I sometimes wonder what Chairman Mao, who almost single-handedly launched, then single-mindedly derailed, the Chinese Revolution, might have thought of the literature published since his death in 1976. Taking the long view, I think he would have approved of "scar literature," a cathartic body of writing that voices the sufferings of the Cultural Revolution, for its success in pacifying the people at a difficult historical moment; after all, if, for the time being, they could not be united under the banner of permanent, violent revolution, why not keep them busy airing their collective discontent, mainly with one another? Mao knew the value and limitations of literature and writers, and he trusted neither. Yet he knew how to harness their power; over the years, he had used literature and the arts both to bring down his enemies-most of them erstwhile friends-and to keep the people's attention focused on his political agenda. If national events and socialist behavior remained the raison d'etre of the writing, it served his purposes. The fiction that began appearing shortly after his death was, by any reasonable literary standard, rather badly written; but that would not have concerned Mao, for in his earliest pronouncements on literature, back in the Yan'an caves in the 1940s, he had said, "Literature and art are subordinate to politics, but in their turn exert a great influence on politics." By focusing on the evils wrought by the renegade Gang of Four, and thus deflecting charges of responsibility away from the Party and the current government, this generally amateurish writing played a significant political role in the days immediately following the Cultural Revolution.
"Scar literature" gave way in the late 1970s and early 1980s to "introspective writing" and "root-seeking literature," both of which would have fit nicely into Mao's plans to keep the socialist pot boiling. The questions posed in the fiction of this period-like, Why are we the way we are? and What are the origins of our Chineseness?-are just the sort of questions Mao would have wanted people to ask, since he could have been counted on to provide the answers. And if the writers went a bit far afield, or strayed into one form of heresy or another, then they would become grist for his mill, a mill that produced exemplars for the next generation. Indeed, there were some anxious moments, as when the avant-garde versifiers known as "misty poets" renounced a collective mentality with their imagistic, impenetrable poems; but who reads poetry anyway? Mao would have merely swatted them away with one of his famed waves of the hand, a superior smile on his face, smug with the knowledge that the "neo-realistic" prose then capturing the imagination of readers in China and in the West was highly politicized, making it one more potential weapon to be used by those in power to retain that power.
The literary scene in the mid-1980s was charged, as large numbers of readers were won over by the passion of writers hewing to the role of social reformer. Finally, people assumed, a literature of dissent worthy of the name was emerging: stories revealing the ugly side of the revolution, poems that sang the praises of romantic love, dramas that acted out some of the dangers facing the Chinese nation, even films portraying the betrayal of the revolution by people within the Communist Party and the government itself! But Mao, I think, would not have been concerned, knowing it was only a matter of time before someone went too far and the orthodoxy of power could reassert itself. Mao must have known that the only truly dangerous writing in a totalitarian society is that which ignores politics altogether, literature that serves art, not society. Anti-Party diatribes? They would play right into his hands. Lurid sex and gratuitous violence? He certainly had nothing against either of those in real life. Utopian pie in the sky? What, after all, is Marxism?
But then China 's new leaders turned their guns on their own students and workers, and the ensuing loss of faith, coupled with the supremely individualistic desire to get rich quick, changed almost everything in China, including its literature. I suspect that even the chairman's confidence would have been shaken by reactions to events of June 1989. The writers responded to the new realities by staking out territory independent of societal and political pressures; they were now more interested in mocking the government and socialist society than in trying to reform them, more concerned with the reception of their work by the international community than with their status in China. If Mao were still around and running the show, I'll bet that few, if any, of the stories in the present collection would have pleased him. At best he might have asked, "What's the point?" At worst… well, we mustn't get carried away. Most troubling to him, I suspect, would have been the artistry-the playfulness of some of the pieces, the angst-ridden introspection of others, and the layered possibilities of most; that, of course, and their lack of utility, something no socialist revolutionary could abide. No, if confronted by the literary offerings of the twenty men and women represented here, Chairman Mao would certainly not be amused.
All the selections in this anthology were written or first published in China proper; the earliest pieces appeared in 1985, the most recent in late 1993. Novelists who left China more than a decade ago, those who have moved on to other pursuits (most, in contemporary terms, to take the plunge-that is, become entrepreneurs), and those from other Chinese communities-Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, the West-are not represented here; their work can be found in translation elsewhere.
Many people have graciously contributed to this anthology: Colin Dickerman, who suggested the project; Shelley Wing Chan, who performed many important tasks for me as the project built up steam; friends and colleagues who either commented upon the growing list of authors and stories or made recommendations of their own; and, of course, the accomplished translators, who maintained their composure and humor even when I could not. On behalf of the authors whose work graces the pages that follow, I thank them all.
That year, in the fall, I was assigned housing. It wasn't a bad apartment, just too high up, on the twenty-first story, and a long way from downtown. I took half a day off work to go have a look. The trip took almost two hours by bus, and by the time I got there, it was already after four o'clock. I saw it right away. Just as I had been told, it was the only building for about a mile around. It was white and surrounded by a green brick wall. The area was pleasant, with trees on three sides and a river to the south. The river flowed west to east, just as I had been told. The wall ran right up against the riverbank, and a small bridge led to the courtyard gate.
Even so, as I walked through the gate, I was thinking I should make sure I'd come to the right place. Near the western wall stood a huge parasol tree; a young woman was sitting against its trunk in the quiet, concentrated shade. I walked over and asked her if this was the building I was looking for. I didn't think I was speaking too quietly. She lifted her head, seemed to glance at me, and then settled back down as before, looking with lowered eyes at the shifting dots of light that the autumn sun was sprinkling down through the shade. It was as if I no longer existed. I stood waiting for a while, and then I heard her murmur, "Go with the flow." Her voice was quite soft, but she spoke each word slowly and distinctly. I nodded. I was positive I no longer existed. Her thoughts were off in a fantasy land. Some vulgar noise had disturbed her for a minute, that was all. I felt a little apologetic and a little abashed, so I stepped back, turned away, and walked straight for the front door of the apartment building, thinking that this had to be the place.
The building appeared empty; people hadn't started moving in yet. No one was there to run the elevators, which were all locked. I have heart trouble, but since I'd come so far, I couldn't just leave after one look at the stairs. I figured that as long as I didn't try to go fast, I wouldn't have much of a problem climbing to the twenty-first floor. "Go with the flow" was what the girl said. That seemed to be sincere, appropriate advice, so I took a few deep breaths and started to climb. When I reached the third floor, I stopped to catch my breath. I leaned out the window and caught sight of the girl. She was still sitting there in a trance, her head slightly lowered, her hands resting casually on her knees. On her simple, elegant skirt, dots of sunlight and shade silently divided and then combined, gathered together and fell apart again. "Go with the flow" was what she said. Actually, when she said it, she didn't see me and didn't hear any vulgar noise. She didn't see anything and didn't hear anything. She was a thousand miles away. I couldn't see her face, but I could sense her tranquillity and enchantment. The autumn wind swept invisibly past the huge parasol tree, making a soft, dignified sound.
On a fall evening, when the sun was about to set, she left home alone, locking the gradually gathering twilight in her room. She walked where she pleased along paths through the fields. She followed the smells of the grasses and the earth as she walked where she pleased. Who was she? She walked to a remote, quiet place and sat down facing a tall, empty building. She leaned against an ancient tree. She sat in its deep, swaying shade, sat in the low, chanting sound it made. She made the place her own. Who was she? She thought about things near and distant, about things real and illusory. Her mind and body slipped into a natural, mysterious realm… A woman like that, who could she be? A woman to be admired.
But I had to keep climbing my stairs. I didn't know what had been arranged for me by nature's mysteries. Take, for example, climbing stairs; take, for example, the fact that there was an apartment on the twenty-first floor that would belong to me. When had this been determined? How had it been determined? Fourth floor, fifth floor. I had to rest again. To tell the truth, resting was of secondary importance. As I climbed, I didn't stop thinking about the girl, even for a minute. I had no bad intentions, I just wanted to look at her again and was afraid she had already left. I just wanted to have another look at her, another look at the contented nonchalance with which she sat alone under that big tree, quietly lost in thought. I looked down. She hadn't left. She was still sitting there by herself, still sitting the same way. But now I saw someone else.
There was a man walking back and forth along the outside of the western wall. I hadn't noticed him before. The wall had blocked my view, and I couldn't see him. The wall was quite high. By this time, I was on the fifth floor; yet even so, I could see only his head and shoulders. He paced back and forth as if caged. He walked for a while, then stopped, looked into the distance, and puffed repeatedly on a cigarette. Then he started walking back and forth again, then stopped again, and smoked furiously as he peered toward the distant woods. I could hear his footsteps; they sounded irritated, restless. I heard the snap of each match he struck; he broke match after match. The spot where he stopped was also in the shade of the parasol tree; only the wall separated him from the girl. Along with the appearance of this man, I noticed that not far from him and the girl, in the northwest corner of the wall, there was a small gate. It had been there all along, of course. I had just overlooked it. Now it was especially obvious. Who was the man? What was he to her? One was inside the gate, the other was outside. There was no one else around, no one else in the vicinity. What was going on? The man was terribly upset and anxious, and the woman was in an absolutely silent trance. What had happened? What had happened between them? A slanting beam of sunlight came through the gap between the doors of the small gate and settled in the damp shadow at the base of the wall; it was bright and sadly beautiful.
"Go with the flow" was what the girl said, but what did she mean? To what did "Go with the flow" refer? Was she forced to leave him? Did she have no choice but to leave him? Yes, yes. If she had no choice but to leave him, then all she could do was go with the flow. No choice but to leave him. That meant she still loved him, but there was nothing she could do. "Go with the flow." Wasn't that the truth? When she said it, her voice was hollow, her eyes dazed. She didn't see me at all and, of course, couldn't hear what I asked her. She was overcome with sadness; all she could think of was the happiness and the bitterness of the past. But finally there was nothing she could do. And the man outside the wall? He was madly in love with her and wanted to make her happy. How he hoped she would be happier because of him. It never occurred to him that he would drive her to such suffering. It never occurred to him that things could end up like this. He had thought it was enough that he loved her and that she loved him, too. It never occurred to him that the world was so large or that everything in life was connected in so many ways.
"As long as you're happy, it's OK." Maybe that's what he said finally.
The woman sat under the tree with her head lowered. Restlessly, the man walked to her side, around her, in front of her.
"As long as you're happy, I'll be OK whatever happens," he said to her.
"But if you'll just not be afraid, if you'll just have a little courage.
"Will you say something? After so long, you must give me a definite answer."
The woman couldn't speak. Yes or no. The logic of it wasn't so simple.
The man said, "I'm waiting for you to say the word. Yes or no."
The man said, "What's important is what you want. What's important is what you think will make you happy."
The man said, "It's not that I want you to make a decision right away, but I have to know what you think is best."
The woman couldn't speak at all. What would be best? Maybe it would have been best if you and I had never met. Maybe it would be best if people didn't fall in love, if there were never such a person as you, never such an autumn as this, never such hollow afternoon light, and never such an expanse of shade. She didn't want any of it. Such long, slender, restless legs, such delicate, nimble feet crushing fallen leaves. She didn't want any of it. And the long, drawn-out sound of leaves ripping into pieces. She didn't want it. She had never wanted it.
"Are you going to say something?" the man asked. "I don't know what it means that you won't say anything.