April 5, 2009

Adult Reading

Filed under: China,culture,east-west,teaching — Kim @ 9:02 am

My new job at “The University of Nottingham in Ningbo” is a good one and things are going well so far. The compact little campus is lovely: clean and green and pleasant, peaceful yet not dull, family-friendly, multicultural, (sounds disturbingly similar to a Jehovah’s Witness cartoon paradise actually) and full of mixed-race babies and toddlers for my own little mutt to make friends with. It is not really China, it’s more like a little Sino-British bubble tucked away on the edge of the city. The staff hotel I’m staying at has a bar/restaurant called “The Robin Hood” (so we ‘hang out in the hood’ for beers of course) and there is cricket and tennis, a properly stocked library, a computer in every office, a chicken in every pot, and – a real reverse culture shock here- the toilets all have toilet paper.

The only problem is Ningbo. After Dalian, Ningbo comes across as a decidedly drab little city and sadly deserves its nickname of “Ningboring.” But not to worry because Hangzhou and Shanghai are close by, and they both rock. Like, totally.

But in any case…on to my “thought for today”. A couple of weeks ago I went on a daytrip with a group of staff and students (mostly first and second years – 26 females, 1 bloke) to listen to some talking heads at the Shanghai literary festival. We went on Saturday March 21 and listened to Simon Schama talking away wittily and at furious pace about “The American Future” and to a presentation by the two translator’s of Wang Gang’s “English:A Novel” (英格力士 – Ying Ge Li Shi) which featured Wang Gang himself reading a couple of extracts in the original Mandarin. (Followed by one of the translator’s reading the same extract in English, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to write about it, you understand.)

One of the extracts was an amusing piece of “toilet humour’ in which the main character, a little boy called “Love Liu”, ends up peeing in the urinal next to his English master and, on sneaking a peek, is bowled over by the size of the teacher’s todger. The second passage took us from comedy to tragedy and described a scene in which Love Liu is watching his father paint a huge portrait of Mao on a wall. The novel is set during the Cultural Revolution when any depiction of Mao had to be treated with great reverence of course, and it wasn’t hard to sense trouble on the horizon. Sure enough, while the father is painting Mao’s body – having finished the head already – along come two cadres and criticise him for leaving out one of Mao’s ears. The father protests that the laws of perspective demand he do this but the cadres insist he paint the ear on anyway. When he does so they complain that it looks strange and accuse him of trying to make Mao look ridiculous, then one of the cadres gives the father a resounding slap on the face while berating him. The boy of course is left smouldering with shame and impotent anger.

I thought the piece portrayed well the paranoid “spirit of the times” and was especially good at conveying the shock – and loss of innocence – of the young boy on finding out that his beloved and respected father could be treated with such contempt. But this second snippet did not please many of the students we’d bussed in for the day. One of our little darlings stood up at question time after the speech and demanded of the Chinese translator (the lovely Jane Weizhen Pan) why she had chosen to translate a book about “a time that is rather strange to my generation and gives foreigners a bad image of China”. Ms Pan chose not to answer, and indeed looked a bit put out, but fellow translator Martin Merz smoothed things over by saying that they had been given the book as a job to do by the publisher, “so the book chose us” he said.

I suppose that “English:A novel” is in some ways “shaming” for China insofar as it deals with what is often termed as a ‘shameful” period. Indeed, the Amazon spiel about it says it is “a transcendent novel about a boy’s self-discovery, a country’s shame, and the transporting power of language.” But the point is that through its humour and its humanism, the novel transcends petty face-saving concerns over “shame” and “country” and it can help readers to do the same…if they will let it.

Anyway, a little later myself and one of my colleagues had a chat with some of the students about what they’d thought of the session and especially about issues raised by the question. Drastically summarised, the conversation went something along these lines:

Middle-aged Western teachers...Don’t you think that all of a nation’s history needs to be explored? Even the uncomfortable bits? So as to be able to understand and face up to mistakes.

Young Chinese students…We shouldn’t show the bad times from China to the world. Why do foreigners always want to talk about the Cultural Revolution?

Teachers….But it’s not the job of literature to promote a country. Literature is about exploring human behaviour, not showcasing a country’s achievements.

Students…Chinese writers should write about China in a way that gives foreigners a favourable impression. Chinese literature should inspire young Chinese to love their country and be better people.

Gah! Cultural mismatch ahoy! But also – I am starting to think – it was perhaps more fundamentally an age mismatch…albeit an age mismatch affected by culture.

Let me explain: In my humble opinion, Asian youngsters take longer to become young adults than their counterparts in the West. When I first went to Japan to work in a Japanese university I was horrified by the Freshman Party. It involved balloons, pass the parcel, lots of photos with the teachers, and lashings of ginger beer and cola. (Yes, it sounds like a McDonalds’ birthday party.) I looked back fondly to my fresher’s partying in England in which any game of pass the parcel would have probably involved prizes of condoms and joints. Now, I know sex and drugs and KTV are not what maketh a man, and there were other differences too, like the Japanese freshman’s lack of political and historical awareness, lack of ability to think critically, and lack of cynicism and irony. But the youth in asia (sounds like euthanasia, innit?) catch up within a few years, and I don’t just mean they start drinking and shagging. Most of the final year students I talk to in Japan and China are much more clued up and look and behave like adults.

There were echoes of this point recently on Mr Thinkweird’s blog in which he – a young Chinese male blogger – asserted that

I was a Fenqing myself several years ago (anti-Japan), but now I moved on. Fenqing can’t survive very long after they are exposed to the realities and truth. Once Fenqing enter the society, see more and get busy making a living, they will change.

That said, the Gang Wang incident reminded me of another literary anecdote from my time at Dalian University of Foreign Languages when about a year ago, as a very rare treat, we had a guest lecture by the Irish Kafka specialist and top translator,Mark Harman. The lecture was OK but anyway in a post-lecture bar conversation (where most of the interesting stuff gets said) Mr Harman told us of a curious incident that had happened to him up in Beijing. He had opted to conclude his lecture there with a quote from an appropriately titled article called – if I remember properly – “Kafka in China” in which the author had proposed that Kafka was a universal writer who by rendering the fundamental strangeness/absurdity of the human condition so strikingly was able to spring the locks of mind forg’d nationalist manacles and usher readers into the broad sunlit uplands of a post-nationalist perspective. Or something like that…in any case Prof. Harman was rather startled when one of the Beijing University literature professors stood up at question time and vigorously denounced this piece of whimsy by stating that any Chinese reader worth his salt would always stay first and foremost and fundamentally Chinese, and that this sort of post-nationalist talk was insidious propaganda that was probably designed to weaken Chinese love for the motherland and etc etc etc. Mark Harman has a nice wry sense of humour and although an Irishman in a bar has been known to embellish a tale occasionally, it rings true. And can you imagine any Western literary scholar talking like that? Or at least if they did, they’d be laughed out of town for sounding so childish. “We just don’t think that way anymore” as Mark Harman put it. (Though just who the “we” in that comment is referring to is a bit problematic.)

I suppose my point is that, generally speaking, Chinese are more prone to see literature through the prism of nationalism than Westerners – and young Chinese much more so. It takes a while for them to get rid of their high school “education”, I guess. Wang Gang’s “English” is at its heart a novel about “growing up” and my hope would be that those “patriotic objector” students we bussed in to the Shanghai Literature Festival will read it and let it help them “grow up” too.

As a happy ending, I find it refreshing, and inspiring even, that such an irreverent and “adult” novel as Wang Gang’s “English” should become “A major bestseller in China, where it was voted best novel of the year independently by the critics and the general public” (Book blurb). Surely the book’s success is a sign that China’s civil society is growing, and growing up.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Kim,

    Thanks for going to the session in Shanghai. And many, many, thanks for bringing the question to my attention.

    I have to admit that I did not hear the second part of that student’s question (The part about “shaming China”). My mind must have been somewhere else. My apologies to your student. That’s why I only answered the first part of the question–i.e. We didn’t choose the book. Penguin chose the book and contracted us to translate. Had I paid closer attention, I would have had a lot to say because I think it is a sad question. So, here’s my belated answer:

    Q: Why did I choose to translate a book about a time that is rather strange to my generation and gives foreigners a bad image of China?

    My answer:
    First, I, or we, did not choose the book. Penguin did. They contracted us to translate the book.
    It is sad that you find the Cultural Revolution era strange to you and your friends. I guess that is because the era has not been covered extensively in your curriculum and you have not had time (or interest) or the resources to explore. The absurdity of that era will not come back and haunt us only if your parents, you, your children and the whole world know exactly what happened in those years and why. So, please, please make that era less strange for you. If you can’t find the answer in you textbook, look elsewhere. Talk to your parents, your best friends’ parents and their parents’ parents. Ask them what happened.

    I understand that you wish to give a good image of China to “foreigners.” Do you think being an ignorant student who has insufficient knowledge of what happened in your own country will give a good image of Chinese students to “foreigners”? No. They will think you are an ignorant bunch. I am sorry to be blunt. I know it hurts when being viewed as an ignorant person. I was also ignorant until…
    Being ignorant is shameful. It never gives “foreigners” a good impression of China if you are an ignorant Chinese student.

    As for “give foreigners a bad image of China,” I have to say that the question itself “gives foreigners a bad image of Chinese students.” Here is why:
    First of all, ask yourself what kind of “bad image of China” you think foreigners may see after reading the book. I guess you worry that “foreigners” may think Chinese people were absurd in those days. “Foreigners” are not idiots. Not talking about the mistakes doesn’t mean they don’t know about the mistakes. So don’t treat them like idiots. Covering up mistakes we made in the past, mistakes they already know about, means you are treating them like idiots. Do you think that would give “foreigners” a good impression of China? I don’t think so.

    I believe covering up gives “foreigners” a worse impression of China because it shows that not only the older generation of Chinese people made mistakes, but also the younger generation (you, for example) choose to cover up the “crime scene” just because you want to show an apparently perfect image. By doing that, the younger generation is making itself part of a conspiracy which is forty years old.

    Is that a good image of Chinese students? I don’t think so. And I don’t think the foreigners will consider that a good image either.

    Second, everyone makes mistakes, and so do great nations. The British, the Americans and the Germans…they made horrible mistakes in the past. But, they talk about their mistakes openly–in their textbooks, in their literature, in movies, in newspapers and magazines. Does this kind “washing their dirty linen in public” make these nations less great? No. It will only make them stronger and more confident because the more debates they have, the more people know about what happened in the past, the less risk there is that they will make the same mistake again. The same applies to China–covering up mistakes will only generate more lies and more mistakes.
    So, please don’t think a hush-hush attitude will give “foreigners” a good impression of China. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

    Third, you probably have noticed that I use quotation marks for “foreigners.” Here is why: Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Americans… we are all human beings, we are all individuals in this universe. We invent things, we have feelings and we make mistakes. So, we should not only share technologies, but also the experience we had in the past. Therefore, there should not be any restriction/discrimination based one’s nationality when it comes to understanding what happened in our country forty years ago, just like we deserve to know what happened to many Japanese families in WWII, what happened to ourselves during the Cultural Revolution, and what happened to a first-time voter in the US in 2008.

    In other words, China belongs to the world and the Chinese experience belongs to the world. The world deserves to know what happened in China, and what is happening in China, just like the Chinese people deserve to know what’s happening around the world. The fact that we and “those foreigners” do not speak the same language, do not hold the same type of passport doesn’t mean we have the right to decide what should the “foreigners” know or should not know. Didn’t we talk about “One world, One dream” only a little while ago?

    The government has been talking about “think globally” for years. I think it is a very wise idea. What do we do about it? If I were you, I would consider myself as a “globalcitizen”–forget about the notion of “foreigners” or “we Chinese.” Think of yourself as an individual who has feelings and ideas, just like everyone else in the world. Share your ideas with your teachers who happen to speak English. Consider them your next door neighbors. If they criticize something they see in China, that doesn’t mean they are criticizing China as a nation. Don’t take it personal and get mad at them and think they’re there to bash China. Look at the issue and try to discuss the issue with them in an objective way. Think globally, imagine how would you react if the same thing happened to you here and aboard.

    Finally, I wish to emphasize that I hope you and I can do our best to help people to understand each other’s cultural heritage (and baggage), rather than becoming a barrier. Of course, apart of many man-made barriers, language is a huge obstacle. That is why I choose to be a translator and I hope you too can be one in the future.

    Any by the way, why is “giving foreigners a good image of China” such a big deal anyway?

    I hope this answers the question. Please make sure your students understand my answer, linguistically, at least.

    Kind regards,
    Jane Weizhen Pan

    Comment by Jane Weizhen Pan — April 8, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

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