Individualism Arrives in China
Ha Jin, the Chinese writer who left China in 1985 and now teaches English at Boston University, won the National Book Award for his novel, Waiting. His most recent novel is Crazed.
NPQ | You grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution. What effect did being exposed to American books and thought for the first time have on you?
Ha Jin | My father was a military officer, but most of his library was burned. So I didn't have access to American literature until much later, as a college student. Then, we talked about Faulkner and Hemingway, Steinbeck, Langston Hughes. Only the proletarian writers were available. People talked about them, but very few read them in the original. Later, when I became a graduate student and began to work with American professors, they would travel back and forth bringing books with them.
American novels had different concerns. For instance, the idea of identity was alien to the Chinese language—there was no word even for it...So as a result, yes, I did realize that there are people who live differently, think differently...It opened (my) eyes to a new space. I think it made (me) feel more cynical.
NPQ | How did it make you more cynical?
Ha Jin | (It made me) cynical about all the social issues around (me). I think it also made me look at literature differently. Once you have read Faulkner, you realize this is great literature and so you begin to judge literature differently. The (Chinese Communist) Party always said: "serve the people by writing for a bigger audience about national pride or revolution." But when we read poems like The Wasteland, which did not have anything like that in it, you begin to rethink the criteria for literature.
NPQ | When life started changing in China in the early 1980s, and there was more exposure to Western literature, music, film and news, what impact did that have?
Ha Jin | I think especially VOA (Voice of America) had a big impact, because a lot of English learners listened to it and followed it regularly. For instance, when China and Vietnam were at war, the official Chinese version was full of propaganda, but VOA was more objective. You could tell that this was a different kind of truth. Because of that access, people's references and judgments could change and broaden. Gradually, they become more rational, less fanatical about the revolution, the slogans, the codes of the leaders. Our old sensibilities gradually eroded.
NPQ | Did this also begin to change the way Chinese thought of themselves and interacted with the world?
Ha Jin | For some Chinese, yes. But others, even when they are exposed to Western influences, remained very conventional, even conservative. Still, over time, as they are exposed to different ideas, they change. I think the biggest change is when you travel, when you go to different places. When there is physical contact, the impact is more drastic. I think I read an article that when the first group of Chinese students arrived (in the US) in the late '70s, their first response was that they were shocked, really shocked, by American culture and society.
NPQ | Shocked in what way?
Ha Jin | Just at the way people live, the way people act. For instance, in China, I remember one student asked our teacher how backward China was compared to the US in terms of housing. She said "One hundred years"! At that time I thought, "No! It's not true! It's impossible!" But when I came here I saw for myself. The difference was so huge.
NPQ | How do you think exposure to Western media today is changing Chinese young people's perception of themselves and of the nation they want China to be?
Ha Jin | I think their perception of themselves is changing dramatically. The traditional sense of morality is less relevant. Young people have become cynical about all the old rules, and their sense of personal self-worth is stronger. People think about how much money they can make, and what kind of life they want to live. All these are Western influences. Individualism is not a bad thing anymore. That is a big step forward.
On the other hand, in China now, a lot of people just don't count. Once we were all supposed to lift up the country. There was a contract between the individual and the state. Even if you were a nobody, the state would take care of you, and you yourself were supposed to serve the state. But a lot of people now own their own businesses and do their own work, which may not have anything directly related to the state. But still, there is a kind of collective idea of creating a great China. (Pauses.) I'm not sure about (the merits of) that. A great country very often is very oppressive toward its own people. There is always a cost to humanity there.
NPQ | Social change from the exchange of ideas is natural. But the US government has also used media as a strategy to influence—for example, through Voice of America. Are people in China aware of this? What do you think about the use of the media and the arts as a strategy?
Ha Jin | I'm not sure. I think there is a distinction between VOA and, say, Radio Free Asia, because Radio Free Asia is apparently meant to undermine the Communist rule. Most people are aware of that...I think better educated people also know that some Western media do China-bashing.
That's why many Chinese are very sensitive about Western media as a means of propaganda. To be honest with you, I think sometimes it is propaganda, and there is a kind of control, a management, from the (US) government behind the media. That is clear.
NPQ | Hasn't the Chinese government itself become more sophisticated about how it uses the media?
Ha Jin | Sure. It seeks to project itself in the US. It is trying to learn. It has hired public relations people to do all kinds of projects to improve China's image.
Cultural respect is very important for China, as it becomes a big power. A nation's culture and literature often represent the spirit of the nation. When you think about Russia, for instance, you don't just think about nuclear weapons. You think about great authors. They give a sort of window of understanding into the psychology of that group of people. In that sense, I think it is important for any nation or culture to present itself, to be viewed and appreciated by others so that others won't deal with you like aliens. People moved by a piece of artwork will think of the human experience behind the work, inside the work, and that...creates a different space in people's minds and perceptions.
NPQ | What impact does this have on politics? As the works of Chinese artists and writers reach Americans, how do you think they can change Americans' perceptions of China?
Ha Jin | When you see a movie or read a good book, you think about a group of people. They exist. They are not just in the book. They exist somewhere in space and time, even not far from you. And so I think in that sense exchange always promotes a kind of understanding. It does not have to be accurate or rational but emotional communication. I think that is necessary for all human beings.
So in that sense, it's not just the perception of China that changes. I think the awareness of Americans themselves becomes slightly broader.
NPQ | In China, and to some extent in India, some artists feel that, historically, their voice was not given adequate attention on the world stage. Do they now want to project their voices, not just as artists, but as Chinese artists or Indian artists?
Ha Jin | Sure. Sure. There's a kind of national pride, mixed with personal pride, mixed with literary pride, mixed with community pride (laughs)...everything gets mixed and confused. For an artist, this can get very problematic. Because ultimately it's not about the country you represent…In the end, all vanity must be put down and writers must be judged over time by the quality of their own writing. A lot of writers and artists want to go into the world and be recognized by the world. That's why a lot of (Chinese) writers desperately want their work to be translated.
In terms of projecting voices, there is a difference between Indian and Chinese writers. Most Indian writers write in English. Within the dynamics of the English language, Indians came from the margin...but (now) want to claim the center. That often happens, in literature, and it helps that the English language is able to absorb these alien sources. It's a very healthy thing...it keeps the language vital, flexible and more expressive. In India, there is also a kind of hunger. India was a colonized country and now wants to claim its own, not just politically, but also literally and culturally.
China is different, in a way. It has a different language, and Chinese artists have their own sense of pride. They want to be considered world class. A lot of Chinese believe that if they can make their economy as good and powerful as the US, then their literature will automatically reach that same level. But I think that's not right. A lot of poor countries still produce great art and literature, so the two don't always go together. Art has its own criteria, its own logic, its own discipline. Still, the desire to compete with the masters, that's good. Competition is a good thing in art as in business.
Even within China, there is a change in the way people deal with the media. In my generation, we didn't want to be in newspapers or anything. Any attention would be a bad thing. Because it makes you more vulnerable. You become a target. But now most Chinese people compete for the spotlight. So in that sense a desire for media exposure is very obvious among young people.
NPQ | While there has been an increasing flow into the US of works by Indian and Chinese artists, many have been signed on by American studios and publishing houses that control and define what they do. How do you feel that affects what comes across?
Ha Jin | A lot of foreign artists first find out what Americans are interested in, and then adapt themselves and their work to the audience. That's not good. In literature, the subject comes from within, not from outside. Still, I'm not completely immune to this—sometimes you have to think about (your audience). If a book does not do well, what happens to the next book? In my case, I am lucky. When I met my editor at Pantheon, she said she just wanted to publish the best fiction. I asked her, "What kind of book do you want me to write?" She said, "You just write whatever you want..." Nobody ever said "you write a book on this subject." I wouldn't do that.
NPQ | How will China, as a political nation, use culture to define itself as it goes forward?
Ha Jin | China is ambivalent on this, I think. The government tries to promote cultural works, like painting, that do not directly involve ideology. Painting, music, food...but when we come to literature and ?lm...the freedom is not there. (The Chinese government) really tries to control and manage it, and there is self-censorship as well. That is very clear.
And (the Chinese government) does not want that control to be corroded by Western influences. It tries to promote everything else—trade and other kinds of art—but when we talk about literature, sociology, social sciences, the Chinese government permits very few cultural exchanges. In the sciences, delegations from Chinese universities travel abroad every month to find people they can recruit, and they pay them very well. The same's not true in the social sciences.
NPQ | Does this stem from China's belief that technology is more important to development than the humanities?
Ha Jin | That's part of it. Humanities can be very dangerous, subversive. Once people have ideas—young people—it's very hard to control them ideologically. So that's why I think that while China encourages Chinese people (living abroad and involved) in the sciences to return to China, it doesn't do this with people in the humanities.
NPQ | What about your own work? What role does it play in this?
Ha Jin | You know, I am an outsider in China. I write in English. Basically I have to accept myself as an immigrant, as an outsider.
NPQ | Why did you choose to write in English and not Chinese?
Ha Jin | To survive. It's very simple. My degree was in English, and I could only find a job teaching English. Once you have a teaching job, you have to publish—and there was no way writing in Chinese would count as publication for me. It was a matter of necessity for me.
NPQ | Was that emotionally difficult for you?
Ha Jin | At the beginning, yes, it is an emotional thing. It's kind of tragic in a way, to have to use a language that is not your mother tongue. It means you have to diminish yourself. Lots of resources or concepts may be available to you in your mother tongue, but in another language you cannot use them fully.
NPQ | At the same time, don't immigrant writers such as yourself play a role in being ambassadors for your country and your culture?
Ha Jin | You know, I don't know about that. I don't have that kind of ambition. Maybe in China a lot of people would think I am a joke. Maybe there are people who envy me, that I can write in English. But in the long run I really can't think of myself in the role of cultural ambassador. Before, there were Chinese writers who did have that vision—they even called themselves cultural ambassadors—people like Lin Yutang. He, in fact, styled himself as a cultural ambassador, and I think he succeeded. But he was in a different situation. He came to the States already as a major Chinese writer, well established in the Chinese language, so he was in the position to do that kind of a job. But I was nobody when I came to the US. I didn't have an audience in Chinese.
NPQ | How do you feel when you see the Chinese government using art and literature as a strategic tool within China?
Ha Jin | You know, that's also why I do not write in Chinese. If I wrote in Chinese, I couldn't avoid that. The Chinese government and the authorities would be manipulative. For instance, when a movie is made, officials have a meeting where they all give their two cents about how the movie should end. This has even happened repeatedly to Zhang Yimou, a great director. It creates all kinds of obstacles, even damage, to the work. It's the same with (my novel) Waiting. I don't know if it's been published yet in China, but when it is, they will cut sentences from the book. Often editors won't tell you what they've done when they publish your story—they just butcher it. (laughs). So, if I wrote in Chinese, there would be endless heartaches. That's why I try to write in English. At least I can keep the work intact.
NPQ | Your work has been used, politically, to criticize China. How do you feel about that?
Ha Jin | Yes, well, a lot of reviewers and critics approach my work from an ideological perspective. They think China is a bad society. But often, these people forget the idea of the book itself—that (the occurrences in the novel) can happen to me, to anyone, anywhere, as a human being. A lot of literature is not about a particular society, it's about humanity and human possibilities.
NPQ | China has always had a very distinct sense of culture. Is that changing and becoming more inclusive?
Ha Jin | It is becoming more inclusive, but Chinese as a language is quite exclusive. It really does not absorb alien sources, which is a deficiency. But nowadays, people are beginning to think differently. In fiction, there are all kinds of experiments and techniques being used, and there's more of a desire to just write good books...On the other hand, Chinese writers are always saying "we have to go back to our roots." They want everything to be Chinese, not from the West. I think there is a kind of prejudice. People don't realize that art is not just a national thing, that it does not belong to just one nation.
NPQ | Do you think the trend toward multiculturalism in America is genuine or is it a fad?
Ha Jin | In the US, when people refer to multiculturalism they refer to the increased Eastern influences. After all, Western or European culture has always been a multi-culture. The reason (the West) produced great literature was because there has always been a kind of exchange within the European community over the centuries. Whenever a major (European) classic appeared, within a very short time it was translated and spread all over Europe. So now, within the States, I think when people refer to multiculturalism, they refer to the increased Eastern influences.
That can't be avoided. More people are living here and exchange has become broader. For a writer—a writer is a person who needs different kinds of nourishment—there can be many sources. Even the high modernists use texts from other languages: Japanese, Chinese and other sources...In literature, I believe this exchange will produce good work, and writers will benefit from it.
NPQ | As old ways of projecting power begin to fade, do you think governments will increasingly use soft power?
Ha Jin | It depends on the politicians making those decisions. In some countries, you have politicians who are well versed in the arts. They feel that culture and soft power are part of their lives. But in the US, we often have politicians who simply believe (laughs) in blunt strength and force. China's leaders have to be able to understand statecraft, to manage and control, to play tricks and be sophisticated. American presidents are often not as sophisticated. It's not often that you have an American president who is a calligrapher.
NPQ | You've lived in the US for 17 years. What transformations have you seen in the way China and the US have interacted?
Ha Jin | In the early 1980s, China was popular in the US. It was seen as a partner, a strategic partner, especially in contrast to the Soviet Union. After that, China became a competitor. Now, I think it is clear that China cannot really be a competitor—and the Chinese government itself realizes it will take a long time to catch up with the US. In the meantime, they have to have a stable relationship, and a business partnership. That's a good thing. (Pauses)...One thing I realize...is that all the complex issues we are talking about originate from ideology. In the US, we believe in democracy. The Chinese government is a kind of tyrant. That's why Americans couldn't help, in the past, viewing China as an enemy. These days, though, it's not so much a matter of ideology. Most countries, including the US, think only of their own interests. The US government does not care if you are a dictator, as long as your policies are good for the US...That's kind of depressing to me. But I do feel that, in that sense, every country is the same.