Translation from NER 37.2.
On October 26, 2015, Ning Ken gave a talk at Middlebury College titled “Writing in the Age of the Ultra-Unreal.” He spoke in Chinese, and the audience was provided with an English translation to read, which the translator has revised for New England Review.
The first thing I should do, of course, is explain what I mean by “chaohuan,” which we are rendering in English as “ultra-unreal.” The literal meaning of “chaohuan” is “surpassing the unreal” or “surpassing the imaginary.” It is a word that a friend and I made up about a year ago during a conversation about contemporary Chinese reality. Not long after, I used the word in remarks I made at a conference in Hainan province. The conference was organized by the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and recently the institute’s journal, the influential Literary Review, published an article that uses our coinage in its title. The word “ultra-unreal” is young; it’s a newborn baby. I confidently submit, however, that it is going to live a long, healthy life. China’s been pregnant with the word for at least thirty years. Maybe fifty years. Maybe even a hundred years.
So, what has happened in China over the last one hundred years? Well, let’s leave aside the more distant past and limit ourselves to just the last decade, during which much of Chinese reality has seemed like a hallucination. Some of the things that have actually happened have surpassed novels and movies in their inventiveness. Let me give a few minor examples that reveal something of the current Chinese reality.
There is a major anti-corruption campaign underway in China as I speak, and all the examples I am about to give were made public by the official Chinese media. In China, corrupt officials like to keep huge amounts of cash in their homes. In the past, investigators might find a stash of one million or ten million, but these days such an amount would be nothing. Early in 2015, a department head at the National Development and Reform Commission was investigated for corruption. In his apartment they found more cash than they could count by hand. They got currency-counting machines so they could zip right through the counting, but they burned out four of the machines before they got a final tally, which was more than two hundred million Renminbi, which is about thirty-one million US dollars.
—translated from the Chinese by Thomas Moran
Ning Ken grew up in one of Beijing’s old hutong (alley) neighborhoods and, after graduating from college, spent several years in Tibet, where he wrote poetry and taught at a local school. His books include two nonfiction collections and five novels, most recently Sange sanchongzou (Three Trios, 2015) and Tian•Zang (Heaven •Tibet, 2010), for which he was awarded his second Lao She Literary Award and the Shi Nai’an Literary Award. He currently lives in Beijing.
Thomas Moran is John D. Berninghausen Professor of Chinese at Middlebury College. He lives in Ripton, Vermont, with his wife, the painter Rebecca Purdum.