Powerless, helpless and downtrodden: The state of Chinese literature in this pandemic

In today’s age where it seems that all great literature has been written, Yan Lianke has a modest wish for aspiring writers in China. He hopes that they will have the space to create works, unfettered by thoughts of going against the grain. He believes that creating a culture that allows for dissenting voices in literature is far more important and desperately needed than creating a single or a few accidental great literary works.
A man wearing a face mask walks along a road in Beijing on 11 March 2020. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
A man wearing a face mask walks along a road in Beijing on 11 March 2020. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

I’ve always doubted if the literature of today has as much meaning as people say it does.

There are two reasons for this. One, great literature is already as vast as the ocean. What needs to be written is already written or overwritten. Two, great literature emerges from a time that nurtures it. Today’s era is one of the internet, of science and technology, and whatever else. Literature lies on the periphery of these main acts and can only play a supporting role. It no longer enjoys the golden age it did in the late 18th century to the 1970s of the 20th century, when it was a leading cultural pillar on the world stage.

Acknowledging literature’s limitations is not a bad thing — it lets us know that writers are but writers in this era; it gives context to what writers wish to do, and what they can do.   

The time for producing great literature has passed. Only a genius has the ear of the heavens to write revolutionary, earth-shattering pieces. At least in China, that time has quietly passed us by. In fact, I would say, it is extremely difficult to produce great literature in today’s milieu. The literary world has already been blessed with two brilliant and glorious centuries — human history does not owe literature anything.

What emerging writers then must do, henceforth, is to play their supporting roles well. In many novels, movies, and dramas, supporting actors can often be scene-stealers too. We toil at our writing, perhaps with the hope of such accidental greatness? While we do that, never forget who the main leads are in the annals of literary history, and what our roles ultimately are as the supporting cast. Acknowledging literature’s limitations is not a bad thing — it lets us know that writers are but writers in this era; it gives context to what writers wish to do, and what they can do.      

In the time of coronavirus    

The Covid-19 virus is here.

It truly seems like a battle that shouldn’t have happened but one is nonetheless stuck in a real battlefield, assaulted by gunfire from left, right and centre. And it does not only affect Wuhan, Hubei, and China — the entire world is also dragged into this catastrophe, a step at a time. China’s inland city of Wuhan is the epicentre of this epidemic. The tragic outbreak and resulting deaths are like the waves of a tsunami, crashing outwards to its surroundings and the world. Humankind could not have predicted that “humans are a community” would be proven this way.

Like black smoke swirling out of damp wood, the ugliness of human nature envelopes us. Yet, like a dazzling flame, the glory and purity of humanity warms and lights up the world, the heavens and the earth, the people, and the most basic components of the nation.

This photo taken on 28 February 2020 shows a resident walking past a mural in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. (STR/AFP)
This photo taken on 28 February 2020 shows a resident walking past a mural in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province. (STR/AFP)

Absurdity and wrongs have always been part of human history. In such times, the deceased have yet to rest in peace and heart-wrenching cries and tears still flood the streets and fill the villages. Tens of thousands of medical workers in China abandoned their families, racing to the front line at Wuhan and Hubei. As they fought with their lives against the outbreak and death, many of them not only lost the fight but perished themselves.

Without a doubt, regardless of the source of the outbreak, its spread erupted from a loophole in a social structure with Chinese characteristics. Yet after Wuhan’s lockdown, China quickly united as one, its resilience strong, like a fire lit with scattered firewood quickly bound together. That's why while the ugliness of human nature envelopes us like black smoke swirling out of damp wood, like a dazzling flame, the glory and purity of humanity warms and lights up the world, the heavens and the earth, the people, and the most basic components of the nation.

Perhaps this is what they call the power of a nation.  

Perhaps this is what we call the hope of a nation. 

Amid this power and hope, and the distancing of literature and the closing in of the outbreak, we once again feel literature’s powerlessness and helplessness in the face of a fierce tragedy. Literature can neither be masks that are sent to affected areas, nor turn into protective suits for medical use. When we need something to eat and drink, it is neither milk nor bread. When we need vegetables, it is neither a radish, a cabbage, nor a stalk of celery. Even when people are trapped in fear and anxiety, it cannot be a placebo.

This file photo taken on 28 January 2020 shows medical staff members hugging each other in an isolation ward at a hospital in Zouping in China's easter Shandong province. (STR/AFP)
This file photo taken on 28 January 2020 shows medical staff members hugging each other in an isolation ward at a hospital in Zouping in China's Shandong province. (STR/AFP)

Why did certain Chinese state media and virtually all thought leaders of the community call locked-down Wuhan the new “Auschwitz”? And why is Auschwitz always associated with poems? Because Wuhan and Covid-19 have become metaphors; because through this calamity, Chinese society has once again realised the importance of tolerating dissenting voices. And life and death have proven once again that one should still write poems in Auschwitz if they can. Because at this time, poems are not mere poems — they are dissenting voices, legacies, and proof of our existence. If someone had written poems in Auschwitz back then and brought them out, Auschwitz would not have lasted for such a long time, and the multitude of innocent lives would not have been trampled under the feet of fascism like ant-like nobodies.             

The peculiarities of a Chinese writer

That is to say, it would be truly foolish and horrifying if there were no war reporters to document the truth during a war. 

The absence of dissenting voices in the face of calamity is perhaps the biggest calamity of humankind.

Few people in the world understand the cowardice and helplessness of Chinese writers just as few know why weak penguins of the South Pole are only able to live in the extreme cold.

During wars and epidemics, there are writers who willingly become “warriors” and “reporters”. Their voices will travel even further than gunfire. Voices of dissent often have the power to turn bayonets away from them, and mute the enemies’ roaring guns. Luminaries such as Isaac Babel, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and George Orwell come to mind. I’m not saying that a writer has to become a reporter in times of war to be deemed a good writer but that it is cruel and absurd if a writer is blind to death and deaf to gunfire during a war. Or, he had already seen death and heard gunfire, but blatantly declared that the gunfire was the sound of fireworks going off in anticipation of imminent victory, that would be even more ridiculous and scarier than wars and the epidemic itself.

Franz Kafka once wrote in his diary: “In the morning, war broke out; in the afternoon, I went for a bath.” But we must never forget that he was someone most sensitive to absurdity and who truly put absurdity into words in his canon of absurdist fiction. As for us, we’re often the ones who treat the sound of gunfire as fireworks, or even lift our pens to prove absurdity’s normality by proclaiming that the sound of gunfire is indeed the sound of fireworks.

No one has the right to condemn the ones who bawl and raise their arms in celebration amid a sea of tears. No one should also condemn the poets, writers, professors, and intellectuals who have long declared their choices, stands, and judgements based on political correctness before countless truths are made known.

Few people in the world understand the cowardice and helplessness of Chinese writers just as few know why weak penguins of the South Pole are only able to live in the extreme cold. These are perhaps the circumstances that the Chinese and Chinese writers have been living under. And circumstances set apart writer from writer, and literature from literature, marking their distinct contrasts in worthiness and character. In China, some individuals would certainly make such comments, but would they allow others the liberty to do the same? Along the same vein, we can even say that great literature is a dissenting voice in itself. Without the presence of a myriad of voices, there can be no literature, let alone great literature. Allowing dissenting voices in literature is far more important and desperately needed than creating a single or a few accidental great literary works.

No one can understand how powerless and helpless Chinese writers are. And no one can understand either, why Chinese writers don’t seem to appreciate or need the idea of tolerance and freedom to do as they please. Humanity shares the commonality of feeling cold when the days turn chilly, and feeling warm when the days turn hot. Yet, can we truly feel one and the same? For the divided literary community who hold lackadaisical attitudes, the fact is that when winter really comes and it has truly turned chilly, I could be wearing one wadded jacket more than you — a jacket that has been bestowed on or rewarded to me. And that, is the idiosyncrasy, predicament, and hopelessness found in the plight of Chinese writers and literature today. Because in an actual harsh winter, most writers have with them one wadded jacket more than others that keeps them warm!

A man lowers his mask to smoke a cigarette in Beijing on 9 March 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)
A man lowers his mask to smoke a cigarette in Beijing on 9 March 2020. (Greg Baker/AFP)

During the first and second World Wars, not all writers charged to the front line of the battlefields like Babel, Hemingway, and Orwell did with their pens poised amid the sound of gunfire. But I believe, every writer would know that if Leo Tolstoy had never joined the army, he could never have written War and Peace. If Erich Maria Remarque had never fought in World War I and was wounded, he could never have written All Quiet on the Western Front.

“I know I am muddling along, but I’m able to find bliss and happiness in muddling.” That is the nature and culture of today’s Chinese.

 As for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, as well as Albert Camus’s The Plague and José Saramago’s Blindness among many others, they exist as dissenting voices in this world. The former dissenting voices of the battlefield were written by a soldier of the air force and a prisoner of war, while the latter detailed deep understandings and profound feelings towards human plagues.

From this perspective then, under the current circumstances, it is time for Chinese writers to write something. It is time for them to write about the most painful and alienated people, the most preposterous and unbearable history, and the most unique and insightful work of all time. In all of China’s past and present, Chinese writers have witnessed and experienced way too many absurdities, deaths, and calamities; we have witnessed and experienced the explosion of diseases, and the resurgence of deaths and catastrophes after they have been forgotten. Having experienced these, will we be like Camus and Saramago, and ponder upon man’s solitary and memories, and mankind’s predicament? Will we be like them, and face the truths of man, reality, and the world, writing and arriving at a deeper kind of truth? Will we write or will we not? If we do write, what will we write about?

Truth be told, there are plenty of talented writers in China. The crux of Chinese literature does not entirely lie in what we were told to write or not to write, but also in why we know what to write but purposely choose not to write about those. To live and muddle along is one thing — to have no choice but to muddle along is another. But, to be sober and still choose to willingly muddle along is another thing in itself: “I know I am muddling along, but I’m able to find bliss and happiness in muddling.” That is the nature and culture of today’s Chinese. It is our trait and something we have inherited.

Henceforth, literature not only became powerless and helpless, literature became detestable.

A man wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus uses his phone as he sits on an electric vehicle in Beijing on 8 March 2020.(Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
A man wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the Covid-19 coronavirus uses his phone as he sits on an electric vehicle in Beijing on 8 March 2020.(Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

Literature is powerless, helpless and downtrodden, but writers not only fail to contemplate this powerlessness, helplessness and downtrodden state, they could even use their own pens, voices, and power, to compose a song of praise out of the reality that caused the absurdities, deaths and tears. To muddle along and to be correct, they only used the heroes’ shoes to cover the footprints leading up to the tombstones of the dead. Henceforth, literature not only became powerless, helpless and downtrodden, literature became detestable.

Literature is literature no more.

What’s scary is not the change in the role of literature and its banishment to the periphery of history, but writers who blatantly applaud literature’s powerlessness and helplessness, and loudly proclaim “Bravo!” in the face of works that are powerless and helpless, all the while being clearly aware of literature’s powerlessness, helplessness and marginalisation. What’s scary are writers who strip literature of its last bit of dignity and respectability, watch literature fall and die, and still believe that they are the model writers who will save literature.

The writing that this sort of thinking produces perhaps falls under a genre of Chinese literature of its own, where writers themselves are the executioners of literature. The tragedy of Chinese literature lies in many writers having an extra wadded jacket to wear in the bone-chilling cold. And the way out lies in whether those who have an extra jacket are willing to remove their jackets when everybody else is standing in the cold. Otherwise, literature becomes hopeless and even detestable. 

- 7 March 2020

Related Reading: Chinese novelist Yan Lianke: When the epidemic ends, let our memories live