- Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square: The Chinese Literary Diaspora and the Politics of Global Culture by Belinda Kong
Tiananmen Fictions Outside the Square analyzes one of the most infamous events in modern history, training its focus on four literary works that portray, with varying degrees of directness, what has come to be known as the “Tiananmen Square Massacre” of June 4, 1989. (Reliable figures on the number of killed and wounded are unavailable, though the International Red Cross initially announced on June 5 that the death toll stood at 2,600, with most people actually killed to the west of the Square.) As Belinda Kong documents, the Tiananmen Square Massacre has been the subject of numerous representations across a variety of literary genres and artistic media (though most of these productions have not [End Page 718] circulated within China itself). From this extensive body of work, she examines in rich detail one play and three novels in support of her primary thesis that, “more than any other episode in recent world history, Tiananmen has brought about, and into stark relief, a distinctly politicized Chinese literary diaspora” (2).
Politics has different emphases and valences in the works that Kong considers: Gao Xingjian’s short play, Escape (1990), Ha Jin’s The Crazed (2002), Annie Wang’s Lili: A Novel of Tiananmen (2001), and Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma (2008). Gao is of course the best known of these writers globally, due to his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, a matter that Kong takes up at some length. She points out the considerable irony of Gao’s lionization in the West as a major opponent of China’s governing elite, even though Gao’s creative and critical writings proclaim only a general commitment to individual human rights, rather than a particular concern for the rights of the Chinese people as a collectivity. The oldest writer under discussion here, Gao is clearly the odd man out philosophically among the figures Kong discusses. The Middle-Aged Man—one of three characters in Escape—serves as an authorial persona, evincing a kind of obdurate asocial existentialism that stands in strong contrast to the politically engaged, if naïve, Young Man and Girl with whom he is in dialogue as a Tiananmen-like event appears to be unfolding around them in an unnamed city. For Kong, Escape operates at the level of historically de-contextualized allegory, and therein suffers from a lack of “political and ethical urgency” (84).
Like Gao, Ha Jin was living abroad in June of 1989, and, like Gao, he chose to go into self-exile in the aftermath of Tiananmen. In Kong’s reading, The Crazed presents Tiananmen Square as a “spatial aporia” in that the student protagonist, Jian Wan, never manages to quite reach the Square as the military crackdown descends on it and surrounding areas, remaining caught up in a peripheral zone by army violence and then compelled to flee to save himself; collaterally, in this psychologized, if not consistently psychoanalytical reading, Ha Jin himself also experiences the Square as a place beyond his direct experience, but one that he seeks to protect from, in his own words, “historical amnesia” (qtd. 111). Building on Marianne Hirsch’s trauma theory, Kong sees The Crazed as an instance of “diasporic postmemory, a form of remembering origin’s trauma via its dispersed and scattered afterimages” (116).
Among Kong’s four subject writers, Annie Wang enjoys a couple of singular distinctions. Not only has her novel escaped official opprobrium and/or proscription in the People’s Republic of China, she herself continues to live in her native country, although she also resides some of the year in California. (Escape did appear briefly in print in the PRC but was officially rebuked, and Gao’s plays are banned in the PRC, while both The Crazed and Beijing Coma are forbidden books there.) Although Lili’s subtitle makes reference to Tiananmen, it is only over the last quarter of...