Novelist, essayist, editor, and blogger Ning Ken (b. 1959) lives in Beijing, China, and is the author of five novels, including the 2010 Tian•Zang (Heaven•Tibet), of which Nobel Prize for Literature winner Mo Yan said, “Ning Ken combines keen political critique with penetrating analysis of human nature, and he does so in entirely convincing fashion. Even more importantly, he has created a literary form that is entirely his own.” Ning Ken’s latest novel, Sange sanchongzou (Three Trios, 2015), offers a technically and philosophically complex literary treatment of subject matter—corruption, crime, fantasy, sex—that in China is usually the exclusive concern of popular fiction. 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.
Second example. Guo Boxiong is a retired general in the People’s Liberation Army. When Guo was investigated for corruption, they found so much cash in his home that they couldn’t even try to count it with a currency-counting machine. They had to weigh it by the ton. They needed a truck to haul it all away.
Guo was a very high-ranking military official, but my next example of somebody amassing enough ill-gotten cash to fill a truck involves a man who was just a low-ranking, very ordinary government official. When this guy was on the run he pretended to be a farmer going to market with a truck load of vegetables. When inspectors pulled back the canvas cover over the back of his truck, they didn’t find cabbage, they found millions in cash. All this cash comes out of the collection plate that is passed among the congregation of ordinary people who come to worship at the altar of power. The glint from all the gold paid in bribes sheds some light on China’s very peculiar reality.
There is nothing you can’t accomplish if you hold power. A deputy chief justice in the Hebei provincial supreme court met a sudden, unfortunate end in a traffic accident. Four women came forward to argue over his corpse. All four were legally married to the late deputy chief justice; he had secured for himself four different marriage licenses, all perfectly legal. This had been going on for many years, but not one of the four women knew of the others’ existence. How had he managed to keep the fact that he had four wives a secret? I write fiction, and I tell you truthfully, I can’t imagine how this could be done. This man was one of the top judicial officers in a provincial supreme court, but he treated the law like a joke.
When events occur that exceed our imagination, the world can start to seem unreal. The most shocking tale is, of course, that of Wang Lijun. In 2012, Wang Lijun was the vice-mayor of Chongqing and head of the city’s public security bureau. He ran into trouble with his colleague Bo Xilai, the secretary of the Chongqing branch of the Chinese Communist Party. Wang was a man of considerable power, but when he was on the run, he decided that the safest place for him in all of China was in the city of Chengdu in the consulate of the United States. What does it tell us when the director of the public security bureau in one of the most important municipalities in China decides that the safest place for him is inside a foreign consulate? And his decision did, in fact, save his life. Rumor has it that by the time Wang reached the US consulate in Chengdu, armed police from Chongqing had already followed him there and were preparing to storm the consulate and seize him. Wang reportedly had information that would incriminate Bo Xilai, and therefore the Chongqing armed police wanted to stop Wang and protect Bo. But the Sichuan provincial armed police, which was doing the bidding of the Party Central Committee, had also arrived in Chengdu. These entirely separate detachments of armed police were in a very tense standoff that seemed ready to become violent at any moment. Finally, the Sichuan provincial armed police escorted Wang Lijun away from the consulate. It turns out the Party Central Committee was after Bo Xilai, and it wanted Wang Lijun because he could incriminate Bo. Eventually Wang did testify against Bo. Wang was sentenced to fifteen years in prison whereas Bo got life. This all really happened. It is not from a novel. It is not from a movie. But it is wilder than any movie.
These examples I’ve mentioned might seem to have nothing to do with ordinary folk, who are just spectators to these goings on, but there is actually a very close connection between these stories about the abuse of power and ordinary people. As you all know, in China food safety is a matter of urgent concern for ordinary people. There are toxins in our rice; there are toxins in our vegetables; there are toxins in our pork. There are toxins in our baby formula. Restaurants cut costs by recovering and reusing cooking oil that has been used and thrown out, and this oil has toxins in it too. Air pollution is out of control; everybody knows about the smog in Beijing. China faces a mountain of such difficulties, an Everest of difficulties, and they are the direct result of the misuse or abuse of power. Yet, despite these difficulties, China has been rising. Over the past thirty years the speed of development in China and the scale of China’s accomplishments have been every bit as extraordinary as the magnitude of the problems China faces. A few years ago China’s GDP surpassed that of Japan to become the second highest in the world, and many people say that before too long China’s GDP will surpass that of the United States, becoming first in the world. No one even remembers when China passed Great Britain, France, or Italy, and when China passed Germany it made only a faint impression. Before we really knew what was happening, China became the world leader in high-speed rail, the world leader in highway construction, the world leader in number of cars on the road, and the world leader in cell phone usage. China now has the world’s largest economy. All this is “ultra-unreal” too. Everything is happening in China at great speed, and this speed brings with it all sorts of problems. This is a phenomenon captured in a very old Chinese saying in the Daodejing: “Good fortune is that wherein disaster lurks. Disaster is that whereon good fortune depends.”*
What are we to make of contemporary Chinese reality? Political scientists have their way of looking at things, as do economists, historians, sociologists, and philosophers. Make no mistake, we fiction writers have our way of looking at the world too. Only the fiction writer’s way of looking at the world is not just one more to add to our list. The fiction writer incorporates all ways of looking at the world into one. It is a compound eye. If Magic Realism was the way in which Latin American authors presented their view of their reality, then Ultra-Unreal Realism should be our name for the literature through which the Chinese regard their reality. The Chinese word “chaohuan” (ultra-unreal) is something of a play on the word “mohuan” (magic), as in “mohuan xianshizhuyi” (magic realism)— “mohuan” is “magical unreal,” and “chaohuan” is “surpassing the unreal.” In the 1980s, when China was starting to open up to the world, Latin American literature, with Gabriel García Márquez as the representative, poured into China. When we read “magic realism,” it seemed familiar, it seemed close to us, and that is because in their suffering and their difficult, incredible histories, Chinese people and Latin Americans have a lot in common. Indeed, in the 1980s we often spoke of China as a place of “magic realism.” But since the 1990s, and especially in the past dozen years or so, China is no longer that place; it is now a place of the “ultra-unreal.”
Or maybe in China this has always been the case.
There are several points that distinguish China’s “ultra-unreal” from the “magical real” of Latin America. First, the history is different. Chinese civilization has an unbroken history of five thousand years. There is no other civilization like it on the planet. This in itself is “ultra-unreal.” At the heart of China’s civilization has always been someone with absolute power. In China, the way in which rulers come to power and wield power ensures that their power reaches everywhere and encompasses everything. In “The Eye of Power,” Foucault discusses the mechanisms by which power surveils and controls. His reference to the “eye” of power is apt. In Chinese history huge eyes of power appear again and again. In some sense, Chinese history is a monster covered with multiple eyes of power. Latin American “magic realism” is concerned with the eye of power too, of course, but it is a much smaller eye.
Second, the sense of time is different. China has changed from being a country that moved too slowly into a country that moves too fast—so fast it’s as if China has escaped gravity. Whether it is the economy, fashion, popular culture, entertainment, or sports, in just thirty years China has gone through what took several hundred years in the West. In a very short time, China has made extraordinary achievements. It is as if time in China has been compressed. This compression not only folds into the current moment a few hundred years of Western history but also several thousand years of Chinese history. Because time is going too fast, China’s cities are now strange things. They all look exactly alike, as if they were a series of exact computer copies. The transformation of China’s villages is equally astounding. Thirty years ago a lot of China’s villages looked pretty much just like they did in antiquity. These days in many of China’s villages there are only old folks and children. Or villages have become ghost towns, which are a little spooky to visit.
Recently the literary journal where I am an editor published a story titled “The History of Sound.” The title refers to a character’s extraordinary hearing. The sounds he hears convey the history of the emptying out of the village where the story is set. The people of working age have left the village to work in cities and towns. A flood comes, and afterwards the village is like a place left behind by history. Only two people remain: an old man and an old woman. There had been a disagreement between them in the past, but gradually they come to rely on each other to survive, and they move in together. There is a saying in Chinese about “love that outlasts heaven and earth,” meaning love that lasts until the end of time. This used to be just a saying, but these days in many villages it is a reality: the end of time has come for these villages.
The third major force that distinguishes “magic realism” from the “ultra-unreal” is the internet. There has never been anything quite like it before. Many of China’s “ultra-unreal” phenomena are written about on the internet immediately after they occur. Reality is a text to begin with, and now that the internet can show us “ultra-unreal” phenomena that we otherwise would not know about, we end up with a sort of doubled “ultra-unreal.” This has created a huge challenge for fiction. Fiction can no longer just tell straightforward stories about single topics following single narrative arcs; reality is providing us with all sorts of rich possibilities for experiments in fictional form. To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem. The way we look at things determines the way we write about them. Reality is mutable. For instance, if you look at reality from the viewpoint of tradition, then the reality you write about will seem traditional. If you look at reality from the viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal,” then your writing will be “ultra-unreal.” This is not to say there is no difference between the perspectives. There can be no question that it is the viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal” that is more in tune with the present time.
I believe that “writing in the age of the ultra-unreal” is distinguished by the following four characteristics, which I will explain as simply as I can.
1) Writing in the age of the ultra-unreal engages the present situation. Contemporary Chinese reality has brought about a seismic transformation to our world, and the writing of the current age should engage these enormous changes. It should engage the social issues that are the hottest topics of the popular discussion of the moment. But in engaging, it should remain strictly within the territory of literature, meaning that human beings should remain its central concern. Human beings have become as complex and multifaceted as the surface of a machine-cut diamond. The same modern technology that cuts diamonds and shapes people has ravaged the land. The state of the environment mirrors the state of our souls.
2) It is philosophically speculative. When we are critical of the world around us, we are very clear about what we are criticizing and why. But in literature worthy of the name we need to remember that in life and in human nature there is much that is not clear. In life and in human nature there are paradoxes. Some of what we do is in accord with our nature and some of what we do is at odds with our nature. The interaction of human nature and reality is exceedingly complex. There are things we can discern with clarity, and things we cannot discern with clarity. Therefore in our writing we need to allow ourselves a certain freedom.
3) It is has the quality of a fable or an allegory. Reality itself has the quality of a fable. Earlier I mentioned the short story “The History of Sound.” After the “end of time,” the two old folks are like an elderly Adam and Eve. One way to give fiction freedom is to maintain its “fabulous” quality.
4) It takes risks. The viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal” is a complex viewpoint; it is a complex modality of perception, and so when it becomes the foundation of fiction it changes the form fiction takes. There is risk in any change. There is an artistic risk for the writer, and if even the risk succeeds and the results are good, the reader still has to take a very big risk.
My own writing has been greatly altered by my sense of the “ultra-unreal” and my need to confront it. I have always been a writer who emphasizes the expression of my own feelings, and up until recently most of my work has been set in Tibet. As you all know, Tibet is a symbol of unspoiled nature; it has a spiritual or metaphysical meaning for people the world over. I lived in Tibet for several years, and while I was there I experienced something completely of my own. But China’s “ultra-unreal” reality has hit me like a tsunami, and in the end it forced me to stop writing about my emotional tie to the Tibetan plateau. I’ve been forced to directly engage the “ultra-unreal.” The novel I published last year, Three Trios, is the result of this engagement. In both its title and its structure, the novel borrows from Eliot’s poems collected as Four Quartets.
There are three layers to my novel. The first is the story of a man who has been infatuated with libraries since childhood. He is the narrator of the novel. His dream is to live in a library, and in his apartment he has a lot of books and a lot of mirrors. Because of the infinite regress effect of the reflection of the books in the mirrors, he is able to approximate his childhood dream of living inside a library. He has no disability, but he likes to do his reading while sitting in a wheelchair. He likes to wheel himself around among his books and mirrors. He becomes a volunteer companion to inmates on death row, and he moves into the prison for a while. He talks to the inmates the way a priest would. He thinks of the prison as another sort of library. In the second and third narrative layers of the book, the narrator tells the stories of two inmates who have been sentenced to death and have become his friends. The first was the CEO of a large, State-owned company, and the second was the personal secretary to the governor of a province. The CEO finds out he is about to be investigated for corruption, and so, taking a large amount of cash with him, he flees to a small town by the ocean, where under an assumed identity he rents a room in the apartment of a woman who is a primary school teacher. The story recounts how someone who has lost power returns to ordinary life and rediscovers what it feels like to be human. The habits of someone with power, however, haven’t left the CEO. He and the teacher begin a physical and emotional love affair. But because he once had great power he has become half human and half monster. In the end, she turns him over to the authorities.
The personal secretary to the provincial governor is less fortunate. He becomes subject to what is known in China as “shuang gui,” which means “double designation.” This is a form of detention and interrogation particular to China. It is opaque and extrajudicial. It means that a Party member suspected of wrongdoing is required to be in a designated place at a designated time for questioning. It usually works like this: the Party member under suspicion is suddenly detained by investigators and taken away, often to a hotel room somewhere, and is interrogated in secret. In Chinese pulp fiction about officialdom there are detailed descriptions of “double designation.” In my novel, “double designation” happens but not in the usual way and not in the usual place. In my novel, the interrogation is carried out in an abandoned factory complex that has been turned into an art district. In the age of the “ultra-unreal” there is a similarity between politics and art, and poets and officials have much in common. The factory in my novel was built with the assistance of East Germany, and the buildings are in the Bauhaus style. After the factory was decommissioned, the buildings were turned into artist studios, galleries, bars, workshops, and spaces for performance art and experimental theater. The Party investigators, getting into the spirit of the place, bring in an artist known as the “White Artist,” as in “artist of the color white,” as well as an interrogator who has terminal cancer. They subject the provincial governor’s personal secretary to an “inquest by whiteness” and an “inquest by mortality.” This interrogation is the most radical form of performance art ever undertaken in the art district.
The man with terminal cancer is a university professor who specializes in interrogation. He has stopped all treatment for his cancer and has moved to a Buddhist temple in the hills, where he plans to undergo “seated transformation” until he “attains perfection.” These are Buddhist terms. They refer to a dying monk who sits in the posture of meditation inside a large ceramic vat in which a fire is lit, which incinerates the monk. The professor makes a bet with the temple’s Abbott. He bets the Abbot that when he is incinerated, in the way of the monks, the Abbott will find in the professor’s ashes relics of the Buddha. In truth, just before he gets into the vat, the professor plans to take an overdose of sleeping pills and swallow a handful of pebbles of different colors (the pebbles will survive the fire and be the relics he promises). As the professor is making his preparations to die, somebody comes from the city to bring him to the art district. The governor’s personal secretary has maintained silence, but the man with terminal cancer gets him to talk. The professor then goes back to the temple and “attains perfection” through “seated transformation.” Relics of the Buddha are found in his ashes. The Abbott honors the bet and has a pagoda built in honor of the dead man.
The risk I take in this novel in terms of form is that I have changed the function of annotation from its traditional use. In the annotation—which is at the bottom of the page like footnotes—I include long passages of narrative, sometimes running for ten pages. As we switch back and forth from the annotation in smaller type below to the text of the novel proper above, we switch back and forth between two different narrative times. This constitutes the novel’s second text, so to speak. The annotation has not only a narrative function but also a structural function; it has a discourse function. The structure of the novel is no longer determined by chronological time but rather by space. Time in the novel is no longer a river; time has become a lake. Or we might say that the novel is no longer a single building but a complex of buildings. These buildings are dispersed but connected, forming a single whole. Many readers have had a tough time with my novel. It has even made some angry. But fortunately after they have vented their anger, they have kept on reading. So even though this was a risk, the fact that they kept reading tells me it was a good risk to take. I am not a writer who goes to extremes experimenting with form. I am not someone who does what he wishes regardless of anybody else’s opinion, and I don’t wish to turn my back on my readers, but I have made the decision not to avoid risk.
In conclusion, allow me to suggest that at the present moment, only literature can help us understand China. No other method will work. The biggest question on the planet right now might be, “Whither China?” It is possible that the only way we can address this question is through literature.
—translated from the Chinese by Thomas Moran
*Translation Victor H. Mair, Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way, by Lao Tzu, page 27; edited to match Ning Ken’s usage.