I’ve recently finished reading Ha Jin’s The Crazed. It’s a short novel about Jian, a budding PhD candidate in pre-Tiananmen China who is given the task of watching over his academic mentor (and future father-in-law) after a stroke incapacitates the old professor. A central theme of the novel is the place in modern society for artists and intellectuals. The old professor, in his stroke-fueled rantings, recounts some poetry that he claimed to have written after he was branded a “Demon-Monster” during the Cultural Revolution and sent off to a concentration camp in North-Eastern China.
If only I had ten thousand mansions
To shelter all poor scholars on earth
And brighten their faces with smiles.
Look, the mansions stand like mountains
Unshakable in the wind and rain!
Ah, once my eyes arise such mansions,
I shall be happy, even though my own but
Falls apart and I freeze to death!
(The Crazed, p 134)
Professor Yang, perhaps imagining that he’s in a classroom, lectures that this is a poem in which “authenticity overcomes artifice,” primarily because it was born through his own misery and suffering. Then, dropping his scholarly facade, Professor Yang breaks down sobbing and asking “Where are those grand mansions? When can I see them?”
For Professor Yang, the crux of the problem is this: “If truth cannot come true then what good can it do us?” For the artist and scholar, life is a constant search for and examination of the truth. In Professor Yang’s case, that search was through done through the medium of poetry (a consistent theme in Ha Jin’s books as he is an accomplished poet). Yet, at the end, Yang realizes that “it is all just full of lies…I’ve been fooled my whole life.” There most certainly are not ten thousand mansions for Professor Yang.
One could read this as a general lamentation about the lack of appreciation and respect for scholars and artists the world over. Certainly, the struggling artist in any country feel that his or her work is unappreciated and ponders the futility of art and the elusiveness of truth in modern society. However, Ha Jin further expounds on this within the specific context of modern China. Later, Professor Yang talks to one of his colleagues about Jian, saying how he lost his chance to be a real scholar abroad by failing the TOEFL. “In our country, no scholars can live a life different from a clerks. We’re all automatons without a soul.” In Professor Yang’s (and in Ha Jin’s) view, the best that a scholar in China can hope for is to be a cog in service to the Revolution. At worst, you end up branded a Demon-Monster, an outcast from society, humiliated and scorned.
China today, of course, is a completely different place than it was in 1989 when this story takes place. However, the book was published in 2002 and it would seem from an essay published in 2008 that Ha Jin’s hasn’t tempered his bleak views of the scholar’s role in contemporary Chinese society. In an essay entitled The Censor in the Mirror, he argues that “the system of harsh censorship has crippled and ‘sterilized’ the writers and artists who exist within its field of force.” According to Ha Jin, most scholars, writers, and artists are directly dependent on the official government Writers Union which closely adheres to the principle articulated by Mao Zedong: “If they don’t listen to us, we won’t give them food.” Writers (as well as other artists and intellectuals) cannot have an existence outside of the officially delineated parameters that the government arbitrarily sets, so self-censorship is imperative for their basic survival as artists within the country.
This returns to Ha Jin’s argument in The Crazed. What is the role of the artist and, by extension, the truth, in modern Chinese society? Is it to serve the government by staying within certain prescribed boundaries and limits? Or is it to seek the truth regardless of where the truth may lie? It’s an important question and one that Ha Jin isn’t afraid to address.