Raucous clashes triggered by the recent Sino-Japanese territorial dispute have made creative writing impossible for me. I’ve been devoting all my time to following the news, anxiously delving into every new development.
Again and again, I ask myself: What turns an interminable island dispute into a fireball? Who can put out the flames? Who can make politicians sit down to sip iced tea together and engage in calm and courteous dialogue? Where are the voices of reason?
I long for more rational voices, I long to hear from my fellow writers.
I was deeply touched after reading translations of the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe’s views on the territorial issues and Haruki Murakami’s recent commentary warning of the damage caused by the outbursts of nationalism. My long admiration for these Japanese writers now extends well beyond their literary achievements.
“It’s like cheap liquor,” Murakami wrote, referring to nationalism. “It gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical. It makes you speak loudly and act rudely … but after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning.”
In the face of these inflammatory disputes between Japan and China, Japanese writers are taking the lead in bringing a measure of reason to the discussion. Compared with their humanity and courage, I am ashamed of myself as a Chinese writer for my slow response.
“I fear that as both an Asian and Japanese writer,” Murakami writes, “the steady achievements we’ve made (in deepening cultural exchanges and understanding with our Asia neighbors) will be hugely damaged” because of the recent problems.
I understand Murakami’s concern. However, I have to say that culture and literature have always been vulnerable to politics. Historically, cultural and literary exchanges have always been the first to take a hit whenever border disputes arise. It makes me sigh every time I see culture and literature treated like festive lanterns — hung out in extravagant displays whenever needed and then discarded when the excitement is over.
Again and again, I pray in these dark nights: Please, no more guns and drums. All wars are disastrous. The bloodstains of the Sino-Japanese war during World War II remain vivid even today in our collective memory.
“We are all human beings,” Murakami wrote in his powerful Jerusalem Prize award acceptance speech delivered in Israel in 2009, “individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong — and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.”
I agree with him. For ordinary people, no one wins a war. Death is our only destiny. In the face of war, we are all fragile eggs.
If only more intellectuals in Japan, Korea and China could step forward and speak with the voice of reason instead of spreading hatred and indulging in emotional outbursts, instead of standing aside indifferently, perhaps we could lower the temperature and bring some much-needed iced tea to people inflamed with territorial fervor. I am painfully aware of the feeble stature of writers and intellectuals in this complex world. But I believe if we are ever to be useful, now is the time.
In his essay, Murakami mentioned that his and the works of other Japanese authors had been removed from shelves in bookstores in China. This is a surprise for me. Only a few days ago I saw Japanese literary works on display as usual in All Sages Bookstore in Beijing.
But I believe that what Murakami reported must have happened somewhere in China. China is a large country. Many people here live with anxiety every day, for reasons they themselves may not even understand. All the time, they wait for a channel to vent their frustrations. It was because of these frustrations that vandalism and assaults occurred during the recent demonstrations. This behavior not only is disturbing for the Japanese people, but also for many Chinese. As a Chinese writer, I am ashamed for my compatriots who took part in the vandalism, yet I feel for their inarticulate powerlessness and frustration.
I know it is absurd and wrong for bookstores to remove books by Japanese authors, but I also understand the concerns bookstore staff members may have. “Anything can happen in today’s China,” is a theme that often appears in my literary works. But, at the same time, a sense of powerlessness and sadness is always real for me.
I finished the first draft of my latest novel in August. The last part is filled with the absurdity and horrors that have been playing out in real life today. In fact, the ending is about what has been happening in China and Japan, and what everyone fears will happen. I am embarrassed for the lack of imagination. My novel is not an irrational prophesy of war, and now I don’t know how to change the ending. But I do know that — in any nation — if the voices of reason are not heard, disaster can strike at any time, and it is the ordinary people who will suffer.
I know little of territorial issues, politics and military matters. My love for literature and culture, however, knows no borders. Compared to those who devote all their attention to territorial aggrandizement, I am more devoted to world literature and culture.
As a Chinese writer, I long for the day when we can let politics be politics, and culture and literature will be left alone. Culture and literature are the shared bond of mankind. When political instabilities arise, I hope this bond will not again be the first casualty. After all, culture and literature are the root of our existence, and cultural exchange is about sharing universal emotions and experiences.
When culture is abandoned, when literature is discarded only to gather dust, when the root of our existence is severed, does the size of a territory really matter?
Yan Lianke is a Chinese novelist and short story writer based in Beijing. English translations of his works include Serve the People! and Dream of Ding Village. This article was translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz.