Monika Gaenssbauer on Contemporary Chinese Essayists

Clockwise from top left: Zhang Kangkang; Jia Pingwa (photo by Liu Caixia); Mo Yan (photo by AP); Liu Zaifu

Today one can find a large number of translated novels and short story collections by Chinese authors on the shelves of bookstores in English- and German-speaking countries. It is not uncommon to find translated fiction by Wang Anyi, Xu Zechen, Yan Lianke, and Mo Yan, among others. Outside China, however, it is not often known that many of these writers have also authored numerous essays, highly popular among domestic Chinese readers. Essay collections of significant writers such as Jia Pingwa appear in print runs of up to 60,000. Why is it, then, that Chinese essays are only rarely translated (at least in the English- and German-speaking world)?

Perhaps it's because Western readers have long had difficulty in placing, reading, and analyzing the essay form. The German essayist and translator Hans-Magnus Enzensberger describes the essay as a "nomad amidst the bookshelves"—a type of writing resistant to classification under any of the fixed literary or literary-critical categories. In his work on the subject, the German literary theorist Christian Schärf points out that the field of literary studies (at least in Europe) has had great difficulty in finding a suitable category for the essay. The genre has proved almost impossible to "domesticate."

The Chinese essay (or sanwen) poses similar difficulties of definition. The sinologist Wolfgang Kubin, in his History of Chinese Literature, describes the sanwen as follows: "The object we are dealing with here is itself unclear. In searching for it, one easily becomes lost in the mists of the valleys." The Chinese sometimes use the term sanwen as coextensive with prose in general, but deploy it more narrowly at other times, in the way we would use the word "essay." On other occasions, they see sanwen not as a genre but rather as a style of writing. There also exist several different terms in Chinese other than sanwen for what we would term an "essay": these include biji (sketches), zawen (expressions of a political stance), youji (travel notes), and xiaopin (written miniatures). These different individual genres all tend to blend into one another. Beyond this slipperiness of classification, the traditional attitude in Chinese writing has been, as a traditional Chinese saying puts it, wen shi zhe bu fen: Literature, history, and philosophy cannot be separated from one another. We are left with sanwen's literal meaning: "scattered writing"—a form of writing that may begin at one point and end at another, without any necessary logical connection existing between beginning and end.

The Chinese Essay Tradition

Kubin places the origins of the Chinese essay in the Tang Dynasty with writers like Han Yu (768–824). Han was known for writing long epitaphs that came to be classified as sanwen. In the year 824, shortly before his own death, Han Yu wrote this epitaph for the tomb of a friend:

From antiquity right up to the present day, no writer has achieved such distinction in literature as he did. And what is more, all the words were his own. He never imitated authors who came before him, a condition by no means easy to attain.
Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072), who was also a renowned poet, often spent as much time composing epitaphs as he did poems. His finished epitaphs were sometimes very brief and concise, disappointing those relatives of the deceased who believed that the respect accorded to their departed loved ones was measured by the amount of text written for them. Ouyang Xiu's other prose compositions often take as their apparent subjects things that seem random or trivial—a zither, an artificial fish pond, or a strangely shaped outcrop of rock—but point to a hidden allegorical meaning. Scholar-officials who, like Ouyang Xiu, had suffered the fate of banishment from court often used such allegories to express their feelings of being unappreciated in their time.

In the Ming period (1368–1644), literature came to be understood as an expression of emotion and no longer merely as a vehicle for the conveyance of moral messages. Yuan Hongdao (1568–1610) was one of the most significant literary figures and essayists during this period. As an essayist, he was much less philosophical than his predecessors, choosing to focus instead on his travels, his dreams, and his quotidian pleasures. He took it as his task to reveal and explore the secrets of Nature and wrote in a style known as xiaopin, or written miniatures, defined by the sinologist Andrea Riemenschnitter as light essays on social topics. Despite their apparently light tone, however, xiaopin are still always concerned with educating readers.

Closer to our own time, the writers who fought for a modern China also showed great interest in the tradition of essay writing. Probably the most significant Chinese writer of the modern era, Lu Xun (1881–1936) penned more than seven hundred essays during his career, favoring the zawen (an expression of a political stance) form in particular. This form began to appear as a staple of Chinese newspapers during the 1930s, likely due at least in part to Lu Xun's influence. Zhou Zuoren (1885–1967), Lu Xun's brother, was another important essayist of the modern era, and both brothers went to great lengths to get this form accepted as part of the canon. Today, Chinese authors continue to uphold the zawen tradition: for example, the famous blogger Han Han entitled a 2010 essay collection Za De Wen (Miscellaneous Essays).

The Chinese literary critic Li Jingze has argued that the current popularity of short, fragmentary literary forms among the Chinese reading public is due to the frenetic pace of China's recent political, economic, and societal developments. People in China have simply not been able to muster the strength to "fuse, in their own minds and hearts, into a comprehensible whole this experience of wild, crazy leaps and brutal breaks and shifts in the climate of social life." It is via the succinct literary form of the essay that the individual processes the enormous upheavals and extreme social fragmentation around him.

Here are just four of the many prominent Chinese essayists active today that I would like to introduce to readers of Asymptote.

Zhang Kangkang

Zhang Kangkang (b. 1950) was one of the urban youths "sent down" during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s to live and work in the countryside among the peasants. She began writing in the early 1970s and, like many of her generation, often writes about the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in Chinese society.

In an essay from the year 1998, she addresses her own generation with a demand for a more honest self-image:

I do not believe that, in the Cultural Revolution, we were victims and nothing besides. We must not forget that the Red Guards too, who ransacked people's houses and destroyed cultural treasures, were members of our generation, as were the people who subjected other people to mistreatment simply because their parents had belonged to a certain social class. The nightmare of the Red Guards' fascist violence now belongs to the past. But who among us has been so genuinely self-critical as to put to himself or herself this question: how was it possible for us to have been led so completely astray in those days? Most of us today still shift all responsibility for this onto "the times," and thoughtlessly declare ourselves free of all guilt.I would like to see us cease, from now on, to talk always only about the 'selfless devotion' of our generation and about how we moved heaven and earth, or about how open and pure relations between people were in those days. If you are honest, you will admit that our generation was also a generation of betrayal and denunciation. We suffered injury indeed—but we also injured others.
In a recent volume of essays, Shei gan wen ziji? (Who Dares to Question Themselves?), Zhang continues to meditate on the role that the Cultural Revolution played in her life. In one essay, she captures the summer of the year 1966—one of the most violent periods of the Cultural Revolution—in a striking allegorical image:

Once the summer of 1966 had arrived, even the birds of the air began to show signs of extreme unrest. One day, an ash-grey swallow suddenly came flying into our classroom. With its wings fluttering wildly, the bird went shooting back and forth between one paneled corner of the room and another. Again and again it threw itself violently against the window-pane, each impact producing a loud dull thud. After a while, the boys in our class set about trying to capture the swallow. They tried to drive it down, using satchels and broom-handles, from the area below the ceiling where it was shooting back and forth. But the bird continued to circle dizzily above our heads. Finally someone shouted: "Where is the swallow?" Suddenly it became very quiet in the room. We saw a little pile of flesh and feathers lying lifeless on the floor.
With this image of the tormented swallow, Zhang Kangkang describes, in an allegorical style typical of many of her essays, the torment and cruelty that the Cultural Revolution inflicted on human beings.

Jia Pingwa

Jia Pingwa (b. 1952) is a native of rural China, specifically the province of Shaanxi. He attracted international attention (as well as scandal) with his 1991 debut novel, the sexually explicit Feidu (The Abandoned Capital), but hardly any of his essays have been translated into English or German so far. In China, however, it is precisely as an essayist that Jia Pingwa has made a name for himself.

Jia seeks to bring about a return to traditional Chinese aesthetics through his essays. In an essay from 2007, Jia describes a life of retirement in the countryside in idyllic terms:

Even if the farm were smaller than it is, it would still be necessary to plant willow trees. To plant willow trees with branches that hang down low, so that when one awakens in the early morning twilight and opens a window, one thinks that one sees an immortal standing there, waiting and stroking her robe. When it is night and the moon stands high in the sky, one seems to recognize a fairy, standing before a mirror and combing her hair. Fairies are often found in the vicinity of the poorest huts and hovels. There is nothing to regret in the fact that no cars or carriages leave their tracks before the door. One can pass the time watching the fading of the embers in the hearth, or observing the movements of the wind. It only takes a small beaker of wine to make me tipsy. In this way I am rid of the troublesome affairs of this world: worries about how to earn one's living, about dog bites, and about unpaid bills.
After all the negative attention stirred up by Feidu, Jia really did retreat into the countryside to try to regain some peace and equilibrium. Descriptions of rural retirement and solitude, of a vita contemplativa, are a common trope in many classical Chinese essays, where the life of retirement directly contrasts with the incessant political and bureaucratic activity of the scholar-officials in the Imperial Court. Han Yu, who was banished to the countryside in the year 804 at the age of thirty-five, wrote at first about how he treasured the peace and leisure his banishment gave him and how this peace allowed him to gather his thoughts. Later on, however, he soured on his rural place of exile:

Yangshan is one of the most desolate places on the face of the earth. It's swarming with tigers and leopards. Boats are constantly capsizing and being smashed to pieces in the rushing currents of the river. The local officials speak a language that sounds like the cawing of birds, and they have the appearance of barbarians.

Liu Zaifu

Liu Zaifu (b. 1941), a prominent essayist and cultural critic, has likewise taken up the theme of withdrawing from urban and civil life and returning to Nature. Having gone into exile after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, Liu Zaifu currently lives in Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Since 1989, he has published more than ten volumes of essays in Hong Kong, many of which have been released in numerous re-editions. However, very few of his essays have been translated into English thus far.

One essay about his new home is entitled "The Story of the Stone" ("Shitou Ji"), borrowing one of the alternative titles of the classic Chinese novel more commonly known as The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hongloumeng). In this essay, Liu observes that a view across the broad mountain landscapes of the United States makes the heart and soul expand, citing a poem by the Song Dynasty poet Xin Qiji (1140–1207):

Fascinated, I cast my gaze upon the green mountain landscape, asking myself: what kind of gaze does the mountain landscape cast on me? Emotions and phenomena in the end are both alike.
In this essay, Liu projects the images of his homeland and its cultural legacy onto a landscape encountered far from that home. The essay also refers to certain familiar Daoist topoi. In the Daoist tradition, mountains often are perceived as microcosms, and immortals sometimes assume the form of a mountain themselves (as depicted in the famous Liang Kai [1140–1210] painting "Immortal in Splashed Ink"). As described in the cited poem, the mountain and the human being cast their gazes on each other, coming to resemble one another, in the end, in both emotions and phenomena.

Mo Yan

Even Mo Yan (b. 1955), the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature and an author well-known outside of China through the many translations of his novels, suffers from Western neglect of the Chinese essay form. Almost none of his numerous essays have yet found their way into English or German translation.

In one remarkable essay, entitled "My Grave," Mo describes how, during the Cultural Revolution, he worked in a cooperative where he spent most of his time watering down alcohol, getting drunk daily, and stealing vegetables from other people's gardens. One evening he rides his bicycle home as usual over the local dyke, and suddenly falls:

My lips were split and I felt how a few of my teeth had been loosened. I dimly saw something appear in front of my eye—a fence surrounding a grave? Flicking on my cigarette-lighter, I recognized that I had indeed collided with the mound of a tomb. In front of it stood a white wooden sign on which was written: 'The grave of Mo Yan.'
He manages to return to the cooperative. When he awakens the next day, he returns to the grave:

I tore down a piece of white cloth from the sales shelves and covered my body with it. Around my waist I tied a hempen rope, wrapping a further piece of white cloth around my head. I wedged a few hundred sheets of writing paper under my arm and took up a stick of the sort that is used to beat in lamentation at funerals. I tore open the door, crying loudly and bitterly, and moved off in the direction of the dyke. Many people came along with me, hoping to see if anything else exciting would happen.Once I had arrived in front of 'my' grave I began to tear strips off the paper and burn them over the mound. Blue smoke rose up in long eddies. I knelt down and began to lament loudly. I sobbed and beat repeatedly on the mound of earth. Some old illiterate women came over to me and tried to comfort me, saying: "Never mind. Don't cry. He's dead now, and your crying won't bring him back to life...""But I'm not dead," I replied, sobbing."Well if you're not dead, why are you crying? Stop putting so much salt into your soy sauce and no one will make you a grave."
Mo Yan sums up the experience by saying:

This is a true story. This scene of me loudly mourning my own self was one that the folk in Gaomi were deeply moved by—even if it was partly just theatre. To stand before one's own grave is a serious, important thing. It really isn't possible to report on it in a relaxed and humorous tone.
And yet it is precisely in a humorous tone that Mo Yan addresses the theme of death within the essay. It presents an example of the "grotesque," defined by the literary theorist Philip Thomson as combining the contradictory aspects of the comical and the terrifying.

Like some of Mo Yan's fiction, this essay also deals with the genre of the ghost story so beloved in China: tales of men and women whose lives have not yet been lived to the full before they are overtaken by an (often unnatural) death, and who are therefore driven to haunt, after their premature departure from the "yang world," those who are still living. And like in the novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Mo Yan also invokes the Buddhist idea of reincarnation at the end of this passage, and concludes self-mockingly: "I was reborn a better man."