The Plight of Writing7 min read

An undelivered speech by Jia Pingwa

Considered one of the most original and influential novelists in contemporary China, Jia Pingwa has nonetheless been under-translated for a long time. A recent surge in translations of his novels has given us the hope that we might be finally seeing this important author’s “arrival”in the international world of literature. In light of this, the Modern and Contemporary Chinese Forum of the Modern Language Association organized two events: an interview with Jia, to be co-hosted by myself and the literary translator-scholar Michael Berry; and a roundtable on “The ‘Arrival’ of Jia Pingwa in World Literature: Translation and Interpretation” for this year’s annual conference, held in New York City Jan 4 -7. In placing the word ‘arrival’ in quotation marks, I was alluding to Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi film, which features a linguist whose correct interpretation of a mysterious alien message eventually saves the world from war and destruction. Jia’s literary arrival would not cause an apocalyptic encounter of course. But I knew it could not be easy. Still, never did I expect that Jia’s physical arrival at the MLA conference would prove to be so difficult and, in the end, impossible.

Jia could not make it to the conference. His trip was cancelled, but not because of the blizzard that blanketed the New York City. After months of going back and forth with invitation letters and various other details about his visit, Jia and his assistants ran into trouble with his passport and their visas. The news of Jia’s cancellation was crushing, not only for us, the organizers, but also for Jia, who sent us the following handwritten speech, to be read at the conference. The speech was read by myself, in Chinese, and by one of my co-organizers, Nick Stember, in English. (Michael, unfortunately, was also unable to attend). Following the speech, we screened Ye Lang’s documentary commemorating the unbanning of Jia’s controversial novel Ruined City in 2009, 17 years after its original publication. According to Ye, the film was shelved because the producer was concerned that its critique on Chinese politics and Chinese society would cause “disquiet and displeasure.” Thus, a fascinating film that has not been publicly released in China since its completion in 2013 got a rare opportunity to be screened in New York.
Jia Pingwa could not arrive, not this year, not in 2018. This brief account about our failure to bring Jia physically to the 2018 MLA Annual Meeting is worth telling, not because we have an insider’s view of some conspiracy, but because we thought it would provide a context for the speech you will read below. In the end, if there is indeed a larger “plot,” we do not know the details and might never know. What we do know is that Jia wanted to come; he thought he would arrive and enjoy this conference and the city with us for a weekend. But in the end he could only send us this speech. So, in the spirit of hastening the coming of the day when writers like Jia can travel freely, may his words speak – and ‘arrive’ – for him.
Jiwei Xiao, Executive Committee for the LLC Modern and Contemporary Chinese Forum of the Modern Language Association

The Plight of Writing

by Jia Pingwa 贾平凹
Chinese: 写作的困境

“Facing eternity, or the lack of it, each day.”

It is strange to think that these words, spoken by a foreigner so long ago, could describe our current situation so well.

When an author first starts writing, they value craft and skill. Eventually, though, stamina – and things learned from personal experience – are what really matter. Today a writer’s vision is more important than ever. This vision is no longer that of a region, a people, or a nation, but of the world and mankind. In our country – my country – we have our own political system and our own ideology. Without the world and mankind in the horizon of our view, writing can only be propaganda. You can only take things at face value. Writing like this will become worthless – total garbage, really. If we can, however, keep a global and humanist vision when making observations about our society, paying close attention to the subjects we want to write about, and thinking for ourselves…if we can do all that, then our writing will look very different. Showing the truth about the basic situation of the Chinese people today; revealing the complexity of human nature in a time like this; critiquing the things that we see, and making progress towards our ideals; these should be the things that drive us to write.

A man who’s worn shackles will hear the clink of his chains for the rest of his life. This is what the current generation of writers look like. In a basic sense, it defines our type. This kind of reality creates the type of writers we are, and being the type of writers we are, we can’t help but write this type of work.

But no contemporary Chinese writer can say they were not influenced at all by Western authors. The post-Cultural-Revolution writing was called ‘New Era Literature.’ At first, those of us writing New Era Lit just wanted to put things in order again. We wanted our writing to be able to shrug off political limitations. So we studied Western authors. The people who manage the system have their system and policies, writers have their own responsibilities and wisdom. This is the experience, or you might say “the fate,” of this generation of writers. But Chinese writers are Chinese writers, after all. Their roots are Chinese. It’s like a river, the water that passes represents the latest human advancements, the things we all share and aspire for. But the river-bed is still Chinese. The river water nourishes, pushes, and changes the river bed, little by little.

Looking back to the development of Chinese literature since 1980s, rural literature is still the most prominent. To my mind, the Chinese tradition is the tradition of rural life and native soil. The way we think is, more or less, still a rural way of thinking. And our writers, especially those of us born in the 50s and 60s, we’ve each had our own different knowledge systems, our own inspirations and origins.

Some of us write in the tradition of 19th century realism, while others carry the torch of Post-1949 ‘Red’ literature, that is, the literature of Revolutionary Realism and Revolutionary Romanticism. Some writers are influenced by Western modernism or post-modernism, and some others, traditional Chinese literature. When our backgrounds and origins are as vast as the sea, our work can rise and fall in great waves; when our sources are limited, our writing becomes a shallow stream, or fetid pond.

When a person wags the tail and begs for scraps like a dog, they’re a dog. When a person wails like a ghost, then they’re a ghost. Nature creates in nature, and the soul creates in the heart. When we sleep, sleep is a kind of death, but our dreams are alive.   All too often, volcanoes are covered by snow.

If a writer follows the Chinese tradition back far enough, his work naturally has a Chinese rhythm, color, sound, flavor, and smell. But this kind of work is hard to translate. Historically, Chinese writing has come in two types: The first type is strong in storytelling and plotting; the second focuses on everyday life, images, and details. To be able to translate the second kind, and really do them justice, that’s probably a more worthwhile task.

To use our hearts and minds to respond to a time like ours—filled with anxiety and restlessness—and to truthfully write about Chinese people’s lives and spirit, require enormous sincerity. We have to be vigilant to not let duplicity, speculation, contrivance (from both the right and the left) deceive us. As the Ming Dynasty author Xu Wei once said, “There are people who have made an art of practicing birdcalls. They sound just like birds, but by nature they’re human beings. Likewise, a bird that mimics human speech may sound like a person, yet it is just a bird.”

“Heaven and man are one” is the philosophy of Laozi; “Heaven and me are one” is the literature of Zhuangzi. ∎

Written December 21, 2017, originally to be delivered at the Modern Language Association Conference on January, 5, 2018. Translated by Nick Stember and Jiwei Xiao.
Illustration from a painting by Jia Pingwa, titled “The Cowpen.”