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"In fact, Owen seems simply to have quite forthrightly articulated views shared by many in the Sinological academic world," Lee writes in Troubadours, Trumpeters, Trouble Makers: Lyricism, Nationalism and Hybridity in China and Its Others (Duke University Press, 1996). Author Lee, who has taught at universities in Britain, the U.S., and Hong Kong, is taking up a new professorial position in France in Chinese studies at the Universite Jean Moulin Lyon III this fall. He discusses the complexities of such terms as "China" and "Chinese" in this interview, and upon request, assesses the comparative merits of three prominent literary exiles, namely Yang Lian, Duo Duo, and Bei Dao. Excerpts:
Wai: Your book Troubadours is a highly sophisticated and lucidly written work. Who is your target readership?
Lee: I once asked a colleague of mine, a distinguished historian of Japan, the same question. He said that was the one thing he lay awake at night worrying about! I can sympathize with that. I don't think we can ever really know the answer to that. What I can say is that I am trying to get beyond a narrow sinological readership to a wider audience. My conviction is that anyone interested in poetry, or culture, or politics in general, should be interested in those things in the Chinese context. I think it's very kind of you to say the book is lucidly written. I really did want a maximum number of people across various disciplines and areas of interest to read at least some parts of it.
Wai: I am most intrigued by the way you question the "Orientalist construction of a mythic monolithic China invented by the West and the Chinese obsession with ideas of authenticity and purity of nationhood." In your opinion, is post-Tiananmen Chinese exile literature an offshoot or the cream of the crop of China's literary output today?
Lee: I think that Chinese cultural production post-1989 has expanded in many varied ways. "Literary" culture more as a result of China's turn to market economy has changed enormously. Poets and writers in general cannot merely write what they want to anymore; they have to think about the demands of the market if they want to live by their pen. Literature produced outside of China, "exile literature" is in a different position, but again there is the problem of readership. Who do these writers write for?
Wai: Do you agree with Stephen Owen's assumption?
Lee: I don't agree with Stephen Owen on why and for whom Chinese exile writers write. While there is no doubt a small number of overseas mainland Chinese cultural producers whose main ambition is fame and money, I think the fact that writers like Duo Duo find it very important to have their writings published and available in Chinese shows that their concerns lie elsewhere. I think the main value of Jintian/Today has been the fact that it has provided a resource, a space in which writers can publish in Chinese for the record.
Wai: William Tay once defined Chinese literature for me this way: "We should look at Chinese writing from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities as an extended family of Chinese literature." Tay felt that the identity of a writer should not be decided by where he lives. Do you agree with him?
Lee: I think "identities" of writers, as of anyone else, are very much decided by where they live, as well as the many other elements of the process of socialization of each and every one of us: social class, regional accents, gender, color. The places where we choose to live, or where we have to live necessarily have an impact on our sense of identity. That's not to say that the way we imagine ourselves is not important. Communities are not natural; they have been made, will and can be made over time. If enough people want to construct a larger definition of Chinese writing, they can. But that's not to say that it is somehow naturally there because of some underlying linguistic or "racial" reason.
I don't like the metaphor of family in this context. Does that mean we have to be born into it? It brings to mind blood relations, just as the mainland authorities refer to Hong Kong and Macao Chinese as "bone and flesh compatriots," "gurou tongbao."
In Troubadours, I try to show that there are multiple senses of Chineseness: mainland, Hong Kong, the Western-imagined China, the Chineseness of Chinese immigrants in Europe and North America. And all of those realities and imaginaries of "Chineseness" differ and develop over time. So there can be no temporally or spatially static China or Chineseness. Moreover, Chineseness does not exist in isolation as a totalizing and exclusive category. "Chinese" also incorporate many other identities at the same time (worker, intellectual, man, woman, northern, southern) which are imbricated and overlapping. Chinese Americans are also Americans, Liverpool Chinese are also "scousers" (a Liverpool belonger) not just geographically, spatially, but culturally. And again these identities shift and change according to personal histories and history in general.
In Troubadours, I was not necessarily advocating a "greater China" at all, far from it. I simply wanted to illuminate and illustrate the complexities of what we often take for granted in uttering "China" and "Chinese."
To try and answer your question more specifically, that each of the Chinese communities mentioned by Tay produces some work that may address a local conception of Chineseness, and is written out of specific context in part constituted by that local sense of Chineseness, I am prepared to accept. But can we imagine that these various literary productions are consciously produced out of a sense of "extended family"? The Cuban writer Cabrera Infante has lived in London for decades. He writes still about the Cuba of his youth. His identity is certainly dictated by where he lives, or rather where he doesn't live. His imaginary of the Cuba of the fifties is preserved and nurtured by his absence from Cuba. Location then, even in the "postmodern" so-called global world (hasn't it been global for centuries?) is still a determining factor even if not the only element in a writer's identity.
Personally I would welcome any element that would disrupt the development of "greater Chineseness": as yet another totalizing, supra-national project, in other words a mere expansion of Chinese nationalism. My objections to nationalism, cultural and otherwise (and there can be no cultural nationalism without a carry-over into more generalized politics), are clearly laid out in Troubadours.
Wai: Are Bei Dao, Yang Lian, Duo Duo, and other Chinese exiles producing hybrid culture?
Lee: I think my answers to the previous question partly address this issue. This really revolves around a concern with "authenticity." I put the word "authenticity" in quotation marks since I really do believe that the authentic is always constructed, invented, re-invented to serve some sort of self-interest like that of the "true-blooded" Englishman. Was there ever such a being? The "Englishman" has never existed as anything other than the product of a succession of invasions of part of the British Isles. There is indeed no "pure" English, just as there is no "pure" Chinese. For many people who have grown believing the contrary, I realize, such a statement is heretical.
Just as there is, as recent enlightened science has shown, no such scientific category as "race," and thus no "pure race" either; there is no "pure" culture. To that extent all cultural producers, who see themselves, or who are perceived by others, as writing in a national or "ethnic" context are producing hybrid culture informed by other equally porous national or "ethnic" cultures.
Contemporary exile Chinese writing in this respect is no different from Chinese writing post-Mao, or even during the Cultural Revolution, in the sense that all of these moments of contemporary writing draw on sources and ideas external to "traditional" Chinese culture, itself no stranger to inward displacement of ideas and language from beyond Chinese physical and cultural boundaries. To this extent we can see the contemporary writers like Duo Duo, Bei Dao and Yang Lian as part of a twentieth-century tendency to a more cosmopolitan cultural activity. There are certainly many pre-1949 writers (a list would be almost endless) who consciously mimicked non-Chinese, modern and modernist cultural production.
When the poet Gu Cheng foregrounded his admiration for both Taoism and the poetry of Spanish Modernist Garcia Lorca, he was, unwittingly perhaps, retracing the steps of Chinese modernist poet Dai Wangshu, perhaps one of modern China's most overtly "hybrid" poet. The redeployment in the Chinese context of foreign ideas, words, and imaginaries, was indeed almost commonplace in the republican era on mainland China, and later on Taiwan and in Hong Kong.
Wai: Aren't the instinctive responses of Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian to the daily rituals and phenomena in Western society quite different from authors of other national origins? (One professor argues convincingly that Henry James is an American rather than a British author because only an American would react as he did to the British- European lifestyle.)
Lee: The responses of the various writers in exile to the world around them is evidently informed by the personal histories and imaginaries of the West that pre-date their time in exile. Much of the "shock," if we can call it that, is due more to the disparity between the imaginary of life outside of China and the reality of everyday life in Western societies. So yes, each writer would respond differently to European and American life, and each response would be tempered by their own pre-exilic understanding and socialization.
Wai: Do Ezra Pound's references to the Chinese ideograms make him less American? Is Kenzaburo Oe's work derivative because the author is exposed to Western culture, has studied in the West, and admires some of the authors it has produced? Have foreign influences made Oe's work less Japanese or less worthwhile? By the same token, has the abode of the Chinese exiles diminished their Chineseness and the worth of their work?
Lee: Again, I cite Cabrera Infante whose special "Cuban-ness" he has nurtured in exile.
Wai: Have you noticed any shift in the poetics of Bei Dao, Duo Duo, and Yang Lian after 1989?
Lee: That's a difficult question. Doubtless the experience of the events 1989, which found Yang Lian and Bei Dao already abroad, and which coincided with Duo Duo's departure (he left China on the morning of the 4th of June 1989), have had an impact on the consciousness of these poets. But doubtless, their poetry would have evolved anyway.
I know Duo Duo's poetry best perhaps; and there I am convinced that the poet himself is pursuing a particular poetic project and that there is attempt on his part to push his poetry in certain directions which nevertheless connect quite obviously with passions, ideas and perceptions that are present in his earlier work. Obviously, poems such as "In England," and a number of the short stories, would not and could not have existed without Duo Duo's experience of life in exile. Duo Duo has also expanded his reading of non- Chinese poetry, beyond the modernist classics. Whereas before Dylan Thomas, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Sylvia Plath would have formed his pantheon of admired poets, after 1989 they were joined by more contemporary poets such as Mark Strand and John Ashberry. In the case of Bei Dao, I think he has continued to pursue his interest in Scandinavian poets and their approach to poetry.
Wai: Richard Wilbur believes that art is prompted by art and that writers (past and present) belong to the timeless Republic of Letters.
Lee: Frankly, I don't agree that there can be timeless literature. "Timelessness" makes no sense to me. Writing takes place in history and history is not timeless. I do believe, however, that writers can take up and push forward and explore in their work human passions and principles. But these all alter over time, and how we read poems alters over time. We cannot read Han Shan today, the way Han Shan's contemporaries might have. We can, however, focus on certain historical moments where concerns, ideas, passions may be common to several poets and several cultures simultaneously. I believe we are in such a moment now.
But if we compared the poetry of the nineteenth century with that of the twentieth century anywhere I am sure we would find major differences in the concerns and passions of poets. The impact of technology and modernization has been experienced globally, and much poetry is a response to the dehumanization that such modernization has fostered. The historian Eric Hobsbawm in his recent collection of essay "On History," noted that over the past century world society as a whole has become less civil, more callous. The loss of respect for humanity and human life is indicated by our tolerance of mass warfare and the enormous civilian loss of life in our century. I think that sort of shift in the way humanity conducts itself cannot escape the notice of intelligent poets, whether in China or America.
Wai: The Imagist Movement, inspired by Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and the Japanese haiku, has left a lasting legacy. Have the Chinese exiles in turn contributed significantly to the culture of their host countries?
Lee: We are discussing mainly poets, and poets are hardly read anywhere at the end of the twentieth century. In the year of 1989, Duo Duo's poetry in English translations was read by as many people as Seamus Heaney's. That I think was a major achievement. Sadly it was the tragedy at Tiananmen and the publicity surrounding Duo Duo's theatrically coincidental arrival in London that stimulated that sudden interest in contemporary Chinese poetry.
Later on Duo Duo was very well treated by Dutch translators and newspaper editors and for a while he had a regular column. The Dutch literary organizations and the government treated Duo Duo with great respect. In that particular case, I can say that Duo Duo surely made contribution to Dutch perspectives. In comparison, the English-speaking world constitutes a harder, more market-oriented and more cynical culture space.
In terms of "influence," in terms of non-Chinese producers wishing to imitate Chinese producers, besides Hollywood and French film-makers imitating Hong Kong action film techniques, I think the impact of Chinese contemporary culture on non-Chinese creative arts is so far minimal. Classical Chinese poetry, Taoist texts, brush and ink paintings, all these harbor the aura of the "Oriental," the mystical, above all they are attractive because of their perceived otherness, their difference. At the end of the twentieth century I think such difference is less easily perceived in the contemporary, which, in the age of instantaneous communication and massive flows of information, is also the simultaneous.
Wai: In Troubadours, you note that Duo Duo resembles Marina Tsvetaeva in her rejection of media-inspired patriotism to construct romantically a beloved homeland. What is Duo Duo's poetic vision of China?
Lee: That's a question I think best answered by reading for oneself Duo Duo's poems and stories. In a forthcoming book, however, I do attempt to reflect on Duo Duo's imagining and re-imagining of China. In a sense, however, these reflections on homeland, nation, country, are intellectual exercises. The importance of place for most of us concerns our idea of home, and home is not a nation, but a specific, knowable community. Duo Duo is a child of Beijing. If he misses anywhere it must be Beijing, its streets, its accents, its people. But that Beijing for him, and for millions of others is rapidly disappearing. Again at the end of the twentieth century whose childhood home is still intact?
Wai: What is Duo Duo's attitude towards hybridity? His portrayal of a Toronto-born Chinese young woman in the short story "Vacation"1 does not seem particularly flattering.
Lee: Duo Duo is a very acute and astute observer of people. Very little escapes his notice. I think the character in the story you refer may well simply be based on Duo Duo's observations of a real person. Since I think we are talking about the personal here, my own acquaintance with Duo Duo is that he is an extremely tolerant and humane person. I am sure he does not judge people in terms of "racial" or "cultural" purity. I hope he would not mind my revealing that he is the recent and proud father of little girl whose mother is "white."
I think the passage of time is again of importance here. Duo Duo wrote several stories on life in "the West" in the year or so immediately following his leaving China. In a sense a good part of the insight in the stories relies on the distance between Duo Duo and his host countries (Britain, Holland, Canada) in those early years.
Wai: Has Yang Lian's search for roots--a conscious effort of incorporating the nation's past into his work--inhibited the poetic impulse and turned the creative process into an intellectual exercise instead?
Lee: Again, Yang Lian is an old acquaintance. We met recently for an evening of reminiscences. It seems to me that his lyric production relating to roots- seeking that involved searching for another kind of Chineseness, a Chineseness beyond official culture, in a sense paralleled Bei Dao and Duo Duo's attempts to find that alternative beyond China's cultural boundaries. But, in fact, so did Yang Lian's.
Yang Lian's poetry is indeed inspired by the modern non-Chinese tradition, and the root- seeking poetry frequently focussed on an ambiguous Chineseness beyond the borders of China proper in the non-Han provinces. Recently, Yang Lian has written an article in the British literary press and in Chinese, defending contemporary Chinese poetic production against the Orientalist ideology of certain sinologists, and I think such writing is a fairer indication of where Yang Lian sees himself today.
Wai: According Richard Wilbur, a translator has introduced the English to the genius of another country, provided English with some refreshing techniques, and rendered more articulate that part of him which resembles the works he translates. As a courier between cultures, do you agree with Wilbur?
Lee: I certainly think that translation is vastly under-rated and misunderstood, especially by some of its practitioners. It is a great shame that translation attracts so little kudos nowadays. Especially in the university promotion stakes it is of little use in the accumulation of intellectual capital. Much more is translated into Chinese than out of Chinese. That is an unfortunate state of affairs.
But even where Chinese texts are translated, translation alone is insufficient. In France, much more modern and contemporary Chinese literature is translated than in English- speaking countries. That's a good thing. Unfortunately, very little critical reflection on Chinese modern culture is published. Basic translation is essential, but translation also implies contextualization, historicization, explanation that cannot be done at the level of literal translation. The work of translation needs complementing by the work of critique and elucidation.
Poetry in translation is even more scarce. I recall Eliot Weinberger, Octavio Paz's translator, telling me a year or so ago, that there were barely a dozen volumes of newly translated poetry published in an entire year in the United States.
Wai: I recall reading an article that says Issac Singer was not always on the best of terms with those who rendered his work from Yiddish into English and other languages. But later in his career, he said that heaven is filled with translators. Professor Lee, you may get the reward you fully deserve in due course. Well, why do you have an affinity with these exiles, especially Duo Duo, Bei Dao, and Yang Lian?
Lee: First, we are old friends. I got to know all of these poets in Beijing in 1985- 87. Before that I had studied and written a thesis on modern, 1930-40s, Chinese poetry. We were all passionately interested in poetry, whether Chinese or foreign. We experienced many facets of life together, we traveled together, argued together, wondered about the future together. And then I left China, and then they left China not long after. And then we would remember together.
Wai: What are the comparative merits of these three poets/writers?
Lee: An invidious question. Each has qualities both on the literary level and on the human level. I think Bei Dao has often acted and written out of a sense of justice. He is a decent person, but his more recent poetry seems less directly concerned with social realities. Yang Lian is a warm and expansive person whom I also like a good deal. But, and I admit I write as Duo Duo's translator and therefore with a certain bias, increasingly I find Duo Duo the more interesting, stimulating, and challenging poet. I think that poetry, in order to justify itself (and if people are to be encouraged to read poetry then it needs to be justified) has to challenge on several levels (our beliefs, our facility with everyday language, our intelligence), and it has to convey a passion, even a quiet and controlled passion.
Wai: Perhaps let me make an attempt to answer my own "invidious question." While Duo Duo writes from a sense of anger, Bei Dao writes from a sense of sadness, despite his indignation. There is a special kind of nobility in Bei Dao's work that appeals to me; the strength of his later poems is like that of an iceberg. I admire Yang Lain for his expert handling of the Chinese language in poems such as "The 'Book of Change,' You, and Other Things,"2 and his lyrical tenderness in "A Girl Remembered."3 He is a master- craftsman with elegant strokes. Specific comments on Duo Duo's work are given in my interview with Maghiel van Crevel. I like each poet of this trio for different reasons. I agree with you that "Each has qualities both on the literary level and on the human level."
What is your evaluation of Bei Dao's latest poetry collection, Landscape over Zero?
Lee:I have to admit that for me his passionate poetry occurred in his early period.
Wai: For me, a reader might simply appreciate the poetry of Landscape over Zero for its beauty and grace. The language, elusive though it is, successfully conveys a "passionate" struggle to "unfold ethical landscapes." You are right: I, too, think Bei Dao is "a decent person."
Have Bei Dao and others helped in any way discover and mould "the national character"?
Lee: Perhaps. C. T. Hsia in his history of modern Chinese fiction, much maligned for many years, wrote a very perceptive chapter on modern Chinese writers' "obsession with China". Although, referring to the pre-1949 period, I think the ideological duty to save the nation remained dominant in the minds of many intellectuals even after the Cultural Revolution.
Indeed, nationalism today is the only ideology that the market capitalist regnant authority in China can promote. However, in the case of Bei Dao and others, the disillusionment of the Cultural Revolution, the understanding of the state and the party (the custodian of the nation), have resulted in alternative visions of nation. Bei Dao has always proclaimed himself to be an anarchist, and whatever he may understand by that, it is certain that there is deep cynicism towards the state on his part.
Wai: Liu Binyan, in A Higher Kind of Loyalty, writes: " . . . it is only on the mainland that I am in my element." Could Duo Duo and the other exiles be in their element outside China?
Lee: Again, my sense is that the obligation to move away from , to live apart from a community to which one feels an attachment will always produce feelings of nostalgia, of longing. But this also applies to the millions of Chinese emigrants, and indeed refugees and emigrants from elsewhere, who have been obliged for economic reasons to leave home.
At one level, to talk about "China" is an intellectual's luxury. China for most of them is the centre, as well as the imagined whole, in which men like Liu Binyan has a central role. But for most people in China, their knowledge does not extend beyond a fragment of China, beyond their local community. In the past decade, however, many millions have left their homes in the countryside to seek work, they too will feel alienated, will miss their home. Back in 1930s Shanghai, the modernist writer Shi Zhecun (1905- ) wrote a story that was precisely about the loss of home community in a story about a young man who was obliged to leave the countryside to work at a minor desk job in a Shanghai bank.
If there is a nostalgia for China amongst exiles, it is both for the lived reality they have left behind, and the imagined China into which they were socialized.
Wai: It has been two years since the publication of Troubadours. Do you think the exiles have helped to secure a future for Chinese writing? To what extent, do you think Today magazine is realizing your concept of utopia?
Lee: I think, as I said earlier, that Today's function of providing a repository for the work of the exiled Chinese writing has been a useful one.
Again, as I mentioned previously, I think Chinese culture as whole has altered and developed in line with economic, as well as other political changes. The writing of exiles has also developed and altered. As far as a future for Chinese or any other writing is concerned, I think creation, poesis, poetry is essential to changing the way we all live. Whether that poetry will take a written form, or whether it will take other forms of passionate expression I do not know. Raoul Vaneigem believed that today's poetry is the construction of a passionate life. In the soul-deadening consumer economies of global capitalism and national cultures, whether in China or elsewhere, there is certainly a need for the creative acts that will bring about a generalized passionate life.
1. Duo Duo, "Vacation," translated by John Crespi, revised by Gregory B. Lee and Daniel Wong, in Abandoned Wine: Chinese Writing Today II, edited by Henry Zhao and John Cayley (London: WellSweep Press, 1996) 271-82.
2. Yang Lian, Non-Person Singular: Selected Poems, translated by Brian Holton (London: WellSweep Press, 1994) 8-9.
3. Ibid., 22-25.