LOOKING EAST

We're Still in Love With The Romance of the Past

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By Nicole Mones
Sunday, July 27, 2008

Been to China lately? There are a lot of new things to see. Avant-garde monoliths -- the China Central Television (CCTV) tower, the National Center for Performing Arts and the National Stadium, to name just three -- rise in Beijing. Shanghai's skyline looks like a fantasy straight out of "The Jetsons." Guangzhou has been transformed almost beyond recognition.

China has spent the last 15 years rebuilding its cities to be aggressively, almost desperately, modern. As the Summer Olympics focus the world's attention on the Middle Kingdom, its new architecture is turning cartwheels to send the message: Look. We've arrived.

But Americans and other tourists rarely bother with these monuments to the future. They seek out historical sites and those last few neighborhoods where an old way of life can still be glimpsed. I did the same when I first traveled to China to start a textile business in 1977. I was constantly snapping photos of rice paddies and water buffalo, even as embarrassed Chinese tried to redirect my attention to what then passed for modern buildings and factories.

Factories? No way. I wanted the China I saw in my mind, romantic and mysterious. In that, I was no different from Henry Kissinger, who described his secret meetings with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai in 1971 in his memoirs. At their first encounter, the American diplomat was offering up a starry-eyed speech about coming to this "mysterious land" when Zhou stopped him with a raised hand. "You will find it not mysterious. When you have become familiar with it, it will not be as mysterious as before."

Exactly. Yet 37 years later, Americans and the West are still caught up in the mystery of China, enchanted by it. We cling to it in a way that may be preventing us from seeing China as the complex new world it has become. Wildly freewheeling in some ways, tightly controlled in others, it's a world growing at warp speed and struggling to reconcile an unstoppable flow of information, money and personal desires with a heavy-handed form of governance. It's a world we need to understand. But unfortunately, we Americans are infatuated with "our" China. We prefer a nostalgic, exotic, vanished land that has little to do with China today.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the narrative arts. As an American who did business in China for 18 years before beginning to write novels about contemporary China, I feel the tension between the romance and the reality all the time. When I do book signings, the first audience question is often a wistful one: Is there anything left of the old, traditional China? Anything at all?

It's revealing that the movies and novels about China that are popular in the West are rarely popular in China, and vice versa. Our two cultures are immersed in opposing images and stories about what China is, which distracts us from more complicated and subtle realities. Americans tend to be drawn to films that feature martial arts, opium dens, concubines, picturesque old Chinese cities and war-torn lovers. Give us movies like "The Last Emperor" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and we're happy. The latter, a huge hit in the West and a flop in China, is an especially pointed example. Based on an early 20th-century Chinese martial arts novel, it's a film suffused with the yearning for a lost homeland that director Ang Lee absorbed growing up in Taiwan, a land of exile. "The film," Lee has said, "is a dream of China, a China that probably never existed, except in my boyhood fantasies."

The same pattern emerges among multiple works by the same directors. Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have made many films, but they've been able to reach American moviegoers mainly through works about the past, such as "Raise the Red Lantern," "Farewell My Concubine" and "Red Sorghum." Their films about life in China today, including "The Story of Qiu Ju," "Together," "King of the Children" and "Not One Less," earned respectful reviews in the West, but they hardly did gangbusters at the U.S. box office.

Contemporary fiction set in China follows suit. Asian American writers such as Gail Tsukiyama, Lisa See and Amy Tan have achieved popular success almost entirely by setting their stories in bygone times, in the China of foot-binding, silk workers, cloistered women and classic operas. Critics have been as pleased as readers. As the San Francisco Chronicle put it in a review of Amy Tan's 2001 novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter": "Opium potions, fortune-tellers, concubines, blood, soot, fish paste. . . . Tan gives readers the details we have been craving all along."

One popular success leads to another. Readers flock to these stories and authors rush to create more of them. The result has been the rise of a new, nostalgic genre, something like the Western -- highly popular, but about China. Call it the Eastern.

The leading émigré writers Ha Jin and Anchee Min also write mainly about the past, but they've developed a less romantic branch of our old-China narrative, what I like to think of as its dark side: stories of Communist-era suffering. Americans love the Cultural Revolution the way we love a good villain in a horror story. Dai Sijie tweaked this form to great success in his novel "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" by giving Western literature -- our literature -- the power to transform Chinese lives. We love seeing our own cultural traditions ride to the rescue. Predictably, Dai's next novel, "Mr. Muo's Travelling Couch," which left the Cultural Revolution behind to take a clever look at the modern Chinese psyche, sold only modestly in the United States.

In China, meanwhile, novelistic explorations of the Cultural Revolution can seem dated. China's "wound literature" of the late 1970s and the "root-searching literature" of the early 1980s aired this collective trauma at a time when everybody you met on a train had a sad story to tell. As this cultural trend played out, China seemed to process the horrors of recent history and move on.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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