The new Chineseness great leap forward or backward by tyndale


									                                              > China’s new pride

The new Chineseness:
great leap forward or backward?
                       Looking backward is a major trend in Chinese fiction today - writers often set their novels in
                       the past to reflect on Chinese history and culture. Most such novels take place sometime
                       between the 1840s and the 1970s, when China suffered defeat, humiliation, coup d’état,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             until the 1980s, when it died out                                                                                                          ics who are confident of their civilization
                       warlordism, civil war, invasion, again civil war, and revolution. In this genre, Mo Yan’s                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          because of modern entertainment. Mo                                                                                                        and proud of its resurgence.
                       Sandalwood Impalement (Tanxiang Xing) is not only a commercial but an ideological hit,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Yan structures his novel like a cat tone
                       praised by critics as a ‘masterpiece’ of ‘historical importance’ that shows China can                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              opera, quoting opera lyrics and using cat                                                                                                  Critical acclaim for Sandalwood Impale-
                       overcome Western influence thanks to ‘Chinese tradition, Chinese reality, and Chinese                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              tone sounds to signify strong emotions.                                                                                                    ment owes to cultural nationalism, not
                       mentality’ as apposed to vapid ‘universalism’ and ‘humanism’.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 literary excellence. Ideology outweighs
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          The novel resembles a folk opera: pas-                                                                                                     art. Despite being carefully plotted,
Yu e Ta o                                     they can afford to be because they feel                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Mei Niang’s lover, Qian Ding, is a local                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               sionate and sensual. It has vivid colors,                                                                                                  structured, and written, the novel does
                                              strong now.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          bureaucrat - an elegant, learned, mar-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 sounds, images, even smells. The exe-                                                                                                      not rise above artisanship. The urge to

M      o Yan (Don’t Speak, a pen name)
       was born in Gaomi County, Shan-
dong province. He quit primary school
                                              Sandalwood Impalement is truly ‘made
                                              in China’. It bustles with noise and activ-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   ried man. She is passionately in love
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   with him because he gives her every-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   thing - sex, respect, culture, psycholog-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          cution scenes are graphic - over ten
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          thousand words describe decapitation,
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          death by slicing, and impalement.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     recreate an authentic China is detri-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     mental to creativity. Compared with Mo
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Yan’s earlier novels, Sandalwood Impale-
and became a farmer during the Cul-           ity like a Chinese funeral - weeping and                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ical support, and expensive presents.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Sounds are piercing: gossip, scolding,                                                                                                     ment is contrived. It is a skilful imitation
tural Revolution, after which he joined       wailing followed by loud music and a                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Her husband tolerates (even encour-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    singing, trains roaring, cats yowling.                                                                                                     of folk opera - a splendid street per-
the People’s Liberation Army and began        banquet. The story takes place around                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                ages) Mei Niang’s extramarital affair                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  One can smell not only the scent of                                                                                                        formance full of sound and imagery,
his writing career. He gained fame by         1900 in a Shandong peninsula village                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 because it augments the family income.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 cooked dog meat and rice wine, but also                                                                                                    leaving nothing to the imagination.
the late 1980s for his ‘lavish’, ‘wild’,      where the Germans are building a rail-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Qian Ding, under orders from the cen-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  the stench of body odor, vomit, urine,
‘backward’ style. The filmmaker Zhang         way through farmland. The Qing gov-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  tral government to arrest Sun Bing, does                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               and excrement. The language is pep-                                                                                                        Cultural nationalism does even more
Yimo based his prize-winning movies -         ernment, under pressure from Ger-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    what he is told in order to keep his job.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              pered with dialect, slang, and old folk                                                                                                    damage to literary criticism, supplanti-
Red Sorghum (1987) and Ju Dou (1990)          many, is on the hunt for a rebel sect                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                One day a stranger who claims to be                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    opera lyrics. Mo Yan’s fictional world is                                                                                                  ng aesthetic appreciation with moral
- on Mo Yan’s novels, making the author       leader who kills Germans. He is finally                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Xiao Jia’s father comes to Mei Niang’s                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 the antithesis of refined Confucian soci-                                                                                                  judgment. Moralizing has always been
well-known internationally as well as a       caught and publicly impaled on a san-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                home. Xiao Jia adores his ‘father’, Zhao                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               ety; it is also ‘unpolluted’ by Communist                                                                                                  a weakness of Chinese literary criticism.
bestseller at home. Big Breasts, Wide         dalwood stake.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Jia, China’s chief executioner sent by the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ideology or Western values. It is exactly                                                                                                  Today, when Chinese writers enjoy free-
Hips (Fengru Feitun), translated into                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Dowager Empress and General Yuan                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       this ‘backwardness’ that charms many                                                                                                       dom of expression, critics are conform-
several foreign languages, won the high-      The main characters all depend on and                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Shikai to devise a cruel and unusual                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Chinese. Without it, the novel would                                                                                                       ist. They conform not to any official line,
est national literary prize. In Sandalwood    interfere with each other. Their inter-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              punishment for Sun Bing, who has to                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    read like cliché anti-colonial class-                                                                                                      but to public opinion, which (if any-
Impalement (2001), Mo Yan not only            woven family conflicts are typically Chi-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            suffer five days and nights and die dur-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               struggle stories that often appear in                                                                                                      thing) is more chauvinist than the gov-
develops his style to the utmost, but also    nese; the logic is transparent to native                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             ing the opening ceremony when the first                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Communist history textbooks.                                                                                                               ernment. Chinese readers have good
declares his return to Chinese tradition.     readers. Mei Niang, the heroine, is a                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                German train rolls through.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       reason to dislike highbrow intelligentsia
                                              beautiful young woman who runs a dog                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Mo Yan spent five years writing Sandal-                                                                                                    writing that it is often a clumsy imita-
Like most writers who came of age after       meat eatery; her nickname is ‘Dog Meat                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Trains and cat tone opera are the two pil-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             wood Impalement, and the language and                                                                                                      tion of Western literature. They also
the Cultural Revolution, Mo Yan read          Beauty’. She is ambivalent toward her                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                lars of the novel. The story turns on                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  plot show the effort he invested. The                                                                                                      have good reason to disdain con-
foreign literature in translation. His ear-   father, Sun Bing, a leading cat tone                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 superstition about trains. When village                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                effect, however, is strictly lowbrow. The                                                                                                  sumerist yuppie writing that is often
lier works got wide circulation in the        (maoqiang) opera singer and womaniz-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 people first saw trains, they thought they                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             roots of the Chinese novel lie in street                                                                                                   mawkish, affected, narcissistic, and sen-
West thanks to his ‘incorrect’ view of        er. Her mother died when she was little,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             were monsters that could run without                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   storytelling and folk opera; Mo Yan                                                                                                        sational. But a return to folk tradition is
Chinese society and history; many in          so she was brought up by her father.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 eating because they absorbed energy                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    deliberately returns to these roots. Chi-                                                                                                  no cure for bad writing. <
China, however, remarked that he pan-         Due to his negligence, however, her feet                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             from the tracks laid on ancestral graves,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              nese novels from before the New Cul-
dered to perverse Western interest.           were never bound, and because of her                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 disturbing fengshui. They believed the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 ture Movement of 1919 are almost all                                                                                                       Reference
Some said that he bartered China’s dig-       ‘big’ feet (she envies women with bound                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Germans conscripted young boys,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        third-person narratives about conflict                                                                                                     - Mo Yan. 2001. Tanxiang Xing. Beijing:
nity for personal fame; he even got into      feet) she has to marry Xiao Jia, a sim-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              trimmed their tongues to make them                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     and intrigue - their main function is to                                                                                                     Zuojia.
trouble with the PLA. But not any more.       pleminded butcher she does not even                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  speak an alien language, cut their                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     entertain. Sandalwood Impalement is
An unorthodox writer going back to his        like. Sun Bing hits and accidentally kills                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           queues to steal their souls, and buried                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                closer to traditional novels of three and                                                                                                  Yue Tao studied English language and liter-
roots at peak career confirms Chinese         a German railway technician he sees                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  the queues under the tracks to ‘feed’ the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              four hundred years ago than to new nov-                                                                                                    ature at Fudan University, Shanghai, and
public opinion that their civilization is     sexually harassing his young second                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  trains. They were also convinced that                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  els since 1919. Mo Yan himself calls this                                                                                                  social sciences at the University of Amster-
matchless. Mo Yan boasts that Sandal-         wife. In response, German soldiers kill                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              bad fengshui and this theft of young                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   book a great leap backward - it is a dec-                                                                                                  dam. She is currently International Pro-
wood Impalement is not translated             his wife, children, and neighbours, so                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               souls caused poverty, disaster, war, and                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               laration of war on both highbrow intel-                                                                                                    gramme Officer and Chinese Affairs Coordi-
because it is too Chinese. Chinese are        he organizes ‘boxer’ rebels to retaliate.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            misfortune. Cat tone (a local opera that                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               ligentsia writing that imitates Western                                                                                                    nator at Leiden University International
ethnocentric and always have been, but        He dresses up like the Song general Yue                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              mimicked cats yowling) was performed                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   fashion and consumerist yuppie writing                                                                                                     Office. Her interests include comparative lit-
confidence makes ethnocentrism stri-          Fei (1103(1142) and believes he is pos-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              at funerals, weddings, and religious fes-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              that panders to a public eager for sen-                                                                                                    erature and intercultural communication.
dent. Confidence about the future             sessed by Yue’s spirit, making him                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   tivities. It was unique to Mo Yan’s home                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               sation. The great leap backward wins
makes Chinese candid about the past -         invulnerable to blades and bullets.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  village and an integral part of local life                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             applause from Chinese readers and crit-
                                                                                                                                                                                                                  scoff at my enemy, while in terms of tactics respect my enemy, and I will have

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Son: Thank you for your praise, only when we stand on the shoulders of previous
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Son: I remember Mao said “ the world is yours, and also ours, but in the end it is still
                                                   Son: Your instruction has touched me deeply. Although the road is windy, I must

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              yours...” He was right, we young people are like the morning sun of 8 or 9 a.m.”
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   to worry about not being able to march in sync with the new century, or not

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Grandfather: There will be people to carry on internatonal relations in the new
                                                                                                                                     only establish and maintain a correct philosophy, and in terms of strategy

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Father: Very good, I have been waiting for you to speak these words.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Mother: Hope is on your shoulders, we are all depending on you.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Mother: I so envy you; how I’d love to go ahead with you.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Grandfather: You are modest like your grandfather.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 connect with the international.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             generations can we see far!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Father: I am no longer alone.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Grandmother: Good work.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Grandmother: A good kid.

                                               µ                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               µ                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      µ

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 IIAS Newsletter | #37 | June 2005                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     7

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