There has never been a good time to be an honest writer in Communist China, but the present is an exceptionally bad time. Spooked by the “Arab Spring” and jostling for position in next year’s scheduled leadership changes, the Party bosses have been coming down hard on every kind of independent thinking. The cases of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and artist Ai Weiwei have been well publicized, but there are many others.
Essayist Liu Xianbin, released in 2008 after nine years imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power,” was re-arrested last summer. In March this year he was given a new ten-year sentence on that same charge. Along with this lawless brutality towards their own citizens, China’s rulers do all they can to intimidate foreigners who seek to help dissident writers. A Chinese writer needs a translator, and those best equipped to translate are Western scholars making a career in China studies. Such a career will be handicapped, though, if the scholar is denied visas to enter China. The communists make sure Western Sinologists know this. Chinese-literature specialist Perry Link, blacklisted since 1996, has written a fine essay about the problem: “The Anaconda in the Chandelier.”
The misfortunes that have afflicted Hu Fayun’s 2004 dissident novel Such Is This [email protected] have therefore been nothing out of the ordinary. The manuscript was posted on a website in 2005; the website was quickly shut down. A Beijing publisher brought out a bowdlerized version in 2006, but the book was proscribed the following year as the communists tightened controls prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. A Princeton sinology graduate considered making a translation, but backed off on learning that the book was banned in China.
The translation under review here was made by Andrew Clark, a non-academic, with acknowledged help from two Chinese consultants who prefer anonymity. It seems to me to be very well and sensitively done. Clark has supplied over 400 endnotes explaining the book’s many cultural references, from Chinese gift-giving protocol to Russian folk songs. He has kept close to the author’s unadorned colloquial style of Chinese, and has supplied an eloquent three-page preface of his own.
Clark told me that when he asked Hu Fayun for a thumbnail description of Such Is This [email protected] the author replied: “It’s about the internet.” The novel is actually about much more than that, but I see his point.
The story covers a year in the life of the principal character, a fortysomething Chinese widow named Ru Yan. It commences in the Fall of 2002, as her son prepares to depart for graduate school in France. He leaves Ru Yan his computer, teaches her how to use email and the internet, and directs her to a website called Midlife that includes a forum for parents of overseas students. The narrative then broadens out into several political, historical, and human themes; but the internet is humming away in the background, when not actually on the page, and drives key parts of the action.
Through Midlife Ru Yan meets the pseudonymous Damo, a brilliant but heterodox writer on politics, philosophy, and culture who by chance lives in the same town as herself (unidentified, but probably Wuhan in south-central China). Through Damo in turn we, and eventually Ru Yan too, meet Teacher Wei, whom Damo has known since his childhood in the early 1960s.
Teacher Wei supplies the moral, spiritual, and historical ballast of the novel. Born in 1919, he has survived all the horrors of war, revolution, and totalitarianism, arriving at last at a philosophical serenity that, while calm, is by no means resigned.
It is Teacher Wei who expresses the awesome burden of personal integrity and social responsibility carried forward from ancient times by the better kind of Chinese intellectual. It is he who passes that burden on, “like a torch in flame,” to his younger disciples.
“After these hundred years of turmoil,” He Qiye said, “the common people aren’t asking for much. Stability. Food to eat. Clothes to wear. That’s all; that’s enough.”
Teacher Wei said, “It’s understandable that the common people would feel that way. For intellectuals to feel that way is inexcusable.”
The main political event of that year 2002-03 in China was the epidemic of SARS, a flu-like viral infection that spread very rapidly through South and East Asia. Ru Yan first hears of SARS in a phone call from her mother, who lives further South. She checks the internet. “Some of her online friends in the South … mentioned the strange disease and said in their region people were not allowed to talk about it. Oddly enough, these messages were only up for a few minutes before disappearing.” Ru Yan persists until:
This time, the consequences were even more obvious: a window popped up on her screen:
Your message is temporarily unable to be posted.
Ru Yan now realized that in what she had thought was a little salon hosted by herself there was actually an old crone concealed and peering at everything from behind a curtain.
Bookish, unworldly, and “the kind of person who had never concerned herself with political theory,” Ru Yan continues to post about SARS. She then learns what we of the West in much milder circumstances have also learned: that the internet can snarl as well as purr. The old crone begets a litter of trolls, threatening and slandering on behalf of their master, the State.
SARS was much more a political than a medical event. Only a few hundred people died from the disease. As a character in the novel asks rhetorically: “With all the hundreds of millions of people in China, can you name a cause of death that doesn’t kill more people than SARS?” As that character also points out, though, the management of public panic over SARS offered both great dangers and great career opportunities to government officials, and that was always the aspect of the matter foremost in their minds.
The character speaking there is another fortysomething woman, Jiang Xiaoli, who works with Ru Yan in the administrative offices of a research institute. Though close in age, the two women are opposites. Jiang is busy and worldly, with keen political instincts. She stars in the book’s most powerfully dramatic scene, near the very end, when she plays Mephistopheles to an easy-going Party official, calling him back to his stern duty with a rousing justification of the dictatorship in terms Vito Corleone would have understood quite precisely.
I know we’ve got lots of problems right now … But all these things are for us to work out; we can’t let outsiders take care of them … This is not about right and wrong; it’s about winning and losing. I’ll tell you something else: If [the dissidents] ever came to power, I don’t believe for a moment they’d be any better than the group we’ve got now … You know, some people in my family died for this country … Some in your family, too. Let’s hope they didn’t die in vain.
It is to Hu Fayun’s great credit as a novelist that he has shown us convincingly, in this fine Dostoevskian scene, what motivates his antagonistic characters, in terms we can understand though not approve.
We cannot approve for the same reason the dissidents are what they are, and suffer what they suffer: because to approve the rule of the communists is to acquiesce in a great lie. To be a dissident, in China or anywhere, is to deny that two plus two equals five. Or as Teacher Wei expresses it in his last written words: “When it is not, they say it is; / When it is, they will say it is not.“
It is at last a matter of truth. Ru Yan’s deceased husband, we learn, held the opinion that her diffidence resulted from “the influence of classical literature: Plato had ruined her.” Sure enough, almost our last sight of Ru Yan is of her oversleeping one morning, waking only when: “A shaft of sunlight reached into the dark room through the crack in the curtains and cut a sharp-edged path of light upon the wall.”
The Truth is always out there, inaccessible but ever shining, always to be reached for. The Lie, with all its worldly rewards and perfervid self-justifications, is a pale shadowy thing by comparison.