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Asian Studies

Fiction From Afar: Chinese Writers Tackle Tiananmen

Story posted November 05, 2012

kong book cover The massacre at Tiananmen Square has been written about extensively in terms of its global political ramifications, but Bowdoin Assistant Professor of Asian Studies and English Belinda Kong will soon publish the first book to look at its literary effects.

Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square (Temple University Press, 2012) is the first full-length study of fictions related to the 1989 movement and massacre. Kong, an expert in Asian-American diaspora literature, spotlights four key Chinese writers who have written and published about the massacre from abroad. Their perspectives as "outsiders" inform their work and reveal how diaspora writers continually reimagine Tiananmen's relevance in a post-1989 world, where China has emerged as a major global power.

Bowdoin Associate Director of Academic Communication Selby Frame recently spoke with Kong about the book.

SF: As a political event, Tiananmen Square had incredible global visibility, yet was cloaked in immediate censorship. That sense of not knowing the real story is evident even in the reported number of students massacred, which varies between two hundred and several thousand. How do these fictionalized accounts bring us any closer to understanding the "real" story?

Belinda Kong BK: Great question! First, I would say that the four Tiananmen fictions I look at do not function primarily as "correctives" to mythologies that cloak the actual massacre. In fact, of the works I focus on, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma is the only one that deliberately and meticulously tracks the real "geography of killings" by spotlighting one exact location where about a dozen students were run over by tanks after they got evacuated from the Square on the morning of June 4. But this almost journalistic reportage style of fictionalizing history is more exception than the rule among Tiananmen fictions.

Most of these authors haven't gone through the research process to track down the numbers and hence do not write from a position of empirical information. Indeed, some of them deliberately stay away from this position of factual knowledge and focus instead on the partialness of their knowledge. But that's not to say these works are therefore less valuable — on the contrary, I see them as of primary importance for our understanding of what constitutes Chinese diasporic literature in the last twenty years, how that literature has evolved, and how that literature mediates worldwide knowledge about China.

SF: But of course, there is the fact that, due to censorship, they must publish their works from exile, where they then become diasporic writers.

BK: Well, the matter of censorship is not so cut and dry since some writers do write about Tiananmen and then return to China, while others write about it only after they've been abroad for a while. It's not that mainland writers can't write about Tiananmen — several do — but they have to disguise their references to the massacre with various evasive strategies to circumvent the censors.

Still, the main point remains that the open critique of state violence can only be published abroad.

chinese guard SF: Of the four writers you focus on, most Western readers are probably only familiar with Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000. And yet you note that Gao was actually little known in China when he became the subject of worldwide acclaim.

BK: Yes, it was a huge source of grievance on the part of Chinese writers when he won. He had made a career out of criticizing the communist government but at that time he was already living in France. He wrote an existentialist play about Tiananmen within months of the massacre, Fugitives, which dramatizes the tension between an intellectual and one of the student activists as they flee the square on the night of the massacre.

SF: Have any of these writers gone back to China?

BK: Annie Wang, who wrote a novel called Lili in 2001, studied journalism at Berkeley and then went back to China, where she is now a transnational writer. She started a fashion magazine in Shanghai, has a blog ... she's someone who writes in the media of contemporary times, so she doesn't get on the radar of scholars on either side of the world. In fact, the Tiananmen episode itself and the literature around it tend to minimize women.

Lili focuses on a female hooligan in Beijing who gets into petty crime and is jailed just for having a relationship out of wedlock. She looks at students as being elite and doesn't understand what democracy is really about but gets drawn in because of the movement's populism. She becomes a metaphor for citizens who are not highly educated, but who are pulled into the rhetoric of a government-for-the-people. Wang is one of a handful of novelists who look in-depth at the gender dynamics of Tiananmen.

SF: Do you see any parallels between Tiananmen Square and the Occupy movement?

BK: Hmmmm, possibly. Tiananmen has often been talked about as a movement targeting political corruption and expressive repression, but it was also catalyzed by precisely the types of socioeconomic problems motivating the Occupy movement — the widening income gap, deepening social divisions, massive inflation and unemployment. From this perspective, we could say that the Occupy movement is a late manifestation of the very global economic crisis that surfaced 20 years ago with China's shift to capitalism.

But the mass appeal of Tiananmen does seem different from the Occupy movement, the ability to pull in a cross-section of society. One case in China I particularly loved ... thieves just called a time out on stealing while the movement was going on as a gesture of solidarity [laughter]. It gets to the sense of mass appeal of the movement and how deeply engrained were peoples' feelings of injustice at the time. The Occupy movement gets some public sympathy but we don't get many accounts of people just walking by and getting sucked in and camping out.

SF: What is your hope for this book?

BK: When I started the project a decade ago there were fewer than two dozen native Chinese authors writing Tiananmen fictions. Now there is a growing corpus. I hope this book will allow people who work on China to realize how crucial a function diaspora writers can play in shaping global understanding of Chinese history. Oftentimes there is bias against insider knowledge, the idea that you can't write unless you are inside. But I believe that diaspora writers play a key role in shaping memory and understanding of Tiananmen Square.

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