Encounters with Chinese Writers

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1614

The first impression of Annie Dillard’s Encounters with Chinese Writers, on glancing at title, table of contents, and jacket blurb, is this: How can this person purport to write about China? She is not a specialist; she knows nothing about the Orient. One can learn nothing about China; perhaps one will learn something about her. Famous writers, one may grouse, can get anything published.

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But wait, someone says. Remember, this is Annie Dillard, the Dillard of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) who shared with readers the epiphanies of the sun breaking through on Mount Rogers while she pats a puppy, or the tree with lights in it that the newly sighted are enabled to see, who taught readers how to stalk a muskrat and how to bloom indoors like a forced forsythia through winter reading. This is the same Dillard who wrote Holy the Firm (1977), which, in contemporary terms, told readers again of the insights of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who immolated self in the higher Oneness like the moth in the candle flame. This is the Dillard of the poems in Tickets for a Prayer Wheel (1974) and the mystical experiences of Teaching a Stone to Talk (1982). She knows herself; she knows the Via Negativa; she sees with the inner eye of perception.

Since Dillard can see, feel, and read a situation with the doubled vision of the mystic, it matters not that she knows no Chinese, that she is not recounting a mystical experience or an epiphany, nor writing autobiographical reflections. The book is less about Dillard and more about others. Inasmuch as she has trained herself well, she is able to measure a situation, catch the importance of a particular anecdote, and—quickly in her few weeks in China—communicate something illuminating about the people and the culture.

All of which says, again, that the most important variable in any description is the observer. What an individual sees depends totally on who he is. The perception of the writer is what matters most in writing—not content, not style. Encounters with Chinese Writers is an amazing book because Dillard wrote it. She is an observer, a student (in the broadest sense), an introspective person who has the ability to capture the essence or the reality of a situation without knowing in a rational, left-brain fashion. Her way of knowing is intuitive, right-brain.

The book is arranged in two parts; first, anecdotes from her trip to China in 1982 as a part of a delegation of American writers and publishers, and second, incidents from a similar exchange the same year in which Chinese writers came to the United States. Both of these visits were relatively brief, and the same people were not involved each time. The incidents are related in no particular order, but there is a cumulative effect, a building up of layers of insight about China, so by the end one can say, “Yes, I have a greater understanding now of a different culture.”

Dillard says in her introduction that her purposes are modest—“to depict precise moments precisely,” to narrate the situation with humor and delicacy. She continues here her exploration of a new form of writing, a “nonfiction narration—a kind of Chekhovian storytelling which might illuminate the actual world with a delicate light.” Her style is to eschew comment or generalization; she teases out the paradoxes, the humor, the cross-cultural absurdities, but lets the reader make the connections. In the first anecdote, for example, Dillard explores subtle differences in body language, how the Chinese will not lower their gaze but instead gauge a person by means of long, eye-to-eye looks—looks that in the West would be considered either sexual or combative. The Chinese delegation leader, says Dillard, “is going into my soul with calipers. He is entering my eyes as if they were a mineshaft; he is testing my spirit with a plumb line.” This look, this testing for commitment, becomes a kind of objective correlative for the theme of the whole book—that in China, all writers serve the state no matter what kind of writing they are doing. Many of the misunderstandings between the two groups of writers come back to this difference. Every short story, novel, play, or poem in China has the goal of serving to further modernization. Thus, Zhang Jie, the only woman in the delegation to visit the United States, became a cause célèbre because she writes stories that treat love between unmarried partners (not sex, which would be beyond the pale, but love). This is revolutionary; does it serve modernization? Thus, in China, most reading is at least ostensibly utilitarian; books in libraries are only available to those who need them for their work. (Since all life is part of work, however, Dillard asks, why can an engineer not borrow a book of literature?) Given this commitment to social goals, many Chinese are appalled by the attitudes of American youth, who, it seems, care not about their country but only about themselves.

Another thematic metaphor which is found throughout is that of the Chinese soil. Arable land is at a premium in that crowded nation where much of the soil is poor and claylike. Dillard recounts seeing fingerprints around plants in large fields; the fingerprints symbolize the generations of Chinese giving their lives, literally, to the soil. Trees in cities are individually watered, crops are hand cultivated, the whole economy is labor-intensive.

Chinese writers are eager to learn about Western literature; translations are pouring out. When asked what contemporary American writers the Chinese should read, however, the United States delegation was silent. The gulf was too great, the context too different. The Chinese, says Dillard, “go straight from Shakespeare to Catch-22, as it were, pausing at Washington Irving.” She acknowledges that Americans know even less about Chinese literature, and she discusses the two contrasting perceptions of American writer Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976) to make the point. Kingston’s autobiographical narrative recounts the traditional China of her mother and grandmother, using myth, folktale, and history, and discusses as well her own bicultural tensions growing up as a second-generation American immigrant. Many Americans love the book, but the Chinese dislike it. They think it distorts, that it combines superstition with classical tradition, that it does not clearly lay out different areas, dynasties, epochs. It is a mishmash. The lack of distinctions does not bother the Americans, just as a conflating of a mere two hundred years in American literature does not bother the Chinese.

Not all is lighthearted in this book. Dillard writes about China’s Cultural Revolution, about writers denied their profession and tortured for years, only recently repatriated. She tells of a hundred million harassed, of 850,000 deaths by beating or suicide. If one confessed, he was punished; if one did not confess, he was punished. At the same time, such scapegoating has a long history in China: Dillard recounts the tradition of witch-hunting in feudal West Hunan called “sunning a jinx.” All cultures, it seems, have their “family skeletons.”

Dillard has anecdotes about European expatriates still living in China, loving and hating it at the same time. She writes movingly of a Western journalist, an Italian Communist, who until going to China believed totally in Communism; now he says that it is fine for revolutions, but “is not good government,” while acknowledging that if he were in India, say, he would still be advocating Communism. The Chinese have since deported him.

The subject of the position of women in contemporary China is reserved for the vignettes about Zhang Jie. In the visiting Chinese delegation, she was the only woman, the one who always served tea to everyone else, the lowest-ranking member of the delegation. Usually, all remarks about woman’s position in the new China are subsumed under answers of “wait a generation,” “social problems first,” or “progress is being made.” The “woman question” does not have priority, even or especially to the women writers being questioned. Only Westerners ask about these things.

On the other hand, at the University of California in Los Angeles, Zhang Jie gave a “fiery feminist speech” at one of the sessions, discussing the differing strengths of women and ending with “women are rather superior to men in every respect.” Her position here is similar to the Western feminist stance that women’s differences from men should be celebrated, that the “separate spheres” of women should be maximized, not minimized.

The differences in the two cultures are profound and, one senses after reading this book, never bridgeable. The sympathetic view in China toward unanimity and oneness, the view of art that serves society—these are totally foreign to the United States. Still, some kinds of communication take place across the gulf: about music, food, writing. The last anecdote told by Dillard is about music. In typical Dillardian fashion, she gives the punch line first, which without context has no meaning. Then, after the paragraphs of narrative and explanation, the punch line is repeated. The Chinese complain, “American songs have no feeling, no depth,” but everyone has been singing camp songs: “Home on the Range” and “Santa Lucia.” The Chinese sing after most banquet meals—long, complex, sad songs. Finally, with Allen Ginsberg accompanying on a box organ, both groups improvise some blues, and later Dillard and another American sing “House of the Rising Sun” and “St. James Infirmary.” “That’s better,” says Jiang Zilong.

Encounters with Chinese Writers shows readers, finally, that Dillard, for all of her mysticism, is a Westerner, that not even mysticism is exportable, and that one versed in the Via Negativa is the best cross-cultural observer.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45

The Atlantic. CCLIV, October, 1984, p. 126.

Book World. XIV, September 9, 1984, p. 6.

Booklist. LXXXI, September 1, 1984, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, July 15, 1984, p. 669.

Library Journal. CIX, November 15, 1984, p. 2150.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 18, 1984, p. 11.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 23, 1984, p. 29.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, July 20, 1984, p. 73.

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