Faculty Seminar Series
Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square:
Ha Jin and the Cultural Politics of Chinese Literary Diaspora
This talk draws from the second chapter of my first book project, 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, written over a ten-year period and published in the U.S. in 2002, as one case study in the larger corpus of Tiananmen fictions. In popular discourse and in scholarship, “diaspora” is most often defined in terms of a people’s cultural or linguistic ties to the home country. The distinction of my book is that it reconceptualizes diaspora in terms of literary politics, through the protracted effects of one political event on the global writing of Chineseness.
Part 1: Global Images of the Chinese Intellectual
[Slide 1] Ha Jin, the pen name of Jin Xuefei, is perhaps best known today for his numerous prestigious awards in the U.S. literary arena over the past dozen years. He is popularly thought of as an émigré Chinese writer who has “made it” in America, someone who came to the vocation of creative writing relatively late in life but nonetheless succeeded in establishing himself as a preeminent author in English, an adopted language that he, as is often noted, still speaks with a thick accent. For many, Ha Jin serves as the poster child of immigrant success and the herald of a new breed of global literature, holding out the promise of cultural rebirth through transnational crossings and bilingual imaginings. Yet his work can be usefully read in counterpoint to this image of writerly accomplishment. Let us begin by situating his Tiananmen novel, The Crazed, against the backdrop of two Nobel Prizes that bookend the decade of its publication, and the global representation of the Chinese intellectual that these prizes have promulgated.
[Slide 2] On the left we have Gao Xingjian, the 2000 Nobel Laureate in Literature, and the first and only ethnic Chinese writer ever to be awarded that prize. Gao was a relatively unknown figure until he won the 2000 Nobel, in the prize’s landmark 100th anniversary year, which propelled him into international fame. Likewise, on the right we have the perhaps more familiar face of Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Peace Prize, who quickly rallied world sympathy last winter as he was serving his 11-year prison term for human rights activism within China.
Without going into detail here about the politics of the two prizes, we can highlight two points: the politicization of global perceptions of Chineseness and the key role of Tiananmen in this process. First, these two Nobel winners crystallize one contemporary strand in the global imagination of the Chinese intellectual. In both instances, the men’s Chineseness is put at the forefront of world attention – Chineseness not as a cultural identity or linguistic tradition, as we may be prone to think, but as a political stance. In the global media coverage on both prizes, the Chinese intellectual is defined, accurately or not, as above all an anti-communist dissident and pro-democracy activist. Second, this iconic image of the contemporary Chinese intellectual is profoundly tied to Tiananmen. Not only did Tiananmen produce a generation of exiles and emigrants post-1989, but it has galvanized subsequent world discourses about China around precisely this figure of the Chinese intellectual as courageous political dissident, shaping the very conceptual frameworks through which Chineseness is written, comprehended, and sometimes rewarded. Liu Xiaobo represents the latest incarnation of this ongoing phenomenon of Tiananmen’s global discursive effects.
[Slide 3] Surprisingly, this heroizing global representation of the Chinese intellectual is wholly dissolved in the fictional work that most closely connects Tiananmen to 1980s Chinese intellectual culture, Ha Jin’s The Crazed. The novel opens in April 1989 in a provincial university town, as student protests are just starting to break out in the capital. The plot focuses on the sphere of academe and presents a deeply pessimistic portrait of the disintegration and death of intellectualism in the post-Mao period. On the surface, the novel seems to be only incidentally about Tiananmen. The bulk of the story follows the personal and academic travails of a graduate student of comparative literature in the wake of his mentor’s stroke. Much of the novel is set in a hospital room, as our protagonist overhears and then tries to unravel the mysteries of his teacher’s ravings. While this narrative appears modest in scope, dwelling mostly on private relationships and professional rivalries, the novel’s temporal setting in the spring of 1989 and its spatial climax in the blood-splattered streets of Beijing renders it an important instance of Tiananmen fiction. Through the titular metaphor, Ha Jin anchors his Tiananmen plot in the key figure of the crazed scholar. The novel’s concluding address of the massacre must therefore be read not apart from but in direct relation to its central narrative of small-town academic life, which is also Ha Jin’s meditation on the myriad ways the intellectual as social ideal becomes defeated and destroyed – not after the June 4 massacre, but already in the decade preceding it.
Recent discussions of the historical Tiananmen often draw attention to the volatile relationship, alternately collaborative and contentious, between intellectuals and students during that Beijing spring. Commentators on Tiananmen frequently marshal two stock figures – the idealistic, hotheaded, and radical student leader on the one hand, and the older, more cautious and world-weary but wiser intellectual on the other – as explanatory synecdoches for what went wrong with the democracy movement. Many of these accounts tend to posit the student-intellectual relationship as an oppositional one, casting the two groups as discrete social categories. The Crazed, by contrast, takes as its starting point an originally idealized continuum between student and intellectual, but one that is thrown into crisis at exactly this watershed moment of the months leading up to June 4.
The novel’s first line already associates Tiananmen with the central motif of intellectual rupture: “Everybody was surprised when Professor Yang suffered a stroke in the spring of 1989” (3). Professor Yang had seemed the model intellectual before his stroke: an energetic and dedicated teacher and an erudite and respected scholar of literature, he was the envy of his colleagues and a paragon for his students. Our protagonist and narrator, Jiān Wàn, is at once his chief pupil and son-in-law to be. The story, though, opens with the decisive disruption of this projected plot of Confucian patronage and elite social continuance via Yang’s stroke, which in turn coincides with the eruption of pro-democracy protests in Beijing. The dimension of the national allegory is plainly evident here: Yang is not just a prototype of the Chinese intellectual but an emblem of China itself in 1989. His cerebral “blood clot” at the beginning of the novel (13) find numerous objective correlatives in the “blocked” streets of Beijing later in the text (300-1), and his eventual fatal brain hemorrhage (257) prefigures the scene of a student being shot in the head (303) and the carnage at large in the capital toward the novel’s end. More horrifically, the gradual enfeebling and putrefaction of Yang’s body, wrenched out of his control and reduced to a spectacle of slow living death, offers a potent dual metaphor for the decay of the intelligentsia as well as that of the national polity. With macabre fastidiousness does Ha Jin dwell on the details of the professor’s corporal rot, from the “festering boil below his left shoulder blade” and its draining pus to his “diseased gums … ulcerated in places and bleeding” to his “heavily furred” tongue (59), from his “fingers reddish and swollen, with fungus-infested cuticles” (123) to his molding head where dead hairs amass, to the “whiff of decay escap[ing] from his insides” (60). Yang’s stroke does not simply represent the country’s mental breakdown but functions as the premise on which Ha Jin allegorizes late-1980s China as a grotesque body rotting inside and out. The paralytic and putrid near-cadaver as a symbol of the national body politic will resurface in another recent Tiananmen novel, Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, with even greater imagistic force. This deployment of the single decrepit body as a trope for contemporary China evinces a powerful strain of the gothic in Tiananmen fictions.
Jian is the primary witness to Yang’s physical and mental decay, and the novel traces his painfully slow arrival at an epiphany. Sitting beside the professor’s hospital bed for weeks on end and somewhat grudgingly acting the part of the filial caretaker, Jian becomes the accidental eavesdropper to his teacher’s unleashed unconscious. Yang’s mind, he notes, “now resembled a broken safe – all the valuables stored in it were scattered helter-skelter” (179). As Jian learns in these weeks, Yang’s past is a tragic one, if not uncommonly so. Branded a “Demon-Monster” during the Cultural Revolution for having translated foreign poetry (73), Yang was publicly denounced and then sent to the countryside for reeducation, separated for years from his wife and infant daughter. Yet he never loved his wife as much as a woman from his youth who had scorned him for his poverty, and in recent years he has begun a secret love affair with a female graduate student, a woman of his daughter’s age. Though outwardly unrepentant about the vocation he has chosen and ever self-righteous about the spiritual nobility of poetic studies, Yang post-stroke oscillates between leveling audacious if veiled criticisms at the communist state and, more shockingly and disappointingly for Jian, singing sycophantic hymns to the Party while verbally acting out self-aggrandizing fantasies of power. His last words, whispered into Jian’s ears alone, testify to the accumulated bitterness of his life: “Remember, avenge me and … don’t forgive any one of them. K-kill them all!” (260). Far from being the contented scholar and model family man, Yang is in fact fiercely haunted by his past, never having resolved his rage and hatred for those who wield power, yet deeply self-loathing about the impotence of the intellectual in both domestic and professional life.
Ha Jin intimates that Yang’s failure is not moral or individual but sociohistorical and structural: it stems from his generation’s inability to overcome the ravages of national politics and to live up to the elevated, perhaps impossible, ideal of pure intellect. At his most dignified, Yang embodies the quintessential scholar, someone who rises above political interest and material gain to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the study of literature. But communist history, Ha Jin suggests, has effectively eroded both the body and the spirit behind this ideal, leaving behind a husk of a man, and of a nation, that fatally implodes on itself. Juxtaposed against the prevailing global image of the Chinese Nobel winners as heroic dissidents on the one hand, and against complacent descriptions of the Tiananmen intellectual as sagacious guide to impetuous youth on the other, the character of Professor Yang indexes Ha Jin’s deep skepticism toward such messianic faith in the lone Chinese intellectual as the political “answer” to authoritarian state power.
Part 2: Receptions
To readers of Ha Jin’s other works, this portrait of individual suffering within the larger fabric of a tragic communist history will strike a familiar note. Indeed, in his corpus of fiction, Ha Jin has canvassed almost every major catastrophic episode in 20th-century Chinese history. Aside from Tiananmen, he is perhaps best known for his portrayals of the Cultural Revolution, but his historical fiction spans the post-Mao era back to the Korean War and, in his novel to be released next month, the Nanjing Massacre. 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 critic of the communist state, but also to some uneasiness and outright accusations of his self-orientalism, his supposed perpetuation of Western stereotypes of China as culturally backward and brutally repressive. Given that he 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.” I’d be happy to talk more at the Q&A about the reception of Ha Jin’s work among American critics, but for now, I want to highlight some examples of his controversial place among Chinese critics, on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.
In 1999, Ha Jin’s first novel Waiting won the American Book Award, and this news brought him to the attention of many Sinophone readers both inside and outside of China. However, 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 Ha Jin of “emphasizing China’s backwardness” and “cursing his compatriots and becoming the American media’s tool for defaming China” – in short, for culturally betraying his native country:
[Slide 4] 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 jingoism comes across loud and unapologetic. Her 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. What is unusual about this incident, though, lies not in the attack itself or the ensuing censorship. As one scholar notes, “Censorship and attacks on writers are nothing new in China … What was different … was that the person who denounced Ha Jin’s novel was no hidebound Marxist ideologue – the sort who routinely criticized liberal writers a decade ago – but rather a Western-educated professor of literature at Beijing University, the font of liberal thinking in modern China” (Fewsmith 1-2). Liu Yiqing, in fact, holds a Ph.D. in English Lit. from the University of Chicago. Although her chauvinistic assault may seem crude, it does encapsulate a recurring concern in literary criticism on Ha Jin, namely, his representation of Chineseness to cultural and linguistic others in a global market. This concern about self-exoticism is one that plagues not just Ha Jin but many Chinese emigrant writers in the West.
[Slide 5] Such vilification from the Sinophone world extends beyond mainland China. Although all of Ha Jin’s works have been translated into Chinese and published in Taiwan, and though he is generally well-received there, he has also come under fire by the Taiwanese literary establishment. 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.” In terms reminiscent of Liu Yiqing’s, Zhu Tianwen imputes Ha Jin with 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” (Tsu 103).
These accusations about Ha Jin’s betrayal should not compel us to measure him with the same yardstick of authenticity. On the contrary, we need to understand these controversies in light of a transnational cultural dynamics that surrounds the Chinese diaspora writer today. As one critic puts it, in this context, “prestige in the international marketplace engenders local antagonisms, as writers judge one another – especially their closest peers – as rivals in what is often perceived as a zero-sum game.” The more popular a writer like Ha Jin becomes with Western readers, the more acutely he is judged by standards of authenticity. Far from harmonizing local differences, the globalization of Chinese literature “further baits and divides” Chinese writers today (Tsu 104).
Ha Jin himself has variously responded to these criticisms, and I’d be happy to speak more about this in the Q&A.1 For now, I want to return to The Crazed and put forward a reading of the novel’s crux scene of the Tiananmen crackdown, so as to loosen Ha Jin from the tyrannical grasp of this global literary governance on Chineseness. If one assumption underpinning the inauthenticity charge is that Ha Jin 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 instead a crucial feature in his portrayal of Tiananmen – what I will call the lost Square: his configuration of Tiananmen Square as the heralded site that should culminate the plot by placing Jian at the heart of China’s national struggle, but simultaneously, a site of failed arrival for Jian and hence a conspicuous lacuna for Ha Jin as much as the reader. This double structure of the Square as an unfulfilled promise and a vanishing point epitomizes Ha 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 complex relation to China – as alternately a centripetal and a centrifugal force, an origin that both magnetizes and repels.
Part 3: The Lost Square
[Slide 6] Disenchanted with the example of his teacher and the path of the scholar-intellectual, Jian eventually decides to abandon academe and pursue a career in politics instead so as to reform the political system from within. This plan is thwarted, however, by the local Communist Party secretary, who sabotages Jian’s job application for the Policy Office by sending him on a meaningless errand to a far-flung village. Left without a career and jilted by his fiancée, Jian, on a whim, agrees to head to Beijing with a group of students from his university to join the democracy movement. In the novel’s penultimate chapter, he arrives in the capital 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. If Jian is the stunted intellectual-to-be, the embryonic scholar who never matures into one, this other anonymous student’s death suggests an end to all youthful intellect and idealism. It is noteworthy that the manner of student death here – a bullet to the head – parallels the premise with which Ma Jian will begin his novel Beijing Coma, in which the narrator is likewise shot in the head on the night of the massacre. The theme, and fear, of intellectual demise looms large in the imagination of Tiananmen authors. For Ha Jin’s protagonist, 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. Yet it is after Jian wakes up from this historical slumber that he seems able for the first time to rise to the occasion of heroism. If he has hitherto failed to fulfill his fantasy of playing savior to the downtrodden, he now volunteers to carry a wounded boy to a nearby hospital, an act of courage that allows him to escape from the alleyway and eventually the capital.
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, with echoes of Professor Yang, that “‘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 7] 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.
Roland Barthes ascribes this potency of irrefutable authentication to photographs. “The photograph,” he says, “does not call up the past (nothing Proustian in a photograph). The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed” (82). Every photograph is “a certificate of presence,” “an emanation of past reality: a magic, not an art,” and as such “possesses an evidential force”: “… in the Photograph, the power of authentication exceeds the power of representation” (87-89). Writing, by contrast for Barthes, can yield no such certainty, for it is the “misfortune,” he says, “(but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself” (85). Barthes’s musings predate technologies of photo-editing and might sound outmoded in our time, but perhaps it is precisely in an age when even photographs lose their incontrovertible “evidential force” that writing in turn can be summoned to complement and bolster photographs’ residual veridical power. While language remains intractably representational rather than verificatory, in the case of a disputed and officially erased atrocity such as Tiananmen, a fictional thick description of mangled bodies does not assume evidential force in relation to reality or the past per se, but it does attest to a writer’s belated impulse to annex history and provide a kind of proof – through not memory but projection, as not a return but a first arrival, and not to remember what one has done in actual life but to imagine what one would have done in a parallel life had one been there with the photographer. In this sense, Ha Jin’s narrative wallowing in the details of corpses points to a desire to approach the Square via not art but what Barthes would call magic, with Jian as his magical proxy seer.
As Ha Jin remarks in passing in his essay “The Spokesman and the Tribe”: “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.
[Slide 8] 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.” 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 critics have pointed 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 (Munro and Black 236). Ma Jian will be the writer to chronicle this history with meticulous topographical exactness in his epic realist novel. Ha Jin, by contrast, 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, just as Professor Yang’s stroke is but one belated symptom of a whole lifetime’s worth of suffering. 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. This recourse in flight and exile as the inevitable finale of June 4 is not unique to Ha Jin but constitutes one dominant paradigm for diasporic fictions on Tiananmen and might be deemed a kind of imaginative impasse.
Part 4: Diasporic Trauma
Ultimately, I think this narrative aporia in The Crazed can be understood within the context of Ha Jin’s own diasporic and traumatic relation to June 4. Unlike some 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. This diasporic remoteness manifests itself spatially in his text via the lost Square, and also through the theme of Jian’s perceptual myopia, his never quite correctly adjusted vision and his perpetually belated insights. But aside from biographical location, Ha Jin 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. [Slide 9] In one typical interview, he says: “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 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. Where the author watched televised images of the crackdown from the U.S., his protagonist hears reports of it over the radio through foreign channels such as the BBC and the Hong Kong station, which give contradictory casualty counts ranging from 5000 to “at most about 1000.” The domestic channel, on the other hand, “stressed that the People’s Liberation Army had successfully quelled the counterrevolutionary uprising without killing a single civilian” (314-15). The medium by which news of the massacre travels differs for Jian versus Jin, but the fact of mediated and partial knowledge is the same. 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 Ha 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. Without Tiananmen, Ha Jin would have finished his Ph.D. degree and gone back to China to become a university professor of literature, just as Jian would have followed in Yang’s footsteps to become a scholar of poetry and a nominal “clerk” for the state. Both teacher and student are fictional counterparts of what the author envisages he himself would have been. Tiananmen is the history that intervened. Henceforth, Ha Jin could not bring himself to return to his country of origin, which has been irrevocably transformed into a site of trauma.
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. Instead of inheriting cultural memories from an earlier generation that overshadow and overpower his own private ones, he has been stunned in his life’s tracks by the global media’s circulation of images of death of the next student generation, students who might well have been his own a few years down the road in an alternate history. After that moment of visual exposure, he could not resume his singular life apart from the next generation’s trauma. He seems driven by a relentless need to recount over and over again to willing interviewers the same moment of his diasporic sighting, his watching televised coverage of the Beijing bloodshed. In The Crazed, this compulsive repetition can be traced in his containment and condensation of the massacre via a handful of iconic images of mutilated bodies, images that repeat rather than proliferate. Finally, 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.
One other biographical element is noteworthy here: Tiananmen provided the means by which Ha Jin completed his first book manuscript and could thus be deemed a vital factor in his becoming a writer. As he reveals in several interviews, The Crazed was actually his first book, begun in the U.S. over a year before Tiananmen. The original story revolved solely around the academic plot and the student-mentor relationship. At first, he thought of this novel as an “excursion,” since he believed he would go on to write in Chinese once back in China. Tiananmen was the turning point in his linguistic identification: after 1989, he decided not just to immigrate but “to write in English exclusively” (Kellman 82). From one angle, this chronology explains the apparent incongruity between the novel’s main focus on academic intrigue and its abrupt climactic crescendo in the theater of national politics and organized violence. But it is telling that, of all the rough drafts of his fiction, Ha Jin would fasten onto this one as the basis of his Tiananmen vision, as though his thoughts on contemporary Chinese intellectual life could not be rounded out and given shape until Tiananmen happened, and conversely, as though Tiananmen brought into relief his running meditation on the post-Mao intellectual. June 4 gave the novel its new life and eventual closure, and the novel in turn marks the inception point of Ha Jin as a diaspora author as well as the historical endpoint of his China saga. After this, he will not go on to write a full-length novel 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 “leave contemporary China in [his] writing” for good.
To conclude, let us recall the harsh criticisms leveled at Ha Jin by the Beijing University professor Liu Yiqing and the Taiwanese novelist Zhu Tianwen. Against those accusations of his cultural betrayal, we can attend instead to the traumatic and melancholic dimensions of Ha Jin’s writing. Without appreciating these undercurrents, 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 issue, I will close my talk with four 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, and indeed, despite his high profile in the past dozen years, scholarship on his work remains incredibly scant even among Asian American critics. Second, of all the diaspora writers of Tiananmen, Ha Jin strikes me as someone who truly approximates the insights of trauma theory, who seems to have 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 and last, Ha Jin is more the exception than the rule among Chinese diaspora writers. 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.
“The Spokesman and the Tribe“: “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) – shift in self-definition from “tribal spokesman” to “migrant writer.” And in answer to charges that he has forgotten his roots and his Chinese readers, self-translates A Good Fall into Chinese.↩