A colleague forwarded us this New York Times story about the recent Frankfurt book fair, at which the tensions between China and the West were very much on display. The Times has tagged it as “uneasy engagement”, and we couldn’t think of a more apropos phrase to describe the conference. Government representatives, dissident writers, the “Western media”, and Western writers all played a part here, and the usual suspects were dragged to the surface: Tibet, Tiananmen, F.G., censorship, etc., etc.
The story ends with this tidbit:
Mr. Liao, the writer and musician, was imprisoned from 1990 to 1994 after he wrote a poem about the Tiananmen massacre. Despite an invitation [to the Frankfurt book fair] — he hoped to promote his book about China’s downtrodden, known in English as “The Corpse Walker” — the police would not lift a ban on his going overseas.
In a telephone interview, Mr. Liao said it was not a complete loss for him or other underground writers, given the publicity. “Only by going through these incidents, it seems, can we become known to the outside world,” he said.
Liao makes an interesting point. As bad as censorship, house arrest, and repression are for the Chinese government’s public relations, they can be and have been a kind of boon for dissidents and controversial artists who struggle to make themselves known outside of China otherwise. “Banned in China” is a sexy catchphrase that’s sure to attract attention outside the borders of the Middle Kingdom, and we — this blog included — tend to pay more attention to the people who are being harassed by the government than the people who aren’t.
Part of this is natural, of course. Attention begets attention, so if the government is following someone it stands to reason that sooner or later, others will be paying attention too. But part of it comes, I think, from our affection for what may be a Western cultural archetype: the underdog. Generally speaking, we love a good underdog story, and pretty much everyone is an underdog when they’re taking on the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the Chinese government. Regardless of our understanding the politics behind the issue — and let’s be fair, most people who quote the Dalai Lama or decry China’s human rights abuses don’t actually know a damn thing about China or Chinese policy — underdog stories have a romantic appeal that serves dissident writers in China well.
The obvious downside is that Chinese art that isn’t about the government in some way tends to fall by the wayside when it gets outside China. It may not be less good than political art, but it doesn’t have the same David vs. Goliath appeal. It’s no coincidence that in America, people are more likely to know who Jung Chang is than who Lu Xun is, and I don’t think it’s because Jung Chang is a better writer. (Of course, it’s no coincidence that people know Lu Xun but not Jung Chang in China, either).
Another reason for this, of course, is that the sort of non-political art that’s promoted by the government when they’re abroad is generally too sterile to have any lasting appeal. Again, from the Times:
China invested $15 million and managed nearly every detail of its exhibition. There was much argument over what translations to finance. The 20 new German-published volumes China financed include works by major writers, like Jiang Rong’s “Wolf Totem,” Yu Hua’s “Brothers,” and Xu Zechen’s “Running Through Zhongguancun.”
Mr. Xu’s hit, about a migrant hawking pirated DVDs and fake IDs in the capital, was unexpected. But of some 100 newly translated titles that China promoted, most are banal introductions to China from state publishers.
One wonders if Beijing’s aspirations for its own “soft power” may eventually necessitate the loosening of some state controls on art and expression generally. These aspirations may also require China to stop trying to present a squeaky-clean image and embrace reality (or something closer to it), which is dirtier but also more compelling. If nothing else, it’s probably an encouraging sign for artists in China that the Chinese government even sent a delegation at all. It’s still easier to get famous through suffering — Ai Weiwei’s brain injury has gotten him some attention, for example — but things may be changing.
What are your thoughts?