite a surprise that Son is not even considered important by Jared English, who claims him/herself an Asian Studies minor and compiles a list of twenty-five books, ranging from serious studies of Chinese literature and history to popular reads such as Wild Swans. If “the son of the revolution” was lost once in China during the Cultural Revolution, he is now lost again in the international book market. This odd placement or displacement of Son should not lead to a search for an innate link between Hiroshima and Son or an attempt to raise the public awareness of Son, but to the specific historical and political condition under which the memoirs of the Cultural Revolution began to receive serious attention and therefore had become discursively formed and produced. The fact that Son was given so little attention after its publication may make it difficult for the bookseller to categorize it. But its “dislocation” from, or at least its ambiguous status in, the family of the Chinese memoirs, is profoundly suggestive. Isn’t it the international political and ideological climate of the early 1990s that prompted and enabled most exiled Chinese nationals to write their lives as history? The “birth” of the memories as a discourse and as an alternative history of the Cultural Revolution has a historical reference to itself. When several events – the students’ revolt on Tian’anmen Square in China, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disappearance of the Iron Curtain – accumulated at the juncture of 1989 to signify the end of the Cold War (1945-91), Francis Fukuyama published “The End of History?”, which presents an overview of the “evolution” of history at its final stage. The challenge to and collapse of socialism and the corresponding demise of the dictatorship in various communist states confirm, according to Fukuyama, that western liberal capitalism is in its maturity, marking not only the end of one historical period but an end to ideological and economic warfare; in short, while human life continues, history and human culture as a whole has come to an end.64 The series of epoch-making events
Fukuyama in the article argues that capitalism in its final stage has extinguished all hopes in
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encourage “hopes” of a new political and social world order. The concurrence of the collapse of communism and great success of the Chinese memoirs in the early 1990s necessarily invites one to think about the historical condition of the late capitalist rule, under which the wound of the past and communism keep being opened, healed, and reopened. Perhaps it is not the historical event in 1966 that gives birth to the Chinese memoirs; instead, their popularity is an inevitable result of the international politics of the early 1990s. The historical condition is also an epistemological condition. Wild Swans was published at the right time, a time when there was a need for such memoirs that, through the representation of personal and individual experience, denounced the brutalities of communism and record the failure of the communist ideology. Fukuyama’s notion of the “end of history” draws our attention to the topical nature of the Chinese memoirs – how the memoirs inaugurate a renewed interest in the history of communism at the time communism as a practice has been conceived as having failed. One could imagine that if it were a few years earlier when, for example, Son was first published or a decade later when the “War against Terrorism” has replaced the Cold War as the focus of the U.S. after “September 11th,” the Chinese memoirs would have experienced a different reception. For the same reason it could be argued that while Wild Swans has risen from the ashes of Son, it has also revived it. Adam Johnson’s “Listmania List” has Son listed under Wild Swans, introducing Liang Heng’s story as “more typical than the martyrs’ above.” It is worthy of notice that the recommendation of Son is made with reference to Wild Swans, and on the presupposition that readers have already read Wild Swans. It seems, then, a “forgotten” element in the past can be “rediscovered” when conditions are favourable to it. It is history that writes history. The situatedness of a discourse, that is, the location of the discourse, is what enables the subdued voice to articulate. The question of what really happened, as tied in with the poststructuralist conception of representation, is not just about the object of representation, but related to various historicalmaterialistic forces that condition the answer to it. That the writing of history submits to a set of constraints should be a cause for caution for anyone who attempts to search in the memoirs for a more “authentic” China. The regime of historical truth enables
utopian politics. When it was first published in 1989, the article attracted a great deal of attention from both the Marxist Left and the fascist Right. Fukuyama later expanded it into a fivepart book in 1992. Cf. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (N.Y.: Free Press and London: Penguin, 1992).
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certain types of articulations considered as true and disables others at the same time. What is essential for our understanding of the past is but the act of writing, or, as Arendt proposes in “The Gap between Past and Future,” the after-life of the event as “articulated” by the “minds of those who are then to tell the story and to convey meaning,” without which “there simply was no story left that could be told.”65
At the beginning of this chapter, I suggested that the emergence of a new type of history writing indicated a discursive departure from the traditional method of representing the past as a repository of truth. The Chinese memoirs work to expand the horizon of the present day knowledge about the Cultural Revolution. Taking over the control of facts, the memoirists supplement and nourish historical accounts, and facilitate the way to open up debates and negotiations about seemingly sterile facts. What the Chinese memories contribute to the making of history should not be examined merely in relation to their accuracy or inaccuracy in accounting the past, but to their attitudes toward, and their personal reflections upon, the historical event. As the production of truth can only be done with the support of literary conventions, new historicism endeavours to remove boundaries between literary text and historical context. However, while the writing of the Chinese memoirs is prompted by their authors’ distrust of the official monologue, it does not end where facts are re-decoded and the one-dimensional history is opened up; it may end where motivations and interpretations peppered with emotive elements are provided. Since the memoirs centre on the experience of those individuals, whose participation in history is marginal, they reconfirm that the “otherness” of the past is only arbitrarily produced under a specific set of conditions by those who are privileged and empowered to write about the past. History, as Foucault forcefully agues, is produced by a system of exclusion that operates on discourses – by suppressing some and favouring others.66 Whereas the Chinese authors commission themselves to the use of history, they gradually come to terms with their own situatedness; inescapable from their own set of epistemological constraints, their stories often reveal more about the constraints and conditions of the present than about those of the past. External validation of the narrative motives is necessary to justify the act of writing the self as history. In this sense,
Arendt, Between Past and Future, 6.
Cf. Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. R. Howard (N.Y.: Vintage, 1988).
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therefore, the Chinese memoirs, which have been read as an alternative history of the Cultural Revolution and modern China in the west, may present a challenge to Foucault’s notion of archaeology of knowledge with its emphasis on the value of “small voices,” and for that matter the very notion and practice of the new type of historiography advocated by others. As soon as one starts to reflect on the authorial consciousness and intention, and as soon as one starts to examine the memoirs’ discursive situatedness, one feels less sure about whether the Chinese memoirists have indeed “rescued” local memories as they have claimed.
Contexts of Writing
On August 16, 1988, Nien Cheng became a citizen of the United States. She said, “This is the proudest day of my life.”1
This research project began with the question of experiential relevance. I was born after the end of the Cultural Revolution and was brought up in Hong Kong, a place that is almost always defined by its ambiguous relationship with the motherland, in particular after 1997. It has taken me more than two decades to have developed a more serious interest in the Cultural Revolution and its impact on China. I am unable to write about the historical trauma like the Chinese memoirists, because I have not been able to share “the historical moment” together with them. Over the past two years, I have read rather thoroughly their memoirs in the hope that I might understand the historical event and China better. As I can speak neither as nor for the victims of the Revolution, I can only write about their memoirs as an object of study. It seems to be an accepted view that a witness and a survivor of a historical event has a more intimate relationship with it. But as the Chinese memoirists move back and forth between their experience of the past and that of the present, they must mediate between their memories and the market expectations of their accounts of the Cultural Revolution. For one thing, the memoirists’ evoking of their memories and their act of writing about the past often start with a specific purpose. Some, if not all, memoirists write because they are asked to, or because they know what they write will be of interest and significance to readers outside China. The quotation, “To be Worthy
See “Speakers Bureau” (Boston, MA: American Entertainment International, Inc., 2000), clipped on August 7, 2002, <http://www.aeispeakers.com/Cheng-Nien.htm>.
of the Suffering and Survival,” in the title of this thesis is taken from Wu Ningkun’s Prologue to his memoir, in which he explains how A Single Tear comes to be written. Red Sorrow is written in response to “a calling.” At the funeral of Dr. Dale Leathers, an American professor, Nanchu recalls the first conversation she had with the professor upon her arrival at the University of Georgia:
In mourning, I saw Dr. Leathers vividly rise up from his big armchair to shake my hand. “You are our first student from communist China. I’ve heard about the Cultural Revolution. It was quite a miserable time for the Chinese people. But what we know is very superficial. Tragedies like that belong to all mankind. You will tell us more about it, won’t you?”2
If writing requires external legitimation and authorization before it even starts, how is it possible to write the self either in or as history? Indeed, how can the Chinese authors claim authenticity, as they know from the outset that they will write for a specific readership that, unlike their fellow countrymen, knows very little about the Cultural Revolution and about China?3 What has made writing possible very often constitutes at the same time the impossibility of writing. For the Chinese memoirists, the act of writing about the past needs to be kept at a distance, whether linguistic, temporal or spatial, from the past; it is impossible to write at the time they were suffering through the Revolution for two rather obvious reasons: first, to do so would be dangerous, and second, the experience of the historical reality cannot be fully comprehended until it has become an irreversible past. To reveal the self’s feeling about the communist government, not to mention mounting criticism of it, poses high risk during the Cultural Revolution. “[D]enouncing the great banner-holder [of the Cultural Revolution] was a ‘heinous crime’ that could lead to a life sentence or even death,” writes Nanchu. 4 This is probably why, as discussed in Chapter Three, Liang Heng makes extra effort at fortressing the private space wherein he shares with Judith his “inner thoughts.” The general condition in China during the late 1970s was oppressive – “most people did not dare to say what they wanted to say;” the 1980s, Zhu Xiaodi observes, was no bet2 3
Nanchu, Sorrow, 254-5, and 256.
Thirty Years in a Red House, for example, “chronicles the major events of New China from the 1950’s to the 1980s, explaining their significance for a reader who knows little or nothing of recent Chinese history.” Michael J. Sloboda, M. M., Review of Thirty Years by Zhu, Tripod, vol. XVIII, no. 107 (September-October, 1998), 67.
Nanchu, Sorrow, 221.
By 1986, the demand from the people to reform the current system was really growing and growing very rapidly. […] Many people, especially the young, became impatient with the tempo of the reform and less satisfied with the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. […] At the end of 1986, some students in Shanghai went to the streets demanding further changes and the incident caused a great reversal in politics in China. […] To everyone’s surprise, the Party general secretary, Hu Yaobang, was forced to resign. When the news was broadcast over radio and television, millions of families in China were shocked. Many lost their last measure of confidence in the system.5
For a lot of the memoirists, then, at the heart of writing is the fundamental question of where, when, and for whom they can write. For Jung Chang, China is “not a home to relax in,” and after every visit to it, Chang often “return[s] to London feeling drained.”6 “For ten years,” she “avoided thinking about the China [she] had left behind.” Writing becomes possible only until “the past was no longer too painful to recall,” that is, when Chang has “found love and fulfilment and therefore tranquillity” in London, a place she has eventually made her “home”7:
I came to Britain in 1978. In a world that felt like another planet, I began to develop an urge to write about my life in China. […] In 1988, my mother came to London, her first trip out of China. One day, she suddenly told me what she wanted to do most was to talk to me. She talked every day for months. […] Here, outside the social and political confines of China, she was able to do something she had not been able to do all her life: open her mind and her heart.8
More significantly, the Chinese memoirists need to keep themselves at a distance from the past and from home in order to understand themselves and their experience in China. “Many friends have asked me why, after all I went through, I did not hate Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution in those years. The answer is simple: We were all brainwashed.”9 Even though a lot of the authors, especially those who have been Red Guards, in the end come to realize the destruction of all that they have striven to achieve, they either fail to understand or refuse to explain what has happened while they are still in China. It is, for Ye Ying-xing, only after she has emigrated to Canada, where “[n]o one looks over [her] shoulder; no one reports [her] ac-
Zhu, Thirty Years, 236-7; emphasis added.
Jung Chang, “Filtering shadows of China’s Darkest Era,” Sunday Morning Post, August 3, 2003, The Review, 9, Hong Kong.
Chang, Swans, 673.
Jung Chang, Foreword to Another Province: New Chinese Writing from London, eds. Jessie Lim and Li Yan (London: Lambeth Chinese Community Association, 1994), viii. Jiang, Scarf, 265.
tivities to Party Officials” can she “think [her] own thoughts and speak out,” and “write.”10 “Dislocated” by the Revolution, the memoirists have since learnt to become interpreters, consumers, and users of history, and what they take as history is what is extracted from various discourses, official and unofficial, historical and fictional – a collection of details that still look evident, meaningful, and useful to them. Jan Wong, author of Red China Blues, compares two time spans and two perspectives from which to write about the Cultural Revolution, one an “insider’s” and the other an “outsider’s.” Earlier on as a Canadian born Chinese full of romantic enthusiasm for the communist revolution in China, Wong came to China with “hopes” to participate in the Revolution that purports to bring an earthly utopia, but realized in the end that she and her classmates were “bit players in the power struggle”:
[W]orking for the Times made me begin to view China through dispassionate eyes. Although I felt like a renegade and traitor when I helped Fox Butterfield dig out dirt on a country I had once wanted to be perfect, I also felt that exposing the darker side might help right some wrongs.11
And she continues to muse later in the memoir:
My faith in Maoism had been eroding slowly, but I had always wanted to believe, always kept trying to believe, that there was a better place in the world. Now it was my turn to lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling. What had I been doing with my life? I had turned people in. For what? I had struggled to dig ditches in the countryside. Again, for what? I had tried to reform my bourgeois mind by reading Mao’s Selected Works. Who cared? Nobody believed in the revolution any more. They hadn’t for a long time, and I had been too stupid to see it.12
The serious tone in these passages, in which the sense of righteousness is tinged with irony, betrays a concern that reaches beyond mourning. In a review of Zhu’s Thirty Years, “a reader from Asia” makes a passing comment on the “outsider’s” perspective Wong employs in writing about her past experience: “Wong shows you China through the eyes of a foreigner who can ultimately walk away from China and its problem if she must.”13 Having made clear her adoption of an “outsider’s” point of view, Wong declares her position on Maoist politics and indicates that her writing is an attempt to write – and right – wrongs. Two different time spans represent two different perspec10 11 12 13
Ye, Leaf, 381. Wong, Blues, 192. Ibid.,177-8.
See A reader from Asia, “A Sad Yet Warm Memoir of Love and Loyalty,” Spotlight Review of Thirty Years, by Zhu, Amazon.com, created on February 21, 2002, clipped on February 21, 2003, <http://www.amazon.com/>.
tives and understandings of history. Presented from the point of view of an insiderparticipant, the first one-fourth of Wong’s memoir gives a sympathetic record of the Revolution. When Wong finally leaves China and goes back to Canada, she reflects upon the event from the point of view of an outsider, turning her recollections of the Revolution into a critical analysis of the politics of the Chinese Communist Party. In this thesis, what has constantly been kept in focus is the importance of the epistemological question about the politics of writing the Chinese self in the west. The Chinese memoirs present a wide range of critical questions. One can think of other issues germane to my central concern in this thesis. Why, for example, are most memoirists women writers? Whereas Ye Ting-xing, Anhua Gao, and Xu Meihong give many details about their adventurous interracial romance with their Canadian, British and American husbands respectively, one wonders why Gao Yuan’s marriage to an American girl is summed up in only one line.14 Is the life of an “oriental wife” more interesting than that of an “oriental husband”? What is the gender politics of memoir writing? The memoirs are popular stories and they are read for pleasure, even though, or precisely because, they tell stories of the memoirists’ tragic experience. If so, how do the memoirs mingle tears with aesthetic pleasure? What is the political and moral nature of the “pleasure of tragedy” in the case of the Chinese memoirists? These questions concerning gender politics, neo-orientalism, and the aesthetic pleasure of tragedy, etc., important as they are, have to be left out due to the limitations of time and space given to this study. So far, my thesis is a more focused discussion of the issues I have proposed to explore, and it attempts to rethink and understand the emergence of personal stories as popular history in close relation to the post-Cold War situation, to its economic, socio-cultural, and geo-political ramifications. More specifically, it argues that the popularity of the Chinese memoirs in the west can be better understood in relation to four contexts: the systems of production and circulation that operate in late capitalist commercial culture, the “empire of English” as created by global capitalism, the American culture of political sympathy, and the “new world order” and its impact on writing since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. In Chapter One, “Foreword: The Commodification of Memory,” the discussion focuses on the difficult but potentially productive tension between the Chinese memoirs about the Cultural Revolution as history and as a form of popular culture, com-
“I married an American while attending postgraduate school in Beijing and followed her to the United States.” Gao Yuan, Red, 357.
modified and reified. The popularity of the Cultural Revolution in the western cultural imagination is a relatively recent phenomenon. As Barmé observes, there is a “posthumous cult” of Mao Zedong in the post-Cultural Revolution era. If the reincarnation of Mao as a cultural icon is concurrent with the “mercantile fervour” that is brought into China by Deng Xiaoping’s “market socialism,” Mao’s popularity in the west in the early 1990s is mostly fostered by the first-world capitalist system of mass production. The success of the Chinese memoirs manifests the western interest in Mao and the Cultural Revolution and shows that the writing of history responds discursively to the popular taste as a context of writing, which, in turn, both defines and creates our present needs for history. Chapter Two, “Writing the Self in ‘the Language of the Other,’” resituates the postcolonial debates on the politics of English under a new set of global conditions that define the relationship between different social and ethnic groups. That these Chinese writers have chosen to write in English about their personal traumatic experience compels us to reconsider the global spread of English and its implications at the present. In the postcolonial critique of the politics of English, the spread of English has been often attributed to the history and practice of British colonialism. Despite the demise of the British Empire after the Second World War, however, English has remained to be the most widely used language both within and outside anglophone societies. The chapter argues that it is necessary to move beyond the postcolonial theoretical framework in order to adequately understand the expansion of English as the de facto international language. The phenomenal success of the Chinese memoirs shows how the continuous development of global capitalism and the demand for linguistic uniformity reinforce each other. In this new phase of “late capitalism,” English serves not only as a tool of various socio-political projects such as cultural imperialism, nation-building, or postcolonial resistance, but also as a commodity, a form of capital and power, whether discursive, social, or economic. Chapter Three, “The Community of Sympathy,” relates the possibility of writing to the geo-political context of America. The enthusiastic reception of the Chinese memoirs and their authors in the west, especially in America, testifies to the operation of western liberal humanism and its significance to the establishment of a civil society. In existential terms, Chinese victims and American hosts reinstate each other’s social function. As immigrants who are still very much locked within the traumatic memory of the Revolution, the Chinese writers seek in the west the kind of compassionate support and love that they have never had during the Cultural Revolution. In return, as
western readers play the role of a sympathetic host, they satisfy their conscience by assigning the Chinese immigrants a delicate position in American society. It is my contention that the analysis of sympathy has to move beyond the conceptualisation of it as a moral sentiment; the Chinese memoirists write to seek not merely sympathy but also residency and reception in the west. Given their emphasis on representing interracial friendship, mentorship and romance, they participate in the development of the American culture of political sympathy. The discourse of sympathy entails submission and entangles victims in complex political and emotional toils, and the representation of victimhood is a discursive speech act contributing to the construction and substantiation of the western image of China. Finally, Chapter Four, “Writing the Self as History,” concentrates on the specific “episteme” of the post-Cold War era. Tracing the process through which the self and history are recognized to be one, the chapter discusses how individual Chinese stories emplotted in popular literary forms are passed as history in the west. In the western popular imagination, it seems, all Chinese immigrants are necessarily political dissidents. It is by “virtue” of their “unique” experience of the brutal oppression by the Chinese Communist Party that their stories are deemed “essential reading for anyone interested in China and the struggle for human dignity.”15 To a substantial extent, what these memoirs can offer to us is not only knowledge of the past, but an opportunity to speculate on the ingredients that constitute the western popular image of Maoist China. About this, Yang Lian has an interesting observation:
For westerners, if a Chinese writer writes in China, he must be “underground”; if he lives abroad, he must be an “exile.” If a Chinese poet is introduced to a Western audience, as soon as the word “dissident” is mentioned, the audience immediately relaxes – the poet’s opponents have guaranteed that the poems must be good. By the same token, success is guaranteed for books such as Life and Death in Shanghai, Not a Single Tear, Wild Swans, Red Azalea, or the myriad memoirs from contemporary China which are being pressed on Western publishers.16
Precisely because the Chinese memoirs provide the context or occasion needed for the displaying of the deep-seated western hostility toward communism, the phenomenon of their extraordinary popularity and success, especially after 1989, is by no means historically contingent. The discursive production of the Chinese memoirs has its own historical reference. Playing various roles simultaneously as a commodity, a
Review of Sorrow by Nanchu, in Sorrow, book jacket.
Lian, “The Writer and the Party,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 6, 1998, Times Literary Supplement Subscriber Archive Online.
linguistic other, an object of sympathy, and an exile-immigrant-dissident, the Chinese memoirists, having escaped from the communist doctrine, are nevertheless inescapable from a larger network of discursive forces and subject to their present conditions of existence. To return to the question of experiential relevance that I mentioned at the beginning of this Afterword, now it seems that the Cultural Revolution as a historical event from the past belongs neither to those who have experienced it nor to those who study it from afar. At this point, what eventually dawns on me is the ironic realization that these memoirs are perhaps not intended for people like me in Hong Kong or mainland Chinese. What their phenomenal success in the west transpires to me is that they have been created by forces beyond themselves. Whether we read them as history or popular fiction, the Chinese memoirs lead us to revisit a past the meaning of which is rediscovered and defined by the present, a past in the lengthening shadow of which the Chinese memoirists will continue to live and perform.
The colour red A. The titles that are printed in red:
Figure 1. Front cover, Daughter of China, by Xu Meihong and Terry Engelmann, London: Headline Book Publishing, 1999.
Figure 2. Front cover photograph, China’s Son, by Da Chen, N.Y.: Delacorte Press, 2001. (copyright Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos, Inc., 2000)
Figure 3. Front cover, Red China Blues, by Jan Wong, Transworld Publishers Ltd., 1997. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 4. Front cover, Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng, London: Hammersmith: Flamingo, 1995. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 5. Front cover, Wild Swans, by Jung Chang. London: Hammersmith, Flamingo, 1993. (downloaded from http://www.paddyfield.com/)
Figure 6. Front cover, Spider Eaters, by Rae Yang, CA: Univ. of CA Press, 1997. (downloaded from http://global.yesasia.com/)
B. Examples of the covers that are predominantly red:
Figure 7. Front cover, Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1988.
Figure 8. Front cover, Daughter of China, by Xu Meihong and Larry Engelmann, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1999. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 9. Front cover, Red Azalea, by Anchee Min, Jove Books, 1995. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 10. Front cover, Wild Swans, by Jung Chang, Touchstone Books, 2003. (downloaded from http://www.paddyfield.com/)
Figure 11. Front cover, Red Sorrow, by Nanchu, N.Y.: Arcade Publishing, 2001. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 12. Front cover, Son of the Revolution, by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1983. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
The portraits of the authors A. Examples of the covers that are decorated with the authors’ photographs:
Figure 13. Front cover, Colours of the Mountain, by Da Chen, London: Arrow Books, 2000. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 14. Front cover, A Leaf in the Bitter Wind, by Ye Ting-xing, Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1997. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 15. Front cover, Thirty years in a Red House, by Zhu Xiaodi, Amherst: Univ. of Mass. Press, 1998. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 16. Front cover, Vermilion Gate, by Aiping Mu, London: Time Warner Books, 2002. (downloaded from httt://www.global.yesasia.com/)
B. The authors in uniform:
Figure 17. Front cover, Born Red, by Gao Yuan, Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1987. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 18. Front cover, Red Scarf Girl, by Ji-li Jiang, N.Y.: Harper Trophy, 1984. (downloaded from http://www.global.yesasia.com/)
Figure 19. Front cover, Red Flower of China, by Zhai Zhenhua, N.Y.: Soho, 1992.
Figure 20. Front cover, Startling Moon, by Liu Hong, London: Review, 2001.