The Canadian literary journal Brick has published Tim Lilburn’s essay on “A Mandelstamian Generation in China,” on Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming 翟永明. He writes,
There has been a tendency in North America and Europe to imagine Chinese writers, poets especially perhaps, as inevitably and necessarily political, dissidents in a way that flatters the West. This was true for writers in the Soviet Union too, which made it difficult, for example, to appreciate the complete range of someone like Joseph Brodsky once he first became known outside of Russia. Taking Xi Chuan this way, or any in his generation, would bring on similar reductive distortions. It is true that in China’s current state of cultural undefinition, some intellectuals, as Xi Chuan told [Eleanor] Wachtel, “are trying to rethink or reflect on history, not only ancient history but also on modern history, revolutionary history,” in order to imagine a possible, more coherent China. It’s also true that traditionally poets, like scholars, in the Confucian scheme of things, have seen themselves as serving the state by helping to shape its notion of itself, either by speaking directly to the masses or by educating the ruler. But the West is chiefly keen to identify dissidents wherever it can, because these, it supposes, are warriors for its own cause within an opposing power, who work utterly at their own risk. It’s hard to believe that any of the major Chinese poets I spoke to seeks to fulfill the role of furthering Western cultural expansion. As Xi Chuan said in the Wachtel interview: “I don’t think Cnia will one day become, for instance, Canada, America, England, or France.” Nor, it seems, does he wish exactly that it would. When I asked the Chinese poets gathered in 2008 at White Stone Town in Anhui Province how they thought of being seen by the West as dissidents, Ouyang Jianghe, one of the most fiery of the group, exploded that he had no wish to be regarded as a writer who was professionally a disaffected Chinese intellectual. Such a vocation was far too soft and besides was a self-serving invention from elsewhere.
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