Scholarship and education

Zhu Dake on literature and literary prizes

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Zhu Dake is a cultural critic who has a popular Sina blog. His latest book, The Festival of Liumang (流氓的盛宴), explores the history of hooligan culture in China.

In an interview published in the Beijing newspaper The First this week, Zhu talked about literary prizes and the future of popular literature in China, in which he sees a strong role for online writing. Here are some excerpts:


The First (Zhu Qinyun): Compared to the 2005 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Harold Pinter, how do you view the 2006 winner, Orhan Pamuk?
Zhu Dake: Pinter is the table-wine of the bourgeois salons of western Europe. He embellishes the plain and commonplace of late capitalist life. Pamuk faces the crisis-ridden Muslim people and searches for threads in the labyrinth of sin. These are the entirety of their differences.

First: In "The Nobel Prize for Literature: A Stockholm Game," you wrote that the award had missed literary greats like Kafka, Joyce, and Tolstoy. What is your view of the relationship of literary masters to the Nobel, or is there not necessarily any relationship at all?
Zhu: The Nobel is unquestionably the best among literature prizes, but it cannot overcome its own language limitations. It must rely on the interests of a small number of foreign language experts, making it unable to properly assess the literature of small language groups and of the third world. And the internal rules of the game even hurt its appraisal of English, German, French, Spanish, and Russian literature language literature, so that over half of generally-acknowledged literary masters have not met with the prize. The failure of the Nobel reveals the systematic deficiencies of literary prizes. This is a philosophical limitation that cannot be overcome. It seems that after the collapse of Babel, humanity lost the ability to communicate the most exquisite literary information.

First: Back in 2001, several domestic publishers issued "Toward the Nobel" book series. Countrymen have been clamoring to "Rush the Nobel" for many years, but ths has only brought disappointment to the public. The prize seems to have become a nightmare for Chinese people. Repeatedly discussed anticipation, and repeatedly attacked. What do you think it behind this "paradoxical action", that has this type of psychological mechanism? Some people have said that the attacks on the Nobel are "sour grapes"; what is your view?
Zhu: The Nobel Prize is the symbol of the global complex of Chinese writers. Although in their thinking, the majority of Chinese writers are regional writers, they nonetheless persist in gazing off at Stockholm, waiting for the phone to ring. This is a generation entangled in a fantasy of nomination, and I understand their anxiety. However, this pain must last until the next century, because I cannot see anyone who can put an end to the waiting. Since the fluke of Gao Xingjian being selected by the rules of the game, the low probability has pegged Chinese writers to die on the pillar of humiliation, but I do not think that this is anything special. China is a nation of time, and it has time to wait.

...
First: Last year, the German sinologist Wolfgang Kubin, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, said that "contemporary Chinese literature is rubbish"; let me ask you, what is your opinion of his viewpoint? What do you think of the current state of contemporary literature?
Zhu: This viewpoint was an erroneous report by a Chinese reporter; Kubin just said that the works of several authors were rubbish, because since the 1990s, Chinese literature has been following an increasingly serious trend toward rubbish. The writing skills of mainstream writers are in decline, and as Internet writing is popularizing literature, it is also creating a large amount of trash. We are situated in an immense garbage dump, and are infinitely gratified by the inflation of that garbage, believing that we are in the springtime of literature. But I have said that this is market, not the proliferation of literature.

First: How do you see "pure literature" (纯文学) and "light literature" (通俗文学)? Where do you think the border should be?
Zhu: Distinguishing between the two is a simple matter. Why don't I give you a simple standard right here. 1. The goal of the writing: is it for the growth of literature itself, or as a quest for sales volume? 2. The conditions of the writing: is it extreme loneliness, or filled with the attachments of the world? 3. The skill of the writing: does it offer an original text, or is it a mere genre imitation? However, this sort of standard is just an idealized supposition; you cannot believe because of this that "pure literature" is good and "light literature" is bad. Normal reading experience tells us that things are actually the opposite. Failed "pure literature" abounds, while "light literature" at times offers up some outstanding works.

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First: You have compared the attempt of an ebbing Chinese literature to save itself to "leaving the ground by pulling on your own hair"; this seems to be a death sentence for contemporary literature. But in your new book last year, The Festival of Liumang, you spent many chapters writing about literature. This certainly is related to your inclusion of literature as an element of your research into cultural phenomena, but does this mean that you still hold out hope for it?
Zhu: To study literature in a cultural framework is wholly different from studying literature in the framework of literary history. The former requires broad ideological readings, while the later is just literature's "family affairs." I still hold out hope for literature itself, because blogs have improved the coarseness of forum writing, optimizing the outlook for Internet writing. In a post-literary age, blogs provide a fragmented way of writing an entirely new text; they are brimming with the postmodern signs of exaggeration and irony, and in this way offer a new opportunity for the development of the Chinese language. On the other hand, traditional writing will also transcend market anxiety and once again seek out space to extend "great literature." There is only one precondition for realizing this transition, and that is a high degree of love and respect for the Chinese language.

Only if you love deeply will you feel despair

First: On your blog I saw that you posted poems you wrote between 2001 and 2002, "Sister (Dedication to Past, Dreams, and Soul)". This poem cycle seems to have been written before your declared your "divorce from literature," so why now, several years later, is it reappearing before the readers?
Zhu: My divorce from literature was primarily done out of a deep regret. You must understand, only when you love something deeply will you feel despair. Bringing them out and putting them on the blog is nothing more than a personal memorial. Witnessing the decline of this literary form, all we can do is take our own writing and reminisce about those glorious days of old.

First: As a critic, you got quite a reputation back in the 80s. As a college professor, an educator, can you talk a bit about your educational ideals? What do you feel you ought to let the younger generation know? How do you handle your two identities as a "celebrity" and a normal teacher?

Zhu: Teaching is just what I do for a living, but it does hold a certain interest for me. We are faced with a lot of things that have been broken. My responsibility in the classroom is to effect repairs, to help others find a measurement for fundamental values. But I have no way to determine whether my efforts are effective. I am that kind of clumsy repairman. As for the "celebrity" you mentioned, I don't have that self-consciousness. In the classroom, I am just a teaching craftsman.

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