China under the skin
A life of writing in and out and about China
Talks / Lecture
Linda Jaivin will discuss the perils and seductions of writing about China as a foreign journalist, memoirist, travel writer, librettist, essayist and novelist in the context of her own experiences.
Having studied Asian history at Brown University, Jaivin went on to study Chinese language in Taiwan, before living in both Hong Kong and Beijing. She has published eleven books—most recently Beijing (2014, non-fiction) and The Empress Lover (2014, fiction)—and writes across a range of subjects, including the arts, sexuality, politics and society. She is an associate of the Australian Centre on China in the World, and was one of the editors of the 2014 China Story Yearbook.
Transcript of China under the Skin
Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (C), Linda Jaivin (L)
Location: National Library of Australia
C: Welcome. Thank you for joining us today and coming in out of that beautiful Canberra autumn weather that we have outside. Welcome of the National Library of Australia. My name’s Cathy Pilgrim, I am the Assistant Director-General of the Executive and Public Programs Division. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders, past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home.
This weekend is our third in our Experience China weekend series through which we’re exploring Chinese culture, cuisine, art, landscape, architecture and the Chinese diaspora as part of our public programming for the Celestial Empire exhibition. Celestial Empire and its event program would not be possible without the support of a tremendous group of partners. It’s been an extraordinary collaboration between government, commercial partners and individual donors and supporters.
First and foremost I thank the National Library of China for sharing its extraordinary collection with us and with all of you and I hope you will take the opportunity this afternoon to visit the exhibition if you haven’t had a chance to already. I thank our partner, Shell in Australia, Seven Network, Wanda One, Optus Singtel, Cathay Pacific, TFE Hotels and our event, the ANU Centre for China in the World and Asia Society Australia for their generosity. I also thank our government partners, the Australian Government support ... for support through the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach program and also the Australia China Council, and we’ve received great support from the ACT Government through Visit Canberra.
Importantly I thank all of you for joining us this afternoon to hear from author, Linda Jaivin. Born and raised in the United States, Linda studied Asian history at Brown University in the state of Rhode Island, and followed this with Chinese language study in Taiwan. She has lived in Hong Kong and Beijing, which must have been an invaluable opportunity to absorb all aspects of Chinese culture. Linda moved to Sydney in the 1990s, and in 1992 coedited an anthology of dissident Chinese writers with Geremie Barmé, who would go on to be the founding director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at the ANU. One critic at the time described their knowledge of Chinese urban culture as unmatched in the western world.
In 1995, Linda was working as a literary translator and freelance writer when her first novel, Eat Me, was published. A comic–erotic romp, its subject matter might perhaps seem incongruent with the subject of China. Its status as a bestseller here in Australia and overseas, however, is telling of Linda’s incredible skill as a writer, switching between subjects and writing styles with adeptness. Since then, Linda has published another 10 books as well as a range of short stories, articles and essays. Several of the books she’s written are about China, including her most recent 2014 publications, the novel The Empress Lover and the non-fiction, social and urban history guide Beijing. In the same year, she again partnered with Geremie Barme as editor of the China Story Yearbook, an annual publication from the Australian Centre on China in the World. When she answered some questions for the Library’s blog last weekend, Linda mentioned that she’s working on another book, The Education of Proofreader Ding, and feeling liberated, writing by hand in notebooks usually in the park first thing in the morning.
Today, Linda will be sharing with us the perils and seduction of writing about China, so please join me in welcoming Linda Jaivin.
L: Thank you very much, Cathy, for such a generous introduction and thank you all for coming. I do love libraries and I want to thank the National Library for having me. When I was a little girl I was a huge reader from the time I was very, very little and I always used to get a little certificate from the local library, being the girl who read the most books in the summer holidays. But I had no idea that you could actually also be a writer, I just didn’t know. Now I think everybody, every young person, grows up knowing that they are a writer. That’s a whole ‘nother story but at that time I had no idea, how do you become a writer? So my goal was when I grew up I wanted to be a librarian because my concept of that job was that you got to sit and read all the books and decide which wants the Library bought.
C: If only!
L: And before I go on I do want to say the Celestial Empire is fantastic, it’s an extraordinary exhibition, I just had a good look at it earlier.
Now one of the things people always say in ... people who interview me or whatever, they say so how did you become a Sinophile? And if I’m just a little bit okay, whatever, or if it’s on radio and you don’t want to correct people, you just let it go but Sinophile means a lover of China and I think what they mean is how did you become somebody who writes about China, you know the sort of thing. It’s very interesting how the world Sinophile gets completely mixed up with the word Sinologue or Sinologist, it’s a very interesting slip of the tongue and it also tells us a lot about how in the west, and in Australia, and many places, we look at an interest in China as automatically being a ... kind of an uncritical love of China. It’s ... when people say, why do you love China so much? I’m like, well, who said I love China? It’s under my skin, as the topic of this talk implies, but I love it, I hate it, I like it, I ... some days I get the shits with it, I ... it’s a place, it’s a place of 1.4 or more billion individuals, it has some of the most magnificent art in the world and it has some of the worst kitsch. It has some of the most magnificent architecture and it has some of the ugliest new buildings you’ll find anymore.
It has fantastic, brilliant people, really ... people who are so civilised they could define the word civilised and it has people who are brutal and horrible in everything they do, people who put plastic in the powder that babies … baby powder, killing babies and then they continue to do it? These ... that’s unbelievable and then you have people who are so wonderful. You have every different type of person and the real answer to why I’m interested in China is because it’s everything, you can find everything in the world there. You can find every extreme, you can find every kind of good and every kind of bad, every kind of beauty and every kind of ugly and that is fascinating. And that’s what’s kind of kept me at it all these years. I do admit when I was younger I did have a touch of the Sinophilia, you know, oh China! You’re learning about it and everything is so wonderful about China and no, it’s not, it’s ... there’s great and there’s not great and it’s interesting but from the Chinese perspective looking at the world there’s many different perspectives, there’s 1.4 billion perspectives but the official one, the official Communist perspective has always been either you are a friend or you are an enemy of the Chinese people, an anti-Chinese element, a fanhuafenzi 反华分子.
So you’re either a haopengyou 好朋友, a good friend or you are a ... enemy. And this also is one of the reasons that I think people ask this question. We’re almost forced into this very strange and unnatural dichotomy, this relationship with China. The Chinese government, Chinese media, will often use the expression ‘hurts the feelings of the Chinese people.’ So if you say something that offends the government, you have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, all 1.4 billion of them. Even if at the time you happen to be defending some of their human rights. Or you happen to be defending a Chinese person who has defended their own human rights and is now sitting in prison. If you support them, if you say I think Liu Xiaobo is a very brave person—the Nobel Peace laureate who is doing an 11 year sentence in prison. If you say that you have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people; but have you really?
When you are a writer writing about China you are never entirely free of expectations, whether it’s oh, I’m reading something by a Sinophile, that kind of expectation or whether it’s the expectation of both the Chinese government and of Chinese citizens who are influenced by that official rhetoric, there is the sense that you’re doing the wrong thing, you’re doing a kind of naughty thing if you write critically or you write honestly about some of the things that are on the worst side of the spectrum. But I’m going to get back to that and those moral and ethical conundrums in a moment, but I think I should say a word or two about how I got to where I am now as people go ‘how?’ ‘Cause now ... I do film translations, I do all sorts of things, I write books, I write novels about China, I do travel writing, I do everything and it seems like I was always headed here but just as the story about the library and my ambition to be a librarian shows that everything was always a bit accidental with me, always a bit serendipitous and I have no really great advice for any young person who wants to end up in any kind of position that’s vaguely like mine. I don’t even know what position I’m in, because it really has been a series of accidents.
I followed ... when I was in high school I thought mmm, maybe ... maybe ... how do you become a writer? Mmm, that would be kind of interesting and my high school decided to have its very first creative writing class and they decided that what they would do would be to select the students who were worthy and showed potential. I think ... were there 11 or 16 people allowed into this very special class? And I was .. and I wasn’t chosen, so I’m quite delighted in a very bitchy sort of way to say that none of the people who went ... were accepted into that class to the best of my knowledge have ever been published.
I went to university wanting to save the world, I was very involved in political activism, progressive social movements. At the time it was the Ralph Nader movement in the United States, so I was involved with one of his environmental and citizens action groups when I was in high school. I went to uni and I’d said to the people I was working with do you think I should take biological sciences or ecological sciences? They said no, no, no, no, no, not you, you should take political science so I entered uni expecting to take political science as my major and I stumbled into a Chinese Studies course, really stumbled because I was looking for interesting courses to take to supplement the political science courses that were part of the major. And I took a Latin course, a course on French new wave films, anything that interests me, and I said to an upperclassman ‘can you recommend a really good lecturer? You know, in something I might not have thought of.’ And he said ‘oh take Introduction to East Asian History.’
And that was that, really, and my professor … I was so interested, I just kept taking more and more and I ended up with a double major, Political Science and East Asian History. He made me take Chinese, I was dragged kicking and screaming into Chinese language studies because I was convinced that I would never ... I didn’t do well in French in high school. But I turned out to love it so I’m eternally grateful to Professor Lea Williams for making me taking Chinese language studies. But even then there was no sense that any of this was going to be useful in the least because it was the 1970s and China was closed especially to Americans so that was that. I’m now an Australian citizen but at the time I didn’t have Australian citizenship and so as an American you couldn’t possibly go to China. The only things you could do with a degree in Chinese studies were either go on to do a PhD, and I hadn’t ever left the country, I’d barely left my little home town, an oppressive little place called New—no, I shouldn’t say that ‘cause my mother might listen to this—but yes, I barely … I hadn’t left the United States, I was like I don’t want to sit and do a PhD. The other options were diplomacy or espionage and I thought no. So I went to Taiwan to further my studies of Chinese language and I started writing like crazy, poetry mainly, but I also started writing ... trying to write novels and everything else.
I then moved to Hong Kong and long story, I got a job with the Oxford University Press as a subeditor, putting commas in English language textbooks. At that time I was also still writing poetry and I sent it around and a magazine called Asia Week published one of my poems and being a complete moron I called them up and said ‘you didn’t tell me you were going to publish my poem’. Anyway, somehow through some miracle, the editor, the literary editor, asked me to lunch. I was like mmm, okay. So we had lunch and he must have said ‘what’s your background?’ And the poem was about China, it was like ... it was a Sinophile poem, I have put that way in the back of my memory vault, and hope that there are no copies in existence. But it … I was in that romantic stage of ah, lotuses. I don’t know what I wrote.
Anyway we had lunch and he asked me about my background and I told him about my Chinese studies at university and Chinese language and he said ‘do you do book reviews?’ And I said yeah. And he said— I’d never done a book review in my life of course—and he said ‘how long’s it take you to do a review?’ Now, now I know that you generally get three weeks to a month to do a book review. I said ... I thought what do I say? What’s the right answer? And I said a week. He said, ‘okay, here’s two; I’ll give you two books and you get two weeks.’ So two weeks later—and I was working fulltime—two weeks later I handed in two book reviews and he gave me two more books, and within a year I’d done something like 46 book reviews. So they hired me and that’s how I got my break into journalism. So what can I say that’s of use to anyone else? Bluff.
And in terms of becoming a translator through Geremie Barmé I met Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, who were running the Panda Books [imprint] for the Foreign Languages Press in China, I was beginning to travel quite a lot to China at the time and of course I was covering China, Taiwan and Hong Kong for Asia Week so I did a lot of travel. And I got to know them and eventually got some opportunities to do a little bit of translation. But really the big break—because what I do mostly now is film translation—was again totally random. I was sitting on a train in the MTR, which had recently opened in Hong Kong. It was the time of the Hong Kong Film Festival, and a complete film buff, I would go to these. I would take my holidays then and just watch five films a day until my eyes turned square. And I’d do this for a week until I almost felt like vomiting. It was quite a thing.
So I was looking forward the festival, it was just about to begin and I had heard all about this great film, Yellow Earth, that was changing the f ... the buzz was about Yellow Earth, the first film of the fifth generation of Chinese film directors. And I heard that maybe the director and cinematographer were coming, but—now this is so hard for younger people to imagine, a time before social media, when you would have no idea what these people looked like, really when they dropped in at the ... it was just ... it was a very, very different time. So I’m sitting on the train and reading some ... I was reading an English language novel, I think, so I didn’t set off any sort of weird alarm bells, I was sitting there and across from me were these three Chinese people from the mainland.
At the time there were hardly any Chinese from the mainland in Hong Kong so I listened to the Mandarin and I’m like oh, sounds a little Beijingish on one of them, and ... on two of them, the very Beijing Mandarin and I was like oh, another was definitely north, northwest. And they’re talking about movies and they’re talking about the studio and I thought I'm just going to take a punt here, I said ... looked up and I said maomei wen yixia, I said ‘could I just ask you a question?’ And they went ‘oh!’ And I said are you from Beijing Film Studio? And they went oh ... so were completely just ta ... \ it was like oh my god, this foreigner was talking to ... because at that time really there weren’t that many westerners who spoke Chinese, who mixed and there weren’t that many Mandarin sp ... they didn’t get to travel much, it was their first trip outside China, I believe, so I said ‘oh you wouldn’t happen to know if Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have come to Hong Kong? Because I’m going to see the film, Yellow Earth, and I would love to meet them.’ And one went wo shi Chen Kaige [Chinese 20:18]—I’m Chen Kaige— and the other one went [Chinese 20:22]—wo shi Zhang Yimou—and the third was a woman from Beijing Film Studio. So I became friends with them and the friendship lasted … I still do all of Chen Kaige’s films. But at the time they said, look we know that our films ... there’s a lot of ... there’s something that’s blocking us and it’s bad translation but the studios control everything, they’re state-run studios and we don’t have any say in it; we would love for you to translate our films once we have the money to do so. And of course through them and various things I began to meet other Chinese filmmakers and they were all like, oh, because people constantly complained to them about the state of the subtitles or told them how bad they were.
And so it came to pass, they got money to do their films as privatisation got into the film industry and so on, and foreign investment, and that’s how I became a film translator. So again, what do you say? Ride the subway. And then even Eat Me, I was doing all these very worthy articles on China for the Australian press, I would ... all this knowledge and information that I’d somehow managed to collect and I would take serious ... I would do serious work on an article and get paid $200, it was really hard. And I was always writing and writing poetry and writing short stories anyway, it was fun, it was what I really loved and I wrote a filthy story ... I was actually looking for some erotica, I looked on my shelf, I was like yeah, no, read that a thousand times and at that time there was no Sex in the City, there was no chick lit, there was nothing like that. Female erotica where it existed tended to be kind on guilt and sort of rape fantasies and sort of weird, it wasn’t ... it was very odd moment.
You had for example The Story of O, that kind of thing, but ... and I’d liked Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, Fanny Hill, but there was nothing that ... I wanted something funny and I wanted something … So I just sat down and I wrote a dirty story and I showed it to a friend of mine, Kathy Bail, who’s now the publisher of New South Press, and she said that’s hilarious, and she said I’ve got a few [suggestions] ... editorial input and I went mmm. So I went back, half an hour of revision, and she said I think you should send that to Australian Women’s Forum, which is a magazine that doesn’t exist anymore, but used to publish male centrefolds and was a kind of a ... it was an intelligent feminist dirty magazine for women. And so I sent it off, why not? And back came a cheque for like $2,000 or something or one ... I can’t even remember what it was but it was ... knocked me out. It had three zeros, which had never happened in the history of freelance journalism in my life up to that point.
So that was amazing. And I ended up being approached by Michael Heyward of Text Publishing ... by then I’d had two stories published in Australian Women’s Forum and he said do you have a booklength ... essay on China in you? And I said yes but I also have a pornographic novel in me, I think and he ... anyway that became Eat Me. Eat Me became a bestseller and my fiction was launched, my fiction career was launched. It was very ... again like what lessons are there for other people? I have no idea. Now when I started doing the ... obviously as I began writing fiction I began thinking about: can I mix China and fiction? How do you do that? ‘Cause I have these two separate parts of my life, and when I was reviewing it was in the age of James Clavell—who remembers James Clavell? The white hero rides in, saves the day in Japan or China in some form. There were many, he wasn’t the only one, there were a lot of people who wrote like this. So you have this kind of white male handsome hero who arrives in a historical place, in an historical time in China and somehow does something very heroic, wins a beautiful Chinese woman and gallops off into the sunset. And that was basically writing about China or it was these earnest missionary things that you really want ... made me want to vomit.
And then of course there’s Pearl Buck, and how do you write like Pearl Buck if you don’t have the experience of Pearl Buck? And was she really right, anyway, when she was writing from the standpoint of the Chinese peasantry? It was all these mysteries, and they’re mysteries I haven’t totally solved yet but the paradigms did not ... the paradigms that were available at the time were just crazy. And by the way, I noted downstairs, it was very interesting, there’s a French thing, a book about China, and it’s open to a page and there’s a Buddhist priest and he talks about this “absurd” religion, and the priest of the “sect” of Fo, ‘cause in China “Fo” is Buddhism so there are a lot for problems and there always have been in writing about China.
And, by the way, it’s mirrored in problems of the Chinese writing about western ... westerners or western life. Two easy examples, one from the exhibition downstairs is the boxer, there’s a series of ... I think it’s woodcut prints where the boxers portray the westerners doing all sorts of disgusting things with their pig religion of Christianity. And it’s not like it’s only the west that got China wrong, China very often and still gets the west wrong. If you look at the roles of foreigners in most Chinese movies they’re quite absurd. And you look at something like a Beijinger in New York which was a series of ... TV series from 1990s, I think, and it has one memorable scene, the hero played by Jiang Wen. I can’t remember if these were the ... a western prostitute ... an American prostitute, or whether she’s just a girl that he’s with, but he showers her with American dollars and she’s like ‘oh, okay.’
And at the time too even journalism was also tricky, I mean you had the China watcher, so the position was very much on the outside, you had the China hand, as if these were these people, oracles, who could pronounce on China but who were not Chinese. I mean, this has evolved tremendously and thankfully to the point where we now have ... in institutions like the CIW the practice of New Sinology, which is a conversation between Chinese scholars of China, western scholars on China, everybody is communicating on an equal footing and there’s an acceptance within New Sinology, not within the Chinese world as a whole of people. You can earn the right to have a say on Chinese life, but that’s not something that all China agrees on, and basically it goes back to that other thing of, are you a friend or are you a foe?
When I started to write ... when I began as a journalist working for Asiaweek back in the 1980s you actually ... it was so different from today, you had to get permission to travel anywhere. So you had to get permission if you wanted to go to Wuhan, you wanted to go to Shanghai from Beijing, you had to apply and get official permission. I thought I would read something from Monkey and the Dragon which is now ... sadly it’s out of print but it’s available as an eBook which I’m very happy about. And this is a little bit ... it’s ... takes place in 1985.
During that same holiday in August 1985, I went with the poet Yang Lian and some other friends to the new disco at the Great Wall Sheraton, where we were told in no uncertain terms that I could go in but my Chinese friends couldn't. ‘Dogs and Chinese not admitted,’ Yang Lian spat in disgust, quoting the infamous though possibly apocryphal pre-revolution sign in a Shanghai park. China was changing and not at all. We left together.
The next day Yang Lian and I embarked on a long planned trip to Sichuan. To celebrate our arrival in Chengdu, his friends took us to their favourite club. We’d just started to dance when the security people grabbed me by the arms and marched me out—here, Chinese were welcome, but not foreigners. One of our group, a People’s Liberation Army soldier cursed and yelled at the security guy. We pulled him away and walked back to the house of the friend where we were staying, fuming about what a fucked-up world it was.
The next day our host’s brother, who worked at the Public Security Bureau, came to see him. ‘Have you gone completely insane?’ he accused. ‘Having a foreigner stay at your house?’
Our host was indignant. ‘Why can’t I invite anyone I like to stay? What does it matter what colour their skin is?’ I didn’t want to cause him any trouble though, so I moved into a hotel. The whole gang followed me up to my room to have showers, jump on the bed, take silly photos and bask in the air-conditioning.
The group of us planned to drive in an army jeep to a beautiful lake district, Jiuzhaigou, several hours outside Chengdu. Now it’s a tourist destination with its own airport, but then it was closed to any foreigner without a travel permit from the Public Security Bureau. Daily, we trundled over to the cop shop to check on my application. Finally, after stringing me along for almost a week, they told me I couldn’t go. No reason given. My outraged friends proposed to smuggle me along anyway. I had dyed my hair black and was fairly short; if I kept a cap low over my face, it could work. That’s when Yang Lian spotted the security men who, it turned out, were trailing us everywhere, clumsily ducking behind trees or telegraph poles whenever we turned and stared them down.
Why were they there? The friends asked around. It seemed that the problem lay with me. Was it my association with Yang Lian, me a foreign journalist and him an ‘underground’ poet whose works had been attacked during the recent anti-spiritual-pollution campaign? Was it the even more subversive combo of journalist and PLA soldier? Or had my friendship with Hou Dejian …
—a singer, songwriter defector from Taiwan—
… made me a surveillance target? Our source couldn’t reveal any more than that. My ‘case,’ it seems, was in the hands of the relatively new Ministry of National Security, which was charged with ensuring ‘the security of the state through effective measures against enemy agents, spies and counter-revolutionary activities designed to sabotage or overthrow China’s socialist system.’
I waved off my mates in their jeep full of tents and hunting rifles and prepared to return to Beijing. The PLA soldier, who was also a poet, couldn’t go to Jiuzhaigou either. He’d had his leave cancelled at the last moment when one of his poems turned up in a Taiwan anthology. Some American had read it at the house of one of his friends in Chongqing and, without asking the author’s permission, entered it in a poetry competition in Taipei. The mainland authorities might promote direct contacts with the island, but any citizen who tried it on their own had to deal with the consequences.
Back in Beijing I moped around Hou and Cheng’s place. I asked them if they felt okay about me staying with them while the security apparatus was watching me. They assured me they weren’t the least bit worried about me having grown a ‘tail.’ ‘After all, I was once a political prisoner in Taiwan,’ Hou declared. ‘What are they going to do to me here?’ … Hou wasn’t always in complete touch with reality, …
So that’s ... that gives you a little bit of a taste of experience in China when ... I mean it’s ... there’s a saying called nei wei you bie —there is a difference between the inside and the outside, insiders and outsiders. China, wai guo, foreign countries are simply outside countries. If you look at the map downstairs of Beijing, there’s an old map of Beijing, it’s very beautiful and detailed and you can see very clearly there’s three walls so the outer wall is the city wall and then there’s another wall and that’s the Imperial City wall, which is the big palace and then in that is the Forbidden City. So even within the Chinese context there’s nei wai you bie so there’s a difference ... there’s ... everything is always defined inside or outside and that’s just one easy illustration of that.
So where does a foreigner fit in all this? These are themes that just kind of circle around in my head all the time the ... everybody knows the term ‘foreign devils,’ from the early days of contact and all that, and Big Nose and now waiguoren and the kind of affectionate name is Iowai, ‘old foreign,’ it’s sort of, he’s a Iowai, there’s nothing offensive in that term. Unless you just think constantly be calling ... being called outside is offensive, which it’s not really, because language takes on the meaning of the context.
I thought I would read from ... a short piece from my book on Beijing. It’s from the history section, but it’s a little bit of a fun piece that I’ve put in on its own. It’s called ‘Exotica’ and it’s ... I’ve situated it in the Yuan dynasty, which was the time when Kublai Khan had his capital in Khanbaliq, today’s Beijing. And Marco Polo was obviously the most famous chronicler in the west of Kublai Khan’s Khanbaliq.
Marco Polo tells us that at Kublai Khan’s great banquets, Mongolian barons helped ‘foreigners, who do not know the customs of the Court’, from committing such literal faux pas as stepping on the raised threshold when entering the banquet (an act punishable by a beating).
The Khan’s successors didn’t make it so easy for foreigners in Beijing to cross that threshold. Jesuits squeaked into the Ming and Qing courts only because they possessed knowledge that the court found useful. It took an unequal treaty forced on the Qing in 1844 to legalize teaching Chinese to foreigners and another to sanction their residents in Beijing.
By the time the Australian George Ernest Morrison arrived as correspondent for the London Times in 1897, imperialism had forced open China’s doors, but at the price of China’s humiliation. In 1949, Mao shut those doors on all but Communism’s fellow travellers. Thirty years later, Deng opened them once more, but on China’s terms.
Today nearly 200,000 foreigners reside in Beijing, 70,000 of them students. Despite the conspicuousness of those of non-Asian background, the majority hail from other Asian countries.
Wangfujing was briefly named Morrison Street in English after the Australians, but foreigners rarely leave as much of an impression on Beijing as it leaves on them. The exceptions are those who have treated it badly, from the French and British who sacked the Yuanmingyuan …
(the old summer palace)
… in 1860 to the British man in 2012 whose drunken harassment of a Chinese woman led to his beating and viral shaming on the internet.
Marco Polo wrote of the threshold rule, that guests were ‘not expected to stick at this in going forth again, for at that time some are like to be the worse for liquor and incapable of looking to their steps’. These days, the exception is that they better do so.
So the position of the foreigner in China has always been one of a certain kind of negotiation. So given that, how do you actually write about this country? And if you look at the way people do it it kind of goes from lyrical to very jaded and cynical. The approach, what you’re actually looking at can go from human rights abuses down to the very innocuous, anodyne, colourful costumes of the minority areas; there’s this whole gamut.
And as somebody who's written on China my whole adult life, I think ... yes, thirty-something years, 30 ... wow, yeah, we won’t go into that ... but I’ve done that kind of a g ... I mean most recently the February issue of Qantas’ inflight magazine has my perfect day in Beijing and that fits a certain formula where you pick eight to ten things that somebody can do and actually get to within the space of a morning ‘til late night sort of timeframe. And so that’s got to be a little bit happy and upbeat and ... and it is and I give people a Beijing that is very much—because I had to think about realities of moving from place to place— it’s very much centred on the imperial area. But that’s what you … and then I’ve written about human rights, I’ve written about Tiananmen, I’ve done all that.
Now there’s a sense that there is a kind of a ... this is just going to touch on something. I don’t have time to read everything I’d like to read to you but this is from my novel A Most Immoral Woman which is about an affair that George Morrison had with an American nymphomaniac heiress in 1904—true story, a historical novel based on all the evidence that I could dig up both here and in the California state archives where her family’s letters are etc, etc. This isn’t one of the sexy passages but it is a little bit about writing about China and how in a funny way it’s almost gendered.
On the following morning Morrison slapped on his trilby, slung his cape over his shoulders and loped through the dusty streets towards and then through Ch’ien-men Gate. Once south of the gate, he plunged into the familiar, roiling public excitement that the Chinese called ‘the hot and noisy’, which characterised that part of Peking just south of the Tartar Wall known as the Chinese City. Here was enterprise from the street side barbers, scribes and fortune tellers to the bustling shops. Overhead dangled painted shop signs in the shapes of the goods on offer—wooden combs, decorative glass grapes, gourds for wine, the souls of men’s boots. From a pharmacy, with its infinite small drawers of herbs, wafted the mysterious close smells of Chinese medicine onto the street. From a teahouse came the staccato of a storyteller’s clappers, and already a crowd was forming outside the Heavenly Happy Tea Garden in Polishing Street, where one could watch moving pictures—‘electric shadows’—on equipment brought all the way from Germany. Further south were the wilder diversions of the heavenly Bridge District, famous for is sing-song girls, flower houses and efficient gangs of tatterdemalians who could strip a man of his watch and purse before he sensed them coming.
Other foreigners of Morrison’s acquaintance were wont to declaim late about the quotidian delights of the ancient capital. His friend Lady Susan Townsend was even writing a book about them—My Chinese Notebook, she was going to call it.
And you can find this probably in this library, definitely in the Menzies in the ANU.
She had shown him the draft. It was full of vivid descriptions of such adventures as riding in rough Peking carts (once was enough for Lady Susan) and visiting opium dens. Morrison was not immune to the exotic, the strange, the constant sensory assault that was China. Yet he could not but feel that such literary effusions were the proper domain of women, dilettantes and professional travellers—not the professional journalist.
Which of course were all men.
Since the publication of An Australian in China almost ten years earlier, he barely confessed them to his journal.
So in this it’s a kind of a little bit of a game I'm playing because I'm writing in third person, but in Morrison’s sensibility, and yet I’m doing the Lady Susan thing ... a Lady Susan thing of giving you the whole sensory experience of walking into Tiananmen.
I’m very aware the time is passing. I was going to read you a lot more. I’m just going to read a little bit ... I’ll just speak a little bit and if you want me to read more I will. Struggling all the time with: how do you write? Do you write about foreigners in China or do you try to write from the standpoint of Chinese people? Can you do that? Can you not do this? It’s a constant ... when you ... of course I can write from the standpoint of a Chinese person because they’re a person, but all the politics around it lay on all kinds of issues. I have spent so much of my life in China I know the Chinese friends who I know better than some of my Australian friends, and vice versa obviously, but what is it that stops you from travelling there? I mean we don’t worry so much about writing say an Australian novel in which there’s Greek characters and there’s Italian characters and there’s immigrants and there’s this and that, it’s a very interesting conundrum but it absolutely exists.
Now with Empress Lover I took a big plunge. The first part of the book is narrated by a character called Linnie who is actually a Eurasian or possibly—I don’t really know what she is. And the second or the final third of the book is narrated by a Chinese character and the two stories blend in a way that brings the central mystery of the book which is ... could be put very briefly as how did she possibly receive a letter from a man who’s been dead 20 years, asking her to meet him at the hour of the rat in a bar that doesn’t seem to exist? Their stories come together through that. But in this, one of the things that I did do as well was assume for the foreign character the right to speak about something about Chinese affairs that affect her which is essentially my position too. I was there in 1989. Tiananmen, the massacre and all of that deeply affected me, so I have the right to speak about it. I don’t see why I don’t, especially when people who sometimes claim that you don’t have the right or claim the right to speak about it are people who weren’t there, who were so young they weren’t even born then but have received a patriotic education that tells them that what we who were there and many, many other people have documented didn’t happen because they don’t know.
The politics of writing about China is really, really interesting so at this point my character’s walking through a snowstorm.
I picked my way across [... it’s night ...] I picked my way across the city ... the street with care for it was still dangerously icy. Once on the north side of the road I looked for a familiar hutong, one I’d calculated would lead me towards the place I was going, that mysterious bar. Where I was certain it should begin, however, there stood a gaudy, gargantuan new seafood restaurant with a giant neon prawn waving its multi-coloured feelers from the roof. I may have been disorientated by the snow but suspected that the charming laneway I was looking for existed no more. Developers had logged Beijing’s historic hutong neighbourhoods like the Amazon, relentlessly driving a unique and grand urban civilisation towards extinction. I could never reconcile in my mind how the inheritors of this magnificent ancient culture could be both so rightly proud of their past and so perversely active in its destruction. The old city was disappearing at the speed of memory, leaving only its stories to hover over once historic sites like lonely ghosts. It wasn’t must physical heritage under attack. In its media, schools and museums, the Party–state was single-mindedly sandblasting the rich, complex and untidy history of the country itself, cleansing it of ambiguity, purging it of shame and scouring it of blood unless the stains were conveniently on the hands of enemies.
So I just thought yeah, I actually have the right to write that, I have experienced the disappearance of the hutongs that I love, I have seen how the scouring of history has taken place. I really am conscious of the fact I should be stopping for questions. I’m simply going to tell you about two topics that I was going to talk about, and if you want me to talk about it more then I’m very happy to. One is how a translator is more than a translator of language but a translator of customs and so on and how translation ... The documents you translate can also change with time, and there’s an example in my Quarterly Essay, ‘Found in Translation,’ of an ancient Chinese saying that comes from a true historical story that has ... when you say those four characters as a saying the meaning has changed over time in China. Mao gave it one meaning, history had given it another, you can look at it in many different ways and that is one of the conundrums for the translator. What is the meaning, meanings, especially in a country where with such a long history, with such a long literary tradition, how do you find the meaning of what you are trying to translate? So, there’s that.
And I was going to speak a little bit about an opera that I wrote, a bilingual opera, the libretto’s finished, the music is finished but very long story we ... Put it this way, there were murders, there was the slaying of a tiger, there was betrayals, there were seductions, and that was just behind the scenes. But it was an opera that was commissioned by the National Peking Opera Company and I wrote it under the guidance and mentorship of the then–President of the National Peking Opera Company. And it also attempts to get into the head of not just five Chinese characters, but five iconic Chinese characters that every single person in China knows, and probably has an opinion on. So, that was fun. I will stop now, I’ve been very naughty, I’m only giving you 10 minutes instead of 15 for questions so I’m very sorry about that.
C: Thank you so very much, Linda, for sharing with us your life, your experience with China, your relationship with China and for giving us two of the best pieces of career advice I’ve heard: to bluff and to ride the subway. So please join me in thanking Linda.
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