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Faculty of Arts, York University
Whether they are elegiac in tone or speculative in content, our readers' responses suggest a universal struggle to understand the human condition. Some of them might have joined the exiles in their quest for meaning in a seemingly alien universe. One may ask if the writers should have taken a stand on "the nascent Chinese labor movement" and what they are "doing to educate the world" about China's current crackdowns. According to Oliver Kramer, "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." By and large, it appears that the appeal of exilic literature lies beyond the aura that has been evoked by the Tiananmen Tragedy. The interest in the quality of the literary output itself also transcends the ongoing controversy among sinologists over the "Chineseness" or lack of it in the poems by Bei Dao and his associates.
Recently Dr. Elizabeth Edwards of Billy Ryan High School in Denton, Texas, asked her students in Advanced Placement senior English to read six poems written by Bei Dao in different periods of his poetic career. They enjoyed the poetry and responded eloquently to his forceful use of imagery as well as historical situations. Amanda Carrell, for one, offered this perceptive comment on "An End or a Beginning": "The poem reminds me of an endless succession of protesters briefly lighting up and then extinguishing, but still they had their moment. The succession of protesters will continue until the world can tolerate 'a child's heart.'" The poem "Requiem," in Rinie Hines's opinion, "really shows the heartache behind all of the glitzy stories of war. The dead lie everywhere, frightened children pray to a seemingly unanswering God, but then it resolves into an image of light with the underlying unity of all human souls from either side of the conflict."
Every October, Bei Dao is inundated with inquiries, asking if he is going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature that year. Among his admirers is Goran Malmqvist of the Swedish Academy, which administers the prize. Recently, the American Academy of Arts and Letters elected Bei Dao to be an honorary fellow. He is, by most accounts, China's leading writer today, whose poems have been translated into English, German, Swedish, and other languages. Meanwhile, there has been a rigorous debate among sinologists on whether his work lacks Chineseness and if it is only "translatable world poetry," since the publication of Harvard professor Stephen Owen's review of The August Sleepwalker in 1990.
Angus Cleghorn, a Canadian "Americanist" who does not read Chinese, cannot participate in this debate. He is a test reader of Bei Dao, in the context of the modernism to which he has been compared. "Bei Dao's modernism, especially the Imagist qualities, makes the poems seem monumental while their sparseness makes them seem like leaves in the wind," says Cleghorn. "You want to hang on to them, but they do flutter." At times, they are reminiscent of Wallace Stevens, on whom he wrote his doctoral thesis at Simon Fraser University. "While Stevens freely freshens life, Bei Dao cherishes new moments, but they are minor chords tinged with sadness," he says. "There is no comedian gonging a major C."
This conversation revolves around Bei Dao's most recent poetry collection, Landscape over Zero, which is quintessentially Chinese and universally human. As well, a reader may simply appreciate the poetry for its beauty and grace.
The discussion on Bei Dao's Landscape over Zero in the course of Isabella Wai's interview with Angus Cleghorn has aroused the poet's curiosity. While he suspects that the interviewer might have been influenced by the advocacy of women's rights, he speaks in praise of Cleghorn. "He is certainly a serious reader," Bei Dao says. "I am interested in all serious readers because only they can provide a bridge to the author." The poet does not deny his work is tinged with maleness, Chineseness, and other factors, but he says that over-emphasis on them will lessen anyone's interest in reading. In this interview, he also talks about the imagery in his poetry and the idea of hope.
Perched on the Sierra Nevada is the home-office of Pulitzer prizewinner Gary Snyder, who has been teaching since 1986 at the University of California at Davis, where Bei Dao is living. At his request, Snyder wrote the "Foreword" to Abandoned Wine (WellSweep Press, 1996), an English-language anthology of selected pieces from Jintian ("Today") magazine, of which Bei Dao is editor in chief. Snyder praises Jintian as "a cosmopolitan and high-quality journal, speaking (in a way) for international Chinese literary culture," and suggests that "we (late twentieth century cultural types of all backgrounds) . . . jettison worn categories and judgement, 'modern' and 'postmodern' or whutebba, and get on with today." In this casual conversation, he answers questions pertaining to the Chinese exiles, Bei Dao, and poetry in general.
The most-heated debate of this decade among some sinologists centers on the Chineseness of today's writers, especially those living in exile or abroad after the Tiananmen Tragedy in 1989. In response, Gregory B. Lee has written a book to identify the causes of this controversy, and to explain why Harvard sinologist Stephen Owen's 1990 critique, which triggered off the debate, is "hurtful" and "gratuitous." Lee attributes the causes to the myth of a "monolithic China" that the West has invented, and to the ideas of pure, authentic "nationhood," with which the Chinese are obsessed.
"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.
Among the acclaimed exiles based in Europe are Yang Lian and Gao Xingjian. Both writers explore how reality is viewed from the self's changing perspectives. Their concept of the self apparently stems from Taoism, which cherishes the individual's unrestricted autonomy.
Yang Lian uses the "yi" motif to convey his worldview. It consists of a circle with its center cut through by the gender- neutral Chinese character "ren" ("person"). The circle represents nature, heaven, and the sun, notes sinologist Mabel Lee. "The unity of heaven and man therefore constitutes ever-changing unities in the world as perceived by the self; poetry is the verbalisation of the self's ever-changing perceptions." The many selves of a person are also portrayed in Soul Mountain, a 560-page fictional autobiography, which delves into author Gao Xingjian's boyhood and his past relationships with women.
An Associate Professor in the School of Asian Studies at the University of Sydney, Mabel Lee has rendered the works of both writers into English. She explains why they hold special appeal.
Brian Castro, a well-respected Chinese Australian novelist, thinks Bei Dao and the post-Tiananmen exiles have shed light on the "closed Oriental mind" that is obsessed with a monolithic Chinese culture. "A writer should always be in exile," he says. "It will become increasingly obvious that exile, hybridity, and immigration will be the preeminent forms of cultural experience and expression in the next century. Stay-at-home nationalists will be pretty much outmoded." Castro, however, hesitates to endorse those "who have used their very 'flavor-of-the- month' Chineseness to sell exotica."
On June Fourth when troops were sent in to suppress the protest at Tiananmen Square, Duoduo was leaving Beijing for Europe to attend the 1989 Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. In London, then Rotterdam, he gave eyewitness accounts of the tragic events back in his homeland, and afterwards stayed on as an exile in the West.
"Duoduo immediately established rapport with a broad Dutch readership through his columns in the widely read daily NRC Handelsblad," says Maghiel van Crevel, the poet's translator and admirer. Van Crevel is a lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia.
Volume Three is devoted to the Chinese exiles living in the West after the Tiananmen Tragedy in 1989. It provides a forum for scholars and lay readers alike to exchange their views on these writers. Our visitors are invited to share their interpretations of the poems, fiction, and non-fiction, and to forward information pertaining to worthwhile websites and publications in print. Please send all submissions via our feedback form. We reserve the right to make stylistic and other editorial changes.
Have these exiles contributed significantly to the literary scenes of their host countries, and to what extent have they been influenced by their Western peers? Do the Western audience/authors welcome these "transplanted" writers as "exotic elements" or as members of the Republic of Letters, which is not demarcated by any borders? Pulitzer prizewinner Gary Snyder, for one, argues that "we are all dancing in and out of each other's dark and light."
Articles and academic theses are being written about this cross-cultural development. London-based WellSweep Press and other publishers have released English-language renditions of the works by the likes of Yang Lian, who is arguably the "exile" of these exiles. Undersky-Underground and Abandoned Wine, for example, are anthologies of poetry and prose by or about those living in exile; the works are either written in English or translated into English.
As for Bei Dao, his poetry has been translated into English, Swedish, German and other European languages. This contender for the Nobel Literature Prize and co-founder of the controversial Today magazine has taught, as a visiting scholar, at various universities in Europe and the United States. At present, he is living in Davis, California, and is a director of the New York-based Human Rights in China Organization. Today magazine is currently published out of Stockholm and Hong Kong. As the sovereignty of the former colony has reverted back to China, what is the fate of this outlet for dissident voices?
The United States has provided an asylum for another high-profile dissident writer--Liu Binyan. He is also a director of the New York-based Human Rights in China Organization. His memoir, A Higher Kind of Loyalty, was published by Pantheon Books in 1990. It takes a literary approach to China's socio- political realities. Currently he is a director of the Princeton China Initiative in Princeton.
In Europe, some of the Chinese writers have adopted the language of their host country for their literary work. Li Li writes in Swedish and has been well received by Swedish critics. Duoduo, who commutes between Canada and Europe, has won popularity in the Netherlands while playwright Gao Xingjian was made Chevalier de l'Ordere des Arts et des Lettres de la France in 1992.
As well, we are interested in comparing these Chinese exiles with their German, Spanish, and Russian counterparts. What are their dilemmas? Do the writers from China speak out unreservedly against their old country as the Europeans do? Living in a more peaceful climate, are they more concerned with aesthetic merits than socio-political ideals.
I. FROM PAST ISSUES OF ROAD TO EAST ASIA
A group of young poets who had incited a rebellious spirit after the Cultural Revolution founded the literary magazine Today in 1978, but it was banned in 1980. Three of the most famous writers of that period were Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, and Shu Ting, best known for their so-called "misty" poetry. In the broad sense of the word, it means "vague," "indirect," and "elusive." Three major themes recur in their work-- individualism and self expression, the bond between man and nature, and struggle against oppression. In 1989 the magazine finally resumed publication, this time out of Stockholm. By then, Bei Dao and Gu Cheng were banished from China, giving them the unfortunate position of being writers-in- exile. Shu Ting still lives incognito in southern China, and Bei Dao is now rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Literature prize.
Oliver Kramer shares his observations in a question-and-answer interview by mail. A doctoral student at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1996, he has done extensive research work in this field for his thesis.
The Tiananmen Tragedy
It was a prominent hope of the students, workers, and citizens who took part in the 1989 democracy movement that everyone and the world would rally together behind them in their fight for democracy. But this did not happen. This hope may never come true as long as Beijing continues to manipulate the way the people of China think, and as long as the government can use its military power to suppress those who think differently.
(My views in this essay could be biased as they are based on conclusions I have drawn from a limited number of resources available in the West. As I am not an eyewitness to all of these occurrences, challenges to my assumptions would be appreciated.)
What are the true achievements of the 1989 Democracy Movement? The older generation of Chinese citizens might be inspired by the courage of the younger generation in their fight for democracy. Perhaps there is a new group of student leaders in the universities, who will be more organized, more united and more effective in their journey towards democracy. And perhaps, at some point in time, all the farmers, laborers, intellectuals, professors, students, journalists, and every other citizen of the country will be able to come to an agreement on what they want for the structure of their government. Then, and only then, will we know for sure just how much this movement meant to the people of China.
Liu Binyan and Gao Xingjian
If Liu Binyan and the fictional character Glasses from The Bus Stop bumped into each other on a street corner somewhere, chances are that both would believe that Fate had been involved in their meeting. However, it would soon be clear that Fate could not make them become soul-mates, or even good friends. The two men differ in the ways they talk about life, in their ability to act on the issues they speak about, and in their vision of a new China.
Glasses in Gao Xingjian's The Bus Stop is a short-sighted pseudo- intellectual who recognizes his plight but has no vision and consequently no incentive to emancipate himself from oppression. His mastery of the English language is equivalent to that of an ill- trained parrot. Liu Binyan, on the other hand, is a prophetic revolutionary, fighting to realize his vision of a liberated China, free from mental as well as physical coercion.
"Liu Binyan has chosen the right path and takes advantage of whatever is bestowed upon him," writes Yuen. "He is pleased with what he has achieved in life." Nadeau, who dismisses Liu as an idle dreamer, notes that "he must break his shell of security in America and fight for himself before he can fight for China as a whole."
Bei Dao and other poets
Bei Dao says he is "a bank" and "a fishing haven," in whom others seek solace and emotional anchorage. He stretches out his arms to embrace impoverished children who return in their "little boats/bringing back a string of lamps." The "harbor" Gu Cheng creates for them is a story-book Never-Never Land decorated with "dream balloons."
The "Misty" poets, who represent an important trend in modern Chinese literature, explore personal emotions rather than explicitly censure political pressures. In exile or in their homeland, they cherish individuality and dreams of a better future.
II. RELEVANT WEBSITES
This is a heated discussion on contemporary Chinese culture, with Bei Dao, Liu Binyan, Nieh Hua-Ling, Carma Hinton, Geremie Barme, and Chen Kaige among the participants.
During the discussion, Bei Dao asks if intellectuals deserve "fame and fortune" for churning out "spiritual garbage" while others produce "material wealth" for society."
Visitors: since Jan. 24, 1996