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keerthik sasidharan

The Literature of Converts

The Literature of Converts

In Chinese, the word ‘wen’ refers to ‘pattern’, ‘civilization’, and even ‘a sign of the movement of the cosmos’.  In turn, the word ‘wenxue’ means ‘literature’.  But unlike the West for whom literature is the art of representation, according to A New Literary History of Modern China, wenxue is more subtle and capacious.  It speaks to the active and passive roles performed by wen.  More explicitly, to the Chinese, literature is that art which acts upon and, in turn, is acted upon by the world.  According to this symbiotic definition, when the material world changes, the scope of ‘literature’ must also enlargen to accommodate the experience of this changing world. 

Yet for all the extraordinary technological changes the Chinese have experienced over past two generations, when one reads the novels and short stories by their “serious” writers like Yan Lianke, Hua Ya, Can Xue, Gao Xinjiang, the great Mo Yan and others — we learn about the social changes under way.  There is precious little in their works about technology, in of itself, or direct consequences of technology.  For them, technology is a second order effect — the film of cream atop a society in churn; when, in fact, technology is the Promethean fire that has altered social relations in China.   

The absence of technology as a relevant theme for literary works is usually best seen in the edited anthologies of writing that surveys literature over long stretches of time. Whether it be entries in the volumes edited by Salman Rushdie (called ‘Mirrorwork’) in 1997, by Amit Chaudhuri in 2001, or more recently The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature edited by Yunte Huang in 2016 — almost none think of technology as a master-concept worthy of exploration as class, caste, language, identity etc often are.  This, of course, is not the fault of these editors.  Yet, it speaks to how a common reader must reach beyond convenient silos of literary genres if she seeks to find art that actively thinks about how our material life has changed or will change.  Be it the change born from the proliferation of clocks, radio, phones, the internet and so on. 

Ironically, it is science fiction — a genre that is often dismissed as the plaything of nerds, geeks, and social misfits — that has actively imagined the consequences of technological changes.  For the adherents of realism, or “serious literature”, science fiction is the literary equivalent of a petulant child in a room full of grown ups.  To them, as the great writer Ursula le Guinn described this prejudice, “a science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future”.  The underlying assumption of many realist writers is that science fiction is a litany of impossibilities for grown ups, shrouded in wooden prose.  But the truth is far from this.

In China, where the future is continually invented by engineers of the present, science fiction currently enjoys an efflorescence.  From the Cixin Liu whose intergalactic stories have found legions of admirers (including Barack Obama) to the little known Xia Jia (the pen name of Wang Yao) who writes about Confucian values set in the future. Science fiction has become a location where diversity of self-understandings now manifest freely.  Perhaps not surprisingly, ignoring this diversity, the West continues to treat all of Chinese science fiction as homogeneous despite the stellar efforts of translator-writers like Ken Liu and scholars like Mingwei Song.

There is an element of ‘Western’ snobbery in this reductionism but there is also the inevitable question of what exactly is ‘Chinese’ about Chinese science fiction?  This is a hard, or an ill-defined, question.  No different than asking what is ‘Indian’ about Indian novels — barring for the milieu of the narrative.  There is a tendency to think of China as a homogenous state and every science fiction story as a metaphorical effort to subvert the State’s authoritarianism.  Ken Liu wisely cautions against this “temptation” to over-interpret.  That said, this is a question that is unlikely vanish.

One useful way, albeit at a high level of generality, is to think of Chinese science fiction as a literature of converts — the literature of a culture that has embraced the monotheism of technology while retaining nostalgia for the polytheisms of an agrarian past.  This tension from a dual loyalty is amplified when we note that they experienced radical changes in forty years when the West was afforded nearly two hundred years to journey similar material changes. Changes that inevitably spilled into fundamental values such as family, freedom, nation etc. These erosions and frenzies of the mind are akin to those ongoing in the Indian experience. To this end, if we are to understand how Indians might conceptualize their presence in a modernity midwived by technology, some answers lie in Chinese science fiction and the quest for self-knowledge it grapples with.   []


A version of this column appeared in The Hindu, April 6 2019.

The God of all Sufferings

The God of all Sufferings