Dehumanising Experiences

March 6, 2006

Ma Jian, (Flora Drew trans.), Stick Out Your Tongue, Chatto & Windus: London, 2006.

Ma Jian, (Flora Drew trans.), The Noodle Maker, Chatto & Windus: London, 2004.

Ma Jian, (Flora Dew trans.), Red Dust: A Path Through China, Pantheon Books: New York, 2001.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Ma Jian

Ma Jian is a Chinese writer living in exile who is sympathetic to Tibet and Tibetan culture. Without expecting fundamental change any day soon, Ma Jian personally hopes for a peaceful end to China’s destructive rule in Tibet before it is too late for the local language, religion and culture. But Ma Jian’s writing about Tibet is totally free of the romantic notions and utopian visions characteristic of many outsiders – often Western converts to Buddhism – who idealise Tibet and Tibetans. Indeed, Ma Jian writes about Tibet with a profound anger and disgust, passions familiar to readers of Ma Jian’s The Noodle Maker, a sardonic novel about life under Communist rule in China during the “Open Door policy” associated with Deng Xiaoping. Ma Jian’s novel, although bleakly comical, is filled with violence, crushed illusions and emptiness. The Noodle Maker is set in eastern China, home to the Han Chinese majority. Now, in this newly translated collection of his short stories, Stick Out Your Tongue, Ma Jian writes specifically about Tibet: a land in which he spent many troubled months as described in his stunning and confessional travel book, Red Dust.

StickInstead of ethereal, numinous, and spiritual Tibet, life in Stick Out Your Tongue is nasty, brutish and short. Ma Jian’s Tibetans are not bloodless spirits, or smiling simpletons whose indomitable faith shines forth beneath dark clouds of Chinese contempt and oppression. His Tibetans are anguished or defeated, tormented by their own desires and limitations.

A poor girl is effectively sold to another family to become the polyandrous wife of two brothers more than twice her age. She dies in childbirth, and her husbands cut up her body for the vultures and crows. A student returning from a two-year stint in the town searches in vain for his nomadic family. His simple gifts for his aged parents and younger sisters are lost with his bolting black horse, his uncertain life lost on a barren mountainside. An old man seeks redemption from his incestuous past, circling a sacred mountain in an attempt to escape this life of guilt and the memory of his abused daughter. A Chinese traveller seeks meaning in a world where he cannot distinguish myth from reality. His camera, like Ma Jian’s prose, always searching out darker and darker images.

Ma Jian is a photographer and painter as well as a writer, and the stories in Stick Out Your Tongue include images or whole passages identical to the travel narrative Red Dust – including a half-naked girl huddling beneath a Lhasa meat stall, and an angry Chinese soldier mourning the painful life and premature death of his pregnant Tibetan girlfriend.

Ma Jian’s writing in Stick Out Your Tongue includes references one would expect from any stories about Tibet: yak butter, prayer wheels, ruined stupas, prostrate pilgrims, sky burials. But Ma Jian does not romanticise the people or idealise the mountains, lakes and grasslands: yaks and horses are driven mad by gadflies and mosquitoes. People die on lonely precipices. Starving men drink congealed blood.

Unlike other writers who may seek inner peace through Lamaism, Ma Jian explores the physical life of a Living Buddha, nervously aware of the body and sexuality while searching for the inner eye.

Before setting off on his travels through China and Tibet that spawned both Red Dust and Stick Out Your Tongue Ma Jian went through an acrimonious divorce. He had limited access to his young daughter, and he felt stifled at work. Chinese authorities frowned on his artistic attitudes and lifestyle, including his relationship with dissident poets and his habit of photographing models and dancers. He also felt betrayed by his girlfriend, an aspiring actress who slept with another man but was so acquiescent with Ma Jian that she allowed him to file down her tooth to straighten her smile for a film role. Her sexual betrayal taught Ma Jian “never to trust a woman again.” And he felt that “Love and hate can drive you on, but hate can drive you further.”

red-dustAs recorded in Red Dust, Ma Jian’s relationships with women were troubled and his experiences rarely free from violence. His wife was the girlfriend of a man tortured and executed by the Chinese State – an execution Ma Jian witnessed himself – and a brief sexual release was described in almost fighting terms: “I let go of myself and pound into her.” But his solo travels through remote provinces were never free from longing, regret, or attempts to connect – especially with women poets or artists.

Some readers may find Ma Jian’s writing misogynistic. Red Dust, The Noodle Maker and Stick Out Your Tongue certainly contain an uncomfortable repetition of rape, domestic abuse, and contempt for women. But his works are intentionally confronting and condemnatory. In the case of The Noodle Maker for example, Ma Jian depicts a disturbed and distorting society that both gives rise to gang rapists and then stands by to watch the gang rape without coming to the rescue of the victim. As Ma Jin writes in Red Dust: “When a country is ruled by a band of thugs, men behave like savages.”

Chinese authorities have branded Ma Jian’s writing “pornographic” and his works have been banned in China. The original editor of Ma Jian’s Tibetan stories was sacked from his job with People’s Literature and the original copies of Stick Out Your Tongue were recalled and destroyed – an act which of course raised their black market price and assured temporary underground success.

China has made significant progress in economic and social development, particularly since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and the years of reform associated with Deng Xiaoping and his successors. Hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty, and China’s economy has grown to become one of the largest (and most influential) in the world. These developments have been especially obvious in the eastern seaboard provinces, while absolute poverty still scars many inland rural and remote regions, including Tibet. It is undeniable that “your average Chinese with a steady job” now has more freedom to save, to buy and sell, and to travel than was the case during most of Ma Jian’s life in China. But these freedoms are relative.  China still leads the world in executions, more than 1,700 last year alone, and women and children are trafficked as sex slaves or forced brides, a phenomenon observed by Ma Jian in Red Dust. More Hong Kong music, fashion magazines, and pirated foreign films are available in Chinese streets than Mao’s old colleagues could ever have imagined, but the streets are still policed against freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, and independent trade unions are ruthlessly suppressed. “Political freedom gives one a sense of self. Economic freedom encourages greed. If one has the latter without the former then society becomes warped and this can be very dangerous.”

It remains a sad fact that many of China’s most challenging writers are living – or in the recent case of Liu Binyan dying – in exile, their works suppressed in the motherland. (Even Yu Hua, a popular novelist still living and working in China, first gained a serious boost both to his book sales and his notoriety when the Chinese authorities banned Zhang Yimou’s film version of his novel To Live.)

Gao Xingjian

Gao Xingjian

China’s only Nobel laureate in Literature, Gao Xingjian, left China in 1987, having earlier seen his work officially condemned in China as “spiritual pollution.” Accused of the same toxic effect, Ma Jian went into exile in the same year. The so-called “misty” poet Yang Lian has not returned permanently to China since 1989, and the troubled poet and autobiographical novelist Gu Cheng murdered his wife Xie Ye and committed suicide in New Zealand in 1993. The Chinese government opportunistically exploited this tragedy, labelling Gu Cheng as “decadent” – the same abuse heaped on Yang Lian and Ma Jian and other critical voices or unorthodox personalities.

Not only misty poets, decadent liberals, and young hooligans or tramps have been silenced or exiled: older Communists have also been punished for daring to write beyond tightly prescribed bounds. China’s paramount investigative journalist Liu Binyan, who joined the underground Communist Party during the anti-Japanese war in 1943, was twice expelled from the Party and prevented from writing or publishing freely in China for all but nine of the People’s Republic’s fifty six years during which Liu lived. Liu Binyan died in America in December 2005, having spent many years in Chinese internal exile and over sixteen years in foreign exile.  The Chinese authorities – still smarting at Liu Binyan’s brave exposure of official corruption in China and his vocal condemnation of the violent suppression of the Democracy Movement in June 1989 – refused permission for him to return to China after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Even Liu Binyan’s ashes have not been allowed to return home to China.

Like Ma Jian’s alienated student trying to find his nomadic family, Liu Binyan was cut off from the place and the people that gave his life full meaning. They both died searching, but lost. Unlike the Tibetan girl’s body, stripped back to the bone and fed to the vultures in a traditional Tibetan Buddhist ceremony, Liu Binyan has had no rites of final passage. Vultures have no interest in ashes.

Since Liu Binyan’s death, the status of critical writers in China has not improved, as witnessed by the imprisonment of the literary critic and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo. In 2010 the Chinese state kept Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo in prison and even refused permission for his wife or friends to attend the Nobel ceremony to collect the prize on his behalf. The empty chair placed on stage in Oslo for Liu Xiaobo drew attention to his absence: an absence of freedom, an absence of human rights, an absence of compassion.

Ma Jian’s writing is angry, and his imagery violent. But unfortunately there is a lot of physical, emotional, and cultural violence still to be angry about.

Photo credit: Pekin en coma, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

Photo credit: Gao Xingjian Galerie Simoncini Luxembourg, Wikimedia Commons Made available under the Creative Commons Licence

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