Commenters on Yan Lianke’s poetic essay from China in Thursday’s New York Times — about the task of writers — spoke for many and maybe most of his readers in expressing fears for his safety. Why, in this age of magically flexible and ubiquitous post-Gutenberg communication tools — of which China is the leading manufacturer — do we hear so seldom from voices like his in China and Russia, supporting writers like him, and giving us essential information?
A small child who has only paddled in a bathtub can have no idea of what swimming in an ocean is like. Still, the experience of being immersed in water does supply an atom or two of useful comprehension. In this way, anyone in the liberal West whose thoughts typed into comment boxes on media sites have been stifled — persistently — by ‘community moderators,’ solely because they do not suit the politics and editorial policies of a powerful newspaper, has had a taste of actual censorship, and of refusing to let the fear of humiliation, punishment and banishment (deleting a commenter’s account) shut down the flow of words.
No one expects to have to be a heroic Yan Lianke in any proud Western democracy. Yet even in these, the suppression of inconvenient views in the most scrupulously polite debate gets hardly any attention. This week, The Guardian has again been promoting the paid, tiered ‘membership’ scheme it is offering readers. No one yet knows exactly what this club is going to do for free expression, and for reining in this paper’s notoriously trigger-happy moderators (of whom we at post-Gutenberg must admit that we have no recent first-hand experience, having decided to stop going there and say what we want to about The Guardian on this site, instead.) In a post here a few weeks ago — ‘Alan Rusbridger must please not let ‘Guardian membership’ mean bread-and-circuses, and prove that he is sincere about ‘mutualised’ journalism’ — we expressed our hope that there is substance behind the alluring advertisement.
No ‘membership’ scheme will be worth the attention of thinking people unless ‘members’ are allowed to help The Guardian’s policy-makers ensure that its ‘Comment is Free’ section lives up to its name. Yan Lianke’s New York Times contribution shows just how much thinkers like him count on the West for inspiration and support. Never mind China’s grand, ancient philosophical tradition. Confucianism was never about individual freedom.
With marvellous economy and a soulfulness rarely found in Western editorialising, he has reminded us of what we forget at our peril – the importance of unencumbered truth-telling. Please pass on the link to his piece after you have read the extracts below, and a sample of readers’ comments on them – including one from someone not fluent in English, who is owed our thanks for pointing out why some of his criticisms of China could be mistaken. We wish it was within our power to invite Yan Lianke to respond in this space.
BEIJING — China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death. One evening when I was a young boy, not long after the catastrophe, I followed my mother as she went to dump garbage outside the wall that surrounded our village, a poor and isolated town in central China.
Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”
Mother went back inside our house to cook and left behind a long shadow. I stood in front of the edible clay gazing out at the sunset, the village and the fields, and an enormous sheet of darkness gradually approached.
China may boast of having several thousand years of civilization, but when an old man collapses in the street, everyone refrains from helping him out for fear of being implicated, even as the old man bleeds warm, red blood. What kind of society do we live in when a pregnant woman dies on the delivery table and all of the medical technicians flee in order to avoid responsibility, leaving behind a tiny soul uttering a feeble cry?
It is a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.
I am reminded of Job, in the Old Testament, who after experiencing countless misfortunes said to his wife as she was urging him to curse God, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” This simple response demonstrates that Job understood that his suffering was merely God’s way of testing him, and was evidence that darkness and light must exist together.
I don’t pretend that I have been uniquely selected by God, as Job was, to endure suffering, but I do know that I am somehow fated to perceive darkness. From these shadows I lift my pen to write. I search for love, goodness and a perpetually beating heart.
At a symposium last week, President Xi Jinping met with a group of artists, including the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, and talked about the value of art in China. According to the official China Youth Online, he said, “For art workers to be successful, they must breathe together with the people, share their fate and feel their feelings, rejoice at their joy, grieve at their grief, and serve the people like a willing ox.”
But only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.
Some comments by his readers (not in their original order):
… Despite the unfashionable earnestness in this essay, I applaud its plea for cosmopolitan artistic freedom in the tradition of Romain Rolland. I’m sure that Yan Lianke will pay a real price for it.
I was hoping to read that his name was a pseudonym, but I didn’t. It is a beautiful and incredibly brave piece of writing. I just hope it doesn’t cost him his freedom, or worse.
Absolutely correct…. Confuciusm can’t mesh with the mordern global system… Neither can traditional Judaism/Christianity/Islam. Te only thing that meshes is money. It’s the new world order…
“…now that money and power have replaced socialism and capitalism…
Though Yan Lianke seems like writer of some brilliance, I think the above statement is fundamentally flawed. Capitalism is nothing if it is not about money and power.
Stranger [ someone apparently posting from California ]
The author only pointed out one side of the problem.
Why the old man fell on the street and nobody dared to help him? Because there was a famous lawsuit in Nanjing in which an old lady framed a young guy who actually helped her get up and the judge condemned him to pay about 12,000USD to that old lady.
And why the medical technicians flee when the pregnant woman died? She died from amniotic embolism which is difficult to diagnose and extremely dangerous. A hysterectomy surgery might have saved her life but unfortunately her husband refused this option because he was worrying about if his wife was going to be able to have the second baby. After the pregnant woman died, the family sent dozens of relatives trashed the hospital, that was why the doctors and nurses had to flee. IN china, every year several doctors died of medical disputes, most of them are stabbed by angry/crazy patients or their family members.
well, the other side of story only makes China even a worse country. That’s the reality of China. Democracy is not the medicine for its illness right now, seriously. With such a low level civil consciousness, democracy will just be abused. china has a long way to go. let’s take it slowly.
A Sincere but Puzzled Han Chinese Girl [ Guangzhou, China ]
Stranger, you speak out what i’d like to clarify here. Many thanks
The author may be fated to perceive darkness, but if so, he would perceive darkness wherever men walk in numbers, and not merely in China. The challenges he writes of aren’t uniquely Chinese challenges but human ones and timeless ones. We study these challenges in every society, in part through art, in part through philosophy, and the purpose of such study is to find the “delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness”. More, it’s to find purpose in the darkness.
Others labor elsewhere, but his challenge is to find these qualities in China.