scared orphans, nanking memorial
Today I saw the first disk of a 2disk film from netflix, a BBC nature tv series, 3 one-hour episodes per disk, Wild China. The first disk deals with the Southern Mountains above Laos and Vietnam, tropical forest. Central China, Hunan province, has beautiful mountains. Then western China, the Tibetan plateau and the mountains, the Himalayas and Chinese mountains we've never heard of that have never been explored by any human, inaccessible. We of the west pay no attention to China except as the place everything we buy is made. Cheap labor, militarist society. The video shows how the very most remote people live in those places where the most remote rural people are poor and have least interference from government. The filming of the birds and underground burrowing critters, the insects, the fish, it was an amazement to see what a few photographers good at getting close-up shots could do with a mother monkey carrying her one day old baby, monkeys that live in cold mountains with snow, seeing varieties of animals I've never seen before, like a Tibetan bear with eyes that make its face look like a mask, even a few seconds of seeing a snow leopard. It brought to mind Peter Matthiesson's beautiful book, The Snow Leopard (1978), his search for the elusive snow leopard. The memory of it makes me want to read it again. All I remember of it from so long ago was that I loved it. Sometimes I wonder if Matthiessen might be the great American writer of our time.
I've been reading history of China, have seen multiple films of different times in Chinese history. I don't mean kung fu westerns, but films from mainland China where an art renascence is in progress. For example, today I heard on the news that Mo Yan of mainland China was given the Nobel Prize for literature. I was a bit disappointed the Committee didn't see Dylan having it coming like I do, but have no argument with it going to Mo Yan. A very respectable writer, good to have this attention pointed to him. He's a straight-forward writer, but does not challenge the government to put him in prison. I get the impression he likes to write. The freedom now for writers is almost as free-wheeling in China as here. Mo Yan is one of many in China. He stands out from the rest. At amazon.com is a good list of his novels available in translation. He's been keeping his translator, Howard Goldblatt, busy for several years. Just thinking that in my next lifetime I might enjoy translating contemporary Chinese writing into whatever language I'm born into, maybe Danish. I don't say any of this to forecast next lifetime. It struck me a lifetime as a Chinese translator of beautiful writing would be a good life, fulfilling. It has its agony, of course, like everything else.
In Mo Yan's Red Sorghum, he lets it happen. The rape of Nanking, December 1937, is one of the great atrocities in human history. It's there with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Nazi death camps, Pol Pot, and the list goes on and on without end all the way back to the trees, to the ants. It's what we embodiments of the spirit of life do. I'm recalling my friend Millard Pruitt back in the time the Ayatollah was on tv. His solution to the Iran problem in the late 70s early 80s on tv news and everything else that came up, was universally, "A-bomb em." I sat there and chuckled within, not looking downward at him, but seeing country wisdom, a way of thinking from a place that was outside time until television arrived soon after electricity. A-bomb is television imagination. Change the channel. Zot! End of that one. Knowing he was coming from a way of seeing that was another time, another Age, another century, respecting that, and liking that in him, I said in fun, "If A-bomb em is the answer to every problem around the world, seems like there'd come a time you'd be the only one left." He said, "That'd be all right." A straight-ticket republican and a straight-jacket mind. If he were living, he'd be sending money to Alice's tea party, like he did to Reagan before, and Nixon and Goldwater.
Mo Yan wrote about the rape of Nanking from the inside, from someone telling it who was there seeing it, living through the Japanese occupation after initially mowing down everybody they saw. It was a full military assault on a civilian city inland. It was so bad it makes me feel immense sorrow just it coming to mind without details. I've read about it, seen documentaries about it, seen films made from fictional accounts of it. It's a moment in Chinese history I know fairly well. Couldn't pass a test on it, but sure do have a feeling for it, evidenced by the dampness in my eyes from it just coming to mind. Mo Yan gets down and dirty in it. I mean real dirty. It's not for the squeamish. What I've learned from Mo Yan and other sources of what the Japanese did to the Chinese people of Nanking makes me look at the Japanese a little bit more like WW2 vets I know look at them, men who won't drive a Japanese car. They gave the Nazis a run for the most vicious people on earth championship in their time. It was a blessing for all of Asia that America shut the Japanese military mind down, or possibly redirected it into corporate mind. Nonetheless, Mo Yan writes visually like a movie.
The memory from Mo Yan's Red Sorghum that will never leave my mind, I don't mean I obsess on it, but I'll sure as shit never forget it, is the old man the Japanese soldiers tied to a post and forced the local butcher, the man's neighbor and friend, to skin him alive in front of a big crowd of people gathered to see what was happening. The man whose skin was getting cut off cursed the Japanese with every breath, every curse word and phrase he knew; he cursed them until he expired. The Chinese don't mind getting down and dirty and they don't mind sorrow. Sorrow is a legitimate feeling in Chinese writing, and in Chinese life. They haven't had enough television and prozac etc yet. American writers over the last half century have taken sexual writing surely by now as far as it can go and not repeat itself, the Chinese don't go there in excess. In China, the Sixties sexual revolution passed them by. Some tried it, but the Tienanmen Square incident put an abrupt halt to that thinking. There are more important things going on in China than sex, as dictated from the top down. There is a certain way of looking at what I call the Chinese embrace of sorrow as a metaphor for the dark cloud of militarist rule and continual surveillance from known and unknown directions that hovers over all of China from way back in its history. Like the American pop culture fascination with zombies and vampires as metaphor in a time when the Bank is draining, coincidentally, our energy from our pockets to unaccountable Cayman Islands accounts.
The Chinese have their issues like we have our issues. Their issues are particular to their history as our issues are particular to our history. It's like individually it's our experiences that individuate us. I like reading Chinese writings of this time, fiction, poetry, essays, histories and the subtitles in films as well. China was closed up through the early part of my life. I wondered what was going on there, but didn't know how to find out with a logjam of curiosity backed up, waiting to see if I'd see the day China opened enough to let us see what is going on inside. First, I discovered the film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which pulled me in and made me want to see more. Discovered Zhang Yimou films. Zhang Yimou made a film of Red Sorghum with Gong Li. Netflix doesn't have it. I want to see it. I'll go to amazon soon and pick out something by Mo Yan to read. Or could read Red Sorghum again. It's such a powerful incident in China's history, in China's psyche. It's a story that needs telling and a story that needs hearing. I'm glad Mo Yan won the Nobel, for himself and for China. Congratulations to Mo Yan.