Errant Pinkies

Robert Macfarlane

  • Waiting by Ha Jin
    Heinemann, 308 pp, £10.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 434 00914 8

Ha Jin’s Waiting, a love story set in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution, won last year’s US National Book Award for Fiction, and has just received the less munificent, but classier, PEN/Faulkner Award. Dubbed, then, on both shoulders – once by the book-buying public, once by the literati. This is surprising, given that in places the novel is strikingly badly written. Why has it done so well?

One reason is that the East, and China in particular, sells books in the West and always has done. Marco Polo knew this, as did John Mandeville, that great early impresario of the exotic. It has appealed at a general level as a substantial, unknown space into which, with the right promptings, the individual imagination could rush, expand, unfurl and luxuriate. More specifically, it has incited in Western audiences the mixture of fear and fascination which sells books. In 1822, Thomas De Quincey (who had never been further east than Blackfriars, though he once met a Malay in the Lake District) spiced his Confessions of an English Opium Eater with Oriental reveries – edgy fantasias on themes of cruelty, deep time and overpopulation. ‘I know not whether others share in my feelings on this point,’ he confessed:

but I have often thought that if I were forced to forego England, and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad. The causes of my horror lie deep, and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful images and associations ... The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith &c. is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual.

Thanks no doubt to a thick haze of laudanum (this passage comes from the later, paranoiac stages of the Confessions), De Quincey saw the Sublime in everything, and even to contemplate an ‘Asiatic thing’ was to induce a vertiginous sense of history. More than that, his sensibilities were, he wrote, ‘overpowered’ by the faceless superabundance of the Eastern races.

De Quincey’s lurid dreams revealed more about him and his culture than they did about China. But the Confessions also contributed to the image of China in Western eyes. It’s an image that has fluctuated in its details over the centuries, but certain features have remained constant: the numberlessness and identicalness of the Chinese, for instance; their cruelty, and its constant companion, suffering. When De Quincey shuddered with pleasurable fear at the ‘cruel and elaborate’ nature of Orientals, he was anticipating the prejudice which more than a century later had James Bond remark suavely to the half-Chinese Dr No: ‘With your disregard for human life, Dr No, the East would welcome you.’ (Dr No, to give him his due, replies that ‘East’ and ‘West’ are ‘just points of the compass each as stupid as the other’.)

Three decades of literary silence followed the advent of Communism in 1949. Writers inside the country were forced into alignment, and foreigners were kept out. The moratorium helped to preserve Western illusions about the virtues of the Revolution. Only after Mao’s death did things become sufficiently kaifang (open) for accounts of what had been going on inside the country to reach the West. Suddenly the much-vaunted cruelty of the Chinese was no longer dynastic and elaborate: the stuff of warlords and foot-binding – it was the systematised brutality of an ideology gone wrong.

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