.1 " CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES I David Der-wei Wang This anthology contains fourteen Chinese short stories and novellas written in the late eighties and early nineties. The writers of these stories are from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, America, and New Zealand. By grouping these stories togeth er under the category of contemporary Chinese fiction, the anthology intends to posit a new image of China, a China defined not by geopolitical boundaries and ideological closures but by overlapping cultures and shared imaginative resources. Traditional anthologies of modern Chinese literature are too often regionalistic, corresponding to the reality of a Chi na that has been divided into politically exclusive realms. It is not uncommon to find that a criticism or the works ofa cer tain anthology of Chinese fiction are drawn exclusively from mainland China or Taiwan." But at a time when mainland the embrace of its vast neighbor, any attempt to define Chinese lit erature in terms of the old geopolitics will risk instant anachronism. Events in the late eighties and early nineties have pushed Chinese literature toward irreversible change. In mainland China writers are fighting to reclaim the ground lost after the 1989 Tian'anmen Inci dent; in Taiwan unforeseen political upheavals and financial successes have caused a substantial shake-up of the traditional literary market; in Hong Kong, the specter of the end of Hong Kong's separate existence in 1997 has driven writers to write about the end of the century as if it were peculiarly their own. During this period Chinese writers have also traveled overseas more frequently than ever before, thanks both to the easy access of transportation, and, ironically, to the cruelty of politics. The expatri ate experience is one ofthe major themes of twentieth-century Chi nese literature. The latest exodus of intellectuals from mainland Chi na has added a new and poignant dimension to that tradition. Pessimists are again announcing that the Tian'anmen Incident has brought an untimely end to the development of modern Chinese lit erature. But mainland Chinese literature bounced back vigorously after the bloody crackdown, impressing us with its more somberly sophisticated discourse. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas Chinese communities, literature has been undergoing booms and metamorphoses. It's safe to predict that the last decade for twen tieth-century Chinese fiction will be just as exciting. The changing landscape of contemporary Chinese fiction is relat ed to political dynamics, but it is also a result of postmodern tech nologies. With computers and global telecommunication systems, writers and publishers are able to contact each other instantly; works considered unpublishable for political or commercial reasons at one publishing house may quickly appear in print somewhere else. For instance, writings by Mo Van, Yu Hua, and Su Tong-three of the most talented mainland Chinese writers-now often receive their first publication in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The inventive Hong Kong writer Xi Xi, though unpopular among local readers, has won great acclaim in Taiwan, so much so that she was once mistaken for a Tai wanese writer by the Hong Kong government.f Where fashionable 2. Zheng Shusen [William Tay], introduction to the special issue on Xi Xi, Lianhe wenxue [Unitas] '99 (January 1993): 117. 1. Michael Duke's Worlds ofModem Chinese Fiction (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1990) repre sents perhaps one of the first attempts to anthologize modern Chinese literature On a global scale. CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES I 239 240 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG Marxists discern signs of technocratic incursions on China's authentic existence, Chinese writers see new ways to disseminate their own truths and myths. As Ye Sis "Transcendence and the Fax Machine," a short story about a bittersweet affair between a religious scholar and his fax machine, indicates, transcendental truth now mingles with mechanical reproduction; the global and the local impinge upon each other's territories. Overseas writers constitute a major force in modern Chinese liter ature. Around the time of the Tian'anmen Incident, many important mainland writers left China and have since formed a new expatriate voice clamoring for attention. A Cheng, one of the most celebrated "root-seeking" writers of the eighties, has settled in the United States; the dramatist and novelist Gao Xingjian is sojourning in France. Bei Dao, poet and founder of the controversial TOday [jintian] in the late seventies, is now taking refuge in Sweden, while Yang Lian, one of the most brilliant of the young Chinese poets, has made New Zealand his new base. Exile may eventually deprive these writers of the native experience their works were nurtured on, but for the time being at least it provides them with a different perspective from which to think and write about China. Little surprise that some of the most powerful writings about the Tiari'anmen Incident are written by mainland Chinese writers in exile. A parallel case can be found in Ping Lu, a writer who lives in the United States but writes most vividly about the Taiwan status quo, thanks to her consistent concern about and frequent visits to the island. Already situated outside their homeland, overseas writers find it both a condition and a result of narrating China that their works must cross established physical, formal, and conceptual boundaries. The new generation brings to mind names of an older generation, such as Lu Xun, Lao She, and Yu Dafu, the May Fourth writers whose experiences abroad helped them modernize Chinese literary discourse seven decades ago. All the foregoing observations about the contemporary Chinese literary world-its cultural/political turmoils and technological inno vations and the diaspora ofmainland Chinese writers-make us think afresh about a theoretical scheme for characterizing the nineties. The fictive map "center versus margin" has to be redrawn for the new strategy. T While works by mainland Chinese writers still claim most of our attention, the old questions will be asked, such as: What are these writers writing about? For whom are they writing? Where are they writing? How does one classify a work produced on the mainland and published in Hong Kong with a Taiwan sponsorship, which receives its first acclaim from readers in the United States? In answering these questions, one comes to realize that literature from mainland China the "center" of traditional geopolitics-is becoming decentralized. Some writers "inside" literature are politically outside. Literature from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas-the "marginal" Chinese communities-is to be taken seriously because its readers are already living, economically and culturally, inside modernity:' However, this should not be taken to mean that the marginal can occupy the center, as if the old notion of dialectic struggle were being revived. Instead, it points to a landscape where dialogues between many different Chinas become possible, a negotiation that does not establish a republic of Chinese letters but rather creates a real hetero geneity of contemporary Chinese literatures. A reconfiguration of Chinese literature from different regions fur ther questions the concept and practice of realism and representation. By representation I refer not only to the aesthetic meaning of mimesis but also to the political implication of legitimacy. In claiming to tran scribe an objective reality, realism became the genre ofprivilege as ear ly as the twenties, and until after the Great Cultural Revolution it dominated Chinese literary theory, be it called humanitarian realism, critical realism, or socialist realism. It is significant that the mid-eight ies saw the decline of realism on both sides of the China straits along with the disintegration of authoritarian regimes. When ideological truth proves to be fiction, when realism proves to be an art not of revelation but of formulas, the celebrated realist canon "art reflects life" also has the ring of a political slogan. In writ ing, representation leads to new questions: What kind of work re-pre sents popular consensus that doesn't represent governmental policy? What nonrealists were sent into internal exile when only realism could be acknowledged or written? Why can't expatriate writers' works be representative of a national capacity to write? Why can there 3. See also Leo Ou-fan Lee's discussion in "On the Margins of Chinese Discourse," Daedalus (Spring 1991): 207-26. CHINESE FICTION FOR THE 242 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG be only one foreign mapping of the (post)modern and not several Chinese versions? Chinese writers' efforts to go beyond realism are therefore no more aesthetic gestures than they are radical historical gestures, gestures against the old systems of truth by power and the old myths of representation by centralization. The best contemporary Chinese fiction cannot be classified as real istic in a traditional sense. For those used to seeing modern Chinese fiction as a supplement to social history or as a predictable Jamesonian "national allegory" ofsociopolitics, the fiction produced since the late eighties may tell a different story. It shows that literature in the post Tian'anmen period has not harked back to the old formulas of reflec tionism. Precisely because of their refusal either to remain silent or to cry out in an acceptably "realist" way, the new writers see life as an ongoing process, a conglomeration of possibilities and impossibilities. Precisely because of their inability to believe in the one true path through realism to modernism and then postmodernism, or in any melodramatically predictable path through history, contemporary Chinese writers promise new and lively beginnings for the end-of the-century Chinese imagination. There is another aspect of representationism. In opposing the total itarian Maoist regime to the relatively more open post-Maoist society, critics and scholars have coined a new term, Maoist discourse (Maoyu, Mao weslti, etc.), to summarize the coercive rhetoric that once con trolled humanistic activities in China. The term has historical validi ty, particularly in insinuating the irony that a Marxist society could reproduce the superstructural tyranny it set out to overthrow. But the term may have also created an easy way out for critics, generalizing an otherwise complex issue. By uncritically contrasting the Maoist and the post-Maoist eras as two distinct or even dialectical discursive par adigms, and by asserting in retrospect the total, irresistible power of Maoist discourse, one actually risks succumbing to the double bind of representationism. A verbal reenactment of Maoist purges will neither redeem the deaths and the resentments of millions of Chinese nor properly represent the dark force of Maoist tyranny and the hidden power ofa million unutterable questions. Only by continuously refus ing to speak summarily of the past can we remember the past. To launch a retroactive protest against Maoist discourse, one has to learn not to affirm the lie of its omnipotence, because it was not an undivided whole that erased all other voices-it merely suppressed them. This is an ironic strategy, but it is based on an ethical imperative rather than mere rhetorical play Had Maoist discourse been perfect at both the technological and ideological levels, all critique of it from within would have been unthinkable. We know, however, that even at the darkest moments of the Cultural Revolution, thousands of Chinese uttered dangerously nonconformist speeches-and this accounting does not include those who protested mutely, often through suicide. To speak of Maoist discourse in the nineties as if it had been an unquestionable, total power, therefore, indicates less a critical indict ment of it than a complicity with its pretensions. It eschews the real intellectual labor that would have thwarted Mao's brand ofhistoricism and therefore dissipated its spell. Extrapolating from these observations, I propose a different way of reading contemporary Chinese fiction, in terms of the following three configurations: familiarization if the uncanny; lyrical appropriation of the epic; flirtation with China. Each heading refers not only to a theme that pervades contemporary Chinese writings but also to a polemic stance that has been adopted by Chinese writers as they have set out to reconfigure China. 1. Familiarization of the Uncanny One of the most fascinating phenomena in Chinese literature of the late eighties has been the radicalization of traditional realist discourse. Writers in mainland China, as in other Chinese communities, have explored materials hitherto considered untouchable and rendered them in a wide range of forms: stream of consciousness, metafiction, magical realism, etc. Particularly in mainland China, this rejuvenated creativity has become a powerful critique of Maoist discourse, the formidable literary and political rhetoric that prevailed in China for more than three decades, suppressing all hope of free literary expres sion. But now, by turning the world into a realm of fantastic and uncanny elements or by identifying normalcy with the grotesque and insane, writers awaken their readers from aesthetic and ideological inertia, initiating them into a new kind of reality. Difamiliarization--aesthetic and conceptual distancing of a familiar subject in order to restore its perceptual newness-has been frequently CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES / 243 244 I DAVID DER-WEI WANG used by critics to describe this phenomenon. But the term cannot real ly cover the new Chinese rhetoric, especially the political rhetoric composed on the eve and in the aftermath of the Tian'anmen Incident. Defamiliarization presupposes a perceptual diminution of life to a banal, repetitious continuum, an aesthetic malaise from which readers can only be rescued by a regimen of parody and disruption, till these readers lose confidence in tradition. With the artificiality of the old realism exposed, the imagination of the real can start again, fresh and new. In China, this recipe must appear ironic at best and perhaps even cruel. Who else, after all, is more competent (or decadent) than the Chinese Communist propaganda apparatus in sending its people through the same ideological hoops again and again by defamiliariz ing that which is all too familiar? Who else is more imaginative than the party at churning out a new set of slogans, campaigns, and ene mies and at reenacting the old cadre games in the guise of yet anoth er people's revolution? Moreover, the Chinese people, who have gone through so many calamities over the past half-century, have seen no shortage of grotes queries and disruptions in their everyday lives. Amid the continual parade of the absurd and the abnormal, they might be thought to have hoped for a year or two of routine and repetition. Reality was already more eerie and unthinkable than anything that fiction could conjure." Insofar as it aims to "make strange" things that otherwise seem famil iar, defamiliarization would have to mean, in the Chinese context, not an outrage or a revolution to subvert the tedium of the familiar but either a refamiliarization of the trivial or a creative deformation of the unbearable. I suggest [amiliarization oj the uncanny as one key to Chinese writers' handling of defamiliarization. Precisely because reality is already too bizarre and grotesque, the writers' greatest challenge lies in how to make it more plausible rather than more strange. Whereas for Freudi ans the uncanny means "something familiar and old-established in the mind that has been estranged only by the process of repression.P there 4. For more discussion on the discourse of the grotesque, see David Der-wei Wang, "Jirenxing" [A parade of the grotesques], in Zhongsheng xuanhua [Heteroglossia in modern Chi nese fiction] (Taipei: Yuanliu, 1988). 5. Sigmund Freud, "The Uncanny," in Studies Oil Parapsychology, Alix Strachey, trans. (New York: Macmillan, 1981),47. is an additional dimension to the Chinese uncanny. In China, repres sion is not just an individual defense mechanism; a governmental mechanism represses individual responses and legitimates that repres sion as something necessary and reasonable. The horrors and unpre dictabilities of ordinary experience are legitimated; the temptation to see these everyday events as uncanny is repressed. This second repres sion is made possible by public exposure of the private, by normaliza tion of the unnatural. To talk about the Chinese uncanny, therefore, is to explore the paradoxical question as to why things that would be seen as dreary and therefore repressed in a Western, Freudian context have ever been taken as natural in China. If the majority of works appearing in the early nineties can be called uncanny, they are so merely as a preparation for, or an evocation of, the incomprehensible, which nevertheless manifests itself everyday. Accordingly, the contemporary Chinese uncanny can be seen in the paranoia and megalomania that have alternately possessed China's two hostile regimes and their peoples: the horrors and absurdities of the Cultural Revolution, the deification of Mao Zedong, even tri umphant consumption of human flesh in the name of "Mao thought"; a national campaign of abuse of woman's body, through mandatory abortions of the most primitive kind; stock-speculation mania involving millions of people, first in Taiwan, now in mainland China; and the brutal bloodshed of T ian'anmen Square, televised all over the world, followed by cynical rewritings of the Incident by Peo ple's Republic of China officials-no bloodshed, no massacre, just "a tiny handful" of bad elements. There are four genres of stories that rely on familiarization of the uncanny: grotesquerie, fantasy, the gothic tale, and the animal allego ry. Yu Hua's "One Kind of Reality" is an example. The novella chronicles the way in which a family quarrel turns into a series of family murders. Few readers will be undisturbed by the discrepancy between the bloody family feud and the matter-of-fact style with which Yu Hua narrates the incident. One can almost discern macabre humor when the narrator catalogues the ways the family members humiliate, torture, and mutilate each other-a veritable museum of Chinese cruelty. One of the most talented avant-gardists in mainland China, Yu Hua has been praised (or criticized) for his desolate view of life, his violent deformation of language, and his penchant for the CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES I 245 'II I 246 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG neurotic. But personal idiosyncrasies aside, all Yu Hua does is to lay bare the horrors that Chinese are used to in life but would rather find incredible when encountered in art. Yu Hua purports to record mere ly a slice oflife, a story about nothing. Can the sadomasochist festivi ty of the family murders still be seen as uncanny when the bloody national carnival of the Cultural Revolution or of the Tiari'anmen Incident is an unrepressed everyday affair? The mode Yu Hua uses to deal with human neurosis and grotes querie can also be seen in Su Tong's "Running Wild," a story about a child's obsession with death, which ends with unexpected misfortune. But whereas Yu Hua opts for almost barren narration, Su Tong, one of the most charming storytellers of the early nineties, displays a rich, elaborate symbolism and an ornate vocabulary. Su Tong is at his best in writing family melodrama with a gothic touch; looming behind the facade of his domestic tales are decadent motives and unspeakable desires. As "Running Wild" opens, something infamous has already happened to the family; we witness, from a child's perspective, its utter downfall amid disappearance, adultery, madness, and murder/suicide. But do these incidents really "mean" anything? Do they really "matter"? "Running Wild" is as dazzlingly elaborate and inscrutable as "One Kind of Reality" is bothersomely simple and lit eral. Beyond its stylistic exuberance, however, one finds in the text a hollow center. The verbal intricacy of the text cannot hide the banal ity of its evils. In Yang Zhao's "Our Childhood," comic fantasy is used as a per spective from which to examine the social!cultural problems of Tai wan. In a fantasy, the real and the illusory mix with each other; the impossible becomes possible. This syndrome is illustrated in "Our Childhood," a story about a fantastic outcome of the Taiwan stock speculation frenzy in the late eighties. The two women speculators in the story have been losers at life's game until they find new hope in the boundless optimism of stock-market speculation. They not only consume the fortune they have yet to make but also manage to redeem their real unhappiness with an investment in imaginary nos talgia. They fantasize their childhoods in the same way they speculate on stocks, to the point where money and memory become inter changeable tokens. Nostalgia, after all, pays a dividend, in entropic speculation and fictitious dealings. 1 S.K. Chang's "Amateur Cameraman" is a black comedy about a man's secret desire to murder his wife. In many ways the novella com bines the uncanny and the fantastic. One of the most popular overseas Chinese writers, Zhang has tried his hand at genres ranging from sci ence fiction to fantastic romance. He is best known, however, for his series of sarcastic stories about the war between the sexes. Situated in an American city, the novella introduces a middle-class Chinese cou ple trapped in marital crisis, which is followed by the murder of the wife. The husband is charged with the killing. Did he really commit the crime? Was he set up for having merely fantasized on paper about killing his wife, as he claims? Was his wife really dead? Mixing mys tery and black humor into a surprise ending, the novella completes its dizzying attack on militant feminism and male chauvinism. In the anthology there are two gothic tales, "Ghost Talk" by Yang Lian and "The Isle of Wang' an" by Zhong Ling. Both stories borrow from the genre of the gothic tale, using such conventions as ghostly atmosphere, macabre plotting, mysterious reincarnation, and an ambiguous moral schematization. Writing at the turn of the nineties, however, Yang Lian and Zhong Ling convey the paradox that accounts about our reality cannot be related except as gothic tales: the ghosts looming in their works are not supernatural beings of the oth er world but phantoms of this world. In Yang Lian's "Ghost Talk," a lonely soul is heard speaking to him self in an empty house; the response he receives is a cluster of chilly echoes of his own voice. In Zhong Ling's "The Isle of Wang' an," a woman launches a desperate search for love and sexual fulfillment on a desolate island under the auspices of the ghosts of her family ances tors. Why are these characters deprived of their authentic existence? Why are they doomed to be wanderers outside the arguable "human" world? Who are these ghosts? Perhaps they are expatriate poets whose voices have been reduced to meaningless rambling; political exiles who have lost the grounds on which to fight for their ideals; women whose desire for sexual fulfillment has been repressed as obscene. In their attempt to contact the human world, to overcome social taboos and indifferences, these ghosts find they have always been habitants of the human world, which remains part of the ghostly unknown. Whereas Zhong Ling is inspired by ghost stories in her portrait of a modern Chinese predicament of sexual fulfillment, two other CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES I 247 248 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG women writers in the anthology, Tang Min from mainland China and Xi Xi from Hong Kong, turn to animal imagery in dealing with the issue of womanhood and motherhood in two different Chinese com munities. Tang Min's "I Am Not a Cat" records in a tone ofjournal istic apathy the way in which mainland Chinese women are forced to have abortions under the most primitive medical conditions; Xi Xi's "Mother Fish" renders a poignant portrait of women's desire for and anxiety about marriage and maternity. Despite their differences in style and concern, both writers compare their female characters to animals. In so doing they seem to proclaim that in a representational system prefigured by men, one way to make women's fate "intelligi ble" is to translate the established code of mimesis into an animalist mmllcry. Mimicry implies exaggeration, dehumanization, and simplifica tion. For these women, this is exactly where the politics of their ani mal allegories start. The Chinese women in Tang Min's "I Am Not a Cat" are treated worse than cats when they are ordered to wait in line, pants off, to await their abortions. Xi Xi, the more sophisticated, sees in her "Mother Fish" an ironic parallel between an unmarried teenage girl's fear and desire when she thinks she is pregnant and a pregnant fish's painful death before delivery, in the absence of her male partner. The story also contains a subtext in which Xi Xi juxta poses women's unfulfilled motherhood and female writers' aborted creativity. For both writers, animal allegories are less literary devices than literal testimonials to the fate of Chinese women. To read these stories is to familiarize oneself with the uncanny that is the real. 2. Lyricization of the Epic The second direction this anthology indicates is contemporary writ ers' higWy subjective approach to history. In response to the drastic political changes since the late seventies, writers on both sides of Chi na have raised questions about the authenticity of traditional histori cal discourse: what valorizes the appearance of truth in history; who legitimizes the "voice" of history; how history exerts its power over our view of the future. Because History has been sanctioned by Com munist theoreticians as a holy text, one that prefigures China's destiny in the Socialist millennium, mainland writers' efforts to rewrite histo ry 10 fictional forms deserve special attention. Facing the hiatus between what happens and what should have happened in accordance with official historiography, these writers try to make sense of the broken past by personal accounts. Instead of offering a new narrative closure, however, their stories are often marked with an ironic aware ness of the contingency or even absurdity of any human effort to recapture the past. Almost half a century ago, Jaroslav Prusek commented on the rise of modern Chinese literature by pointing out its lyrical inclination. By lyrical Prusek means a subjective and individualistic discourse that the first generation of modern Chinese writers formulated, a dis course that derives its conceptual and enunciative format from classi cal poetic tradition.P This lyrical inclination enables modern writers to articulate their nonconformist feelings against feudal literary and ideological canons. For Pnisek, however, the lyrical mode cannot generate a powerful literature until it is complemented by writers' epic sensibility, i.e., a sense ofshared communal fate at a changing his torical moment. Writing in terms of Marxist ideology, Prusek sees in the lyrical and the epic, or the mode of the individual and the mode of society, a dialectic tension, one that appropriately constitutes the sub text of modern Chinese (literary) history." Implied in his theory is a view that the lyrical and the epic would reach their happy (re)union in a Marxist era. People's Republic of China literature from 1949 to 1979, however, shows that the lyrical mode was erased from a dis course dedicated to writing the (Socialist) epic. Only in the eighties does one see a resurgence of the lyrical in Chinese narrative discourse. If Prusek's paradigm makes sense to us today, it is not because the lyrical and the epic still function as two disparate modes, perennially negotiating the "total" inscription of national fate, as Pnisek would have argued. Rather, the lyrical and the epic have undergone a mutu al displacement, which has reshuffied their inherent aesthetic and ide ological expectations. History is still the primary concern of contem porary writers, but its literary manifestation, epic discourse, can be conveyed only by its lyrical other. Writing at a time when the master narrative of history is already fragmented and anachronized, Chinese 6. Jaroslav Pnisek, The Lyrical and the Epic: Studiesof Modem Chinese Literature, Leo Ou-fan Lee, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980), 1-29. 7. Leo Ou-fan Lee, introduction to The Lyrical and the Epic, vii-xii. CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES / 249 I 250 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG ! '1 ! writers can only approximate (rather than authenticate) historic meaning through a lyrical evocation. The forces at work in the dark realm of the political unconscious can be simulated only through a language that transgresses generic boundaries between the real and unreal. While the lyrical appropriation of the epic may point either to the new capitalist desire to make personal what used to be public or to the schizophrenic syndrome of broken historical subjectivity, as suggested by some critics, a deeper motivation has to be spelled out. s With its emphasis on the figurative landscape that language can construct, the new lyrical mode points to a critical position that refuses to be con fined by the referential imperatives of epic (or historical) discourse. If literary representation is substantially a rhetorical performance rather than the outcome oflogical or ideological prefiguration, then the text can be liberated from the iron prison of referential determinism to make its own figurations of the real. This emphasis on language and poetic expression is a confirmation of human choice in "figuring out" the world. In this regard, the predilection for the lyrical recapitulates the critical lyricism evolved for Chinese literature by Shen Congwen, the great modern Chinese nativist writer, half a century ago." Yu Hua's and Su Tong's stories offer access to the margins of war and history, away from the official depravities of the center. They emphasize a microlevel, the level of seemingly insignificant happen ings, the empty space between the significant disruptions of historic events. The grand epic narrative dissolves into fragmentary impres sions, fortuitous events, and pointless monologues. These bits and pieces serve as poetic incantations, ushering us here and there in the cavern of history, sending flashes of light down some of the darkest passages. In A Cheng's "Festival," history is lyricized by another personal style. Though dealing with an impending bloody clash between two factions during the Cultural Revolution, the story is nevertheless nar rated from the innocent perspective of three children. These children s. See, for example, Wang Jin, "Benweihua qingjie yll dayuejin xintai" [The complex of egocentrism and the mentality of "the Great Leap Forward"]. Zhang Xudong, translated, inJint ian [Today] 3-4 (1991)' 26. 9. For more discussion of Shen Congwcri's "lyricization" of history, see David Der-wei Wang, Fictional Realism in Twentieth-Century China: Mao Dun, Lao She, Shen Congwen (New are . takin~ a one-day vacation in celebration of their own holiday, Children s Day; they play together, not knowing their parents are about to begin a deadly combat against one another. The situation all too easily recalls the story in which Lu Xun founded modern Chinese literature, and its famous slogan: "Save the children!" But A Cheng refuses to continue the mode of shouts and slogans that had become the rule in the intervening decades, instead favoring understatement and quiet, just-visible symbolism. In "Festival," A Cheng's narrative rhythmically blends sensory images from the natural and the human environments into a contrapuntal whole until one cannot ignore their harmonic resonances. One can, of course, talk about A Cheng's iron ic intention, which reveals the absurdities of the adult world by lyri cizing it with the innocent eyes of the children. But I suspect the polemicist's dilemma with a story such as "Festival" lies in the fact that it draws the reader's attention without any specific investment in the subject matter and without any conviction that the work is a defini tive treatment of anything. The narrated event and the narrative event demand equal attention. Mainland writers' lyrical inclinations reach an apogee in Yang Lian's "Ghost Talk." A poet taking refuge in New Zealand after the Tian'anmen Incident, Yang Lian makes a radical move in dealing with the subject of exile. Exile indicates not only physical or psychological displacement but also a break in the symbolic chain that used to make sense of one's existence. Yang Lian's story foregoes elements thought necessary to a coherent narrative, instead piling up images and impressions, murmurs and silences. The result is a story that reads like rambling, a narrative turned against the narrative premise of verisimil itude. Perhaps this is the poet's most vehement indictment of History; for all his effort to remember and narrate the unspeakable historical event, he manages only to utter something that erases the line between the lyrical moment and the epic event. As the story's title suggests, "Ghost Talk" is nothing but a phantom voice that is forever doubled in its own echoes. Taiwan writers have shown a similar tendency to see and write his tory as if from a subjective angle. In Yang Zhao's "Our Childhood," one finds two interlacing arrays of narrative segments-one realistic, one fantastic. Whereas the realist segments point to the dreary con tinuum of life as it is lived, their fantastic counterparts bring forth a CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES / 251 York: Columbia UP, 1992),203-10,224-33. ;I~ 252 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG past where dreams and desires can be found. When "childhood" is personalized as a girl, when nostalgia is crystallized by the girl's con test with a galloping train, poetry is evoked as the redemption of time from pain and ressentiment by fantasy. Zhu Tianwen's "Master Chai" exhibits a lyrical rewriting of the epic narrative no less ambitious and eccentric than her mainland counterparts'. The story has only one character, an aging masseur who runs an underground clinic in a dubious district of Taipei, and one event, the masseur's waiting for a young patient who is coming for her last treatment. What really "happens" in the story is the masseur's remembrances of the past narrated in a kind of litany: his escape from mainland China when the Communists took over; his involvement in smuggling; his desolate marriage and family life; and his decaying business and health. We thus see a life that has been wast ed and a figure whose existence, in a society that cannot wait to deny its historical ties with the mainland, seems only a useless decoration, a relic of some almost-forgotten event. Zhu Tianwen's story intrudes into the most unlikely life an epiphanic moment, one that casts a sud den light on the pathos of one generation's fate. The innocent patient embodies for the masseur an escape to the realm of youth and hope. Through massaging (or fondling) the girl's naked body, the masseur undergoes an erotically charged ritual of spiritual rejuvenation; each touch leads him closer to the forever-exiled past, recalling, obscenely or rhapsodically, one generation's dreams of sorrow and meaning. 3. Flirtation with China The discourse of modern Chinese literature from 1919 to 1989 is burdened with writers' heavy concern for the Chinese nation and eager readiness to reform Chinese society with a program of literary admonishments. "Obsession with China,,,l0 the phrase coined by C. T. Hsia in his ground-breaking study of modern Chinese literature, has been widely used to describe the general tendency of modern Chinese literature. Chinese writers are so committed to their coun try's salvation that their sole mission is to excoriate social malaise, pro voke or resolve national crises, and contemplate if not actually hasten 10. the nation's future. In practice, the obsession with China has led fic tion writers to "hard-core realism,"11 another phrase ofHsia's, mean ing a raw, even brutal expose of Chinese misery that spurns preten sions, aesthetic or intellectual. China is considered so aillicted with spiritual disease that there is no way to save it from degradation except through extreme measures. While this obsession has generated a moral ethos rarely seen among other national literatures, it has also enticed writers into ideological fetishism, one that makes China sanc tion their unwillingness or their inability to deal with issues beyond immediate political concerns. One might talk about the sadomasochism in Chinese writers' insa tiable desire to write about the pain of their mother country and to share in her despair, as one contemporary critic notes.V But one must face the issue of the morality of form. For writers of both the post-May Fourth era and the early People's Republic of China regime, writing is a political act, and any literary re-form must yield to the agenda of overall reform. History, however, has shown us how postponing questions about the form of the idea has led over and over to ideological emptiness and moral capitulation. The more that post-May Fourth writers wrote about the mindlessness of their com patriots, the more they threw doubts on their own writings and on the mindless way in which they captured and then changed reality The continued celebration of the new Communist utopia by early People's Republic of China writers turned out to be transparent self exposure, a reenactment of the fable of the emperor's new clothes. In both cases, writing starts out confident of its refreshed moral vision but ends up declaring its complicity with a decadent reality. Chinese writers since the beginning of the nineties have tried to break away from hard-core obsession with China by reducing what they do to a flirtation with China. While its undertone of frivolous yet harmless eroticism is intentional, flirtation refers not to the new writ ings' treatment of sexual subjects but to their attitude toward or approach to any "serious subject"-above all, to the most serious seri ous subject, China. II. C. T. Hsia, "Closing Remarks," in Chinese Fiaionfrom Taiwan: Critical Perspectives, ]an nette L. Faurot, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 12. Rey Chow, 1991),121-69. 1980), 240. Woman and Chinese Modernity (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, C. T. Hsia, "Obsession with China," in A History of Modem Chinese Fiction (New Haven: Yale UP, 1961),533-54. CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES / 253 254 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG Writing in a postmodern era, Chinese writers have come to real ize that writing does not have to be equated with political action and that literature cannot solve all social problems, as Lu Xun's successors expected it to. Writing now becomes a facetious gesture, a playful action, that titillates rather than teaches, flirts rather than indicts. Instead of the conventional "tears and sniveling" or "call to arms," contemporary Chinese writers exhibit a much wider range of emo tive skills, from crying to clowning, in accord with a subtler relation to society. And beyond the single standard of hard-core realism, they are ready to tryon a variety of styles, old and new, classical story telling or modernist collage-whatever best fits their slimmer expectations. The state of unbearable lightness suggested by contemporary Chi nese writers' flirtation with China, however, must be treated with no less caution than the deadly gravity of literature from earlier genera tions. From one angle, it reflects writers' self-ironic contemplation of literature's position in a postmodern multimedia network, one in which images deconstruct realities and morals boil down to mere manners. But from another angle, flirtation with China informs us of the writers' strategic repositioning vis-a-vis their volatile political sur roundings. Through their "light" writings, writers either tantalize the formidable organs of censorship or tease the apparent solemnity of the state and thus redeem their readers as well as themselves, however ten tatively, from the old cycle of obsession with China. For some critics, this may represent the demise of the modern Chinese literati, a sign of end-of-the-century dissipation and self-indulgence. But at a time when writers themselves refuse to treat writing as a crusade, those critics who insist on the old ways are sick with the most dissipated and self-indulgent of Chinese diseases: an obsessive desire to consume writings that show an obsession with China. Five stories about love and lust, drawn from mainland China, Tai wan, Hong Kong, and America, illustrate this point, though in fact flirtation with China does not have to be understood in romantic terms. The transition of style in some of Mo Yan's recent work, such as "Divine Debauchery," is an example. Mo Yan was praised as one of the most brilliant writers of the eighties, and his popularity among readers and critics climaxed with the publication of Red Sorghum (1987), a fantastic mixture of national romance and family saga. In the wake of the Tian'anmen Incident, one would have expected a writer like Mo Yan to produce powerful works that exposed Communist atrocities at either a literal or an allegorical level. But the best works he has produced are a series of anecdotal stories, such as "Divine Debauchery," that relate quaint customs, fantastic happenings, and eccentric personalities from the old days. "Divine Debauchery" deals with a rich man's strange sexual behavior: he brings home all the prostitutes in town, plays with them by walking over their naked bod ies, then sends them away. Be it called a bawdy joke, an erotic fanta sy, or an account of sexual perversion, this is a story about a sexual tease that leads nowhere, a story that ends before anything real (hard core?) happens. One can certainly infer from the aborted sexual action an allegorical reading, but I would rather argue that Mo Yan's unabashed attachment to the surface of his subject matter is the story's driving force. Insofar as the absence of allegory is a new kind of alle gorical manifestation, "Divine Debauchery" is symptomatic of con temporary writers' facetious tactics in playing with their subject mat ter, whatever it is. The misery of the peasantry is a sanctioned theme of modern Chi nese fiction, but in Li Peifu's "The Adulterers" the theme finds an expression that combines both irony and sensuality. The story may look like a remake of a conventional farce, with a farmer setting out to catch his unfaithful wife and her lover in flagrante delecto. It is not. Overhearing that his wife will be deserted by her lover after all her passion and self-sacrifice, the farmer starts to feel sorry for her. His jealousy gives way to compassion, and his anger with his wife's unchastity is replaced by fury at her lover's ungratefulness. But a sen timental solution is the last thing Li Peifu intends; his story takes yet another turn. The farmer's poor bachelor brother, taking his brother's forgiving attitude for a signal, now begs to sleep with his sister-in-law, perhaps for a modest fee! At a time when the democratic movement was going strong in the capital, what preoccupies this group of Chi nese farmers is the necessity not of revolution but of (prudent) copu lation. "The Adulterers" does not contain any political comment, but through muffled laughter it permits a word on behalf of the libidinal needs and perverse hopes of the people. Overseas Chinese writer Gu Zhaosen's "Plain Moon" is the only story in the anthology that bears directly on the aftermath of the CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES / 255 256 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG Tiari'anmen Incident. But Gus intention lies less in glamorizing the movement than in deflating the heroism and tragic hyperbole that constitute most narratives about the movement. The story does not even take place in Beijing, where the incident happened, but in New York; it details a marriage of convenience between a former student leader of the movement, who is desperately seeking permanent-resi dent status, and a mediocre Chinese American woman, Plain Moon, who yearns for marriage. Though the Tian'anmen democratic move ment is sufficient cause to bring the two together, the pressure of life in America will not allow either of them time to look back senti mentally at the Incident. The marriage is soon in crisis, as our hero ine Plain Moon discovers that her husband's sweetheart has come to town. Thousands of miles away from Tian'anmen Square, Plain Moon becomes a belated victim of the Incident. Gu Zhaosen makes a parody of the "revolution plus romance" formula that governed modern Chinese literature from the thirties to the seventies, revealing heroes and heroines that ultimately are captives of either vanity or the survival instinct. His indignation at the bloody outcome of the Inci dent and his sympathy for his characters are undercut by his ironic tone and black humor. In Zhu Tianwen's "Master Chai," sexual perversion and historical pathos are mixed with each other in Master Chai's caressing his patient's body. Zhu Tianwen rewrites the genre of tearful obsession with China, turning it literally into a bizarre piece of erotica about an old man's obsession with a young woman. As Zhu Tianwen's charac ter caresses his young, innocent patient, so Zhu teases the total body of nationalist literature. Zhu's vision of Taipei deserves equal atten tion. Taipei is envisioned as a city that has almost forgotten its days as the center of the Nationalist crusade to restore a lost China, or as the stopover for those mainland emigres who yearned to go home. Taipei at the end of the twentieth century is a city where post-martial-law politics mingle with post modernist fashions, a place where memories of the past and desires for the future meet and cancel each other out. Zhu's end-of-the-century aesthetics tells us: time wears out one's will; all lofty ideas of nation and history must succumb to decayed senses and sensibilities. In Hong Kong writer Ye Si's "Transcendence and the Fax Machine," a professor finds himself more and more isolated from his colleagues while his tie to a group of theologians in France gets increasingly close, thanks to the advent offax communication. His fax machine silently and obediently takes his theoretical treatises and sends them to somewhere far away; it functions as tamely and sub serviently as a woman. This "romance," however, is endangered one day when the machine acts up and starts to produce junk messages from all sorts of sources. Ye Si lavishes feminine images on the machine, at the risk of seeming a male chauvinist, but in so doing he manages to dramatize Hong Kong life torn between seduction and despair, one drawing ever nearer to the double perils of 1997 and 1999. Through the fax machine, concepts such as religion, history, and nation are turned into mysterious signaling systems; the transcen dental telos that the professor searches for and receives is always in danger of proving itself to be a phantasm, a ghost in the machine. By the end of the story, the professor has to face the fact that transmission of ideas and transgression of truth are mixed together. The story touches as much on the alienation and narcissism of Chinese intellec tuals in end-of-the-century Hong Kong as on the dissemination and promiscuity of information in an age of postmodern technology. With examples drawn from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and overseas sources, I have identified three directions in the develop ment of contemporary Chinese fiction. These three directions are famil iarization of the uncanny, the manifestation of the epic through its lyrical other, and flirtation with China. First, in their effort to re-present China through defamiliarization, Chinese writers must confront the paradoxical result of familiariza tion of the uncanny. For them, any literary endeavors to take the real and "make it strange" may turn out to be a painful laying bare of the real. The absurdities and horrors contained in the recent history of China are so unbelievable that they make their mimicries take on the modes of the uncanny. Second, writing in an era of post-History, contemporary Chinese writers can make sense of history only by evoking its lyrical other. This lyrical inclination seems to take us full circle to the point almost nine decades before where the first generation of modern Chinese writers reformed literature by proclaiming their subjective vision. But unlike their predecessors, who posited a collective historical subjec- CHINESE FICTION FOR THE NINETIES / 257 .., r 258 / DAVID DER-WEI WANG tivity-in the name of the epic-as the goal of their lyrical discourse, contemporary writers' negation of that subjectivity as well as its for mal manifestation constitutes the most intriguing aspect of their end of-the-century writings. Third, breaking with the obsession with China, contemporary Chinese writers find in flirtation with China a better way to instanti ate the circumstances in which they write and the strategies that they have developed to cope with these circumstances. With its playful, erotic overtones, flirtation with China refers to a discourse that rec ognizes its own theatrical or figurative quality and therefore refuses to fall victim to the allures of hard-core realism. All three directions have significantly undermined the traditional approaches to China and Chinese literature, approaches that were bound by a mimesis-oriented canon of realism, a yearning for a total knowledge of History at the expense of a first understanding of the self, and a desire to prescribe the national discourse before local voic es have learned how to speak. In stating these new directions, I am not offering a transcendental view of the nature of end-of-the-century Chinese fiction, much less prescribing what path it should take. I want only to convey the wonder and pleasure that any reader must feel when suddenly aware that a literature is on the verge of recovering itself, ofletting all its voices speak-as if the departing century had at last learned from its painful experiments. LIST OF CONTRIBUTORS Editors David Der-wei Wang received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He has taught at National Taiwan University and Harvard. He is currently Associate Professor of Chinese Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures of Columbia Universi ty. His most recent publications include Fictional Realism in Twentieth-Century China: Mao Dun, LAo She, Shen Congwen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), From May Fourth to June Fourth: Fiction and Film in Twentieth-Century China (coedited with Ellen Widmer; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), and Xiaoshuo Zhongguo [Narrating China] (Taipei: Ryefield, 1993). Jeanne Tai received her degree in law from the University of Michi gan. She practiced law in New York and taught modern Chi nese literature at Harvard University before becoming a free lance translator. She is the translator and editor of Spring Bamboo (New York: Random House, 1989), a collection of Chinese stories of the eighties.
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