So the Swedes got you interested in Chinese literature, and then you tried to read Mo Yan or Gao Xingjian. I have to admit, I agree with John Updike that Mo Yan’s novels are unlikely to “crack the heart” of most American readers — they certainly didn’t crack mine. And if you’re anything like me, trekking through Gao’s Soul Mountain required oxygen tanks and Sherpas.
Turning away from Nobel laureates hasn’t helped. My experience of reading Wang Anyi’s highly acclaimed Song of Everlasting Sorrow was captured perfectly by the title of her book. Even the novels of New York Times darling Yu Hua, whose non-fiction is a pleasure, fall somewhat flat for me (though Zhang Yimou’s adaptation of To Live is fantastic).
As a professor who has occasion to assign contemporary Chinese literature, this is particularly frustrating. It’s hard for me to teach fiction when I don’t love it. I love Lu Xun’s satirical short stories, but they were all published before 1940. Zhu Wen’s I Love Dollars is satirical and contemporary, but he’s no Lu Xun, and comparing him with Kafka feels like a bit of a stretch. The list goes on: fans of Chinese literature all have their personal favorites, and none of them have ever resonated with me. (Ha Jin is cheating.)
Why is this? Mo Yan’s translator Howard Goldblatt offers an indirect explanation: “I’ll never get into the heart and mind of a Chinese writer. I have a friend in Colorado who’s a French professor. He’s French. He can go to France and be French. I couldn’t do that in China. I’m more outgoing than most Chinese. My worldview is different.” After two years of living in China I felt the same way, and it makes sense that the impenetrability of Chinese people and culture should have a literary analogue.
Enter Ah Cheng. Born in 1949, he was seven when his father, an academic and film theorist, was sent to the countryside to be “re-educated.” (Father and son would later collaborate on The Art of Cinema, drawing on sources ranging from Hegel to Chan Buddhism.) He was nine when the Great Famine swept through China, eventually killing tens of millions. And when he was 19, he numbered among those young urban Chinese forced to live in the countryside, the better to purge their counter-revolutionary bourgeois tendencies.
After various relocations Ah Cheng eventually ended up in a mountain village, where he worked with locals clear-cutting a forest to make room for rubber trees. (The project was a complete failure.) This experience forms the basis of his 1985 novella The King of Trees, which, along with The King of Chess and The King of Children, cemented his reputation in China as a literary master.
While critics usually mention the Daoist themes in The King of Chess, it is The King of Trees that engages most explicitly with the Zhuangzi, a foundational Daoist text and a favorite of Ah Cheng’s father. The Zhuangzi tells a number of parables about useless trees (one of which I abbreviate here):
Carpenter Shi was traveling in Qi when he came upon a tree over a hundred arm spans around, so large that thousands of oxen could shade themselves beneath it. It overstretched the surrounding hills, its lowest branches hundreds of feet from the ground, at least a dozen of which could have been hollowed out to make ships. It was surrounded by marveling sightseers, but the carpenter walked past it without a second look.
When his apprentice finally got tired of admiring it, he caught up with Carpenter Shi and said, “Since taking up my axe to follow you, Master, I have never seen a tree of such fine material as this! And yet, you don’t even deign to look twice at it or pause beneath it. Why?”
Carpenter Shi said, “Stop! Say no more! This is worthless lumber! As a ship it would soon sink, as a coffin it would soon rot, as a tool it would soon break, as a door it would leak sap, as a pillar it would bring infestation. This is a talentless, worthless tree. It is precisely because it is so useless that it has lived so long.”
The King of Trees is a brilliant send-up of the Zhuangzi’s parable. In modern China uselessness is no guarantor of longevity; like Ah Cheng himself, the protagonist of The King of Trees joins a team of Educated Youth on a government mission to chop down all the useless trees and replace them with useful ones. For the most part locals are willing to help, but there is one giant tree, the King of Trees, that no one wants to touch.
This sacred tree has its romantic hero-defender, a gnarled peasant named Knotty Xiao. But notwithstanding the novella’s setting, Xiao’s eventual confrontation with the team leader is not merely about the Cultural Revolution. Their conflict speaks to all of us, pointing out theistic tendencies in environmentalism and the difficulties of arguing against utility:
Knotty kept his eyes lowered. “This tree has to be spared. Even if the rest of them fall, this one will stand as witness.”
“Witness to what?”
“Witness to the work of the Supreme God in Heaven!”
Li Li burst out laughing. “Man will triumph over Heaven. Did the gods bring the land under cultivation? No, man did, to feed himself. Did the gods forge iron? No, man did, to make tools and transform nature, including your Supreme God in Heaven of course.”
Xiao is an ambiguous hero, however, harsh with his son and proud of his military service for the Party. Like the Zhuangzi, Ah Cheng isn’t in the business of offering easy answers. After all, easy answers are the stock-in-trade of propaganda, and propaganda makes for lousy fiction.
I think I like Ah Cheng because he is crazy, and crazy people transcend the cultures that produce them. Even Chinese interviewers find him obstinate and mysterious. When asked about the movie The Go Master, for which he wrote the script, Ah Cheng replied that he hadn’t seen it. When confronted by Western criticism of Chinese fiction he defends the critics’ right to say what they want. Like a Daoist sage he rejects the possibility of making a living as a professor. Some more illustrative quotes:
“Art arises from witchcraft. It has no religious faith; it’s good at dispelling all that.”
“The experiences of the first world were assimilated into the second world, and they can be easily absorbed by the third world. China has made a big mistake in sending so many exchange students to study in the US. We really can learn much more from the second world than from the west.”
“Don’t call me an author. If you call me an author, you’re calling me a beggar.
Commerce is the foundation of production and of life. Without commercial culture there’d be no high culture. We cannot escape it for even an instant; we would cease to exist if we were to do so. There is nothing blame-worthy about commerce itself; the measure is whether a commercial product is of high or low quality.”
(Sources here and here.)
After producing his trilogy of novellas, Ah Cheng moved to the U.S. in 1988 to work as a house-painter. He returned to China in the 90s and lives there still, in the countryside near Beijing. If we take him seriously, his current occupation is driving a small car from place to place “taking on jobs,” though he has also worked as a screenwriter (credits include The Go Master and Springtime in a Small Town).
There isn’t much of Ah Cheng’s work available in translation. New Directions rereleased Bonnie McDougall’s translation of the three novellas in 2010, which edition includes an illuminating afterword and analysis. A number of his short stories were also translated for Loud Sparrows: Contemporary Chinese Short-Shorts. Their dark simplicity is reminiscent of fairy tales — in “Chimney Smoke” the narrator mentions Hans Christian Andersen, who is clearly an influence. But despite Ah Cheng’s fondness for witchcraft and fairy tales, it is his plainspoken descriptions of everyday life that are most impressive:
Wang Shulin bought two pairs of cloth shoes each year: one unlined, the other lined with cotton. The former he wore from April to November, the latter from November to March.
Since the unlined pair had to last longer, he needed to be extra careful, so he went barefoot when it rained, carrying his shoes in his hand. Rain was really hard on shoes. Letting the shoes soak in rainwater and washing them with water were different, even though in both cases they came in contact with water. The logic behind this was over Wang Shulin’s head, but he knew he’d better not let his shoes soak in rainwater.
I encourage everyone to take a walk in Ah Cheng’s Chinese shoes: they are so well crafted that you’ll forget, for a moment, their country of origin.