in the middle of my second year in China, the dean of the foreign
languages department came tapping at my door with an ultimatum from
"the leaders." I was to surrender my students' fiction, and
be quick about it.
or at least the kids' notion of it, was all the rage. The whole country
had been jostled the night before by several mild examples of the
demonstrations that would eventually climax in the massacre in Tiananmen
Square. A lot of people in China were tense, especially my old
dean, who'd lived through several political "movements" and bore the
lumps and bumps to prove it. The poor guy was on the verge of
apoplexy at my vestibule. I was his waiguoren, after all:
he'd been the one to invite me to this tenth-rate university in the
frozen industrial wastes of the remote northeast, and he was supposed
to have been keeping an eye on my comportment in the classroom.
workshops, a few select graduate students and I had been discussing
our pirated offsets of 1984. Intoxicated by the illusion of
freedom that had briefly entered their lives, they'd been writing
stories about fat, tyrannous bus conductors, and small-town party
hacks lining their pockets in the name of the glorious revolution.
These stories, inept as most of them were, had now apparently
become objects of intense curiosity for "the leaders."
year I'd taught in the deep south, where the bare mention of "Marxism/
Leninism/Mao Zedong thought" could be relied upon to brighten a dull
lecture with hoots of derision from the back row. My subtropical
undergraduates did have a party representative charged with their
political and moral nurture, but he hardly ever showed his face.
Those two semesters in the sun had made me complacent, and it wasn't
until the dean showed up at my door that I realized my seminars here
in the north had been infiltrated by party spies, who held mere deans
on a short leash.
man started moaning up into my face from the blackness of the corridor
about us being colleagues and good friends, and about how much he
suffered in the "so-called" Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards
made big-character posters about him, placed him under house arrest,
burned all his poems, and forced him to write self-criticisms for
a whole year. He promised that none of the students would be
persecuted in any way for what they had written.
that last bit was an outright lie. The leaders did not want
to read the stories for their aesthetic value. But I was never
the less tempted to comply with the order.
afford to be disassociated from the dean and all his editorial connections.
He could be a forest-flattening dynamo, despite his dynastic birth
date. We may have had our minor differences at the moment, but
he and I both preferred collaborating on scholarly articles to doing
just about anything else, except maybe attending banquets at the provincial
wai ban. Back in the good old days, we'd been quite a duo.
Of course, that was before the occidental aberration called democracy
came along and spoiled everything. That was before the young
people's spirits were polluted with thoughts of Pepsi and Rambo and
disco marathons on Stalin Square.
if I failed to deliver up the stories and, along with them, in effect,
my "pupils," my half of the by-line would be purged from all our pending
publications. I'd have to retract the fat vita I'd sent to every
university and junior college in the free world, and trim it back
down to a page and a half. There'd go any justification for
dragging my poor, blameless wife to China in the first place.
would become of us? Foreign experts detained in the People's
Republic? Interviews on Voice of America, maybe even the BBC
World Service? Book contracts? Tenure-track appointments
in major first-world English departments? Before I knew it,
I found myself praying that the communists would pack me off in chains
for a brief but grueling stint at the Qinghai forced labor camp.
My wife could be re-educated in a stuffed toy factory. Think
how svelte and employable we'd be upon release! Our deportation
could be a big international incident.
a husky male WASP from a prosperous far-western community, and a late
baby boomer to boot, I'd never had much experience with this sort
of thing. I was still in high school when the draft ended, and
only got in on one anti-Nixon demonstration. My experience with
police officers was limited to the night I got stuck somewhere outside
Provo and a highway patrolman gave me a can full of unleaded and five
dollars. So thumbing my nose at totalitarianism--or at least
inciting my disciples to thumb theirs--was a new and exciting experience
though, during those cold Manchurian nights, I'd calm down a bit and
begin pondering the pedagogical questions which should have been my
main concern all along. For example, why had the grad students
requested a course in creative writing in the first place? China,
after all, is a country in which most of the full-time novelists and
poets are living on government salaries, and write accordingly.
is not to say there weren't plenty of opportunities for free-lance
fiction translators. One publishing house after another was
bringing out series like the highly successful Contemporary Masterpieces
of American Literature, featuring Arthur Hailey and Sidney Sheldon
and other artists of that caliber. On Saturday afternoons my
students would track me down for help deciphering lists of "culturally
loaded" terms that had stymied their progress through such works as
First Blood, Part II, Iacocca, and Nancy and Ronnie, a True-Life Love
Mandarin versions of Freud's more titillating works were being hawked
in street stalls, and Lady Chatterley could be had in Shanghai.
There was a corresponding flowering of literary magazines, which were
responsive not only to the loosening of censorship but to actual market
forces. The formula at that time demanded just a little sex.
Some of my students were trying to make a few yuan on the side pitching
stories to these magazines, and they needed to be coached in the techniques
of the soft pornographer. We devoted one whole class period
to that very topic.
it possible the kids had somewhat purer motives for asking me to supply
them with fiction workshops? Did they actually have something
they wanted to say? I considered this possibility with dread,
having been indoctrinated in American creative writing programs where
form equals content and preferably replaces it.
wasn't the only one reluctant to deal with kids with a message. The
same dean who was now twitching at my door had earlier that year asked
me to "introduce Derrida to China" by writing an article for the university
journal. Nothing would have pleased his tired soul more than
to see English majors all across China safely off the streets, wrapped
up in fluffy hermeneutic conceits, penning unintelligible, therefore
apolitical, vignettes about their tiny navels.
him with a dozen or so pages of nonsense, just for the vita-stuffer.
But somehow my article did not generate much interest among the students.
The babblings of lit-critters have little pertinence under conditions
of actual political oppression. The inscrutability of texts
is nothing but a non sequitur to young people whose heart and respiration
rates can be visibly quickened by reciting Orwellian mottoes about
Crimethink. They openly scoffed at the notion that all language
is inherently repressive. How could something so exhilarating
be repressive? They'd laugh in the face of their dorm monitor,
and misquote Orwell loudly in one voice: "Animals and English
majors are free!"
said dangerous things out loud, right in class: anon-revisionist history
of the party is impossible to get in China, but, in Hong Kong and
America, books as true as Emanuel Goldstein's are openly distributed;
the insidious processes of Newspeak are recognizable in Mao's attempts
to "de-feudalize" Chinese characters; and a whole catalog of other
such oral braveries. In the halls and the dorms, even in the
restrooms, big-character posters suddenly appeared in English, Chinese,
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
exactly who'd painted and posted these incendiary dazhibao, and I
was delighted to have been taken into the confidence of such stout
freedom fighters. I felt like one of the boys. So, obviously,
I burned their stories in my bathtub and invited the old codger to
come on in and stir the ashes with the toe of his rubber galosh.
in this far corner of China, it didn't require the People's Liberation
Army to put the kibosh on such counterrevolutionary highjinks. Northeasterners
might come on strong at first, but they roll over easily, for they're
accustomed to being pushed around by bullies. Russia, Japan
and the Guomindang each occupied that very town in living memory.
Almost overnight the jackboot came down on my kids' faces, but so
subtly that I didn't even notice.
after the conflagration in my tub, their stories began mysteriously
to depoliticize, their persuasive essays to sink to innocuous topics
like child rearing, and to be accepted for publication by the op-ed
folks at China Daily, where they'd formerly been rejected with indignation.
By the beginning of the second semester, their creative work had completely
dried up. To pound the final nail in the coffin, our supplementary
reading moved on from twentieth-century dystopias to contemporary
novels in verse, as my syllabus had given ample warning it would.
Our mimeographs of the equally verboten Pale Fire turned out blurry,
and the class flopped.
I wasn't imprisoned or tortured or deported. All that happened
was that I served out my appointment, and was unable the next academic
year to find another job anyplace in a country where, only two semesters
before, department chairmen had been writing me flattering letters
and even traveling hundreds of miles by hard-seat to recruit me, as
one of the few renegade American Ph.D.'s in the Middle Kingdom with
absolutely nothing to go back to in the States. By the time
the tanks rolled out onto Tiananmen Square, I was comfortably ensconced
in the suburbs of Hiroshima, gaining weight and teaching Business
English Skills to the grandsons of Hirohito's baby-impaling imperial
that once held out hopes of artistic fulfillment to my students nowadays
devote most of their pages to articles on how to pass TOEFL.
I hear that English majors have become a rarity, and MBA's are crawling
from under every rock. Nobody mentions the D-word anymore, but
no matter: the economy is fattening like a pig. They're even
developing an illegal alien problem with their unhappily democratized
neighbors to the north: for the first time in history, ice people
are waiting tables and mopping up and spreading their thighs for sun
twenty-first is to be the Pacific Rim Century, it will also be a golden
opportunity for American creative writing programs to finally justify
their existence. Now's the time to send entire regiments of
fresh graduates to proselytize the Middle Kingdom: metafictionists
and lyric poets marching as to war. I'm sure that, given an
adequate grounding in deconstructionist theory, the future compradors
can be relied upon to write nothing incorrect enough to unsettle their
deans or incite their classmates to misbehavior. Thanks to Creative
Writing, China's MFN status will never again be jeopardized by unsightly
videotapes of students squashed on the cobblestones, and our economic
wagon will remain guiltlessly hitched to the red star that rises from
the far shore of the only ocean that matters anymore.
with all the MFA's gone among the heathen, their professors back home
will no longer be troubled in restaurants and taxis by that embarrassing
question: exactly how much do you tip someone whose graduate committee
you served on?