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The Ambassadors: close encounters with China

Lindsay Waters
30 October 2002

Beijing panorama

The peoples of China and the United States of America are just plain foreign to one another. There is no need for a sinister explanation of this. Each country fills up the land mass it is parked on, and each seems epically indifferent to the rest of the world.

Try to see things from the Chinese point of view. There is a rumour that there are some people in the world who are not Chinese. But you have never seen any of them, so you have your doubts.

Try to see things from the US point of view. We are also isolated, but we have extensive and living links with almost every place in the world – except China. Our culture is loaded with European and African cultural survivals. Many of us came from the Mediterranean where the Arabs are our close neighbours, and our religions of Christianity and Judaism are closely entwined with Islam. India, a bit further away, is nevertheless the source of our languages. South America is the same mix of what the Canadians call ‘first nations’ and European immigrants.

Only China is so remote from us that it feels like the great unknown. As Kenneth Pomeranz says: ‘It is China, more than any other place, that has served as the “other” for the modern West’s stories about itself, from Smith and Malthus to Marx and Weber.’

How are we going to get beyond these dichotomies? In spring 2001, I made a visit to the cities of Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong to give a series of lectures, following the publication of my book Against Authoritarian Aesthetics by Peking University Press. I was thrilled that a book about literary theory in the United States had appeared in the biggest book market in the world. And I wanted to thank Yue Daiyun, who as Professor of Comparative Literature at Peking University, published my book in her series Peking Lectures, and the translator, Ang Zhihui, now lecturer in Chinese literature at Nanjing University, for their first rate work.

But I also wanted to go to China because the book dealt with a shift away from theory towards effect in understanding our response to works of art. I knew that this was not the usual import of American postmodernism. I knew Lyotard’s Postmodern Condition was very big in China, and that the government promoted Western critics who were strongly anti-West. I wanted, then, to make a special effort to offer a different kind of literary theory.

Postmodernism, post Tiananmen: a moment of opportunity

In the US, where ‘postmodern’ is a label of choice for those who oppose capitalism, scholars in the humanities might be surprised to hear that in China it is a code word for celebration of the market. ‘Deconstruction’ means the rejection of the socialism of the early years of the People’s Republic of China, in favour of capitalism.

It is amazing how the postmodernism of Lyotard (admittedly in a terrible translation) can combine with the geopolitics of Samuel Huntington to encourage some Chinese to believe that China can skip the modernist stage of development (in which all social ties are broken because ‘selfish individualism’ runs rampant) – producing the idea: ‘You were right all along. And you will never understand us. We are unique in the world.’ Instead, they argue, China can proceed straight to the postmodernist stage of development in which one has capitalism without democracy. Instead of democracy, good, old-fashioned Confucian-style order!

There is great intellectual ferment in China now, with especially intense debate about the role of the students in the 1989 uprising. The editors of the journal Dushu (Reading) ask whether the students at Tiananmen acted without taking sufficient account of the wishes and needs of the broader multitude of people? Have they gone on to triumph personally, post Tiananmen, as the young capitalists?

Postmodernism in China is a version of Reaganism and Thatcherism whose intellectual hero, not surprisingly, is Friedrich von Hayek. Such academic and intellectual battles now being waged in China between postmodernists and critics of uncontrolled economic development, the so-called ‘New Left’, promise to give us perspectives on all the major events of China, from the May 4 Movement of 1919 up to the present time.

This, in short, is a moment of special opportunity. We are going to need all the sensitivity, curiosity, brains and restraint that the admirable Professor Lacombe shows in Steven Spielberg’s movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as he helps the earthlings approach the aliens from the UFO. We need to cultivate new China specialists, including scholars who will guide us from their ‘Mainland’ birthplace. Despite politically-motivated sabre-rattling on both sides of the Pacific, we have no cold war. Yet. It is time to make connections.

A springtime welcome in Nanjing

Spielberg’s movie is based on the notion that encounters of the first kind are mere sightings, the second kind physical evidence – but the ‘third kind’ involves true interaction. This visit made me wonder if we American academics, and Americans as a whole, should not make a serious effort to get beyond the notions of China that exist in travellers’ reports and manufacturing labels – to graduate to extensive encounters of the third kind.

Nothing I knew could have prepared me for the reception I was to get when I arrived in Nanjing on 24 February 2001. Liu Haiping, together with the literary theorist Zhu Gang, were there to greet me. Very few Americans have taken upon themselves the task of befriending the Chinese people. Novelist Pearl Buck did. Liu Haiping is head of a Pearl Buck study centre at Nanjing University (known familiarly as ‘Nanda’).

Plum blossom

I was also greeted by spring. Sunday, 25 February, marked the sentimental arrival of spring in East China. Because, even if there was a chill in the air, the plum trees had flowered, and it was a day (or so it seemed) when the whole population of Nanjing went to Purple Mountain on the eastern edge of town, to walk through the parks and look at the blossoms that had indeed turned the mountain purple.

What I discovered among the plum trees and tea houses of Nanjing was a vast number of people seriously and passionately interested in learning about the US. My first lecture at Nanda was moved to accommodate an audience double the size expected. After my second lecture, with over 400 in the audience, questions again went on for about two hours. And these audiences’ comprehension of English was clearly superb. They caught most of the jokes. They were tireless and eager to milk me dry.

Diplomacy and desire

This was not my first visit to Nanjing. Chai Ling, one of the 1989 leaders, once said of the students in Tiananmen, ‘We all had the American dream.’ Well, somewhere along the line, I had acquired the Chinese dream.

Something I’d seen caused me to suspect that the Chinese were not all the same, as they had been portrayed to us all my life, through a series of proxy wars (Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s). Something happened in the course of watching the 1989 events – maybe it was seeing the rough, lumpy statue of Lady Liberty and wondering what she was doing there – that sparked my interest in Asia, and China in particular. I just wanted to go there. I knew not why.

By 1991, I had arrived at the edge of China, in Hong Kong, Singapore and Penang – but those visits had only made it too clear that I had to get to the People’s Republic itself. But how? Lines of contact between the US and China had been increasing ever since the visit of Nixon and Kissinger in 1972. But, apart from the Chinese students who came to the US and frequently stayed, the contacts were almost exclusively business ones. And among students, few came to study the humanities.

In fact, the linking up of Chinese and American youth with inchoate desires to know something about each other is exactly what Nixon, Kissinger and Mao, were trying to foreclose by means of Detente. Nixon and Mao made peace internationally, in order to free themselves up to conquer their youth at home. The youth revolts of 1968 nearly toppled both governments, giving rise to a great fear that the fires would link up across national borders and that in the ensuing conflagration, all order would be destroyed.

Kissinger, who modelled himself on Metternich – the statesman who masterminded the Holy Alliance that sought to repress the rebellious energies unleashed throughout Europe by Napoleon – managed to persuade Nixon and Mao that it was in their common interest to make peace between their countries, so that they could pacify the youth, blacks and workers whose energies had been unleashed worldwide throughout the 1960s.

(We are only now beginning to get enough historical distance on the 1960s and 1970s to understand the extent to which China and the US are already deeply enmeshed in each other’s fate. In time, we will, I think, be able to call that Chinese/American Detente by its proper name – an Unholy Alliance which had the same deadening effect as Metternich in the nineteenth century, over the spirit of romanticism and the democracy of individual rights.)

This stifling of the expression of youth went on all through the times of Reagan, Thatcher, Deng Xiao-ping and Jiang Zemin. But such is the Law of Unintended Consequences, that the stifling of desire leads only to its building up. The businesses that developed after political ties were re-established has led to the creation and dissemination of thousands of images from the US to China and back again, opening up a whole Pandora’s box of desires.

Nanda, 1996: feeling at home

I finally made it in 1996, to a Nanjing workshop organised by the Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, a tiny Swiss–French foundation committed to building bridges between alien peoples. I had accepted the invitation of its manager Michel Sauquet, not knowing at all what the results might be. In our ‘age of incommensurability’, when every identity group is committed to building the highest possible walls around itself, then digging moats they stock with crocodiles, the Foundation’s quixotic name appealed to my contrarian spirit. It sounded like some hangover from the Age of Reason.

Their Chinese connections were superb. I take a perverse pleasure in attending academic conferences, especially those workshops where you lock yourself up in isolation with a group of strangers. Stuck together, everyone has to make the best of it. To be sure, at that meeting, senior professors in Mao suits did give long boring lectures to remind us of their simple power to do so. In the same park on the outskirts of Nanjing, instead of being showered with plum blossom, I was bombarded with questions from a television reporter. ‘Don’t you think,’ the reporter asked me, ‘that more politically and economically advanced countries should have the right to tell less advanced countries what to do?’

But then and in 1998, I escaped unscathed, gathering only collaborators and friends. Among the latter were two of the most important Chinese academics of the post-1949 period: Yue Daiyun, and Tang Yi Je (professor of philosophy at Peking University, once one of the companions of Madame Mao and an intimate of the Gang of Four) – important academics who lived exemplary lives. In this day and age in the US, when every other literature professor who has manifestly not led a life, but simply had a career, is busily publishing his or her autobiography, meeting such people was a tonic.

So the meeting in Nanjing had given me impressive contacts, the most priceless of commodities in China. The psychological setting for encounters in every country is complex. The ground is never flat, except where I’m from in northern Illinois. I think it is very hard for foreigners to psyche out Americans, because, despite appearances, we reveal little or nothing about what is going on inside us. As the character Nixon says in the highly revealing opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman, Nixon in China: ‘Five card stud taught me a lot about mankind./ Speak softly and don’t show your hand.’ Or as Gene Eoyang, professor of English at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University says: ‘When asked, I say the Chinese are rude to people they do not know and kind to people they do know. With the Americans, it’s just the opposite.’

I felt at home in China from the beginning. Perhaps because the air is charged with the same electricity that fills the air of Irish Catholic America – the police and nuns and priests are out there watching your every move. Or at least, it feels as if they are. Sometimes I found the characteristic Chinese politeness astonishingly comforting and sweet and a shock, because such thoughtful observation and modification of behaviour in response to others – such courtesy – seems to have gone out in the West when the era of Courtly Love ended, centuries ago.

Yue Daiyun, a colleague and friend

At that 1986 workshop, I got to know Yue Daiyun well. A bridge-builder, her mind is fertile with ideas for projects that will pull different peoples together, using literature as the medium. She has been doing this for decades, and has had to pay a very high price.

In 1958, at the age of 27 and just after the birth of her second child, she was declared a ‘Rightist’, forced to leave her university post, wrenched from her husband and two infants and banished to the countryside in Zhaigtang to work on a farm. The campus newspaper carried the headline, ‘See the True Face of the Big Traitor Yue Daiyun.’ Her crime: planning a literary magazine in response to Mao’s decree to ‘Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom’. When I met her in 1996, she was still planning publications that bring people together.

In many ways, Yue Daiyun is the original that gives those heroic women as portrayed in the movies of Zhang Yimou, the ring of truth. In such movies we meet women ‘who with almost comical determination, succeed in bending the world to their own will.’ Her autobiography, To the Storm: The Odyssey of a Revolutionary Chinese Woman (University of California press, 1985) is a compelling read. The distinguished poet, Fei Ming, another who mixed Western modernism with Chinese lyricism, declared Yue ‘the hope for our country’s future’ in the 1950s.

Yue Daiyun is especially fierce in caring for her family. This is an aspect of China that many Americans, academics especially, will have difficulty understanding. Yet it is one place where attending to differences could be especially instructive.

One reason the family is so powerfully important to the Chinese is that for centuries it has been a countervailing force to the state. Whatever the regime, the experience of a heavy state apparatus that weighs inescapably on people has remained the same for centuries. For better or worse, Americans have a fierce commitment to themselves as individuals. The Chinese – with a much less elaborated sense of the individual – need the family to provide this space. This is why Mao worked so zealously for years to break down the family structure in China, instituting communal kitchens. Over the last generation, American scholarship has sought to understand the family as a repressive institution. Perhaps it has become such in the United States. But this is not a truth universally acknowledged.

In 1979, Yue Daiyun was offered the chance to rejoin the party. She decided to do so, even though she realised that no reparation could be made to all the people whose lives were ruined by the ‘errors’ of the party. She took the invitation as a belated endorsement of the very tendencies in her that had once been censured.

Three years ago, visiting Boston for a philosophy congress, Yue Daiyun and Tang Yi Je came to dinner with my family. Yue Daiyun explained to my inquisitive children, very unhappy about what they hear of Chinese government policy in Tibet, why she still placed her hopes for the future in Communism.

Her health is not perfect. Her body moves more slowly: but not her mind or heart. She is in the middle of organising a series about the influences of China on the West, with individual books on Voltaire, Leibniz, Irving Babbitt, Eugene O’Neill, and others. In her beautiful campus flat in Beijing, she told me of her very strong feeling that China is too important to be left to the Western specialists in China, the Sinologists. She is against forms of identity politics that isolate peoples while insisting that all comparison is violence.

I replied that this dovetailed neatly with my frequent sense as a publisher that any field of study I know about is too important to be left as the exclusive preserve of the specialists. How important it is to stop thinking about the relation between China and the West as a polarity, when it is more like a weaving or web in which neither East nor West can be considered the centre of anything.

So it was that in 1998, having felt her strong determination to connect the culture of China not just to the US but to the world, Yue Daiyun proposed publishing a book of mine, introducing the works of Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man to Chinese students and scholars. Her series had brought the work of Western scholars such as Frederic Jameson to thousands of Chinese readers. And after the efforts made to publish the book, it seemed natural to go to China to help disseminate it as widely as possible.

Smiling at the sky

One of the things that struck me forcibly on this trip was the increase in the number of people who speak and understand English. Their training is so good that students can speak idiomatic English that sounds ‘American’ without ever leaving the city of Nanjing.

I had prepared two hour-long lectures presenting a short history of literary theory in the West, from the triumph of T.S. Eliot to the re-emergence of Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man. In them, I contrasted Eliot’s idea that good art effects an association of sensibility in its recipient, with the idea promoted by Benjamin and de Man that good art offers the recipient a process marked by the dissociation of sensibility (what Benjamin calls a state of distraction). In the US, many English majors never read a word of Eliot nowadays. But I knew that in China, they would have read The Wasteland, and that encouraged me to hope that this overview might be intelligible.

In Beijing, Professor Wang Ning arranged for me to give one talk at Tsinghua University, often described as China’s Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the other at the Beijing Foreign Language and Culture University. Two questions, two states of mind. A young man asked: ‘Are the deconstructive critics such as Derrida and de Man saying that Western culture is exhausted? I feel that this is what they are saying, and it is very interesting if this is the case, because we in China feel that Chinese civilisation is not exhausted and is just on the verge of great growth.’ This seemed to reveal more of the views of the questioner than ask much of me.

Another student, Guo Rong, asked me whether I really meant it when I said that readers of literature ought to pay the closest attention to their immediate, affective responses to works. She admitted that she had become very tired of the literary theory that seems to fly high above the ground where readers engage with works of literature. My feeling, she said, is that in China, too much literary theory is taught by means of reading books about theory and not attending to the way each of us as an individual responds to the work. I was pleased to be so perfectly understood.

In Beijing’s Foreign Language and Culture University, I was startled and honoured when one member of the audience stood up and delivered a poem written on the spot, in thanks for the lecture:

"Ode to Bamboo Shoots"

    Green, fresh and tender bamboo shoots,
    Pointed, fearing nothing about the strong resistance of earth and stone,
    After being repeatedly sharpened and
    Toughened, it becomes strong,
    With endless vitality, it smiles at the sky.

An American scholar who happened to attend that lecture told me that my visits to universities in Nanjing and Beijing could not have happened without government approval and some financial support, even though I thought the whole tour was put together on a pretty informal basis. I had thought that one reason for making this trip to visit the schools in China was the likely lack of support from either the Chinese or the US government for academic exchange in the humanities. But, the Chinese seem eager to meet us more than half way.

Wanted: bridges, windows, connectors

There are inklings of interest in China popping up in all sorts of strange places in the US. But such curiosity is scattered and a matter of enchantment, as in Close Encounters. In that movie, the interest in how the others live is coming primarily from the people who sent the UFOs to investigate the US. It is not coming from the Americans. However, if the military are portrayed as extremely suspicious, they do not get the upper hand. The academics do.

In the close encounters of a third kind that could lie ahead of us with China, what we need is a whole army of Professor Lacombes, enlightenment men and women of science, with educated good will, efficiency and refinement, preparing the way for a Great Leap Forward in the humanities and social sciences.

Shanghai street
Shanghai street

Why am I so convinced that this is imperative? It all has to do with what happened to me in China on this last visit. What ‘delirious New York’ was for the 1920s and 1930s, Beijing and Shanghai are now. The changes wrought in five years since I was last there were amazing. Shanghai from the Bund along the Huangpu River down the main shopping street, Nanjing Road, to the People’s Square with its new Art Museum and Opera House (both designed by Xing Tonghe, the city’s leading architect) glitters in neon just as wondrously as the great alien spaceship does at the end of Close Encounters. Shanghai was so amazing, I could not take my eyes off it.

There is a real window of opportunity. As the Economist reported at the time of my visit, ‘These could be the decades when China truly joins the world’; but not if we don’t put out the welcome mat. And our perceptions of China are way out of line. I returned to the US just two weeks before the spy plane incident of April 2001; it was two years since the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Those incidents seemed to promise general and unending distrust. But we have no reasons for such enmity.

We Americans can do a lot of harm right now, just depending on the attitude we adopt towards China. The Chinese, after all, have been burned many times before – perhaps every time they trusted ‘foreigners’. We should ask ourselves, as if from the Chinese point of view: will we Americans be different from all the rest? Is it really too much to hope that the relation between the US and China will turn out to be as close and beautiful as that between the butterfly lovers that fly through Chinese fiction?

a new Beijing?

A new Beijing?

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