Eight Chinese lessons

CHINESE LESSON 1: I was nine and it was dinner time. My father was in monologue mode. He said that at the north bank of the west end of Qutang Gorge on the Yangtze River, there were many caves in the cliffs. During the Ming Dynasty, Zhang Xiangzhong, an insurgent (my father took pleasure in pronouncing this word and swallowed half a glass of wine to indicate he was on a serious mission) was driven with thirteen of his followers to take refuge there.

The Emperor's soldiers blockaded the river just below the gorge, hoping to starve them out. But they didn't count on Zhang's ingenuity. He ordered his men to chisel holes in the rock-face during the night. They used what was left of their fighting sticks and staves and cut them into sections, which were then fitted to the holes. In this way they descended, one by one, removing one rung at a time to place it in the slot below. At the bottom, they were able to drink water and catch fish.

You see how you can't beat the Chinese for cleverness, my father said. But unless they could swim, they could not escape from the cliffs. My father was a good swimmer. He took the opportunity to make this point. He practised what he called 'Australian freestyle' in front of the full-length mirror, his face flushed, his mouth constricted in a kind of rictus, his arms flailing over his head. Besides, he said, the current was too fierce in the narrow gorges and they would surely drown.

Each night, Zhang's band performed what they called their water-stealing, and each day they dried the fish they caught. Meanwhile, the Emperor's men were finding it difficult to maintain the siege, for they were recruited from the cities and needed to be supplied and did not know how to fish efficiently. They could not understand how the insurgents could have survived. Morale started to deteriorate. Zhang's rebels hung their fish out to dry in full view. They toasted the soldiers below, holding up their ceramic bowls. Then they mocked their foes, punching small holes in their bowls so that when they held them up, water poured out. This was in mocking reference to the way the Emperor measured time with his dripping water-jars. The soldiers were frustrated. There were rumours of a hundred-year siege. Archers could not reach the cave with their arrows. They soon withdrew.

Zhang's men did not leave the caves. They felt so secure there, so untouchable, they over-stayed nature's welcome. A monsoonal flood cut them off. There were no fish. The water rose and flooded the caves. They all perished. Villagers who found the bodies spoke of cannibalism. The Emperor went back to observing his pots.

lepto, to steal; hydor, water. Clepsydra: a water clock, my father instructed. He finished off by twirling his fork with a flourish. There is an old Chinese proverb: If you stand on the riverbank long enough, the head of your enemy will float past.


CHINESE LESSON II: You remembered your father only as a voice. He told tales of old Shanghai. As a child you were always very silent, perhaps because your father talked so much, and you used to hide under tables and beds, and you listened to adult conversations. Your father saw himself as a Shanghailander, as though Shanghai were a city-state. The reality was that he was stateless. He told stories of gangsters and nightclubs and his descriptions of houses and mansions were so immediate you were drawn to their interiors, to the point at which you could smell their waxed floors and lacquered furniture. Your father was haunted by what China may have been; nostalgic for what will never be again. Trapped thus, in a home without a home, he never quite recovered. China, in the meantime, had moved on.

You know most of the post-colonial arguments. As Susan Sontag said, a writer is not an opinion-machine. Anyone can read received opinions and regurgitate them. It is better to stick to personal experience. Your experience of Shanghai was that it was always on the move. The Shanghainese were supposed to be the cleverest people in China. Their women the most beautiful. The skyline changed every year. The dream was not about the future; the future was the reality. You could feel its energy surging and breaking out in its streets reinventing and re-imagining itself at every moment, from the official language of the modern nation – which is to be expected of a system still preoccupied with a totality and an authenticity – to the temporarily imagined 'Chineseness' which sees itself negotiating a super-modernity linked to a global diaspora.

There is no suggestion here of being Janus-faced. The past is pertinently missing, except in its colonial architecture. As writer Paul Carter has suggested, the primary meaning of Janus was that of a gateway guardian. Confluences of rivers like the Yangtze and the Whangpoo had powerful spirits coursing through them. A large stone statue of an angel once stood high above the Bund. It had long since been demolished. The remains of its pedestal can still be traced. The river is now guarded by a tall tower in Pudong, something akin to a Sputnik atop a needle. This is one way of rereading Janus – with a short-term memory.


CHINESE LESSON III: Even before visiting Shanghai, you imagined a city built on a river with dream-like buildings sinking into a swamp; a labyrinthine metropolis incorporating a kaleidoscope of different cultures. Your father lived in the French Concession – indeed his first wife was French – and he hopped across every morning to the International Settlement, which was mainly British, for his grandmother was English – just in case a policeman knocked on his door with a list of traffic offences. There was even a block they called Spanish Town, although it may only have existed in a song, but you found your father's Spanish Consulate passport, an old sheet of paper which had visas written on the back of it in a florid hand. A passepartout. That's what it meant to be European: one crossed all kinds of borders with a master-key and passed everywhere.

This heritage had given me many voices to play off, one against another. Who am I anyway? It was through a kind of polyphony that I was able to be in flight from myself. Writing always had this liberating function. If you can't escape your reality by means of a book, then the world is very bleak and dark indeed. The memory of my father's voice, speaking sometimes in English, sometimes in Portuguese, and mostly in a mixture of both, represented a significant part of China's history. Today, officials in China are trying to rein in the diversities of dialects and languages, preventing the improvisations of language-making, in order to corral them into a standardised and centralised obsession. Visionaries have to be uniform in their expression. This is true also of Australia.


CHINESE LESSON IV: In 1994, I went to Shanghai for the first time. I was forty-four. My father was forty-four when I was born. It seemed auspicious that I would come to his old city to verify beginnings. I decided to travel to Shanghai by boat. I took a ship from Hong Kong and sailed up the Whangpoo just like my great grandfather would have done when he came from England to start a business in Shanghai. He was the captain of a sailing ship, working for the East India Company. The sea runs in my veins. Hopeless on land, I lose my direction when emerging from department stores. I take trams in the opposite direction. At sea, my navigation hardly ever fails.

My first impressions of Shanghai did not disappoint me. All the buildings along the Bund emerged from the mist of myth. The already-seen brought with it an uncanny homelessness, as if I were now experiencing the loss of what I had imagined so clearly long before. The imagination, longing for reminiscence of what was true, had itself been verified. It was the philosopher Gaston Bachelard who wrote that the imagination 'will have visions if it is educated through reveries before being educated by experiences, if experience follows as affirmation of its reveries'.

I began to think how whole worlds can often be lost, can fall in between history and memory, recoverable only by chance. Whole cultures can also be erased through official forgetting. In Shanghai, most of the street names have been changed since my father's time, leading to a total confusion on the part of those who wished to salvage the past from letter-heads, blue crests atop yellowed pages, letters written at the height of the Japanese invasion, for example, when my father went up onto the rooftop of his hotel to watch bombs falling. It was better than moving pictures, he wrote to my aunt.

Many of the old hotels have gone. The river is being reclaimed by landfill and tall buildings rise like weeds against a muddied sky. The day is brown, unvisited by sunlight. From the direction of the airport, the silver glare of a super-fast train creases the untrained eye. Its momentary gleam causes anxiety. New Shanghai incorporates all the foul realities with its dream. Back in normal time, the fourteenth century creeps with uneven steps through littered dilapidation and gutted dwellings. I'm learning to live in China's future without much understanding of why it appears to leapfrog so unevenly. Burning the midnight oil, meditating and reflecting, my lucubrations won't get me much traction on the future. China's future will be a going through. Millions will sacrifice themselves.

In the morning, from the window of my hotel, I make out the stooped forms of construction workers; their arcing acetylene torches light a crater the size of a city-block. It is 5 am and the streets are already filling. An old man on a tricycle loaded with cages of ducks rings a large hand-bell without pause like a leper threading his way through a labyrinth of mini-buses and Mercedes limousines. The swank stores in the shopping complex are always empty. Versace, Armani, Dior. I am told this is in readiness for the future. The Europeans have got in early. This is where the future lies: in getting in early. They'd always done this. I'm told that Singapore plans its education policies and its social reforms twenty years ahead. China, the saying goes, plans for eternity. Where is Australia?


CHINESE LESSON V: Perhaps history is being erased because we don't pay enough attention to the multiple agencies within the writing of history – the multiple voices, what the French call the petits récits, uncanny revisitations of minor stories which can bring back a choice in the reclamation of memory. History needs its writers, not experts who compartmentalise past events. We need to irrigate the reservoir of literary time to find the sediment of sociological systems. And we need to do this in ways other than the ordinary and debilitating methods of one linear narrative. You see, writers are always trying to catch up. They are half a step behind the rest. But they see things differently.

In 2003 I discovered an astonishing Chinese writer. His name is Han Shaogong. He wrote what I consider to be one of the most interesting books of recent times, A Dictionary of Maqiao.

Before I started writing this book, I hoped to write the biography of every single thing in Maqiao. I'd been writing fiction for ten or so years, but I liked reading and writing fiction less and less – I am, of course, referring to the traditional kind of fiction, which has a very strong sense of plot. Main character, main plot, main mood blocking out all else, dominating the field of vision of both reader and writer, preventing any sidelong glances. Any occasional casual digression is no more than a fragmentary embellishment of the main line, the temporary amnesty of a tyrant. Admittedly, there's nothing to say this kind of fiction can't approach one angle on the truth. But all you have to do is think a little, and you realise that most of the time real life isn't like that, it doesn't fit into one guiding, controlling line of cause and effect. A person often exists in two, three, four, or even more interlocking strands, outside each of which a great many other elements exist, each constituting an indispensable part of our lives. In this multifarious, scattered network of cause and effect, how valid is the domination of one main thread of protagonists, plot and mood?

In his Nobel-prize address delivered in absentia, Harold Pinter wrote: 'There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.' In a way, this describes China. One can easily see why Han Shaogong is a recluse. As far as I know, he has only ever given one interview to a Dutch reporter. In 1991 he was prevented from leaving the country. Writing is never about simplistic notions of true and false, nor is it about the opposition between memory and forgetting. Han Shaogong knows this only too well. He is not only a linguistic innovator, but is also a translator of Milan Kundera. Absence and presence. The former speaks louder.

Only by taking unpredictable linguistic risks can one put pressure on the idea of 'identity' as something stable and fixed. Indeed, identity is always in the process of becoming, and it is not always singular. New modes of belonging are continually coming into existence through revisiting older forms of textuality. 'Ethnics' and 'hybrids' claiming the same 'authenticity' as some nation-states do, through a totalising discourse, should reclaim the intellectual ground by becoming less transparently personal and by taking on other voices which are not their own.

One only has to look at the publishing history of my novel Shanghai Dancing to see why it was so puzzling for publishers. When I completed the manuscript, few wanted to take it on, though I was already well published by some large international publishing houses. At first, I thought the problem was what they saw as genre confusion. After all, postmodernity is consumed with generic categories and product branding. What was afictional autobiography? The language was sedimented; neither simple nor straight-forward. The narrative was not linear. They insisted that if only it had been a straight memoir it would have had better prospects. It was only after a while that I discovered I was expected to write in the way Jung Chang wrote Wild Swans.

In other words, I was being asked How Chinese was I? And How true is it? I was supposed to deliver a whole set of unsophisticated cultural clichés which they could use for advertising purposes. The Sino-memoir, the exotic first-hand account of horrific struggle, is cathartic for relaxed and comfortable foreigners sitting in their armchairs in grand hotels looking upon the abyss. But this kind of Orientalism is rapidly shifting. Australian perceptions of China are not keeping up.

There was the 'real' Australia and the 'real' China; and then there were its others, like me. A passe-partoutwithout purity. I entered their hearts, saw their confusion. Hybridity was extremely threatening to nations. In China, they are now doing their best to reclaim me. The vast network of the Chinese diaspora is a boon. Location, location, location. But here, at best, my text could have been described as the 'sauce' which spiced up the main meal – which was the Australian story. This tyranny of distance had economic consequences. I couldn't live on sauce.


CHINESE LESSON VI: As a writer who comes from a confluence of three different cultures, Chinese, English and Portuguese, I have always been confronted by the question of location. From where do I speak and how do I make myself heard? This struggle, I have discovered, is in fact an hereditary one. To explain what I mean, I must read you a letter. Here is my father, writing in 1957, seeking a job which I, with my radical education, would obviously not endorse. But that's beside the point for the moment.

On the one hand, this letter – hunted down in the family files when I was writing Shanghai Dancing – provides an odd and unsettling insight for me into the man who was my father; in 1957 he was in fact fifty-two years of age. On the other hand, it offers me an exemplary text of colonial mimicry, one that encapsulates the struggle I mentioned above. Here my father writes in – and into – a highly racialised space; British Hong Kong. He writes with an outrageous sense of irony – after all, he is no Englishman. He writes, nevertheless, with a fine sensitivity to the intimately calibrated racial and ethnic hierarchies that govern that space. He performs an elegant balancing act between the necessary subservience and the required authority. Above all, he produces a consummate exercise in creative writing, a text that is made up of a spectrum of speaking positions and which captures some of my critical lines of inquiry.

In other words, should we not imperil a singular authenticity, a single identity, the Australian pragmatic, anti-intellectual ordinariness and the Chinese nation-building centralisation, with the challenge of polyphony, or what I shall call polyphonia? Should we not consider historical realities which have forced into existence non-authentic hybridities which can meet the challenges of the future? I would like to call this art of the fugue, this assumption of counterpoints and harmonious hybridities, polyphonia not polyphony. Not only multiple, but counterfeit; not only multicultural, but linguistically inventive. Not only polymorphous, but phony.

Is this not where the real novel began? With Cervantes, Rabelais, Defoe and Sterne? With the excesses of imposture and the baroque empathies of superfine sensibilities? The polyphony employed by literary modernism, I would suggest, is one way of accessing this awareness of difference and the various subversions of stereotypes. Does anyone dare, these days, to imagine himself or herself as some other nationality or ethnicity? To write as an other? Can one cross borders in disguise? Become unhoused;Unheimlich? Certainly this is what my father was trying to do. His uncanny attempt at 'persuasion' in his letter was based on his being available, out of 'not feeling at home', as it were. In his letter he talks of 'tact and persuasion'.

It seems these were also the methods of colonialism in which so-called 'new' ethnicities had skills to display. The comprador, for instance, is a Portuguese word which I grew up hearing quite often. It's one of those unique words created in the East which has multiple histories in its etymology. It comes from the verb 'to purchase' or 'to furnish'. A comprador is a person who can trade between cultures; a disorientalist, since he or she not only understands both sides, but in doing so, disperses all the deadly stereotypes. A comprador is a bourgeois, sure enough, but to quote Flaubert, the dogma in the life of the artist is to 'live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god'. Yet I, who am at the difficult end of any racialised subjectivity, refusing to be a 'new' national subject, would not see this as a trajectory into assimilative modernity, but as a method which offers me literary choices and, as Lyotard said, an elaboration on an 'initial forgetting' – a recovery of things I had been forced to forget in order to be a good citizen of a new country. A creative revisitation; not just a recalling. A new look. But then, if all of us had to forget in order to serve Australia's vision of China, it would be almost inevitable that Australia would be out of step with the coming reality.


CHINESE LESSON VII: The critic Hélène Cixous wrote somewhere about the 'intersection between poetry and history'. With reference to the poet Marina Tsvetayeva, she wondered whether poetry was stronger, perhaps more dangerous than history. But as sinologist Gregory Lee has pointed out, it is also the fact that it is historicity which makes the poetics more dangerous. It is for this reason that you have always preserved at the kernel of all your novels the idea that history remains dangerously open to reflective critique – reverie perhaps, without investing in linear grand narratives. Theoretical discourse opens the way a little, but it often forecloses on questions of affective/ethical reconsiderations. While postmodernism does its best to exculpate guilt, Western linear logic presupposes historical progress on the morality of memory, neglecting the way words and expressions have recusative after-effects.

Literary modernism can recuperate these antagonistic and seemingly insignificant gestures in a paradoxical fashion. By bringing language to the fore, it preserves linguistic oddities, resisting any cognitive explanation for its apocalyptic impact, its chaos, its rending and tearing. History therefore only raises its skirts because of some echolalic outrage over its manipulation. 'Commemorative' societies like China's and Australia's privilege gate-keeping and plain-speaking – the logic of power – over imagination; but it verges on a parody of itself. Put quite simply, old-fashioned patriotism is bankrupt because of a lack of imagination. It was imagination which brought about the initial events at Tiananmen Square. A formless howl made out of memory and mimicry. It was very Chinese and not-Chinese.

You have always turned the mirror upon the historical ruins of your own origins. The tension between the graffiti of doubt scrawled upon the pedestal of a shaky monument to authenticity is your real mission. In memorialising this voice-from-beyond-the-grave, you also demolish it through invention. As Michael Taussig wrote, 'Defacement releases the power of the monument, making it visible perhaps for the first time.' You, I, scrawling an apostrophe for what is missing.

As a child, we had our yearly family holiday in Macau. I used to wander the streets with my mother, waiting for my father to show up. He never did. I noticed that along the Praia Grande there were many pedestals, in stone and brick, out of which sprouted weeds. There was no edifice, no statue, no memorial. My mother called them statue-stumps. Later, my father told me about one of them. As the story goes, there was a grand statue of a Portuguese colonel who was a hero of the enclave. He apparently put down riots and uprisings by the Chinese. I'm not sure if he was good at judo or boxing, but the statue was of him on a rearing horse slashing out with a sabre at the ground below. The Chinese remembered him as a child-slaver and tyrant. So some time in the early twentieth century they blew up his statue. His family, all noble scions of Lusitania, had the pieces brought back to Portugal, stone by stone, and re-erected the statue at the end of their street in Lisbon. My father told me that the only piece missing was the statue's right arm, which they couldn't find – the one holding the sabre, slashing at the Chinese hordes below. History had made the colonel benign. Or perhaps even statues lose their memory.

Strange how the Chinese left the stumps as a reminder of his absence.


CHINESE LESSON VIII: My mother was not a formally educated person. She was born before the First World War and lived through another. She recently died at the age of ninety-two. She learned everything through personal experience. I do not even want to imagine what she went through under the three years and eight months of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, which began on Christmas Day, 1941. For many years after, she lived with a radio, both as an article of furniture and as a portable contraption, against her ear. It was her companion, her security blanket which disseminated the insecurity of the present moment.

Following my father's lead, I may even have patronised her because of this atavistic behaviour. Radio Hong Kong carried the BBC news. Little did we know she was always attuned to the world, though she hardly ever offered an opinion. Then one day she said to me that what she heard on the BBC World Service was really all about China. 'China will go through much more than the rest of the world,' she said, 'step by step.' I thought she had reached the foothills of dementia. But now I think she was right. It was a reminder of absence.

China had always been the blindspot of the West. The West is now playing at catch-up. As Walter Benjamin wrote in his fragment entitled 'Chinese Curios' in the collection One-Way Street, 'Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands.' Transcription is the key to China's enigma: the transmission of personal experience in the encoding of culture. Where there is an official forgetting, the historical practice of experiencing transcription is diverted into rediscovering visions – in a totally anachronistic way. Plus ça change. So it is important to dream first, without first being contaminated by experience. That, however, may be an extremely dangerous practice.

My mother always knew Greenwich Mean Time. If this is China's century then it will be timely and timeless. But that's a cliché. There will be no going back, and there will surely be divergences from a linear path. Dead Europe and its museums won't count for anything and never again will Western colonialism make a return. But will China's time be itself altered by an uncontrollable reality? Its own colonial gate-keeping? Its notions of 'purity'? And where will poetry be, or the literary dreaming which interpolates resistance? Will there be a return of the repressed?

Incidentally, my father never got the job putting down factory workers. When he arrived in a new country (in Australia, perennially ten years younger – at his funeral I didn't know what dates to put on his gravestone), the first thing he did was to join a trade union. I suppose this was what China had taught him. He learnt to walk the road on foot – in other people's shoes. History lessons were never reliable, but the freedom to dream led you across all borders.

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