I am here in my New York City apartment, which is the repository of my readings over several decades. On my bookshelves are some books that I never understood. As an example, here is the final paragraph from Juliet Kristeva's About Chinese Women, published in the United States in 1977:
The ambivalent destiny of Chinese women in the ancient and modern history of China may have no other function and hence no other truth in the nowness of here than to signalize, in the face of conformism, the importance and the difficulty as well as the ambivalence of feminine creation. A creation that the millennial undulation recognizes, exploits and urges to release itself as an ultimate guarantee of order (family/state/religion), and whose newness actually consists in affirming itself against the current, in moments of breaking identifies and breaking wholes: in the instant of renewal. Which perhaps gives us a chance to accelerate or modify our specific history-times into new social spaces.
What was Kristeva talking about? I had no idea back then, and I still have no idea today. I will note that in my copy of this book, I had handwritten in the original French text because I had suspected that the translation was at fault and I therefore went to the university library to verify. Here is the French text of the last paragraph of Des Chinoises:
Le destin ambivalent des femmes chinoises dans l'histoire ancienne et moderne de la China n'a peut-être pas d'autre fonction et, en conséquence, d'autre verité dan l'actualité d'ici, que de signaler, face à la facilité du conformisme, l'importance et la difficulté en même temps que l'ambivalence de la création féminine. Une création que le pli millénaire reconnaît, exploite and pousse à se réaliser comme garantie ultime d l'ordre (famille-État-religion), et dont la nouveauté consiste au contraire à s'affirmer aussi, surtout, à contre-courant, dans les moments des ruptures des identités et des ensembles: dans l'instant de novation. Ce qui nous donne peut-être une chance d'accélérer la modfication de nos temps-histoires spécifique en de nouveaux espaces sociaux.
This was a fair translation and, in English or French, I still don't understand it. But who in the world can understand what those Tel Quel people wrote, about China or anything else, back in the aftermath of the May revolution in France? But I think that many people will in fact understand the introductory paragraphs of Des Chinoises:
Sitting here in front of the typewriter, trying to write about my experience in China, I am haunted by one scene in particular. It makes me hesitate at each touch of the keyboard; but it excites me as well. Not to lose sight of it; to make it transparent on every page: such as the stakes in the course that follows.
Forty kilometers from the former Chinese capital of Xi'an [the first capital of China after it was unified under the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in the second century B.C., and the great capital of the Tang Dynasty (618-906)] is Huxian, the chief village of an agricultural region. The road we travel to get there is hot; the sun beats down on the peasants in broad bamboo hats, on unsupervised children skipping about in quiet games, on a hearse drawn by some men while others, in two parallel lines alongside it, surround it with thin parallel poles carried across their shoulders.
Everyone from the village is in the square where we are supposed to attend an exhibit of peasant painting in one of the nearby buildings. An enormous crowd is sitting in the sun: they wait for us wordlessly, perfectly still. Calm eyes, not even curious, but slightly amused or anxious: in any case, piercing, and certain of belonging to a community with which we will never have anything to do. They don't distinguish among us man or woman, blonde or brunette, this or that feature of face or body. As though they were discovering some weird and peculiar animals, harmless but insane. Unaggressive, but on the far side of the abyss of time and space.
'A species -- what they see in us is a different species', says one of our group. 'You are the first foreigners to visit the village,' says the interpreter, always sensitive to the least of our tropisms. I don't feel like a foreigner, the way I do in Baghdad or New York. I feel like an ape, a Martian, an other. Three hours later, when the gates of the exhibit are opened to let our cars pass through, they are still there, sitting in the sun -- amused, or anxious? -- calm, distant, piercing, silent, gently releasing us into our 'strangeness.'
Field anthropologists have certain had such shocks: 'You are a different species.' But in China, the feeling of alienation seems to me even more important, because it is addressed to us by a society that has nothing exotic about it, no relation whatsoever to any 'primitive mentality'. On the contrary, it comes from what is called a 'modern nation', a nation with 'modern problems', in which even something that we may find irritating and archaic is easily identified: something not all that far from us, the regimes of Eastern Europe. So nothing disorienting here: even less so for me, who recognized my own pioneer komsomol childhood in the little red guards, and who owe my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor. The strangeness persists, then, through a highly developed civilization which enters without complexes into the modern world, and yet preserves a logic unique to itself that no exoticism can account for.
I think that one of the functions -- if not the most important -- of the Chinese Revolution today is to introduce this break ('there are others') into our universalist conception of man and history. It's not worth the trouble to go to China if one insists on closing one's eyes to this breach. Obviously there are those who find a solution: they try to fill the abyss by rewriting a China for 'our people' (who may have some revolutionary or revisionist or liberal cause which will be strengthened by proving that the Chinese are like us, against us, or to be ignored); or else by creating a China against 'them' (against those who are deforming China by making it conform to 'their' ideology rather than 'ours'). To write 'for' or 'against': the old trick of a militant committed to maintaining his position. It can help, it can stifle: what is lost is the chance that the discovery of 'the other' may make us question ourselves about what, here and now, is new, scarcely audible, disturbing.
It is not my goal -- and it is perhaps useless to try -- to discover all those things which, in modern Chinese culture and society, determine the indefinable stare of the peasants of Huxian, who, in fact, did nothing but return the look I gave them without letting them see it, molded as I am by universalist humanism, proletarian brotherhood, and (why not?) false colonial civility.