Posted by Joel Martinsen on Friday, November 17, 2006 at 1:45 PM
New CWA president Tie Ning.
Tie Ning became president of the Chinese Writers' Association as the seventh congress of the organization met in Beijing earlier this week. The buzz in most papers was that this election is a promising step toward improving and revitalizing China's literary sector. Can installing a new president in the CWA actually accomplish that goal?
What is it that the Association does, exactly? CWA, which was formally established in 1953 out of an earlier writers' association formed in 1947, publishes the journal Writers' Digest, and several years ago it took over publishing authority for several journals (mostly in literary fields, but it also puts out Global Entrepreneur). It also runs a press (Writers' Publishing House), operates several institutes (including the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature and the Lu Xun Literature Institute), and awards a few major literary prizes.
The association is tasked with bringing up new writers and cultivating the development of the literary sector. It represents writers in international exchanges, and it works to protect their rights. However, as a government organization, the first duty of the CWA as listed in its own introduction is to "organize writers to study Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, and Deng Xiaoping Theory, and to study the guiding policies of the party."
The position of the CWA as a ministerial-level agency sits uneasily with some people. A Southern Metropolis Daily editorial reflected on the Association's situation and the possible effect Tie Ning's election could have. David Bandurski at the China Media Project translated the piece and provided commentary; here's an excerpt:
This was just one of a flood of articles that expressed hope that the "young, beautiful female writer Tie Ning" — at 49, the youngest incoming president in CWA history, and not yet half the age of the previous president — would bring a breath of fresh air to a stodgy organization. One could claim, however, that the presidency is largely a figurehead — it has been vacant since Ba Jin passed away last fall, and for the last few years of his tenure he was completely incapacitated. The author of the SMD opinion piece responded to this objection the next day in a follow-up column in the Xiaoxiang Morning Post:
There certainly was a political and ideological emphasis to this year's congress. The first small-group discussion session focused on Hu Jintao's "important speech", in which "harmony" was mentioned no fewer than 24 times. Reactions from a number of famous writers were reproduced in the media; here is a sampling of some of the more harmonious:
· Jia Pingwa, author of Turbulence and Ruined City:
· Zhou Meisen, vice-president of Jiangsu Writers' Association:
· Cheng Xianzhang, director of the Guangdong Literature Institute:
· Peng Mingyan, vice-president of Guangdong Writers' Association:
· Cao Wenxuan, vice-president of Beijing Writers' Association, PKU professor, children's author:
Jia Pingwa and Cao Wenxuan in particular were raked over the coals for their views, which were seen by some bloggers and forum posters as toadying — was Hu's speech really that perfectly crafted? Other reactions were more sanguine — what else could they say — and pointed to Jia's history of writing controversial books that were not exactly harmonious themselves.
This is not the first time that this issue has been brought up — the CWA has been attacked for irrelevance on one end and its contribution to an environment that's actually hostile to good literature on the other. Some commenters brought up Sha Yexin's question, "How can you ask a writer like Louis Cha to write wuxia novels according to the spirit of the 'Three Represents'?" Others referred to Wang Lixiong's widely-circulated statement announcing his withdrawal from the CWA in 2001.
Wang, author of the popular apocalyptic thriller Yellow Peril and more recently known for his writing on Tibetan culture, tossed out his membership in disgust over the association's emphasis on ideology and political work. There doesn't seem to be an English version of his statement online, so here is a rough translation:
# To the Chinese Writers' Association:
After reading the speeches, resolutions, and summations in the first issue of Writers Bulletin (2001) that I just received, I have decided to withdraw from the Chinese Writers' Association.
To explain why I would make such a decision, I performed some calculations on the first piece in the bulletin, "Abstract of Comrade Jin Binghua's address to the closing ceremony of the sixth session of the fifth congress of the Chinese Writers' Association"; the following is a list of the frequency certain words are found in the text:
Party: 24; Jiang Zemin: 8; general secretary: 3; Deng Xiaoping: 6; Ding Guangen: 2; Central Propaganda Department: 2; Central: 5; Propaganda chief: 6; Three Represents: 6; Marxism-Leninism: 2; Mao Zedong Thought: 2; Advanced culture: 6; Important thought: 5; Directing thought: 2; Great banner: 2; banner: 3; Strategically advantageous position: 4; Leaders: 4; Direct: 7; Advocate: 2; Aim: 1; Guide: 2; Direction: 10; Orientation: 2; Guiding principle: 4; Policy: 3; Carry out: 4; Politics: 6; Overall situation: 12; Stable: 3; Propaganda: 2; Socialism: 10; Main melody: 5; Task: 4; Offering: 2; "Double Hundred": 2; "Two Do's": 2; Seize: 2; Firmly grasp: 1; Grasp: 2; Lift high: 3; Struggle: 6; Put into effect: 6; Study: 9; Lecture: 9; Earnest: 8; Strengthen: 4; Persevere: 12; Responsibility: 3; Consciousness: 7; Thought: 15; State of affairs: 8; Organization: 2; Position: 1; Core: 1.
The entire document totaled 4468 characters; the words above totaled 666 characters, accounting for 14.9% of the text. These words alone are able to depict what the content is; here are a few short excerpts:
You might say that the above words are merely what a newly-installed official said, so here is the entire text of the "Resolution of the sixth session of the fifth congress of the China Writers' Association":
This "resolution" passed by the entire assembly of the CWA totals 543 characters; 413 of them "talk politics". Similar writing appears in the same issue of Writers Bulletin, eight pieces in total.
Looking at this stuff, I thought of a story: A man from the northeast trained a parrot. If you pulled his left leg, he would say "Hello"; if you pulled his right leg, he would say, "goodbye". One day, the northeasterner suddenly wondered, if you pulled both legs of the parrot at the same time, what would he say? So, he gave it a try, and the parrot said to him, "Son of a bitch! You trying to kill me?" —— This story demonstrates that even a parrot, who's just imitating, can sometimes come up with something new to say. What is strange is that the Chinese Writers' Association, which brings together nearly all of the country's best wordsmiths, knows only how to speak this dead language.
I can't help but think — is it that China's writers are naturally all corpses, or is it that the China Writers' Association wants to, and is in the process of, turning China's writers into corpses?
In the 80s, Chen Huangmei, my elder, and Shi Tiesheng, my friend, brought me into the Association. Although I never looked to the association to gain any sort of benefit, I at least thought that becoming a member was a kind of honor. Typically, my personality is neither impetuous nor demanding; I can understand the impotence of individuals and organizations in China's special environment. However, in view of the words above, there is no longer any honor to speak of, only a writer's shame.
For this reason, I hereby declare that as of today, I have withdrawn from the China Writers' Association.
2 May 2001, Beijing.
Has there been progress? Tie Ning's address at the closing ceremony of this year's congress uses "harmony" 12 times, and starts off with the following passage:
However, as Wang Lixiong alludes to in his statement, this is probably just standard boilerplate for the first speech of a newly-installed official. And despite all the references to current political buzzwords, Tie Ning's address says nothing explicit about literature "serving" the party or government — it leaves out completely that section of Jin Binghua's address that dealt with review and censorship of sensitive topics.
So that's a start, at least. Whether having a functioning president for the first time this century will start any major changes in the way CWA operates is something that, given the speed of bureaucracy, will probably take quite a while to make itself felt. In the meantime, we can at least be grateful that writers are no longer being urged to write in service of the "three represents".
Note: Sai Jinhua (赛金花) was a famous courtesan in the late Qing, who later accompanied her diplomat husband to Europe. She was the image of an independent woman, but I found no information regarding any presidency of the Authors Guild, which doesn't list its past presidents anywhere. It's possible some American author's name is rendered phonetically into Chinese as 赛金花. Addendum: It's probably an error on the part of a clueless editor; Pearl S. Buck apparently presided over the Authors Guild in the 1960s, and her name in Chinese is 赛珍珠.
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.