Global Asias 2 Conference
Penn State University
Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square:
Ha Jin and the Cultural Politics of the Chinese Literary Diaspora
This talk draws from one chapter of my forthcoming book, Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square, which examines Chinese diaspora writers’ literary representations of the 1989 Tiananmen movement and massacre. Here I’ll look at Ha Jin’s novel The Crazed as one case study in the larger corpus of Tiananmen fictions. Ha Jin seems to me a particularly apt figure to talk about at this conference and on this panel, for in the last few years, his writing has been frequently invoked as exemplifying global trends by literary scholars in both Asian American Studies and China Studies. On one hand, he has been claimed by Asian Americanists as a “transformative force” for American and Asian American literature (Zhou 276), a key figure whose work allows us to “continue expanding the notion of ‘Asian American’ beyond the conceptual boundaries of national citizenship and the referential domain of the United States” (Yao 112). On the other, China scholars likewise argue for his instrumentality in redefining modern Chinese literature from a nation-bound and language-based model to one that is “transnational” and “translinguistic” (Lo 14), and in pointing the way to “the future direction of a global Chinese literature that is not exclusive to one language” but bilingual (Tsu 111). That Ha Jin can be appropriated with equal facility by those endeavoring to expand or deconstruct the category of Chinese literature as by those with similar designs on Asian American literature clearly signals his multilateral utility for critics with an eye on the global.
This American academic turn to Ha Jin as a progressive transnationalizing force for various literary canons is relatively recent, however. Among Chinese critics on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, reception of his work has been mixed. In his corpus of fiction, Jin has canvassed almost every major catastrophic episode in twentieth-century Chinese history. He rarely hesitates to censure communism’s suffocating and destructive effects on individual lives, and this central dimension of his writing has led at once to his mainstream popularity in America, where he is often lauded as a trenchant observer of communist state power, but also to some uneasiness and outright accusations by Chinese critics of his self-orientalism, his supposed perpetuation of Western stereotypes of China as culturally backward and brutally repressive. Given that Jin writes primarily in English for an Anglophone audience, he presents an all too easy target for cultural watchdogs on the lookout for “traitors” or “sell-outs.”
One example involved his winning the American Book Award in 1999 for his first novel, Waiting. News of this award brought Ha Jin to the attention of many Sinophone readers both inside and outside of China, but it also embroiled him in a heated controversy the following summer. In a scathing book review entitled “Trading on Honesty,” Beijing University professor Liu Yiqing accused Jin of “emphasizing China’s backwardness” and “cursing his compatriots and becoming the American media’s tool for defaming China”—in short, for betraying his native country: [SLIDE]
Under Ha Jin’s lying pen, the many good and honest ordinary people of China … have become a laughing stock for Americans. It is precisely because there are people like Ha Jin, who would not hesitate to sully their own fellow citizens for the sake of winning prizes, that the West, especially the U.S., has long failed to change its impression of the Chinese, formed from the early twentieth century, as cowardly and weak, ignorant and lazy, opium-smoking and foot-binding, and not daring to retaliate even when their pigtails are pulled.
Liu’s review reportedly led Ha Jin’s mainland publisher to retract its Chinese edition of Waiting, which is the only novel of his to have ever been published by a mainland press but is now out of print there. Although her jingoistic assault may seem crude, it encapsulates a recurring concern in literary criticism on Jin’s work, namely, his representation of Chineseness to cultural and linguistic others in a global market.
Such vilification from the Sinophone world extends beyond the mainland. Although all of Jin’s fiction has been translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan, and although he is generally well-received there, he has also come under fire by the Taiwanese literary establishment. [SLIDE] In her 2007 novel Wuyan, the prominent Taiwanese author Zhu Tianwen assumes the persona of a local male reader to mock Ha Jin for building up his career in the West via cheap tricks, such as relying on “straight translation from Chinese to write his English-language novels.” Zhu’s protagonist fumes about how, when “translated back into Chinese, Ha Jin is like someone who had been flash frozen. When he woke up, he had no inkling as to the events that had transpired in mainland China in the 1980s. Earnestly and with excitement, he retells what other people have already narrated, except not as well.” Like Liu Yiqing, Zhu Tianwen imputes to Ha Jin self-exoticism and linguistic betrayal, insinuating that he dwells on bygone nightmares out of an ignorance of contemporary China, even as he capitalizes on his foreign background by creating a quirky pidgin English, which Zhu dismisses as a “gimmick of translation” (qtd. in Tsu 103).
These accusations about Ha Jin’s cultural and linguistic betrayal highlight the treacherous terrains of “transnational” writing as it circulates beyond the U.S. academy. The more popular a writer such as Ha Jin becomes with Western readers, the more acutely he is judged by standards of authenticity by his homeland or native-language critics. Ha Jin himself has variously responded to these criticisms, most notably in his recent volume of essays, The Writer as Migrant. As he comments there, “at any moment, a country can take a writer to task and even accuse him of misdeeds, betrayal, or other crimes against the people” (4), and so, over time, he has come to redefine his writerly self-identity from a “tribal spokesman” to a “migrant writer”—someone who can reconstruct his “home” away from the native land. At the same time, in answer to charges that he has forgotten his roots and Chinese readers, he decided just last year to translate his latest collection of short stories, A Good Fall, into Chinese himself. Intriguingly, his choice of the Chinese title—Luodi—is not a direct back-translation of the English but conjures the expression luodi shenggen—“to fall to the ground and take new root,” a proverbial metaphor for the longtime emigrant. Yet he also elides the second half of this expression, perhaps intimating that a good fall does not preclude him from continuing to move between new and old linguistic grounds.
Yet I want to suggest here that Jin’s writing even before this philosophical turn to the migrancy model already enfolds a much more complicated representational self-positioning vis-à-vis China. If one assumption underpinning the inauthenticity critique is that he writes primarily realist fiction, that his narrative style makes an implicit claim on the realities of Chinese life and communist history, and that he naively or self-servingly plays the native informant to Western readers, here I will foreground a crucial feature in his portrayal of Tiananmen in The Crazed—a feature I will call the lost Square: his configuration of Tiananmen Square as the heralded site that should culminate the plot by placing the protagonist-narrator at the heart of China’s national struggle, but simultaneously, a site of failed arrival for the narrator and hence a conspicuous lacuna for Jin as much as the reader. This double structure of the Square as an unfulfilled promise and a vanishing point epitomizes Jin’s diasporic aesthetics and the diasporic melancholia that saturates his corpus. Attending to the lost Square will allow us to better comprehend Ha Jin’s paradoxical representational relation to China—as alternately a centripetal and a centrifugal force, an origin that both magnetizes and repels.
II. The Lost Square [SLIDE]
In the novel’s penultimate chapter, the narrator, Jian, arrives in Beijing by train at 8 p.m. on June 3. He arrives in time for the massacre, almost punctually so. This timeliness, though, is offset by a slight spatial dislocation. As Jian and his fellow students discover, they have no means of getting to Tiananmen Square itself, since all public transport in the city has been halted. The subway is closed, and all the buses have been mobilized by the people to barricade the streets against the army’s advance. Fortuitously, the students notice a minivan taxi, whose driver takes some of them, Jian included, past several roadblocks to within a ten-minute walk of the Square. Once on foot, the group proceeds about a hundred yards before being scattered by a surging crowd.
This is the spot where the novel’s crux scene of historical witnessing occurs for Jian, and it is the closest he ever gets to Tiananmen Square. Elbowing his way halfway through the crowd, Jian watches as what looks to be a college student tries to talk to the troops inside a personnel carrier, “lecturing” them that “they had been deceived by the government, and that the city was in good order and didn’t need them here.” The crowd, assuming that this army unit will retreat like those in preceding days, boldly declare that they will blockade the street and protect the Square with their lives. This scene of youthful idealism and communal high spirit, even bravado, recalls much documentary footage of the historical Tiananmen. What transpires immediately afterward in the novel, however, is where fiction splits from documentary, as Ha Jin unfolds for us an instant of traumatic witnessing, first-person and close-up. As Jian pushes forward to get a better look, a jeep pulls up and a colonel descends. Ever the reader of surfaces, Jian is initially “impressed by the officer’s handsome looks,” but the officer’s next move flouts all his expectations: “Without a word [the colonel] pulled out his pistol and shot the student in the head, who dropped to the ground kicking his legs, then stopped moving and breathing. Bits of his brain were splattered like crushed tofu on the asphalt. Steam was rising from his smashed skull” (302-3). The troops then open fire with real bullets, and Jian flees with the throng before finding shelter in an alley for the night. No extant documentary footage gives us this proximate a view of the actual massacre.
This macabre image of the student’s smashed skull is summoned by Ha Jin as a visual synecdoche for the imagined carnage inside the Square, and it can be read as the culmination of the novel’s ongoing dramatization of intellectual death in 1980s China. For Jian, this encounter signals the decisive cessation of intellectual life and oppositional politics for China, dispelling any illusion he may still have held for figures of authority, and propelling him out of the country for sheer survival. The Crazed thus constructs Tiananmen as an inaugural event for the diasporic subject. Indeed, Ha Jin insistently links Tiananmen to diaspora by resolutely keeping Jian outside the Square at its moment of anticipated catastrophe. In the early morning hours of June 4, during the final evacuation of the Square, Jian is seen trapped in his alleyway, a lost corner on the larger map of the massacre—and at this most crucial of junctures, he ironically dozes off. The Square’s clearing therefore happens textually off-stage, literally in an interval of the narrator’s unconscious.
On Ha Jin’s representational grid, then, Jian’s approach to Tiananmen is a limited one: he gets close to the Square but never fully arrives there. The Square itself remains a spatial aporia in the text, literally a place of impasse, blocked off from view. In the overall scheme of things, Jian remains a partial witness at the edges of national history, not a deliberate participant or consequential actor at the center of it. Through the accidental convergence of national and personal life, he stumbles onto one micro instance of state violence and gets caught up in it, but at its outer perimeters. He is akin to a man who, in a half-daze, staggers into a theater at the very moment the drama of his epoch reaches its climax, and although his view of the main stage remains obstructed, the bits of brutality he glimpses from the margins are enough to traumatize him for good, sending him reeling out of the theater, transfigured. The novel’s concluding chapter finds Jian back in his provincial town the next day, bedridden and feverish, capable only of muttering, “They killed lots of people, lots” (313).
At most Jian serves as a tardy witness, one who stumbles by chance onto the hideous spectacle of the massacre’s aftermath. In the other major scene of historical witnessing in the novel, this time belated rather than remote, we find Jian wandering around a Beijing hospital in the early dawn hours of June 4. As he reaches the hospital morgue, Ha Jin underscores the language of the ocular that runs throughout the novel to emphasize Jian’s role as a witness: [SLIDE] “I went there to have a look. The tiny morgue happened to adjoin the garage, and three nurses were in there, busy listing the bodies and gathering information about the dead. An old couple were wailing, as they had just found their son lying among the corpses. Most of the dead were shot in the head or chest. I saw that a young man had three bayonet wounds in the belly and a knife gash in the hand. His mouth was wide open as though still striving to snap at something” (309). Then, coming upon the hospital’s backyard garage, Jian discovers that it has been converted into a makeshift morgue for storing overflow corpses. The piles of mangled carcasses he beholds there is one of the eeriest sights in the novel, and significantly, it is a delayed vision of the evidence and not of the event itself: “But the garage was an entirely different scene, where about twenty bodies, male and female, were piled together like slaughtered pigs. Several limbs stuck out from the heap; a red rubber band was still wrapped around the wrist of a teenage girl; a pair of eyes on a swollen face were still open, as though gazing at the unplastered wall. A few steps away from the mass of corpses lay a gray-haired woman on her side, a gaping hole in her back ringed with clots of blood” (309–10).
Ha Jin surely has in mind here those gruesome images of Tiananmen victims that circulated in the world media after June 4 and that continue to circulate on the internet today. Moreover, we can detect a strong quality of visual belatedness in this passage, an impulse to bear witness to the atrocity after the fact via a graphic and quasi-photographic narrative reproduction of the bodies as evidence. These densely descriptive passages work to generate, not a reality effect via the surplus of details, but an attestive effect hinging on the evidential force of corpses. What mutilated corpses in particular testify to is not the individual lives they had once led but the fact of horrific death, the fact of their having been grotesquely killed, and the certainty of it.
As Ha Jin remarks in passing in one essay, “to preserve is the key function of literature … to combat historical amnesia” (30). The more complicated question of how to preserve history in fiction, however, is not one he tackles explicitly. From The Crazed, we can extrapolate that his mode of combating amnesia is neither mimetic nor speculative, neither testimonial nor ulterior. He does not submit a first-person eyewitness account of mass killings that purports to give creative truth to history, as if he could adequately reconstruct the whole massacre simply by exerting his powers of sympathetic imagination. Yet neither does he refrain from writing any scene of state violence altogether out of strict fidelity to autobiography, or else a theoretical belief in the episode’s absolute alterity from the realm of representation. Rather, he memorializes Tiananmen through a compromise between these two paths. He offers a first-person narrative that bears historical witness to June 3-4, but via one single killing, and via a narrator whose imperfect and peripheral vision, at best remote and belated, is repeatedly emphasized. Jian’s failure to arrive in the Square as the central place of national struggle indicates a loss of entry into the emblematic space of state power as well as that of collective rebellion, a loss that the text accentuates. By the end of the day, Jian fails to have perceptual access to either the realm of the party-state or that of the protesters.
Crucially, this textual self-marking of structural and perceptual distance from the Square is not a feature of Ha Jin’s historical realism, a nod to the real “geography of the killing.” [SLIDE] Most scholars of Tiananmen now agree that there was in fact no mass slaughter inside the Square on the early morning hours of June 4, during the students’ final evacuation, and that most of the killings occurred on the streets outside the Square the night before, along Chang’an Avenue. As George Black and Robin Munro point out, although the phrase “Tiananmen Square massacre” is now “fixed firmly in the political vocabulary of the late twentieth century,” reports of vicious butchery in the Square are more “fabrication” than truth (236). Ha Jin, however, does not present his tale as a corrective. If anything, the denouement of The Crazed keeps intact the popular myth of a massacre inside the Square. One of the novel’s last references to the Square, full of foreboding, comes from a woman in the alley who cries out in despair: “Lord of Heaven, please save those kids in Tiananmen Square!” (305). Insofar as the reader’s knowledge of June 4 is filtered entirely through Jian, and insofar as Jian himself remains ignorant to the end about the students’ fate, the novel leaves the Square an ominously blank space where anything could have unfolded. In this situation of crisis, nothing is so powerful as when the fictional page goes blank. In Ha Jin’s novel, the massacre transpires in the gaps of Jian’s narration, literally between the lines.
In this respect, The Crazed has almost nothing to offer in terms of an event-specific analysis of the historical Tiananmen, except to embed it as yet another instance of crisis within a broader history of national ruptures. In Ha Jin’s long view of Chinese history, the social outburst of 1989 was but one indicator of a whole century’s worth of accumulated stresses on the national psyche. In the novel’s narrative arc, Tiananmen has value only insofar as it ascertains an insight that should have been obvious to Jian long ago, and insofar as it finally and successfully catapults him into a journey to enlightenment—overseas. In the novel’s final pages, Jian is seen planning his escape from China, to carry out his mentor’s unfulfilled dream of living abroad.
III. Diasporic Witnessing and Diasporic Trauma
This narrative aporia in The Crazed can be understood within the context of Ha Jin’s own diasporic and traumatic relation to Tiananmen. Unlike several other diaspora writers of Tiananmen who personally witnessed the Beijing demonstrations, Ha Jin had been abroad since 1985 and was already four years removed from Chinese political developments at the time. Aside from authorial location, he is the writer most acutely self-conscious of his diasporic distance from the historical Tiananmen, and the one most mindful of his own mediated access to the incident. In interviews, he is unfailingly careful, even adamant, about foregrounding the television as his primary medium of knowledge about the massacre—and thereby locating himself as a diasporic viewer in the U.S. at the time. In one typical interview, he says: [SLIDE] “I was devastated watching the Tiananmen massacre on television. I knew it would be impossible to go back to China and write and teach honestly…. My whole image of China was changed” (qtd. in Rightmyer). Few interviewers have failed to pick up on Ha Jin’s insistent diasporic self-location vis-à-vis Tiananmen, and it is by now de rigueur for author profiles on him to mention that he watched televised coverage of the massacre and subsequently decided to remain in the U.S. What is worth highlighting here is that Ha Jin himself has all along cast his relation to Tiananmen as one of long-distance perception, an act of what I will call diasporic witnessing.
In addition, the language of trauma figures prominently in Ha Jin’s self-accounting. A recent 2009 interview with him encapsulates this: “after the Tiananmen Square massacre, I was lost for some time. I was going through a lot of psychological torment. I was very sick. I was in a fevered state for several months…. Yes, after Tiananmen Square I realized it was impossible for me to return because I would have had to serve the state. I might’ve become an academic, but every school in China was owned by the state. I just couldn’t do it. The massacre made me feel the country was a kind of manifestation of violent apparitions. It was monstrous” (“Art”). These remarks rhetorically echo the passage in the final chapter of The Crazed that describes Jian’s post-Beijing delirium. It is also revealing that, for Jian as for Ha Jin, news of the massacre arrives via the media. The many consequences of government censorship—discrepancy among reports, uncertainty about the exact casualties, the suspicion of a massive cover-up by the regime—structure Jin’s as much as Jian’s remote and traumatic reception of the event. Above all, fears of the worst, of thousands murdered and numerous students crushed by tanks in the Square, remain intact. Tiananmen, for Jin as for his near namesake, is a “monstrous” drama that has been glimpsed from afar, one that can be replayed in the feverish mind’s eye but never utterly rid of its dark spots. And for both, it is decisive in inaugurating a diasporic existence.
Ha Jin’s unusual form of non-personal and far-flung trauma can be elucidated as a kind of diasporic trauma, one that is not only intersubjective and intergenerational but transnational. His description of his own composition process for The Crazed is telling: “I couldn’t finish [the manuscript]—I didn’t even mean to finish it, I just couldn’t get the story out of my head, and I had to write to calm myself down…. That book was a long struggle. I didn’t have the ability I needed to write it so I put it aside and returned to it again and again and again. I had started writing it in 1988, but I didn’t finish it until 2002. It became my eighth book” (“Art”). Indeed, Ha Jin’s entire corpus, up until his most recent pieces, can be regarded as psychically bound up with the rupture of 1989. After Tiananmen, China cannot but be saturated with a sense of violent cruelty and irreversible loss for him, but by the same token, the emotional recompense attainable through imaginary homecomings becomes incalculable. His compulsion to write and rewrite various episodes of Chinese national trauma bespeaks a melancholic attachment to the homeland as a vanished space, but also an oblique pleasure derived from the performative repetition of these narrative returns. More than any other Chinese diaspora writer, he epitomizes for me a mode of diasporic melancholia, and of all his works, The Crazed with its lost Square best captures this structure of impossible yearning for a lost origin. After this novel, he will not go on to write a full-length work set entirely in post-1989 China, only short stories. It is as though Tiananmen demarcates some temporal limit in his imagined homecomings, the fictional frontier that, once hazarded, at last allows him to, as he puts it, “leave contemporary China in [his] writing” for good.
Without recognizing these undercurrents in Ha Jin’s writing, one can all too easily deride his fictional China-centrism as gullible hubris or ideological misguidedness, or worse, multiculturalist collusion and calculated opportunism. But I am not simply applying the trauma model to Ha Jin out of tactical convenience to rescue him from his critics. Those of us in literary and cultural studies will know that trauma theory has taken deep root, and applications of the trauma model have proliferated to the point, at times, of being an interpretive cliché. On this note, let me conclude my talk with five quick points. First, it might seem surprising, but to date, there has been no scholarly reading of Ha Jin through the critical lens of trauma. Second, of all the diaspora writers of Tiananmen, Jin strikes me as the one who most closely approximates the insights of trauma theory, who seems to have most fully lived out his psychic and textual relation to China’s national history via the structure of trauma, but sustained through a transnational circuit. Third, if we were to bracket psychology and anchor this claim historically and institutionally, we can observe that Ha Jin’s post-emigrant status in the 1990s U.S. academy—first as a graduate student and then a professor of English at Boston University—coincides with the emergence of trauma studies, as well as of diaspora studies, as academic fields. These were proximate discourses circulating around him in the years following 1989, exactly the years of his Tiananmen novel’s tortuous, stumbling, and repetitive composition. The Crazed grows out of this very particular institutional milieu, and of all the Tiananmen fictions I’ve come across, it bears the fullest signs of a deconstruction-inflected narrative, where the lost Square almost hands us the aporia reading on a platter. But fourth, Ha Jin is more the exception than the rule among Chinese diaspora writers in this regard. Although the trauma model has become a dominant paradigm of analysis in scholarship on modern Chinese literature, this model ill fits most other Tiananmen fictions. It is simply not the case that every Chinese diaspora author falls into the mold of a melancholic victim of the massacre, inexorably caught in the throes of writing and rewriting a primal scene of diasporic trauma. Tiananmen fictions are not mere symptoms. The lost Square, at least as of now, remains unique to Ha Jin. Yet fifth and last, it is precisely this performance of loss that has, ironically, gotten lost in competing critical accounts of Ha Jin’s transnationalism. Whether celebratory or derogatory, citations of Ha Jin as the exemplar of Asian American transnationalism or global Chineseness implicitly attribute to him a certain ownership, whether cultural, linguistic, or representational: whatever is designated by the transnational or the global, he is perceived as possessing it, anchoring it, representing it. If the lost Square marks Ha Jin’s diasporic self-distancing from China as well as his institutional embeddedness in the U.S. academy, the absence of the lost Square in assessments of his work might suggest, in turn, the unfulfilled yearning in the very discourse of literary transnationalism, for a text and a writer we could point to, whether with hope or disappointment, and call the global.
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