Gu Cheng and the troubles of Chinese capitalism
SH: What have you been reading lately?
HD: I've been rereading Gu Cheng, the exiled Chinese poet who killed himself and his wife on Waiheke Island in 1993. Although Gu Cheng is quite well-known, not all of his stuff has been translated, and I'm thinking of putting some of his early poems into English.
SH: Gu Cheng is perhaps more famous for the tragic manner of his death than for his poetry. His death was a major news story in New Zealand and in China, and a movie has been made about his troubled relationship with the woman he killed. Does the terrible end of Gu Cheng's life make it harder to approach his poetry?
HD: It does. There's probably a partial parallel with Ezra Pound, another great poet who did bad things (I've been following the debate about Pound on Reading the Maps). But I think that whereas Pound committed his sins over a period of many years, making anti-semitic statements in his writing, praising Mussolini and Hitler, and making hundreds of pro-fascist radio broadcasts during World War Two, Gu Cheng suffered a psychotic breakdown, and committed one cataclysmic action. There isn't evidence that the murder of his wife was premeditated.
I didn't know Gu Cheng personally, but it is apparent, from the many accounts of his life, that he was a very unstable person. Pound was of course spared the death penalty after World War Two because friends like TS Eliot and Ernest Hemingway managed to persuade the United States government that he was insane. Whether he was ever insane, in the ordinary sense of the word, is quite debatable, but it suited his supporters to present him that way, at least for a while. I don't think that many people would doubt that Gu Cheng was insane at the end of his life.
SH: Why did Gu Cheng wear a cut-off length of trouser leg on his head, as though it were a hat?
HD: He believed that it stopped people from stealing his thoughts.
SH: Is there a political dimension to Gu Cheng's breakdown? It is very easy to brand artists who suffer from severe mental illnesses as mad geniuses, and to thereby ignore the social and historical implications of their work. Gu Cheng was a man who often found himself on the wrong side of the Chinese state. As a youngster he was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and forced to do menial work in difficult conditions, for little or no recompense. Later, after returning to urban China and becoming known as one of the group of 'Misty' poets, who produced obscure yet politically resonant texts, he came under fire from the government of Deng Xiaoping. His poetry was criticised as 'decadent', because it departed from the tenets of propagandistic socialist realism, and his own father was induced to denounce him in print.
HD: Yes, that's an extraordinary essay. It begins 'I am finding it harder and harder to understand the poetry of my son, Gu Cheng...' The father was himself a poet, but he kept close to the socialist realist line, producing propaganda. Like many other figures in the Chinese literary establishment, he was troubled by the complexity of the texts that the Misty poets produced. They rediscovered the mystery and depth of the Chinese language, and their phrases and images have an ambiguity, a multidimensionality, which is anathema to political propaganda.
SH: And yet the Misty poets were not apolitical, were they?
HD: No. If they were apolitical then they would have been easier to dismiss. The Misty poets were able to find a middle way, if you like, between boneheaded propaganda and impenetrable obscurity. The images in their poems couldn't be reduced to a simple political meaning, but they nevertheless resonated with the hopes and fears of young Chinese readers. Consider Gu Cheng's famous phrase 'I have been given dark eyes, but I use them to search for light'. There is an allusion in this phrase to the experience of the generation of urban youth which was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution, and to the attempts of the members of that generation to change China for the better after their return to the cities. But the allusion is not made explicit. There is no outright denunciation of the Chinese state. That would not have been possible in print, of course.
But I think you should be careful about jumping from that fact that Gu Cheng was persecuted by the Chinese authorities, and eventually had to leave the country, to the conclusion that he was fundamentally a political animal. I don't think politics was as important to him as his own personal phantasmagoria. He lived partly in a world of his imagination. He wasn't someone who could formulate a coherent political programme. If he had been allowed to stay in China then I think he would quite happily have done so. He had an intense attachment to the landscape of China, which he had acquired as a small child, and he never adjusted to life overseas. He refused to learn the English language, even after being given residency in New Zealand, because he was afraid of making the Chinese language 'jealous'.
And after he settled in New Zealand Gu Cheng chose, for whatever reason, to endure a 'double exile', by living on Waiheke Island, away from many of his supporters in the Chinese community of 'mainland' Auckland. He was very isolated. It was probably isolation, rather than political frustration, which contributed to his fate.
SH: The Misty poets were tremendously popular in the 1980s, selling tens of thousands of books and giving readings in stadiums. Does poetry have the same status in China today? Does it provoke the same excitement?
HD: In my experience it does not. There has been a growth in other forms of entertainment - movies, television, computer games, and so on - which has coincided with the economic boom and the growth of consumption. There are lots of writers, lots of books around in today's China, but fiction seems far more popular than poetry. Pulp fiction seems to be particularly popular. There's been quite a fad for slightly smutty novels about the urban underclass, for example -
SH: Might a new protest movement in China - a sort of Chinese version of the 'Arab Spring', or the demonstrations seen in countries like Greece and Spain - recreate an audience for poetry, or at least for serious literature?
HD: China is not without its problems, but I'm far from convinced that such a movement is in the offing. The Communist Party has managed to establish and consolidate the capitalist system in China over the past thirty years. Under the banner of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics', the pursuit of profit and conspicuous consumption have been glorified. Young Chinese are, in my experience, far more interested in the acquisition of cellphones and i pods than they are in ideas like democracy.
And there is a material basis for the consciousness of young Chinese: there really has been, along the eastern seaboard of China, a considerable increase in wealth and spending power over the past few decades. Wages and salaries have increased greatly, albeit from a very low base. I'm not aware of many popular uprisings which took place in the midst of an economic boom -
SH: But some of the increases in wages and salaries have been won through the actions of unofficial unions - through strikes, even. And recently we saw an uprising in the Guangdong city of Wukan, which resulted in the expulsion of the Communist Party and the establishment of an independent local government - HD: Yes, but it seems to me that the movements you talk about are different from the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. They are not based on ideas, ideas about an alternative society, but on a desire to get a bigger slice of the wealth in actually existing Chinese society. They do not question the system - they only seek to reform it. The union movement may be technically illegal, and indeed may be persecuted, but it could well ultimately benefit Chinese capitalism, by increasing the spending power of Chinese workers, and thus growing the internal market for goods manufactured in China. As the global recession cuts spending power in Europe and America, China is aware that it must find buyers at home for more of its own goods.
I note, as well, that the Wukan protesters have reached an agreement with the Chinese government, and reopened their town to the outside world. I see the union movement and Wukan-style protest movements as having very little intellectual content. I therefore can't see them creating the sort of ferment of ideas we saw in parts of China in the 1980s. But I could be wrong.
SH: Do you think serious economic problems are a prerequisite for widespread dissent in China?
HD: Chinese people, especially in the populous east, have become accustomed, over the last two or three decades, to increases in wealth, in spending power. If that trend was to end suddenly, without any convincing explanation, then the legitimacy of the Communist Party might be eroded. The Communist Party might become a victim of its anti-intellectualism and opportunism. The party has essentially said, for decades now, that it deserves to be in power because it is making China wealthier. If the economy runs into a wall, then the party can hardly revive the sort of voluntarist rhetoric of Mao, who decried bourgeois consumerism and called for sacrifices in the building of socialism. I don't mean to defend Mao, or contrast him positively with the current Communist Party leadership - I'm just pointing out that he had more ideological and rhetorical resources in the face of hard times than the current leaders would have.
If there is a crisis in the Chinese economy, it might well be prompted by the property market. Real estate in China is extraordinarily expensive, especially given the fact that one cannot buy freehold there - everything is leased, albeit for a long time, from the government. Because economic opportunity is focused on the eastern seaboard, in cities like Shanghai, there has been a massive internal migration in this direction over recent decades. A shortage of apartments has seen prices soar. The increase in consumer spending power has only made the problem worse, because people are competing for apartments.
You can nowadays buy a nice house in the Auckland suburbs for the price of a lease on a rundown apartment in an unglamorous part of Shanghai. Apartments in Shanghai are priced by the square metre, and it's not unusual for a square metre to go for the equivalent of eight thousand dollars. Speculators are going wild. It is quite possible that property in many parts of China is currently overvalued, and if reality catches up with the property market we could see a crash, and people owning mortgages worth more than their apartments. In the meantime, don't buy a place in China...
[Posted by Maps/Scott]