The Subplot

From The Wall Street Journal:

As democracies around the globe wrestle over where to draw the line between free speech and unlawful lies and what—if any—rules should govern social-media platforms, we might assume that under nondemocratic governments such matters are cut and dried. Not so. Anyone who has ever lived in a communist country knows that the rules are often vaguely worded and the system enforcing them capricious. A book the authorities ignore today might trigger their anger tomorrow. In China, writes Megan Walsh in “The Subplot: What China Is Reading and Why It Matters,” some call this the “anaconda in the chandelier” with the onus being on “publishers and writers to second-guess what might cause the snake to strike from above.”

Outside China, many assume that anything that gets past the censors must be, at best, without artistic merit or, at worst, propaganda. After all, Xi Jinping made it clear in 2014 that art and literature should “take patriotism as its muse, guiding the people to establish and adhere to correct views of history, the nation, the country, and culture.” Yet to consider banned books the only ones worth reading, Ms. Walsh argues, is still a political litmus test. “It would benefit us as foreign readers wanting to understand Chinese society—as well as our own—to seek out fictional worlds, rather than the broad-brush political and economic narratives of the public domain.”

Ms. Walsh began exploring the world of China’s writers and artists in 2004 while she was living in Beijing. In “The Subplot,” the London-based arts writer compiles a kaleidoscopic picture of fiction written and published in mainland China over the past 10 to 20 years. Despite a proliferation of trendy bookstores, most fiction reaches its audience online in what Ms. Walsh describes as “the largest self-generating industry of unregulated, free-market fiction in the world.”

The confluence of technology, economic growth, periods of relative creative freedom and the persistence of writers has produced an unprecedented diversity of voices. Some who lived through the Cultural Revolution, for example, only to see it—and their own past—erased from the “correct views of history,” publish haunting stories of alienation. In Mo Yan’s “Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out,” the narrator is reincarnated as one animal after another, never coming back as a human and therefore incapable of affecting or participating in China’s often violent transition from feudalism to socialism to capitalism. Among ethnic minorities, Ms. Walsh shows how Tsering Woeser and Pema Tseden expose the murky, painful realities of being “happy Tibetans”; and how the Uyghur author who goes by the pen name Tarim writes love poems in his native tongue but uses Chinese for political verses. In a poem translated by Ms. Walsh, he asks: “Friends say / Chinese poetry needs metaphor / I ask / Is that the same as a bat liking the dark?”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Should be a free link, but, if not, sorry.)

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.