Conclusion: The Square Comes Full Circle
Among Tiananmen’s many revelations is that historical imagination may not always be literal. It may accrete through accidental suggestions and rumors, even inventions and errors, as much as facts. As George Black and Robin Munro justly put it, the term “Tiananmen Square Massacre” has firmly entered into the “political vocabulary of the late twentieth century,” even though, technically speaking, no massacre happened inside the Square. At best the phrase is a “shorthand,” but they will insist it is also a misnomer (234). Munro in particular has pleaded with passionate sincerity that “journalism may be only the rough draft of history, but if left uncorrected it can forever distort the future course of events” (811).
Given how Tiananmen’s narratives have been told and its meanings produced, what seems to be at work with its historical imagination is undoubtedly something more literary than barely factual. The “Tiananmen Square Massacre” is at once a synecdoche, a myth, an allegory. The incident’s potential meanings, from the first, have been fluid, pliable, and even now, more than twenty years later, they continue to be amenable to literary shaping. It is hard to dispute Munro’s claim that the geography of the killing matters, that the demographic of the dead matters. But what then? What does and will Tiananmen mean for a time that exceeds, and a world that survives, the massacre? Contrary to what observers projected at the time, the “truth” of Tiananmen will not wait to be redeemed on some future horizon when knowledge meets history, when some fateful historian-seer comes into full possession of all knowable data. Rather, the time of historical imagination is ever present and open. It has been so in the Tiananmen literature, with all its ellipses, catachreses, even distortions. This is the “future course” that our present moment occupies. Craig Calhoun articulates a similar insight for the mainland itself: “For most of the people of China, and for the future of democratic struggles in China, firsthand observations will be far less crucial than representations of the movement in photographs, narratives, news reporting, gossip, histories, sociological analyses, trials, speeches, and poetry” (203–4). Fiction constitutes only one slice of this future, but it derives unique power from its capacity to move between the concrete and the conceptual, to bring into dialectical concert history’s actuality and the present’s exigencies.
Ren Bumei, the former student activist and Liubukou survivor, once commented: “It would be fair to say that all of my writings have been influenced by this tragedy—to a greater or lesser extent, there is nothing that does not originate from that seething spring and that blood-soaked dawn” (65). This testimony to Tiananmen’s omnipotent and enduring effect on an individual psyche can be taken as a distillation of Ma Jian’s national allegory as much as Ha Jin’s diasporic melancholia. In terms Ma will echo a few years later, Ren noted that “June 4th has not really led Chinese to a spiritual awakening. . . . For this reason I worry that the aftermath of the June 4th tragedy is an even greater tragedy: the bloodbath has not actually imparted to the Chinese spirit any sense of guilt or humiliation or personal growth, resulting in only more needless sacrifice of life. This easy retreat, this ready indulgence in mutual flattery over a little ‘progress,’ can only make one sigh in the depths of despair.” Finally, deploring the “barrack-room boasting” and “mutual recrimination” that vex Tiananmen discourse on the Internet by parties both within and outside of the PRC, Ren concluded: “15 years without self-reflection, 15 years of callous indifference, 15 years of speechless rage or rageless speech—all of this shows that June 4 was not really a turning point for Chinese. . . . In a human tragedy of such massive scale, China did not produce a single book, film, mass commemorative movement or humanist champion worthy of the event” (68).
We can only speculate on what Ren might think of Beijing Coma, but here at last is a work that earnestly, fervently, epically attempts to be “worthy of the event,” blow by blow. In sync with Ren’s exhortations, Ma’s novel calls for the Chinese people, whether within the PRC or in the diaspora, to move beyond “barrack-room boasting” and “mutual recrimination,” beyond superficial self-congratulations about China’s progress and self-exonerating criticisms of student leaders. His text resonates with Ren’s declaration that “China urgently needs to enter an era of political self-reflection” (67). And, refreshingly, it does so without a drop of what Ren calls “maturity” (chengshu), the “overly practical or cynical attitude of the intellectual elite toward matters of principle” (68 n. 5). Annie Wang’s Lili, we might say, performs the same task with even greater “immaturity,” from the ironic perspective of the female hooligan.
From another quarter, it is not unusual for us to hear today, from commentators disillusioned with liberal democracies but themselves snugly protected within the folds of nonauthoritarian states, the quip that global capital has annihilated the distinction between communism and democracy, that the advent of capitalism into the second world has neutralized the distinctive threat of Mao-style autocracy for our time. Of the writers here, Wang is most trenchant in undercutting this neoliberal fantasy and its complacent faith in the equalizing power of transnational capital. Ma, too, is adamant in his answer that, no mistake, the PRC “must introduce democratic reforms,” not despite but precisely because of the country’s economic development (“China’s Grief”). That the communist state’s market goals can be pursued in utter harmony with its totalitarian policies is repeatedly illustrated in Ma’s novel, and his focus on the cannibalistic biopower of Deng-era liberalization and beyond represents his strongest argument on this score. In fact, Ma sees the urgency of political change escalating in recent years, as China emerges as a global economic power of the first order and the international community increasingly gives sanction to its politics out of economic interest. It is within this circumstance that he has been so outspoken a critic of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He will not be one to scoff at democracy in the age of globalization. On the contrary, democracy remains for him a necessary anchor, holding in place a specific counterpolitics with determinant content.
This is the reason too that, as resonantly as his novel rings to Western theories of bare life and exceptional states, Ma would not so quickly dream—as does Giorgio Agamben—of Tiananmen as a “coming community,” that utopia of pure belonging where the masses of “whatever singularity” rise up as one great humanity against state power (Agamben, Coming 85–87). Ma’s idealism toward student life leans in a decidedly different direction; it is an idealism that cannot afford to be devoid of an affirmative identity and agenda. Indeed, we might observe that Agamben’s writing is made possible only because the biopolitical situation he theorizes as a contemporary universal—the camp that has supposedly become the normative order of the planet—has not been politically realized in the very place and time of his writing. This discursive possibility arguably marks the pockets of the camp’s nonrealization. Tellingly, then, he must reach out to Tiananmen for his empirical example, toward another state’s biopolitical regime, in a conceptual move where the inside/outside demarcation still matters, and matters essentially. Conversely, that Ma can publish his biopolitical saga of Tiananmen only outside the place of its occurrence, outside the PRC’s discursive jurisdiction, indicates the real state of exception has its strict boundaries still, and in this case, the boundaries remain firmly national. If the authority of the nation-state as a political unit has been attenuated in the age of globalization, Ma would maintain that, in the case of the PRC, its sovereign biopower stays very much alive, and in ever more insidiously pervasive forms, for its subjects.
In an adjacent theoretical direction, Ma would heartily agree with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that the Tiananmen movement, like other uprisings across the world at the close of the twentieth century, was “at once economic, political, and cultural—and hence . . . biopolitical” because it involved a contest over the multitudes’ very “form of life” (Hardt and Negri 56). Indeed, Ma’s magnum opus, insofar as it strives to translate a local event and render it intelligible, proximate, even neighborly to outsiders, helps to overcome what they diagnose as a mutual atomization and a “paradox of incommunicability” that have befallen contemporary social movements (54). This capacity to translate not just culture but sociopolitical life highlights another distinct efficacy of Tiananmen fictions. Nonetheless, vis-à-vis Hardt and Negri as much as Agamben, Ma would object to the conceptual leveling of Tiananmen as simply another instance in a series of world struggles against “the common enemy” of globalization, as if the latter were some leviathan whose immense power could stay intact even as its diverse political contents get eviscerated. Against their notion of Empire as a uniform planetary regime without boundaries or limits (xiv), Ma would insist on retaining a sense of the local polity, and the persistent weightiness of the nation-state, not as absolute singularity or radical alterity, but as the site where biopolitical differences are still enacted and lived out by many subjects today. Beijing for him is not so easily catalogable, as in the other two theorists’ sentence, alongside “Los Angeles, Nablus, Chiapas, Paris, Seoul” (56).
By continually reminding the world of 1989 Beijing, all the Tiananmen fictions in this study present a collective challenge, moreover, to the optimistic view on the part of some Western intellectuals that China’s economic rise will herald a new and brighter epoch of global cooperation and human recognition. Giovanni Arrighi, for one, has argued that “the Chinese ascent . . . can be taken as the harbinger of that greater equality and mutual respect among peoples of European and non-European descent that [Adam] Smith foresaw and advocated 230 years ago” (379). This projection, issued from an anticolonialist, antiracist, and labor-oriented position that takes as its central antagonist the long history of European imperialism and U.S. hegemony, understandably reaches for East Asia as the vehicle for an alternative, postimperial model of globalization. Yet such sanguine faith in the “extraordinary social achievements of the Mao era” (370) and in the Chinese communist government as truly one of “mass participation in shaping policies” (389) would strike the diaspora writers here as not only naïve and insupportable but woefully dismissive of the PRC’s internal politics and its vast human costs. In what meaningful sense, the writers here might ask, can the communist state help usher in a “commonwealth of civilizations truly respectful of cultural differences” (389) when it cannot tolerate political dissent from within the nation and continues to maintain social stability and a semblance of cultural unity via measures of silencing and force? Is a government that repeatedly resorts to totalitarian tactics of domestic peacekeeping the entity on which we must pin our messianic hopes for a global future? The post-Tiananmen literary diaspora is particularly skeptical about this brand of exuberant Sinophilia, and its role in preserving the relevance of PRC political history may well become even more acute in the twenty-first century.
At the same time, the diaspora writers here are keenly aware that, given official censorship of June 4 on the mainland, they write Tiananmen primarily not for Chinese readers in the PRC but for Chinese and non-Chinese audiences around the world. They are hence not merely exhuming a buried history but also, whether voluntarily or not, contributing to an ongoing construction of Tiananmen’s global discourse. They know they occupy a middle ground and perform a double task: not only are they overturning an oppressive government’s historical erasure, they are simultaneously confronting a saturated consciousness of an international community for whom the massacre is an already overwritten or overimagined episode, facilely recallable through media images of tanks grinding down Changan Avenue. These writers know that, given the compulsory first circulation of their texts in countries outside the PRC, they are writing not on a tabula rasa of world memory but on a palimpsest of countless recycled images and narratives, from the Tank Man to lurid reports of a blood-bathed Square—even if they themselves remain ignorant of the actual casualty count.
Within this context, Beijing Coma marks the latest turn of the diasporic screw that brings us around full circle. Gao Xingjian’s 1989 Taowang, the first full-length fictional work on Tiananmen, was written in Chinese at the behest of an overseas Chinese democracy group. Though frequently cited as a representative work in Gao’s oeuvre, particularly in relation to his Nobel Prize, this play remains largely unscrutinized by critics, thus perpetuating his reputation as a dissident exilic writer. At the turn of the millennium and after ten years of halting writing, Ha Jin and Annie Wang both imaginatively resurrected the scene of Tiananmen but from the discursive space of Asian America, on the linguistic terrain of English. Both The Crazed and Lili convey in their textual endings a promise of survival and renewal outside the Square, whether in the diaspora or some unnamed utopian site, a promise materially delivered by the fact of the novels’ publication in a language and a place outside of the narratives’ national and linguistic milieu. Finally, in a reversal of the typical publication chronology, Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, though written in Chinese, was first published in English in 2008 and had to wait more than a year for its original Chinese version to appear. Even then, its dissemination in Chinese has been sporadic. The diasporic path that began with Gao might find itself routing through Jin’s and Wang’s self-translating detours into English, but with Ma’s novel, the English translation now precedes the original, both in the material reproduction of the work as a cultural object and in the symbolic production of the work’s meanings in world discourses on Tiananmen. A most telling sign of this obligatory translation circuit is that, in the year following the novel’s English-language publication, Chinese-language media sources worldwide have come to refer to the book much more commonly as Beijing zhiwuren than Routu. Indeed, it would seem that Ma’s original title is destined for the literary historian’s footnote, since the press that now publishes the Chinese edition of the novel has also chosen to market the book under the reverse-translated title of Beijing zhiwuren.1 In this latest phase of globalization and its ever more dislocated modes of cultural production and historical memorialization, not only does the PRC no longer have temporal or interpretive priority in its self-representation, but the Chinese literary diaspora itself becomes increasingly intertwined with the modes of representation and reproduction of China’s cultural, linguistic, and national others. So, even as Ma insistently focuses on the Chinese students in the Square, in an attempt to reclaim the centrality of the place of origin and the agents of origin’s politics, the moment in which he writes and publishes ironically behooves him to make this reclamation first and foremost in translation.
But the end results of this absorption of Chinese diasporic aesthetics into English, and of its politics into Western institutions, have yet to be fully played out. As we saw in chapter 1, Gao’s dissident status was largely manufactured by the international media in the wake of his Nobel award, in part so that he could fulfill the role of native informant qua exilic critic of the PRC for the liberal West. Gao’s fame, then, has fed an enduring Cold War discourse of Asian oppression and Western heroism, enabling the West to pursue its economic partnership with the PRC while exteriorizing criticism of the communist government by attributing it to one of China’s own native sons, albeit a rejected and expelled one. And as we saw in chapters 2 and 3, Jin’s corpus too plays a part in sustaining this discourse, while Wang’s novel takes neo-orientalism as an explicit target of critique even as her English-language fictions capitalize on Western consumer trends that fetishize the sexuality of Asian women. It would appear that Ma’s meteoric rise to literary prominence in the West is the latest instance of this global neo-orientalism surrounding the Chinese diaspora writer. In fact, Ma fits the liberal bill even more perfectly. Unlike Gao, he does not need to have his anticommunist stance mythologized, and unlike both Gao and Jin, he does not distance himself or his writing from politics but is only too vocal in his public denunciations of PRC policies. His penchant for the gothic may even serve to nurture Western readers’ perception of Chinese atrocity and exceptionalism. Beijing Coma’s running metaphor of cannibalism, though derived from a familiar trope indigenous to the modern Chinese canon and meant as an argument for further political change, may resonate only too well with narratives of Chinese barbarity that continue to circulate in the West. For an example, we can invoke James Dobson, chairman of the American conservative evangelical organization Focus on the Family, who protested the 1995 United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing precisely by characterizing China as a cannibalistic state, using Harry Wu’s book and the one-child policy to shore up exotic stereotypes and racialized hatred among his American right-wing supporters (Berglund 175–83). Against this backdrop, the image of Dai Wei’s comatose and decaying body—the figure of the lone Chinese victim that plays the counterpart to the Chinese barbarian—may be read only too readily as the latest incarnation of what Eric Hayot calls the “hypothetical mandarin”: the imaginary figure of a suffering Chinese stranger, with the accompanying trope of Chinese pain, that has been essential in structuring Western discourses of human sympathy and moral responsibility for the last two centuries (4–6). Viewed cynically within these contexts, the enthusiastic embrace of Ma by the West may signal the most heightened form of contemporary global neo-orientalism yet. From this perspective, the post-Tiananmen literary diaspora now carries the torch of Western imperialism by fetishizing the Chinese body in pain, with the grotesque image of Dai Wei’s rotting body serving as the newest revival of the spectacle of lingchi that so erotically captivated Georges Bataille several decades ago.
In the end, however, such a critique can all too briskly lead us back to the dead end of an orientalist/anti-orientalist debate in which East and West, origin and diaspora, stay inexorably, ontologically polarized—a diasporic version of what Rey Chow calls the “deadlock of the anthropological situation” (Primitive 176). On such a view, the measure of a diaspora writer’s integrity can only be his or her obscurity in the West, and any hint of popular success or recognition can only be a sign of his or her co-optation by the other. This is a moral double bind no less limiting than the Maoist injunction against Western appropriations. As we saw in chapter 3, this criticism has often been leveled, and often by diaspora critics, at diasporic memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen fictions are all too easily construed as a successor to that genre. Indeed, my intuition is that the subtle cultural pressures exerted on diaspora writers by the diaspora itself operate as a strong literary deterrent for writing Tiananmen. Since June 4 has come to symbolize an intransigent political difference between communist China and the liberal West, any diaspora writer attempting to fictionalize the episode will unavoidably be caught up in a global cultural politics and a representational tug-of-war, in addition to the diasporic image wars I discussed in chapter 4. Many critics may be inclined to hold in contempt these creative efforts as self-orientalizing gestures pandering to the tastes of a global market. This attitude underlies, for instance, Michael Berry’s parenthetical aside when he casually notes that Jin’s The Crazed “fails to highlight (exploit?) the massacre in the way that many other works have” (354).
We can find another example in Shuyu Kong’s otherwise astute review of Beijing Coma when she writes: “Not surprisingly, Ma’s heroic self-image as a dissident, his controversial works, and his uncompromising criticism of China as a totalitarian society have enticed international publishers and readers, and led to comprehensive publication of his works in recent years. . . . Is it possible that such a situation, where Ma writes about China but must sell his work outside China, has influenced some of his ethical and political choices, in other words, the way that he writes about China, and what aspects of China he chooses to represent?” Is there a way to answer this question except in the affirmative, insofar as location and conditions of writing and publication inevitably influence a writer’s choices? The question of what Ma’s novel attempts to illumine about Tiananmen, however, is not asked. Instead of probing the discursive functions of a reportage style and what this might mean for a reinterpretation of June 4, the review complains of the novel’s lack of “literary craftsmanship” and its “tedious and verbose display of unedited documentary footage”; instead of examining Ma’s tactics at deflecting moral judgments on the student activists, the review reinstates morality as the yardstick of literary greatness, bemoaning that the novel lacks the “moral complexity that great works are often valued for.” Habits of aesthetic appreciation and expectations for literature to serve as a moral guide are perhaps especially tenacious in Tiananmen discourse. Yet the task of mining deeper insights from Ma’s book requires not just readerly patience and perseverance but an acknowledgment that we may not know the history of the massacre as well as we might think. Though Ma does not explicitly satirize Western orientalism as Wang does in Lili, Tiananmen through the lens of Beijing Coma is still far from a self-orientalizing history known many times over, flattened into already seen images and mediatized as an already attended spectacle. On the contrary, Ma presents us with an event whose significance is not simply excavated through a revisitation of its unfolding moment in slow time, in all its thick banalities, but constantly juxtaposed against an ever-accruing future that is our present. Without a recognition of these aesthetic effects and the political value they bear for a renewed understanding of Tiananmen in the circumstances of the now, one might indeed worry that the novel risks “fall[ing] into the usual political traps and cultural stereotypes that afflict other works written by Chinese émigré authors” (and among these Shuyu Kong includes The Crazed). Ultimately, the assumptions behind this judgment have the unfortunate effect of discouraging, perhaps even denigrating, serious efforts at historical reevaluation for purposes of critical memory and political advocacy. The plea for human rights may not always already be just another case of diasporic self-colonization.
As with Gao, we can begin to work out the problem of the Western commodification of Chinese diaspora writers, not by resorting to some notion of nativist integrity or loyalty, nor by fantasizing in the abstract about some radically non-orientalist aesthetics, but by tracing the lines of a cross-hemispheric theory of the polis, of political responsibility, and of politicized life. For one socialist version of this, we might look to the critical efforts of Wang Hui. Here the connection to Tiananmen becomes direct, historically as well as intellectually. Himself a former participant in the Beijing protests who was among the last group of students to leave the Square on June 4, Wang has since combined his training in Chinese literature with an inquiry into globalization’s political economy. In his incisive tract on 1989 and its relation to contemporary China—an essay that has never been published in the mainland but that circulates widely on the Chinese Internet and in translations abroad (Huters 6)—Wang states his thesis about the global impact of Tiananmen right from the outset: “The 1989 social movement had a profound influence not just on China but on the whole world” (46). On his analysis, the 1989 movement represented the final instance of China’s century-long tradition of revolutionary socialist politics: more than anything else, the populace’s cry for democracy arose from a desire not for political deposition but for socioeconomic equality, not for “a set of political procedures and legal stipulations” but a “guaranteeing [of] social justice and the democraticization of economic life” (61). As he points out, in addition to its well-known calls for “democracy,” the movement also invoked the socialist ideal of “the equality of everyday life,” but unlike the older ideology under Mao, this concept had been transformed into “a force for the mobilization of social critique” (61–62). The key point for Wang is that the Chinese party-state under critique by the masses in this watershed moment was no longer socialist in spirit or practice but had become all too neoliberal—by 1989, the communist government had embraced globalization’s “program of market totalization,” in which “relations based on capital take possession of the social sphere” and priorities of markets and profits completely trump matters of social welfare (124, 127). Against the neoliberal paradigm, Wang argues that market reform and economic liberalization in the PRC have never been “spontaneous” affairs but are “normally . . . expressed through state policy and its reliance on coercion” (120); neoliberal tenets about the market’s self-regulation and capital’s free flows are not merely inaccurate but insidious and pernicious, masking the state’s hand in the increasing monopolization of power within the nation while absolving the state’s political responsibility in safeguarding social equality for its workers and subjects, both intranationally and transnationally. To my mind, the challenge Wang mounts for a contemporary rethinking of Tiananmen, whether on this or that side of the Pacific, is much more formidable than the one posed by neo-orientalism alone: the real danger today, he suggests, is not a reinvigorated cultural exoticism of China or even a geopolitical polarization between East and West but the actual incorporation of a supposed other polity into an already hugely unequal hegemonic world order dominated by the neoliberal logic, a world order in which the political duties of a so-called socialist state and the possibility of wide-scale socialist politics are rapidly disappearing everywhere. For Wang, the June 4 massacre, while it “shook the world” at the time, has unfortunately fed a historical evaluation of 1989 that promotes a neoliberal teleology, so that the very interest groups that colluded with state power could subsequently pass themselves off as “radical reformers” and “a progressive force moving toward the world market and democracy” (62). Post-1989, the West’s habitual fixation on the massacre as the supreme meaning of Tiananmen as well as its eagerness to interpret the PRC’s accelerated capitalism as a laudable mode of freedom only underscore neoliberalism’s spreading dominion and socialism’s epochal decline. In this situation, the “alternative globalizations” Wang seeks are emphatically not embodied by the laissez-faire market economies of the West, politically democratic or otherwise. Instead, he will look to Tiananmen again for the seed of a promise: the 1989 movement cannot be read “unidirectionally” as “the final victory of the Western social system, with China as merely an isolated and incomplete historical instance,” for “once this single understanding becomes the world’s predominant narrative, once it becomes ironclad proof of the superiority of the present system, once protest becomes merely praise for that system, then [the social movement’s] true meaning, its critical potential, and its historical significance will all be lost” (65). In the absence of a “united world government to coordinate global industrial policy, financial security, and equitable economic distribution,” Wang will continue to invest the unit of the nation-state with “broad political responsibility for the domestic economic order and for social justice” (129). Beyond the domestic, he also forecasts “the role of the state within a new trend of participatory internationalism,” in which “various states organize a global force to reduce the polarization of north and south, protect the global ecology and push for a fair world order, rather than working to oppose those ends” (130). Such a bifocal envisioning of the nation-state as local polity and guarantor of social life as well as participatory actor for global equality and planetary preservation has yet to materialize in any Tiananmen fiction, though the literary diaspora would do well to heed this vision’s potential in the age to come.
Finally, complementing Wang Hui’s model, the importance of Ma Jian’s novel can be cast as its attempt to redefine critical discourse away from a worldview of hemispheric dichotomy toward issues of totalitarian biopower on a grand scale. If the Square’s ubiquity within Beijing Coma is interpreted metatextually as a telescoping of the PRC’s present and future expansion in the global economy, then its sovereign biopower within its national domain can be imagined as starting to seep outside the Square, into a province of networked relations beyond China proper. In many ways, the PRC has already occupied center stage in international debates about biopower in the last decade, particularly around the topic of illegal organ trading of death-row prisoners and Falun Gong practitioners, hence extending beyond the nation’s borders the long-standing world fascination with the one-child policy as a biopoliticization of everyday life. Indeed, the Chinese state’s politicizing of its subjects’ bodies historically precedes, and has been temporally coeval with, Western theories of biopower from Foucault to Agamben and Hardt and Negri onward, so that it could be deemed one unacknowledged origin point, material as well as discursive, for the other hemisphere’s not-so-insular biopolitical speculations. If the PRC maintains its course toward global dominance, what may emerge as a paramount critical enterprise for world scholars in this millennium is the rethinking of totalitarianism as a condition for biopolitical exceptionality, with totalitarian biopower as a crux analytic category of globalization that intersects with imperialism and capitalism to generate new modes of interrogating scattered transnational power. What Dai Wei’s body pinpoints, with negative utopianism, is one location where that global future can be halted—at the never-departed Square.