One Man’s Bible Revisited
In my previous article, I reviewed Gao Xingjiang’s semi-autobiographical novel, One Man’s Bible, with a psychoanalytic approach, focusing on the concept of trauma and recovery. To some extent, Western readers are most likely to sympathize with this interpretation as it implicitly presupposes a neo-liberal humanist stance, which has been a fundamental line of thought throughout the history of Western philosophy since the Enlightenment. It is thus unsurprising that Gao was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for ‘an oeuvre of universal validity, bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity, which has opened new paths for the Chinese novel and drama’. In contrast to this favourable reception in the West, the Chinese government has objected vehemently to the decision by the Swedish Academy to choose a French citizen whose works have been banned in China for decades. The polemics regarding Gao’s eligibility for Nobel Laureate indicate that the universality of Gao’s works needs to be further examined, and the present article intends to adopt a hermeneutic perspective to discuss not so much the fiction itself, but the discursive structure behind the evaluation of Gao’s works in the West.
In China and Orientalism: Western Knowledge Production and the P.R.C. (2012), Daniel F. Vukovich amended Edward Said’s Manichean Self-Other dichotomy arguing that Sinological-Orientalism operates in China’s becoming the same as the West. While modernisation theory had become obsolete in social studies, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and China’s adoption of a market economy have contributed to the revival of the modernisation discourse. Furthermore, this sense of assimilation is fundamentally related to two essential characteristics of late-capitalist economy: ‘the force of reification and abstraction and the compression of space and time’; the mass-produced commodities eliminate the cultural specificity of Chinese labour and are transported around the globe ceaselessly. In other words, China’s integration into the world economy is essentially a process of global homogenisation, and China’s economic assimilation to capitalism is considered a sign of China’s political and cultural opening up. Vukovich summarises the logic of Sinological-Orientalism aptly: China is becoming democratic, normal, civil, creative-artistic (avant-garde), liberal, and so on; that it still lacks something (often the same items); that its Maoist, revolutionary past is either already in the dustbin of history or must still be overcome.
While Said emphasises the Orientalist strategy of feminisation, Vukovich addresses another important Orientalist representation: despotism. Early in Montesquieu’s treatises on the forms of government, the oriental despot has become an inveterate representation of Oriental politics. Sinological-Orientalism, nevertheless, has avoided employing such an explicitly colonialist word and favours ‘totalitarianism’ instead. According to William Pietz, totalitarianism was developed in Cold War discourse by George Kennan, Arthur Koestler, Hannah Ardent, and George Orwell, re-circulating the Orientalist stereotypes and meaning nothing but ‘traditional Orientalism plus modern technology’. The word totalitarianism not only demonstrates Western arrogance towards any other form of political economy but also imposes a striking lack of agency on the Chinese, hence ‘passive and irrational Chinese minds [are] easily “brainwashed”’.
Following the logic of Sinological-Orientalism, it seems less surprising that Gao’s works, with all the depictions of the ruthless class struggles and the protagonists’ determination to seek individual freedom, have become attractive to Western readers; not only because the belief in secular individualism is culturally translatable (as the Swedish Academy claims) but also because the political exile’s testimony serves to verify the superiority of the Western political-economic system. In fact, conforming to the Western political stance has become a marketing strategy for Chinese artists such as the success of the Fifth Generation directors among Western audiences. Hong Kong writer Wong Bik-wan comments bitterly on the commodification of the national trauma, ‘those Chinese who write in English write about the Cultural Revolution, big persecutions, foot-binding, feng-shui, searching for [cultural] roots, like ancient spirits and ghosts in a cave of horror inside a cheap entertainment park. Very cheap, very fake’.
As Shih Shu-mei indicates, it is not that the trauma of Maoist revolutions cannot be represented, but the representation decides the artist’s ethical stance. ‘The narratives that clearly cater to either paranoia about China or the “China threat” for purposes of financial gain are to be distinguished from the more complex and ambiguous narratives that show multiple perspectives on a complex phenomenon’. Compared to the works of Chinese artist Hung Liu that Shih analysed, Gao’s works are clearly the latter. However, it is undeniable that the conflicting reception of his works within and outside China signifies the unequal power and knowledge distribution between China and the West despite the rise of China in the last few decades.
It seems Chinese literature encounters exactly the same impasse as postcolonial literature on its path to global readership. Who can decide what is good Chinese literature? The Chinese government? Chinese readers? Or the Swedish Academy?