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Social Changes through a Cultural Lens

October 21, 2009

A conversation with Yan Li and Zhang Hongtu

Writer and poet Yan Li and artist Zhang Hongtu reflect on Chinese art and culture over the past 60 years and share trenchant critiques of the current state of Chinese society. They both place independent expression and thought at the core of what it means to be human and to build a truly open and democratic future in China.

In July 2009, Human Rights in China invited two artists, YanLi and Zhang Hongtu, for a conversation about their views of the artistic development in China over the past 60 years. Yan Li was born in Beijing and Zhang Hongtu in Gansu Province. Both came to New York in the 1980s, where they found greater freedom for individual expression. Zhang Hongtu has since made New York his home, and his art has flourished. Yan Li founded a poetry journal in New York that later became an online publication. Based in Shanghai and New York, Yan Li continues to regularly publish his work. Both men have remained uncompromising in developing and expressing their critical visions in art and poetry.

In their conversation, moderated by HRIC executive director Sharon Hom, Yan Li and Zhang Hongtu explored the most fundamental questions about art and society: What is the role of art in a society? What happens to a society deprived of individual expression? The poet’s and the artist’s bi-cultural life experiences enable them to see that over the past 30 years—the era of reform and opening up— people in China have mistaken their increasing prosperity and ability to buy pleasure for true freedom, and the national psyche has been damaged as a result of not being able to speak one’s mind. Zhang Hongtu likened the lack of Freedom of expression to intellectual foot-binding. After 60 years of being bound, can the feet still walk even if they are unbound? In a conversation that is sharply critical of Chinese culture under the Communist Party, Yan Li and Zhang Hongtu’s profound love for China and its people remains clear.

Sharon Hom: Hongtu, your painting “Bird’s Nest, in the style of Cubism” was not allowed into China for an exhibition in Beijing. Yet Western observers tend to look at recent art, mostly from Beijing and Shanghai, and conclude that “Chinese art” is flourishing within a trend of greater openness. But this seems to mistake the “artist village” for all of China. If Chinese culture doesn’t change, if people’s basic values and views remain the same, how can there be genuine social change? I think artists, writers, and poets have a special role in reflecting on and fueling change. Looking back over the past 60 years, what do you think, historically, are the big trends and important flashpoints for art in China? What will the future landscape look like?

Yan Li: Sharon points to the sudden outburst of artistic creation in China two years ago and how it suggested that artists enjoy lots of creative freedom. For the past decade or so, the Chinese government has been hoping that the West would recognize it as a country with a full market economy. But this market doesn’t encompass culture. This is because, in the realm of culture, only galleries or private museums are allowed under the current situation to register as a private enterprise in China. In other areas, from publishing houses to TV or radio stations, private ownership is not allowed. If that’s the case, it shows that there is no competition in this huge area. If there is no competition, you can’t call it market-driven. Well, in the field of visual arts, the art gallery sector is an exception. This exception was granted because Westerners came to China to open up art galleries quite a while ago. Some people went on and on, saying how they could sell Chinese modern art or folk art in the West. It turned out that they were right.

Because of this, many, many artists who might have been more suited to writing or something else, transferred their interest to the field of art. As a result, the number of Chinese artists grew exponentially. Why? This is because we have one, only one private enterprise, one area where competition exists. Plus, money from the West poured in to purchase the art works. Thus, this phenomenon (of the flourishing art scene) has emerged. But as for the direct impact on Chinese culture or on China, I don’t think it has done anything helpful; no, not at all. This is because the culture in that country is not market-driven.

It just so happened that both Zhang Hongtu and I left China in the early 1980s.At that time, we came for the purpose of searching for our own identities. It was also part of our anti-distortion efforts. This was because we felt that people like us who were born after 1949 grew up in a warped process. The so-called cultural or art education that we had experienced was basically tainted with politics. That was political culture, or hired culture, and a culture of glorifying the Party’s accomplishments and virtues. When I look back now, I recall that as a child, or when I started to understand things, I felt that my parents’ generation had no idea of what real culture was. This was because they were basically confined within the boundaries of political culture after 1949. Since they stayed inside their work units, they never bothered to read translated works or anything like that. On the contrary, we probably had access, at an early age, to some translated works during the Cultural Revolution. We tasted some of what we would call true humanity. There was so much cultural stuff in those translated works, but they were not ours (our culture). Ours had been obliterated. Ours ceased to exist after 1949. That’s why I want to bring up my parents’ generation. I feel that they had no clue as to what arts and culture were. They never had such experiences. Therefore, they had been cut off from the possibility of having those experiences.

Why do I want to bring this up? I just want to give you an example. Nowadays, each time I go back to visit China, many people tell me how America is this and that, how Britain is. They have never stepped out of the country but they can tell me about stuff like that. Later, I found out that our newspapers carry news about the West every day. They read it promptly. That’s why they feel like they have mastered all the latest information. Someone is well aware that you have just returned from the United States. Yet, he is not deterred by it and will still chat and regale you with this stuff. I have found a problem with it. It’s quite simple. If we assume that over 100 news events happened in the U.S. today, only the ten worst ones will have made it into the Chinese newspapers, right? If this goes on for ten years, they only read ten of the worst pieces of news published about the U.S. every day. After ten years, what will be their impressions of the West? Therefore, that explains why their understanding of Western culture or some of the political stuff is completely biased. Their understanding of the West is based on brainwashing from reading a large amount of pre-selected filtered information.

Zhang Hongtu: When HRIC telephoned me to invite me to join this discussion, I was very interested because the discussion is about China’s 60th anniversary, and I myself am five years older than this country. I have experienced all the major and minor political campaigns since 1949 that Sharon referenced, and all the crucial moments that have had an impact on contemporary Chinese culture and the fate of Chinese intellectuals. Although some of them happened during my childhood, I feel the experiences of my parents’ generation as my own. As a man of sixty-five, I therefore feel qualified to comment on this sixty-year old country.

If a Chinese person can still be jailed over speech or divergent viewpoints, to the extent that even the freedom of speech of most ordinary people is gagged, then the dictatorial nature of this government has not changed a bit in all of the 60 years.

First of all, I am very certain about one point, and it’s that from the perspective of freedom of speech and free expression of thought, the Chinese government has changed absolutely nothing during the past sixty years. I find it very hard to identify with Sharon’s question just now whether a circle of free expression might have grad ually grown larger due to the lifting of restrictions. This is because I feel that the freedom to express one’s ideas and opinions is everyone’s most basic, inherent right— including for intellectuals and artists. We don’t need the government to bestow it on us. All of us are like kittens. Kittens meow. They use sound and movement to express how they feel and what they want. If a person doesn’t have even this kind of basic freedom, he does not live the life of a human being; his living environment is worse than a cat’s. If a government that has been established for sixty years still hasn’t lifted its ban on free association and press, if a Chinese person can still be jailed over speech or divergent viewpoints, to the extent that even the freedom of speech of most ordinary people is gagged, then the dictatorial nature of this government has not changed a bit in all of the 60 years.

Let’s look back for a moment: What happened to the writers, poets, and artists who produced some good work before 1949, after 1949? They either attached themselves to the government, singing praises of the dictatorial regime and completely losing their egos, or they kept so silent that they disappeared from the scene. There’s no need for us to talk about the weaknesses of Chinese intellectuals themselves at this point, but we should be aware of just how cruel the methods of this government are—using the Central Propaganda Department, Ministry of Culture, and even military police to intimidate and repress the so-called “disobedient” intellectuals, be they “big” or “small.” The CPC’s ruling method is by “holding a gun in one hand and a pen in the other.”1 The gun demonstrated its might on June 4, 1989, and the pen has been a tool of control and propaganda relentlessly used by the government during the past 60 years.

I’ve just thought of the recent July 5th incident in Xinjiang. Since I am of Hui ethnicity, and thus seemingly somehow connected to this incident, people have asked me to talk about my views on it. I can only criticize the Chinese government’s incorrect ethnic policy based on experiences from my personal life, but I can’t say anything about the ins and outs, the whys and wherefores of the July 5th incident, because, like everyone else, I have no other sources of information besides the so-called “news,” supplied by the Chinese government. The Internet, cell phones, e-mail, and other modern tools of communication are all censored, and the government openly uses all the propaganda tools at its disposal to promote its own point of view and lie to the people. After 60 years, the techniques and strategies may be new, but the nature of its autocratic dictatorship is still the same.

Each time I visit Tiananmen Square and stand in the middle, I see his portrait on one side of me and his body on the other side. I continue to live under such pressure.

As for China’s art market, I think what Yan Li said is very concrete and accurate. Although China’s current art market is indeed no longer like a pool of dead water, this still does not mean that the government has granted artists more creative freedom. People who at first showed interest in the work of young Chinese artists were a few western diplomats stationed in China. After that, there were scholars who went to China to do research, followed by, very naturally, art dealers. They thrust contemporary Chinese art onto the international stage and created a market for contemporary art. If the government today can turn a blind eye on the non mainstream or the non-“mainstream-themed” art, this is not a change in government policies; it is merely a measure of expediency based on market considerations.

Let me give you another example. I care a lot about Tiananmen Square which is probably the world’s largest public place that displays the portrait of a leader, I mean the political leader, of a country. His body is on display in a mausoleum on the other side. It’s so unimaginable that, each time I visit Tiananmen Square and stand in the middle, I see his portrait on one side of me and his body on the other side. I continue to live under such pressure. So, I really feel sorry for those ordinary folks who come to see the raising of the national flag in the morning or simply bask in the sun. I feel the need to use the word “ignorance,” but I can’t use this word because I myself come from China. But this is a reality. People are content with their improved material life. They are content that they can eat well today and drink well today. They never consider the fact that as a human being, your inherent right is to express yourself, to speak your mind.

So, look at me. I don’t go back to China frequently. Recently, I’ve started to visit once or twice a year. I’ve come into contact with lots of people, from my relatives to former classmates and friends. It’s really like old times. When we close the door, everyone whines and gripes. People are not happy with this and that, with corrupt government officials, and with some current political issues. People are not happy with the human rights situation either. However, in public, or in newspapers and on TV, there is barely any mention of the issues about which people complain. On TV, for example, some programs carry criticisms. They criticize the prevalence of phony drugs or they criticize some corrupt officials. I feel that as long as there is even just one day when the ordinary citizens of this country, the great masses, have no right to express themselves freely, it means this country has not changed. So, I want to emphasize the fact that I don’t feel there’s been any change in the area of free speech and expression during the past 60 years.

In addition, I also feel the same about the distortion of humanity that Yan Li talked about just now. Often times, I would say, I’ve been out of the country to engage in artistic creation for 27 years. It’s not a short time. No matter how well I do, no matter if my works will ever be exhibited in large museums, or no matter how much my works can sell for, I always stick with one thing. That is, I’ve always attempted to return to my true self; going back to the original me. Let me explain this to you with an example. The education we received in China and the government’s control and suppression of intellectuals is actually like binding the feet of intellectuals and artists, warping their natural and normal feet. I think there is a possibility that once we are out of the country, we can unbind the bandages tied around our feet and try to restore them to their original size, the size that we were born with. It’s okay if we can’t restore them completely to their former size. We will certainly restore as much as we can. In China today, there isn’t too much of a difference in the way intellectuals are treated. They still bind your feet, making them smaller. It was just that we lived in a different time back then.

I want to add a couple of points about several major changes in the past forty years in China. I won’t touch on the specifics of the Anti-Rightist Campaign or the Cultural Revolution, etc., but I want to talk about the major events that affected intellectuals, as well as those who were studying art. How do I put it? I will simply focus on certain policies, not any specific events. The first one is the concept of social realism that we learned in school. The so-called social realism was an imported concept from the Soviet Union. One of the basic tenets of social realism is that artists should strive to be the cogs and screws in a big revolutionary machine. This is a specific illustration of the distorted humanity that Yan Li mentioned earlier. It meant that as an artist, you could never be yourself. You were only a screw. You were a cog, a part of the revolutionary machine. So, if you, as a screw, couldn’t measure up to the size required for the machine or if you couldn’t be used properly, you were out. The machine no longer needed you. There is now a new lingo for this concept. Two years ago, it was called a major melody (主旋律).

The education we received in China and the government’s control and suppression of intellectuals is actually like binding the feet of intellectuals and artists, warping their natural and normal feet.

I don’t know how the Propaganda Department or the Ministry of Culture uses this term. I don’t think there is a difference in meaning between “major theme” and “social realism” concepts. If you can make yourself part of the major theme, the government will need you. On the other hand, if what you do, what you paint or what you write strays from the major theme, you will be kicked out.

Yan: You will get into trouble.

Zhang: Yes, you will get into trouble. So, as far as this is concerned, I don’t see a difference between China in the 1950s and the 21st century.

Yan: You just mentioned that when you go back to China, you meet with many people. You constantly hear friends complain over dinner or at home. But this same group of people still can’t discuss those complaints in everyday life, I mean at work. This involves what I call a survival culture of split personalities, spawned and nurtured during the past 60 years. What I mean is that, many people, for example, I have seen many, including some government officials, criticize the Communist Party over dinner. Their criticisms directed against the Party are more severe than yours. But the next day, when they walk into the office, they resume their normal routine, their bureaucratic routine. That is to say that the Party is no longer a system of beliefs or reason. It’s part of the power structure. If you want to enter the world of the powerful, you have to join the Party. It’s the same as getting a college degree in order to get a job. The requirements are similar. They don’t necessarily believe in the Party but they are used to the existence of this split personality. It’s very pathetic. We are used to this . . . I mean . . . we act in a certain way to handle the Communist Party, but in private we behave differently. It’s probably somewhat more comforting to live like this—look at me, even though I’m part of the system, I dare speak ill of the Party in private. I badmouth the Party over dinner with you. My criticism is more severe than yours. But the problem is . . . I think this has already become a culture of survival in mainland China. That’s why it’s a pathetic thing.

Once they start to pursue physical enjoyment, they discover that with money, they can do anything they want. That’s why they feel that life is much better than before.

In the past 60 years, especially in the last 30 years, many people say that China is getting much better, more powerful. Our lives are much better than before. What was it like before? In the past, your mind and your body, the activities of both, were shackled and suppressed. Everything was arranged for you. Nowadays, material things have become abundant. To a certain degree, your everyday life, which pretty much applies to your physical life, is completely open and free. Some parts of the physical life are freer than in the West. There are hair salons and Karaoke bars everywhere, lots of restaurants too. In China, it’s very common to find seven or eight restaurants on one street alone whereas there might be only a couple of other stores. This shows that the Chinese have reached a peak in their love for food and other physical things. At the same time, it proves that people are cornered into the area of physical pleasure because they are not allowed to touch anything spiritual. Once they start to pursue physical enjoyment, they discover that with money, they can do anything they want. That’s why they feel that life is much better than before. But in fact, if we use the spirit of freedom to measure, to see if our civilization has progressed or not, we are still lingering at the same spot, as Hongtu has just described.

This better life they have is actually leading them in the direction of animals, which only live a physical life. If we live like animals, we will feel content when our basic physical needs are met—eat, drink and shit. As human beings, why don’t you use your brain? Why don’t you use your rights? Why don’t you think? Why don’t you write? When it comes to literature and arts, I feel that it’s very tragic. What I mean by tragic is that . . . when we examine civilization, for example, if we examine civilization in each country, their histories of civilization, we always see ample mention of writers, artists ,musicians and even scientific inventors. Politicians are rarely mentioned. Politicians are managers. Their sole responsibility is management. Management itself is . . . well, power. It’s probably the same everywhere. Some political powers operate without supervision, like what we have in China, which doesn’t have supervision. It’s like using your left hand to supervise your right hand. You know it’s going to have problems. From the perspective of civilization, China has done a pathetic job in the last 60 years. When we say we are doing better today, we refer entirely to better physical enjoyments.

Zhang: The split personality that Yan Li brought up is a very important topic. Split personalities are the result of policies that keep people in ignorance. The Communist Party does not hold the patent on such policies. Throughout history, the rulers have hoped for the people to remain mindless docile subjects. For a few decades it seemed that as long as there was Mao Zedong thought, all the people of China did not need to think. Later on, new leaders proposed things like “Three Represents,” and “Eight Dos and Eight Don’ts,” each one of them wanting to replace people’s thinking with their own thoughts. Because the government controls propaganda tools, this policy of keeping people ignorant is particularly effective. If we look back on those 60 years, have the 1.3 billion people produced a thinker? Not a single one. Zero! Have they produced a philosopher? Not a single one. Zero! Another vicious method of the policy of maintaining ignorance is turning people into “materialists.” The government is racking its brain to figure out ways to encourage people to make money, to fulfill their materialistic desires .At the same time, it is decreasing spending on education, destroying culture, and wiping out spiritual pursuits. If a house falls, it can be rebuilt. But when an entire generation is spiritually numb, when the pursuit of material comfort and sensory pleasures replace spiritual sublimation and religious faith, this world turns into a wasteland. Rebuilding the spiritual world of a person is definitely not as easy as rebuilding a house.

Yan: Therefore it has become a circus. If you perform well, you will be fed a biscuit. The government’s intention is to treat its people like circus animals. If you perform well, you will be given food to eat. Every animal could be provided a refrigerator, a sofa and a TV. However, if you want to leave the circus, that’s out of the question.

Zhang: That’s why I want to link it with the present situation. China is a huge country, but what the government fears and worries about the most is Xinjiang and Tibet. Why? Speaking of Tibetans, if you only look at the issue from the perspective of material comfort, Tibetans should be content, right? Their lives are absolutely better now than 50 years ago. A railroad to Tibet has been constructed. Why are they still feeling discontent and raise this and that demand? This is because they have their spiritual needs, their religious needs. They want to preserve their culture. They see these as much more important pursuits than how well they eat or how many restaurants they should open. Their spiritual needs are much more important. So, what the government has done is also understandable. Why? I’m not saying that it’s the right thing to do but it has made it easier to manage Tibet. As we discussed, it’s related to the policy of keeping people in ignorance. When you don’t have cultural or spiritual pursuits, it’s easier for this policy to be implemented. You follow where I direct you.

These people don’t understand that human beings are not animals. Human beings can’t just exist on pure material stuff. We are spiritual beings.

The most important thing is that these policies can influence a whole generation of people. Nowadays, the so-called “angry youth”—many young people attack others with arguments that are derived from those of the government: Now that you Tibetans are living such a nice life, why are you still making trouble? You Uyghur people, what are you fighting against? When you take the national entrance exam, you get special treatment. When you look for jobs, a special quota has been set aside for you. What’s there to fight about? These people don’t understand that human beings are not animals. Human beings can’t just exist on pure material stuff. We are spiritual beings. I’m probably touching on too wide a topic, involving China’s ethnic policies. I mean, if the government simply relies on material comfort to maintain so-called “harmonious society,” they won’t be able to achieve that. In the past year alone, we have the riot in Tibet in March 2008 and the ethnic conflict in Xinjiang in July 2009. I’m sure more problems will emerge in the future. I’m not talking about political issues, such as whether Tibet or Xinjiang should gain independence or not. I’m not talking about this. I’m talking about people’s needs in life, their cultural, spiritual, and religious needs. It’s totally impossible not to give the many thought. That’s why when I talked with people, I mean many people in mainland China, I would say: you criticize the Dalai Lama, but has any one of you ever read the books written by the Dalai Lama? None had. They admitted that they hadn’t read any. If you have never read any of the Dalai Lama’s books, on what grounds do you base your criticisms? You don’t even know or understand him. I think it’s the same situation with Xinjiang. The situation there doesn’t just involve one simple issue. It was not triggered by one simple issue, but was the result of an erroneous policy that has been around for a long time.

The Chinese word for “intellect” comprises two characters, zhi and shi (知识). Zhi means “to know” or “knowledge,” and shi means “understanding.” You need to understand.

Let me get back to the issue of Chinese intellectuals. If intellectuals are like everyone else who have been victimized by the policy of keeping the people ignorant, their brains turn numb and they start to put material comfort as a top pursuit, I don’t think they should be blamed for the problem. This is our nation’s problem. Our whole country has been turned into—to put it in unflattering terms—a pig, big and fat. It’s really a pig.

Hom: I think it will be difficult to heal the relationship between Han Chinese and Uyghurs. This is partly because Han people are exposed to propaganda, for example often connecting Tibetans with a primitive feudal past or Uyghurs with terrorism or splittism. This challenge affects our work at HRIC. There is also support for peaceful resolution of ethnic conflicts by Chinese rights defenders such as Liu Xiaobo, and Ding Zilin and the Tiananmen Mothers who also press for greater accountability and reforms. So, how do you think it is possible to move forward?

Zhang: Sharon has brought up an important point. What Yan Li and I were talking about is a general, common condition. I think this is a very serious problem. Because, on the one hand, this government has not changed a bit during the 60 years in terms of freedom, democracy, and human rights, and because, on the other, it’s even harder to see any hope if the majority of the public lives in a state of numbness. Of course, all the examples brought up by Sharon are kindling hope. Liu Xiaobo, locked up in prison, has not bowed to power. The Tiananmen Mothers are monitored and harassed at all times, but they have not stopped fighting for their own beliefs and rights. What I’m most concerned about is when the common people in China will be able to speak out, to have a platform, an environment, where they can express their own views without fear, express their pleasure, anger, sadness, and happiness. Let me give you an example. Before 1949, during the Nationalist White Terror, when the Nationalist Party banned publication of some newspapers articles, editors could “open sky windows”—leave a blank space where an editorial had been banned, which they printed in lieu of a protest. Can you do that now? Absolutely not! The reason I sent my cubist painting of the Bird’s Nest to China for an exhibition last year was to fight for the possibility of speaking out. When I found out that customs would not allow the piece to enter China, I was furious, but I also felt very strongly that this government might be too short of self-confidence, too weak. Can a painting topple this regime? It cannot. But the government’s lack of self-confidence and weakness also reveals its fear of the people. The government’s fear is the hope for the people. Speaking of hope, the media revolution brought on by modern science and technology is also a hope. The Internet, mobile phones, etc., are making this world ever smaller, and the boundaries between the so called “inside and outside” of China increasingly blurred. Any dictator who attempts to challenge the new science and technology by the force of the government is in the final analysis, stupid and ludicrous.

Yan: In the past decades, China has trained intellectuals in many of its universities. These intellectuals have become keepers of knowledge. What do I mean by knowledge keepers? Well, they have master’s degrees and doctorates. They have acquired the theories and philosophies of Western liberal thinking. They can give excellent talks. The problem is that they possess all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of tools, but have they ever tried to use the tools to change society or fix its problems? No. So, the intellectuals that we have nurtured are mere keepers of knowledge, not practitioners of knowledge. This is a very serious issue. It’s become a type of hidden rule. As everyone knows, if you possess it, it is okay if you don’t use it. If you own it, it’s yours. But in the end, the standard for civilization has been lowered.

Nowadays, there is another group of people, who have gradually evolved from knowledge keepers to simply knowledgeable individuals. They read and watch lots of news every day. Whatever topic you bring up, they all know about it. We are now producing a lot of these knowledgeable people. Like I mentioned before, these knowledgeable individuals have been brainwashed by the filtered news that they have read. Like I said, there are about 100 news events happening in the US every day, but they only pick the ten worst to publish in China. We have 365 days in a year. After ten or 20 years, what do you think people’s impressions of America will be like? They will think America is like hell, right? This is what will eventually transpire. That’s why I think . . . Hongtu mentioned that there are hardly any independent intellectuals in China. Well, the fundamental issue is that we don’t have intellectuals, not to mention independent ones.

Zhang: I agree that there are no intellectuals in China. An intellectual has to be independent. Without independence, you are not an intellectual. You become a tool, a hired scholar. Even if you are not hired or you are not working for the government, but if you are completely manipulated by the market, you still can’t claim “independence.” Do you agree? As a painter, if all you think about is how you can sell this painting, turning it into quick money or material stuff, and if you feel that your efforts would be totally wasted if your works don’t sell, you wouldn’t be considered an independent intellectual. The Chinese word for “intellect” comprises two characters, zhi and shi (知识). Zhi means “to know” or “knowledge,” and shi means “understanding.” You need to understand. If you only have knowledge, you may be able to memorize everything in an encyclopedia, but it doesn’t mean you understand it. It doesn’t mean you have your own thinking. But for those who rule, they don’t need you to have your own thinking. Simply having some knowledge is good enough for them. You might know a lot of stuff, but if you don’t have your own thinking, you are only as good as a dictionary.

This is very complicated. These are actually two questions. As for the first one, I’ve already talked quite a bit just now. Yan Li also talked about it. If we approach it from the perspective of policies and systems, or from the angle of the country, we want to examine if a country can provide such an environment for its people, from intellectuals to ordinary citizens, I mean a free environment, including platforms for people to express themselves.

The second question is: when you have this platform, what will you, as intellectuals or ordinary citizens, do with this platform? This is a really an issue, a big issue. There is a Chinese saying, a similar saying in Buddhism also—something to the effect that if you do not question, you will never understand. If you raise small questions, you understand it in a small way. If you raise big questions, you understand it in a more profound way. Like you said, you should question or doubt. That should come first. Like you said, it doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer, an ordinary citizen, or an intellectual. If you don’t question your living environment, which includes the political environment, social environment, cultural environment, it includes everything, or if you don’t question it, you will always just follow. Who are you following? You follow the big shot or the most powerful person. Why? It’s because he is powerful. Since he is powerful, he becomes the head of the herd. If you question, or if we all do the same, we won’t have to follow the person blindly, regardless of whether that person is a big shot, or an ordinary person. We’ll treat everyone the same way. I question every issue that I encounter. I think it is very important.

In China, I met some people who felt very disappointed and hopeless, more so than I do. Supposedly, if China someday becomes like the U.S. and you could do everything and publish everything you want, so what? What kind of things would you publish? Your mind has been shackled for so many years, your feet have been bound into tiny golden lilies. If we unwind the bandages around your feet and you go ahead to run in a race, you won’t even be able to run. You can’t run faster than anyone. That’s why I say this is a very complicated question. This is a long-term effort. Even though it’s only 60 years, these 60 years have had an impact on at least three generations. If the brains of three generations have been warped and converted into mere organs without self-identities, and if all that is left is only a pile of brain tissue, I wouldn’t be that optimistic about the future. Even if everyone is now allowed to have their stuff published in the newspapers, what will every newspaper say or what articles will they carry? It’s very likely there would be lots of infighting. A friend of mine once told me: Americans have guns, but many people are opposed to them. China has very strict gun laws, but do you have the guts to say that China should loosen its laws and allow everyone to own guns? If gun ownership is allowed in China, the half of the population that has guns will kill the other half that doesn’t have them.

If we unwind the bandages around your feet and you go ahead to run in a race, you won’t even be able to run.

The current situation in China is truly very complicated. It doesn’t have the proper foundation. Many people who demand democracy don’t understand the real meaning of democracy. They don’t know what democracy is. Those who demand human rights actually demand rights for themselves. If he is in a position of power, he will forget about other people’s human rights. I know a friend’s child; he is a young person. He constantly curses the Communist Party. He doesn’t like the suffering or the many problems that have been brought about by the Communist Party. Then, the government offered him a housing-related subsidy. The amount was more generous than he had expected. Then, he said: Starting from now, if anyone criticizes the Communist Party, I’m going to fight with him until the very end. From his view point, it’s quite reasonable. The Communist Party is better than it used to be. But this only applies to him as an individual.

Yan: It depends on whether you are individually benefiting or not.

Zhang: Yes, it’s a totally individual response. I know a certain intellectual, I won’t mention his name. He’s been very active. He told me that there is so much more freedom in China now than ever—you can say anything you want and do anything you want. Initially, I was taken aback. He wouldn’t be the sort of person to say those things. But later on, when I thought about it, he was being reasonable. Why? From a personal angle, it was true. When people return from the U.S. to China, they do enjoy more freedom than they do in the U.S., more applause and more attention. That’s why this person said China is better. It’s from his personal experience. If you look at the whole of society, you wouldn’t reach such a conclusion.

Hom: People just don’t have this basic concept or attitude— no matter which society we live in—that as long as there is one person who’s rights are abused, that person’s situation is closely linked with ours. That’s why I say that culture is the most basic thing. If we don’t give full attention to how we can change culture, any change will just be superficial or not sustainable.

Yan: That’s how I look at China’s future. If no substantial changes are taking place, it’s hard to see any hope in the near future. When you talk about culture, you have to talk about people’s spiritual life; you need to talk about the construction of a new civilization.

Zhang: Humans come first. Chairman Mao was right when he said, “Human beings are the first factor.” How do we explain this? Of course, Mao said this from his own angle. He wanted to transform human beings . . . .

Yan: He wanted to be the Number One. He wanted to defeat you first, destroy some of your functions, have some of your functions cut off. In this way, you wouldn’t know how to doubt or question. Many lost their ability to question.

Hom: If the question is how to make changes within these multiple layers, from an individual person to a society or a country, how can we make it happen? How can we change an individual? I think people need different experiences in order to change their mindsets, or to understand the world differently, we need to live differently. For example, if you have never had the experience of expressing your different voices as a writer or participating in a free-for-all discussion, you wouldn’t be able to imagine them.

Yan: The present belongs to the younger generation. For example, a person was born in the 1980s.He would have matured in the 1990s. In other words, he experienced the period when material life had become more enriched and better, especially in China. Then, he moved abroad. Thanks to the one-child policy, he never had to worry about money. This was because his parents, even his grandparents would give him all their savings for him to spend. Gradually, he has gotten the idea that life is really nice and comfortable. Whatever he wants, he can have. If he wants to go abroad, he can go. It is this material comfort that gives rise to a kind of life where his body (physical being) replaces his mind (his own thinking). It’s what I just mentioned—bodily existence. I think it’s the scariest thing. He doesn’t use his own brain to think about these questions. He is not used to it. He didn’t grow up in such an environment. Nor did he witness tragedies like the Cultural Revolution. He grew up at a time when material things had become abundant; there’s more money now. With money, one can go abroad. It’s safe to say that his body lives in a relatively free environment. That’s why I think this is a problem.

However, if we come back to examine this question again, similar problems exist in the realms of contemporary art or installations. It’s a result of their materialistic or bodily perspectives. Today, many artists desperately want to turn today’s works into the next day’s cash. Therefore, their works are not expressions of a concept or a way of thinking, which could have the possibility of becoming a theory or classic after years of sedimentary accretion. Their mindset is very simple now: Can any of my works get into the news? Can it be sold at an auction and can I get fast cash? It’s caused by this materialistic society. On top of that, the Chinese government is also pushing them in that direction.

The problem is this. It’s like money. The value of money can’t be realized through possessing it. It depends on how people spend it, right? Their works may have succeeded. They are successful in their full expression of an idea. The question is whether their success is being utilized by others. It’s like you have proposed an idea but I’m not sure if I’m going to use the idea or not. Or when you have earned your money, how are you going to spend it? Do you know how many artists in China spend the money they have earned from their artwork? It’s truly a shame. They spend it on Karaoke bars, women, gambling, new cars, and brand name merchandise. This is a generation of artists without ideals and aspirations. I rarely see any artists who say, now that my artwork has been selling fairly well, I’m going to use it to sponsor something. Also, many artists never read any literary works. They don’t understand modern poetry. Poetry itself is one of the great tools in human civilization to express our spiritual yearnings. But they never read poetry or they don’t understand it. I think the root of the problem is that everything is too materialistic. They are too eager to succeed. Nowadays, you can get from. . . news only reports on how this artist has gone through this experience and how his painting has fetched such a price at auctions. There’s never been any serious discussion about his works. This has formed a vicious cycle. That is to say, we only care about the auction price. We only seek positive news coverage. But there’s no discussion about the artwork itself. All we care about are numbers, monetary figures. We’ve completely gone astray. Maybe it’s because China has gone astray or the whole world has gone astray.

Today, many artists desperately want to turn today’s works into the next day’s cash.

In the old days, many people in the West discussed some idealistic or conceptual stuff. Now, the topics that they focus on are very conservative or safe. In the West, they discuss many issues that are very safe. What are the issues? Global warming, green products, or some popular political topics. This is also a very tragic phenomenon. The situation in China is not even worth mentioning. Many young people have gone abroad and then returned home. You see, we talked about unbinding the bandages. Chinese artists unbound their bandages when they came out, but now, many have gone back home. They end up rebinding themselves. They go back to share the benefits—China has money now and they go back to share this benefit. It’s like tying themselves up again. Do they really want to unbind themselves or do they do it for another purpose? The truly
determined and independent artists are always in the minority. The whole world is like that. The whole of China is more so. So, to a certain degree, I’m quite pessimistic about the future.

But what can we do? We can only do our share. There is a division of labor in society. I use my written words, my poetry and my painting, to express myself. I’m not looking for quick cash by taking on an easy, hasty route for my art. I can promise you this. I can only speak for myself. Zhang Hongtu can promise for himself. He’s been like this for the past several decades. So, what can we do? We can only strengthen ourselves, stick with our own firm beliefs. That’s what we can do. If you really want people inside China to do it . . . Zhang Hongtu and I, for example, have several friends inside China who share our interests and beliefs. We wanted to set up an organization. No way. As soon as we set it up, it was disbanded. But in a normal society, that’s how civilization is developed. My classmates and I can form a literary organization or club. Gradually, we probably start to participate in some political activities. We even propose the idea of engaging in elections in the cultural arena. This is very normal. But it’s not possible in China. There is no possibility of organizing a cultural organization, not to mention a political one. At this point, all we can say is that we will promise to strengthen our independence and continue to improve ourselves.

Zhang: This is very important. Yan Li is talking about how you can recognize your personal value and how you can find your individuality. I think if you don’t come to this realization, nationalism will forever exist and flourish. Why? Because you will think that if the country is doing well, I’m doing well. If someone is doing a great job and if he or she is a Chinese, I take great pride, I’m proud as a Chinese. He will never be proud of himself. That’s the biggest problem.

Yan: He can’t separate himself from the country, separate himself from his race.

We talked about unbinding the bandages. Chinese artists unbound their bandages when they came out, but now, many have gone back home.

Zhang: That’s why it’s a type of attachment. Like Mao Zedong used to say: The relationship between intellectuals and the nation is like that of skin and hair. Painters and intellectuals are strands of hair and the nation is the skin. Like the Chinese saying goes: With the skin gone, where can the hair attach itself? As a strand of hair, you have to stay with the state. It’s a terrible idea, but everyone believes in that. If the country doesn’t do well, I don’t do well either. If the country is better off, I will be better off too. As for you as a person, you don’t exist. Once more and more people come to accept this idea, it’s impossible for them to bring out their creativity.

Yan: They can’t recognize their own worth.

Zhang: They can’t value themselves and they lack self confidence. They don’t have any of their own ideas about themselves or about the world. They use other people’s opinions to replace their own. This is related to two issues that we just discussed. Sharon mentioned the topic of contemporary art. Over the years, I feel that there have been many talented artists. I think there are two reasons for this. First, China has 1.3 billion people. For a country like this, it would really be abnormal if you couldn’t find at least a few talented artists. But even so, it’s still small percentage wise. That’s my first point. Look at Yao Ming, he is one of the tallest people in the world. I’m not surprised at all. If the world’s shortest person is also found in China, I wouldn’t be surprised either.

The fate of a nation and of a people always has ups and downs . . . There is always hope.

Secondly, since China launched its reforms and open door policies in the late 1970s, the country has been integrated with the rest of the world. It started to pay attention to the international market. It needs to watch for the foreigners’ reactions. It is like, for example, releasing imprisoned intellectuals such as Wei Jingsheng or recently, Rebiya Kadeer,2 from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Why? It’s the political pressure from overseas.

Yan: First, it’s the pressure from overseas. Secondly, the government needs to earn money overseas. In some cases, it’s a type of transaction. The government uses politics as a transaction.

Zhang: Cultural exchange between nations has also increased our hopes for future changes. Recently, at the Melbourne International Film Festival, five movies from China and Hong Kong were withdrawn, allegedly to protest the screening of a documentary about Rebiya Kadeer at the festival. The Chinese government also requested that the festival sponsors stop the documentary from screening. The response of the festival’s Artistic Director, Michael Moore, was to say, OK, let’s add another screening. The result was that there were no empty seats at any of the screenings. At the time when politicians from many countries are reducing their criticism of the human rights situation in China on account of the global financial crisis, the Melbourne Film Festival’s act has allowed us to see some hope once again. The hope for humanity is very slim; it has committed too much folly onto itself and onto the environment. But the fate of a nation and of a people always has ups and downs. We find it impossible to imagine today that in 16th century Europe, a person was burned alive for declaring that the Earth revolves around the sun.

There is always hope. My personal website on the Internet is blocked in China (please, believe me that this website contains no pornography or violence). However many people can still open it through “Freedom Gate” proxies. A relative of mine tells me that he, on average, forwards “Freedom Gate” information to ten people every day. This, too, is hope.


1. Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong [毛主席语录], 1964. ^

2. Rebiya Kadeer is an exiled Uyghur activist. ^

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