Political fictions

World Eric Abrahamsen reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing trade event, where China was this year's guest of honour - and competing narratives of the nation were the order of the day.

An Amnesty International stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair calls attention to the case of Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu, who could not attend because he was denied a passport.
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Eric Abrahamsen reports from the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world's largest publishing trade event, where China was this year's guest of honour - and competing narratives of the nation were the order of the day. Addressing a mostly European audience at the Frankfurt Book Fair last week, Liu Binjie, the head of China's General Administration of Press and Publication, began his remarks on the development of Sino-European literary translation with a history lesson. "It has been more than 700 years since the publication of Marco Polo's travel diaries in 1299, the first time that the distant Chinese civilisation entered fully into Europeans' view," he said from a podium at the world's largest publishing trade fair. "During these long centuries, these two civilisations made cautious contact, tentative explorations, even joined in fierce battle, and the powerful cannons and gunships of the imperial west invaded China many times. Today the Chinese people have stood up and prospered, and we are able to meet here in equality and in peace, to talk to one another, listen to one another, learn from one another."

The epic scope, the hint of rebuke, the mild triumphalism: these are hallmarks of China's official narrative about itself, and they can be found everywhere in the country, from primary-school textbooks, to newscasts, to the signage on the ruins of buildings burnt by European armies a hundred years ago. The subtext of this narrative is that it is high time the world sat up and took notice of China, welcomed it back to its rightful place at the centre, and accepted responsibility for ever having displaced it. More than any other plotline on offer at the fair, this story of the nation's fall and rise was the subtext of China's presence in Frankfurt.

A policy of "going out" into the world has been a part of China's development strategy since 2002. What began as an economic plan has in recent years expanded to incorporate soft power and cultural influence. So when China was selected to be the "Guest of Honour" at this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, the country seized its opportunity to appear in full regalia. More than 20 writers travelled to Germany, including China's three best-known novelists, Mo Yan, Yu Hua and Su Tong, along with a cavalcade of Peking Opera performers, artisans and painters. The delegation included more than 800 participants, and is reported to have cost the government nearly $15 million. If the 2008 Olympic Games was China's global "coming out party", then its excursion to Frankfurt could be considered a first date.

But the rendezvous went awry early on. In September the Frankfurt Book Fair invited a handful of Chinese writers left out of the official delegation to a symposium that was intended to balance independent voices against the appointed Chinese state representatives. (The same is done for each year's Guest of Honour country.) The invitees included writers, such as Dai Qing and the poet Bei Ling, who were highly objectionable to the Chinese government. The ensuing fracas, in which China threatened to boycott the book fair and the organisers "uninvited" several participants, left both sides looking bad.

As with the 2008 Olympic Games, however, a rather ominous prologue led to no further high drama or fiery confrontation. The book fair organisers saved some face by adding new dissident figures to the programme, including the exiled Uighur leader Rebiyah Kadeer, who was blamed by the Chinese government for instigating the riots in Xinjiang this summer. The Chinese, for their part, made no further protest. But those opening moves hinted that China's global dissemination of its culture may not progress as smoothly as hoped.

The general assumption outside of China, particularly in the media, is that Chinese writers fall into two categories: oppressed heroes or party hacks. During a reception at the fair, a German man cornered the novelist Yu Hua in the crowd. "How can Tie Ning be a writer if she's an official?" the German asked. Tie Ning is the chairperson of the China Writers Association, a ministry-level body that "oversees" writers and in some cases provides them with a living. At the same time, she is the author of four novels, several of which are highly regarded by literary critics within China. Yu Hua leapt to her defence as a "real" writer. But the western media has been generally unwilling to entertain the possibility that a government official could also be a unique literary voice. Spiegel Online ran an article at the beginning of the fair painting Tie Ning as a pure party apparatchik, scoffing that she "apparently never heard that approximately 600 books are banned in China each year".

Chinese officials also tend to separate writers - and, for that matter, pretty much everyone - into two categories: those who go along with the government's national narrative, and "people with anti-China prejudices", ie, those who don't. Writers must contend with the domestic half of China's official story, which revolves around the triumphs of the Communist Party and passes over the tragedies of starvation and internal strife in silence. China's most sensitive topics - independence in Tibet or Xinjiang, direct criticism of Mao, the military or Party leaders - are strictly off-limits, but many of the older writers in particular have spent their careers assessing the damage the government has done to Chinese society. Yu Hua, one of the official delegation's headliners, regularly gives interviews on the Tiananmen Square massacre, and will tell anyone who listens that he's not an official author. Mo Yan's novels are full of the violence of China's recent history, and Li Er and Liu Zhenyun, in very different ways, have written about the destruction of the individual self under collective rule. Writing on these subjects will not result in jail time or a confiscated passport, but it does draw criticism: the standard accusation is that these authors are "pandering to foreign tastes".

Besides author events and topical forums, China's presence at Frankfurt consisted mainly of half a convention hall, where more than 60 Chinese publishers set up stalls filled with books they felt might appeal to foreign publishers, and representatives sat behind folding tables, fielding enquiries. Browsing the aisles revealed the extent to which China's Guest of Honour presence was an educational project: the shelves were filled with volumes on silk weaving, printing technology and painting; China's stunning number of historical inventions; the economic development of the past 30 years; the growth of the military; the contentedness of China's minorities. Nearly all focused either on China's glorious past or China's glorious present - almost a complete disconnect with works of the visiting novelists, which tell stories about life in modern Chinese society on a human scale. Chinese fiction was nearly non-existent in the official stands, and was represented mainly in foreign-language translation at the booths of non-Chinese publishers.

In private, the Chinese writers in Frankfurt seemed ill at ease with both their government and the western media. Out at a pub on the final night of the fair, conversation among three Chinese writers began with criticism of their government's decision to deny a passport to Liao Yiwu, a dissident writer. "Let him come!" was the general consensus. "What are they afraid of?" Speaking under condition of anonymity, one writer said that officials from the General Administration of Press and Publication had spoken to all the authors beforehand, wanting to know what they planned on saying. "They asked us, 'What do you think of so-and-so? What do you think of Ma Jian? What do you think of Rebiyah Kadeer?" the writer recalled. "Then they offered to 'help' us draft responses to various potential questions. We said, 'no thanks, we can handle it ourselves!' That's progress, though. Ten years ago that would have been an order, not an offer."

The writers' assessment of the German media was almost equally disparaging. They had answered interview questions about censorship, political prisoners and Tibet - everything except their novels. When I spoke with the young writer Xu Zechen, he chalked this up to western media bias, and noted that the Germans seemed particularly bitter. "They're used to thinking of themselves as kings of the hill, I think, and they don't like seeing another country on the rise." It's a remark that fits in perfectly with China's official view of itself, though it's worth noting that Xu Zechen's fiction is concerned with the young generation of China's urban poor and their struggles to stay off the streets and out of jail - hardly in keeping with "great China" rhetoric.

In public speaking events, under the double scrutiny of the Chinese government and western public opinion, many of the writers chose the safety of humour. Yu Hua mocked his own lack of education, and Liu Zhenyun told a funny story about his bag being stolen in Munich. Wang Meng, a 75-year-old novelist who was sentenced to hard labour from 1967 to 1979 for "rightist" fiction and later served as China's minister of culture, charmed the audience with praise for younger Chinese authors and self-deprecating remarks about how the world was passing him by. Even faced with politicised questions the writers displayed grace. Asked about the exact role of the Writers Association, Mo Yan first admitted that it was purely a political body, winning points for candour, before explaining that it did very little besides organising events and paying salaries.

Watching the finesse with which many of the writers handled themselves, it seems almost tragic that China's officials should be so ham-handed in addressing the world. China-watchers often comment that, for all the state's obsession with saving face, it is the government itself that does the most damage to China's global reputation. Li Er, whose novel Coloratur had just come out in German translation, suggested that the officials are more aware than they seem: "Actually, they know how they appear to foreigners, but they have no choice. If you talk to any one of these officials privately they are quite reasonable, but in public they are required to stick to a script. When they make speeches and statements to the press, their real audience is back home, they are talking to be heard by their superiors and other government departments." He added that a more enlightened diplomatic tone is almost impossible. "All decisions about what to say are made by a committee, they are handed down from above. No single official would ever dare step forward an handle a situation on his own."

Much of Chinese officials' frustration, then, seems to spring from the fact that, no matter how clearly they enunciate the official interpretation of China and its history, foreigners seem neither as awed by China's re-emergence nor as contrite for their historical wrongdoings as they should be. But the Chinese government continues to fight for its monopoly on the official national narrative and insist that talk of freedom and democracy simply represents a failure to grasp the facts. Meanwhile, western leaders and media commentators appear confident that a new era of openness and justice would dawn if only a Chinese official could be induced to admit in public that censorship is wrong. Neither attitude seems likely to prevail.

But the crowds of curious fairgoers who packed nearly every author event and book reading, who asked questions and bought novels, indicate that somewhere behind or below this politicised standoff, readers are looking to satisfy a deep and natural curiosity about life in Chinese society. So the writers continue their individual work, harassed, their integrity more or less intact, putting up with the narratives of others until they can get back to their own.

Eric Abrahamsen is a Beijing-based literary translator and a contributor to Paper Republic, an online journal.