People visit the Zhongshuge bookstore in Chongqing (Photo: China News Service/He Penglei)
By He Shaoqing, China News Service (CNS)
(CNS)-- In 1982, the first literary work by writer Alai, The Night of Harvest was published in the second issue of New Prairie.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Alai's literary creation. In the past forty years, this Tibetan writer from the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan has been working tirelessly on his works, reviewing the rise and fall of the native chieftain system in When The Dust Settles, reflecting on the relationship between humans and the ecology of the plateau in The Mushroom Circle, and depicting the trauma and redemption in the Wenchuan earthquake in the Story in the Clouds. His works have been translated and introduced to the West in large numbers, winning heavyweight literary awards such as the Mao Dun Literature Prize and the Lu Xun Literature Prize.
What impact has the Western writing experience had on contemporary Chinese writers? Why did Alai openly say at Peking University that "the experience from Spanish, French and German writings must be presented in Chinese in the end"? Recently, the Vice Chairman of the China Writers Association, Alai, accepted an exclusive interview W.E. Talk with the China News Service.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
CNS: It is very difficult to see oracle bone inscriptions in daily life, but why are so many people willing to learn and understand them in contemporary China?
Alai: If we compare civilization to a great river, then studying oracle bone inscriptions is to trace the source of the river of Chinese civilization. Only by creating characters can humans give a name to everything they know, and then summarize and generalize them. The understanding of the world, the establishment of concepts about the world, and the construction of systems of thoughts and knowledge to understand the world, all originate from here.
So when you see a great river, you should not just appreciate the moment when it joins the sea, but also be more interested in the sources.
CNS: What influence has the Western writing experience had on contemporary Chinese writers? Why do you think language is the most important element in literature, and why did you openly say at Peking University that "the experience from Spanish, French and German writings must be presented in Chinese in the end"?
Alai: There was a time in China, especially before and after the Cultural Revolution, when people were closed to the world, but during this period not only was the world developing in the fields of science and technology, but also in respect of the concept of literature and art, in addition to the emerging of new expression ways and new ideas of fictions.
China's reform and opening up in the 1980s has removed cultural barriers. By reading literature from around the world, our generation was exposed to many things we did not know before, such as new ideas, new ways of expression or new artistic genres. These works are effectively enlightening, and it was with this enlightenment and impact that we began to write.
But later, we quickly realized that everything has to be "localized", because we are telling Chinese stories and Chinese experience that brim with Chinese emotions, so there might be something wrong if they are fully told in translationese. That is, there may be incongruity between the things, perceptions and emotions we want to express and the foreign expressions.
Chinese experience and Chinese stories should be told in Chinese eventually. In the past, we often pay attention to the Western experience and the worldwide experience, but how to integrate them into our language? It indeed requires a complicated conversion. Therefore, after widening our horizon and facing the world, we need to return to our origin. This is true for writers or any Chinese. To return to the origin, we should keep a foothold on the foundation of Chinese characters.
In fact, there is a great deal of transformation experience in the Chinese history. From the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty to the Wei, Jin and the Southern and Northern Dynasties, there was a time when masters translated Buddhist scriptures. The masters finally translated the Buddhist scriptures told in Sanskrit by ancient Indians perfectly well. How? It was completed by making the translation fit the Chinese writing and language to the greatest extent possible, which entailed a lot of work.
From the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty to the Tang Dynasty, it took several hundred years for the Chinese to complete the localization of Buddhism, and the fundamental core of the localization is how to express the ideas from the outside and the worldviews from foreign lands in Chinese words and language in the most appropriate way.
In the face of an all-new world, how to use such language to absorb the achievements of Western and even the world civilization is an important issue for science, politics, culture and art. Literature is mainly expressed with rhetoric and words as the most basic tools, so literary scholars shoulder a greater responsibility to be foresighted and take the first to attempt. At this time, we should not keep secluded and say "the Western elements are not important", but "how to make them adapted to the Chinese context is more important".
Where to learn the experience of adaption to the Chinese context? China has a literary history of its own, starting from the Book of Songs and the Songs of Chu, and all the way down to the poetry of Tang and Song Dynasties, which have accumulated abundant aesthetic experience to express Chinese things, Chinese emotions, and Chinese concepts. At this time, the study of the national language and words to enhance their expressive force becomes a very important task.
CNS: In your opinion, what are the similarities and differences between Eastern and Western literature? Chinese literature has a long history, but the rich linguistic expression is mainly found in poetry and prose, while weak in narrative literature. What are the reasons behind these differences?
Alai: The greatest similarity between Eastern and Western literature is the presentation of human beings. The core of literature is human, human will, and human emotion. Classical literature used to make it very clear that poetry is the voice of will and emotion. Poetry is related to emotions, derived from emotional turmoil, not just a subjective point of view. Philosophers and historians all hold their own views, but they are more based on rationality, while literature begins with lyricism from the emotional turmoil.
Narrative literature is more developed in the West, while their poetry is less developed than in China. The richness of Chinese linguistic expression is mainly reflected in poetry and prose, so many Chinese novelists read more foreign fictions.
We are in an era of globalization. Cultural globalization has actually started since the May Fourth Movement, and economic globalization started later. We learned from the strengths of other countries, so we read more foreign novels. Likewise, in modern times, many foreign poets also learned poetry from China, especially poetry from the Tang Dynasty onwards. Culture is just such process of learning from each other, exchanging, and then enriching.
CNS: Your works such as The Dust Settles, The Mushroom Circle, and the Story in the Clouds have been translated into many languages for publication overseas. What are the similarities between your reader groups in the East and the West, and what are the differences in their focus on literature?
Alai: Poetry is the reflection of emotions, and this poetry refers to some extent to all literary works instead of the poems alone. Literary works arouse people’s feelings by emotions. The simplest example is Jane Eyre, whether as a novel or as a movie. At the beginning, we found different houses of the British people and their different clothes from the classical Chinese costumes, which show some cultural differences, but these do not matter, in the end, what makes you fall into the work and get captivated is their love. This is the same in both the East and the West, and the ups and downs of love is what really grips people in the end.
This is why readers in the East and West still focus on the emotions expressed in literature first, which of course does not mean that some other cultural scenes and elements explained in the work are not important. If there is something common in the classics of ancient and modern Chinese and foreign works recorded in the history of literature, there must be the enrichment of human emotions and the construction of a sound mind for people.