Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.1, no. 3, June-August, 1996
Road to East Asia: Jiantian (Today) magazine, an important outlet for the Misty Poets, was banned in the 1980s. Is it now published out of Stockholm as well as in Hong Kong?
Kramer: It is published in Hong Kong. Chen Maiping, editor-in-chief of Jiantian, is based in Stockholm, from where Jintian is edited.
Road to East Asia:We are particularly interested in the "Misty Poets," especially Gu Cheng, who wrote "For My Revered Master Hans Andersen." Beo Dao is Michigan. Where are the others?
Kramer: For all I know, Shu Ting lives with her family at her home in South China, still producing poetry. A recent anthology in translation was published by Renditions.
Gu Cheng, however, decided to put an end to his life in late 1994, when he first gruesomely murdered his wife before committing suicide. He and his wife had just completed a tour in Europe, where, I think, their last stop was Heidelberg, before returning to their home-in-exile in New Zealand. With hindsight, this act was not too surprising: in an interview with Zhang-Kubin Suizi in minima sinica, to name but one, he spoke about his death premonitions. His wife Xie Ye once publicly stated that she did want to die with him but did not want to commit suicide. A scholar who saw the couple before they returned to New Zealand told me how insane Gu Cheng already acted, and how his every step had to be guarded by his wife.
Shortly after his death, there was an exhibition organized in London to celebrate his work and commemorate his life. Jiushi niandai (The Nineties) had two long articles about the affair in early 1995, I believe. Initially his death was mourned, but when news triggered through that and how he murdered his wife (with an axe, according to the rumors), this became more ambiguous.
Road to East Asia: Why was he obsessed with death?
Kramer: It would be wrong to attribute his death to the life in exile although it may have contributed to or accelerated his wish to part from life.
Road to East Asia: Who are the other leading writers in exile?
Kramer: Other important members of the exile scene include Yang Lian and his wife, YoYo, currently based in London. Zhang Zao is in Germany; Duoduo, who spent most of his time between Canada and Leiden, Netherlands, has recently accepted a writer-in-residence position in Stuttgart, Germany. Interestingly, his predecessors were Yang Lian, YoYo, and Gao Xingjian. Gao is alleged to have written his latest work in French. Unfortunately, I could not follow this up.
Road to East Asia: Have these writers-in-exile adopted the language of their host country for their literary work?
Kramer: There are obviously very few writers who have done that. One definite example is the poet Li Li. He lives in Stockholm, occasionally contributes Chinese poetry to Jintian but is more widely published in Swedish and very much part of the Swedish literary scene, albeit as an exotic element. He told me in an interview last year that in the beginning he certainly felt to be treated as "someone coming from the other end of the world," but now he feels more and more accepted by Swedish critics and audiences alike. Note that there is a famous poet called Li Li: female, middle-aged Taiwanese. The one in Stockholm is a young, male Mainlander.
Road to East Asia: Are these writers-in-exile politically active?
Kramer: I have limited my research to those spending most of their time in Europe. In their literary output, the element of political dissent is nearly completely missing. Yang Lian is arguably the most prominent Chinese exile in Europe, translated widely into German. Duoduo is very popular in the Netherlands. Both have in the past published or signed open letters or contributed to magazines like Index on Censorship.
Road to East Asia: What are their latest publications?
Although Duoduo is, quite rightly, more famous as a poet, he is the best story writer of those living in exile. An anthology currently in preparation by Gregory B. Lee [will most likely include] all of Duoduo's short stories. For a fascinating analysis of Duoduo's life and poetry, see Maghiel van Crevel, Language Shattered (Leiden: CWWS, 1996). See also Undersky-Underground edited by John Cayley and Henry Y Zhao (London: Wellsweep Press).
Yang Lian is the most "exile" of those exiles. His works have been translated by Mabel Lee and published by Renditions. His poetry is very dark, with images of death dominating, but not as gloomy or depressing Gu Cheng. One of the best translations was done by Brian Holton in Non-Person Singular (Wellsweep Press). Yang Lian also draws deep from China's literary history. One of his recent publications in Chinese is Renying-Guhua [Human-scape, Ghostspeak], co-written with YoYo.
Road to East Asia: "You can't change society with poetry," Bei Dao said in an interview with Siobhan La Piana, which was published on the Internet. Didn't Percy Shelley extol poets as society's prophets? Michael Kociuba, one of our writers, argues that "The pen is mightier than the sword." Do you agree with Bei Dao?
Kramer: Bei Dao's dictum seems to be a very common view, shared by nearly all exile writers I have interviewed. A look at the unpolitical content of their recent works, so untypical for any other exile scene seems to prove this assumption. If we look at this century and at Europe alone, the German, Spanish and Russian examples all differ in this point from the Chinese experience. I have, however, still some doubts about the truth of this statement.
For a start, one has to distinguish the audiences. Chinese exile writers toward Chinese audiences are very reluctant to model themselves as exile and even more reluctant to criticize China's politics. Do they lose authority if they do so? Are they contributing to a collective "loss of face" if they maintain a too-critical stance toward China whilst living abroad? They are much more outspoken toward Western audiences and Western media, even proclaiming their exile status. Maybe they are most outspoken, however, when together with their own: those meetings, which happened about three times in the last five years, were off-limits for outsiders.
Another likely explanation for the unpolitical nature of their works may lay within Bei Dao's statement: resignation. Literature seemed to change society from 1978 onwards, but the battles against Spiritual Pollution in the mid-1980s took their toll, disillusioning writers, and the last straw came on June 4, 1989. There is certainly much to back up this explanation.
A third reason, the most idealistic one, is that literature has moved on with its obsession of social mores and political positions and is more aesthetically oriented. This is a movement we can witness both in China as well as abroad. The writer writing for pleasure: the reader's or his/her own. Still, I doubt writers in general are motivated by realizing one's own aesthetics without regard for outside acceptance and expectations, including a social consciousness.
The questions triggered by this one sentence of resignation are multiple, and so are the answers. I think I am working toward a more encompassing answer with my own thesis, but I am as for yet not wholly convinced by any of these. In Bei Dao's case, however, it may be true for himself. His poetry has changed much, from the angry-young-man stance he adopted in the 1970s, with a highly politically charged poetry, toward the much more personal, intimate, later works.
The ultimate answer may be a rephrasing of Bei Dao's sentence: "I can't/won't change society with poetry."
Road to East Asia: Who are the leading figures in the current Mainland Chinese literary scene?
I don't think that I am exaggerating when I say that even Chinese critics are confused by its rapid developments and changes, and for anyone living outside it might be too difficult to follow this at all. Some of those who have managed to hang on to fame for quite some time are Han Shaogong and Jia Pingwa. It seems that the "root-seekers" are the only group to survive a decade, and they are still going strong. One of the superstars is Wang Shuo, writing bestseller, film scripts and soap operas with equal abundance.
In translation, Wang Shuo has just caught the eye of the translator. Mo Yan, Su Tong, Yu Hua are some of those others recently published. One of the better anthologies of Chinese short stories is Howard Goldblatt's Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today's China (New York: Grove Press, 1995).