“May you live in interesting times.” Thus goes the first part of the famous Chinese curse, or at least the curse commonly attributed to the Chinese. Like all good curses at first sight it could be mistaken as a blessing. This curse has, in fact, long been granted to and put upon Chinese writers and artists: they have certainly been living in interesting times.
Back in 1972, shortly after Nixon’s visit to China, Susan Sontag wrote her short story “Project for a Trip to China.” While calling China “the most exotic place of all” and her planned trip to the country a “mythical voyage,” she also admitted that “mythical voyages were to places outside of history” yet “now such voyages are entirely circumscribed by history.” In other words, Sontag felt she was merely a tourist fantasizing about a “real” China that she could not enter.
The “real” China, however, can be a real curse. About the same time, an anonymous, lone Chinese youth, who would later go under the poetic pseudonym Duo Duo
, was writing secretly about the birth of a new subjectivity that had been alienated and isolated in the night of history. This night provided such uncanny visions:
In a night full of symbols
The moon is like the pale face of a patient
Like a mistaken, shifting time
And death, standing in front of the bed like a doctor:
Some merciless feelings
Some terrifying changes in the heart
Moonlight coughs softly on the empty ground in front of the house
Ah moonlight, hinting at the clearly seen exile… (“Night” )
Here we encounter a strange, nascent reflective consciousness that was reporting back to us on two separate worlds: not so much Eastern and Western as aboveground and underground. And it was underground where Duo Duo resided. As he understood well as we first enter the underground, we can only grope, blindly and intuitively, for the threads of history:
The past sinks into silence without any reason
Along with the principle of the sun shining all over the earth
And the dreams once written in books
They once existed and vanished subjectively
In the permanent graveyard of time (“Untitled” )
Having apparently inherited the “seer” tradition that Lu Xun founded with his “A Madman’s Diary” (1918) at the outset of modern Chinese literature, Duo Duo proved himself to be an “anti-prophet” of an underground China during the Cultural Revolution.
Contrary to Duo Duo and his anonymous, cryptic lyric voice, Ai Weiwei
is one of the most outspoken and dynamic artists in today’s China. Ai Weiwei embodies the paradox of the second, more intense, clause of the Chinese curse: “May you come to attention to those in authority.” He is an independent artist with underground roots, but he is by no means an underground artist. Instead, he works and expresses his opinions publicly and aboveground. A conceptual and performance artist, a diligent and defiant blogger and a deliberate exhibitionist, he challenges visible and invisible walls in art and daily life. Ai Weiwei’s provocative works and social activism have made him so dangerously suspect in the eyes of the Chinese authorities that he was abruptly arrested on April 3, 2011. Ironically, his arrest only solidified his stature as a new international art icon.
Ai Weiwei is the best example of the rapid globalization of contemporary Chinese art, which in turn mirrors another prominent fact, namely that the Middle Kingdom itself is perceived as an emerging global superpower in the 21st century. Following his subsequent release on parole, regardless of how his personal life and career might have been affected in the short term, it is almost certain that Ai Weiwei has made decisive long term gains for himself and for contemporary Chinese art more generally. He has broken various taboos and provided a wide open vista for a new generation of ambitious Chinese artists who aspire for freedom within the nation and a place within the larger international stage. In this sense, the unprecedented publicity, visibility and attention heaped upon contemporary China and its artists have only turned the curse that has befallen Ai Weiwei into a blessing.
Duo Duo and Ai Weiwei have each been pioneering and revolutionary figures in their respective realms and times. Meanwhile, over the past three decades and more, there have been an impressively diverse and complex spectrum of Chinese writers, poets and artists, who like Duo Duo and Ai Weiwei, have deep roots in the underground of history. And they all, one way or another, have found their own distinctive and increasingly aboveground ways to wrestle with the burden and curse of history. Their works, considered together, testify to a kaleidoscopic, sometimes super-real but more often surreal, contemporary China. Natural questions arise: to what extent have these writers, poets and artists already succeeded in rendering their unique messages comprehensible to non-Chinese audiences? Can Chinese literature and art finally explode through the opaque or transparent walls surrounding China, and truly “make sense” to the world?
Perhaps one need not be overly concerned by such questions at all. Earlier this year, when attending a conference in Beijing on Chinese literature and its introduction overseas, I had the following to propose on the whole affair:
1 Before we introduce or promote ourselves, we must know who we are.
2 We can only present ourselves, we cannot impose ourselves upon others.
3 If others do not accept us, in the end, we have to accept ourselves.
This is as much pragmatic advice as it is highly idealistic, on both a collective and an individual level.
The late Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo (1952-1997) once speculated, via the male protagonist in his novella The Year of Independence, on the existential purpose of poetry writing itself:
I come to think: it’s not necessary to write a poem for others. If a person comes to enjoy a quiet night by himself, then my poem has no use for him. Reading it to him would only prevent him from enjoying his own poem on the quiet night. If a person can’t sing, then all the songs in the world have no use for him; if he can sing, he must sing his own song. That is to say, poet as a profession should be eliminated, and everyone needs to be his or her own poet.
Such a steadfast assertion, of course, might sound romanticized whereas in fact it should be understood from a particular moment in which Wang Xiaobo found his fictional alter-ego, a discovery not free of its own curses. In another novella, Love in the Era of Revolution, Wang Xiaobo further explored the dual theme of “seeking miracles” and “negative lotteries” and came to the conclusion that in the era of revolution, the impulse to seek miracles would invariably be met by misfortunes or “negative lotteries.” In the term “negative lotteries,” Wang Xiaobo not only summarized his generation’s grotesque experience during the Cultural Revolution, he also suggested, before his own sudden, untimely passing in 1997, a dystopian prospect for a future China of, say, 2015 or 2020. The sobering, somewhat fatalistic, prophecy of “negative lotteries” is like the Chinese curse itself, and serves as a useful reminder to those practicing contemporary Chinese literature and art: optimistic projections may turn out to be only wishful thinking.
This acknowledgment, nonetheless, brings us back into Duo Duo’s “Night” of the 1970s. That “Night,” one of many, was so agonizingly quiet, yet so distinctively audible, and was like that young, isolated poet himself, who, like a needle dropping to the ground, with no outside attention whatsoever, no media hype, no noise, was trying to find his way, absolutely alone, into—and out of—the maze of history and dreams:
It once lingered in a place of misery
Leaving unconscious and indecipherable black spots on the memory
It was sleepless, like a poet, tossing and turning
Passing in and out of ancient rooms of dreams… (“Night” )
“May you find what you are looking for!” A curse is a curse. But, this last clause of the Chinese curse may, strangely, sound the most like a literal and honest blessing to China and its contemporary writers and artists. Indeed, just as another, although non-Chinese “curse” once had it: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Only those who have been cursed by history are blessed with the ability to see their predicaments clearly and to shatter the false spell of that same history.