Little Bottles

Philippa Tristram

  • The Miraculous Pigtail by Feng Jicai
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 312 pp, September 1988, ISBN 0 8351 2050 3
  • Mimosa by Zhang Xianliang
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 170 pp, January 1987, ISBN 0 8351 1336 1
  • Dialogues in Paradise by Can Xue, translated by Ronald Jansson
    Northwestern, 173 pp, $17.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 8101 0830 5
  • Baotown by Wang Anyi
    Penguin, 143 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 670 82622 7
  • The Broken Betrothal by Gao Xiaosheng
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 218 pp, December 1987, ISBN 0 8351 2051 1
  • At Middle Age by Shen Rong
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 366 pp, December 1987, ISBN 0 8351 1609 3
  • Snuff-Bottles, and Other Stories by Deng Youmei
    Chinese Literature Press, Beijing, 220 pp, January 1987, ISBN 0 8351 1607 7

In the days of the Boxer Rebellion, when Chinese wore pigtails and exposure to foreign values was compulsory, they knew that Westerners were Chinese upside-down. As Yang remarks in The Miraculous Pigtail, which is set in that period: ‘Chinese shave their heads, foreigners their faces; Chinese write from right to left, foreigners from left to right; Chinese call the compass the “needle for fixing the south”, foreigners call it the “needle which points north”; Chinese have their tea-cup lids on top, foreigners have their, tea-cup lids underneath.’ Since 1900, time has removed some of these oppositions and introduced others, but that perception endures. To the farm hands in Mimosa, set in the early Sixties, America is ‘an outlandish, promiscuous, immoral country, but so rich that no one worries about food or clothing’. When six years ago one of my Chinese students described a Westerner’s day, he was succinct: his Western businessman rose at six o’clock to take his two snakes for an airing in his chauffeur-driven Mercedes; they stopped at a pub en route, emerged blind-drunk, and crashed the car into a scholartree. Sarah Lubman recently explained in the Washington Post that Chinese students are the victims ‘of an educational system which presents limited – and biased – information about the West’, but my student at least had merely been reading some American magazines donated by a foreign visitor. Among the advertisements for drink, expensive cars and sexual aids, I remember finding one for a cat’s four-poster, complete with curtains and fur underlay. In the context of that Beijing institute where even hot water (for all purposes, especially drinking) was rationed to one thermos per student per day, his account seemed inaccurate in details, not essentials. According to Sarah Lubman, the way to counter such misinterpretation is cultural exchange: then Chinese travelling abroad can see what Western democracy really is, while those at home can receive unbiased information from foreign experts. As in the days of the Boxer Rebellion, ‘exchange’, it seems, is not a two-way process.

A major reason for reading foreign literature is to discover cultural difference, and look back on one’s own culture with new eyes: but contemporary Chinese fiction selected for publication in the West is chosen for its proximity to Western values. Dialogues in Paradise by Can Xue is a case in point. Its American translator describes the reading of most current Chinese fiction as ‘a trudge through a desert posted with signs of “Realism” and “Socialist Realism”’. Can Xue, in contrast, is not so ‘narrow and unimaginative’: ‘she is familiar with a range of foreign authors who might provide a stay against the ordinary (Woolf, Sartre [Sartre?], Beckett among them).’ She is non-rational, employs the stream of consciousness (‘Horrid stream!’ as Lawrence said), and probes the self. Best of all, she writes for an élite (unlike Dickens): ‘we cannot usefully judge her fiction by any ideological standards of readability.’ It is difficult to assess in translation the kind of writing that must depend for its success on verbal texture, but her pieces read like repetitions of a formula best described in her own words as ‘a certain indulgence in the wildest fantasy’ made deliberately to run counter to ‘the reality that ordinary people understand’.

Baotown by Wang Anyi is more representative, for it makes fewer compromises with this parody of what the West calls ‘literature’. Its creation of a peasant village is lucid, sparse, externalised, succinct. Even the mad, like Bao Bingde’s wife, rediscover sanity in the ordinary: ‘she wiped her tears and went out to feed the pig.’ Baotown is reticent about the inward self, but its presence is not unfelt. Nonetheless the book is chosen, one suspects, because, here too, the political is distanced. Thus Chapter Ten (entire):

In Beijing, a thousand miles away, the battle over the rivers and mountains was just getting started.

  In Shanghai, a thousand miles away, the weapons were ready, and they were preparing to hand out the guns.

As the translator of Dialogues in Paradise assures us, the new generation of Chinese writers is now able to quote Orwell in illustration of their belief that ‘politics chokes literature “like leaves blocking a sink”.’

It is true, however, that the difference between these two books, selected by the West, and those chosen in China by the Chinese Literature Press, is partly due to a difference in generation. Can Xue was born in 1953, Wang Anyi in 1954; the youngest of the other five writers is Feng Jicai (1942) and the oldest Gao Xiaosheng (1928). The younger generation spent their infancy in a China afflicted by famine and the Great Leap Forward, their adolescence in the Cultural Revolution, and the first decade of their writing life in a period of reaction against political extremism, the relative peace and prosperity of recent years. The older writers knew a China devastated by foreign exploitation, the Japanese occupation and civil war; they can also recall the early years of Communism, when ‘people had a sense of mutual trust and understanding regardless of whether they were cadres or Party members.’ In the tiny compass of short stories, most of them – but particularly Gao Xiaosheng – rehearse that turbulent span of history in the focus of individual working lives. Gao’s wry account of a lifetime’s endeavour to build a three-roomed house, or his lyrical one of a life spent catching fish, mirrors the extraordinary in the ordinary. To the fisherman, beaten successively by the Japanese, the Kuomintang and the Red Guards, and still at risk, as guardian of the river, from others’ greed, his is an uneventful life, ‘really nothing worth mentioning’, although it is rich in memories of his ‘free and unrestrained existence’ in the intimate watery world of Willow Pool Creek. As in Baotown, practical preoccupations – why underwater obstructions are introduced, and how one clears them – are the immediate focus of attention, though a lifetime’s devotion to keeping the river stocked and freely-flowing inevitably acquires metaphorical reverberations. But Gao Xiaosheng is unlikely to be as well received in the West as Wang Anyi, for he can be overtly political and moral.

In Mimosa, Zhang Xianliang engages directly with this problem, for the novella, narrated by an intellectual consigned to a labour camp during the early Sixties, is intended to underscore his answers to European intellectuals who want to know why their Chinese counterparts, ‘who have suffered so much, are so unswerving in their loyalty to their country’. But because China is Marxist and Marx is a Westerner, it is easily forgotten that Chinese Marxism is Chinese. It will be difficult for European intellectuals to bridge the gap between his hero’s past (‘sitting at my desk, reading my beloved Shakespeare’) and his present (where a single carrot tastes like ‘crystal sugar’) with the support of ideological analysis: ‘I felt for Capital under my head.’ Although many Chinese report the same experience, and ‘going to meet Marx’ has become an idiom in common usage, it is hard for us to credit his narrator’s conviction that ‘he would only find his lost identity and the meaning of life through the writings of Karl Marx.’ On the other hand, the precision of his focus on externals is totally convincing – the practical way in which he studies his quarry (‘a field of carrots is different from a field of turnips’), his disbelief when he loses half of it in an icy ditch (‘looking back, as if the carrots might hop ashore like frogs’); and his claim, after an adequate meal, to the ‘unique experience’ of ‘hearing my own cells divide’.

Significantly, this practical focus in recent Chinese fiction has its connection with Deng Xiaoping’s new ideology, ‘seek truth from facts.’ In her story ‘Snakes and Ladders’ Shen Rong describes the outburst of an old worker who, in the ‘criticise Deng’ campaign of 1976, deliberately goes over the top:

My god, Deng Xiaoping! All that talk about him being in charge of the Central Committee, and look what he was really up to. Instead of spending his time on useful things like class struggle, line struggle and key policies, he went around telling everyone to raise pigs. What a dastardly plot!

As another of her characters complains in ‘The Secret of Crown Prince Village’, it is hard in China to keep up with new developments: ‘Yesterday’s fallacies had become today’s truths. Yesterday’s prisoners had turned into heroes.’ Deng himself is now yesterday’s hero; and after 4 June a new story was circulating in Beijing. A father, called to identify his dead son, is asked whether he should be categorised as ‘innocent bystander’ or ‘hooligan’. ‘Innocent bystander?’ the guard suggests. The father nods, then hesitates: ‘No – on second thoughts, you’d better enter him as “hooligan”. That way, in a year or two, he’ll be a hero.’

As Sarah Lubman complains in the Washington Post, the language of last year’s student protest – ‘The tide of democracy allows no obstruction; all must comply with this trend’ – had simply substituted one word for another. It was difficult for the most sensitive observer to give precise content to that new word ‘democracy’, even where protestors claimed to be most specific: ‘the true realisation of democratic politics is the democratisation of the procedures, the methods and the operation.’ In consequence, foreign journalists were free to give the movement an unduly Western emphasis – and thus contributed to the tragic outcome. Shen Rong’s stories are both an exposé and an exemplification of this tendency in Chinese thinking: ‘the lessons of thousands of years of Confucian tradition, the “way of the mean”, all boiled down to one thing: you should follow the herd.’ The need to define ‘correctness of thought’ before one begins to think can keep both literature and politics at a damaging remove from experiential realities. Shen Rong’s story ‘Snakes and Ladders’ is not about the merits and demerits of foreign literature as such, but about whether or not it is correct to regard it as a subject worthy of serious study (there is surely a Chinese future for structuralism). Oddly enough, Deng Xiaoping’s aphorism – ‘Black cat, white cat, whichever catches mice is a good cat’ – is a fair definition of what the students seemed to mean by ‘democracy’. All should have an equal right to take part in decisions as responsible citizens (good mousers), whether or not they are cadres or Party members. The model is closer to the Grecian city states (without their slaves) than to multi-party democracy.

Since the origin of so many of China’s current problems lies far back, in remote regions of its distinguished history, it is not surprising that the Revolution should have tried to sweep much of that historical memory away. But if it is difficult to separate any country from its history, it is impossible in China where history is scored in the land and in the subconscious of the people. No one who followed the events of last year can be unaware that the student protest consciously played over anniversaries: the death of Zhou Enlai, the May Fourth Movement, the rift with Russia, liberation. Moreover, a geomantic line bisects Beijing, running north to south through the heart of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, and Mao’s body in the mausoleum. It is sacred ground: placing the plaster Goddess on that line was dynamite. But, as Chinese students often complain, they are woefully ignorant of their own culture, and even of its recent history.

It is therefore significant that two of these writers, Deng Youmei and Feng Jicai, should be returning in some of their stories to the past – Deng, indeed, with the specific aim of ‘filling a gap in young people’s general knowledge’. The idea of literature as dramatised information may not appeal to us, but English novelists in the 1840s also sought to inform, and in so doing expanded and enriched the genre. Deng’s fiction, like theirs, is more than information: by returning to the past he finds a way of writing, at a necessary remove, about more recent history. One of the major problems for Chinese writers is that they have too much to write about. Deng himself, born into a poor family, deported to forced labour in Japan, a participant in the War of Liberation, is one example. He was already established as a writer when, in 1957, he was condemned as a ‘rightist’, and spent the next twenty years in manual labour, until the end of the Cultural Revolution. Although in the early period of his writing life he drew directly upon his own experience, the present collection does not do so; his life is too large for a literature that is still groping for forms that are adequate to such events. By returning to the days of the Boxer Rebellion, he achieves a perspective unavailable in the present.

In his novella Snuff-Bottles he concentrates on small specifics. By themselves, these can be charged with meaning: xiao ping means ‘little bottle’ and 13 years ago little bottles were set with care on ledges: now they are smashed. Deng Youmei’s story was suggested by a craftsman who was condemned as decadent in the Cultural Revolution because he painted snuff-bottles to raise money for his brigade. Painting snuff-bottles can be a political act in many ways, as his decadent Banner-man, Wu Shibao, discovers. In the early stages of the story he whiles away his time ‘playing with crickets, airing his thrush, taking snuff’, determined to avoid recruitment to the Boxers. But when penury forces Wu to paint snuff-bottles, he acquires not only a way to make a living, but also a means of fleecing ‘foreign devils’. His protest is not on the scale of the master craftsman Nie who would chop his hands off rather than debase his ancestral art by depicting victorious Japanese before Tiananmen – but it is something. In its small compass, the novella quickens more than period interest. It is a plea for those Chinese traditional crafts which were condemned in the Cultural Revolution, for snuff-boxes involve many related arts. Moreover they are still a means of exploiting the oddities of foreigners in order to acquire some small part of their incredible wealth: ‘At an auction in Germany in 1976, within a few minutes a Chinese snuff-bottle was sold for two million marks.’ The materials for his novella were gathered orally, from the anecdotes of the actors, bird-fanciers and old people who gather to air their birds and practise opera or shadow-boxing in the early morning in Beijing’s parks. Far from having the inward tone of personal consciousness, Deng’s voice is that of China’s traditional storytellers whose art is still practised: that magical voice, heard so rarely now in Western literature, of ‘Once upon a time ...’ The tales he tells are an accretion of detail, humorous, low-key and rather wistful.

There are a number of similarities between Deng Youmei and Feng Jicai, who also writes about the past in his novella The Miraculous Pigtail: ‘When a people does not know their ancestors, the nation indeed is in danger of extinction.’ In 1900 that remark is made in the context of an over-estimation of things foreign and an indifference to things Chinese, but it has an equal relevance today. Just as the art of snuff-bottles has been handed on through generations, so the powers of the miraculous pigtail, which can floor the ablest of opponents, is an ancestral inheritance. The art of Guyuexuan practised by Nie is a craftsman’s mystery, where the powers of the pigtail are veritably miraculous, yet both are suggestive of an inner resource elicited by centuries of endurance. Second Simpleton’s ancestral power lies in a pigtail because Han Chinese were forced to grow them by the Manchu dynasty – the sign of oppression becomes a symbol of strength. When he is co-opted into the Boxer ranks, he uses his pigtail to fight a new generation of invaders. The Boxers were led to believe that they were immune to the rifle and cannon fire of the foreigners, and although Second Simpleton is one of the few survivors, his pigtail is severed by a bullet. It grows again, but he has lost his confidence; when the Manchu dynasty falls, he shaves his head and (adopting the new symbol of oppression) becomes instead a ‘miraculous sharp-shooter’: ‘However good the things of our ancestors, when the time comes to discard them, then discarded they must be. I cut off the pigtail, but I kept the miraculous.’ Like Nie and Wu, Second Simpleton is a gentle figure, but his power is available when events demand it.

Feng Jicai searches for the miraculous not only in the past, but in the present. Like Deng Youmei, he discovers it in China’s traditional crafts: the ‘vigorous mainstream’ that has flowed on unbroken. Again like Deng, he achieves the storyteller’s voice, and employs some of his traditional devices. ‘Boat Song’, set in the Cultural Revolution, develops the ‘lead-in’ on another subject, which gave the storyteller’s audience time to settle; but, like Deng’s similar disquisition on snuff-bottles, his childhood memory of a stranded boat has a parallel relationship with the story itself, extends into it and elicits its meaning. He also concentrates on small specifics, and wins from them the same wide range of meaning. In ‘The Carved Pipe’ a painter, debarred from practising his art, finds an outlet in carving pipes: ‘No matter what, pipes would always pass unnoticed as toys.’ In this way, he creates a miniature gallery of ‘decadent’ art, worked in the spirit of different periods and cultures.

Feng Jicai was himself a professional painter and calligrapher until the Red Guards turned his studio into a printing-mill. An artist’s eye is evident in the detail of his writing (‘every window in the world frames a live picture’), but also in a larger sense of form. During those troubled years he became a writer, producing a million unpublished words behind locked doors, and often burning his manuscripts in panic. That arduous apprenticeship has given him an unusually independent view; he does not need to write of the past in order to achieve it. Western readers may sometimes find him wordy and even sentimental (although that probably says something about us too): but his work, like Deng Youmei’s, can’t possibly be described as ‘a trudge through a desert’. Both extend a new grasp on the actual world of discrete objects, ordinary activities and small lives until it becomes much more intense than realism. Feng Jicai quotes Picasso: ‘The whole world lies before us, waiting for us to create, not copy it.’