The Review of Politics

Book Reviews: POLITICIZED DIASPORA

Belinda Kong : Tiananmen Fiction outside the Square: The Chinese Literary Diaspora and the Politics of Global Culture. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 278.)

Sylvia Li-chun Lin

University of Notre Dame

More than two decades have elapsed since demonstrators for democracy were massacred in and around Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989; the “incident” (as it is called on the rare occasion when the topic arises in official discourse) has since entered the popular imagination of diasporic writers from China. These texts deserve a closer examination, either as creative literary works or as a communal outcry against government atrocity against its own people, or both. Belinda Kong's book, hence, is a welcome addition to the study of literature of atrocity, most prominent of which are works set against the Holocaust. What differentiates Holocaust writers or Japan's Atomic fiction is the shared diasporic background of these writers from China. Owing to its sensitive nature, the Tiananmen massacre remains a taboo topic on the Mainland, and, therefore, only those residing outside its borders can write about it “publicly, openly, and directly” (2). Since some of the works examined were written in English, inevitable questions arise: Who is the targeted readership of a corpus of works with such a geographically (Asian) and thematically (atrocity) specific focus? How should we in academia approach these works, avoiding the reductionist tendency to treat literature as a mere vehicle for social history? And can Tiananmen fiction stand alone on its own merits with lasting effects? Kong, by contrast, asks different questions, arising from her central thesis that “more than any other episode in recent world history, Tiananmen has brought about, and into stark relief, a distinctly politicized Chinese literary diaspora” (2, italics original). That is, since June 4, 1989, diasporic Chinese writers, though they continue to write about China, have become more politically engaged and noticeably more vocal against the Communist regime. Yet, as she points out, “they also risk perpetuating Cold War perceptions of China as a brutal totalitarian country by artistically resurrecting an episode of violent state repression and failed protest” (6). It is with this scholarly impetus to avoid the dichotomy between “anticommunist contestation and potential neo-orientalism” that Kong conducts her study, striving to “reach beyond the agonistic viewpoint by highlighting the capacity of a diaspora to serve as a third, transformative space” (6).

Tiananmen Fiction outside the Square is divided into four chapters, plus an introduction and conclusion. Each chapter studies a major diasporic writer, focusing on a single work, and his or her conception of the Square. In chapter 1, “The Existentialist Square: Gao Xingjian's Taowang,” the author uses a seminal play by the 2000 Nobel Laureate for Literature to argue that Gao turns the Square into an abstract space, thus erasing “both gender inequality and totalitarianism as specific nonuniversal structures of oppressive power, as well as his own possible complicity in them” (83). Although Taowang is the purported center of this chapter, the author brings up a host of issues related to Gao as a diasporic writer, beginning with his “questionable” status as a Tiananmen dissident, individualism, and noncommitment in Gao's works, and universalizing totalitarianism. Kong concludes that Gao's connection to Tiananmen as portrayed in Taowang is, in essence, a result of his exilic nostalgia, despite his support and sympathy for the student protestors.

Chapter 2, “The Aporetic Square: Ha Jin's The Crazed,” begins with a treatise on contemporary global discourses of the Chinese dissident and Ha Jin's place in the Western liberal, anticommunist milieu. Kong sees in the National Book Award-winning American expat writer someone who “seems to have lived out to an exceptional degree a perpetual sense of hauntedness in his fictions,” a novelist “caught in the throes of writing and rewriting an originary scene of diasporic trauma” (134).

Chapter 3, “The Globalized Square: Annie Wang's Lili,” focuses on the “hierarchy of power/knowledge about Tiananmen along intersecting lines of nationality, ethnicity, and gender” (141) as the central theme and core critique of Lili, which, she argues, is the most introspective of novels representing Tiananmen to Western readers. Wang revisits the conversation over orientalism, having created a Western man as the central male character.

The final chapter, “The Biopolitical Square: Ma Jian's Beijing Coma,” examines a novel that employs an extended narrative on totalitarian biopolitics, for which (social) cannibalism is the central metaphor. Ma “domesticates the issue of Tiananmen's memory/amnesia along generational lines intergenerational memory” and focuses on student life, in contrast to “Gao Xingjian's intellectual-philosopher, Ha Jin's scholar-student, and Annie Wang's woman hooligan.”

The book is well written, the arguments convincingly articulated. The study is not without its flaws, some of which derive from the fact that it originated from a dissertation; in places it is slightly unwieldy, and some perceptive comments are buried in unnecessarily minute details. Authors of studies like this run the risk of overelevating their subjects. When Kong writes: “for the diasporic authors here, literature offers a forum to fine-tune, modify, or forge anew the world's understanding of China, Chineseness, and Tiananmen” (11), the same case can be made for virtually all writers; the key is, quite simply, artistry. Such statements are further weakened here by the limited selection of works, particularly in the author's assertion that “an overdependence on the witness can lead to a moral and intellectual complacency on our part, where we feel obviated from the need to probe further for history's continuities, meanings that exceed mere facticity to impinge on our present and future” (12). Such a bold statement requires substantiation; perhaps the author would benefit from the abundant scholarship on Holocaust studies in the functions of fictional recreation and testimonials. A related issue is the fact that the Tiananmen Massacre now carries enough cachet to ensure publication; it is unfortunate that the author does not probe the issue further, though she elaborates upon a French journalist's erroneous characterization of Gao Xingjian as a dissident of the Tiannamen generation (36). “What requires investigation here is the larger issue of an international cultural politics that goes into the manufacturing of Gao's literary identity via his political one” (37). As the author points out, two of the writers whose works she studied, Gao Xingjian and Ha Jin, did not experience the demonstration firsthand; they relied instead on news reports as material for their imagination. While the author is critical of the Western liberal establishment's co-optation of dissident writers, Kong does not see a problem in these writers' co-optation of “other people's suffering.”

Such relatively minor flaws do nothing to diminish Kong's contribution. She is astute and cognizant of the elite background of the writers whose works she studies. “Ultimately, perhaps due to this very eliteness, the writers here all possess the means of self-advocacy that permit them to shed light on the creative and transformative potential of not just the Chinese literary diaspora but of diasporic subjects in general” (10). The reader comes away with rich insights regarding both these four writers and the global politics of Chinese diasporic writing, particularly in light of the 2012 announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature being awarded to the Chinese writer, Mo Yan.