This reviewer for the Taipei Times makes some interesting points about the increasing number of autobiographies published by survivors of the Cultural Revolution. I take issue with his comment ‘Why are there so many books about Chinese nightmares, and why are they all published in America?’, because – of course, they aren’t just published in America, nor written by Chinese now living in the US (Jung Chang is the obvious example to the contrary). But his next point:
Is this some aspect of an on-going New Cold War, a veiled propaganda campaign waged through the corridors of literature? Books about the delights of life in the People’s Republic are certainly hard to come by.
This is not to say that the tribulations visited on millions by China’s Red Guards are a figment of anyone’s imagination. The evidence is far too extensive, and the testimony of survivors too similar. No, it’s not the phenomenon itself that’s in any doubt, but rather the motives of those who flood the market with accounts of those terrible years. History has undoubtedly provided the ammunition, but who’s firing the guns, and at whom?
– followed by his comment on the formalaeic ‘plot’ and inevitable stereotyped ‘characters’ that seem to turn up in these accounts on a regular basis:
Even so, this book is part of a distinct modern literary genre, a tale of Cultural Revolution woes, both lived through and finally escaped from. All the stereotypes are here — the wicked petty tyrant (in this case Old Crab, the local “team leader” and the only Communist Party member in a small village), a populace happy to chant “Your plans to restore a bourgeois society have been revealed and smashed” one day and something close to the opposite the next, Western literary classics hidden under mattresses and treasured as bulwarks against the Red Guard onslaught, senior academics being made to crawl through the mud to collect animal droppings, the persecution of “black” (as oppose to “red”) families and their eventual banishment to remote mountain areas, and the meeting up of the hero with some kindred spirit (who invariably also has Western books secreted about his person).
– hints, I think at a possible reason for the popularity of such books. They confirm what us Westerners think we know about the PRC, i.e. that it is bad; a totalitarian nightmare wherein individuality is suppressed and freedom – as we understand it – does not exist. But they are also similar to those age old stories of the eventual triumph of good versus evil, of overcoming hardship, that probably exist in all cultures at all periods of history, and must therefore reflect a deep human need. So, perhaps the focus on the Cultural Revolution is simply time-specific. Similar themes will continue to exist in literature even after the reading public, and perhaps more pertinently, the publishing world has tired of the Cultural Revolution and moved onto the next big human interest theme.
Battlepanda takes a slightly different tack in their post about the same review:
I would really like to see some books in English by Chinese writers that isn’t about their experiences in the cultural revolution or novels about defiant young woman growing up in a oppressive culture (or both). And I would like to see some books in English by Chinese-American writers that’s not about the clash of cultures between their mother’s generation and their’s.
While I agree that Chinese writers are, perhaps, ‘ghettoised’ by English-language publishers, personally I feel it is a little unfair to solely blame writers for these trends. As they go on to say, but perhaps don’t fully appreciate, publishers hold sway – obviously – in what gets published and what doesn’t. There may well be (and I’m sure there are) Chinese and Chinese-American authors out there writing sci-fi and romance and crime fiction, but even if it’s good, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will get published. Fiscal justifications probably always win out over artistic merit. Publishers will be aware of the enormous success of Jung Chang’s Wild Swans for example and, just like the market was flooded with ‘chick-lit’ in the wake of Bridget Jones’ Diary, theywill undoubtedly perceive a ready-market for similar books for all the reasons I’ve suggested above.
Having said all that I think it is important to consider that, just like how a fair proportion of artists and filmmakers in China use their work to literally ‘work through’ and come to terms with the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s legacy by making use of their own experiences, or those of their parents’ generation, Chinese authors might be driven for the same reasons. I can’t think of any examples of the top of my head, but there must be parallels to be found in other parts of the world which have experienced war, social and political upheaval, etc. Simply put, the Cultural Revolution was a big deal, which continues to haunt China and its people. And while the PRC tries to avoid dealing with its social, political and cultural legacy, it’s hardly surprising that writers will use their art to explore the collective experience.