2 / The Aporetic Square: Ha Jin’s The Crazed
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, 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 Jin’s work can usefully be read in counterpoint to this image of writerly accomplishment. We can begin by situating his Tiananmen novel, The Crazed (2002), against the backdrop of two Nobel Prizes that bookend the decade of its publication, and in particular, against the worldwide representations of the Chinese intellectual that these prizes have promulgated. As in the previous chapter, I open here with a brief discussion of contemporary global discourses of the Chinese dissident, but then I turn to the novel itself to isolate two key themes, the student-intellectual relation and (im)perception, so as to elucidate Jin’s changing self-image as a diaspora writer. The chapter’s second half will focus on the text’s portrayal of the massacre and the Square in order to bring to light what prevailing culturalist views of Jin do not—that he is above all a writer of political rather than cultural Chineseness and a critic of totalitarian power, but one whose vision is saturated with an aesthetic of diasporic witnessing and trauma. The final section, which explores Jin’s reception on both sides of the Pacific, will help to locate him more specifically in a 1990s global critical terrain and to reveal Tiananmen’s ongoing impact on Chinese diaspora discourse at large.
Part I. The Scholar and the Student
NOBEL POLITICS, ANOTHER DECADE LATER
Nobel awarders seem to mark their relationship to Chineseness in intervals of ten years. Where the 2000 Prize in Literature turned Gao Xingjian overnight into one of the most prominent global Chinese writers of our time, the 2010 Peace Prize, in an uncannily similar manner, bestowed instant international fame to Liu Xiaobo. Yet, unlike Gao, and long before either Nobel award, Liu had already made a name for himself inside China. In the mid-1980s, he had gained notoriety in academic circles for his bold and vociferous attacks on the post-Mao literary establishment. A mere Ph.D. student in his early thirties at the time, he had scathingly upbraided his professional superiors and cultural patriarchs for what he saw as their reactionary return to “roots.” His iconoclastic outlook combined with his confrontational and brassy personality made him an outcast, albeit an illustrious one, in the years leading up to 1989, when he was regarded as more “the enfant terrible of Chinese literary critics” than a serious political activist (Calhoun 118). As Geremie Barmé expounds: “Liu’s extreme and outspoken attitudes had made him generally unpopular with his peers on the Mainland. Notorious in Beijing as an abrasive and even ill-mannered figure, Liu was found intolerable by some people more used to less brusque (although not less demanding) cultural figures. In Beijing, his coarse, stuttering harangues during academic meetings, public lectures or even at sedate dinner parties in which he would assault every aspect of conventional wisdom left few people, either Chinese or foreign, kindly disposed to the fiery critic” (“Confession” 57).
Liu, however, thrived in his ostracism and turned isolation into a philosophical credo. Several years before Gao solidified his formulations on individualism and one year before the Tiananmen uprising, Liu published an essay entitled “On Solitude.” In it, he condemned the Confucian tradition of the literati as servants to the state and called instead for a revolution in the idea of the Chinese intellectual:
It’s become fashionable for intellectuals to talk about self-negation. . . . To my mind the question at the heart of this intellectual self-negation and self-examination, which is also the self-negation of Chinese traditional culture itself, is the need for the individual to extricate himself from the collective consciousness and break free of all external bonds so as to enter a liberating state of solitude. . . .
Solitude implies independence, self-reliance; it means not following the crowd. . . . While many intellectuals, especially undergraduate and postgraduate university students, like to put on the mask of nonconformist isolation, they are in fact united by their collective consciousness. . . . For Chinese intellectuals, solitude must start with a complete negation of the self, because throughout our long feudal history, Chinese intellectuals were never independent thinkers, they were but “court literati.” The establishment of the imperial examination system assured the rulers of a means of depriving intellectuals of their independence. People studied not to become independent thinkers but to win a career in the bureaucracy, in the hope of serving an enlightened ruler. This predetermined political goal restricted the development of the personality and limited range, depth, and perspective of knowledge. By the Ming and Qing dynasties there was virtually no school of thought apart from Confucianism. (207–8)
Of himself he would declare: “I am myself, nothing more. I worship no one and am no one’s lackey; I’m a perpetual loner. This [creed] is the basis of true pluralism. . . . In feudal society, people believed their fate depended on a savior, an emperor; what we need in China today is the attitude that whether you go to heaven or hell is all up to you” (208–9). Liu’s assertion of the intellectual’s necessary independence and self-reliance, his supposed antipathy for collective thinking, and his self-description as simply a “perpetual loner” and “nothing more” clearly anticipate many of the themes in Gao’s essays. Liu’s style, though, is decidedly brasher, cruder, the voice of the irreverent young rebel rather than that of the elderly sage-philosopher (recall here the discontented but authoritatively chiding voice of the Middle-aged Man in Taowang). Apart from tone, Liu differs from Gao in another crucial respect: his attitude toward politics. As the passage above suggests, Liu sees intellectual individualism as the “basis of true pluralism.” In contrast to Gao, then, who opposes the individual to the polis as such, Liu defines the intellectual not in terms of a categorical refusal of politics but as the very foundation of a democratic society.
This key difference between the two Nobel laureates is displayed with remarkable starkness in their opposite conduct vis-à-vis Tiananmen. Although both men were safely abroad in the spring of 1989—Gao had been residing in France since 1987 while Liu had left China in 1988 as a visiting scholar, first at the University of Oslo, then the University of Hawai’i and finally Columbia University—the former decided to stay on in France while the latter flew back from New York to Beijing in April, at the start of the student protests, with the express intent of joining the democracy movement. Barmé is again instructive in explicating Liu’s distinction among overseas Chinese intellectuals during this period:
Liu certainly was frustrated by the empty talk of Chinese émigrés in America and inspired by the student protests. Chen Jun also talks of the moral pressure Liu had felt at work on him following the burgeoning of the student demonstrations. While other Chinese intellectuals pontificated on the origins, significance and direction of the student movement from the Olympian heights of the West, Liu had the courage of his convictions. Chen quotes Liu as saying: “Either you go back and take part in the student movement; otherwise you should stop talking about it.” He was critical of Fang Lizhi’s reluctance to participate so that the movement could maintain its “purity.” Liu felt it was important for people who had been part of the democracy movement in China in the past or those who had studied it now to come out and direct it. (“Confession” 59)
According to Barmé, Liu’s aggrandized self-image as a man of action who follows through on his word despite potential danger, an image modeled after his romantic idols of Rousseau and Nietzsche, may have contributed to his decision to return to China (“Confession” 60). An equally romantic belief in the unavoidable suffering that comes with moral courage may further shed light on Liu’s almost “suicidal” behavior after June 4, when he resisted going into hiding or seeking asylum abroad—like most student leaders and intellectuals involved in the protests at the time—and instead appeared to “court disaster” by openly riding around Beijing on a bicycle, as though to complete the final scene in a long-standing “tragedy of individualistic and heroic Chinese intellectuals of the last century: to travel a course from self-liberation to self-immolation” (“Confession” 53). This apparent martyr syndrome notwithstanding, there is heaven and earth between Liu’s deliberate return to the Square during the actual state of emergency and Gao’s belated and elaborately justified self-distancing from it. Liu would go on to help launch a four-man hunger strike in the Square beginning on June 2 (along with the Taiwanese rock star Hou Dejian, the reformist think-tank head Zhou Duo, and the former chief editor of Beijing Normal University’s weekly Gao Xin), and though this hunger strike was meant to last only seventy-two hours, as a symbolic gesture of the intellectuals’ solidarity with the students under conditions of martial law, its fateful timing placed the four men inside the Square on the eve of its evacuation. Thus did Liu and his cohort become vital agents of history, negotiating with army officers for the safe passage of the last group of students from the Square in the early hours of June 4.
With the 2010 Peace Prize, Liu’s reputation comes full circle, from iconoclastic critic to iconic dissident, but the circle itself has become globalized. As in the case of Gao, Liu’s role as the consummate Chinese intellectual of our time has been largely determined by those outside the PRC—even if Liu himself remains in prison inside the country. Once again, the individualist thinker and pro-democracy advocate is held up by the world as the epitome of Chinese intellectual integrity. The difference is that, with Liu, there is no need to fabricate his political involvement in Tiananmen or his ensuing persecution by the communist government. Liu Xiaobo’s life lives up to its mythology. Despite several jail terms after June 4, he continued to risk his personal freedom by forwarding the campaign for democracy from within the PRC from the 1990s onward, most recently by co-drafting Charter 08. He fulfills superbly Edward Said’s paradigm of the intellectual as a public figure who speaks truth to power, who symbolically occupies the margins of a polis so as to better critique its regime’s excesses. Indeed, Liu has solidly supplanted Gao as the new global face of the Chinese intellectual. What persists from the millennial Nobel to this latest one, or perhaps what gets revived, is the underlying geopolitics of recognition, whereby the liberal West plays enlightened defender once more to the incorrigible Oriental despot. With Liu as with Gao, this global geopolitics with regard to Chineseness is profoundly tied to Tiananmen. As I argued in the previous chapter, contrary to the international media’s anachronistic narrative of Gao as a writer whose dissident politics led to his exilic status, an inverted and linearized chronology along which identity and belief precede event, Gao in fact arrived at his philosophy of existential flight only after—and precisely in light of—June 4. In reality, then, not only has Tiananmen produced a new generation of refugees post-1989, but more fundamentally, it has galvanized subsequent world discourses about China around the figure of the Chinese intellectual-dissident-exile, shaping the very conceptual languages and 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.
Significantly, this contemporary worldwide representation of the Chinese intellectual as the quintessential écrivain engagé is wholly dissolved in the fictional work that most closely connects Tiananmen to 1980s intellectual culture, Ha Jin’s The Crazed. No stranger to prizes himself, Jin can be considered the American counterpart to Europe’s Gao. Since winning the 1999 National Book Award for his debut novel, Waiting, Jin has gone on to become one of if not the most prolific and widely read contemporary American writer of life under communist China. Up until a recent novel (A Free Life) and short-story collection (A Good Fall), Jin’s fiction has dealt exclusively with PRC national history, from the Korean War (War Trash) to the Cultural Revolution (Under the Red Flag, Ocean of Words, Waiting) and the post-Mao era (In the Pond, The Bridegroom) to the 1989 Tiananmen episode (The Crazed). And most recently, instead of moving forward chronologically into the present, his latest novel (Nanjing Requiem), released just days ago even as I write, rewinds to an earlier period of national crisis by focusing on the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Nanjing Massacre. Along the way, Jin has garnered an impressive array of awards, winning three Pushcarts, a Flannery O’Connor, a PEN/Hemingway, two PEN/Faulkners, and a Guggenheim. Additionally, unlike Gao, Jin composes exclusively in English (setting aside for the moment his self-translation into Chinese), which facilitates his standing in the United States as a domestic rather than foreign writer. His entry into the American literary mainstream is further signaled by the enthusiastic reception of his work by such highbrow institutions as the New Yorker, which has favorably reviewed almost all his books and recently published one of his short stories.1 Jin’s literary rise in the United States thus parallels Gao’s across the Atlantic, and in a roughly contemporaneous time frame.
As we saw with Gao, this institutional appropriation of the contemporary Chinese diaspora writer by the West does not necessarily reflect a writer’s aesthetics or politics in any nuanced way. Rather, it is symptomatic of the broad cultural-political conditions by which the Chinese diaspora writer’s work now comes to be circulated and read outside of the PRC. To be sure, a writer’s willingness to criticize the communist government can help smooth his or her path into the Western liberal establishment, and Jin too makes himself amenable in this regard. Indeed, perhaps the most basic point of convergence between Jin and Gao is their decision to represent Tiananmen at all. Not only does this choice of subject matter allow both authors to brand themselves as unequivocal opponents to totalitarian state power, but the very act of writing Tiananmen in the West becomes performative, at once a defiant rebuke of the communist regime’s censorship and an implicit validation of the expressive freedoms afforded by Western democracies. On the issue of the geopolitics of artistic autonomy, Gao and Jin are in total agreement.
Jin, however, is no existentialist writer. Although he professes to be a humanist, commenting forthrightly in an interview that, “unlike most academics, I do believe in universals and that there is truth that transcends borders and times” (qtd. in Zhou 274), his humanism never eviscerates human experience of its geographical coordinates but is always grounded in specific historical spaces and times. In antithesis to Gao’s, Jin’s universalism does not oppose the timeless to history, the human to the polis. As he puts it in another interview: “I’ve never intended my writing to be political, but my characters exist in the fabric of politics. That is to say, it is impossible to avoid politics, especially in China” (“Art”). The polis as such matters in his fiction, as do the particularities of communism and the forms of life it yields. He will not be one to erase political distinctions and generalize the totalitarian state as a planetary paradigm or June 4 as the culmination of all collective politics. With almost stubborn tenacity, his writing retains the PRC’s historical and political specificity and resists abstracting it into simply any modern nation-state. In this respect, Jin’s diasporic aesthetic is much more kindred to Ma Jian’s than to Gao’s.
Of the imagined geographies of his fiction, Jin is perhaps best known for his portrayal of Cultural Revolution China. Although The Crazed depicts the decade after, the liberalization era under Deng Xiaoping, Jin intimates that the Cultural Revolution’s legacy continues to be felt in everyday social life into the late 1980s. The novel 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, in classic bildungsroman style, 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 the 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 in a provincial university town, its temporal setting in the spring of 1989 and its spatial climax in the blood-splattered streets of Beijing render the novel an important instance of Tiananmen fiction. Through the titular metaphor, Jin anchors his Tiananmen plot in the key figure of the crazed scholar-intellectual. 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 Jin’s retrospective meditation on the myriad ways the intellectual as social ideal becomes defeated and destroyed—not after June 4, but already in the decade preceding it.
Ultimately, Jin’s dystopic appraisal of the pre-Tiananmen intellectual realm can be understood in terms of his own diasporic position in 1989. Of the four writers examined in this book, Jin was the one located farthest from Beijing, and also the one with the longest absence from China, at the time of the military crackdown. He is also the writer with the most heightened sense of his own diasporic removal from the events of June 4, returning time and again in interviews to this historical moment as the inauguration of his immigrant life. This acute self-consciousness of the link between Tiananmen and his own diasporic condition manifests structurally in The Crazed via what I will call the lost Square—a site gestured at by the novel as the heart of China’s national struggle, yet simultaneously a site of failed arrival for the novel’s narrator and hence a conspicuous narrative lacuna for Jin as much as the reader. Where Gao’s Square is existential, Jin’s is aporetic. This vanishing of the Square, I would suggest, epitomizes Jin’s diasporic aesthetic and the diasporic melancholia that saturates his corpus.
As we saw with Gao’s Taowang and as I will elaborate in chapter 4 concerning the diasporic image wars on Tiananmen, discussions of 1989 often draw attention to the volatile relationship, alternately collaborative and contentious, between intellectuals and students during that Beijing spring. If one of the main dramatic tensions of Gao’s play lies in the ideological sparring between the Middle-aged Man and the Young Man, this scene of political discord along generational lines and its attendant social types have become all too familiar in Tiananmen discourse by the mid-1990s. Global commentators on Tiananmen frequently marshal these two stock figures—the young, idealistic, hotheaded student protester versus the older, more cautious and world-weary but much wiser intellectual—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 utterly discrete social categories. Gao’s play, in fact, is one of the earliest articulations of this relation as ossified, perhaps hyperbolically, difference. These approaches tend to shift the focus of analysis away from the political clash between democracy and totalitarianism and displace the principal line of conflict from the people versus the state to students versus intellectuals, radicals versus moderates. In doing so, they have had the damaging effect of polarizing debates about Tiananmen and, worse, escalating disagreements about political method into accusations of moral blame.
Ha Jin’s 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 days 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). Shenmin Yang, the most apparent though not the only possible referent of the titular “crazed,” had seemed the model intellectual before his stroke: an energetic and dedicated teacher and an erudite and respected scholar of comparative literature, he was the envy of his colleagues and a paragon for his students at Shanning University. The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Jian Wan, is at once Yang’s chief pupil and son-in-law to be, engaged to his daughter, Meimei. Of these two relationships, the one of greater priority for Jian is undoubtedly that with the father. Not only does Jian’s tutelage under Yang predate his acquaintance with Meimei, but the story of the couple’s ostensible courtship, narrated through a flashback, revolves entirely around the younger man gaining the older one’s approval about career choice. Three months prior to his first meeting her, Jian had received a lucrative job offer from a Hong Kong trading company but had ultimately declined it, heeding Yang’s advice to forego materialism so as to continue his study of poetry, to enrich his “heart” and become a spiritual “aristocrat” instead. The announcement of his engagement to Meimei comes at the end of this backstory, as a one-line capstone to the larger masculine narrative of quasi-filial obedience and vocational inheritance. Tellingly, Meimei is referred to in this last line not by name but merely as “[Yang’s] daughter” (67), the patriarch’s prize to the protégé for faithfully following in his footsteps.
The novel, of course, 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: Yang is not just a prototype of the Chinese intellectual but simultaneously an emblem of China itself in 1989. His cerebral “blood clot” and “blockage” at the beginning of the novel (13–14) find numerous objective correlatives in the “blocked” streets of Beijing later in the text (300–301), 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 of the decay of the intelligentsia as well as that of the national polity. With macabre fastidiousness does 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” and his “heavily furred” tongue (59), from his “fingers reddish and swollen, with fungus-infested cuticles” (123) and his molding head where dead hairs amass to the “whiff of decay escap[ing] from his insides” (60). Yang’s stroke, then, does not simply represent the country’s mental breakdown but functions as the premise on which Jin allegorizes late-1980s China as a grotesque body rotting inside and out.2 As we will see, the paralytic and putrid near-cadaver as a symbol of the national body politic will resurface in Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, with even greater imagistic force and argumentative scope. This deployment of the single decrepit body as a trope for post-Mao China evinces a powerful strain of the gothic in Tiananmen fictions. Conversely, we could say that Tiananmen marks one route by which Chinese diasporic literature finds its way to a gothic aesthetic and then repeatedly, hauntingly returns to it.
At the same time, the device of allegory allows Jin to amplify the resonances of Yang’s sometimes lucid, sometimes rambling voice, which, under auspices of madness, is ultimately the only one that can speak truth to power. Yang, in other words, gives both body and voice to the country’s decomposition. In his post-stroke speeches, he constantly spews forth cynical conceits of China, likening it to a “chopping board” at one point (220) and a “pickle vat” at another (206), and the Chinese to pieces of meat or marinated vegetables. “In such a pickle vat,” he tells Jian, “even a stone can be marinated and lose its original color and begin to stink” (206). In his more inspired moments, Yang spins out one sinister parable after another of life under authoritarian rule, and it is not by accident that his thematic accent falls consistently on the suffocation of the mind.
The novel opens, for instance, with his revisionist version of Genesis. The moral of the story, Yang tells Jian, is that “Man’s life cannot but be alienated from itself,” that after living out his first twenty years as a carefree monkey and the next twenty as a laborious donkey, the life of the human intellect begins only when Man’s “body is worn out, his limbs are feeble and heavy, and . . . his brain . . . has begun deteriorating too.” Nonetheless, Man continues to cramp his brain with knowledge until one day it “becomes too full and cannot but burst . . . like a pressure cooker which is so full that the safety valve is blocked up, but the fire continues heating its bottom.” The result, with none too subtle echoes of Yang’s own stroke and the concurrent Beijing protests, is that “the only way out is to explode” (12). This retelling of species origins, in which biblical themes of human creation are recouched in Marxist language of self-alienation, may be read as a parody of communism’s prioritizing of physical over intellectual labor, and perhaps even as a camouflaged diagnosis of the psychopolitical causes behind Tiananmen. Whether Yang himself is fully aware of the interpretive reverberations of his story does not matter so much as the fact that his life exemplifies the cerebral failure he outlines. Yang’s equation of humanity with the intellect reflects his elitism, to be sure, but also a deep disappointment in his own failure to live up to the ideals of his youth.
A few pages later, Yang offers another bleak parable, this time with more overt cues to 1980s China:
All the time he has been thinking how to end everything, to be done with his clerical work, done with his senile, exacting parents, done with his nagging wife and spoiled children, done with his mistress Chilla, who is no longer a “little swallow” with a slender waist but is obsessed with how to lose weight and reduce the size of her massive backside, done with the endless worry and misery of everyday life, done with the nightmares in broad daylight—in short, to terminate himself so that he can quit this world. . . .
But he lives in a room without a door or a window and without any furniture inside. Confined in such a cell, he faces the insurmountable difficulty of how to end his life. On the rubber floor spreads a thick pallet, beside which sits an incomplete dinner set. The walls are covered with green rubber too. He cannot smash his head on any spot in this room. He wears a leather belt, which he sometimes takes off, thinking how to garrote himself with it. Some people he knew committed suicide in that way twenty years ago, because they couldn’t endure the torture inflicted by the revolutionary masses anymore. They looped a belt around their necks, secured its loose end to a hook or a nail on a window ledge, then forcefully they sat down on the floor. But in this room there’s not a single fixed object, so his belt cannot serve that purpose. Sometimes he lets it lie across his lap and observes it absentmindedly. The belt looks like a dead snake in the greenish light. What’s worse, he cannot figure out where the room is, whether it’s in a city or in the countryside, and whether it’s in a house or underground. In such a condition he is preserved to live.
. . . He’s thus doomed to live on, caged in an indestructible cocoon like a worm. (16–18)
The implicit tenor of this figurative “cell” and “indestructible cocoon” is undoubtedly China, but one that is no longer marked with the telltale signs of the Maoist state from “twenty years ago,” with its public denunciations and mass persecutions. In the politically relaxed climate of the late 1980s, the man in the story can have a job as a clerk, the means to support his parents and spoil his children, even a mistress with a Western name (a detail Jian picks up on and mulls over at length) and a leather belt to boot. By all external measures, the man leads a bourgeois life and leads it unharassed. Yet, from Yang’s perspective, this contemporary milieu is even more insidiously disempowering than the Cultural Revolution, when people at least had the ability to commit suicide in their prisons. In his new situation, the man is cushioned all around, utterly protected from self-harm but also utterly deprived of self-determination. There is no longer any detectable difference between life in the city and life in the countryside: that formerly all-important geographical distinction has disappeared from view in the uniformity of the current era. All is made comfortable, and all are merely “preserved to live.” Akin to Yang’s body, the cocoon-cell carries multiple connotations. While it allegorizes the nation on a macro level, it simultaneously conjures up the novel’s environment of the provincial town, hovering between rural and urban. More specifically, it captures Yang’s private hospital room, where he is ostensibly cared for by the state and preserved as a future “national treasure” (7) but is in reality left to degenerate “in broad daylight.” Yang makes the self-reference explicit in one of his last cogent moments, in a desperate cry to Jian: “Oh, how can I get out of this suffocating room, this indestructible cocoon, this absolute coffin? How can I liberate my soul? I don’t want to die like a worm” (203).
The intertextual allusion here that renders Jin’s national allegory unmistakable is Lu Xun’s famous metaphor of China as an iron house without windows. In his preface to Call to Arms, Lu Xun recounts the episode that first prompted him to turn to fiction writing: “In S— Hostel there were three rooms where it was said a woman had lived who hanged herself on the locust tree in the courtyard. Although the tree had grown so tall that its branches could no longer be reached, the rooms remained deserted.” This setting of the enclosed courtyard, where the instrument of suicide has now grown out of reach, quickly brings to mind the cocoon room and prison cell of Yang’s story. And like the pre-stroke Yang, the patient scholar who devotes himself to the transcendent study of poetry, Lu Xun depicts his younger self here as a humble scribe content with “copying ancient inscriptions” and letting his life “slip quietly away” had it not been for the fateful visit of a friend one day. “What is the use of copying these?” his friend demands, and then asks Lu Xun to contribute to the revolutionary magazine he is editing (4). Their next exchange is Chinese literary lore:
However I said:
“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?”
“But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house.” (5)
Republican-period China, liberated from imperial rule but still shackled by the ideologies of feudalism and imperialism, is for Lu Xun an iron house forever shrouded in darkness, “absolutely indestructible,” and a place of inescapable psychic suffocation. Nonetheless, at his friend’s urging, he turns to fiction as a means of “destroying the iron house,” thus demonstrating a basic faith in the efficacy of intellectual and literary labor, and not solely in itself but in the interests of national salvation. As Jin puts it in his introduction to a recent edition of Lu Xun’s short stories: “Clearly from the very beginning [Lu Xun] saw himself as a spiritual doctor, a Nietzschean superman in a sense, who would try to diagnose and cure the disease in the soul of China, the Sick Man of Asia. His medicine was literature, which he believed could stir and wake up the Chinese” (“Introduction” ix).
Like many contemporary Chinese writers, Ha Jin is at once indebted to and rebellious against this canonized father of modern Chinese literature. On Jin’s assessment, Lu Xun became the perfect tool for the communists precisely because of his conscious subordination of literature to politics. Lu Xun’s “conception of literature is founded on utilitarianism,” Jin observes; “for him, literature must serve a purpose and contribute to the liberation of the Chinese from their feudalistic culture and capitalist oppression. As a result, every piece of writing must be useful in the struggle, like a dagger or a javelin.” Moreover, Lu Xun “subsumed literature and arts under politics; this coincides with the communist theory of the function of literature and arts, which must form a part of the revolutionary apparatus” (“Introduction” xiv). Jin’s evaluation echoes Gao Xingjian’s lament that “it was a misfortune for literature that the writer Lu Xun was crushed to death by the politician Lu Xun” (“Bali” 15). In Jin’s as much as Gao’s eyes, Lu Xun represents not a paragon but a cautionary tale. For them both, one of the primary lessons of communist history is that literature can never be made subservient to politics, whether for the party-state or an oppositional collective. On the necessity of art’s independence from external pressures, Jin and Gao sound a similar chord.
As Jin maintains in his essay “The Spokesman and the Tribe,” “genuine” literature “must be predicated on [its] autonomy and integrity”: “The writer should enter history mainly through the avenue of his art. If he serves a cause or a group or even a country, such a service must be a self-choice and not imposed by society. He must serve on his own terms, in the manner and at the time and place of his own choosing. Whatever role he plays, he must keep in mind that his success or failure as a writer will be determined only on the page. That is the space where he should strive to exist” (30). Like Gao, Jin does not prohibit writers from serving a larger cause, even a nationalist one, but this service must never take priority over art for its own sake. Indeed, Jin recounts in this essay how his own career trajectory and self-image have been revised along exactly these lines. When he first began to write in the United States, he admits, he saw himself as a “spokesman for the unfortunate Chinese” back home, partly because of the education he had received in China, and partly because, like many émigré writers from less-developed countries, he felt guilty for “emigrating to the materially privileged West.” Over time, though, he found this claim to be “groundless,” especially when he discovered that “a country can take a writer to task and even accuse him of misdeeds, betrayal, or other crimes against the people” (4). In his most recent phase, Jin tends to see himself as a “migrant” writer, but he is now more cynical about the efficacy of writers at large: “I could agree with Gordimer wholeheartedly that a writer must be ‘more than a writer’ and must be responsible to the well-being of his fellow citizens. . . . However, as I continued writing, the issue of the writer’s essential gesture as a social being grew more complicated to me. Writers do not make good generals, and today literature is ineffective at social change. All the writer can strive for is a personal voice. . . . There is no argument that the writer must take a moral stand and speak against oppression, prejudice, and injustice, but such a gesture must be secondary, and he should be aware of the limits of his art as social struggle” (29). So, although Jin affirms the need for writers to confront social and political ills much more strongly than does Gao, he too ultimately concludes on a note of individualism, on the private ends of literature. Renouncing the prototype of the tribal spokesman, he now avows: “I must learn to stand alone, as a writer” (28)—an echo, as it turns out, of Liu Xiaobo’s manifesto on intellectual “solitude.” Still, Jin recognizes that the stance of individualism is not itself apolitical within the PRC, for “the Chinese authorities are afraid of truthful stories told from an individual’s point of view” (“Art”).
In The Crazed, the extent to which Jin rejects Lu Xun’s example of politicized art can be gauged by his pointed rewriting of the iron house conceit. In a scene that parallels the one above where Lu Xun’s friend visits him at Shaoxing Hostel, Jin dramatizes a pivotal conversation, one that Jian fortuitously overhears, when one of Yang’s colleagues pays him a visit at Shanning Hospital. As the colleague attempts to reassure Yang that his work has been appropriately reallocated during his absence, Yang dismisses his academic duties as futile “clerical work” and goes on to proclaim the utter impossibility of true intellectualism in China:
“Who is an intellectual in China? Ridiculous, anyone with a college education is called an intellectual. The truth is that all people in the humanities are clerks and all people in the sciences are technicians. Tell me, who is a really independent intellectual, has original ideas and speaks the truth? None that I know of. We’re all dumb laborers kept by the state—a retrograde species.”
“So you’re not a scholar?”
“I told you, I’m just a clerk, a screw in the machine of the revolution. You’re the same, neither worse nor better. We are of the same ilk and have the same fate, all having relapsed into savagery and cowardice. Now this screw is worn out and has to be replaced, so write me off as a loss.” (153)
When the other professor suggests that the younger generation of scholars such as Jian will “make improvements” and “learn from [the older men’s] mistakes and losses,” Yang sneeringly retorts, “At most he’ll become a senior clerk.” And then, in the novel’s most direct allusion to Lu Xun, Yang concludes of Jian: “He’d better leave this iron house soon so that he won’t end up a mere scribe here. In our country no scholars can live a life different from a clerk’s. We’re all automatons without a soul” (154). Jin’s implication is clear: Lu Xun, despite his lofty ambitions, was a “mere scribe” even to the end of his career, a “screw in the machine of the revolution,” and Yang is his fictional successor. The trappings of intellectual labor may have changed, the revolutionary may have turned academic, but the intellectual’s essential function as a “dumb laborer kept by the state” remains the same. This is just the vision of the post-Mao intellectual that Liu Xiaobo criticizes. But instead of a call to arms, the iron house here provokes a desire for immigration. There is an epiphany here for Jian as for Lu Xun, but not one that affirms the value of intellectual work for the national good. For the first time, Jian realizes that his mentor has never fully validated his efforts at acquiring a Ph.D. This realization sets in motion a process of self-doubt that will dramatically change the course of Jian’s life in the remainder of the novel: “The former vision of myself as one who must study hard to become an eminent literary scholar had vanished, replaced by the image of a feckless clerk who was already senile but wouldn’t quit scribbling” (158–59). Jian is akin to one of the light sleepers in Lu Xun’s iron house who has woken up to the cry of alarm, but rather than demolishing the house so as to emancipate his compatriots from their unwitting yet gruesome fate, he is led down a different path by Ha Jin—one that leads close to but ultimately backfires away from the center stage of national politics.
But even before Jian rouses to this epiphany, he has been gradually made privy to the crumbling of Yang’s façade. 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 the latter’s unleashed unconscious. The teacher’s mind, he notes, “now resembled a broken safe—all the valuables stored in it were scattered helter-skelter” (179). As he 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. Although outwardly unrepentant about the vocation he has chosen and ever self-righteous about the spiritual nobility of poetic studies, Yang poststroke oscillates between leveling audacious if veiled criticisms at the state and, more shockingly and disappointingly for Jian, singing sycophantic hymns to the Communist 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. As Jian belatedly realizes, his mentor, “driven to despair . . . must have thought of officialdom as the only possible way to live a life different from a futile intellectual’s” (275). 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 China’s politics and live up to the elevated, perhaps impossible, ideal of pure intellect. The vision of the scholar-intellectual projected by Yang at his most dignified—a person who rises above political interests and material gain to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the study of literature—is one that Gao proposes in very similar terms. But in Jin’s novel, communist history has effectively eroded not just the body but the spirit behind this ideal, leaving behind a husk of a man, and of a nation, that fatally implodes on itself.
It is noteworthy that Jin’s portrait of the spiritual malaise of institutionalized pursuit of knowledge in this milieu diametrically opposes prevailing accounts of PRC intellectual life in the 1980s. More often than not, this decade has been characterized as one of nationalist ferment and fervor, the era of reform that nurtured, if unevenly so, the grand hopes and dreams of intellectuals emerging from the long shadow of the Cultural Revolution. Especially in hindsight, the 1980s can appear the period when elite utopianism attained its height before June 4 brought it crashing down and Deng Xiaoping maneuvered China irrevocably down the road of 1990s hypercapitalism. Jing Wang, for one, provides a vivid sketch of this decade’s cultural atmosphere: “Future historians will remember the 1980s in China as a period of utopian vision on the one hand and an era of emergent crisis on the other. Euphoria and great expectation swept over the nation as the Party’s economic reform completed its first initiative of promoting household-based agriculture. . . . At the juncture of 1985, the metaphor of consummation could well have captured the apex of national jubilance” (1). The mid-1980s in particular “witnessed a symphony of unmitigated optimism. As the state’s modernization program steered the country into imagined prosperity, the intellectuals not only collaborated with the Party in its reconstruction of the socialist utopia, but busily proliferated their own discourse on thought enlightenment” (37). As Wang points out, even into the seemingly dystopic mood of the late 1980s, when the general sense of national cultural crisis culminated in the TV series Heshang, intellectuals remained unshaken in their haughty but thoroughly earnest self-perception as “architects of Chinese modernity,” a privileged elite endowed with the capacity and entrusted with the moral mission to search out the right “paradigms that would steer China into a tantalizing future” (39). The specter of Yang as the monstrous body of a tragically repressed and schizophrenic scholar, outwardly sedate but inwardly seething and dying, rarely rears its head in this fundamentally optimistic picture.
Perhaps the device of allegory renders the causality of events ambiguous. Is the collapse of the intellectual as social ideal in 1980s China that which propels the students into the Square, or is the mass protest movement’s ghastly denouement that which sounds the death knell for the post-Tiananmen intellectual? Both scenarios seem operative in The Crazed. Jian heads to Beijing only after being disillusioned with the example of his teacher, but Yang’s brain hemorrhage mirrors the Tiananmen bloodshed too evocatively for him not to be read as a metaphorical victim of state violence as well. Indeed, along Jin’s variety of allegory, there is little difference between the two readings. His representation of the intellectual is not so much anachronistic as archetypal: he is less invested in meticulously chronicling the shifting identity and function of the PRC intellectual than in advancing a macrohistorical critique of the impossibility of intellectual life in twentieth-century China. This critique encompasses the Republican period of Lu Xun’s time with the rise of communism and its aesthetic imperatives as much as the millennial moment of the novel’s publication. In Jin’s long view of Chinese history, the social outburst of 1989’s Tiananmen is but one indicator of a whole century’s worth of accumulated stresses on the national psyche, just as Yang’s stroke is but one belated symptom of a whole lifetime’s worth of suffering.
In this sense, The Crazed has almost nothing to offer in terms of an event-specific analysis of 1989’s Tiananmen, except to embed it as yet another instance of crisis within a broader history of national ruptures. Thus, after returning to Shanning from the capital, Jian has an extraordinarily generic reaction to the massacre:
Ever since I boarded the train back, a terrible vision had tormented me. I saw China in the form of an old hag so decrepit and brainsick that she would devour her children to sustain herself. Insatiable, she had eaten many tender lives before, was gobbling new flesh and blood now, and would surely swallow more. Unable to suppress the horrible vision, all day I said to myself, “China is an old bitch that eats her own puppies!” How my head throbbed, and how my heart writhed and shuddered! With the commotion of two nights ago still in my ears, I feared I was going to lose my mind. (315)
The haunting voice of Lu Xun is heard once again in this passage. Cannibalism, made famous by Lu Xun in “A Madman’s Diary” as a metaphor for the self-predation of precommunist feudal China, is aptly mobilized by Jin and superimposed onto the June 4 crackdown. At the same time, perhaps Jin is alluding also to James Joyce’s trope of Ireland as “the old sow that eats her farrow” (206), which would partly account for the gender shift in national allegory from Lu Xun’s masculine cannibal to Jian’s vision of the “old hag” and “old bitch.” Whether meant ironically or not, the Chinese nation at its most “horrible” comes to be personified now only via some species of the aged female. As we will explore in the next chapter, Jian’s and perhaps Jin’s casual misogyny here is typical of the masculinism of much Tiananmen discourse, a subject that Annie Wang trenchantly satirizes in Lili. Furthermore, as we will see in chapter 4, Ma Jian, too, resurrects the cannibal in relation to Tiananmen in Beijing Coma, though he will carry this motif to its most grotesquely literal end.
Joyce is germane here in another crucial respect—as a model of the exilic writer for Ha Jin. In this closing moment of The Crazed, as Jian has his epiphanic vision of cannibalistic China and pronounces his decision to leave the country for good, Jin, in a parallel metatextual gesture, strongly flags his own departure from Lu Xun’s mold of the nationalist writer by summoning an alternative and non-Chinese icon of the exile-embracing artist: Stephen Dedalus, who in effect becomes Jian Wan’s modernist predecessor. Like Gao in Taowang before him, Jin takes refuge in a narrative closure of flight. If Jin is a more historical (if not historicist) writer than Gao, he nonetheless intimates a similar conclusion that individual freedom and intellectual integrity cannot survive in China, that these qualities can only be achieved abroad. As Yang advises Jian early on in the novel, “You can live a real intellectual’s life [in the United States] after you earn a Ph.D. from an American university,” for “scholars in the West lived more like intellectuals” (104–5). By the novel’s end, Jian will pursue a comparable route. His most triumphant epiphany—that he “acted like a counterrevolutionary . . . a free man capable of choice . . . [who] defied a prescribed fate like [his] teacher’s” (321)—is followed by his resolution to escape China once and for all, to leave first for Hong Kong and then possibly “Canada, or the United States, or Australia, or some place in Southeast Asia where Chinese is widely used” (322). In the narrative arc of The Crazed, then, the Tiananmen incident 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 the hitherto self-absorbed hero into a journey to enlightenment—overseas.
This recourse in flight and exile as the inevitable finale of June 4 is not unique to Jin but constitutes a dominant paradigm for diasporic fictions on Tiananmen. It might even be deemed a kind of imaginative impasse, one freighted with ideological assumptions about the PRC and the West that diaspora writers are not always ready to examine or question. On this point, Annie Wang and Ma Jian will both depart from Gao and Jin. While the latter two share the conviction that art should exist purely for itself and that the communist regime, by stifling the human soul, disables any meaningful form of creativity, Wang and Ma suggest otherwise, the former through her transnational career path post-2000 and the latter through the mainland setting of his protagonist’s cerebral revivification. From this perspective, Jin as much as Gao could be called writers of a romantic elite tradition, and it is not by accident that both conjure Lu Xun as an iconic forebear, a literary patriarch to be superseded in Oedipal fashion, and that both spotlight the intellectual-student relation over any other in their Tiananmen fictions. At the end of The Crazed, we could almost hear Jian’s implicit hymn to exilic freedom, but one that ultimately returns to an intellectual ethos of ethnic-national spokesmanship, as if he too will at last go forth “to forge in the smithy of [his] soul the uncreated conscience of [his] race” (Joyce 253).
Still, an important difference between Gao and Jin is that the latter highlights, not a reified distinction between student and intellectual, but the broken trajectory between the two. We may therefore read The Crazed as a work that, rather than taking at face value the moral and political antagonism between Tiananmen students and intellectuals, by contrast charts the lingering course by which the student-intellectual continuum becomes irreversibly severed. If Yang occupies the role of the crippled intellectual along this spectrum, Jian embodies neither pole but is instead an in-between figure of suspended development. Neither scholar nor student, intellectual-advisor nor activist-protester, he too, like Yang, represents a Tiananmen plot indexed by failure, a failure not of political struggle but of sociohistorical continuity. The intellectual ruptures of national history yield his narrative of disrupted bildungsroman. This involves the stalling out of progress as much as regress, for while Jian never inherits the mantle of the teacher, neither does he fall back into the part of the impetuous undergraduate. Hence, unlike Gao’s undisguised censure of the Tiananmen students via the allegorical figure of the Young Man in Taowang, Jin’s focus on Jian does not amount to a wholesale commentary on the student movement.
On the contrary, Jin is emphatic about marking his protagonist’s distance, both geographical and ideological, from the students in the Square. From the outset, Jian endorses Yang’s belief in political detachment, and time and again he expresses approval of Meimei’s shunning of the demonstrations in Beijing, calling her “smart and coolheaded” to “never entangle herself in politics” (55). After abandoning academe, he briefly aspires to enter the Policy Office with the high-minded goal of eradicating systemic corruption from within, but his efforts at playing the savior are briskly thwarted by the local Party secretary. His eventual decision to go to the capital and join the democracy activists has less to do with political commitment, the coming into consciousness of his political identity in relation to the nation, than with personal “desperation, anger, madness, and stupidity.” Taking over the titular metaphor from Yang, Jian confesses: “I was crazed, unable to think logically, and was possessed by an intense desire to prove that I was a man capable of action and choice. So I set out for the capital with a feverish head” (295). This theme of Jian’s psychic stasis, where the very concept of an authentic awakening into full sociopolitical subjectivity is continually withheld from him, is manifested repeatedly as a failure to see.
Instances of Jian’s imperception pervade the novel. Most relevant to the Tiananmen plot, Jian is portrayed as a self-centered myopic graduate student who concentrates solely on his studies and exams while doggedly ignoring all signs of political and social upheaval around him. Jin pointedly includes references to radio broadcasts of the Beijing movement via the Voice of America throughout the novel, but he just as pointedly underscores Jian’s persistent passivity. Though initially astonished at the Tiananmen news, Jian for the most part takes it in with neutral noncomment, as though the protests were transpiring on another planet (57). This insularity filters down to Jian’s everyday life. Despite being installed at the professor’s bedside as a primary caregiver, he watches over Yang’s body without ever noticing its spectacular deterioration, and it takes Meimei’s return from Beijing for this to come embarrassingly to his attention. And though engaged to Meimei for years, Jian never clues in to the possibility that she may have courters at her university in the capital until she jilts him in a letter and shows up unexpectedly at a dance party escorted by the local Party secretary’s nephew. Finally, it is only by eavesdropping on Yang’s rants as well as others’ conversations in the hospital room that Jian discovers the many secret relationships and machinations that have occurred on his own university campus for years, from Yang’s adulterous affair to the Party secretary’s blackmailing of Yang with this knowledge. Even after learning of the Party secretary’s recurring tactics, Jian continues to act the classic fall guy by carrying out an errand for her in a remote village while she sabotages his job application for the Policy Office. Like Yang, Jian’s character can be read in the context of the system that produced him. Just as the older man saw himself as a cog in the revolutionary machine, so the younger man’s careerism and pragmatism, tunnel vision and obtuseness are all traits fostered by the corrupt environment of the university campus, where power politics crisscrosses the daily life of professors as much as of students. As the perpetual navel-gazer and gullible target of others’ secret schemes, Jian functions more as a social type than a unique subject within the novel’s survey of the post-Mao intellectual milieu.
This theme of failed discernment can be encapsulated by one particular scene midway through the novel. In a rare moment of distress one morning, Jian decides to deviate from his normal routine and takes a break from his study regimen by visiting a gallery. En route, he bicycles past some police vehicles and notes to himself that the heightened security must be in response to rumors of a demonstration, planned by a local teachers’ college, later that afternoon. Giving no further thought to these external events, he is swiftly absorbed again by his personal drama and goes on to describe in detail each piece at the art exhibit. One painting that catches his eye is entitled A Poet: No, Not in the Presence of Others. Jian muses that, from a distance, the figure resembles “a scarlet rooster,” but up close it presents a terrifying phantasm:
The piece was vertically long and presented a tall, emaciated man in a tattered cloak, the end of which flapped in the breeze. . . . With his neck stretched, the poet seemed to be yearning to chant something, but unable to bring it out. A huge earring hung from his earlobe, casting on his throat an elongated shadow, which reminded me of a noose. A half-transparent mask almost shielded his nose and mouth. His shifty eyes and hollowed cheeks suggested a fearful ghost rather than a man. This painting made me wonder whether there had been an oversight on the part of the authorities that had allowed it to be included. Quickly I turned away. (95)
This scene captures an instant of failed self-recognition. As Jian reveals earlier in the novel, he is by nature an “absentminded man and often neglected small things,” so people nickname him “the Poet” even though he has never written a poem (59). Such absentmindedness is plainly displayed when he confronts this stylized self-image without recognizing it as a potential gothic double. The painting’s depiction of the poet as a withered phantom, yearning but voiceless and half-faceless, is all too evocative of what Yang fears he has become and what Jian would be. What is more intriguing here, however, is the suggestion that the poet throttles himself with his own ornament, which perhaps hints at the complicity between the poet and the state, or else the inadequate and ultimately self-strangulating methods of contemporary writing. Either way, despite detecting the work’s transgressive edge, Jian quickly turns away from it, as though unable or unwilling to sustain his view of such compromised and defeated defiance—an ocular move that crucially anticipates how Jin will stage his protagonist’s relation to Tiananmen Square.
Indeed, it may be that this idea of imperception is already encoded in Jian’s name. For Ha Jin, one of the advantages and pleasures of writing Chinese names in English transliteration is surely the ability to stage interlingual puns. So, “Jian” brings into auditory play the most common Chinese word for that pinyin, “to see” (jian). Although the Chinese edition of this novel uses another jian for the protagonist’s name—the character for “firm” or “resolute”—the linguistic echo nonetheless amplifies the novel’s running theme of sight. In his short fiction, Jin shows himself to be not averse to such puns, often with ironic overtones, and often to parody norms of masculine behavior. In “A Tiger-Fighter Is Hard to Find,” for example, the title character, Wang Huping, whose given name might mean “the tiger subduer” or “tiger suppresser” in Chinese, gains much fame and female adulation for his manly prowess in wrestling a fake tiger but suffers a mental breakdown in the face of a real one. Similarly in “Man to Be,” the protagonist, Nan, whose name is a homophone of the Chinese word for “man” (nan), is the only one in a party of rapists who turns suddenly impotent at the bark of a dog. Most recently, Jin revives the name Nan for his quasi-autobiographical protagonist in A Free Life, where a post-Tiananmen Chinese immigrant in the United States struggles with his poetry as much as his now racialized masculinity. This technique of ironic reverse naming may likewise apply to Jian, the ever-flawed seer. At the same time, “Jian Wan” may signal a kind of belated vision, in the multiple ways that Jian arrives belatedly (wan) at his decisions and insights. In the context of this novel’s address of June 4 especially, the issue of witnessing becomes paramount, and Jian’s everyday myopia can be tied to two other related forms of failure: his abortive journey to the Square, and his remote witnessing of national history at the imagined site of its greatest clash and crisis.
Part II. The Lost Square
REMOTE AND BELATED WITNESSING
Whereas the structural movement of Gao Xingjian’s Taowang in relation to the Square is literally centrifugal, center-fleeing, that in Ha Jin’s The Crazed, after much stasis, is centripetal and then centrifugal, marked by a much-deferred voyage toward the Square before a violent expulsion away from it.3 In the latter’s penultimate chapter, Jian arrives in Beijing by train at 8:00 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 the 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 Shanning 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 the 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.” People in 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 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.
The macabre image of the student’s smashed skull, summoned by Jin as a visual synecdoche of the imagined carnage inside the Square, can be read as the culmination of the novel’s ongoing dramatization of intellectual death in post-Mao 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, idealism, and activism. 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 Tiananmen novel, in which the protagonist-narrator is likewise shot in the head on the night of the massacre. The theme, and fear, of intellectual demise obviously looms large in the imagination of Tiananmen authors. Where the two fictions depart, though, is in their imagined afterlife for this symbolic cerebral wound. For Jin’s 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. For Ma’s Dai Wei, on the contrary, his head injury precipitates a new phase of clandestine if comatose mental life within post-1989 PRC. In antithesis to Beijing Coma, The Crazed constructs Tiananmen as an inaugural event for the diasporic subject.
Along the same vein, Jin links Tiananmen to diaspora by resolutely keeping his protagonist outside the Square at its moment of anticipated catastrophe. In the hours of the students’ final exodus from the Square, against the backdrop of the iron house’s burning, Jian is seen trapped in his alleyway, a lost corner on the larger map of the massacre—and ironically at this most crucial of junctures, he dozes off. The Square’s clearing therefore happens textually offstage, 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 alley and eventually the capital.
On 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, literally a place of impasse, in the text. In the overall scheme of things, Jian remains a partial witness at the edges of 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 Shanning the next day, bedridden and feverish, capable only of muttering, with echoes of Yang, “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: “I was astonished by the number of the wounded in the hospital. The corridors and the little front yard were crowded with stretchers loaded with people, some of whom held up IV bottles and tubes for themselves, waiting for treatment. A deranged young woman cried and laughed by turns, tearing at her hair and breasts, while her friends begged a nurse to give her an injection of sedatives.” Jian then goes in search of the hospital morgue, where Jin continues to underscore the language of the ocular and Jian’s role as a witness: “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). This image of the open-mouthed young man evokes the painting of the poet in the art gallery—“yearning to chant something, but unable to bring it out” (95)—suggesting yet another metaphorical double but also foil to our hero. Finally, 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 sight 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).
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.4 We can, moreover, detect a strong quality of visual belatedness in this passage, an impulse on Jin’s part 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 or authenticating effect hinging on the evidential force of corpses. What mutilated corpses in particular testify to is not the individual lives they 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 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”: “From a phenomenological viewpoint, 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 (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 must in turn 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 June 4, 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 psychic 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 Jin remarks in passing in one essay, “to preserve is the key function of literature . . . to combat historical amnesia” (“Spokesman” 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 emphatically 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. Instead, the method by which Jin memorializes Tiananmen is a compromise between these two paths. He offers a first-person narrative that bears historical witness to June 3–4, but via a narrator whose imperfect and peripheral vision, at best remote and belated, is repeatedly emphasized. His narrator’s failure to arrive in the Square as the central place of national struggle indicates a sense of loss of entry into the emblematic space of state power as well as 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 Jin’s historical realism, a nod to the real “geography of the killing” that Robin Munro, for one, insists on (811). As I will explore at length in chapter 4, most scholarly accounts of Tiananmen now agree that there was in fact no mass slaughter inside the Square on June 4, and that most of the killings occurred on the streets outside the Square on the eve of its evacuation. As George Black and Robin Munro contend, reports of vicious butchery in the Square, though by now “enshrined in myth,” are but “pure fabrication” (236). Ma Jian will be the writer to chronicle this history with meticulous topographical exactness in his realist epic. Ha Jin, by contrast, does not present Jian’s 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 (again with echoes of Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary”): “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 Black and Munro note, as when “the screen goes blank” (246). Their comment refers to television, but the analogy to the suggestive power of fiction and its aporias seems equally valid. In Jin’s novel, the massacre transpires in the gaps of Jian’s narration, literally between the lines.
DIASPORIC TRAUMA AND POSTMEMORY
Ultimately, this narrative gap in The Crazed can be understood within the context of Ha Jin’s own diasporic relation to Tiananmen. Of the four writers in my study, he is the one with the greatest distance from the historical massacre. Although none of the other writers were inside the Square on June 4 itself, both Ma Jian and Annie Wang were in Beijing that spring, and both personally witnessed the demonstrations in the streets and went to support the students in the Square. Gao Xingjian had been lecturing in Europe since 1987, but Ha Jin had been abroad even longer, having left China in 1985 for a Ph.D. program at Brandeis. Hence, by the time of Tiananmen, he was already four years removed from PRC cultural and political developments. This temporal lapse may account for the asynchrony we noted above between his gloomy rendition of 1980s intellectual life in The Crazed and the more jubilant one given by scholars such as Jing Wang, as well as his narrator’s ironic but apt descent into sleep and blindness at the historic hours of the Square’s clearing. Spatially, too, Jin riddles his text with signs of remoteness, and we can read the theme of Jian’s myopia, his never quite correctly adjusted vision, within this framework.
Aside from biographical trajectory, Jin is also the fiction writer here most acutely self-conscious of his diasporic distance from, and the one most mindful of his own mediated access to, the historical Tiananmen. In interviews, Wang and Ma are prone to emphasize their personal exposure to and participation in the mass protests of that spring, perhaps as a self-authenticating gesture. As for Gao, when he speaks of Tiananmen, he rarely details the means by which he first learned of June 4, usually focusing instead on his moral stance afterward. By contrast, Jin is often 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 United States at the time. In one typical interview, he states: “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 Jin’s insistent self-location in relation to 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 United States. In another typical interview:
[Interviewer]: How hard was it to make the decision to stay in the United States after viewing on television the events in Tiananmen Square? If that hadn’t happened, how would your life and your writing have changed?
Ha Jin: . . . Without the massacre, I would have returned to China and wouldn’t have become a creative writer. Probably I would have been a university professor. (Interview)
What is worth highlighting is that Jin himself has cast his relation to Tiananmen all along as one of long-distance perception, an act of what I will call diasporic witnessing. The language of trauma also figures prominently in his self-accounting: “It was very traumatic for me. It’s such a brutal government. I was very angry, and I decided not to return to China” (qtd. in J. Thomas). And more recently: “But 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”). The rhetorical echoes with The Crazed are unmistakable, especially the final chapter’s passage describing Jian’s post-Beijing delirium. It is also revealing that, for Jian as for Jin, news of the massacre arrives via the media. Where the author watched televised images of the crackdown from the United States, his fictional hero hears reports of it from Shanning over the radio:
Back in the dormitory, I dozed away in bed again. Whenever awake, I would listen to my shortwave radio, and tears welled up in my eyes from time to time. On the BBC a reporter said plaintively that an estimated five thousand people had been killed, that many students were crushed by the tanks and armoured personnel carriers, that a civil war might break out anytime since more field armies were heading for Beijing, that forty million dollars had just been transferred to a Swiss bank by someone connected with the top national leaders, and that an airliner was reserved for them in case they needed to flee China. However, another reporter, a woman from Hong Kong, told a different story. She said composedly that at most about a thousand civilians had been killed, that the government was in firm control of the situation, that the police were rounding up the student leaders, and that dozens of intellectuals had been detained. The foreign reporters on the radio tended to contradict one another, whereas no mainland Chinese, except for the government’s spokesman, Mu Yuan, and a lieutenant colonel in charge of clearing Tiananmen Square, dared to comment on the event. The officer repeatedly stressed that the People’s Liberation Army had successfully quelled the counterrevolutionary uprising without killing a single civilian. I listened and dozed off by turns. (314–15)
The medium by which news of the massacre travels differs for Jian and Jin, but the fact of mediated and partial knowledge is the same. The many consequences of government censorship—discrepancy among reports, uncertainty about exact casualty counts, 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 five thousand people 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. Without Tiananmen, Jin would have finished his Ph.D. degree and gone back to China to become a university professor of literature, in a fulfillment of the student-intellectual continuum, just as Jian would have followed in Yang’s footsteps to become a scholar of comparative 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, along the tracks of his original life plan. Tiananmen is the history that intervened, arresting him in an instant of accidental diasporic witnessing. Henceforth, he could not bring himself to return to his country of origin, which has been irrevocably transformed into a site of trauma.
Jin’s unusual form of nonpersonal and far-flung trauma can be explicated in the terms of trauma theory. Both his repeated biographical accounts and fictional re-creation of June 4 suggest a psychic relation to Tiananmen that fits the mode of intersubjective trauma as theorized by Marianne Hirsch. Hirsch is centrally concerned with the transgenerational memory of Holocaust survivors’ children, which she expounds through the idea of postmemory, “the relationship of children of survivors of cultural or collective trauma to the experiences of their parents, experiences that they ‘remember’ only as the narratives and images with which they grew up, but that are so powerful, so monumental, as to constitute memories in their own right.” At the same time, looking beyond the context of the Jewish Holocaust, Hirsch acknowledges that her model “can be more broadly available” and “need not be restricted to the family, or even to a group that shares an ethnic or national identity marking” (“Surviving” 9–10). This notion of intersubjective and transgenerational trauma, of a profound existential shock triggered not by direct personal experience but by remote and mediated cognition, is particularly useful for elucidating Jin’s psychic affiliation to Tiananmen. In Jin’s case, postmemory may be operative through an ironic generational reversal. Instead of inheriting monumental parental memories that overshadow his private ones, he has been stunned in his life’s tracks by 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, one that has become powerfully, monumentally intergenerational and even diasporic in scope. In addition, his emotional and psychological reactions mirror those of the postmemorial child upon first encountering a Holocaust photograph: a sense of “ultimate horror” and a “kind of revelation,” a “negative epiphany,” a feeling that “something broke”; a sense of “rupture” and a “radical interruption through seeing”; and most strikingly, a tendency toward “compulsive and traumatic repetition” (Hirsch, “Surviving” 5, 6, 8). For Jin, the urge to compulsively repeat seems to have taken the form of recounting over and over again to willing interviewers the same moment of his traumatic sighting, of watching televised coverage of the massacre. In The Crazed, this compulsion can be traced in his containment and condensation of the massacre via a handful of iconic images of mutilated bodies, images that keep haunting Jian in a way reminiscent of Holocaust postgenerational trauma. As Hirsch notes, the latter often manifests itself through a “striking repetition of the same very few images, used over and over again iconically and emblematically to signal this event,” rather than a “multiplication and escalation of imagery” (“Surviving” 7). Jin’s description of his composition process for this novel likewise intimates a dimension of authorial trauma, of repetition rather than proliferation: “But 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”). Lastly, Jin’s repeated personal testimonies about his diasporic position on June 4 and his aporetic configuration of the Square in The Crazed resonate all too well with Hirsch’s exposition of the displaced, vicarious, belated, and mediated qualities of postmemory: “The term ‘postmemory’ is meant to convey its temporal and qualitative difference from survivor memory, its secondary, or second-generation memory quality, its basis in displacement, its vicariousness and belatedness. Postmemory is a powerful form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through representation, projection, and creation—often based on silence rather than speech, on the invisible rather than the visible” (“Surviving” 9). Following Hirsch, we can call Jin’s fiction an example of diasporic postmemory, a form of remembering origin’s trauma via its dispersed and scattered afterimages. In this light, the lost Square can be read as the supreme aesthetic expression of Jin’s diasporic postmemory vis-à-vis Tiananmen.
One other biographical element is noteworthy here: Tiananmen provided the means by which Jin completed his first book manuscript and could thus be deemed a vital factor in his becoming a novelist. As he reveals in interviews, The Crazed was actually his “first book,” begun in the United States over a year before Tiananmen (“Art”; Kellman 82). The original story revolved solely around the academic plot and the student-mentor relationship. Chronologically, then, the initial composition of this book preceded that of Waiting and In the Pond, both set during periods of PRC history that Jin himself had lived through, both written later but completed earlier. At first, Jin thought of The Crazed as an “excursion,” since he believed he would go on to write in Chinese once back in the PRC. 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 timeline explains the apparent incongruity between the novel’s main focus on academic bureaucracy and intrigue and its abrupt climactic crescendo in the theater of national politics and organized violence. But from another perspective, it is telling that, of all the rough drafts of his fiction, 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, both as a narrative and an act of writing. Insofar as it concludes with the very episode that made him a voluntary immigrant and eventual creative writer, The Crazed marks the inception point of Ha Jin as a diasporic 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 PRC, only short stories. It is as though Tiananmen demarcates some temporal limit in Jin’s imagined homecomings, the fictional frontier that, once hazarded, at last allows him to “leave contemporary China in [his] writing” for good. Perhaps the diasporic trauma precipitated by Tiananmen has at last been put to rest, and we do see Jin moving forward in his writing, if not in the novel immediately following The Crazed, then certainly in the more recent A Free Life and A Good Fall, both of which are largely located in the United States and address more classically Asian American themes of immigrant struggle and cross-cultural confusion. Jin himself may attribute this authorial turn to his changing self-perception as a writer, to his ability to at last “negate the role of . . . spokesmanship” and “to stand alone” (“Spokesman” 28), but this perceptual shift seems uniquely tied to Tiananmen as the historical origin of his writerly identity, the epochal threshold of his existential relation to China.
Indeed, Jin himself may not have been fully aware of the extent to which his whole oeuvre, up until the most recent pieces, has been psychically bound up with the rupture of 1989. Of course, he has often been asked about the persistent China focus of his writing, his habit hitherto of staying exclusively within the confines of PRC national history, so he must have been very cognizant of the fixity of his backward gaze. Yet what may elude conscious reflection is that this nostalgic intransigence has been determined not simply by the circumference of his knowledge but by the psychic circuit around the homeland that was first put into motion by June 4. For Jin, after Tiananmen, China cannot but be saturated with a sense of violent cruelty and irreversible loss, but by the same token, the emotional recompense attainable through imaginary homecomings—peaceful and entirely on his own terms—becomes incalculable. His continual attempts to recollect the lost homeland by fictionalizing a plethora of parallel lives in different periods, lives that are also frequently wrecked by brutality but are nonetheless revivable via their textual brethrens (and Jin is nothing if not astoundingly prolific, a writer of great resurrection speed), recall Julia Kristeva’s portrait of the melancholic exile:
Melancholy lover of a vanished space, he cannot, in fact, get over his having abandoned a period of time. The lost paradise is mirage of the past that he will never be able to recover. He knows it with a distressed knowledge that turns his rage involving others (for there is always an other, miserable cause of my exile) against himself: “How could I have abandoned them? I have abandoned myself.” . . . For in the intervening period of nostalgia, saturated with fragrances and sounds to which he no longer belongs and which, because of that, wound him less than those of the here and now, the foreigner is a dreamer making love with absence, one exquisitely depressed. Happy? (9–10)
To be sure, Jin is not as luxuriously self-indulgent or uncritically home-affirming as Kristeva’s dreamer, but his compulsion to write and rewrite various episodes of Chinese historical trauma does bespeak a melancholic attachment to the homeland as “vanished space,” and also an oblique pleasure derived from the performative repetition of these narrative returns. More than any other writer in my study, Jin epitomizes a mode of diasporic melancholia toward China. And of all his works, The Crazed with its lost Square best captures this psychic structure of impossible yearning for a lost origin that is at once magnetic and repulsive, replete with hope and terror.
It is therefore with a certain amount of irony, though perhaps not completely unforeseeable given the logic of extremes and reversals, that Jin in his latest phase has come to renounce his nostalgia for China along with his previous self-perceived role as the tribal spokesperson. More precisely, rather than admitting to his former nostalgia and announcing a timely break from it, he has lately begun to advance a broader philosophical argument against nostalgia as a mode of writing for emigrant authors. In the essay “The Spokesman and the Tribe,” Jin refers not to his personal evolution but to diasporic attitudes in general when he writes: “As a matter of fact, in our time the intense attachment to one’s native land is often viewed as an unnecessary and anachronic feeling that tends to debilitate migrants. I would even argue that, for many displaced people, nostalgia is also blended with fear—the fear of uncertainty and of facing the challenges posed by the larger world and the fear of the absence of clarity and confidence provided by the past. In essence, nostalgia is associated mostly with the experience of a particular type of migrants, namely, exiles.” Citing Salman Rushdie’s Shame, he continues: “The debunking of the tree metaphor makes it clear that human beings are different from trees and should be rootless and entirely mobile” (22). Against the “exile,” Jin posits the “migrant” as the proper modality for the diaspora writer. In an interesting conceptual move in another essay entitled “An Individual’s Homeland,” he redefines the idea of “homeland” by dissociating it from nativity: “The dichotomy inherent in the word ‘homeland’ is more significant now than it was in the past. Its meaning can no longer be separated from home, which is something the migrant should be able to build away from this native land. Therefore, it is logical to say that your homeland is where you build your home” (84). Emphasizing travel over nativity, “arrival more than return,” the search and the reconstruction more than repossession or the destination, Jin concludes his essay volume, again with echoes of Rushdie, by proclaiming that “we should also imagine how to arrange the landscapes of our envisioned homelands” (86). This manifesto for aesthetic rootlessness and mobility, for detachment from the native land and an end to nostalgia, harmonizes well with his commitment to universal humanism, but it is surely a far cry from his own writing trajectory. Perhaps it is a hard-won outlook, achieved only after his long melancholic journey through an envisioned lost China via three books of poetry, three collections of short stories, three novels, and one novella. Yet, in light of his own authorial path, the origin-negating position is not one that adequately or accurately describes his oeuvre up until this point, and most certainly not one that he launched into at the onset of his diasporic career. That he has finally formulated a credo of migrancy does signal a step beyond his former melancholia, though the lack of an explicit recognition of his former state may hint at some residual repression yet.
As of now, most of Jin’s writing lies before that forward step, and it is this prior corpus that fits neatly within a dominant paradigm in current scholarship on twentieth-century Chinese literature, one constructed around the critical nexus between historical violence and national trauma. The burgeoning of trauma studies in the mid-1990s first constellated around reexaminations of the Holocaust, but the field and its lines of inquiry have since been absorbed into other disciplines, above all literary and cultural studies. Since the early 2000s, the notion of trauma, especially trauma on a national scale, has become influential in scholarship on modern Chinese literature and film, though in a somewhat loose fashion, and often not through a strictly psychoanalytic framework but as a general set of analytic categories.5 Among this body of scholarship, what strikes me as most pertinent to a reading of Ha Jin is David Der-wei Wang’s The Monster That Is History. Though at first glance a work that also falls within the paradigm of national trauma, Wang’s study far exceeds the psychoanalytic perimeters of trauma theory, drawing as much from Benjamin and Foucault as from Freud. A rich and erudite investigation into twentieth-century Chinese fictions of the gothic and phantasmagoric, the book opens by invoking the familiar framework of national violence and the role that literature can play in filling the gaps of history. As Wang observes from the outset, “One can hardly read modern Chinese history without noticing a seemingly endless brutality totted up in dishearteningly large figures,” but “fiction may be able to speak where history has fallen silent” (1–2). But when Wang speaks resoundingly of “the monster that is history,” his conception of monstrosity is neither merely pejorative nor headily celebratory but stems from an ambivalent mythological figure in classical Chinese texts—taowu, a monster of “menacing origins” and associated with superlative evil, but also a creature known for its “divinatory powers,” able to see into both past and future (6). Most importantly, because of this combination of ferocity and foresight, taowu eventually became identified with history itself in Chinese discourse, as Wang explicates: “Since history reveals both past and future, it is referred to as the taowu. . . . The metamorphosis of the taowu from monster to historical account, while indicative of the amorphous power of the ancient Chinese imaginary, points to one way in which Chinese history took form. . . . In other words, the monster is invoked as an objective correlative, so to speak, to the human account of past experience, registering what is immemorial and yet unforgettable in Chinese collective memory, and cautioning against any similar mishaps in the future” (7). Wang’s vision of Chinese history is hence that of a polymorphous force that can maim and haunt but also foretell and enlighten, at once disturbing and safeguarding collective memory. It is this dual understanding of history that most illuminates Ha Jin’s immemorial but unforgettable relation to June 4—the monster that is, for him, Tiananmen.
RECEPTIONS AND RECOVERIES
The foregoing framework of trauma and melancholia, of the haunting force of remote history and the reconstructive power of diasporic postmemory, has uses other than that of textual illumination. This theoretical framework can help substantially recast critical perceptions of Ha Jin as a diasporic writer. In particular, it can push our comprehension of his writing beyond the potentially constrictive terms of linguistic or cultural Chineseness. Of the four authors in this study, Jin is the one most frequently read in terms of language and culture, especially via such rubrics as bilingualism and transculturalism, whether in praise or disparagement. Yet this obstinate spotlight on his relation to Chineseness as a category of cultural or linguistic identity risks obscuring what I see as the most significant and powerful intervention of his oeuvre—namely, his critique of totalitarianism. Tiananmen is thus an especially instructive topic to recall in this context, for it allows us to foreground his engagement with Chineseness as first and foremost a function of political history rather than cultural identity, of state power rather than linguistic difference.
As an entry point into the complex and at times charged terrains of Jin’s reception, let me begin this final section by returning to the chapter’s opening subject of the prize and its international ramifications. For starters, let us note that Jin’s shift in self-perception from “tribal spokesman” to “migrant writer” is not without its roots in personal anguish. When he laments in “The Spokesman and the Tribe” that, “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), he likely has in mind, among other things, the controversy surrounding his first major published work, Waiting. In 1999, news of this novel winning the American Book Award brought Jin to the attention of many Sinophone readers both inside and outside the PRC, but it also embroiled him the following summer, as the Nobel Prize did Gao Xingjian just a few months later, in the international politics of literary recognition. 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”: “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. Fittingly if ironically (in light of Gao), she begins her piece by opining that the Nobel Prize might finally be within reach for Chinese authors. Her review reportedly led Jin’s mainland publisher to retract its plans to publish the Chinese translation of Waiting—the only novel of his ever to have been published by a mainland press but one that is now out of print. What is unusual about this incident, though, lies not in the attack itself or the ensuing censorship. As Joseph Fewsmith comments: “Censorship and attacks on writers are nothing new in China . . . What was different, however, 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” (1st ed. 1–2). Liu, in fact, holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Yet such upper-crust liberalism, as Rey Chow points out, is not exempt from “the politics of ethnicity in postcolonial modernity.” Quite the contrary: “Suspicion and condemnation are but the flip side of an equally characteristic situation in which, for instance, the Nobel Prize in Literature has been coveted yearly among contemporary Chinese writers. . . . This is a situation in which, even as the West is rhetorically denounced for being imperialist and orientalist, knowledge of the West, access to the West, and recognition by the West remain the very criteria by which ethnics judge one another’s existential value and social success in the postcolonial world” (Protestant 188–89). Not one to mince words, Chow calls this PRC psychodynamics “ethnic ressentiment” (189).
Although Liu Yiqing’s chauvinistic assault may seem crude, it does encapsulate a recurring concern in criticism on Ha Jin, namely, his representation of Chineseness to cultural and linguistic others in a global frame. I will dwell at greater length on debates about diasporic autoethnography and orientalism in the next chapter, since Annie Wang overtly thematizes these issues in her novel Lili, to a degree that Jin has yet to do in his writing. Nonetheless, the charge of self-exoticism is one that plagues Jin as much as Wang, and, indeed, the vast majority of Chinese emigrant writers in the West. Given that Jin has canvassed almost every major traumatic episode of Chinese history in his fiction and rarely hesitates to censure communism’s suffocating effects, and given that he writes primarily in English and predominantly for an American audience, he presents an all-too-easy target for cultural watchdogs on the lookout for “traitors” or “sell-outs.”
Such vilification of Jin from the Sinophone literary world extends beyond the PRC. In 2007, the prominent Taiwanese author Zhu Tianwen, through the fictional persona of a local male reader in her novel Wuyan, mocks Jin for building 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” (qtd. in Tsu 103). In terms reminiscent of Liu Yiqing’s, Zhu imputes to Jin self-exoticism and linguistic betrayal, insinuating that he dwells on bygone nightmares of the Cultural Revolution out of ignorance of contemporary China even as he capitalizes on his foreign background by creating a quirky pidgin English. However, as Jing Tsu rightly points out, Zhu’s sneering dismissal of Jin’s English writing as a “gimmick of translation” is itself underpinned by a problematic assumption about the priority of the original language to “hold a translation accountable.” Tsu embeds this volatile exchange between “a monolingual Chinese writer and a Chinese Anglophone diasporic writer” within the larger cultural dynamics of “global literary governance” in modern Chinese literature, whereby “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.” In effect echoing Chow’s thesis on postcolonial ethnic resentment, Tsu observes that, far from harmonizing differences, globalization “further baits and divides” Chinese writers today (104). “The real battle,” Tsu suggests, is not abroad in the West but “at home,” and it is this homegrown battle over linguistic authority that most immediately prompts Jin to write his self-defense in The Writer as Migrant (105–6).
If Jin’s Chineseness has been called into question by critics inside the PRC and Taiwan, many of those outside have risen to his defense. They often do so by rejecting “authenticity” as a premise and formulating instead some version of the alternative question: how does Jin transcend Chineseness, or else transform the literary sites he occupies from within or from their periphery? Regardless of the answer, the common impulse has been to tackle the matter of Jin’s Chineseness in cultural rather than political terms, or more exactly, as a problem of reconceptualizing cultural identity rather than one of interrogating state power. Indeed, surprisingly, most critics are quick to pass over the anticommunist thrust of Jin’s writing, and in lieu of political analyses, discussions of his cultural and linguistic identity abound.6
We can isolate three overlapping patterns of critical responses here. The first involves evoking a multiculturalist binary of universalism versus difference. On this reading, Jin is typically and approvingly characterized as a humanist, a writer of “the human heart” who “sacrifices cultural specificity” (Oh 421) and “Chinese cultural difference” (Zhou 275) in favor of depicting universal experiences. The terminology of “transcendence” and “emotion” predominates, as critics try to rescue Jin from his Sinophone detractors by diverting attention away from the China-specific aspects of his work toward its more humanistic or sentimental dimensions. Along this interpretive line, a diaspora writer’s proper strategy for countering orientalism and exoticism is to reach for the universal and the human, not as a political ideal à la Arendt, but as an aesthetic emptied of cultural distinctiveness. This reading presupposes that Jin would be primarily preoccupied with undermining orientalism rather than totalitarianism, Western representational politics rather than communist party-state power. Cultural anxieties eclipse issues of political governance here. The second strand of critical responses, likewise prioritizing cultural politics over state power as the main axis of evaluation, concentrates in particular on Jin’s Anglophonism, specifically his linguistic tactics for handling the disjunction between the English of his composition and the Chinese milieus of his stories and poems. On this score, critics diverge widely. Some view Jin as intentionally writing in a “transparently plain English” that panders to an American “multiculturalist ideal of providing privileged and total access to Chinese ‘difference’” (Yao 140); others see his English as offering a “viable model for cultural translation” but no “new global literary language capable of reflecting multicultural sensibilities” (Oh 421, 426); and still others find his fiction a fertile source of “language innovations” full of “hybrid” and “bilingual creativity” (H. Zhang 307). Despite these contradictory assessments, however, critics along this second pattern of reading are united in their focus on Jin’s diction as the basis of delineating his cultural identity. In one extreme case of this language-centered approach, Jin’s work is lauded as making its “best contribution” purely on the “formal level,” with its “content” completely bracketable (Lo 18); in effect, the significance of Jin’s writing is reduced entirely to its language. Finally, along a third critical strain, attention is again directed away from Jin’s many critiques of the communist regime, this time toward his impact on the conceptual boundaries of various canonical literatures. One critic includes Jin in a catalog of nonwhite Anglophone authors who, in the age of globalization, write new versions of “Janglish” and ring the “death knell” for the very concept of “national literature” (Hassan 279). Others lay claim to Jin as a “transformative force” for both American and Asian American literature (Zhou 276), or a key figure whose work “underscores the need 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). Still others argue for his instrumentality in redefining modern Chinese literature from a nation-bound and language-based model to one that is “transnational, translinguistic, and global” (Lo 14), and in “the future direction of a global Chinese literature that is not exclusive to one language” (Tsu 111). That 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 American and Asian American literature clearly signals his multilateral utility for critics with an eye on the global.
These lines of reading bring into relief the complex cultural and linguistic entanglements of Jin’s writing, and when read alongside each other, they usefully illuminate the many tensions in Jin’s evolving aesthetics. Just on the topic of his employment of the English language, for example, there is clearly no critical consensus, not even about whether his diction is “plain” or “hybrid,” straightforwardly monolingual or experimentally bilingual. Nonetheless, without acknowledging the persistent political impetus of Jin’s work, culture-centric readings threaten not only to camouflage a crucial component of his aesthetics but also to perpetuate the erasure of totalitarian state power as an enduring force in today’s world. Indeed, this omission enacts another instance of global amnesia about Tiananmen—not the fact of the massacre itself, but the potential meanings and prolonged repercussions of the massacre on diasporic subjects. In this circumstance, we must continue to keep in view the elements in Jin’s corpus that resist deterritorialization and planetarization, that remain through and through polity-specific (rather than merely nation-specific). It matters that his target is a communist party-state and its sovereign exercise of brute force, and that he forwards this critique in the very historical moment of the PRC’s ascending geopolitical and economic power.7 If Gao Xingjian’s political (in)difference was erased under the sign of a monolithic dissidence by the world media at the time of his Nobel award, Ha Jin’s very real political dissidence has ironically been buried under the sign of his cultural difference. What sorely needs recuperation now is a notion of political difference, the yet pertinent distinction in our time between a totalitarian state with its authoritarian resilience and a democratic state with its attendant liberal biases—despite, or precisely because of, these political entities’ ever more intertwined interests in the current global capitalist economy.
What accounts for this consistent deflecting of attention away from Chineseness as the identity of a political structure to Chineseness as the identity of a cultural other in the Anglophone critical reception of Jin’s work? It is as if his critiques of PRC totalitarianism are too self-evident for exegesis, or else too familiar from all the media hype to require much elaboration. As Steven Yao speculates, “the depth and breadth of the mainstream acclaim [Jin] enjoys has apparently obviated any need for cultural advocacy or ideological recuperation” (112). More surprising still is that, in spite of Jin’s high profile in the United States in the past dozen years, American literary scholarship on his work remains scant. On this scholarly neglect, Yao suggests that one influential factor might be the “basic simplicity of [Jin’s] realist style,” which seems to make “any extended historical or cultural explication . . . largely superfluous” (111–12). I would add that, given the repeated and acerbic castigations of Jin by Chinese critics on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, his Western defenders perhaps fear falling prey themselves to allegations of China bashing and China ignorance, of naively consuming, replicating, or exacerbating Jin’s putative orientalism. As a preemptive maneuver, many avoid the theme of regime tyranny in preference for the more innocuous ones of cultural identity and language use. This fear may itself reflect the other side of Rey Chow’s ethnic postcoloniality argument, for critics stationed in the West, notwithstanding being “ethnic” themselves, can feel all too vulnerable to accusations of neoimperialism from those in the non-West, not least those in the most autocratic of “postcolonial” regimes.
To reinvigorate political inquiries into Jin’s work, we can situate him in relation to recent theories on the Chinese diaspora. Since the early 1990s, the theoretical alliance between deconstruction and postcolonialism in the works of such critics as Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha has led to numerous conceptual models of diaspora that are deeply inflected with deconstructive and postcolonial tenets. A prevalent view in current diaspora discourse, for example, centers on the destabilizing and deparochializing potency of diaspora as a mode of alterity or difference, one that can powerfully dislodge all kinds of hegemonic authority. While the study of diasporas is certainly not new, the emergence of critical theories of diaspora as such in the past two decades, in literary and cultural studies as well as a host of social science disciplines, can be understood in this context. Indeed, “diaspora” has come to function as a utopian category for much current academic discourse.8 By the turn of the millennium, this deconstructive and postcolonial paradigm has come to pervade—and proliferate—scholarly studies on the Chinese diaspora. In particular, we can discern a profound absorption of the deconstructive-postcolonial doctrine that diaspora presents a vitally disruptive force capable of unsettling identity, in all its facets, from the essentialisms of the nation-state. For Chinese scholars who are themselves located in the diaspora and who aim to denationalize the concept of Chineseness or wrangle it away from the political stronghold of the PRC, this critical blueprint has been remarkably fruitful.
The earliest and perhaps most famous, yet also most controversial, of these Sino-diasporic articulations is Tu Wei-ming’s early-1990s model of “cultural China.” Tu’s principal argument is that the geopolitical centers of Chinese populations in Asia no longer have a monopoly over what it means to be Chinese today. Instead, the construction of Chineseness is now spread widely across what he calls three “symbolic universes: (1) mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, (2) overseas Chinese communities throughout the world, and (3) the international communities of scholars, students, officials, journalists, and traders who provide a global forum for China-related matters.” In Tu’s resonant phrase, “the geopolitical periphery may have already become a new cultural center.” While he does not employ a deconstructive vocabulary, we can construe his project as fundamentally a cultural deconstruction of China’s geopolitical authority. He describes his goals thus: “To explore the fluidity of Chineseness as a layered and contested discourse, to open new possibilities and avenues of inquiry, and to challenge the claims of political leadership (in Beijing, Taipei, Hong Kong, or Singapore) to be the ultimate authority in a matter as significant as Chineseness” (Preface viii). An analysis of Ha Jin within this deconstructive geopolitical framework can do much to recover, and perhaps diffuse anxieties over, the political content and significance of his work in relation to PRC state power.
Within Tu’s grid, the second symbolic universe of the Chinese diaspora has come under special fire. One contentious element here is his origin-recentering characterization of the diaspora. Unlike in the case of the Jewish diaspora, Tu contends that
the state, or more precisely China as a civilization-state, features prominently in the Chinese diaspora. Because the Chinese diaspora has never lost its homeland, there is no functional equivalent of the cathartic yearning for Jerusalem. Actually the ubiquitous presence of the Chinese state—its awe-inspiring physical size, its long history, and the numerical weight of its population—continues to loom large in the psychocultural constructs of diaspora Chinese. . . . Few diaspora Chinese ever speculate about the possibility of China’s disintegrating as a unified civilization-state. The advantage of being liberated from obsessive concern for China’s well-being at the expense of their own livelihood is rarely entertained. The diaspora Chinese cherish the hope of returning to and being recognized by the homeland. (“Cultural” 18–19)
So, even as Tu purports to contest and challenge the hegemony of geopolitical centers in Asia, he ironically reinstates the centrality of “China,” now abstracted from the communist state into a “civilization-state,” which nonetheless essentially circumscribes the loyalty, mentality, and orientation of diasporic subjects. For this conservative cultural politics, he has been variously taken to task by subsequent Chinese diaspora critics, who disagree not so much with his core thesis as with his insufficient commitment to its theoretical and political potential. For example, Sharon Hom, in editing an anthology on Chinese diaspora women’s writing, also adopts a deconstructive and postcolonial lexicon for her gloss of “diaspora” as a structure of “ambiguity” and “movement” with “transgressive” and “destabilizing” capacities (3–4). Although she cites Tu’s cultural China as a theoretical starting point for her volume, she objects to his territorial anchoring in China, his prioritizing of ethnic identity, and his neglect of, among other things, class and gender (10). Likewise, in her deconstructive exploration of diasporic identity as a site of “hybridity . . . multiplicity, uncertainty and ambivalence” (2), Ien Ang validates Tu’s attempt to “decentre the cultural authority of geopolitical China,” which she sees as “critical insofar as it aims to break with static and rigid, stereotypical and conventional definitions of Chinese” (40–41), but she too questions his model’s latent “desire for . . . another kind of centrism, this time along notionally cultural lines.” As with Hom, what Ang disputes is not the underlying motivation of Tu’s project but his “homogenization” of the diaspora and his deficiency in carrying out his own argument to its most “radical potential” (42–43). Yet another example is Olivia Khoo’s study of Chinese diasporic femininity in contemporary visual and popular culture. She, too, articulates her theoretical position by refuting Tu’s cultural China model, which she criticizes in more vehement tones than the others as a “hegemonic metanarrative” that “invokes the notion of roots and origins, and a return to an essential China” (14). Against Tu, Khoo claims for her own “ex-centric” model of Chineseness a radical transnationality that “cannot be mapped as a distinct geographical area,” that does not try to “replace one centre with another,” and that “eschews the place of origins (specifically, mainland China) as the ultimate signifier” as well as “Southeast Asia as other economic models have done” (15–16).
Several points are worth highlighting in these post-Tu formulations of the Chinese diaspora. First, they all share a largely celebratory view of the diaspora as a site of contestatory, interventionist, or deessentializing power. The rubric of diaspora, from these perspectives, is most useful when harnessed to a progressive politics of difference, whether along the axis of race, gender, sexuality, or class.9 Second, while the later critics rightly expose the limits of Tu’s vision so as to stretch the political reach of his diasporic critique, they all owe a certain theoretical debt to his notion of cultural China, which has been instrumental in launching the critical venture of looking to the diaspora as a key locus for deconstructing Chineseness. The deconstructive mandate to dislodge and debunk, however, can sometimes become monopolizing in itself, so much so that any diasporic longing for origin can come to be regarded with suspicion, as a sign of retrograde or complicitous centrism. Paradoxically, these two opposite dependencies on Tu’s framework—as at once starting point and point of departure—underscore his seminal role as a negative origin for subsequent theorists. Finally, the origins-repudiating model of diasporic Chineseness, if totalized, can fail to make sense of the continual tug of origins for many diasporic subjects. One exemplary manifestation of this tug is the obvious “psychocultural” charge that China retains for many diaspora writers. To be sure, there is a gradient of homesickness and “China obsession,” to recall C. T. Hsia’s phrase, but the gravitational heart of much diasporic literature undoubtedly rests with the land left behind. Although not all diasporic subjects “cherish the hope of returning to and being recognized by the homeland,” as Tu proposes (“Cultural” 19), the dynamics of remote trauma and melancholia can still impinge considerably on diasporic psyches—as with Jin and Tiananmen. Tu’s model, though inadequate, may yet have its relevance. In this theoretical context, to recognize diasporic trauma and postmemory as key components in Jin’s aesthetics can make salient the myriad ways origin lives out its afterlife in the diasporic imagination, not necessarily as naïve essentialism or nostalgic euphoria, but possibly as partial haunting and incomplete mourning, and equally importantly, as a counterpolitics and literary ethics.
Most importantly for this study, it merits remembering that Tu’s efforts at decentering Chineseness were undertaken at a critical historical juncture: the one or two years immediately following June 4. In a quite substantial way, he was responding, like many diasporic intellectuals at the time, including his cohort of authors for The Living Tree anthology and budding writers such as Ha Jin, to the crisis of loyalty and self-definition that Tiananmen triggered. In fact, the shadow of June 4 looms large over Tu’s pages, as he repeatedly grapples with the psychic and emotional fallout of the massacre from a self-consciously diasporic vantage point. As he admits in one passage: “The massive exodus of many of the most brilliant Chinese intellectuals from the mainland during the last decade clearly shows that the civilization-state has lost much of its grip on the Chinese intelligentsia, and the Tiananmen tragedy may have irreversibly severed the emotional attachment of the diaspora Chinese to the homeland. The meaning of being Chinese, an issue that has haunted Chinese intellectuals for at least three generations, has taken on entirely new dimensions” (“Cultural” 24). Undeniably, Tu’s focus is elitist: his eye is firmly fixed on the intelligentsia, whether within the PRC or abroad, and June 4’s legacy is registered mostly in terms of its “near-total alienation” of intellectuals from the governing regime (“Cultural” 26). Nevertheless, his ambitious enterprise of a large-scale redefinition of Chineseness, his sustained wrestling with the diaspora’s relation to Chinese identity through a valorization of the periphery in opposition to the PRC in particular, has been formative for the scholarly groundswell in Chinese diaspora studies in the past two decades. We can therefore observe that, in a vital and long-term if noncausal manner, Tiananmen has played a pivotal role in shaping the orientation and substance of academic discourses on the “Chinese diaspora” as such.
To contextualize both Jin and Tu in another direction, we can remind ourselves here, strategically, of the theoretical forerunner whose model of diaspora underpins much of current diaspora discourse: namely, Stuart Hall’s conception of diasporic identity, and more specifically, his acknowledgment of the enduring power of origin as a “great aporia.” In an oft-cited essay, Hall outlines two ways of understanding cultural identity. What has become enshrined as an article of faith in many diaspora theories is his second, and decidedly more poststructuralist, definition:10
Cultural identity, in this second sense, is a matter of “becoming” as well as of “being.” It belongs to the future as much as to the past. It is not something which already exists, transcending place, time, history, and culture. Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories. But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture, and power. . . . In this perspective, cultural identity is not a fixed essence at all, lying unchanged outside history and culture. It is not some universal and transcendental spirit inside us on which history has made no fundamental mark. It is not once-and-for-all. It is not a fixed origin to which we can make some final and absolute return. . . . Cultural identities are the points of identification, the unstable points of identification or suture, which are made, within the discourses of history and culture. Not an essence but a positioning. (225–26)
Hall himself leans toward this second conception of cultural identity, which he sees as better capturing the flux of historical experience for diasporic subjects, especially “the traumatic character of ‘the colonial experience’” (225). Clearly writing from a host of poststructuralist positionings himself, Hall conjures the Heideggerian language of “becoming” as much as the Derridean one of “difference” and “play,” joining Foucauldian vocabulary of the interplay of “history, culture, and power” and the “production and reproduction” of identities to the postcolonialist one of colonial “ruptures” and “traumas” as well as Bhabha’s notion of “hybridity.” In almost pedagogical fashion, he cites Derrida’s différance and then explicates its double connotations of difference and deferral (229) before tying the concept back to a postcolonial politics of diasporic identity formation (235). What is often forgotten in theoretical citations of Hall, however, is his first definition of cultural identity—as “one, shared culture, a sort of collective ‘one true self,’ hiding inside the many other, more superficial or artificially imposed ‘selves,’ which people with a shared history and ancestry hold in common.” This first sense of cultural identity seems to be a classic expression of essentialism, but Hall stresses that it has “played a critical role in all postcolonial struggles which have so profoundly reshaped our world” and “continues to be a very powerful and creative force in emergent forms of representation among hitherto marginalised peoples” (223). For Hall, this first model is not so much accurate as instrumental, a collective vision that allows dispossessed groups to re-create and reimagine their lost origins, even if these reimaginings are “not the rediscovery but the production of identity,” “not an identity grounded in the archeology, but in the retelling of the past.” What is decisive for diasporic peoples is the “experience of dispersal and fragmentation,” which has irrevocably made of any origin “the great aporia” (224), but beyond this irreversible fragmentation, origin-as-aporia still retains a tremendous and tenacious power to structure diasporic desires and to “restore an imaginary fullness or plenitude set against the broken rubric of our past” (225). Rather than a wholesale rejection of nostalgia as recidivist metaphysics, then, and rather than a simplistic opposition of origins to displacement, Hall recommends thinking about diasporic identities as “‘framed’ by two axes or vectors, simultaneously operative: the vector of similarity and continuity; and the vector of difference and rupture” (226). Even if his accent falls on the latter, he takes care not to discard the former out of hand, paying homage instead to its postcolonial and diasporic political utility as well as its sociopsychic persistence. Diasporic identity, above all, is a dynamic movement defined simultaneously by deconstructive and reconstructive compulsions. Hall thus voices the disappearance of origins, not as a conceptual telos or an end-in-itself, but as a theoretical assumption about diasporic peoples’ existential loss and imaginary gain. Given the fissures and dispersals of history, the homeland can only be reconstituted by diasporic subjects as a “great aporia,” but one now invested with awesome interpellating and even unifying power.
Tu’s origin-yearning model of cultural China instantiates just such an insight, and without question, Ha Jin’s The Crazed resonates profoundly with this trope of origin as well. Indeed, Jin outlines a perfect spatial counterpart to Hall’s sense of diasporic identity’s doubleness—to wit, the lost Square as a site similarly “framed” by two “vectors,” at once centripetal and centrifugal, at once intensely craved and deeply traumatic but also ultimately unfathomable and unrepresentable. Perhaps it is the historical timing of Jin’s own diasporic arrival that has led to this unlikely rendezvous between the self-professed humanist writer and the poststructuralist critic. Coming to the United States in 1985 as a graduate student of English literature and continuing to study and teach in the American university system after Tiananmen, Jin was well-situated to witness, firsthand and close-up, the institutional emergence of diaspora theory as a poststructuralist-saturated field, and alongside it, that of trauma studies. These were the most proximate discourses circulating around him in the years leading up to and following 1989, exactly the years of The Crazed’s tortuous, stumbling, repetitive composition. These were the discourses that would undergird his later writerly self-identity—in his words, “unlike most academics”—as a believer in universal and transcendent truth. Thus, notwithstanding his self-assessment as a writer who alienates American academics on matters of the universal, his fiction can be read as epitomizing the very tenets of 1990s poststructuralism. The Crazed grows out of this very particular cultural and historical milieu, marking a unique point in the development of Tiananmen literature, one demarcated by Jin’s postemigrant status in the 1990s U.S. academy. The vanished Square delimits an encounter, fortuitous but far from aporetic, between this elite institutional circumstance and an instant of diasporic traumatic witnessing. Yet, without appreciating the traumatic and melancholic undercurrents in Jin’s writing, one can all too easily misread or deride his compulsive imaginary returns to China as gullible hubris or ideological misguidedness, or worse, multiculturalist collusion and calculated opportunism.
To anchor Jin’s work more solidly in its historical and material contexts, two recent readings seem to me to have opened up another fruitful path. The first is Steven Yao’s appraisal of Jin’s poetry within the genealogy of Chinese American verse. Like many of Jin’s Anglophone critics, Yao focuses on the latter’s language, specifically the crux issue of how he bridges the English of his composition and the Chinese identities he lyricizes. Unlike most, however, Yao is deeply critical of Jin’s linguistic choices. For Yao, Jin’s trademark style of “plain English” and his “unwavering commitment to linguistic transparency” are only too “accommodationist” as an Asian American poetics, which fails to tax the average American reader in either diction or thought (140). What is particularly valuable about Yao’s methodology is his deliberate grounding of Jin’s work within its U.S. contexts. Yao instructively reminds us that, despite the near-absence of the United States as a narrative geography in Jin’s writing, it remains his most immediate sociopolitical and geopolitical environment and must therefore be given due consideration in any address of his aesthetics and mainstream success. On Yao’s argument, Jin’s anticommunist stance serves a dual purpose for his American readers. On the one hand, his humanist poetics combined with his use of simple English function to render the foreign content of his writing “transparent” to American audiences, thereby appeasing the public’s perennial appetite for multicultural narratives of otherness. On the other, his many portrayals of the recurrent persecutions and brutalities of the communist regime help to shore up a self-congratulatory attitude about the United States’ political superiority. In Yao’s view, Jin’s writing conveniently feeds a post–Cold War mentality, one that lingers into the 1990s decade of his rise to literary fame, “immediately before radical Islam gained temporary ascendancy as the most pressing threat to global ‘American interests’ following the events of September 11, 2001” (111). At heart, Yao’s censure of Jin is rooted in an Asian Americanist cultural politics, with its imperative to combat American racist stereotypes of Asia as the yellow peril and the Asian as a despotic or victimized other. Within this framework, the import of diasporic trauma and melancholia is largely subordinated to that of ethnic representation. Yao’s reproach is not unwarranted, since Jin’s fiction too evinces an at times facile idealization of America as the land of political freedom and economic opportunity, social intimacy and true friendship.11 Juxtaposed against his many uncompromising portraits of the horrors of communist China, Jin’s somewhat naïve pro-Americanism is indeed problematic and may partly explain why he has yet to be embraced by most Asian American scholars.
The other significant recent analysis of Jin unfolds in Jing Tsu’s study on Sinophone “literary governance.” In counterpoint to Yao, Tsu locates Jin squarely within a lineage of Chinese diasporic bilingual writers, one that extends back to Lin Yutang and Eileen Chang. Instead of exploring Jin’s reception in America, then, Tsu’s eye is fixed on Jin’s reception in the Sinophone world. For her, Jin’s numerous clashes with Sinophone cultural authorities are neither unique nor unprecedented but typify the pressures exerted by native (and nativist) critics and readers on overseas Chinese writers since the beginning of the twentieth century. Against Zhu Tianwen’s cutting satire of Jin, Tsu maintains that there is, “in fact, no pure mother tongue in current Sinophone writing, even though claims of authenticity are still bandied about as ground for recrimination and betrayal” (105). Though stemming from an opposite disciplinary direction and ending with a contrary assessment of Jin’s cultural politics, Tsu’s reading nonetheless converges unexpectedly with Yao’s on one point. In the midst of discussing another controversy around Jin, this time regarding War Trash and its putative plagiarism of a Chinese-language memoir, Tsu notes that Jin’s novel actually speaks to multiple audiences, and that the surface narrative of the plight of Chinese POWs in an American military camp during the Korean War also “appropriately touched on the sensitive nerve of the then stirring controversy in the United States over the detainees at Guantanamo Bay.” In line with Yao’s U.S. grounding, Tsu here zeroes in on the American resonances of Jin’s novel and the ways it “brought the question of historical accountability to bear on its English context” by turning “one historical experience into an allegory for another by using one language to speak for another” (110). Tsu’s allegorical reading of Jin’s bilingualism brings to light the multiple interlocutors of his fiction, revealing how his Chinese and American addresses are potentially overlapping rather than mutually exclusive. Finally, Tsu adds that, in response to the recurring charges of linguistic betrayal, Jin decided in early 2010 to translate A Good Fall back into Chinese himself, so as to declare “an open allegiance to the mother tongue in translation” (111). Whether this effort at self-translation succeeds in curbing nativist antagonism awaits to be seen. Yet it is telling that, even in Chinese, Jin now foregrounds his self-identification as a diasporic “migrant” writer through his translation of the collection’s title: Luodi, not a literal back-translation of the English title but the first part of the Chinese idiom luodi shenggen—“to fall to the ground and take new root,” a proverbial metaphor for the longtime emigrant—though, intriguingly, Jin 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 grounds.
By way of provisional closure, let me return to David Der-wei Wang’s symbolic creature mentioned earlier: the taowu, at once monster and diviner, devourer and guardian of the past. Ultimately, this dual conception of history seems to me most apt in capturing not just The Crazed but, more generally, Tiananmen fictions in all their multifacetedness. The ghost of June 4 may indeed haunt many diaspora writers of the massacre, but the past is not a purely traumatic force that continually swallows all psychic energies in the present. The theoretical framework of trauma sheds much light on Ha Jin’s writing from the past dozen years, and The Crazed is undoubtedly an exemplary work in this respect. Yet Jin embodies only one prototype, and perhaps an anomalous one, of the Tiananmen writer. While diaspora authors may share common subject matters and dwell on the same historical moments of national upheaval, he seems to have lived out to an exceptional degree a perpetual sense of hauntedness in his fictions. Not every diaspora writer, however, fits this mold of the melancholic remote witness, inexorably caught in the throes of writing and rewriting an originary scene of diasporic trauma. By extension, the genre of Tiananmen fictions is not merely a symptom. Already we have seen in the previous chapter that Gao Xingjian’s Taowang, far from displaying the playwright’s constant mournfulness toward or haunting by the Chinese nation, on the contrary universalizes June 4 as an existential condition. And as we will see in the next chapter, Annie Wang directs an even more trenchant and irreverent critique at the category of the nation as she attempts to debunk both “China” and “Tiananmen” along lines of gender and class. While also concentrating on an episode of historical violence, she will not be one to characterize its residual imprint as an unshakable phantom; if anything, the historical weight and emotional priority of the past will become transmogrified, updated and globalized, in her hands. So, even as Ha Jin emblematizes one model of the diaspora writer, the deconstructive and postcolonialist inflections of his lost Square mark one phase in the ongoing development of academic discourses about displacement and belonging, the diaspora and the human. The stage marked by Jin is preceded by Gao’s late 1980s moment, when the conceptual nexus between dislocation and humanism was most often theorized in terms of exile, whereas both this and Jin’s deconstructive diasporic aesthetics have since been superseded in the early years of the twenty-first century by the rubrics of globalization and capitalism that dominate Wang’s novel. Indeed, in this latter-day phase, Jin himself has turned away from pre-Tiananmen China. In A Free Life, at last, we see him emerging from the 1989 threshold and venturing forth into the imagined geography of a post-Tiananmen PRC, not as the lost space of a native homeland, but as a now strangely foreign country. Beijing, previously the all-too-familiar site and sight of remote trauma, now becomes visually unhinged from its past images and is “hardly recognizable” (530). In this newly disjointed landscape, the patches of origin we glimpse through Jin’s fiction are no longer fragmented ruins of a great aporia but commodified slices of an unlived future—a hypercapitalist China that far outpaces Jin’s new protagonist’s own suburban American life. This will be the global scape on which Annie Wang stages her anachronistic, hyperreal Tiananmen.