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Friday, April 28, 1989 AFTERNOON
Moderator: Hong Huang
Participants: Ni Zhen, Bei Dao, Li Rui, Liu Binyan, Wu Zuguang, Wu Tianming, Chen Kaige, Nieh Hua-ling, Cao Changqing, Wang Ruoshui, Tu Wei-ming, Ch'en Ying-chen, Carma Hinton, Leo Lee, Liu Binyan, Ruan Ming, Anthony Kane, Geremie Barmé, Li Rui
ART AND ACTIVISM
LEO OU-FAN LEE
The topic for this discussion was the relationship between art and politics -- an old issue which nevertheless invariably generates heated debates whenever Chinese artists and writers are gathered. The reason is evident: For some forty years since the establishment of the People's Republic, politics has been in command in every sphere of human endeavor, especially in art and literature. Thus one of the first discernible reactions in the post-Mao era was the purposeful assertion of the autonomy of art vis-à-vis political ideology. One of the first spokesmen for artistic autonomy was Bei Dao (Zhao Zhenkai), the poet whom I first met in the spring of 1980 when he was still associated with the unofficial journal Today (Jintian).
I can still recall vividly that memorable meeting (partly because it was half-clandestine) one evening in May when I "stole out" from my hotel and went to a friend's house where I was introduced to two young writers, both writing outside official circles: One was Bei Dao, a founding member of Today, and the other a novelist who just published an controversial exposé piece called "In the Files of Society". We plunged ourselves immediately into a debate on the relationship between art and politics. The two of them espoused diametrically opposed positions: One argued for social criticism and political intervention via literature; the other for artistic purity and independence. In view of the long tradition of didacticism in both traditional and Maoist political culture, I was naturally inclined toward accepting the former position as the only feasible option and never gave Bei Dao a chance to succeed, despite my personal sympathies with him.
Later events proved that I was wrong! The young author of "In the Files of Society" somehow disappeared from the literary scene (as did the so-called "literature of the wounded" of which this piece was representative) whereas Bei Dao has since become a poet of international reputation. In this afternoon's discussion, it would seem that the majority opinion reflects Bei Dao's view. The new -- or old -- challenge comes from Liu Binyan, whom likewise I first met in May 1980 (about a week after my rendezvous with the two young writers) and have come to admire.
For the past decade, Liu has been China's foremost literary conscience. He has been unswerving in his conviction that the grand mission of literature must be defined in the context of Chinese society; more specifically, he argues that the primary function of creative writing is to "intervene" in social/political life. Anything that is removed from these primary concerns is almost by definition insignificant and meaningless. Although he somewhat begrudgingly allows some room for the "existence" of pure art, the issue of aestheticism clearly does not interest him at all. What distresses him, however, is the observable phenomenon that during the three years or so before the Beijing Massacre of June 1989, the so-called experimental fiction and "obscure poetry" assumed a dominant position, so much so that the major literary journals, including People's Literature (Renmin wenxue), the official organ of the Chinese Writers' Association, became showcases of aesthetic writing as it was eagerly practiced by a younger generation of avant-gardists. It would seem, from an outsider's point of view, that this too represents a political stance -- a form of "anti-politics" that seeks to carve out a separate space of cultural creativity in order to rise beyond the restrictive confines of Party ideology. In other words, what we are witnessing is a cultural reawakening as a result of the post-Mao crumbling of political faith.
Some of the participants in that afternoon's discussion and at the Symposium -- the film directors Chen Kaige and Wu Tianming, the novelist Li Rui -- may be, in one sense or another, identified as participants in a much broader movement of "cultural self-reflection" for which the aesthetic considerations of artistic creation are closely connected with the task of redefining, even reinventing, new horizons of Chinese culture. A film like "Yellow Earth" (1985) is both an individual statement of modern art and the product of a cultural quest -- to seek out the deeper layers of that Chinese "earth" so as to articulate the real cultural voices of the "people." Li Rui's collection of fictional vignettes -- revealingly titled The Thick Earth -- are written very much in a cultural vein as well as in a realistic form. He is but one of at least a dozen young writers who practice a regional mode of fiction writing fraught with local color and myth (in addition, one might mention Zheng Yi, the author of "Old Well", Han Shaogong of Hunan, Jia Pinwa of Shaanxi, Zheng Wanlong of Heilongjiang, Mo Yan of Shandong, and many others). The leading critic associated with their stance as well as that of avant-gardist experimentalism is Li Tuo, who had been invited to the Symposium but failed to attend.
Another intellectual leader of the "cultural self-reflection" movement is the scholar Liu Zaifu, director of the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who attended the Symposium but said very little. Nor did he make much contribution to the debate. He told me afterward that he thought the issues raised at the discussions were rather superficial; in fact, the theme of cultural self-reflection, which in his view hovers over the debate between art and politics, was hardly mentioned. In any event, like most Chinese participants at the Symposium he was eager to return to China, for student demonstrations on Tiananmen Square were gathering momentum. I recall vividly all of our excitement when, after a whole day's heated discussions, we adjourned after dinner to a common room where we made a long distance call to Beijing and heard, crystal clear across the Pacific Ocean, the animated voice of Fang Lizhi as he described how students had triumphantly marched on the streets. Amidst the pervasive optimism of the occasion, all differences were forgotten.
Now that the tragedy of the Tiananmen demonstrations has left a haunting memory, and some of the participants at the Symposium once again find themselves on these shores as involuntary exiles, the issues we had discussed seem both dated and pressingly relevant. Clearly the task of cultural reflection and creativity is left unfinished by a dictatorial fiat of military intervention. Following the Massacre on June 4, the heavy hand of politics is once again in command in Beijing, but it can no longer command enough intellectual following. By contrast, the gathering at the China Symposium on April 27-30, 1989, has given us much inspiration and courage because it has paved the intellectual ground for resistance and rethinking.
What should be the relationship between art and politics and between the artist and the state in post-Mao China? Given China's past commitment to the notion of art as a form of didacticism in both traditional and Maoist political culture, how should artists now reconcile the imperatives of individual self-expression with those of responsibility toward society and/ or the state?
I am neither an artist nor an art critic. But as an observer I have noticed a rather interesting phenomenon. Whenever a controversial work of art appears in China, be it a painting, a film or a novel, it draws immediate criticism and is labeled as anti-Party or anti-socialism. Many reporters and commentators abroad also agree that it is indeed directed at the Communist Party. The result is that both those for and against that particular piece of work attach political significance to it.
Once I met the Vice-Chairman of the Soviet Film Association at a film festival. He told me that they knew how hard it was to sell Soviet movies to the West, so in order to draw more international attention to a good Soviet movie, they would first ban it for a couple of years. When it was finally released, Westerners would pay any price for it. I found this interesting because it relates to this afternoon's topic.
Since China launched its economic reforms, lots of popular and entertaining forms of art have emerged. And many artists who used to have a strong artistic sense and style have become commercialized.
Let me open the discussion with these observations.
It would have been better to start this discussion with literature. But since my profession is film, I'll begin with Chinese films.
I will take a few minutes to give you some background idea of the film industry in China in the past few years.
People may have noticed that the entire culture -- from publishing to cinema -- is being commercialized. In 1988 at a conference sponsored by the Ministry of Broadcasting, Film and Television, even the deputy minister Chen Haosu officially declared that the emphasis should be on making entertainment films. This was a major policy switch, since for the previous twenty or thirty years, the film industry was always supposed to serve politics. Yet by the end of 1988, the annual film-going audience totaled some 20 billion compared to about 29 billion in 1979. That is to say, the audience was decreasing at a rate of one billion each year. We now have sixteen film studios producing roughly 140 feature films each year. In 1988, 159 feature films were made in China.
The second major change is the rapid development of the television and video industry. Chinese television stations increased from 20 in 1977 to 422 in 1987. This has not been an economically rational development; now virtually every province, city and county has its own TV station creating much overlapping and confusion. There has been a considerable amount of waste with regard to both personnel and facilities. There are presently about 160 million TV sets in China, and about 1,700 tele-movies are screened every year. As a result huge numbers of former film-goers are staying away from cinemas.
Thirdly, video tapes are getting a greater share of the market and they are lowering standards. According to official figures, there are about 300,000 video tapes in circulation. From what I know the actual figure is over one million. While small in comparison with industrialized nations like the United States and Japan, it does affect the production, distribution and artistic level of the film industry in China. Now, with this information in mind I'd like to say something about the film industry itself.
We were very sorry to see the end of the fifth generation of Chinese film directors who in 1987 and 1988 had played an important part in the development of Chinese cinema. Present here are Chen Kaige and Wu Tianming, both of whom belong to this group of film directors. Chen directed "The Yellow Earth", "The Big Parade" and "The King of Children". As for Wu Tianming, he has not only directed good movies, but also as head of the Xi'an Film Studio provided opportunities and a base for the artists. But this fifth generation only flourished for two or three years and then all (with very few exceptions) turned to commercial movies.
The problem now is what Chinese artists should do in view of this wave of commercial pragmatism. Since late 1984, private businesses and enterpreneurship have emerged, bringing with them the recognition of materialism, defiance of tradition, pursuit of consumer goods and competition.
In 1988, there were quite a few films depicting the urban life and the world of private enterprise. A representative author is Wang Shuo, many of whose novels on these themes have been adapted into movies. These movies depict the lost generation of the Chinese youth. They differ from the "fifth generation" films in that they combine self-expression with commercial viability.
The challenge to the artist now is how to maintain his independent personality and express his ideas in the face of political and commercial pragmatism.
I'm not really prepared and, anyway, I usually get a headache when I attend meetings. I've had a headache for the past two days from what I will call, with your permission, "culture shock". It is a double shock, one I'm getting from both Chinese and Western culture.
I think there are two things that are an inherent part of our generation, namely the Mao-complex and the Cultural Revolution-complex. I hope we can carry out an objective and constructive evaluation of the forty years of the Communist Party's rule rather than simply negating it out of hand.
For instance, the other day someone remarked that Mao was a rogue, a liumang, a terrible dictator. To a certain extent I agree with this assessment. But at the same time, I don't deny that he was a great poet and, as a poet, I have certain respect for him. After all, it was Mao who brought passion and enthusiasm to a nation that has always lacked romanticism. Of course such passion could be destructive, but it did inculcate a certain spirit and inspiration in the youth of China and the nation as a whole.
Our writing poetry had something to do with Mao. In the latter period of the Cultural Revolution Mao's poems were known in virtually every household in China, and they inspired many young people to write poetry. We started by penning classical verse and later developed the so-called "misty poetry". Of course, this is simplifying a rather complicated process.
Another point I'd like to make is that the Cultural Revolution cut us off from traditional Chinese culture. Older as well as middle-aged and young intellectuals were ousted from their traditional status as members of the gentry and cast to the very bottom of the society. They had to go to the countryside and engage in hard manual labor. They began to experience life as it really is and came into contact with the poor laboring people. I believe the "fifth generation" film-makers like Chen Kaige, the director of "Yellow Earth" and "King of the Children," drew inspiration from their experience of rural life at the bottom of society. This phenomenon is worthy of further study by interested Sinologists.
I'll try and to stick to the topic: The relationship between art and politics.
Nothing can really bind a true artist or a writer. He will not be afraid of touching on political themes. His freedom, in the first place, is inherent in himself. Chinese traditional culture, Confucian thinking, tends to stress the didactic and political function of literature; it is a view that was pushed to the extreme in the Cultural Revolution and typified by the Eight Model Operas. But we should also bear in mind the masterpieces of Chinese literature: the Book of Songs, the poems and prose of the Tang and Song Dynasties, and The Dream of the Red Chamber, which was written when a literary inquisition was imposed during the Qing Dynasty.
I don't think one could say that the Chinese cultural tradition prevents the creation of great works of art. In the final analysis, it is the quality and talent of the individual artist and writer that matters most. Now I don't deny the depredations of the political system, something from which we all have suffered and resent. But I still hold that a true artist or writer can still produce great works even under these circumstances.
Yesterday we discussed the status of Chinese intellectuals. But I felt the thrust of the exchange was all wrong. The point is not that the status of intellectuals has been lowered, but rather that individuals per se have no place in China, or indeed under any socialist system. No individuals are valued, all are suppressed to the maximum extent. In bewailing the suffering of intellectuals we reveal our own sense of superiority. It's tantamount to saying that only those who are educated can feel pain and offer resistance.
As a rusticated youth in the Cultural Revolution I lived in one of the poorest rural areas of China. There the peasants suffered the most inhuman conditions and had no sense of dignity or status whatsoever. They did not even have household registration certificates. Out of one billion Chinese, 800 million are peasants. We live under an authoritarian regime, but I am also aware that there are many more who are in a far worse situation, who are utterly deprived but have no sense of what they are lacking, nor do they realize that they can voice their feelings. It is this state of unawareness that I feel to be the most tragic thing of all. As a Chinese it is almost impossible to articulate these feelings, but in my work I have tried to do so.
Here in the United States, there is a plethora of freedoms, there is a sense of law and order and the value of human rights. Perhaps you have too much, you can share it around, whether in a superior or in a more equal manner. But in China it is a completely different story.
In my recent novel The Thick Earth I tried to depict life in the Lüliang Mountains. But I am still deeply troubled as to whether the true sense of life the very bottom of society can be reflected in literature.
From 1983-1984, a large number of works of art have appeared which are non-political, non-social, non-ideological and even non-rational. As works of art they have a right to exist. And their appearance testifies to the tremendous progress that art and literature have made in China over the past ten years.
Yet at the same time we find readers gradually losing interest in pure literary works, in particular fiction.
The current trend, which originated in the West and now prevailing among Chinese writers, is that of "art for art's sake". Art is not supposed to get involved with society or politics, otherwise it will no longer be considered art. As a result, in China today we can observe two completely contradictory phenomena: One in which hundreds of thousands of people gather in Tiananmen Square to demonstrate, fearful of neither bloodshed nor death; the other, a gray vista of solitude, confusion and personal vexation, articulated, if that's the right word for it, in a strange language full of nonsensical expressions.
I am by no means opposed to the pursuit of artistic excellence. But I am puzzled as to why writers of fiction, people who have enjoyed greater freedom than journalists, film-makers, playwrights and others, have produced no outstanding works comparable to those we have seen from Latin America and Eastern Europe. Recently, the [Shandong-born army] writer Mo Yan published a story which deals directly with a recent peasant rebellion. So far nobody has objected. It would be impossible to get away with something like that if he were not a novelist. But too few writers are taking advantage of their freedom; they concentrate their energies elsewhere.
I agree with Ni Zhen that it is a question of the quality and integrity of the writers themselves. Writers in China today generally feel that they can have a clear conscience if they can write two stories a year. It doesn't matter what social impact their works might have or how their readers react. I can only raise this question here; because of the constraints of time I cannot go into it any further. I do feel it is a serious problem.
While sitting here I've tried to remember how I got caught up in the arts scene in the first place.
In the 1930s China was really in a miserable state. Chinese were treated worse than dogs in the foreign concessions. I recall an incident in which I saw a Japanese soldier viciously bullying a Chinese rickshaw driver. I felt ashamed and helpless. At the time I was only twenty and had no idea what I was doing. I wrote my first play, never expecting that it would soon be performed all over the country as well as in Hong Kong and South East Asia. So I entered the artistic world quite unexpectedly. My motivation was patriotism.
Encouraged by the success of the play, I wrote the second one, a period piece about Wen Tianxiang of the Song Dynasty who fought against the foreign invaders. This one met with some difficulties because of its political symbolism. Just before the play opened, we were told that certain scenes depicting the corruption and dissipation of the emperor had to be deleted because the censor thought it might be seen as a comment on the corrupt KMT regime.
There's a slang expression in Beijing dialect: "Some might beg for food or drink, but nobody begs to be cursed". But the KMT government was begging to be cursed. They were extremely sensitive to any negative criticism, real or implied; they had totally lost confidence in themselves. This taught me that the hardest part of being a playwright in China was that anything you wrote would be taken as reflecting on those in power. I never dreamed that the Communist Party, an organization in which I believed and respected would end up being no different from the KMT.
Nowadays if you write anything to expose life's seamier side, the Party will accuse you of mocking the current regime. This means in effect that they recognize themselves in decadence and evil. They never think to associate themselves with any of the positive things you write about, despite their glorious past achievements. It's a clear sign that the regime is on its last legs. It is a tragic reality and something of which I have become painfully aware.
I don't think the nexus between art and politics is something from which we can easily extricate ourselves. When I was told some twenty or thirty years ago that I was a communist first, and only then an artist, I felt that was right. Now I see that's sheer bullshit. Artists should be free to express whatever they want to, be it political or not -- love, life or death, whatever. It's as simple as that.
Why has so something that is in essence so simple become such a complex problem in China? It can all be traced back to the speech given by Mao in 1942 at the Yan'an Forum on Art and Literature. Under the policy of politics first, art second, much of what was produced was mendacious. It produced a culture of stupefaction, just as many government policies have been aimed at keeping the people ignorant. It's a trend that still exists in China today, although it's no longer the mainstream. Among the supporters of the old policy are high- and middle-level officials and ordinary people as well as certain artists and critics. Let me illustrate this with a simple case in point. Although the films "Old Well" and "Red Sorghum" won prizes abroad, both were harshly criticized at home. These attacks continue even now. These films are pilloried for "reflecting the backwardness of China" and "playing into the hands of the Western bourgeoisie". We have even received death threats in the mail.
This shows that the ideological approach of making art the handmaiden of politics still has supporters in China. It will take a long time to eliminate this type of leftist, Maoist thinking, even among artists themselves.
My view may be quite different from the previous speakers. I want to talk about the artists' self-improvement. I don't want to be called an artist. I am just a film-maker.
Like Li Rui, I too was an educated youth sent down to the countryside. I spent eight years there (and for some of that time I was in the army). From a moral point of view, it was wrong for us to be there because we were forced to go. On the other hand, we benefited from our experiences.
I remembered discussing with my good friend Bei Dao how one could make an objective evaluation of the Cultural Revolution. It is one thing to see it from an historical point of view, and quite another to talk about it at a personal level, especially for those who lost loved ones. We must not forget or forgive what happened, but we have to be able to talk about and learn from our history.
My film "Yellow Earth" was made in a mood of exhilaration. I felt that I was seeing my own people, the vast land and the river that nourished me. I can still see its value today. The defect of the movie was that I was searching for a national spirit which belongs to everyone. After I made "The King of Children" some critics told me that although it bore my mark something was missing. I think they meant that what was missing was the sense of the national collective spirit that I tried to express in "Yellow Earth".
Since coming to the United States [in 1988] I feel I've been able to see things from a broader perspective. I don't believe there is necessarily a causal relationship between extreme suffering and superior art works.
I don't know whether I have made myself clear. What I am trying to say is that I totally abstain from the argument between art and politics. When I saw a person standing on the plateau in Shaanxi singing happily, I thought that was art. He was not trying to tell others something. He didn't have to.
I agree that art forms are becoming more and more complex, diverse and encompassing. But the basic thing is how I see and feel about myself, about the world, how much I can hear, understand and express. These things are more important to me.
I share a lot of Liu Binyan's political views, but when it comes to artistic matters we have considerable differences of opinion.
For instance, just now he said that in his eyes the arts in China today was a vast, pale emptiness. I take it that he still believes that art and literature ought to serve politics, serve society and serve the people. Art and literature are still being used as tools, either by the Communist Party, or by those who are opposed to it.
I feel that in the final analysis, art is not and should not be used as a tool. You could hardly say I'm entirely independent of politics. After all I have written poems such as "The Answer", which expresses a strong sense of rebellion. I have also written a lot of other things which in Binyan's view would be like pieces of blank paper. But for me, they have a deeper value, they show my ultimate concern for human life. So you cannot say they're meaningless. As for how much artistic value such work has, that can hardly be measured by its utilitarian function.
I just want to take one minute to add something to what Bei Dao has said. Let us return to the two images presented by Liu Binyan, that is, the student movement on the one hand and pale and empty literature on the other. I think the changes in literary field in the past decade can be seen as having occurred in three stages.
The first stage [1977-80] was that of the so-called "Scar Literature", which questioned the Cultural Revolution and Mao's teachings on art and literature. A new, exploratory stage began when large numbers of experimental literary works appeared [1985-87]. The last two years [1988-89] was yet another stage characterized by cultural commercialization and consumerism. In this latest stage art and literature have turned away from classical [socialist] ethics and into commercial commodities. This is a very important change which certainly encompasses more than the two contrasting pictures limned by Liu Binyan.
I have always greatly admired Liu Binyan's concern for and dedication to his country and its people. But I do not share his views on the relationship between art and society. He says that he feels art in China is pale, weak and hazy, and quite remote from social reality. Even so, it is a reflection of the feelings of individual artists.
This morning we talked about individualism. A society would be meaningless without individuals. Paleness and dimness may reflect one person's mood, and if such a mood is shared by many people then surely that artist is reflecting a social phenomenon. Therefore in a way it is connected with society. The connection may not be as direct as in reportage, because it takes the form of art. In my view, if any piece of art can have a social impact, it does so because it has some artistic value.
Take, for instance, Wu Tianming's film "Old Well". It is, first and foremost, a work of art. Even the "foreign devils" who are not familiar with its background and who have difficulty in understanding it, even with subtitles, can empathize with the [peasants'] intense struggle for survival, and the human tragedy of their lives. It is the artistry of the film that affects them. If it were a badly made movie, they wouldn't bother sitting through it. A work of art must first have artistic worth; its social function is secondary.
As for fiction and poetry, well, perhaps Binyan prefers to see fiction being used directly to address social issues, the difficulties of reform, corruption, and so on. But both fiction and poetry are about human beings, about feelings. It is not necessary to demand that every piece of art has a direct social impact.
The problem with art in China today lies not in whether it has a direct, social function, but rather how artistic standards can be raised and how commercial influences limited.
A work of art originates in a specific country, but at the same time it should transcend its specific environment to rise to a higher level of universality. This is the mark of a true work of art. I don't know whether Binyan would agree with this, probably not.
I don't entirely disagree. This is a very profound issue. It is true that we have too few good works of art like "Old Well".
Over the past forty years, the Communist Party emphasized that art should be at the service of politics. With the ending of the Cultural Revolution, artists began to rebel against this notion. I have attended numerous seminars and conferences on this issue, but still have not found out the appropriate way to rebel.
Liu Binyan represents a school of thought to which I do not subscribe. I do not mean to quarrel with Liu Binyan personally. But I do want to challenge the ideas he represents, which are still predominant in China today. A typical slogan of this school is "art for the people", namely that art should serve the people and the society, as opposed to serving politics. I have given a lot of thought to this slogan. Why should art serve anything?
I used to write poetry. Someone once asked me whom I was writing for and how I felt when I was writing. I explained with a vulgar metaphor. I said writing poetry was like taking a piss. When you piss do you think about the effect of your urine? Whether it will help the crops grow? What the Communist Party has been asking of us is to make sure that every time we piss it'll help the crops grow, and grow to the standard that they demand. Today, some people stress the importance of serving the people. It's the same as saying be careful your piss doesn't make the crop grow the way the Communists want it. In the end, both positions are basically the same.
Chinese artists and writers, as a part of the intellectual stratum, have always belonged to the class of officials. They have never had an independent spirit or sense of self-worth. They have always wanted to be at someone's service. In my view, an artist need only be true and honest to himself. When an intellectual can exist as an independent entity with an independent spirit, he will inevitably develop a concern for mankind as a whole, a spiritual, transcendent concern. When he takes the stance of an independent person, there is bound to be a large gap between himself and modern civilization. He will feel loneliness, despair and anxiety. If he writes about these feelings, his audience is mankind as a whole. What he writes may eventually serve the interests of the people in an objective way.
While I was in China, I read Kafka's The Castle. It touched me deeply. Of course, Kafka was not writing about China, nor was he even writing about anything contemporary. But I strongly felt that novel's relevance to China. In it Kafka describes the helplessness of a man who is totally confused and crushed by a state apparatus. The person he describes is no longer a human being, he does not even dare to think about human worth. Describing his protagonist's extreme despair, he writes about politics, about people and justice. Later I read something about the author. I certainly didn't find anything to indicate that he was writing because of some strong sense of responsibility or because he was consciously trying to serve the people.
The question of the relationship between art and politics is a hoary one. It's little wonder that Li Rui feels we are dwelling on an old subject.
Indeed, in the past politics interfered far too much with art and literature. We must admit such interference has been on the decline in recent years. Art and fiction enjoys much more freedom than journalists working in the mass media. Thus a more pertinent topic for discussion would be the relationship between art and reality, for this is something which encompasses political power.
The impact of the market economy on art cannot be underestimated. Ni Zhen has commented on this. My son studies at the Central Music Conservatorium and he tells me that it is increasingly difficult to hold concerts of classical music. Nobody wants to pay to attend. Only pop music is popular. The government should give some financial support to real music. But such funding is limited.
Commercial influences are also reflected in the film industry. Even the minister and deputy minister in charge of radio, television and cinema are advocates of the view that the main task of cinema is to entertain. After all, they argue, entertainment is a social function which serves society.
So what is the relationship between art and society? Should art reflect reality or be a means of self-expression for the artist? What is the relationship between the two? What is the self that is being expressed, since there is such a variety of selves in the society? This naturally involves various philosophies behind art, such as existentialism or Marxism. I feel the discussion cannot go further if we do not deal with it from this perspective.
I agree with Wang Ruoshui. Another topic I want to discuss is the subject of "ultimate concern," one which has been touched upon by Bei Dao and some others.
Ultimate concern is a very interesting religious subject. Why is it that the writings of people like Kafka are so moving? It's because they feed on profound spiritual urges. These do not belong to any one individual, but are of man himself and are part of his culture. I feel, therefore, for an artist it is more important to broaden his own horizons and enrich his personal resources than merely to project reality [in his works], to deal with the problem of commercialization or to serve anybody.
In years past first-class writers emerged in such cities as Paris, Kyoto, Tokyo, and Shanghai. This was not the result of some particular plan or design, but was possible because of the diverse influences in those places. Almost weekly there were different salons and gatherings for artists, writers, critics, film-makers and students. A man of letters cannot be trained in some course, he has to experience life himself and master the language in his own way. Efforts should be made to develop new ideas, values and sources, instead of setting a common goal of serving the society or serving the people. Otherwise the results will be facile.
Now I want to talk about the Chinese language specifically. Quite a few specialists in Chinese language and literature feel that even after seventy years the vernacular Chinese language is still not a mature vehicle for expression. There is still a big gap between our mastery of the modern language and the fluency of a traditional scholar with classical Chinese. We are actually limited by technical difficulties in expressing more profound and spiritual concerns, quite unlike writers of, say, Japanese, English or Spanish.
This is a subject of the greatest importance, and a concern which is not necessarily in conflict with Liu Binyan's view. As the old saying goes, one must "dig deep the well to get more water". If we do a good job in exploring new concepts and values, it will have profound implications on both social reality and politics.
I learned from the above discussion that in the Mainland literature is supposed to serve society.
In the early 1950s, Taiwan experienced a thorough "mopping up" campaign to eliminate the writers who wrote about the life of the people under Japanese occupation. Some were killed, others exiled or jailed. Then the US Seventh Fleet blockaded the Taiwan Straits. After that there was a period in which writing had nothing to do with politics. Even modern literature was imported and introduced from the United States.
Previously I believed this state of affairs existed only in Taiwan. Then I learned that the same thing happened in South Korea. During the period of the Korean War and thereafter, progressive writers were cruelly oppressed. This then followed by a trend towards aestheticism which seemed totally irrelevant to politics.
But now, as I think back, I can see strong political implications of this pure art. So-called literary aestheticism or individualism that appeared in the post-war period, particularly in the developing nations of Asia, definitely served anti-communist politics. People in the Mainland may not be aware of the fact that of the two opposing political systems, one advocated serving the people, while the other encouraged aestheticism and individualism. But I know from my experience in Taiwan that the latter was not solely aimed at encouraging individualism.
I agree with Tu Wei-ming that after forty years' of bitterness we urgently need to make a comprehensive study and analysis of what has happened on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. We must not be satisfied with mere emotionalism, but go on to engage in a profound reflection and analysis of post-war history. This is a pressing task not only in the field of literature, but in the realms of ideology, philosophy, and the social sciences. It is a precondition to future progress. I know some people in South Korea are seriously engaged in this task.
Another point is that literature should be considered in terms of specific social contexts. Realism in China is quite different from that in Europe. In Europe realism was part of a process of literary evolution, whereas in China it has been closely connected with the social and historical context of the anti-imperialist and anti-feudalist struggles [of the past century]. So when we summarize and analyze past experience, we have to look at our specific circumstances.
My field is art history. In the past Western scholars of art history were preoccupied with the study of the forms of artistic expression. There was little interest in the relationship between art and society. But in the past few decades, some art historians have became more interested in this question. This was not due to pressure from a Mao Zedong or a Communist Party. It was a natural development. When research reached a certain stage, people turned their attention to questions such as who were supporting those artists and why, and why certain schools of art were promoted more than others. The study of the relationship between art, society and politics is a new area of research in the United States.
But when an American scholar was lecturing at the Central Institute of Fine Arts [in Beijing] and talked about this subject, nobody was interested. He quickly realized that the situation there was diametrically opposed to his own. Previously, China had gone to absurd lengths to make art serve politics, while in the West people pursued pure, absolute form. Now things were reversed. People in the West have become interested in the social implications of art, while the Chinese have totally lost interest in it, and have begun to believe that art is an absolutely individualistic inspiration and creation completely independent of society.
Recently I heard a talk about American literature by a book critic of the Washington Post on Public Radio. Of course he had no grounding in Maoist politics or anything like that, but he felt that some of the so-called writers who come directly out of school just play with few superficial forms and pretend it is art. He said such writing has no soul, no roots in the society. It's not a question of who serves what. But a human being ought to have an independent sense of value and dignity and his own experience. No matter what he is going to write, it should be something of substance. The critic felt this is what is lacking in American literature.
I want to raise one or two small points.
The first one is about ultimate concern. According to Liu Binyan, the ultimate concern of a writer or intellectual in 20th Century China should be, first of all, for his society and country. But if you regard yourself as an artist with your own philosophy, then the ultimate concern may not be limited to society and state. Just now I heard several people referring to themselves as artists. This is something new in China. Before they were referred to as "art and literature workers".
My second point is about language. If a writer, artist or intellectual is really concerned about society, surely he must consider whether his command of the language can adequately express what he wants to say. Most Chinese writers are overconfident. They feel that as long as they are sincere about serving society, they can express themselves. Very few have wondered whether the language he or she commands is adequate to express their feelings and ideas. My real point is that in the 20th Century a writer should have a sense of anxiety, or at least doubts, about his own ability.
I am not very familiar with art theory or literary criticism. But in my view, the foremost question for Chinese writers is not a linguistic one, but whether they are willing to give precedence to society, the nation and mankind. One may call it the artist's ultimate concern or immediate concern. I do not see any contradiction in this.
I feel Chinese writers lack breadth of vision and humanitarianism; therefore they've been unable to produce great works.
I made it quite clear from the beginning that I do not reject the type of art advocated by Bei Dao and Cao Changqing. Such things should be permitted and appreciated. But I don't think they should be predominant in China. For a whole year now, there has not been one single book that has really moved or inspired Chinese readers. Is this normal?
I am not saying that we do not need the experimental writings of the Wang Anyis or Can Xues. But if all or most of our literary works are of this type, I don't think we have a normal or balanced situation.
Our Chinese colleagues believe that the state subsidizes the arts. If so, to what extent should arts be subsidized and how should the money be distributed?
I can answer this question. During my stay in the United States, I have often been asked how Chinese writers support themselves. Some people say if you are paid by the state, you have got to sing the government's praises and you have to accept the restrictions it imposes. You can't avoid being a eulogist.
China's social structure is entirely different from that of the United States. China enjoys the so-called "principle of ownership by all the people" which is exactly the opposite of what it implies: the people don't own anything while the state garners all the wealth and only gives back a small part of it to the people. When I get my salary, I never feel it is a favor from my boss; I feel I deserve it and more.
For decades the Chinese have been living on pitifully low wages and mean living standards. It is a different social system. It doesn't mean that because the writers draw a salary from the government they must speak for the government. At least that's not the way I think.
My question for the panelists is this: Does an artist, writer, film-maker, painter or musician have to have a sense of mission? Is it possible that when an artist is engaged in creative work, he just tries to express himself? Whether his works are recognized or accepted by society is the society's choice.
Are all great works of art the product of artists burdened by a great sense of responsibility? For instance, when Dickens and Mark Twain wrote their novels, did they want to transform British or American society? When Beethoven wrote his Third Symphony he was displeased with Napoleon, but, apart from that, did he have any strong sense of mission? And why do Chinese artists have to have a special sense of social responsibility to be creative?
If you look at classical Chinese literature, some authors had a great sense of social responsibility, but most did not. It all depended on how the author felt about society.
As I see it, the big issue for Chinese artists today is one of artistic quality. The novelist Lao She once quoted Joseph Conrad to the effect that a work of art should be like a ball which can roll in any direction. But many of our art works are like lumps of firewood, useful though they may be, they can't roll in any direction. It can only be looked at from one angle and is meaningless if seen from any other perspective.
I have met some artists in both the U. S. and Europe. They are leisurely and easygoing, not at all frenetic. But their work is remarkable. Their art is neither French nor German, it belongs to humanity.
The film "Yellow Earth" is a truly Chinese-style movie. My aim now is try to express something that is more universal. In China, politics is a restricted subject in the field of art. But if you have enough confidence, you can make a breakthrough. That's the way I see it.
What is art? Art is freedom. Each artist has his own understanding of art and his own style. One can be very calm and harmonious, or very excited and anxious. Art in itself is free expression. There can be art for politics or not, everything depends on the individual artist.
When I was in New York I saw some of Andy Warhol's work in the Museum of Modern Art. He originally wanted to be a film star in Hollywood. When he came to New York he was attracted by commercial art. He designed cans, weather forecast charts for TV and crosswords for newspapers. Is this a form of art? I think it is, and rather representative in the terms of American culture. Warhol worked with everyday objects finding artistic value in them. Of course, this type of art is entirely different from classical music. But it can still be appreciated as art.
I think the most important thing for those involved in culture in China is to recognize that the essence of art is free expression. This includes freedom for people like Liu Binyan who uses his art to voice his concern for the nation or mankind. This is a very important freedom.
China does not have an artist like Andy Warhol yet. If there is one, he may make some money and the government may tolerate him. Well and good. On the other hand, it is a greater challenge for them to allow writers like Liu Binyan the freedom of expression. People like Liu are more likely to be oppressed by the authorities.
On our way here I was chatting with Wu Zuguang. He told me that an internal document from the Propaganda Department of the Party Central Committee to the National Publication and News Administration stipulated that no works critical of the Cultural Revolution should be published. This means there is now no freedom to write about the Cultural Revolution. After some negotiation this restriction has been loosened a little bit.
What I want to say is that I firmly believe that art is the freedom of expression. Nine artists may represent nine different schools but they should all be free to express whatever they want. They should not oppose Liu Binyan, and Liu Binyan won't oppose them. Only under the banner of freedom can all forms of art flourish, regardless of whether the aims of that art are the ultimate concerns of mankind, or a strong and prosperous nation, or simply profit.
I feel there is a lot to be discussed and I have very little to say. This symposium is about Chinese culture, and since most participants are from the Mainland it is actually a Mainland culture symposium. So I'll concentrate on some issues concerning problems on the Mainland.
There has been some relaxation of control over the arts in the past ten years. We've experienced an artistic emancipation, but it's far from enough. Even now people are still censoring our works, laying down policies to restrict the development of art and literature. The document cited by Ruan Ming is a good example.
This is the reality of China today. The question of the relationship between art and literature has not been resolved. Every artist or writer in China lives under a cloud, one which overshadows all of their creative endeavors. Today we are discussing this issue thousands of miles away from China and everyone is free to express his views. I trust there are no informants here. If this discussion were being held somewhere in China, especially at this moment when the students are protesting, I bet many of the participants would be punished for the remarks they have made. That's why I say this seemingly simple question of the relationship between culture and politics is still a serious problem in China.
Mr. Wu, just now both Wang Ruoshui and Ni Zhen mentioned the negative influence of commercial movies on the film industry. I'd like to ask you a question: as the head of a film studio don't you find that low-quality commercial movies are often an important source of revenue for a studio?
First of all, commercial and low quality movies are not necessarily the same thing. If you are after a high commercial return, you have to make high quality entertainment movies.
The problem we have in China is that some movies of high artistic quality don't sell well, while those that have a good box office aren't of particularly high artistic value. We are trying our best to combine the two. The movie "Red Sorghum" is a good example of a commercial art movie. But I don't want to elaborate on this. I want to go back to my previous topic.
I was saying that there still exist various policy restrictions on artistic development. There has been no thorough emancipation of artists and writers in China. The reason why the Xi'an Film Studio succeeded in producing some remarkable films was that, as some one has said, although we were given 50% freedom we pushed it up to 70%, even 80%. We went beyond our restrictions. We boldly took advantage of the limited freedom granted by the government. This is the only way some good works can be created. This is the situation in China today.
Geremie Barmé, a specialist in contemporary Chinese culture, has made some very pointed remarks. As someone from the Mainland, what he has said has made me feel quite uncomfortable. But what he said is true. For instance, he mentioned the fact that Chinese writers of the 1920s and 30s, such as Lu Xun and Mao Dun, were mostly scholars. But in recent years, writers are no longer scholars. Wang Meng, the Minister of Culture, has raised this issue on several occasions, but even he is no scholar.
At one time people used to say that although China was such a vast country there was no space for a writer's desk. Whether or not an artist or writer can find such a desk is his problem. One can not always complain about Mao Zedong, about new circumstances or about commercialization. Why can't you put a desk in your own small room and sit down to study or write in a quite, tranquil and confident manner?
Among the older generation of Chinese writers, there have been people like Shen Congwen, Qian Zhongshu and Yang Jiang who, although real intellectuals, chose to keep out of the limelight. Shen Congwen stopped writing after 1949, producing only one book, The History of Chinese Costumes. The manuscript was burned during the Cultural Revolution, and he had to start it all over again. But he never did any creative writing after 1949.
On the other hand, there were also writers like Guo Moruo and Lao She. Guo Moruo was a successful official who later became the Vice Chairman of the National People's Congress. After 1949, Lao She wrote only one good play, "The Tea House", the rest was all rubbish. He became too concerned with the social role of a writer.
Of course in the 20th century, China was constantly involved in struggles for national salvation, such as the War of Resistance Against the Japanese. Chinese writers could not avoid involvement. But on the whole they have been unable to transcend their own history to reach a level of ultimate concern for mankind. That's why none can be compared with Kafka or Dostoevsky.
This morning Tu Wei-ming mentioned Liu Xiaofeng, a noteworthy scholar from the Mainland. In the beginning of his recent book Salvation and the Soaring Spirit, Liu raises the question: Why have few Chinese poets committed suicide, while so many have in the West?
He claimed that over several thousand years of Chinese history, Zhu Xiang was the only poet who committed suicide apart from the legendary Qu Yuan. Of course they killed themselves for very different reasons. But is there anything at all similar in the causes for suicide for among Chinese and Western artists?
The Chinese are usually very critical about their own culture and works of art. I understand their feelings but I do not entirely agree with them. For instance, there are good artists among the panelists whose works are of high value. You should not be too modest.
Once we invited some American and Chinese poets, including Bei Dao, to read their own poems. I felt the poems of Bei Dao and Gu Cheng were much better than those of some American poets. I was deeply moved, so was the audience.
Liu Binyan said that he was not a writer but a reporter. How often do we find a good reporter like him in the United States who sharply criticizes his society? I admire Bei Dao as well as Liu Binyan. I don't see why if one is good, the other is not. The film "Yellow Earth" directed by Chen Kaige is much better than a lot of American movies. Many Americans share the same view. So don't be too critical. China has its own values.
I hope I'll be excused for not giving into cheap sympathy in my comments on Chinese culture. I feel that apart from commercial, political and artistic tendencies, another problem is the attitude towards foreign countries and foreigners.
A distinct feature of Chinese culture after the Cultural Revolution is the so-called Renaissance of China "going out to the world". Many artists, writers, poets, filmmakers and painters have oriented themselves to the foreign market. They combine politics, art and business -- all three in one. I know quite a few of them. One of concerns they constantly express in private is, "Do you think my work would be appreciated by foreigners? Would they buy it?"
Sometime ago I wrote about the phenomenon of the "foreign salon" and its effect on Chinese artists. This phenomenon has already had some impact on the culture, but people have been reluctant openly to confront the issue because this might harm their opportunities to make money or go abroad. In this way some artists have become prisoners of a foreign "frame of mind", which is not necessarily better than Communist Party controls. I hope my comments will lead to some discussion of this.
Mr. Barmé pointed out that some Chinese artists or writers care too much about whether their work would be appreciated by foreigners. It is true there are people like that. It's the same here. Writers want to know whether and how much their work will sell. I don't see much difference.
I admit there are some people like that. But many of my friends are sincerely in search of an artistic goal. They are not concerned with whether their works would be appreciated by foreigners or not. However, the result could be ironic. I'll give you my own example.
I wrote a novel, The Thick Earth, depicting the peasants' life in the Lüliang Mountains. The Party newspaper of Shanxi Province carried an article criticizing me. The article accused me of presenting a poverty-stricken and backward picture of the Chinese peasants in order to ingratiate myself with the foreigners. The person who wrote the article was an old painter. He also held a ranking position in the Party in charge of art and literature in the province. The works he criticized included "Old Well" by Zheng Yi, "Red Sorghum" [by Mo Yan], and a few others. His accusation was that by exposing the dark side of Chinese society, we wanted to win the favor of foreigners. He was being very arbitrary and understood nothing of literature.
I greatly admire great writers like Kafka, Kundera and so on. I was deeply shaken when I read their works. But I strongly feel, as Chinese writers, we have to go through our own experience of creative writing and soul searching to reach the highest level.
I was talking to my interpreter the other day. I said even if I dipped my head into a bucket of white paint, I still wouldn't be a white man when I came out. God has created the white, black and yellow races. It cannot be that any one experience is the highest. As long as you are a human being and have the ability and talent to express yourself well, you can reach the highest level. There should not be only one standard, the standard of Christian civilization. It is not fair to measure or demand that Chinese writers fit into that standard. If we do that, it will be the end of Chinese writers.
I would like to respond to Mr. Barmé's remarks.
Writing and publication are like production and circulation. The writer should first be concerned with production. What the sinologists would like to translate or publish is their choice.
Here I want to take an issue with Geremie Barmé. I was not happy at all to read your collection, Seeds of Fire. You only collected works with political intentions and put them together to present to Western readers, which will not help them understand Chinese literature.
[Barme's interjection: The introduction of the book explained the purpose of the collection. You've only read the table of contents. We made it clear in the introduction that it is not meant to be a purely literary anthology.]
It is true that I did not read the introduction. But the collection certainly did not present a true picture of Chinese literature.
I was talking about production and circulation. By circulation I mean translators' and publishers' choice of Chinese works to introduce to readers in the West. I quoted your book as an example. I may have misunderstood your intention because I did not read the introduction. But there are sinologists who only hunt for novelty and sensationalism. They do not project an objective and true picture of the situation. They are not interested in the really good stuff.
Your work of art will reflect your standard of art. Why do you care who is going to buy or appreciate it? The concepts [of production and circulation] you have used are indicative of the commercialization of art and literature, and a foreigner-oriented commercialization.
I only used a metaphor which is entirely different from commercialized art. I only said an artist should not be primarily concerned with circulation. And I emphasized that the "production" for an artist is craftsmanship. You were not listening to what I was saying.
We have had very heated discussions this afternoon. Every one was straightforward and candid.
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