Sunday, December 13, 2009

"What Does the Chinese Signboard on Your Book Cover Say?"

[Note: In the past a few months, I've had the pleasure to answer questions from a number of university and high school teachers about my book Apologies Forthcoming. The following dialogue, in chronological order, is compiled from my email exchanges with a teacher at a midwest public university, who is teaching the book in a senior honors course. These are great questions, ranging from particular translation of Chinese terms, to how educated women fared in the 1980s, to the present effects of the way the Cultural Revolution is addressed in China, that I thought both the questions and answers may be of interest to broad readers. Posted with permission. – Xujun]

October 18-19

Q. Would you please comment on why you use the Japanese term 'sensei' in your stories? I'm teaching this book, and Chinese colleagues say they are quite puzzled by the use of the term, especially in stories set during the Cultural Revolution.

A.  The Japanese term "sensei" originated from – and is equivalent to – the Chinese term "xian-sheng" (先生). It is the same term in two different languages, with the same characters and very similar pronunciation. However, if I use "xian-sheng," few English readers would understand. On the other hand, "sensei" is widely known in English.

"Xian-sheng" is a traditional way of addressing a teacher; it has an old-fashioned and more reverent flavor. It was not commonly used during the Cultural Revolution, however even in that fanatic time there existed old-fashioned people who preferred the traditional way, especially in remote areas. My story "Disciple of the Masses" takes place in a rural area, where village people still have lots of reverence for teachers, and old traditions are better preserved than in the cities. That's why they are calling a teacher "xian-sheng" instead of "lao-shi" (老师).   In short, I use "sensei" instead of "teacher" in order to better reflect the local characterization. Part of the story is based on my own experience as an "insert" (a sent-down city youth) in the countryside.

Q. Why did you choose to start the book with Snow Line and Pivot Point and to place The Randomness of Love next to the end?  For me, the other five stories (Feathers, Men Don't Apologize, Watch the Thrill, Discipline of the Masses, and Second Encounter) would make a solid collection on their own. For you, what is most important to convey to readers through Snow Line, Pivot Point and The Randomness of Love?

A. I agree with you that, if the book is only set in the Cultural Revolution, then the five stories you mentioned make a more concrete selection. However I also wanted to depict the years immediately after the CR, because that period was, and still is, largely unknown to the broad English audience, while in my opinion that transitional period is historically very important. Mostly though, I chose to write about the period from early 1970s to mid 1980s because I grew up from a child to an adult in that period, and those where the years that molded me and my generation. There have been many books written in English set in the CR or much later, but the 1980s China seemed to be nonexistent in literature.

From the subject and theme point of view, the choice of the opening story for the US edition doesn't seem to be the best one, and in the book's Hong Kong edition it has been changed to "Men Don't Apologize."  I chose "Snow Line" to open the US edition mainly because of the artwork. As you have seen, several pieces of artwork by Wu Fan, a well-known old-generation artist in Sichuan, are used as illustrations in the book. I have tremendous respect for Wu Fan and his art. Because not every story has an accompanying piece of art, I thought "Snow Line" would make an attractive opening because the story cites its companion art piece "Dandelion." In this way it blurs the boundary of fiction and nonfiction. As it turns out, "Snow Line" seems to get polarized reactions from readers: it was either loved enthusiastically, especially by poetry lovers, or it put off the reader. None of the other stories have had such a divided reaction.

December 4-7

Q. What do you think are the present effects in China of people not being able to openly discuss what happened during the Cultural Revolution, that is, of not being able to assess for themselves what happened, how and why? Friends we have known in China for 25 years say the CR is not a subject they ever expect to be addressed publicly, except in terms of the government deciding Mao was X% right and X% wrong (and he will always be more right than wrong officially).  

A. The current situation is more like this: though the official media largely avoid addressing the CR, the topic is not as sensitive as some others (such as the 1989 massacre). Many books that realistically reflect the time have been published in China, both fiction and nonfiction. One thing comes to mind is Yu Hua's very popular novel "To Live," which was first published in 1994. The movie that based on the novel and won international prizes did not pass the censors and consequently was not shown in China, but a similar TV series based on the book was made and shown in 2006. Many Party seniors have written memoirs about that period. There is no danger associated with talking about the CR among ordinary people.

However, because the memory of the time is very painful to the victims and shameful to those who participated, which include entire generations born in the early 1950s or before, few like to talk about it today. This is more a voluntary silence than one that is forced upon people. Parents don't pass their knowledge of the time to children. This, coupled with the void in textbooks, results in the ignorance of the younger generations. This is where the danger lies: because the lesson has not been learned by the later generation, the same disaster might be repeated in the future.

Q. Can a day ever come in China when people will be honored who spoke out *during the CR* against the violence and madness of the times? Some ordinary people tried to stop the madness, but they are not named and respected today, much less praised. People praise Zhou En Lai, but forget Liu Shao Qi. Is that partly because Mao must forever be honored, no matter how many people died because of his policies?   

A. In the 1980s and 90s, there have been names officially honored in China, such as Zhang Zhixing and Yu Luoke, who spoke with a rational voice and were executed because of it during the CR. However, the more remote the CR becomes, the less we hear about it. It seems that now there always are more urgent and current issues to care about, both to the government and the people. Most seem to have taken the attitude of not dwelling on the past. The history of the CR faces the danger of being forgotten in China.

Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi are both complex figures, about whom I don’t have the space to discuss here. Mao is actually mentioned less and less by the government today, but many Chinese, especially old peasants and factory workers, still love him, so it is unlikely Mao's image will disappear any time soon. This is another very complicated topic.

Q. In the "parameters" of Chinese society as it modernizes in the 1980's, opportunities for people to be happy seem very limited, even in (perhaps esp in) marriage and family relationships. What to you is hopeful in the lives of people during the 1980's, when "love" itself becomes a highly contested possibility?    

A. The 1980s was a transitional period. Though it's true that "opportunities for people to be happy seem very limited," political and life style control by the Party had become less rigid compared to the 1970s. We – the younger generation at the time – saw the hope for more freedom from all perspectives. Since then, freedom has indeed increased, but not as fast, or as broadly, as the economy has grown.

Q. Are Chinese women in the 1980's unhappy because they are "prisoners of their bodies," no matter how highly educated they are?
A. I think in the 80s highly-educated women were even more unhappy than their less-educated counterparts, because Chinese men generally didn't want their wives to be intelligent. But this situation is changing now.

Q. Is one reason for the instability of Chinese marriage and family relationships in the 1980's the reality that gender roles have become confused after the severe equality of the CR, or the reality that gender roles are becoming more rigid than ever as society modernizes, or possibly both at once?  In the book, the "independent" women seem emotionally needy to an extreme that suggests their self-worth is shaky. At the same time, the men seem to be seething with anger that comes out in all kinds of ways. What do you see as necessary for marriage and family relationships in the 1980's to become repaired?  

A. This is a very good question. I think it's true that intelligent women had a harder time in the 1980s than, say, 1950s or 2000s. One important reason is that the CR, especially the "up to the mountains and down to the countryside" movement, had caused a disproportionate number of marrying-age women to return to the city from the countryside and have difficulties finding suitors. Another reason may be that intellectuals suffered more during the CR and, for a period of time afterward, many men subconsciously disdained highly-educated women. It was an abnormal time that would eventually pass.

December 11-13

Q. Can you tell us what the Chinese signboard on the book cover says?

A.  The Chinese words on the signboard are: "Ardent acclaim the publication of the New Year editorial!"  This was a popular slogan during the Cultural Revolution. The "New Year editorial" was a joint editorial from People's Daily, The Liberation Army Daily, and Red Flag magazine, the three most authoritative publications of the time. It had become a ritual that, on each New Year's Day, the three of them published a joint editorial to convey Mao's new instructions for the year. Such an editorial often contained Mao's own writing. We used to parade on New Year's Day to acclaim the publication of the editorial.

Q. Do you use "insert" in somewhat the same way you use "sensei" (that is, making up a term of your own for a general audience)? Chinese colleagues say "insert" is an unfamiliar term to them.

PS. Our favorite stories as a class are "Second Encounters,"  "Men Don't Apologize" and "Watch the Thrill." For us, "Watch the Thrill" is a classic of world literature, true of many times and places, even now.

A. The Chinese term for "insert" is 插队知青, which literally means "educated (city) youth who are inserted into a (rural) production team." A more commonly seen English translation for this term is "sent-down youth."  When it comes to translation, I often prefer a verbatim phrase over an idiomatic one, provided it does not add confusion to the reader. This is because Chinese is such a richly pictorial language, verbatim translation often lends more vivacity and color than free translation.

Q. Would you like to tell us what makes you most proud to be Chinese, and what makes you most happy to be American?

A. I've never thought to be proud or not proud as a Chinese. I think a person's race or nationality is not all that important. I love Chinese culture and the language; it is a natural attitude simply because I grew up with such a culture.

Things that make me most happy to live in America are freedom and privacy. I can write whatever I want without fear of persecution. This said, China is also changing, and today Chinese people have a lot more freedom than when I lived there.

Q. Your comment about not being concerned about being proud or not seems unusual these days. Do you think it is unusual? We have heard pride in being Chinese placed at the top of countless lists of what makes people feel unified in being Chinese. "We are proud to be Chinese" comes up over and over whenever we are talking to people about contemporary Chinese life. Of course, what makes one generation proud might not be the same as what makes another generation proud.

A. I think there indeed is a period difference here. Today Chinese nationalism seems to have reached a new peak.  IMO, nationalism is a double-edged sword. It does have the function of unifying a nation, and historically it has resulted in heroic actions fighting foreign invaders (for example in the war of resistance against Japan in the 1930s-40s).  However, the extreme nationalism today seems to work more toward fending off international criticism. That's why the Chinese government encourages it. The ready soil for growing such a sentiment is China's rapid economic growth.  Life is generally a lot better now than it was when I lived there.

On the other hand, many dissidents, both inside and outside China, tend toward the opposite extreme. The disparity seems especially salient among overseas Chinese. A well-known writer that comes to mind is Ha Jin, who is of my generation. In his semi-autobiographic novel "A Free Life" (not his best work IMO), his grudge against being Chinese is so intense it is appalling.

My own attitude might have something to do with the time I grew up in China (1960s-80s), but it is also very individual. Personally, I prefer the Confucian "middle way" position. I think this is especially important for a writer who seeks to tell the truth.

1 comment:

J.R. Boyd said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful and fascinating blog. I really enjoy your writing, and, as an American communist, find your insights into China's past compelling reading.