Novels Are as Important as Nukes
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 The Crazed. The following comments, which first appeared in NPQ in Winter 2003, are based on an interview with contributing correspondent Jehangir Pocha.
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 about all the social issues around (me). 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.
IMPACT OF THE WEST: VOA (Voice of America) had a big impact on us 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 for some Chinese. But others, even when they were 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. When the first group of Chinese students arrived (in the United States) in the late ’70s, their first response was that they were shocked, really shocked, by American culture and society, 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.
As a result of this exposure to the West, the self-perception of the Chinese 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.
GET SOME RESPECT: 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.
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. 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.
OUTSIDE RECOGNITION: 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.
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.
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 literarily 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.
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.
THE STATE AND WRITERS: In China, 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 film...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.
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.
WRITING IN ENGLISH: I am an outsider in China. I write in English. Basically I have to accept myself as an immigrant, as an outsider.
I chose to write in English in order 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.
At the beginning it was very emotional. 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.
I also chose not to write in Chinese so as to avoid being a tool of the government. 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.
OUTSIDE CHINA: 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.
Although China is becoming more inclusive, 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.
MULTICULTURALISM: 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 multiculture. 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.