David Wang: Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China

We all thought Professor David Wang’s lectures on contemporary Chinese literature would be interesting.  But from the first one last night, we now know:

  1. The talks will touch on a lot of themes IGS 10a has discussed in class and…
  2. Prof. Wang is very funny.

Last night’s talk, on “Red Star Over America: The Politics of Transgression” got me thinking about the relationship between literature and national identity.  Professor Wang noted that the current Chinese government wants its citizens to “tell the good China story.”   He described this as a nationalist request, and contrasted it to the many examples of current literature that tell all kinds of other stories.

So I started wondering: what is the relationship between narrative fiction and nationalism?  Does nationalism always come from the government?  Is there something nationalist about telling the “xiao shuo” — the small stories — of ordinary people?  Or is the freedom to tell one’s own story the opposite of collective nationalism?

There are two more lectures in the series:

Tuesday, March 6: 4:30-6 pm
“Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out: The Ghost in Socialist Transmigration.”

Thursday, March 8: 4:30-6 pm
“The Dark Night Gives Black Eyes: The Art of Transillumination.”

All lectures are in Mandel G03.  I’ll have questions for each of these as well.

Prof. Wang will also give a lunch seminar on Thursday, March 8 at 12 noon in Mandel 303.  If you want to attend the lunch seminar on Thursday, please read this as background first.

18 Replies to “David Wang: Why Fiction Matters in Contemporary China”

  1. Last nights talk got me thinking about the similarities between the extencion of imperialism and the spread of nationalism. The President of China wants writers “to tell the good China story” which in fact doesn’t advocate for a freedom of speech for fear of rejection because of cultural differences? Th president describes his action as being a nationalist quest. I believe China needs to be accepted for what it truly is worldwide. Overall, I liked that humor of the presentation and they way he conveyed very sensitive information. After the presentation I now wonder if China had a totalitarian writing style since the imperialism era or if the exposition to the western culture is source of their new writing style tendencies?

  2. For the country, the narrative fictions are effective to convey the positive nationalism ideas to the public. The country may emphasize the positive sides but cannot eliminate the negative sides and that is essential. China is a big country that has the largest population in the world, therefore, the freedom of speech is hard to achieve under this condition. The divisions and conflicts may arise up without an appropriate control of the media or written work. As a Chinese, I don’t think it is a problem of “telling a good story of China” if the government tells the story objectively. The problem is if the government tells the good story of China ONLY. We need to know everything not things that are “filtered”.

  3. In current China, “telling the good China story” is considered an obligation for every Chinese citizen. Some regard it as an extreme behavior of nationalism, since it partly restricts people’s freedom of speech in the public. But “telling the good China story” is not equal to “suppressing people to express different opinions towards country’s issue”. Chinese government’s emphasis here is not forcing every Chinese people to praise China and Chinese government, but more about promoting unity and harmony in the whole society. Also because of the large population, “telling the good China story” is one of Chinese government’s methods to prevent national disruption. But here’s also a question about this “obligation” of narrative fiction: if readers always receive the ideas about those good news of Chinese society, how can they truly know their motherland? So, balancing “telling the good” and “the bad” is a way to let people really understand the current circumstance of China and constantly make progress. In a word, “telling the good China story” is an approach to show the nationalism, but is not the total. Nationalism more comes from people’s sincere hope and practical actions to let their country be better.

  4. During Professor Wang’s lecture on Thursday, he stated that to renovate the people of a nation, its literature must be renovated. I found this point extremely interesting because I would have never made a connection between Nationalism and Narrative fiction, was it not for his talk. In class, we learned about Liang Qichao helped bring Nationalism to China, and Professor Wang spoke about how Liang Qichao also wrote a founded a fictional magazine. Moreover, the Chinese President Xi Jinping, a National Leader also continuously advocates and promotes narrative fiction, drawing connections between story-telling and Nationalism.
    I think Nationalism comes from the people more than from the Government. National leaders have to instil Nationalism amongst the people of the Nation for it to really be a powerful Nation.
    Since the Xiao Shuo short stories encapsulate the history of China and portray it in an extremely appealing light, it inculcated feelings of Nationalism amongst the people of China, leading to movements like The boxer rebellion and the massacre in Shanxi.
    Although Professor Wang used China as a focal point for his lecture, he also gave examples of other countries that advocate narrative fiction. Vaclav Havel, former President of the Czech Republic also advocated Narrative fiction to promote Nationalism amongst his people.

  5. Looking at Chinese history, Professor Wang has noted, “Stage of history falls apart, fiction arises”. In Chinese history, Liang Qichao tide the idea of politics with literature, and other political reformist has the main idea that narrative fiction is everything people can think of during that period of time. How does this connect to nationalism? Just as President Xi published his book and expected all people to tell the good Chinese story, fictions in some way unite people’s idea. Although President Xi’s “require” all Chinese to tell the good China story, it does not limit people’s different ideas. President Xi’s idea is to have all Chinese tell the good China story and to have a good China force, not having different conflicts arises in different areas. At the same time, people themselves also form nationalism with fiction. During a hard time for people, there is this kind of fiction that makes people laugh at the stories, bear with this difficulties, and not lead to the rise of conflicts.

  6. Thanks so much for Professor Wang’s speech!
    History of China is not a fact, but a fiction. His point is very intersting and also realistic. China, such a huge nation, with fourteen hundred millions of people, nationalism is very important to us. If all the citizens can be proud of their nation, including the cultures and history of their nation, then the power of solidarity can be dramatic. This is the phenomenon that those governors and nationalists want to see. However, I think people have rights to know the truth and there is no shame on it. I know there is still a long road China needs to go to achieve freedom of speech, but I am looking forward.

  7. Professor Wang’s lecture weighs heavily on me especially as a Chinese student. I realize that since I have witnessed the rapid growth of China’s economy in such a short period of time, I have gradually forgot that this nation, despite its developments, remains many feudal conceptions left over by the history. It strikes me that the reason why teenagers spontaneously gathered together, during the period when citizens was suppressed by the government, is that they understood that the Chinese should first liberalize their minds and then modernize the nation. One of the most influential Chinese writer Lu Xun once said that he abandoned medicine for literature because “medicine can only cure physical diseases, but it is fictions that can cure the souls of the contemporary Chinese citizens.” It was this belief that supported so many young writers at that time who risked their own lives to defend the liberty of the fallen nation, and I believe nationalism in China’s case is originated from strong agony towards the government. The deliberate combination of love and hatred towards the nation is what makes Chinese literature unique—an aggregated emotion expressed in a seemingly weightless expression is omnipresent in Chinese literature. Yan GeLing wrote about Chinese citizens’ “banality of suffering”, but she didn’t merely want to describe how well the Chinese could bear all the pain under suppress, but rather how wrong it was for the government to put its citizens into such pain that they already got used to the sufferings. Although previous writers put so much efforts on “liberating people’s minds”, nowadays in the twenty-first century, there still exists the tendency of restricting the freedom of speech in Chinese’s society. I sense the concern conveyed through Professor Wang’s example “Telling a good story”, but although I would like to deny and ignore the existence of restrictions by throwing out the “evidences” of China’s improvements, I have to admit that problems still exist. But it is always good to realize the existing problems, and endeavor to find solutions even though “liberalization” cannot be accomplished for short periods.

  8. I think that the relationship between narrative fiction and nationalism is one that varies depending upon the nature of the fiction and the perspective of the writer. If we look at nationalism in a strictly collective sense, those stories that may just pass censorship and describe things that don’t necessarily uphold ‘The Good Story’, may go against nationalism. However, if popular sovereignty is considered, and nationalism is therefore embedded in the idea that the government’s power is derived from the people, then really narrative fiction exemplifies nationalism. It upholds it, giving voice to the citizens of the country. The individual stories that literature tells about ordinary people and not just leaders throughout history bring into light those who make up the masses. Telling one story would be limiting. Also I would say that yes, the freedom to tell one’s own story, the act of putting one’s experiences down on paper is nationalism. That person represents their country when picking up the pen. (Certainly not the entire country, but one perspective of it).

  9. The point that I find most interesting is that professor indicates that the phrase “telling a good china story” can also be understand as “tell the china story well” which is a totally different way to understand this topic. It seems to be an obligation that citizens in China should tell the story, but it can also become the wish of telling a great china story. The examples of different kind of new china story can also show this idea. Even though there are difficulties for people to publish their own ideas, there are still many Chinese that would like to pass their thoughts from the literature and fiction stories. The nationalism is not limited by space, but actually by civic. These story tellers are also trying to tell their china story in their own way.

  10. Professor Wang’s lecture brings in a serious discussion about the interrelationship between storytelling and nationalism. It is to believed that the figure of the storyteller embodies the social rituals of legitimation and conferral, drawing authority from his or her capacity to relate stories to others, while simultaneously passing on the power of narrative to his listeners. This power is extremely significant when it widely spreads; hence, a story that serves to advocates for nationalism needs to be objective and unbiased. As now Chinese government presents a pivotal role in demonstrating the voice for the public, Professor Wang emphasizes that whether this narrative kind of voice represents people’s opinion. Although the traditionalists follow the trend that “bad stories” about China would not be a good way to present nationalism, I consider it important to remain justice and when telling a story of a state. Once this is achieved, nationalism would appear right on the paper and is sent out to the world.

  11. The relationship between nationalism and narrative fiction is that it often reflects in the environment which the author is from, and depending on the author, whom may be an average citizen of the nation, would most likely write something that relates to the experience of the common people. I do not think that nationalism always comes from the government because not everyone would be a civic nationalist due to the fact that not everyone would agree with the state and its values. I do believe that there is something nationalist about telling small stories of ordinary people because one is aware of somehow speaking for their people through narrative fiction.

  12. Professor Wang’s speech is very enlightening and provokes thinking. Literature is always intimately related to culture and identity and hence cannot be apart from politics. Narrative fiction, namely “xiaoshuo”, is a way of recording history but also a lens that leads the later people to interpret the history in a favorable way of the author. As a result, novels have always been used as a useful and somewhat indirect tools to promote political propaganda by the government. However, the nature of literature and art is to express the whatever ideas of humans regardless of identity and social status. The Chinese government currently limited the topics of literature to “tell the good China story” and even prohibited many other splendid stories just for the reason that they reveal some truths that threaten the benefits of nationalism. It is an action that seriously goes against to the rules of freedom of speech. Moreover, nationalists’ restrictions to literature do not limit to the government but also individuals themselves. They are unavoidably influenced by the environment of nationalism and definitely have a sense of belongings to their nations and ethnic groups which form the ideology that reflects in their artworks. Narrative fiction is a kind of implement as well as a weapon to maintain nationalism. Ironically, the published literature allowed by the government in some extent does represent the thoughts of people–the imagined common but in a way that eliminates those unfavorable and minority opinions.

  13. To be honest, Professor David Wang’s lecture is very interesting and offers me a brand new perspective to look at one of the literary forms, that is, the narrative fiction. Just as Professor David Wang introduces this literature form to us, we all know that narrative fiction is based on real things which happen in our daily lives. In other words, stories in narrative fictions are all our own stories which can reveal the reality of our life. Therefore, in my opinion, the reason why the Chinese government wants its citizens to tell good stories is that the Chinese government can spread the idea make its own citizens believe that China is one of the best countries in this world by the help of telling “good stories”. In other words, the Chinese government believes that the thought of nationalism can be spread among its citizens by the narrative fictions.
    However, I think this kind of nationalism which only tells “good stories” is not the real one. Instead, the real nationalism should not only tell us about “good stories”, but also tells us about “bad stories”. In this way, we can understand our country better and know what are our country’s advantages and disadvantages. This reminds me of the period of the Republic of China. In this period, the government encourages every person to tell their own stories, no matter they are good or bad. Thus, many famous and talented nationalist writers showed up. Most of them wrote “bad stories” in their xiaoshuo. In fact, it is not because they hate their country. Instead, they love their country and wanted it to be better. Therefore, the real nationalism is not derived from only telling “good stories”. Instead, the real nationalism is based on true stories.

  14. China is the third largest country in the world, and the whole country is getting better under President Xi’s delicacy mangement. Professor Wang points out that Chinese goovernment wants its citizens to “tell the good China story,” and I think that is not a problem for China. Telling good stories helps people to united together, and have more believes of their country. I understand how important nationalism is for such a huge country, it is good that all the citizens are proud of their nation, their culture and their society. Therefore, I also think that Chinese government should not only tell good stories, people in China have rights to know the dark side of their society. China still have a long way to go to achieve the freedom of speech, as a Chinese, I am looking forward.

  15. China is the third largest country in the world, the whole country is getting better under President Xi’s delicacy management. Professor Wang points out that Chinese government wants its citizens to “tell the good China story,” and I think that is not a problem for China. Telling good stories helps people to united together, and have more believes of their country. I understand how important nationalism is for a such huge country, it is good that all the citizens are proud of their nation, their culture and their society. Therefore, I also think that Chinese government should not only tell good stories, people in China also have rights to know the dark side of their society. China still have a long way to go to achieve the freedom of speech, as a Chinese, I am looking forward.

  16. Professor Wang’s lecture inspires me to think deeply between the relationship between citizen’s expressions like the fictions and the reality as a Chinese international student. There is a saying that the outsider sees the most of the game; so when I am in the situation that under President Xi’s advocate on telling the good China story, I realizes that citizens are not able to see the whole picture of current political situation and understand nationalism directly from the government’s reports or propaganda. For instance, Professor Wang mentioned Geling Yan, a famous writer who now become an American citizen, ferrets out the unimaginable dark situation in China that her grandfather had suffered before. Geling Yan writes the fiction through the “outsider” point of view, who does not aim for advocating nationalism, but only telling the true experience and story. Therefore, just as Professor Wang claims, we should tell multiple versions of Chinese story through different voices.

  17. As a Chinese student, I was very impressed by professor Wang’s speech about Chinese fictions. He emphasized the importance of fiction in contemporary China, especially in the aspects of narrativity and governance. For narrativity, Chinese contemporary fictions are now intended to have deeper understandings and a broader foresight. For example, the famous science fiction The Three-Body Problem written by Liu Cixin tells a story about interstellar wars, physics and strategic problems. The Three-Body Problem is no doubt a milestone of Chinese fiction, and it is translated to different languages and spread to the world. Fiction also reflects governance, because what people are “imaging” or “dreaming of” exactly tells us what people are experiencing. Professor Wang noted that Chinese government wants people to tell the good China story, and it is a nationalist request. I agree that in many cases, novelists and fictionists write things based on government’s requirement. Or say, they do not write things opposite to government’s wanting. I believe that nationalism produces some narrative fiction, which fits that country’s situation and people’s living standards. I do not think nationalism always come from the government, but come from the history. With the history going on, the wars, the culture development, economic growth, and also the political reasons, altogether determine nationalism. I think there can be something nationalist about telling the “xiao shuo”of ordinary people. For example, stories about normal families during the war, or under some sufferings. I do not think to tell one’s own story is opposite to collective nationalism, because nationalism can emerge from ordinary people’s lives.

    Lingke Ying

  18. When I looked over all the materials of IGS 10A since the beginning of this semester, I realized that I didn’t really respond to the two wonderful lectures concerning contemporary Chinese literature given by Professor David Wang. As an international student from China, I think It is always great to view our country from a different perspective. As we all know, Taiwan and Mainland China are totally different in terms of ideology and social structure. As a Taiwanese, Professor Wang was able to view China and its literature from the perspective of an outsider and provide us with his unique insights. Also, I’ve always been interested in how literature shapes China.

    Personally, I think that the relationship between narrative fictions and nationalism is that narrative fictions don’t necessarily reflect nationalism, but nationalism can take narrative fiction as a carrier to spread its ideas. As Professor Wang indicated, these Chinese narrative stories can tell “bad” stories or “great China” stories. As we all know, there exists censorship in China in terms of internet, media, and even literature. I would say that most of the Chinese narrative frictions are telling the “great” stories because of this censorship. The Chinese government needs a kind of “collective” nationalism to consolidate and unify the country, it cannot really tolerate the individual stories which are in opposition to this “collective” nationalism that the government wants its people to be committed to. With the censorship, the Chinese government can determine what stories that people read and foster this “collective” nationalism indirectly. Thus, in China, the nationalism may somehow come from the Chinese government.

    Concerning the third lecture, “The Dark Night Gives Black Eyes: The Art of Transillumination”, I knew Gu Cheng’s work and life experience before, but I didn’t closely read his work. Some of the xiao-shuos Professor Wang introduced were gloomy. I think the authors saw the dark side of the society and described such dark sides implicitly in their works. In other words, their works reflected the situation of Chinese society then. At the very end of the lecture, Professor Wang said: “…without the imagination of past evil we are unprepared to recognize it in future incarnations, and for this reason all modernities bear the imprint of primitive savagery”. He was saying that only when we recognized the past, we can be prepared for the future that may repeat the same stories.

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