Saturday, February 28, 2009

Reading Yang Jiang (III): Min Ze

Min Ze 敏澤 (Hou Minze . "Gan xiao liu ji du hou 《幹校六記》讀後" (A Response to Six Chapters of a Cadre School). Du shu 讀書, 9 (September 1981): 9-12.

A sensitive reader

To see that Six Chapters of a Cadre School calls for nuanced, politically sensitive reading strategies, I turn now to one of the work's earliest and most sympathetic readers, 侯敏泽 Hou Minze (1927-2004). Min Ze (Hou Minze's pen name), was evidentally a close friend of both Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu; his review reflects this intimacy from its very beginning: "I was lucky enough to be one of the very first readers of Six Chapters of a Cadre School. One day, I went to see Mocun and Jikang, and we three chatted on and on about this and that, and as we talked we grew warmer and more enthusiastic -- altogether a most congenial time, just like those of the past." In his retelling, Jikang (he calls her Jikang, Yang Jiang's real name) gave Min Ze the manuscript of Six Chapters as a sort of parting gift, and she asked him to read it and to offer suggestions. Min Ze lay in his bed that evening and decided to get just a few pages of Six Chapters in before going to sleep, but once he began reading, he could not put the book down. Not only did he stay up until the small hours of the morning to read the entire work, he also felt compelled to respond immediately to the work in a long personal letter back to Yang Jiang. All of these details, from the congeniality (touji 投機) of the chat to his need to write back to her, show how Min Ze frames his comments with a strong sense of personal engagement with both Yang Jiang and Qian Zhongshu. Readers are invited to imagine that the rest of this review is that letter to Yang Jiang. In this way, a clear community of readers is drawn. As we can see in the review, speaking up to praise and defend Yang Jiang is thus, for Min Ze, a way to speak up for a whole community, and a way to speak up for himself, as well.

Picking out themes

Min Ze was an extremely prolific expert on
Chinese aesthetics and Chinese literary theory; in 1981 alone, he put
out 15 articles in addition to his review of Yang Jiang's new book;
early 1982 saw the publication of his mammoth History of Chinese Literary Criticism in two volumes (see his profile on the website Beijing University's Research Center for Aesthetics and Aesthetic Education). As a somewhat younger but in no way less illustrious member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, his positive review in Reading magazine (Du shu) may have helped shape the official reception of the book. At the very least, the main themes of future reviews, essays, prefaces, and biographies that mention Six Chapters are all found here, and have perhaps never been stated so concisely. These themes include the highly elevated concision embedded with a modest, plainspoken (pusu 樸素) tone, the focus on quotidian detail and the poetic potential that details have, to open out into a world fused between the inner self and the historical situation. Like future reviewers, Min Ze recognizes a highly personal take on an experience virtually all Chinese intellectuals of the time could understand, drawn up in a form that celebrates their aesthetic values, and their particular skillsets, such as the strong humanistic temperament (qingcao 情操) that empowered the older generation in particular to survive the Cultural Revolution intact and ready to return to work.


Another theme that pervades practically every word of this review is a political one. Clearly delineating Yang Jiang's book as a form of biographical writing, within the scope of historical writing and the truth value that this entails, Min Ze goes on to fill in, to supplement the portrait of Yang Jiang in order to establish her legitimacy as a Chinese patriot and as a loving and dutiful wife. In this way, Min Ze hopes to place Yang Jiang among a broader set of Marxist socialist intellectuals. Yang Jiang should not be seen as a critic of socialism, says Min Ze. Min Ze offers some strong criticism, calling the Cultural Revolution a shocking waste of human talent, a national tragedy for which Lin Biao and the Gang of Four are directly responsible. It is Min Ze who draws our attention first to a particularly oft-quoted passage near the end of the book, when Yang Jiang asks Qian Zhongshu whether he regrets staying in China after 1949:

My mind wandered back to the days just before Liberation when so many people were fleeing overseas. Why hadn't we taken one of the many offers and left as well? ...

When Mocun passed the garden I pointed to the hut. 'If we had a little hut like this one we could settle down here, couldn't we?' He thought it over for a moment and replied dolefully, 'We don't have any books.'

He was right. We could do without every other type of material comfort, but without books, life would be impossible. All he had brought with him were dictionaries, notebooks, and calligraphic inscriptions. 'Have you ever regretted that we stayed in China?' I asked.

'If I could turn back the clock, I wouldn't want to change a thing.'

Later readers would see in this scene a classic articulation of patriotism in a Chinese intellectual: "The simple fact was that we couldn't abandon our homeland" For Min Ze, they are all that and just as much a testament to the undying love of the couple, a beautiful statement of the habitual way that "we usually arrived at the same conclusions." [To be continued]

Behold the Nightmare

Addressing Understandings of the Supernatural: Ann Waltner & Peter Harle
Religious Studies Teaching Colloquia
Sponsored By: Religious Studies Program
Additional Sponsors: Institute for Advanced Study
Thursday, February 26, 2009
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
Is this you? Take a course in religious studies now to find out.

This lunchtime colloquium convinced me that getting involved in religious studies as a way of looking at and teaching literary texts is something that I personally would like to do. One reason for this is simply that all of the coolest teachers I know are excited about religious studies, and I want to be like them. Ann Waltner has worked on the case of a teenage girl Daoist mystic cult leader who is recorded to have "ascended into heaven" in 1580. And Paul Rouzer teaches are a really popular and quite wonderful class on the "fantastic" in East Asian literature and film. I had not heard from Peter Harle before, but his perspective on how people's living, actual beliefs in the supernatural reveal the need for a neutral look at the terms we use : terms like reality, truth, and even supernatural differ from culture to culture and even person to person. A really interesting example is the "Mara experience" -- you are sleeping or in a sleep-like state, and suddenly you feel that you are being invaded by an unseen force. In Newfoundland, scholar-doctor David Hufford has documented this as a commonly acknowledged experience described as a visit from "the old hag." But some people don't believe in the old hag, and prefer to think of the experience as a medical condition with a Greek-based name like "sleep paralysis." The idea that the experience is common, and only the terms differ here, is really intriguing to me, because it's yet another example of how great the power of words is on our very ways of being.

Coming Issues: the term "Supernatural"

Ann Waltner perceives a break between my own use of the term "supernatural" and her own. I used it that afternoon as a synonym for "the fantastic," by which I mean (and here I'm making up a definition on the spot): the elements of stories that indicate creatures, forces or whole worlds beyond what we experience in normal, everyday life. Waltner didn't seem to agree that this general usage of supernatural was suited to religious studies and the larger scope of social sciences, but I couldn't at the time understand why, except that perhaps Waltner wants to argue for a stronger relationship between the term "supernatural" and terms like "religious experience" ; this connection should perhaps be stronger than the connection between "supernatural" and terms like "the fantastic" which were developed within narrative analysis. For the moment, I think it's important to note the issue and remain open to new information. Back to the books.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Susan Buck-Morss at UMN

"From Hegel and Haiti to Universal History": A presentation by Susan Buck-Morss
Sponsored By: Institute for Advanced Study
Additional Sponsors: Institute for Global Studies
Series: Thursdays at Four

Hegel *and* Haiti

Hegel began using the term "revolution" in earnest after reading an 1804 issue of the journal Minerva which carried analysis of the Haitian Revolution. Can we go beyond the treatment he gave to revolution? Can we develop a true and morally righteous, universal opposition to capitalist exploitation? A radical new anti-slavery? In a politically charged call for empathy and syncretism in the teaching of history, Professor Buck-Morss proved her mettle as an intellectual historian to contend with.

There is no "other"

I think of the lecture as a plea for a broader perspective of mankind that does not demonize any single group of beings as "other." By focusing on the history of Haiti, but implying a deeper connection to European history than is generally acknowledged, Buck-Morss hopes to illustrate a great historical truth behind Haiti's insurrection: that it began with a religious ritual, that it banded together the slaves, slaves that capitalist countries had themselves forced together in a never-ending pursuit for the most efficient way to control labor. The deeply spiritual, perhaps irrational, experience of liberty and resistance that Buck-Morss reads in the character of the leader of the Haitian insurrection, a "big black man," literate in the language of Islam, calling forth eloquently for liberty in a Voodoo initiation rite that ignited full-scale insurrection is the real legacy of that event. Professor Buck-Morss would have us inherit this deep need for the liberty of all humanity, from paid factory workers to indentured servants to African slaves on plantations, and apply to the contemporary globalized world. She implies that coalition politics, linking groups of different race, gender, or identity markers of any kind, must rise up based on common need.

Living in the Truth is Still Hard

Clearly, Buck-Morss hopes to use her universal history to start a new dialogue about contemporary global politics. But when questioned about the new terms of this political debate, Buck-Morss still prefers to demur. She is neither for violence of any kind, nor a pacifist. She will dare to criticize Obama, but she admits a surge of hope in modern coalition politics. She is not proud to be an American, but calls to us to see how similar the "liberty" language that is the legacy of the founding fathers "and all that crap" is worth learning from as much as Haiti. The audience posed challenges aimed at showing the possible limits of her "empathy"-based approach to history: it's anarchist, it's all an act, it's a Foucaultian fantasy of power continuously in play. The room went flush with engagement, but it was a skeptical engagement. I wish I could have asked the professor whether Obama is right to keep risking innocent Pakistani lives in the name of our military objectives against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Or whether Hilary Clinton was right to leave the term "human rights" out of any of her recent dialogues with China's leaders. I have a feeling she would be as ambivalent on these questions as any of us. I can't decide if thinking that should be heartening, or make me even more gloomy about the future of the humanities in America.

Culture Doesn't Love a Revolution

Making time for a little background reading. Alright, making time for any reading, in between grading papers, grant applications, and special events. Ugh.

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Culture of the Culture Revolution: Culture-Fail?
Clark's new book has the stated purpose of putting the "culture" back in "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," by looking at just how much drama, opera, dance, film and literature was produced between 1966 and 1976 in China, so it's really wrong to say the period was a time when no new works came out, as in the joke "Eight-hundred million people watched just eight operas." The introduction to the book piques my interest when it mentions memoirs published overseas like Wild Swans, which are enjoyed by non-Chinese as stories of suffering and survival, but too often serve to re-inforce a simple dismissal of Cultural-Revolution-era cultural production because the writers of these memoirs are all responding to power challenges with re-assertions of their own social status, not to mention "political propriety." Clark's implicit point is that such memoir authors choose an anti-Communist stance because they wish the situation in China would go back to the way things were before they lost their jobs - reasonable enough, I suppose. I've often wondered to what degree Six Chapters of a Cadre School could be compared to Wild Swans, and this insight from page three of Clark's book already helps me to begin asking the necessary questions: how anti-Communist is Six Chapters? To what degree is Six Chapters a re-assertion of social status?

Yang Jiang: Culture of the End of the Cultural Revolution

I've worked before to show that Six Chapters is anti-Communist. It's remarkable that it made it past the censors during the semi-crackdown that was going on, 1980-84, but I've felt that this must have been the case because government authorities didn't really grasp the irony in Yang Jiang statements. I quoted from Kong Qingmao's biography to help defend this hypothesis. I've also done a little work in the past to show how Yang Jiang uses highly elevated language; to do this all we have to do is see the ways in which it engages with traditional Chinese poetics. This last bit of work is drastically incomplete, but I've been very uncertain about how to proceed with it. I think Clark helps put me on firmer footing by asking me to compare Yang Jiang with writers who were active in the years after 1970-1, when the Cultural Revolution "insurgents" began to die down and allow for more literary production, both official and unofficial. Many of these writers were working memory literature describing their experiences at labor camps, and and least some of them apparently took an elevated tone that made reference to traditional literary forms. Clark asks us to think of these writers as "specialists trying to survive in challenging circumstances," and points in several cases to the very positive responses that they got from audiences. I wonder if Yang Jiang could help solidify a point that Clark makes all too briefly in the last two pages of his book: that the autonomy of writers in the 1980s is in part an evolution of writers from the 1970s who were struggling with recent memory and the desire to re-assert their own social and professional status. As Clark puts it, during the Cultural Revolution China was full of "specialists trying to survive in challenging circumstances."

Readers Just Want to Have Fun

The evidence of literary works in the early 1970s shows that even as early as 1970, there was a significant demand for books that were actually fun to read, as opposed to the "agitprop" that was typically force-fed to audiences in bookstores and schools. At the end of his introduction, Clark asks us to think of the Cultural Revolution as a "doomed attempt to combine the vernacular and the elitist in a modern project." Coming up: how Yang Jiang fits in the new, revamped and less brow-beaten "vernacular modernism" of a literary movement that starts during the last stage of the Cultural Revolution.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Quitter

Pekar, Harvey, Dean Haspiel, Lee Loughridge, and Pat Brosseau. The Quitter. Vertigo, 2005.

At least he's honest

Justly billed as a "confessional," Harvey Pekar's memoir-comic is certainly honest. But it begs the question: if a less-than-extraordinary man recounts all the reasons he did not live up to his potential, can that confession be a form of art?

Just an average neurotic

Much of Pekar's story is unremarkable. He was fairly intelligent as a child, but plagued with vague, undiagnosed emotional problems. Probably his Polish immigrant parents were partly to blame, but getting bullied by black kids as racial tension rose was no doubt a factor as well. Harvey lived his whole life in Cleveland, a city that apparently embodies the American sense of "average," "normal," or "mediocre." In "The Quitter," we watch as a bright, smiling child turns into both a bully and a coward at the same time. We watch him discover his own talents, even as he confesses he buried, repressed the sides of himself he feared, leading a stunted life: quitting football, quitting math class, quitting school. Quitting the navy because he was afraid to wash his clothes. Quitting a job. Quitting another, to go back to school again. Quitting school again.

Self medicating with art

And on and on it goes. Along the way, Pekar evolves his own particular artistic sensibility -- "theories," he calls them, connecting his experiences with sports statistics, jazz criticism, and comics as ways of escaping the oppressive self-absorption and various social anxiety disorders that are then available for view as the flip-side of his profession. Are other artists like that? Weirdos, I mean, misfits whose beef is not with the world, but their own inability to be comfortable in their own skin, too afraid to fess up to what they cannot do. Artists like Harvey Pekar are eminently unlikeable people -- so much so that somebody thought there was an audience in the world of graphic novels for them.

Slackers unite

I don't know how successful this graphic novel was, but I feel it probably did not connect with many readers, though if Comic Book Guy is any indication, it might be like looking in a mirror. Perhaps uncomfortably so.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Aging 1: Encyclopedia of Life Writing

Jolly, Margaretta. Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.

I met Prof. Jolly in the UK in 2008. It's all starting to fade a bit from my memory, but I do remember that she gave a keynote address to members of the "Writing Lives in China" workshop on the subject of "global life writing." She basically called on all of us to look beyond the individual traditions we were working in and try to imagine a larger, universal field of letters. I wasn't surprised by her speech because I was already aware of the massive Encyclopedia of Life Writing which clearly aims to answer her own call. What did surprise me, though, was the way my fellow scholars scorned and dismissed Jolly as soon as she had left the room. Could there be something dreadfully wrong with the concept of "global life writing," or at least its application to Chinese literary forms? I've really no clear way to even begin answering this question yet, but I must admit I'm still quite biased in Jolly's favor. From time to time I will take a close look at entries from the Encyclopedia; if the information here forms a major hindrance to my studies, I suppose I'll figure that out sooner or later.

"Aging" by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Gullette introduces the idea that "age" in literature should be treated critically. Elderly writers are much more likely to write elegies, for example: such are the "politics of aging." But "age positive" writings are not necessarily the best reply to the perception of "agism" in literature; what is needed is a new field of "Age Studies" that would serve to "convey (as others have done for gender and race) the tremendous impact of age discourses on subjectivity and social relations."

Portrait of the Artist as an Old Lady

"Age" as a critical issue is incredibly likely to be a major theme of my dissertation, but I just don't know where I'm going with it yet. A few facts to chew on:

  • Yang Jiang's entire autobiographical career dates from after the Cultural Revolution; her first memoir came out as she turned 70.
  • Her only novel was published at age 77
  • In 2003, she started publishing again, and has put out three volumes since. Many articles begin by remarking how amazing it is that she is still writing.

Finally, a brief thought to connect with my last entry. When I was reading "scar" literature, I was particularly attentive to the 'elder' characters like the police inspector Wang Gongbo in "Sacred Duty." These characters all serve as important role models that help former red guards and other disillusioned younger people find ways to become active, engaged Chinese citizens again. I really wonder how much the power of the elder figure to serve as a role model owes itself to their age itself. I think again of the passage I've already quoted:
Ai Hua was looking thoughtfully at the hardened and experienced old man in front of her. Something that had always been very difficult for her to grasp suddenly became clear: this is what a common, yet at the same time great, man was like...
How many of the outward signs of what "common, yet at the same time great" is have to do with age? She must consider the man's grizzled face, his neat clothes, and above all the air of certainty about what is good and right. Now, when we turn to Yang Jiang, we have to admit first of all that gender enters into the picture as well as age. I wonder if there is a sense in which I might at some point be able to describe her as "China's mom."


Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Wounded

A Scarred Youth

"Scar" Literature, aka "wound" (shanghen 傷痕) literature, is the term for the soul-searching stories that came out in a flood immediately following the Cultural Revolution. Writing about recent literary trends in 1984, scholar Judith Shapiro describes "scar" literature as enjoying a brief heyday between the fall of the so-called "Gang of Four" (Madame Mao and three other Chinese leaders who ended up taking the blame for the Cultural Revolution) and the Deng Xiaoping's consolidation of power in October, 1980. Yang Jiang's memoir Six Chapters of a Cadre School shares many of the general themes of scar literature stories: the abused intellectual class, confused and disillusioned youth, and the general madness of intense, years-long political movements that swept up virtually all of the urban classes. Still, an almost constant refrain has it that Yang Jiang's writing is far better than any stories from the "scar" literature movement.

Well, what are some of these "scar" stories, anyway? I figured I'd better check some out myself.

Lee, Bennett, ed. The Wounded: New Stories of the Cultural Revolution, 77-78. Hongkong: Joint Publishing Company, 1979.

"Ha, everything is lies, lies. I've seen through it all!"

"Sacred Duty," "Class Counsellor," and "'Awake, My Brother!'" all feature members of the older generation, the generation that had experienced the war years and the first decades of Communist rule. Though Bennett Lee's introduction focuses only on the younger generation that came of age during the years 1966-1976, the so-called "lost generation," it is these members of the older generation who re-store faith to the "lost generation" in all of these stories. In each case, young people are compelled to leave a state of apathy or non-action, to re-enter the "mundane world" with a renewed faith in Chinas new leaders. While returning to a state of political engagement required members the "lost generation" to spurn the actions of the Gang of Four, Lin Biao and other leaders of China during the Cultural Revolution, it was also necessary for the young people in these stories to find viable role models in the older generation.

Wang Gongbo: Not just a Communist, but a Good Person.

I particularly liked the story "Sacred Duty," a tale of a hardened but ultimately faithful and virtuous police inspector, Wang Gongbo, who is released from a cadre school in 1975 at the age 59. Wang has been pulled from the labor camp and placed in charge of a special investigation regarding the case of an innocent man convicted of rape. As the plot twists and turns, we learn that the alleged rape victim, a girl named Yang Qiong, has been co-erced into false testimony against the innocent man, Wang Shuo, as part of a plot among her parents and other dastardly affiliates of the Gang of Four. These enemies of the state told Yang Qiong that her false testimony was a necessary sacrifice for the nation, but after Wang Shuo is convicted of rape and sent to prison, Yang Qiong is not able to forgive herself. Intrepid investigator Wang Gongbo tracks her down in another town, where she has fled her past and taken a new name, Ai Hua:

Ai Hua was looking thoughtfully at the hardened and experienced old man in front of her. Something that had always been very difficult for her to grasp suddenly became clear: this is what a common, yet at the same time great, man was like. It was in that same instant that she realized she had the courage to say what she had made her deepest and most carefully kept secret for the past eight years. She leaned against the windowsill, her hand shaking uncontrollably. Her face was stiffened by mixed and conflicting emotions, yet it was already lit with something new, a spirit of determination.

This is the existential moment when Ai Hua makes the decision to return to the world, to live again with certainty about what is good. I like it very much, partly because the clear, simple language of the passage shows us a member of the "lost generation" inspired by the very appearance of this upright old man. Visual cues in this and other stories -- a firm, implacable look, worn clothes with all the buttons done up just so -- are crucial in convincing lost youth that the world is more than a pack of lies, and that there is goodness in the world. Another reason this scene works is that it comes as the conclusion to a crime thriller. The perpetrator has been caught by the expert police work of our hero, despite aggressive opposition from the forces of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four -- at the very moment the passage above occurs, a contingent from the Public Safety Bureau has been sent to arrest Wang Gongbo and stop his investigation from getting to close to the truth. Wang Gongbo has caught his man, and she has turned out to be a young person whose trust has been sadly betrayed by her own parents. But that trust can be regained, if she joins him to stop the forces of corruption and right the wrong she committed during the Cultural Revolution. Wang Gongbo is just a touch younger than Yang Jiang would have been in 1975, and also a man and a political leader for young people to look up to. But I wonder if there is a connection in that Yang Jiang's readers have always included young people with a still-developing set of political and moral values. We might closely compare the cool, implacable way that both elders carry themselves: each in their own distinct ways preserve at all times personal dignity and respect for others. As A. would say, they carry themselves through the difficult times "with aplomb." Broadly speaking, I think that Yang Jiang shares with other scar literature portraits of good people; the main distinction is just in the character of the portraits.

Teaching Yang Jiang

This is part of a continuing set of readings about Yang Jiang, a Chinese writer who forms the subject of my dissertation (below, second from left, at age 16). As I've mentioned before, her autobiographical writings are so well-established that some of them are actually taught in Chinese schools. Here is a some evidence that Yang Jiang is part of the established curriculum for schools in Hong Kong.

Yang Jiang in the 6th Grade

The Education Bureau of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. Zhong liu Zhongguo wenxue: mingzhu xuandu jianjie 中六中國文學——名著選讀簡介 (Form 6 Chinese Literature: Selections and Introductions to Classic Works).

The Chinese Canon

Using Google, I found this on the webpage of the HK Education Bureau. The list of 48 works covered ranges from the Tang dynasty to literature of the 1980s, with a fairly equal distribution between modern and pre-modern works. The preface (this link goes to a .pdf file) to this listing dates it to September 2003 and says it is meant to accompany a 2002 publication entitled Guide to Chinese Literature Curriculum (Form 6) 中國文學課程指引(中六). Apparently this is supplied to teachers to help them select works for their classes, and to give them guidelines for teaching these works. In the terms of my field, I think this institutional authority over works would be called a form of canon formation. Thus, the listing is a kind of canon. Yang Jiang's memoir of the Cultural Revolution may be the only representative work describing this period of Chinese history -- or if it isn't it is clearly one of very few such works -- and so the listing helps me show that her memoir of the Cultural Revolution is a major part of the 'official history' of that period. "Official" here refers very simply to the historical narrative promulgated in educational institutions sponsored through the Chinese government. The mere list of officially designated works no doubt provides some great insights into how Chinese teach and understand their own history, but before I study the list as a whole more carefully, I have focused on the entry for Yang Jiang's memoir of the Cultural Revolution, Six Chapters of a Cadre School.

Yang Jiang the Teacher: The Official Yang Jiang

The listing described above links to a three-page account (again, a .pdf file) of Six Chapters of a Cadre School, including a brief introduction to the author, summary of the contents of the work, and list of teaching suggestions. I sort of half-expected this to be boring reading, but it wasn't, mostly because it was full of surprises. The brief little biography of Yang Jiang was quite different than other such snippets because it emphasized her role as a teacher and leader in education so much more firmly. Where Yang Jiang and her other biographers have minimized or entirely elided her teaching career during and after the war in Shanghai and Beijing, the biography here poudly calls her a "professor of foreign languages" at Zhendan Women's University in Shanghai and a "professor of Western languages" at Qinghua University in Beijing. It makes sense that the "official" Yang Jiang would stress these credentials as a teacher.

Yang Jiang the Political Critic: The Chinese Verdict on the Cultural Revolution

Given that the summary of the book's contents is a government-produced publication intended for middle school teachers to use in their classes, I was frankly surprised at what a sophisticated elaboration on the style of the work and the form of its critique appears here. Six Chapters is praised for inheriting key elements of the style of its 18th-century predecessor, Shen Fu's Six Chapters of a Floating Life, especially the celebration of love within marriage, and the meticulously-drawn portrait of home life, and also domestic concerns that follows a synechdocal pattern characteristic of Chinese poetics, allowing the reader to see from the part expressed the whole of the historical situation. "What is of interest here," explains the curricular guide, "is how the few stitches reflect the entire tapestry, how whimsical asides can effectively tell the whole tale." The Cultural Revolution is castigated as one of the worst moments in Chinese history, but Yang Jiang's writing is particularly praised for foregoing "complaint and accusation" (kongsu qianze 控訴譴責) in favor of maintaining in a calm, placating tone (pinghe de yudiao 平和的語調) a lightly-sketched (diandiandandan 點點淡淡) form of satire (fengci 諷刺). The summary emphasizes that the satirical content of the work is framed in a mild, because fundamentally stoic (wunaihe wanzhuan 無奈和婉轉) form that has to be 'tasted at length' (zixi jujue 仔細咀嚼) in order to appreciate the 'sharpness' (xinla 辛辣) of the critique. Here and in the chapter-by-chapter reading guidelines that follow, the education bureau officially endorses reading strategies that are closely aligned with the best available strategies that I have been able to discover, offering Yang Jiang a far greater stake in actual political critique than Kong Qingmao did in his biography (cf. my comments on this biography).

Wounds Without Complaint (yuan er bu nu 怨而不怒): Officially Historicizing the Cultural Revolution

In a brief but densely-packaged exposition on the artistry of Six Chapters with teaching suggestions, the prescribed curriculum defines the central issue in a clear and simple opening sentence: "This work manifests the "Wounds Without Complaint" (yuan er bu nu 怨而不怒) element of traditional Chinese literature." The slogan "wounds without complaint" serves, predictably, to distinguish Yang Jiang's work from the aggressiveness of 'scar literature.' Rather, Yang Jiang's memoir focuses on the sources and manifestations of true human relationships. Yang Jiang's love for her husband is brought up again, alongside the mutual love and respect that grows between her and the little dog Xiao qu 小趨. The latter example is crucially important for the bitter irony of finding the seeds of a new, genuine humanism in a dog rather than the surrounding humanity. The curriculum guide does not suggest that readers can use this point to stage their own political critique, but it does not deny this possibility either.

Finally, an illuminating set of study questions concludes the curriculum guide. Readers are asked to contrast Yang Jiang's 'casual, placating' (xisong pingchang 稀鬆平常) style with the preface supplied by her husband, which is imagined to be written as a 'stinging insult' (tongma 痛罵) to all those ignored the voice of their consciences, allowing the torment of their fellow man to go unopposed. Clearly, the writers of this curriculum guide put special value in the unaggressive writing style exhibited in Yang Jiang. A second question names three elements of Yang Jiang's artistic style and asks students to search the text for examples of each: "Wounds without womplaint" (yuan er bu nu 怨而不怒), "Hidden meanings in the text" (yan wai zhi yin 言外之音), and "Writing warm love of life" (xie qing xi ni 寫情細膩). This is the first time I have encountered two out of the three terms listed here, which shows how much I have to learn about the rhetorical framework that Chinese readers use to understand Yang Jiang's writing as part of a long tradition of poetical-satirical memory writing. [To be continued...]

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Yang Jiang: Finding the Irony

(This is my second post about the subject of my dissertation; check out the first one, if you wish. )

Political Criticism?

Yang Jiang is a widely celebrated writer in China today; her memoir of the Cultural Revolution is actually taught in Chinese schools.

One of the main problems that interests me is: how did this memoir become such an enduring classic? It is especially interesting when we remember that fiction and memoir of the Cultural Revolution was openly published in the years 1978-1980, and then promptly silenced in 1980. Yang Jiang's book was published at the tail end of this period, but unlike other works from those years, it was never banned. Clearly, it was never seen as a deep political critique. But I always got the feeling it was one of the more powerful critiques not only of the Cultural Revolution but against Communist ideology as a whole. It often seems to me to be just the kind of book that China's leaders should have banned in 1980. Why didn't they? I'm only slowly putting together the answer to the question. Below, my initial response to a reading from a 2004 MA thesis by a Taiwanese graduate student.

Yeh Han-yin 葉含氤. Yang Jiang wenxue chuangzuo yanjiu 楊絳文學創作研究 (A study of Yang Jiang’s literary writing). MA thesis, Soochow University Taiwan.

Irony in Chinese: a preliminary note

In this strikingly sophisticated look at the "literariness" of Yang Jiang's writing, Yeh Han-yin 葉含氤 accomplishes a lucid exposition on what I have called in English the "irony" that is everywhere present in Six Chapters of a Cadre School. In Yeh's terms, what Yang Jiang accomplishes is a dual portrait of political movements and her own emotional interior that applies a style most notable for its detached, completely irreverent form of wit, what Yeh calls 'humorous satirico-comical style' (youmo fengci de xiju bifa 幽默諷刺的戲劇筆法). The central term of Yeh's analysis of this crucial feature of Yang Jiang's style is maodun 矛盾, meaning "contradiction" or "paradox;" the strong similarity of maodun in this exposition to the term "irony" in my exposition helps reveal the considerable overlap of our arguments.

A prerequisite for irony: distance

In a brilliant reading of the 1987 essay "On the Cusp of Fire: The Years of the Horse and Ram (1966-1968)," Yeh Han-yin points to the skill with which Yang Jiang is able to use language to distance herself to the situation at hand, thus obtaining in many respects a 'clear perspective' (qingxing de shijiao 清醒的視角). Yang Jiang alludes at various places to the strong bond between this distancing and the capacity for seeing the situation ironically, as when she describes the scene of a public struggle session against intellectuals: "Like Monkey, my soul rose up into the air and surveyed the strange performance, including the ragged troupe of Monsters and Demons trailing on behind in their dunce's caps. It was a superb farce, and even now I can picture that droll parade, with me at the head of it." (Barmé 40) The distance that comes with memory, coupled most likely with the sort of inwardly-turned personal character that Yang Jiang always exhibits, forms its own strategies of survival.

A Small Battery of Verbal Ironies, Summarized

Looking closely at the verbal forms these strategies take, Yeh finds two kinds of "paradoxes" (maodun) at the center of Yang Jiang's injections of distance, clarity, and the comic. The first is the paradox of logical dialectic (luoji de bianzheng 邏輯的辯證). In "On the Cusp of Fire: The Years of the Horse and Ram (1966-1968)," Yang Jiang also describes the Cultural Revolution struggle session as incredibly boring, so much so that she couldn't help "falling asleep on her feet, like a horse" (xue ma er shui 學馬而睡). Here, says Yeh, the paradox is between Yang Jiang's apparent calm and collection and the intense atmosphere of cruelty and confession that characterized the setting. For Yeh, this type of paradox is also commonly found in Six Chapters of a Cadre School. In Chapter 3, "The Vegetable Garden: On Idleness," for example, the chief paradox is between Yang Jiang's sense of distress at the tremendous waste characterized by the cadre schools and the more superficial mode of leisure characterized by the term "idleness" (xian 閒). Similarly, the end of this same chapter contains a pithy exposition on the various exclusive but overlapping cliques that existed between prisoners, cadres, and peasants at the cadre school, and as Yeh points out the complex tones of the exposition serves mainly to contrast starkly with the intended function of the cadre school to end the distinction between the prisoners and the peasants and to bring about a general collective identity.

Irony and Political Criticism

Yeh deserves credit not only for working out the main features of this type of "paradox," but also for pointing out that these paradoxes deep critiques of Cultural Revolution policies. But Yeh does not perhaps go far enough to explore the implications of this critique, especially in light of mainland readings of Yang Jiang that remain seemingly blind to her writing as a form of critique. Whether it be the cruelty of struggle sessions, the tremendous waste of human capital and other resources at the cadre schools, or the failure of the schools to foster the intended collective spirit, Yang Jiang's clear meaning is that the project as a whole was a failure from the very beginning. It was not that the Cultural Revolution was a good idea that had gone to excess, and it was not that any particular individuals such as Mao Zedong or the Gang of Four were at fault. Rather, the ideology itself, as expressed in its main terms and assertions, is the subject of ironic, paradoxical play in Yang Jiang's work. In place of "struggle," Yang Jiang alternates between laughter and boredom; facing "re-education through labour," Yang Jiang finds altogether too much 'idleness,' and in the place of 'collective spirit,' Yang Jiang finds only the limited and exclusive 'we-ness' (zamen 咱們) of cliques that are formed in times of duress. The stakes of this political critique are high; if the authoritative mainland reading that labels Yang Jiang's writing a form of "showing a wound, yet uttering no complaint" (yuan er bu nu 怨而不怒) were better readers of irony, they might have found a considerable dose of 'complaint' in her memoirs.

Friday, February 20, 2009


So while I'm on the subject of Taiwan, and procrastinating...

Zhuan shu tian shi - TANK

Have some Taiwan cute-boy goodness. The music is dreadful written in an idiom that I have little feel for, but I love the high school setting and the mock fight scene at the end. I think I'd be a great sub-in for the boyish little girl.

Health Care in Taiwan

Today our university sponsored a talk about the Taiwanese health care system by a doctor-turned-graduate-student in public health named Wang Shi-yi. They offered a free lunch, and I almost always enjoy events centered around Taiwan, so I went.

As I expected, the room was half-filled with Taiwanese, including one or two acquaintances, obviously proud of their compatriot Dr. Wang and their own achievements with universal single-payer health care. Citing recent studies of the system, Dr. Wang made two illuminating points:

  1. Taiwan is poorer and much more densely populated than America, which makes its population more at risk for contagious disease. But since the adoption of universal health care, Taiwan has pulled its rates of infection down to below USA levels in almost all illnesses.
  2. Taiwan pays for its single payer health system with dedicated taxes from individuals and employers, but this costs much less in per-capita government spending than the American health care system. Dr. Wang says, "This proves that universal single-payer health care systems do not mean more government spending on health care."

Of course, there really are some major caveats to these points, especially the second one. The government pays less because health care costs less in Taiwan. Doctors are paid in salaries, not fees for services. Drug costs are much lower. They have three times as many nurses as in the USA per capita. But even with these caveats, Taiwan's health care system and its spokespeople have solid, irrefutable points: universal single-payer coverage is better -- much better. It's one of those things the USA will definitely adopt someday, once we finally put to rest a whole slew of completely dead ideas.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Yang Jiang: Meet her in Medias Res

A Frought Saint

So. Meet the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation: Yang Jiang 楊絳. Below, a nice photo of her with her husband (now deceased). Like many dissertation subjects, she has become a prickly, anxiety-inducing topic for the student. The student has read a certain number of his subject's writings and writings about her, and he has put into place a plan of study that will lead to a book-length exposition of her life and work, but he is more than a little afraid that he is not smart enough to handle the project. Virtually all of the student's anxieties about learning Chinese have become concentrated in this old lady.

At some point, I'll try to introduce Yang Jiang elegantly and simply in a wikipedia entry. For today, though, I'll keep to what is currently on my mind: comments on the first biography devoted to her in Chinese.

Kong Qingmao 孔庆茂. Yang Jiang ping zhuan 杨绛评传 [Yang Jiang: A Critical Biography]. Beijing: Huaxia chubanshe, 1998.

To become a saint, you have to give up on irony.

The term "critical" in the title of Kong Qingmao's work -- the first full-length biography of Yang Jiang -- belies what is actually a patchwork condensation of Yang Jiang's own autobiographical essays. By relying almost entirely on Yang Jiang's own writing, Kong manages to inject the rhetoric and style of Yang Jiang's short, fragmented essays into a longer, more complete life story. This shows us how easily autobiography can become biography in the current Chinese book market, which is no doubt one avenue by which Yang Jiang's memories become official history. On the other hand, Mr. Kong seems mostly blind to the value of Yang Jiang's prose style, particularly when it comes to irony. Deprived of her wit and humor, the Yang Jiang of Mr. Kong's biography becomes a sort of everyday saint who seems to deserve fame just for being nice to people -- "possessed of a heavenly nature of benevolence and goodness, no matter who had problems, she would reach out with a helping hand." Moreover, the historical backdrop of the Cultural Revolution, far from coming into clearer focus in Kong's exposition, is dismissed as a "nightmarish historical monster" (lishi de mengmo 歷史的夢魔), a time when ordinary people stopped being ordinary. Stumbling upon Mr. Kong's biography before reading Yang Jiang's autobiographies, the truly uninitiated reader would probably wonder what all the fuss is about, since there is virtually no discursive, objective look at Yang Jiang's literary and political significance. And yet, if we consider that most readers will be using the biography as a supplemental reference to the autobiographical writings, we can deduce that the book's main function is to certify and reaffirm Yang Jiang's literary and political significance in a form that is rather specific to the current context of Chinese life writing: when fragmented autobiographical essays transform into a complete and singular "critical biography," the subject in question is more than ever a role model for readers.

Giving up on irony

An example from the chapter "Going down to the Cadre School" (Xia fang gan xiao) will illustrate what I mean by "patchwork condensation," as well as the literary and political stakes of the patches. Near the end of his chapter, Kong Qingmao writes:


She was very ashamed (cankui) that after going through all this ideological reform, she still had not accomplished any personal transformation, and that her selfishness had not decreased. (my translation)

Despite the lack of any citation, readers will probably recognize the statement as a paraphrase from the conclusion to Six Chapters of a Cadre School. The original passage has,


And yet, looking at this list of the old and sick, I still felt a twinge of guilt (kuihan). And yet, all that aside, I couldn't rid myself of selfish joy. This made me realize something about myself: that despite more than ten years of ideological reform and two years in a cadre school, not only did I not not achieve the personal transformation that others had sought after so diligently, I hadn't even managed to get rid of my own selfishness. I was the same person I had always been. (translation heavily dependent on Geremie Barmé 1989, but modified to read more literally here).

Kong Qingmao's sentence is written in the third person, as if it were a historical judgment based on his view of the evidence. But as with the vast bulk of the biography, this sentence is in fact little more than a condensed re-arrangement of Yang Jiang's language. The main terms of Kong's sentence -- shame, ideological reform, personal transformation, and selfishness -- are all taken from Yang Jiang's passage, reproduced in the exact same sequence. But a crucial transformation to the term "shame" removes the irony that is inherent and crucial to Yang Jiang's conclusion, and thus removes the sting of her critique of the Cultural Revolution.

In the original conclusion, she feels some shame that she and Qian Zhongshu are on the list of people going home, but other people present in the room are not on the list. She wishes they could all go back together. But Kong's statement, "She was very ashamed...that she had not accomplished any personal transformation" misrepresents her use of the term "shame." When Yang Jiang says she "did not achieve personal transformation," she is being deeply ironic: where "did not achieve" would normally connote disappointment, her meaning here is that she withstood the political movement and survived intact. The term "personal transformation" (jinbu, lit. "progress"), a popular term for the goal of many Cultural Revolution policies, is just one of many such terms from the language of Cultural Revolution that Yang Jiang uses ironically, effectively showing us that she can speak this language, but refuses to use it seriously. Other people may pursue jinbu or "ideological reform" (xuexi gaizao) if they wish, she says, but she is content to retain her old "selfishness" (sixin) -- and here she turns a term that has negative connotations in the Cultural Revolution into one with the positive sense of 'staying true to yourself.' These densely packed bits of verbal irony add up to a larger political irony: the political movement designed to change her old values only made her more her hold to them more deeply; the strongest ever application of Communist terms and assertions to achieve radical cultural transformation only proved to her that she opposed it utterly.

In a pithy short essay describing Yang Jiang's memoirs, Simon Leys has praised the irony of the book: "Paradoxically, [Six Chapters] is also heavy with all that it does not say." Leys understands quite rightly that this major feature of the work, it's "aesthetic reserve," "is further reinforced by a political taboo." Leys seems uncertain whether Yang Jiang has outwitted the political taboo or not. Kong Qingmao's reading shows us that Leys was right to wonder, because Kong's biography proves that even if some readers are willing or able to decode all that the memoir "does not say," there are other readers who do not. Kong and other such readers who ignore or miss the irony of this memoir align themselves with the official, authoritative reading of Yang Jiang, that it "shows a wound, yet utters no complaint" (yuan er bu nu 怨而不怒). [To be continued...]

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gran Turino at School

February 18
12:00 p.m.
235 Nolte Center
Gran Torino, Perpetual Warriors and the Performance of Hmong Masculinity
Louisa Schein, Departments of Anthropology and
Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers, New Brunswick campus

Professor Schein read a paper explaining how Hmong viewers justifiably feel ambivalent about the portrait of Hmong people in the new film Gran Turino. They "crave" the recognition, but they might also realize that on one level they are only the nameless, violent, uncivilized, 'foreigner' sidekicks to a tale that is really about Clint Eastwoods vigilante-turned-martyr figure.

One of the most interesting things to hear is that much of the Hmong dialogue is not subtitled, especially the lines of a crabby Hmong grandma who complains a lot about the "white devils." A theme throughout the talk was that you can give Hmong some visibility, but subtly work to mute them. I found the talk itself an unwitting example of this: Hmong scholar Va-Megn Thoj is the co-author of this paper, but he sat quietly in the corner of the room while Prof. Schein read the paper, and his name does not appear on any of the publicity materials for the talk. I'm not sure what to make of that, except perhaps that the Hmong are unfortunately both difficult to understand and easy to forget.

Chinese memoir on NPR

Another scholar doing work quite similar to mine, Claire Conceison, went on the NPR show "Here and Now" this week (scroll down to "From Mao’s Prison to Playing Willy Loman" to hear the segment). The 10-minute spot on the memoir she helped write with an old Chinese actor named Ying Ruocheng really inspired me, and anyone curious about my work can get a good idea from listening to this. Also, Claire has organized a panel on Chinese autobiography at the national conference for our field next March in Chicago, and I'm on the panel too.

Must...finish...draft paper! Ugh.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Black Dossier: I heart Reading

Moore, Alan and Kevin O'Neill and others. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. La Jolla, CA: America's Best Comics, 2008.

Overall, Black Dossier was a disappointment. I like the idea of a syncretic history of the world through fantastic stories and myths, but unfortunately none of the characters are particularly interesting. Lacking a Batman or other properly mysterious and angsty hero or villain, Black Dossier builds a nice house but doesn't rent it out to anyone.

That said, I did sort of enjoy trying to identify all of the references. In this panel, for example, we have a major figure in ancient Chinese mythology having some fantastic same-sex lovin' with Orlando, a popular figure among historically-minded Western gender-wonks.

So that panel's fun. And I must admit, I don't know if Alan Moore combined the Queen Mother myth with the later trope of the sexual-vampire-witch, or if there is some story about that in the tradition that he read somewhere. Either way, he is definitely a genuine lover of art and literature, and if that comes across to readers, he's still earning his keep.


Women Writers in China: We are all good girls now

Chang, Kang-i Sun and Haun Saussy, eds. Women Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

I liked the introduction to this anthology, which is broken up into rhetorical questions like "why women writers?" and "why poets?"
The editors have really good answers to these and other questions that briefly illustrate the 'play of gender' in society by means of the tradition. A good wife, for example, once consoled her husband's failure on his examination by quoting a poem about how good girls do better than bad girls in the end. There is nothing queer in a wife comparing her husband to a good girl in the Chinese tradition; in fact, she is riffing off a famous poem by Du Fu, who most readers understand to have been comparing the good girl to himself. And Du Fu in turn relied on a long tradition of disappointed men who figured themselves as misunderstood 'good girls,' going back to the ancient apocryphal disappointed civil servant, Qu Yuan.

Given that tropes of female poets like the proverbial 'good girl' (jia nü 佳女) are so important to men and women alike, it is a relatively simple matter to show that actual female poets are also important to men and women alike. The 'real women' seem to become most interesting during the Ming and the Qing, when readers apparently eagerly devoured whole anthologies of poetry by women.

There's a good girl: Concubine Ban

The first poems in the short section of poets from "ancient times" are by 'Favorite Beauty Ban" (Ban jieyu) 班婕妤 (seen here turning down the Emperor's palanquin, lest she look like a hussy, from The Admonitions Scroll). The famous "Song of Resentment" (Yuan ge xing 怨歌行) was just elegant poutiness -- meh, but surely outdone by the longer, more elevated "Rhapsody of Self-Commiseration" (Zi diao fu 自悼賦). My favorite lines included,

Whether awake or asleep, I sighed repeatedly每寤寐而累息兮
I'd loosen my sash and reflect on myself申佩離以自思
I spread out paintings of women to serve as guiding mirrors陳女圖以鏡監兮
Consulting the lady scribe, I asked about the Odes顧女史而問詩
Saddened by the monition of the hen that crows,悲晨婦之作戒兮
I lamented the transgressions of Bao and Yan哀褒閻之為郵
I praised Huang and Ying, wives of the Lord of Yu美皇、英之女虞兮
Extolled Ren and Si, mothers of Zhou榮任、姒之母周
Although stupid and uncouth, and unable to emulate them雖愚陋其靡及兮
Dare I still my thoughts and forget them? (translated by David Knechtges, pp. 19-20)

I love the idea that you need to loosen your clothing a bit to relax and think about yourself as a self. I could see myself turning on the computer after that, or reading a book, or watching some television. Ban the Concubine pulls out some paintings of really great women and some of really awful ones, and thinks hard about what their life stories mean for her own. I'd say the central tension here is over how to best be "good," and especially whether a girl can be too smart for her own good. Ban's mastery of highly elevated Chinese can only mean that she is very smart indeed, but still she tells us she is "stupid and uncouth." Is that what she really thinks? Or had calling yourself stupid already become a trope in self-reflection by Chinese women?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hello World

Hello World,

This blog is intended to chronicle my continued readings in Chinese history and culture, though I probably won't put any specific limit on the scope of jottings.

There are already many excellent China-related blogs out there, and I'm sort of hoping I can jump into conversation with some of them. I think my angle will be my interest in chronicling graduate study specifically.

Terms and topics

About Me

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We are all wanderers along the way.