Tireless clappers rattling like swords and suonas imitating bird calls and opera singers with amazing and hilarious accuracy are characteristic of the Zhou family band周家班, who visited Malmö in July.
During the performance, the band of brothers and uncles constantly switched instruments. Some specialised in tantalising jazzy solos, while others excelled in conjuring tricks like playing the suona with a lighted cigarette or two inside their mouth.
The result was something between a concert and a circus act, with an audience of all ages clapping, laughing, dancing and occasionally holding their hands over their ears. The brassy, golden noise was both overwhelming and liberating in the open air.
The Zhou family band, who takes pride in being the loudest orchestra at any festival, introduced their Swedish audience to a tradition of wedding and funeral tunes from Anhui. Suona virtuoso Zhou Benming 周本明 and music researcher Mu Qian 穆谦 explained to me how this music was originally (and still is) played in processions through the village – thus the importance of being heard far and wide. They are definitely invited to my funeral!
Suona (唢呐): A woodwind instrument with a brass bell – of arabic origin.
With this beautiful poem on winter by the great 20th century poet Haizi 海子, I wish you all the best for the coming year:
In the dark of night, I write poems for fire
In the open grass plains, I write poems for sheep
In the heart of the north wind, I write poems for the south wind
In my longing, I write poems for you
The poem was written in 1988 and can be found in 》海子诗全集《 (The Complete Poems of Haizi). Beijing: Zuojia chubanshe, 2009, which is a lovely huge blue book, a pride to any book shelf. I took the liberty of translating it myself because it made me happy. A published translation into English by Dan Murph can be found here (from this book). More translations of other Haizi poems into English can be found here,here, and here.
I am looking forward to hearing Professor Prasenjit Duara, National University of Singapore, speak about how stories and narratives about the past as a collective formations have changed over time from cosmological founded local legends to the national romances being challenged by the globalisation today. (abstract here)
Also curious to hear Professor Adam Thomas Smith, Cornell University, talk about his research on the role of materiality and everyday objects in ideology and politics.
My paper is going to be about early 20th century Chinese crime writers (such as Cheng Xiaoqing 程小青 and Sun Liaohong 孙了红) who were inspired by Western detective fiction. It will also look at their contemporary Western counterparts and their use of Chinese protagonists and characters for their novels. Read full abstract here.
This years Copenhagen international literature festival Cph Interlit had a Chinese theme arranged in collaboration with China Writers Association, and thus I was fortunate enough to attend this brief interview with three of China’s foremost writers and poets; Xi Chuan, Fan Wen and Wang Gang. The following is published with their consent.
on STYLE: Earlier I wrote lyrical poems, now I just write texts embodying something not poetic. It’s more like poetic notes. I call it ‘poessay’ (散文诗), because it’s somewhere between poetry and essay. on CHINESE AND EUROPEAN LITERATURE: I once met Doris Lessing. She asked me about the Cultural Revolution and I in turn asked her about European literature. She said that after 1989 it had become less experimental because of the need to deal with real social problems. I also feel that I can’t follow others, but my work has to relate to reality even if that reality is a disaster. on TRANSLATION: When I translated the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz, I didn’t use a dictionary, instead I asked my Polish friends whenever there was something I didn’t understand. on THE UNIVERSAL POET: Being a poet means you have to make sacrifices. Both in China and Denmark. As the American poet Robert Frost has it: “To take the road less travelled by.”
on TIBET and RELIGION
I write about Tibet out of love. For most Chinese people it is a place of dreams, and thus a fitting pursuit for a writer.
When you write about Tibet, you have to write about religion. Buddhism permeates the Tibetan society, so you have to get to know Buddhism in order to understand Tibet.
I had the good fortune that my first visit to Tibet took place during a catholic missionary effort. I think that this kind of cultural exchange is a beautiful thing, and so I write about it. For instance I found a missionary’s grave deep in the mountains. That was a most inspiring experience, starting me asking questions like ‘why did he come? What did he do? Why did he die?’
My work was translated into French because the area I write about has connections to France. During the period 1850-1950, 15 missionaries were killed in Tibet.
I don’t know how my books have been received in France, because I can’t read French. But my publishers think they help remind the reader about a part of history forgotten by Chinese and French alike, but which none the less is meaningful and valuable.
It’s hard to say who are good and bad in the novel, the French or the Tibetans. It’s more complicated than that. Tibet was Dalai’s land, so when the missionaries entered, there was a conflict. We cannot decide who is right and who is wrong. Everyone fights to protect their own religion.
Author of 英格力士 2004, translated as English by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan.
on HIS NOVEL ENGLISH
My novel is set during the Cultural Revolution. It is about a boy who has little opportunity and little interest in studying and learning new languages. One day an English teacher from Shanghai is sent to Xinjiang as a punishment, and he and the boy become friends. At this time there is only one English dictionary in all of Xinjiang’s capital. There is also a beautiful female teacher who once a week visits the public bathhouse followed by the boy, who spies on her showering. The English teacher is however in love with the female teacher, and the story turns out to be sad and terrible because in the end the boy and his parents help send the English teacher to prison.
The boy feels guilty for sending his friend to prison. Certainly I write to remind people of the terrible Cultural Revolution, but also to show how it was experienced by a child. It is an admittance of guilt. Too many Chinese today won’t recognize their own part in the Cultural Revolution. I want to arouse their memory because if we forget, then maybe it can happen again. I am afraid of that.
Many of us tend to categorize the transplantation of our private lives into the public sphere through social media as a recent phenomenon. Reading Sei Shōnagon‘s 清少納言 Pillow Book 枕草子 dating from the 10th century however, I became aware of a similar trend among the Heian aristocracy of a thousand years ago:
A gentleman (Tadanobu) has written a poem letter to Sei Shōnagon to test her, and finds her reply couplet so ingenious that he immediately shares it with his assembled friends. The following day, the news have reached every corner of the palace:
As soon as I was in her [Majesty’s] presence I realized that she had called me to discuss what I had written to Tadanobu. ‘The Emperor has been here,’ she said, ‘and he told me that all his gentlemen have your reply written on their fans.’ I was amazed and wondered who could have spread the news.
Sei Shōnagon (1971). The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. trans. Ivan Morris. London: Penguin Books. pp. 92)
The exchange of poem letters were quite as public and almost as quickly distributed within the limited world of the court, as tweets and other online social updates are today. And as this example shows, they even had the capacity to ‘go viral’.
It’s already over a month since Mo Yan 莫言 won the Nobel prize in literature, and all the news papers flared up with his image, discussions of ”why him?” and questions as to what he would do with the prize money. At the time I was so humbled by all the informed commentaries on the political aspects of the event that I didn’t feel like writing about it.
Recently however, as I was travelling from Qingdao to Beijing, going 300 km/h on a fast train, I had a glimpse of Gaomi 高密, the town where Mo Yan grew up and which have inspired many of his literary landscapes and it got me thinking of it again. (Apparently the town might soon be turned into a Mo Yan-theme park, but as I sped past I didn’t notice any sign of the approaching changes.)
At the time of the prize-giving many discussions revolved around questions as to why Lu Xun (the father of modern Chinese fiction) had never got it; why it had taken China so long to get one (Gao Xingjian who won the prize in 2010 is not recognized as a Chinese writer because he lives in France and has French citizenship, so though he is culturally Chinese – Huaren 华人, he is not a Chinese citizen – Zhongguoren中国人); and around Mo Yan’s status as party member.
My favourite Mo Yan novel is Republic of Wine (酒国) from 2005, in which he compassionately and with great self-awareness investigates human weakness as expressed through corruption, pride and lust. Though he does not explicitly denounce the communist party in public or in his novels, his writings surely reveal some ugly truths about all of us. The interesting aspects of his works are general and relating to the human condition rather than a specific political situation.
The insistence of some western critics that all Chinese works must be about China, thus understandable only in a Chinese political context, and considering the label ‘Banned in China’ as the best recommendation is in my eyes an expression of a new kind of Orientalism. If only the politically correct authors should be awarded, political standpoint superseding literary quality, now that would be political censorship on an international level.
I’m not saying there is nothing to criticize, not saying that all Mo Yan’s works are brilliant, just that when enjoying a literary work, political correctness is not the first thing I look for. I also love Knut Hamsun’s work even though politically he supported the national socialist party.
Just like the landscape of Gaomi speeding past my train window, Mo Yan’s best novels present a blurred and slightly drunken image of a world governed by weak and complex human beings, always changing, never allowing us to stand still for one moment to get the whole objective picture. We are all part of it. Even we literary critics, who like to stand on the sideline and criticize everything, are part of it. Eating forbidden fruits, performing good deeds for ulterior motives, displaying kindness because of vanity, hurting people because of love, sometimes riding high above the world in brief spells of ecstasy, sometimes ending up throwing up in a ditch.
Regardless of political standpoint I would advise anyone to read some of Mo Yan’s works, even though they might be sold out at the moment. But I would also advice readers to look beyond the Nobel committee’s narrow lens, and start investigating Chinese literature on their own. There are several good platforms introducing Chinese literature in translation, including Renditions magazine, Paper Republic and MCLC Resouce Center.