China, Middlebrow to Highbrow

Fiction has more than one way of distancing itself from the real. In most cases this distance serves as a prelude to a future homecoming. The story, like some interstellar traveler, flings itself ...

Fiction has more than one way of distancing itself from the real. In most cases this distance serves as a prelude to a future homecoming. The story, like some interstellar traveler, flings itself around the gravity well of a larger and more distant planetary object (the fictional) in order to assure the speed and accuracy of its return to the space that domesticates it (the real).

How that happens depends on genre. Take satire. For satire it is the distance from the plausible, the truth stretched—but to a limit—that allows the reader to grasp the fictionality of the situation the novel gives us, and also to see how that fictionality boomerangs back to the possibility of critique. Yes, the situation was ridiculous. But was it really so ridiculous? That second thought, which lets absurdity reveal, by contrast, a truth inside the realism from which it had seemed to depart, makes satire a political genre. Similarly with melodrama, though we do not often think of it as political. In melodrama, the intensification of emotional density produces an excess beyond realism. Yes, the emotion was over the top. But was it really too much? The second thought, again, layers excess across the real.

Realism is not, therefore, and in the way we usually think of it, a school or a style; it is a touchstone for all genres, the perspective through which they aim to understand their world, or to change it.

None of this has especially much to do with China. Nonetheless it prepares us to see the ways in which these four novels—two satires, one melodrama, and one modernist pseudo-documentary—might all be grasped as part of the contemporary social call to understand China, to see it clearly, to name or frame it, to place it in relation to local or global politics, or to locate it inside recent or universal world history. In the last decade economic historians like Bin Wong and Kenneth Pomeranz have demonstrated that the Chinese economy dominated the planet from about 500 to 1500 CE, creating the world’s first global economic system. The possibility of China’s return to that position of dominance—and here I ask all readers to call up a mental image of a sleeping dragon awakening—is what has folks on both sides of the Pacific trembling, in fear or glee, for the “Chinese century” to succeed the American one. “China” is thus one of the names of the global future as we imagine it.

China is also, therefore, an intellectual and social problem, for everyone. What is China to us today—assuming the “us” includes (and how could it not?) the wide variety of people who think of themselves as “Chinese”? What kind of place is it? What must we know to comprehend its nature (if it has one)? What would it mean to recognize ourselves (again, the first person plural includes the Chinese) as people who want to know what China is, and who are willing to work hard, as authors and as readers, to understand it? How will such an understanding return us, like fiction, to a new vision of the world we have known until now?

What would it mean to recognize ourselves as people who want to know what China is, and who are willing to work hard, as authors and as readers, to understand it?

These questions are too important to be left to the Chicken Littles and überpatriots on both sides who anticipate them being answered by military action, trade wars, or mutual exchange and indoctrination via soft power. And though literature usually leaves these questions aside, at the end of the day all novelists are Balzacs, and their work opens relentlessly into the larger historical scene, for which art serves as an inevitable proxy and figure. One of the functions of the literary is to provide a screen for the real; literature is a shadow box through which one watches the eclipse. Fiction’s answers are for this reason always partial. This is a feature, not a bug, of the aesthetic.

What kind of question is asked, and answered, in Gail Tsukiyama’s A Hundred Flowers? The book feels about a decade late to the history of US literature on the Cultural Revolution (two decades if you count the “scar literature” trend in Chinese). Set in 1958, shortly after the demise of Mao Zedong’s “Hundred Flowers” campaign, the novel follows the story of the Wei family, whose father has been put in jail for writing a subversive letter to the government. Told mostly from the perspective of the family’s young son, Tao, the novel alternates sections focused on several other major characters, including the mother, the family’s paternal grandfather, and a homeless, pregnant woman who is eventually taken in by the Weis.

The novel shares its take on the era of Chinese communism with almost everything ever written by Anchee Min, with some of Ha Jin’s work, and indeed with the general trend in Asian American literature to make historical trauma abroad a figure for the status of Asian Americans in the United States. Tsukiyama is not an especially political or academic author, which means that the melodrama and slow sailing of the plot as it veers into minor crisis after minor crisis (none of which amounts to much more, finally, than a question of elegiac tone) produce a fairly generic critique of the People’s Republic. We learn that totalitarianism is bad, and that family matters. Anchoring the events of the novel, and particularly the emotional growth of the son, Tao, to the historical fact of Mao’s campaign allows the melodrama developed inside the family situation to respond to the historical drama outside it. The family, here, is the refuge from politics; and Tao’s relationship to his grandfather, who tells him stories from classical Chinese mythology, is a figure not only for the shelter that family offers from political storms, but also for the cultural shelter offered by something like “storytelling” or “tradition” against the overtly politicized and emotionally cold outside world. Melodrama’s excess, the intensity of its call to tears, thus marks the limits of the PRC’s indifferent, bureaucratic governmentality. Love and care inside the home compensate for, and critique, their absence outside it.

Is this novel about China then, or China today? Perhaps both, insofar as its historical themes will recall for most readers that the PRC today still jails and tortures political dissidents. There is no sense here in Tsukiyama of a solution to that problem, for this is not an openly political novel. But we are to imagine, through Tao, that some new version of China is possible. The politics of melodrama rely here as always on the prospect of a future in which the child grows up safely.

Things are lighter in the other American novel in this quartet, Christopher Buckley’s They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? The novel is a satire and a farce, in which a slightly off-the-wall public relations guy turned lobbyist foments a US war with China in order to sell a weapon system to the Department of Defense. His partner in crime is a version of Ann Coulter, whose sordid backroom manipulations trade on the particularly phallic, bottled sex appeal that is the stock in trade of the female anchors of Fox News. On the side of the gods are an American president and a Chinese premier both interested in averting a stupid war, who battle the neocons inside their own administrations.

Readers who know David Lodge’s comically stuck middle-age men, whose sexual and professional crises often dissolve their inner narcissists, will find much that is familiar in Buckley’s portrayal of the lobbyist Walter “Bird” McIntyre. Like Lodge, Buckley gives us a quick, light read: an appetizer, not a meal. As with melodrama, the over-the-top quality of both the novel’s events and its solutions to them will signal to the careful reader that none of this is to be taken too seriously. The Chinese don’t eat puppies, as everyone “knows.”

But in fact some Chinese sometimes do eat puppies, as the presence of organized dog farming and items on restaurant menus rather directly attest. What we really all know is that we’re not supposed to say so. What to make of this situation, in which the novel’s title phrase, itself an obvious satire of a certain American provincialism, turns out to be a reasonable question with an affirmative answer? A full reading of the novel, nothing I’m attempting here, would have to parse the strange generic qualities of this semi-satirical gesture, wrapping its head around the double move in which the title’s satirical return to reality happens too “early”—if by “early” we mean that it never gets off the ground. This almost instant return from the launch-pad of the imaginary mirrors that of the novel as a whole, and that of Tsukiyama’s more earnest work: what They Eat Puppies affirms, under all its satire, is that the Chinese love their children too.

The generic gap between English-language novels about China and the kinds of Chinese fiction that get translated is still fairly stark. Chinese fiction, if what appears in the US is to be believed, is serious stuff. This tendency, which distorts the well-meaning reader’s sense—mine included—of the Chinese literary field, is true of translation more generally, which mostly ignores genre fiction (with the weird exception of the Scandinavian detective novel). We can read about the Chinese workplace novel genre,1 but we can’t read examples of it—at least not in English.

Dung’s perfect capture of the voice of academic speculation and ambition produced in me a high degree of nostalgia, not for the city itself, but for the method of its exposure.

That said, we are beginning to see an opening up in the range of Chinese fiction that gets translated into English, a function of the increase in the translation of Chinese work more generally (which is itself, of course, a function of the increasing global interest in China). Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City is part travelogue, part collection of essays, part fiction. Its semi-documentary, Calvinoesque style exemplifies the newer, wider range of aesthetic possibility coming from the Sinophone literary sphere. The book is a series of short essays, fictions, and thought experiments, written as though from a future in which the city of Hong Kong has disappeared into archaeological and anthropological memory. The Hong Kong we get in the novel—and it is, finally, a novel, if only because of the basic science fictional conceit that organizes it—thus appears in a strange blur of memory, research, mistake, and unwitting truth. For readers who, like me, do not know the city, the novel produces the impression of estrangement, not the real thing; but this impression is enough to give the entire text a lovely, mottled glaze. Dung’s perfect capture of the voice of academic speculation and ambition—his future interpreters of Hong Kong have read enough post–World War II French theory to draw highly self-assured claims about the nature of Hong Kong from the slimmest of evidence—produced in me a high degree of nostalgia, not for the city itself, but for the method of its exposure.

That nostalgia for the theory-heavy 1990s is, however, a weird artifact of the novel’s belated translation into English. Originally published in 1997, the year the British turned over their invented city of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic, Atlas in Chinese belongs to the era of academic works like Ackbar Abbas’s Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance (1997) and of films like Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express (1994)—and thus to the entire sociocultural apparatus of memory, history, and geography that gripped Hong Kong in those days. (It also echoes, openly, the imaginative freedom of Roland Barthes’s Empire of Signs.) From the perspective of 2012, Dung’s novel acquires a radically different feel—no less contemporary, I think, than it might have felt in 1997, so long as we understand that this new contemporary feeling has everything to do with the global politics that surround Hong Kong and China today, in which the mainland’s threatened “takeover” of the city has both never really occurred (at the military level) and already fully taken place (at the economic level, and in growing and complex ways for Hong Kong politics).

As with satire and melodrama, the pseudo-documentary, pseudo-academic style that Dung adopts here gives a version of reality whose obvious estrangement allows us to view the real anew. In Atlas the target is Hong Kong, but also, for readers outside that city, the general apparatus by which cities come belatedly to be known, archived, or told. The book is filled with descriptions of maps, local legends, and semi-apocryphal historical events, each appearing in one of fifty-one small sections of two to four pages apiece. Divided into four larger categories—Theory, The Streets, The City, and Signs—the pleasure of each exquisite single piece exceeds, in the moment of reading, any larger relation to the whole to which it belongs.

We might therefore ask whether the notion of the atlas expressed here belongs not to our world but to the future in which these essays are (imaginarily) written.

The book’s title, Atlas, brings the whole back into view. It is an odd whole, however, since it bears no relation to any Atlas of my acquaintance. Consider, for instance, the example of Watercress and Water Spinach Streets, whose inhabitants move from one to the other (to the former in winter; to the latter in summer), reflecting the seasonal availability of those vegetables, with the result that mail sent too close to the solstice (winter or summer, as the case may be) may languish for half a year, waiting for its residents to return. We might therefore ask whether the notion of the atlas expressed here—one produced by a series of semi-narrative, semi-historical vignettes, arranged in an arbitrary but potentially significant order that recalls the insane lists of Borges’s famous Chinese encyclopedia—belongs not to our world but to the future in which these essays are (imaginarily) written.

In that case the novel would be giving us not only a series of mildly estranged visions of Hong Kong parsed through a series of mildly estranging methods of producing those visions, but an epistemological model for archaeological knowledge. This latter would borrow more from the pre-modern structure of the cabinet of wonders than it would from its more regimented, closed, and totalizing successors, the museum, the encyclopedia, or the dictionary.

Among other things, the combination of structure and intellectual style in this novel reminds us that no one vision of the city, no mandate or survey, can completely dominate or destroy it. At least that would be our reading in 1997. Today, Atlas conveys a nostalgia folded over on itself, which allows us to see not only that first, mandatory reading of the book, but to grasp its logic at a distance. That distance frees us to recognize the ways in which Dung’s work continues to speak, beyond the immediate days of its production, to perennially interesting questions of knowledge, imagination, and political control. It also opens onto the possibility of feeling nostalgic about the premature and anticipatory nostalgia of the 1996–97 period, which still now seems to have been, when we compare it to the utterly banal modes of Hong Kong’s current semi-integration into the People’s Republic’s cultural and political spheres, optimistic.

No such sense of optimism pervades Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses. Where Dung allows us to inhabit, on loan, a fantastic dimension of maps and histories, Yan gives us instead an imaginary village located almost actually in contemporary China, and uses that almost-actually status to bend the rules of realism around the odd and likeable impossibilities of satire. The novel tells the story of a minor but self-aggrandizing provincial official who decides to buy Lenin’s corpse from Russia and install it in the local capital in order to increase tourism. Along the way he discovers a village full of disabled people with highly unusual skills. Recruited into a performance troupe, these folks cause a regional sensation, quickly earning the millions needed not only to buy the corpse but to build an extravagant mausoleum to house it; together these will, most everyone believes, assure the region an endless supply of Lenin-worshipping tourists.

That no one within YAN’s narrative seems to know anything is wrong tells us, finally, that something is wrong.

The somewhat banal skill set of these disabled performers—a one-legged long jumper, a blind woman who can hear and name dropped objects, a deaf man who sets off firecrackers around his head—is treated by characters in the novel as nothing short of extraordinary. The gap between what these folks can do, which is after all not nothing, but not exactly very much, either, and the insane ticket prices and hysteria that they command in the novel is a sign of the general sense of unreality and disconnection that occasionally turns the novel’s Borgesian imaginaries into far more troubling, Kafkaesque incomprehensibilities. That no one within the narrative seems to know anything is wrong tells us, finally, that something is wrong, just as Josef K’s family’s reaction to his new status tells us that in a certain kind of world, a level of terrifying ontological instability is not only expected but politically and socially unmanageable.

All the good humor and wackiness of the book, which includes a series of mock footnotes giving us a mixture of real and false historical background and details on the local dialect, borrows something of the impulse of Dung’s Atlas, but tunes it to a creepier frequency. That both the chapters and the footnotes only appear in odd numbers—implying, as translator Carlos Rojas observes in his introduction, that the even-numbered material has been censored or disappeared—only confirms the feeling that something is deeply wrong. Indeed, I find myself wondering if the aesthetic of so much contemporary Chinese art—the cover photograph of the English translation is an image from the painter Chen Yu—is the product of the strange combination of openness and unspeakableness that makes up Chinese political life, in which one can, for instance, talk openly about the fact that things are censored, as long as one does not discuss what the censored things actually are. The novel’s action travels around and around this missing center until reality intrudes, some fifty pages from the ending, with predictable results. That those results are also depressing is a measure of the belief and faith that Yan is able to dispense over the course of the book’s first four hundred or so pages. The final force of Lenin’s Kisses rests in its demonstration of the possibility of faith, even in disaster, but a faith mediated by the novel’s relentless suspicion of the world beyond the village, whose avatar, Grandma Mao Zhi, is the story’s only hero.

The advantage for scholars who write about the literature of earlier centuries is that our forebears (or their archives) have already selected for us, for good or ill, the books that count. Working in the contemporary, we don’t know which works will matter in the long run. This is why the highbrow novel must claim, against the odds, that it perfectly captures its era. (Da Chen on Yan Lianke, on the back cover: “This is a tale of modern China with all its wonders, marvels and absurdities and ironies roped together, making it a must-read.”) Middlebrow novels, meanwhile, just have to give you some small amount of pleasure; they have no interest in being read ten years from now. That is why these four books make a grouping not especially conducive to some larger snapshot of the state of literature about China in the United States today. Each testifies, to be sure, to some dimension of that larger picture, but the contrast between the American middlebrow texts of Tsukiyama and Buckley, on the one hand, and the surreal or postmodern realisms of Yan and Dung, on the other, means that these books never really talk to each other. And no wonder: they don’t belong to the same literary universe. But this is not, and cannot be, an allegory for why or how we deal with China today. The presence of all these books testifies to the immense American interest in the topic; their generic diversity to the possibilities opened up inside that broad and variegated interest. It will be a long wait to see if one of them turns out to have grasped in an especially incandescent and coruscating way the truth of where we are now. icon

  1. See, for instance, Leslie T. Chang, “Working Titles: What do the most industrious people on earth read for fun?,” The New Yorker, February 6, 2012.
Featured image: Turn philosophy into a sharp weapon in the hands of the masses. Designer: Revolutionary Committee of Tianjin Industrial Exhibition Hall. IISH / Stefan R. Landsberger Collections, courtesy of