Han Han and the Big MisunderstandingWritten by Julen Madariaga on November 19th, 2009
I saw on ESWN this Time magazine interview of Han Han, and since I have written before about him, I think it is worth a comment. It is also interesting because it illustrates the scary misunderstandings between East and West that Kaiser Kuo warned against recently. This is, in my opinion, the key passage:
…despite his youthful bravado, Han, who has published 14 books and anthologies, generally stays away from sensitive issues such as democracy and human rights. His calculated rebelliousness, says Lydia Liu, a professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, exemplifies the unspoken compact his generation has forged with the ruling Communist Party: Leave us alone to have fun and we won’t challenge your right to run the country. "He is known for being a sharp critic of the government and the Establishment but he isn’t really," says Liu. Instead, she says, Han is a willing participant in a process that channels the disaffected energy of youth into consumerism. "The language in his novels and the narrative strategies are very easy to read," says Liu. "Basically it’s all the same book."
Before judging the literary value of the writer, Mrs. Liu makes a moral judgment of his rebelliousness: It is not intense enough to her taste, the issues he deals with are not sensitive enough. I think I’m not too far from the truth if I say that this summarizes the opinion of a large part of the academic community, and by extension of mainstream Western opinion. You may have noted that Ms. Liu is an expert in literature, not in politics. But when it comes to Chinese politics, we ALL know better than them.
Hecaitou’s blog also posted the interview and we can see some Chinese discuss it among themselves. Allowing for the odd troll, it is a fairly balanced discussion, as expected from an intelligent Chinese forum when they don’t feel observed by Western eyes. Perhaps the 2 most significant comments, that give an idea of the atmosphere, are:
- Compared to those who were criminalized for speaking, Han Han has no courage. He only teases, doesn’t dare to speak about the system.
- You mean, he needs to be a martyr? To fight for your rights, even if it is just a bit, to obtain awareness of citizen dignity, all these are matters that require someone to capture them. To be able to speak from within and disintegrate this system, that is the real master.
A large part of the misunderstandings between East and West come from the unreasonable expectations we have of each other. In particular, Western opinion expects of Chinese public figures to fight heroically and even suicidally against their own government. The Chinese political system is so evil, the logic goes, that any public person worthy of our attention should be dedicated to fighting it.
Now, I am the first who thinks China needs political change and respect of human rights, and I greatly admire the courage of some dissidents. But real heroes should be voluntary, like Mother Theresa, and no amount of public pressure can ever create one. Even less foreign public pressure.
In case I have some naïf reader, it is just as well to inform you here that Western policies are as arbitrary and cruel in the international scene as the CCP’s are accused of being in China. And both are equally full of good intentions. Why don’t we apply the same standards with our own public figures? Do we require of our writers to fight the system? Have they signed a compact to drive us into a consumerist slumber instead of protesting against injustice in the World?
We don’t do that. We act just like the Chinese, satisfying ourselves with he thought that “The World is unfair, but with a bit of patience and faith in the system, it will eventually become a better place”. Substitute “The World” with “China” and you have the mainstream Chinese thought.
“Hypocrisy”, I was going to write. But I don’t think it’s even that. It is simple closed-mindedness, the inability to see things from the other side.