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Manoa 15.2 (2003) vii-xi
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The Mystified Boat: Postmodern Stories from China is the latest in Manoa's series featuring contemporary literature from Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. In this volume, guest-edited by Herbert J. Batt, readers may be surprised to discover a China—and fictional realities—unlike any they've encountered.
In a 1995Manoa interview, "Going beyond Reason," Batt asked author Ma Yuan about the elusiveness of meaning in his fiction, and he replied, "if a writer explains the meaning of his story, that writer has lost." Then Ma Yuan said:
Chinese art and Western art aren't the same. A Western writer thinks he has to explain everything clearly, or else he hasn't done his job. We Chinese don't think like that. It's the same in painting. In Western painting you have perspective—every object's place is defined in relation to everything else. In traditional Chinese painting, two things are just put side by side. There's nothing between them. No perspective. They're just there.
Later in the interview, Batt asked again about the frequent occurrence of contradictory information in his fiction, and Ma Yuan responded that finding the "true" version of what happens in his narratives is no different from understanding the contradictions and mysteries found in "real life." "Suppose you were sitting here in my room, and the sun were behind you out that window, like it is now, shining into the room," Ma Yuan said. "But suppose here inside the room the sunlight were on the wall behind you, where you'd expect the shadow to be. My stories are like that." In other words, uncertainties and contradictions are simply assumed to exist in Ma Yuan's complex, disquieting worlds.
Shifting points of view, characters who misunderstand each other in ways that have dire consequences, unreliable narrators who address readers in order to tell them what to think, events that are improbable or impossible in life outside the story—these are some of the startling elements characteristic of the tales of Ma Yuan and the other postmodern fiction writers in this volume. Joining him are some of China's most experimental [End Page vii] [Begin Page ix] and best-known postmodernists: Ma Jian, Ge Fei, Hong Ying, Su Tong, Lin Bai, Yan Li, Can Xue, Wang Anyi, and Yu Hua. Reading their seriously playful and playfully serious stories can be like entering another dimension, in which subjectivity and objectivity are equally unreliable.
Since the early twentieth century, fiction has arguably been the most important literary genre in China. Fiction had been written in China since the fourteenth century; however, the revolution of 1911 accelerated a profound change in attitudes that had begun in the late nineteenth century. Traditionally, the Chinese elite regarded fiction as a low and disreputable genre, full of sex and violence and unworthy of a true man of letters. In contrast, the reformers of the early Republican era observed that fiction had a powerful influence on social and political attitudes in modern, non-Chinese societies. Reformers were therefore eager to use it to subvert and root out the Confucian ideas that they believed had kept China from modernizing. Reformer Liang Qichao insisted that "to renovate the people of a nation, one must first renovate its fiction" because of the "profound power" fiction has to disseminate ideas and reshape the mind of a country. "If we want to expand our civilization," Liang wrote, "we must borrow the methods of other civilizations because their methods of study are highly refined."
By the 1920s, proponents of a new didactic fiction had won the day, attacking what Liang called the "poisonous" ideas in old novels, such as Red Chamber Dream, and promulgating a literary revolution that would create works useful in modernization. However, fundamental questions concerning this new fiction remained, including whether or not works in the plain-spoken vernacular (baihua), advocated by reformers such as Hu Shih, would turn out to be crude, mass entertainment. Vigorous debates swirled around distinctions between a popular fiction—"catering to the needs of women and coarse folk...