What do you think of when you think of China? Ming vases? Confucius? Samurai? No, wait a sec, aren’t samurai Japanese? Sushi, that’s Chinese isn’t it? And what about haiku, is that Chinese or Japanese? Ah, the Beijing Olympics! They definitely took place in China. Who could forget that opening ceremony?
And yet, within a day or two we learned that some of the fireworks we saw on our teles were actually computer generated cosmetic enhancements. This was not denied by the Chinese. They simply said that it was deemed that the real fireworks were too dangerous to film from a helicopter. Fair enough.
Then there was the controversy concerning 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, a pretty child who appeared and sang opening ceremony song ‘Ode to the Motherland’ only she wasn’t singing. 7-year-old Yang Peiyi was actually doing the singing. The member of the Politburo who oversaw the final preparations decided that Miss Yang was insufficiently photogenic and so it was decided that Lin Miaoke would lip-sync.
China's quest was for a "perfect" Summer Games and it soon became obvious that they had gone and were willing to go to extraordinary lengths to see that that was what the world remembered. And there is no doubt in my mind that I will remember them. I’ll also remember the fake fireworks, the ‘ugly’ little girl, that they had to ferry in spectators to fill up some of the venues and, oh, wasn’t there some kafuffle about Tibet?
That’s right. I seem to remember that. And there were some problems with the Olympic torch parade, too, weren’t there, something to do with a free Tibet or something? Yeah, never really did see what all the fuss was about there. I remember former Blue Peter presented Konnie Huq got hassled by a protester. I thought that was a shame; she’s only wee.
Okay then, what do you know about Tibet? Mount Everest! Sherpas! Temples! The Dalai Lama! Many westerners have romantic notions of old Tibet as a place where everyone is peaceful and happy. In all the pictures I’ve seen they certainly look happy. So what the heck has China got to do with Tibet?
Apparently Mao Zedong's troops invaded Tibet in 1950 and annexed it as part of China, and that the young Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 and has lived in exile since. Regular readers will not be surprised to discover my ignorance with regards to these matters; history has never been one of my fortes nor has geography come to think of it.
China claimed ownership of Tibet based on a history of sporadic Chinese possession of Tibet. However, Tibet was an independent nation in 1950, and Tibetans maintain a separate language, culture and ethnic identity from China.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, the People’s Republic of China had guaranteed no alteration of Tibetan political, cultural, and religious systems and institutions. China failed to live up to this agreement, however, and the Tibetans began to revolt against Chinese rule in 1956. From that time, through the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, an estimated 1,200,000 Tibetans were killed and more than 6,000 religious sites were destroyed by the Chinese.
Things did not end there. I’ll let GlobalSecurity.org continue:
The Chinese Government strictly controls access to and information about Tibet. Thus, it is difficult to determine accurately the scope of human rights abuses. However, according to credible reports, Chinese government authorities continued to commit serious human rights abuses in Tibet, including instances of torture, arbitrary arrest, detention without public trial, and lengthy detention of Tibetan nationalists for peacefully expressing their political or religious views. Tight controls on religion and on other fundamental freedoms continued and intensified during the year, especially during sensitive anniversaries and occasions.
One of the worst things I read is that the Chinese have systematically moved their own people into Tibet. Today Tibetans are an ethnic minority in their own country. Tibetans have been forced to assimilate Chinese culture. Tibetans say the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which began operations in July 2007, is accelerating the cultural genocide of Tibet. An article in The Guardian puts it well:
Today Han Chinese visit Tibet as tourists, buying up Buddhist images that they hope will help them in their businesses; for them Tibet has been tamed as a spiritual Disneyland, not unlike the Tibet of many western imaginations.
None of this I knew about.
When Canongate made China the next destination in their literary world tour I went to my bookcases to see what I could talk about. And do you know what? I couldn’t find a single book by a Chinese national nor could I find a book about China. Japan, yes, there were a handful, but I had nothing on China. I feel rather embarrassed about that. Then I thought to myself: Okay, name a Chinese author. And I couldn’t. I could think of a Chinese composer, Bright Sheng (I have a CD of his work), but I couldn’t think of an artist either. I’m not sure if that says more about me or more about China. I asked my wife to look in her collection and she handed me two books, Waiting, by Ha Jin and A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee; only the first one is by a Chinese national; Lee is Korean.
Waiting didn’t appeal and so I printed out a list of Chinese authors and headed off to Waterstones to find something that did. Of course me being me I left the list neatly folded on my desk so I had to wing it, but the book I ended up returning home with was Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian which I bought for three reasons: 1) it was thin (I love short books), 2) it had been banned in China (just tell me I’m not allowed to read something and I want to), and 3) the reviews on the back cover really caught my interest (Good Book Guide called it “Horrific and beautiful” for example).
It’s actually a book of five short stories and an afterword by the author, a grand total of ninety pages.
The translator is Flora Drew. I mention this not simply to give her credit but to mention that she and Jian are a couple and have been for a good few years now so I might be tempted to trust her translation over that of a stranger. I realised when I recently reviewed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich that the book I had read might actually be a far cry from what Solzhenitsyn actually wrote. And yet I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between what happened during Stalin’s rule and Ma Jian’s time in China in the 1980s. The Guardian says it well:
In 1983, Ma Jian was living in Beijing as a photographer and painter in a circle of dissident friends - young men and women who snatched moments of sexual licence, exchanged precious copies of foreign books, and discussed each other's work in tiny gatherings that were reported by the neighbours and raided by the police. They were seen as socially deviant - and so dangerous - elements and therefore vulnerable to persecution in the now quaint-sounding Campaign against Spiritual Pollution. It sounds less quaint when the figures are tallied: more than a million arrests and 24,000 executed.
Like many, Ma Jian headed for Tibet. His time there resulted in this collection and the novel Red Dust.
The prose is matter of fact, the narration, deadpan – it feels like the same narrator in each tale, although not all are written in the first person – but basically what we’re presented with is a Chinese writer uncovering the real face of Tibet. I say ‘real’ and not ‘true’ because a part of me wants to believe that the idealised picture I have of Tibet, sketchy although it may well be, is still its ‘true’ face. There is a feeling of directionlessness in these stories, not that the stories wander, no they make their points well enough, but the people involved in them often seem as if they’re going through the motions.
The first story concerns a sky burial. When I first heard of this I imagined the body lifted up on a framework facing the sky and then set on fire or something of that ilk. No, it’s nothing like that. The body of the dearly-departed is cut up and fed to birds of prey. In Tibetan the practice is known as jhator which literally means, "giving alms to the birds."
The government of the People's Republic of China prohibited the practice (which it considered barbaric) in the 1960s but started to allow it again in the 1980s. Non-Tibetans are usually not permitted to observe it, and direct photography is considered unethical, offensive and is generally forbidden.
The practice combines practicality and religious devotion. Most of Tibet is above the tree line and the scarcity of timber makes cremation economically unfeasible, and it’s also impossible to dig down more than an inch or two before hitting solid rock or permafrost. From a religious point of view, generosity and compassion for all living creatures are important virtues in Buddhism. Also Tibetans believe that at this point life has completely left the body and the body contains nothing more than simple flesh so why not feed it to the birds?
So, in this first story, a wandering photographer manages to persuade two brothers who shared a seventeen-year-old wife to allow him not only to witness but also to photograph the proceedings:
The elder brother got up, threw some more dung onto the fires, then walked to the lama [basically a Tibetan guru] and poured him some wine. The lama pushed the bowl away and announced that Myima’s soul had risen to the sky. The younger brother stood up and took a sharp knife from his pocket. I followed the two brothers to the body. Immediately the sky darkened with vultures that screeched and swirled through the air. The brothers turned Myima’s body over, stuck the knife into her buttock and pulled it down, opening up her leg all the way to the sole of her foot. The younger brother hacked off a chunk of thigh and sliced it into pieces. Her right leg was soon reduced to bone. With her belly squashed to the ground, sticky fluid began to trickle from between her thighs. I picked up my camera, set the distance, and this time the shutter closed with a snap.
The morning sun flooded the burial site with light. The younger brother shooed away the approaching vultures with pieces of Myima’s body. I picked up the axes, grabbed a severed hand, ran the blade down the palm and threw a thumb to the vultures. The younger brother smiled, took the hand from me and placed it on a rock, then pounded the remaining four fingers and threw them to the birds.
There is nothing pretty about this. The service is carried out dispassionately and it is recorded in a similar style although as you’ve just read the photographer can’t keep his distance and gets caught up in the moment.
If the Chinese government would replace a not-so-photogenic little girl in their “perfect” Olympic ceremony, one can understand why they might not want people inside or outside of China reading about something as ugly as this.
When Jian arrived in Tibet in 1985, partly to escape political persecution and partly in an attempt to deepen his Buddhist faith, it was at a time of another Chinese celebration: the city of Lhasa was launching celebrations for the twentieth anniversary of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In the book’s afterword he explains:
Although the air was filled with the sound of jubilant music, the atmosphere was tense. One could sense the hostility the Tibetans felt towards their Chinese occupiers. No one was allowed on the streets apart from a select group of people who’d been chosen by the government either to take part in the parades or to stand on the pavement waving flags.
Some time later Jian leaves Lhasa and heads off into the countryside. What he finds there shocks him:
In the grasslands I slept under the stars or shared tents with nomads; in the villages I slept on dirt floors. The poverty I saw was worse than anything I’d witnessed in China. My idyll of a simple life lived close to nature was broken when I realised how dehumanising extreme hardship can be. […] For the first time in my life I felt that I was walking through a part of the world where I had no right to be.
It is important to state that Jian doesn’t present a negative view of Tibetan life. He simply tells it as it is, what it has become.
The second story is different, subtler. We lose the cameraman and the first person narrative and we take up with Sonam, a student who is trying to locate his nomadic family in the high pastures. Here we are not presented with an outsider’s view rather the view of someone homesick for the world we learned a bit about in the first story. This was a clever decision. In the following excerpt Sonam imagines seeing his sister again:
Yesterday, when he reached the hill, he turned round to the black horse and said, ‘Look, look! Here they are! That’s their yak hair carpet!’ He fell to his knees and smelt the earth, then he picked up a sheep’s hoof that he presumed his family had tossed from the cooking pot, and turned it in his hands. He looked up and said, ‘I’ve been searching for you for a month. Why are you still sitting down, Dawa? Get up, get up. Come to me! I’ve brought you shoes, made in Beijing. I’ll tell you where Beijing is. There are so many people there. More than all the yaks in Mayoumu. My school in Saga has lots of windows, and stairways that go round and round.’ Then he paused and looked around him. The breeze blowing from the grasslands smelt of yak shit and sheep bones. At his feet he saw maggots wriggling through a pat of yak dung. He watched the dung puff up, and then slowly sink again.
Okay, I can’t see myself pining for that kind of life but then I’m an outsider.
“There is a saying that the further you stand from the mountains, the more clearly you see them,” Jian says, “China is completely lacking in self-awareness and as someone who has stepped outside that society, I have a responsibility to write about it as I see it.”
Sex rears its ugly head in all the stories. It’s not presented graphically. It just happens. The opening story is narrated by a soldier who slept with the young Myima before she moves in with the two brothers. In ‘The Eight-Fanged Roach’ our cameraman returns and this time shares a tent with an old nomad who has committed double incest and is making a journey to the sacred mountains to wash away his sins. And, if you’ve not been shocked enough up till now, the final story, ‘The final initiation’, lets us into the mind of the Living Buddha, Sangsang Tashi, essentially a fifteen year-old nun who, although compliant, is struggling with her role in life.
Early the next morning, she awoke up and was overcome by the sensation that in every cell of her body she was a woman. Dawn had not yet broken and a gentle mist still hung in the sky. She felt her blood stream calmly through her veins and her breasts against her nightshirt. Her thighs, pelvis and stomach felt smooth and supple. As she sat up, she became even more conscious of her femininity. Then suddenly she remembered that in a few hours she would be lying naked in front of hundreds of people. She wrapped her arms around her shoulders. With her teeth clenched, she stared outside her window and watched the sky turn from purple to blue, then gradually become lighter and lighter.
In a few paragraphs we learn that being naked is the least part of her worries as she is ritually raped. Christ! I thought that kind of thing went out of fashion with the Babylonians.
You know, I can see why the Chinese might want to brush this book under the carpet. Why the hell they decided they needed to invade Tibet in the first place I have no idea.
I’ve not told you everything that goes on in these stories but I felt it only fair to highlight what rightly shocked the Chinese authorities. That a book is shocking is no justification for banning it, however.
As for the Tibetan cause, I can’t pretend that this book hasn’t left me with mixed feelings. Should a society like this be preserved? Just because things have been a certain way since time immemorial doesn’t mean they should continue that way. Civilisation has to win out in the end. I’m not sure that China’s approach is the right one though. Civilisation isn’t something that should be enforced – it’s simply not civilised.
The good thing about Jian’s presentation is that it focuses on the Tibetans. The stories say next-to-nothing about the country’s occupation in fact, apart from the narrator, I think the only other Chinese person to appear is the soldier in the opening story and he has no interest in politics, he’s just a lovesick puppy, frankly.
“Stick out your tongue” is what a doctor says to an ill patient when looking for a diagnosis. Ma Jian’s prognosis is not very hopeful. I found his often anthropological distance both a strength and a weakness. One thing I did come away with is the fact that Tibet is no mystical Shanrgi-La and probably never has been. It is populated with very human people dogged by the same weaknesses and frailties that follow men and women the world over. There is, however, some dignity to be found in these stories and a sense of both family and community. Does what he talks about happen? Of course, but I suspect he has still presented his own idealised Tibet. I’m sure, for example, that the underlying theme of incest is a metaphor for what China has done to the nation. Perhaps he has gone too far the other way. You certainly won’t like everything you read here but you won’t hate it all either. And you certainly won’t forget what you’ve read quickly.
Ma Jian's grandfather, a landowner in China, was famous as a tea connoisseur. When he was arrested at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, it was considered apt to execute him by depriving him of drink. Ma, now 54, was 14 at the time and grew up with the legacy of persecution and fear this gave to his family.
He has been described by Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian as 'one of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature'. Jian now lives in London in self-imposed exile. He has since been able to return home, although his work is still under a blanket ban.
For those interested you can find out a bit about the history here: The Tibet-China Conflict: History and Polemics by Elliot Sperling.
This is an expanded version of the review that originally appeared on the Canongate site.