Cultural course: China
(The article was published in “Verslo žinios”, 2016-05-20)
Lately, because of its enormous scale and resources, China has amassed interest not only from Lithuanian entrepreneurs, but also from Lithuania’s cultural sector. Since China was announced as a country of high priority for cultural export the flow of artists cannot be stopped: directors of cinema, theatre and dance, musicians, photographers, visual artists – all are actively searching for Chinese spectators and listeners.
Literature has also taken its first step. In March the cities of Beijing, Chengdu and Suzhou saw the international literature festival “Bookworm”. Among the participants there were two writers from Lithuania – Undinė Radzevičiūtė (a writer of prose, author of Strekaza, There will Be no Baden-Baden, Fish and Dragons; the recipient of the prestigious European Union Prize for Literature) and Mindaugas Nastaravičius (playwright, poet, publicist, the author of poetry collections Dėmėtų akių and Mo, the Golden Cross of the Stage-winning plays Democracy and Man Netinka Tavo Kostiumas; the recipient of many awards for his poetry and journalistic investigations). In China Radzevičiūtė participated in various discussions, and Democracy, the play written by Nastaravičius, was read by actors from Chengdu. The presentation of Lithuanian literature in China was coordinated by Lithuanian Culture Institute.
Agnė Biliūnaitė, an extremely hardworking Lithuania’s cultural attaché to China, after the performance of Heroes’ Square by the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre in Tianjin and Harbin has said: “If we can find a way to reach the hearts and minds of China’s residents through the stage and not through a shelf of a supermarket or a textbook of history – we should take it. For me it seems to be the most interesting and authentic one”.
But let’s put aside the supermarkets and turn towards the talk with the writers: how do they value their experience over the Great Wall now, after some time has passed? Did they discover China and, maybe more importantly, did China discover them?
The questions to the writers:
- What do the Chinese find interesting about us? Were there any reactions that surprised you when participating in various discussions, presenting your works?
- Was this your first encounter with (the modern) China? Did you manage to make an impression about the country’s atmosphere, its people? What do they breathe there?
- Were the discussed themes of literature from small languages were relevant in China? And did the play Democracy seem relevant to the Chinese?
- What is the most vivid memory you have from your trip?
Along with the authors Owen Martell (Wales) and Jordi Punti (Catalonia), I’ve participated in a four evening programme called “Literature Across Frontiers” in Beijing and Chengdu. We discussed whether every country should have its own individual national tradition of literature, and about how the major cultures and languages affect the smaller ones. When looking at us, the Chinese do not see a Welshman, a Catalonian and a Lithuanian – they see three Europeans talking in English and understanding one another.
To the Chinese we’re interesting not as people from Lithuania, but as people from the West. They’re not interested in our country or our culture, but in what they can learn from people who think differently and how can they apply it to their own culture. The Chinese always lived in a state of global collectivism where one person is only a small part of a huge organism, be it family, the state or a language group. That’s why they were interested in and wanted to talk about the individuality of the Western authors. They seem to see a sort of freedom in that kind of individuality and it excites them.
One of my books, Fish and Dragons, is about how missionaries from the West – mathematicians, astronomers, painters, musicians – traveled to China with the aim of converting the Chinese emperor to Christianity. This was my first confrontation with China. What do the residents of China’s cities of the 21st century breathe? A mix of industrial smog, capitalism and Confucianism. Yet the young Chinese live in escapist fantasies. They seek to escape China, at least for a little while. Though, to tell you the truth, Westerners also live in escapist fantasies, but their reasons of wanting to run away to the East are entirely different from those of the Easterners who dream of living in the West.
These kinds of discussions are relevant in any country. Literature is not and should not be isolated to national literary traditions. The very same fundamental things underlie all good literature: it helps in understanding the world, it represents it, or creates it anew, it anticipates the future and remembers the past, it answers the questions “what should I do?” and “how should I live?” Finally, when reading good literature, you can find the most important thing that is present in the books – wisdom.
The Chinese audience differs from the European one. The European public is usually careful, shy, “humanitarian,” affected by a certain cultured laziness. You can easily charm them with successful jokes. The Chinese arrive thoroughly prepared – prepared for a long, intellectual and cold discussion. And their questions resemble topics of doctoral dissertations: “How do computer technologies and the technological process in general affect the literature of the modern-day generation European writers?” Answer in three sentences. I’m glad there were no questions about nanotechnologies.
China is a country where it is very difficult to “enter” history, but very easy to get “entangled” in it. China is quite a dangerous land to the people who are not aware of its rules.
The most interesting story I remember happened in a hotel’s elevator.
After a long evening of discussions and a lengthy dinner my colleagues from Wales and Catalonia and I were meaning to get to the 13th floor, when suddenly three members of the Chinese Triad entered the elevator. We were instantly gestured to press close to the back wall of the elevator. One of them looked like a Japanese baseball player, another reminded me of a character from Kobo Abe’s The Face of Another – his whole face was burnt, as if with some kind of acid. The impression was so strong, that I can’t even recall the third one. The only thing I know is that his appearance was no less intimidating. Some writer might say: “the orchestration of the heroes was simply ideal.” The criminals in Lithuania usually look like a cross between a sportsman and a businessman, but the Chinese criminals – they resemble something between a beast and a man. And you know, that at any moment, he could act either as a man, or as a beast. I figured that my journey to the 13th floor of the hotel in Chengdu would be my last, when suddenly the elevator stopped on the 8th floor. The Triad members walked away and the “baseball player” gestured with his hand that they would spare us.
The organisers of the literary festival and the actors who worked with my play knew that I’m Lithuanian. They were fairly informed and, for example, had linked that I’m from the same country as is Jonas Kazlauskas, who was the coach of China’s men’s national basketball team for several years. But all the other reactions I could illustrate with this dialogue: “Are you from Russia?” No. “America?” No. “Hm… Where are you from then?”
I have participated, along with poets from Gana, Australia and USA, in a discussion about how the places we grew up influenced our work as writers. And, whether I liked it or not, I was being called a European, not a Lithuanian. In fairness, I was puzzled at first – “a poet from Europe.” Yet I understood, that if we are of interest to anyone in China, it’s only as Europeans, as a summation of our cultures. It was even more evident when I met with the people working in theatre – actors, directors, professors. “We love your theatre.” By the second day, I had stopped questioning what they meant by the word “your.”
They breathe smog. Young actors told me that their parents and grandparents call smog “fog” to this day. “Oh stop, it’s only steam.” This is the kind of fog they live in. There are no facebooks or googles. Rather, if you wanted, you could manage to access them, but officially – they’re inaccessible. Communism mixed with capitalism. Incense with the smell of roasted chicken. I had never seen so much luxury and so much poverty in one place. Yes, it was my first acquaintance with China, after which, I feel I do not have the right to recount, summarize, because what I saw and what I experienced was just the crumbs of crumbs. Also, I did not get to see the Great Wall of China. So was I really there?
The play Democracy is about a community: the electrical wires, which were chewed by rodents, need to be changed, so the neighbourhood establishes an association. At the first rehearsal I saw an actor, who was playing a mouse, squatting in the corner of the stage. I hesitantly asked: “Why are you making those strange noises?” He replied in the same timid manner: “The play involves mice, doesn’t it? Am I performing badly?” I decided I would not intervene anymore. After two days of rehearsals, a public reading of the play in Chinese was organised. Quite many people gathered, most of them elderly, all dressed up, ready to see art. From what I could understand and from what I read afterwards, theatre in China seems to be an art reserved for the high society. The audience had many questions and they were the kind to which you cannot prepare in advance. The main characters of the play are an electrician and a truck driver. I saw a middle-aged woman rising from her chair with a question: “Why do you write about people who have achieved so little in life? Their language is so poor. Their understanding of the world – so limited. What can we learn from them? Thank you.”
Unfortunately, my most vivid memory is related neither to poetry, nor to theatre. On the other hand… I had with me a bottle of water in a bag which was a gift from the organisers of the festival. I was carried into a narrow street by the flood of people. It was impossible to turn around. Well then, I slowly march together with the crowd. After an hour, I understand that we’re entering a square, a museum, a park, a cemetery. I don’t care where I get. The most important thing is that I’ll see something. I’ll sightsee, so to speak.
Near the entrance of the square, there are three soldiers adorned with automatic rifles, who inspect every centimetre. I notice that one of the soldiers is saying something to the other, who, in turn, is staring at my bag. After another moment, I notice that I’m the only one with any possessions – everyone else is without bags or backpacks. I’m thinking that my bag probably caused the suspicion, so as I approach the soldiers, I take the bottle of water out of the bag. One of them grabs the bottle, opens it and starts saying something to me. And then, I make a mistake. Wanting to show that I don’t care about the water at all, that I can enter the square without it and that I can throw it away right here and now, I take the bottle and with a sudden (too sudden) jerk throw it towards the trashcan. After half a moment I become horizontal. I lied there for 15 minutes, gnawing the pavement (unfortunately, in the literal sense). They probably thought I would set myself on fire. I probably made a mistake by refusing to drink the water in order to prove that it was not flammable liquid. For three hours I paced forward, not looking back, not looking anywhere. Afterwards, I walked into a toy store, where for my son I bought a small plush pig. A kind of toy I hadn’t seen anywhere in Lithuania.