The second PEN Atlas despatch in this week’s two-part sequence is by one of China’s most important writers and avant-garde poets, Han Dong, who looks into two very significant periods in China’s literary history. 

Translated by Nicky Harman 

When Chinese literature is mentioned, most people think of China’s long history, a long tradition, which can be traced back about 3,000 years. But one cannot ignore two periods of 30 years. These 60 years make a very short tradition, but this ‘mini-tradition’ has had a far more direct and profound impact on Chinese literature today than the preceding 3,000 years.

The first 30 years (from 1949 to 1979) started with Mao Zedong and finished with Deng Xiaoping. In those days, there was only one kind of literature – one which served politics. Any piece of writing at odds with the official ideology was criticized or banned, and regarded as flouting the law. The smallest slip-up on the part of the author and he or she would be ousted from the Writers Association, and sent to prison or to a Labour camp. The vigilance of Party functionaries and the whims and fancies of certain leaders meant that there were no fixed rules even for writers who were willing to toe the Party line. Writing was a dangerous business. You were required to court disaster, but you had no idea when or where or why it would strike. Could you just write and remain unpublished? No way. Someone would be sure to report you, and very likely it would be your sleeping partner, your wife, husband or children, or a friend you’d known for years. There was a crime then known as counter-revolutionary thinking. It was an age when you did not dare reveal anything about yourself even in your private diary: literature was chopped off at the root and became just another object.

The most extreme point was reached during the Cultural Revolution, when anything considered feudal, capitalist or revisionist was prohibited and destroyed. That 3,000-year-old literary tradition fell into the category ‘feudal’. ‘Capitalism’ meant western capitalism, and ‘revisionism’, the ideology of the former Soviet Union. Before the Cultural Revolution, and especially in the 1950s, Russian literature had been practically the only foreign writing which Chinese authors had access to, but after the break between the two countries, Soviet literature was regarded as unsafe and was gradually banned.

In the 30 years from 1949-79, 3,000 years of literary tradition simply evaporated, turning literature into something completely different. Its practitioners faced external political pressures – and internalised them to the extent that they were transformed into an inner need and self-discipline. It was all part and parcel of an adaptive process without which writers could not have survived.

Luckily, from the end of the 1970s and throughout the 80s, as China opened up to the outside world, there was an accompanying liberation in people’s thinking. In the literary domain, an enormous numbers of books by Western authors flooded into China in translation. A new generation of writers fell on them and devoured them. Inevitably, the choice of books to translate and read was made unsystematically and indiscriminately. Anything Western must be good – the very fact that it was from the West was a mark of its worth, in other words ‘The foreign moon was rounder than the Chinese moon…’ 1980s writing was filled with enthusiasm and excitement, forming an eclectic, crude mixture. There was a mad rush to write new experiences down, but there was little real desire to examine the underlying ideas and writing techniques, or find new ways to deal with reality. Still, it was an amazing time to live through. I miss the atmosphere of the literary world of the 1980s even though I don’t rate its achievements very highly.

 In 1979, the genesis of the unofficial publication Today, edited by the poet, Bei Dao, was enormously significant, especially when you consider that even now publications by private individuals are still in principle illegal. It was the first in a series of what the poet Xi Chuan has called the ‘small journals’. In the decade following the first issue of Today, unofficial journals published by groups of like-minded individuals took off and became the normal outlet for poetry, in particular. In Xi Chuan’s opinion, the experience of writers who have had their work published in these ‘small journals’ is quite different from those who have not. They provided a space for free expression and –marked out their writers as people who set themselves apart from official literature. You were an independent spirit, you did not have to depend on official favour. This tradition of ‘small journals’ has now spread to the internet, where poets and writers have set up their own websites and chat rooms.

In the 1990s, almost every aspect of Chinese society underwent a radical shake-up as the process of what we call ‘marketisation’ intensified. The writing environment has been completely transformed. As the novelist Zhu Wen put it, China may not be the world’s poorest country any more, but the Chinese are definitely the people who are driven craziest by poverty. There is a difference between the two – poverty is a lack of material goods, whereas being driven crazy by poverty is a state of mind, greed. This pursuit of riches has become the new Chinese world view, the new dream. In my opinion, greed has become the motive force for material modernisation, and not only in China Literature has largely been abandoned by Chinese readers, because it is of no practical use. Guides to making money, playing the stock market, dealing in real estate, business management, social skills and so on top the list now, followed by books on health, collecting antiques, feel-good books – ‘chicken soup for the soul’ – and memoirs of famous people.

There’s something else happening too: the literary world is fragmenting in the face of huge pressures. Some writers are just following market trends and turning out best-sellers which satisfy the readers’ needs for emotional release or a quick stimulus. Other authors write for the Party-controlled ‘system’. That way they get the right to be heard. With official backing, they do well in market terms too… China is unique in the power and legitimacy of officially-approved literature, which carries on the tradition of the first 30-year period, 1949-79, although there have been some changes in tactics and the latitude allowed to such writing. But however harmful the marketisation of literature has been, it has a positive aspect too: only the market is powerful enough to stand up to the system. Every aspect of China today is full of paradoxes, and literature is no different. On the one hand, the system conspires with the market to the detriment of idealism in writing. But on the other, these two forces hold each other in check. A rift has developed between them, giving independent writers space to eke out an existence. The hope for Chinese literature can only lie with the small number of authors who work away quietly on their own – even if they are almost unknown. The second 30-year period is now over. Chinese authors now have access to information, means of communication, stores of knowledge, all benefits we have enjoyed during 30 years of reforms, 1979-2009 – and we have open access to our 3,000 year-old tradition too. We can’t retreat from reality any longer. In terms of the drama of life and themes for our work, this period beats any other. The responsibility falls on each one of us as an individual to make use of all this in our own writing.

© Han Dong 2012. Not to be reproduced on any other website or publication without prior permission. If you would like to request permission then please get in touch.

 About the Author

Han Dong was born 17 May, 1961 in Nanjing. Han Dong’s parents were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, taking him with them. When the Cultural Revolution ended, he studied philosophy at Shandong University, graduating in 1982. He subsequently taught philosophy in colleges in Xi’an and Nanjing, finally relinquishing teaching in 1993 and going free-lance as a writer. Han Dong began writing in 1980, and has been a major player on the modern Chinese literary scene since the 1990s. He is well-known as one of China’s most important avant-garde poets, and is becoming increasingly influential as an essayist, short story writer and novelist.

About the Translator

Nicky Harman lives in the UK. She has worked as a literary translator for a dozen years and, until the spring of 2011, also lectured at Imperial College London. Now, in addition to translating, she organizes translation-focused events and mentors new translators from Chinese. She led the Chinese English group at the British Centre for Literary Translation Summer School from 2009 to 2011 and in 2011 was Translator–in–Residence at the London Free Word Centre. Authors she has translated include Zhang Ling (Gold Mountain Blues); Yan Geling (Flowers of War), Han Dong (A Phone Call from Dalian: Collected Poems, and Banished! A Novel), Hong Ying (K – The Art of Love) and Xinran.