Credentials are constantly undergoing a Spanish Inquisition. SAT’s, graduate school, the Western literary canon, gap years, travel, the nuclear family, and internships are all subject to the flux and flow of fashionable doubt. When I meet a student of China (that is, a non-Chinese person seeking to understand Chinese language and culture), and he says that he is in the middle of reading a Chinese novel, I tend to give him serious credit — a practical gold star of approval. For who can doubt that the non-Chinese student of China is anything less than completely serious about his studies if he reads, of all things, literature?
It seems like a no-brainer: if you want to be a China scholar, you read books written by Chinese authors. Essentially, it is just that simple. After all, could any non-Brit ever claim to be a scholar of English studies if she had never read a page of Shakespeare? Never heard of Chaucer or JK Rowling? One can imagine the bemused smirk she would receive from a British acquaintance once he realizes that she harbors, at best, a fleeting interest in English culture.
And yet Chinese literature among expats and China-watchers is largely relegated to elitism, to the current and future Chinese PhD’s. Like reading in America — and surely many other cultures — reading is a leisurely pursuit for scholars, not a uniquely human experience (and even if it is, who cares? So is Youtube and Facebook).
Without getting into why reading is so totally awesome in general, I will explain why reading Chinese literature (novels, poetry, even blogs) is an opportunity for China-watchers that is criminal to miss.
Unlike in American culture [and many others], Chinese still respect reading. When I’ve talked with Chinese friends and acquaintances about Chinese books, the responses are generally interesting. They tend to blow right past the banal “Your Chinese is so good!” and go right into the discussion of the author himself. “Yes, Lu Xun writes beautifully, have you his Diary of a Madman?” — “Gu Cheng is crazy! But in high school we all memorized his one poem about seeing through the darkness. You know, the one about the Cultural Revolution?” — “Bei Dao was definitely politically motivated, it’s undeniable!”
Granted, most of the responses are tainted by Chinese-style interpretation: ancient texts are admirable but bring up memories of primary school tests; political dissident writers are “troublesome,” but ultimately interesting to anyone with a “troublesome” inclinations (in my opinion, the most interesting people to speak with). I’ve received the memorable response, “We weren’t allowed to read Hu Shi in primary school because he was ‘too Western,’ but if you say he’s so good, I’ll take a look.”
And yet China’s didactic form of education has simultaneously instilled in Chinese students an awe for literary giants. In a culture in which critical thinking is tragically absent, teachers have imparted one positive message: that literature has been an essential element of Chinese history.
Many will argue that Chinese youth these days aren’t interested in literature, that they are too consumed with internet memes and brand-name cars to see the value in a book.
Professors and writers who went to Chinese college in the 80s have told me how the studs on campus just had to write a poem to get the girls swooning; today, writing a poem would be considered passe, childish, or simply useless — a relic of bygone days when it was acceptable to hope for a democratic China (pre-Tiananmen), or very-bygone days in which the ability to write poetry was the essential prerequisite for a government position. Indeed, literature and politics entwine the caduceus that has pointed China through its historical progression for as long as records show — 5,000 years, I’ve heard.
Discussing Chinese literature is the easiest, most succinct way of answering every laowai-directed question. It cuts past the inferior yardsticks of “how long has this person lived in China?”, “were they a Chinese major?”, “are they dating a Chinese person?” and instead replies: my Chinese is quite good, and not only is it good, but I can appreciate and enjoy the language for something besides a tool for winning game shows. It shows that I see something of great value in Chinese language and culture — something so valuable that I am willing to undertake the tedious job of reading a novel [or short story, poem, blog], which has no tangible results, no HSK score, no presence in an interview, no slot on the resume, no friendship waiting to be formed. It is moreover a highly personal success as well as a gateway to all of the above. And if you need all your successes to be measurable and airable, and therefore do not take stock in reading literature, then I suggest a moment of psychoanalytic reflection (or Prozac).
Books offer an unbridled, uncensored view of a Chinese world. It is complete exposure of the language (as well as a cast of characters) to you and you alone, to be consumed and understood at your own speed. A book will never tell you that “You can never understand China, you foreigner;” a book will make very clear to you how good your Chinese is, and furthermore give you the opportunity to improve. It will show you how well you understand Chinese culture, and then enhance your understanding. It will never, ever tell you no, and it will never tell you that your cultural differences are “certainly too great to overcome.”
There is a lot of really good Chinese literature. Millennia of it from which to choose. If the old stuff’s too hard, start with writers from the 80s. Or start with popular blogs. Start somewhere in which you won’t pull a muscle. Strengthen until you can climb a mountain. And then you can tell everyone else down below how great the view is from up top. Because really, it’s breathtaking.