The story, one which has been told throughout history in various guises, goes something like this: An exotic minority exists under the shadowy darkness of ignorance and superstition. A more advanced, benevolent race attempts to enlighten them to the wonders of modernity and civilization. However, cultures don’t change easily. Conflicts ensue as the confused natives misunderstand the noble intentions of their civilizers. Battles are fought, people are killed. The civilized culture perseveres, confident in the inherent rightness of their ways and convinced that the natives will eventually come to realize this. Ultimately, a brave savior sacrifices his own life as a symbol of the good will and mercy of the civilizing race. The scales fall from the native’s eyes as they come to understand the errors of their previous ways and submit to the righteous and just leadership of their benevolent civilizers.
This is an awkward post for me to write. I live in a country where a version of this narrative is gospel to the vast majority. It is official doctrine: children learn it in school, movies and novels glorify it, and the national media trumpets it at every opportunity. Any contradictory versions or slight deviations are immediately and resolutely squashed. Dissent, on this particular issue, is not tolerated.
As it’s such a sensitive subject, I’m wary of using key words which might draw any attention from the wrong people. There aren’t many subject areas where this would even be a consideration for me – for the most part, I feel remarkably free to express my own opinions and beliefs. This one subject, however, is taboo.
Xinran’s book is a deeply disappointing story in that it swallows this official narrative and regurgitates it whole, glorifying the most egregious aspects in the process – the ‘civilized’ savior rescuing the poor savages from their own backward ways. I can generally overlook questionable political and social overtones if the writing is good enough – and to the book’s credit, the story is well told. Yet, the narrative to which I’ve referred is such a gross oversimplification that it should be offensive to any educated reader no matter how it’s dressed up with effective language.
The insidiousness of the narrative which Xinran so readily propounds lies not in the fact that it is an outright lie, but in the fact that it reduces a complex dynamic to a stark right/wrong dichotomy. It places a ‘civilized’ culture squarely on the side of righteousness and, once the adherents of that culture accept this as truth, any resistance from the ‘uncivilized’ culture is seen as an affront to righteousness itself and retaliation, no matter how severe, can be rationalized. That’s how cultures get erased. Or, if not erased, sanitized to the point of absurdity.
The reality is that this issue is so complex and so tangled that no single narrative could possibly begin to encompass all if its facets (and, to be fair, the other side of this issue has spun it’s own narrative which is, if not as offensive, equally distorted and simplistic). The fact that Xinran expresses a political idea is not what I take issue with. It’s that she’s done so without even acknowledging the complexity of reality. With an issue as polarized as this, it might not seem possible for a writer to both feel passionately and to refrain from relying on oversimplifications. But it can be done – Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue is a superb example of how fiction can take an unsparing look at both sides of this issue.
As for the particular issue which I’ve refrained from naming, I have my own opinions, but I recognize that there are complicated historical and social factors which can serve to bolster both sides of the debate. Over-simplifications and distortions, however, serve no purpose other than to further a particular political agenda. For a writer to promulgate these narratives without comment or critique is a betrayal of her role as a chronicler of reality and reduces her to the ranks of mere propagandists.