Trans-Border Literature

At this year's Hong Kong Book Fair, there will be a number of talks about the notion of trans-border literature.  What is trans-border literature?  Presently, there are physical as well as cultural borders among mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.  When someone writes in Chinese, there is no guarantee that it will be received well outside of their region.  For example, there is no outside market for some Hong Kong author writing in colloquial Cantonese about Hong Kong culture.  Nevertheless, there have been known instances in which books achieve trans-border appreciation and popularity.  So what is the secret?

Zhang Yihe is the author of <<The Past Is Not Like Smoke>> (also known as <<The Last Nobles>>) (see The International PEN Award For Independent Chinese Writing), and she will be one of the speakers at the Hong Kong Book Fair on this subject.  She is from mainland China, and the talk of her title will be "Borders are not like smoke" with the sub-title: "Why cross borders?"  The following is a summary of her talk as given in the July 31, 2004 issue of Yazhou Zhoukan.

In summary, Zhang Yihe's response is very Buddhist-Taoist in nature -- the more you strive, the less likely that you will achieve your goals; even if you succeed, you won't be content.  Thus, she said, "Trans-border literature does not cross borders because you want to cross borders; similarly, literature does not stay within the borders just because you want it."

From the reception of her own <<The Past Is Not Like Smoke>>, she characterized the experience as eight different stages in which something that she "didn't think" so actually happened.

(1) At first, she wrote some stories about the people of her father's generation to share with friends.  She didn't think that one of the friends would recommend the stories to a magazine.

(2) When the magazine published the articles, she didn't think that they would get posted on the Internet and achieved much larger circulation than the magazine alone.

(3) After the articles achieved broader circulation, she didn't think that a publishing house would say that these stories could be edited and collected in a book.

(4) The book was published, but she didn't think that it would become a bestseller.

(5) After the book became a best seller, she didn't think that it would be banned by the central propaganda bureau.

(6) After the book was banned, she didn't think that it would continue to circulate among the general public through the many pirated editions.  In fact, that circulation was much larger than originally conceivable.

(7) After the book was banned on mainland China, she didn't think that it would receive the International PEN Award for Independent Chinese writing.

(8) After the award was given out, she didn't think that the award giver would be summoned by the police for interrogation and the recipient would be labeled as a 'representative of capitalist liberalism.'

With all these twists and turns and ups and downs, the book had to be trans-border as everyone everywhere heard about it.  It was not up to the author to decide whether it is trans-border or not.  But if you think about the eight stages above, it was clear that what made the book so popular across borders was the fact that it got banned.  So much for the efficacy of censorship, which only managed to amplify the reception of the banned book.

Zhang Yihe also said: "Literature requires feelings, it requires imagination, it requires thinking, it requires form, but it requires truth above all.  For society, it is more important to have a true history than a piece of good literature.  If the historical narratives that we see contain many concealments, distortions, misrepresentations and lies, then our literature must step up to assume some responsibility to express the truth.  Truth is the ultimate value for the literary arts."