A New York exhibition I covered for Asia Times. View the article and images here.
This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –
A diorama is a miniature model of something, often enclosed in a box. Ai WeiWei’s S.A.C.R.E.D comprises six such boxes, with peep holes to see what’s inside – in this instance, scenes from his 2011 detention by the Chinese government, when two soldiers stood guard at a distance of 80cm from him, round the clock, for 81 days.
It’s the first Saturday afternoon of the 58-year-old artist’s huge retrospective at London’s Royal Academy and inevitably it feels as mobbed as the street outside in Piccadilly. There is a particular clamour, however, to see Ai’s genitals – his manhood, his todger. In one of the boxes the guards are watching him take a shower. The other hot ticket is a glimpse of him seated on the can.
In 1917, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain shocked the world with the idea that art could take any form an artist chose to give it. His “readymade” in that work was a urinal. Almost a century later, Ai has declared his readymades are the Chinese government and Chinese history. “I can piss with [them]”, he said in a recent interview, injecting, if nothing else, new meaning into the term “piss artist”. One, perhaps, who raises a finger at the one-party state then builds into his art the party’s over-reaction – in which it manages somehow to piss over its own shoes. Or something of the sort.
My companion and I are not completely ignorant: we do know that Ai is the Most Famous Artist in the World – despite, or perhaps because of, being imprisoned, hounded, silenced, having his studio flattened, his bank accounts frozen and his passport taken. But we definitely know a bit less about his art. Still, we opt not to wear headsets, partly because this will cost us more. This means missing out on a commentary which, judging from the expressions on our headsetted counterparts’ faces, affords a fuller grasp of Ai’s brilliance.
Luckily his work is nicely signposted for the weekend driver anyway. For a start, the ubiquity of 2D or 3D maps of the country leaves little room for doubt that Ai’s primary subject matter is China itself – even where the maps demand explanatory notes. The one in Fragments, for example, a sculpture assembled from architectural salvage and items of Ming and Qing era furniture, only shapes up if viewed from above, a physical impossibility in most gallery settings. According to the accompanying text: “The different geographic and ethnographic identities of the country are rendered immaterial and China is presented as a skeleton [suggesting] an inherent fragility that can be seen as a commentary on the concept of ‘One China’.” Do keep up at the back of the class.
Equally Delphic is He Xie, in which hundreds of porcelain crabs cluster in a corner. It’s a pun that needs some explaining – “he xie”, we learn, refers to river crabs but is also a homonym for “harmonious”, and has been adopted on the Chinese internet to refer to censorship. When Ai realised in 2010 that the new studio he’d had built in Shanghai was marked for demolition before he’d even moved in, he ordered a feast of crabs to commemorate both the building’s completion and its imminent destruction. A Dadaist triumph over the government’s own inadvertently Dadaist act is how He Xie is presented. Considered in itself, it shares with a lot of pop art the feeling of a joke waiting for a punchline.
Examples of Ai’s own creative destruction abound. In common with his re-configurations of reclaimed timbers, his Han dynasty vases dipped in industrial paint and a photographic triptych of him deliberately dropping a similarly antique urn are intended as a comment on the destruction of China’s past begun during the Cultural Revolution. Just as frequently, he reminds us of the Communist Party’s totalitarianism, its fear of losing power and its deathless crisis of legitimacy. Among a number of functional objects fashioned from lavish materials is a surveillance camera carved in marble. Clever? No. Subtle? No. Important? Sure.
It seems obvious that one reason the merits of Ai’s art are so often a secondary consideration is that his personal circumstances and their political dimension loom so large in it. Insofar as it asserts, again and again, that art matters in a society governed by paranoid fools, it’s in that political context that his own work does. There’s shining a little light into the darkness and there’s emblazoning revelations in neon. All too often Ai chooses the latter route to people’s responses, but striving to see past the neon may be to miss the point. And besides, people are pissing back there.
This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine
Feng Xiaogang has been ranting. Boy has he been ranting. Co-opting the shrill tendency of egotists everywhere to brand those at variance with themselves “nazis”, the mainland filmmaker’s response last month to a negative reception of his latest opus has been quite undignified, perhaps all the more so given the eagerness with which audiences flocked to see it anyway, enabling it to break Chinese box office records.
Alas, Personal Tailor scored poorly with paid reviewers and the social media crowd alike, a double whammy Feng rationalised on Weibo as follows: “The movie-goers can criticise me as much as they like … but not the film reviewers. [They] do not pay for tickets but make money from reviewing.” He also labelled his critics “shallow”, “an embarrassment” and “fools”.
Not having seen Personal Tailor, I cannot say. Perhaps they are. And perhaps it is the brilliant, important satire Feng avers and will be lauded by posterity for poking fun at corrupt authorities and the superficiality of modern Chinese society (the plot, it seems, touches on official graft, the vulgarities of the nouveau riche and the obstacles that prevent filmmakers from transcending lowbrow culture). Claims to that effect from a man who has built a career on the popular tastes of such a society, and whose cinematic cup runneth over with product placements, seem a little counterintuitive, of course – but as I say, what do I know?
One supposes it is a good thing that a mainlander should speak his mind freely, but to rail against those “cultural nazis” who would dispute Feng’s genius by suggesting they be deprived of their right to do so sounds a tad despotic in itself. “You’re all stupid, shut up,” is about the size of it. Whatever Feng’s talents as a filmmaker, patrons of the vituperative arts have been ill-served.
This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine
Some jobs call for more concentration than others: surgery, snooker, murder, that sort of thing. Performing, say, a Mahler symphony, must be pretty demanding, too, what with all the time signature changes and demented scherzo-ing; and some things rather tend to break the spell – a phone ringing in the concert hall, for example.
Noisy audiences at a recent summer arts festival in Scotland prompted discussion about classical music concert-goers’ decorum there. Someone writing in The Guardian – betraying that newspaper’s vestigial 1970s radicalism, or hatred of all things “stuffy” – argued that making such music less accessible by expecting people to conform to norms of behaviour once a conductor raises his baton might put some of them off attending and should be avoided.
Well, of course, trying not to cough is tricky and in extreme circumstances may lead to death; and I have no issue with the ingenue who claps between movements – there is a difference between etiquette and manners, and those who possess the latter ought to know to join in so as not to make the clapper feel awkward. Efforts to make concert halls more welcoming or relaxed places must be resisted, however. It will only open the door to the kind of excesses that should be confined to American Pentecostal worship.
Now, reports tell us of a Canadian orchestra’s performance in Fuling, Chongqing, being marred by chatter, phones ringing (and being answered), and audience members filming proceedings. Hong Kong’s concert-goers tend to be more considerate but, even so, that most precious of commodities in these parts – silence – is never a given. Classical musicians deserve more: it should be remembered, after all, that many of them take rests during longer pieces to catch up on sleep.
This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
Most scientists agree that aliens probably look something like David Bowie, with his cultivated strangeness and differentially-pigmented eyes (the result, apparently, of being punched in a schoolyard brawl).
Actually, “most” might be an exaggeration: there has been no extensive polling. But what is even less concrete is Bowie’s idea of himself. Whether as Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, the English singer’s most interesting years saw him shifting otherworldly shapes like nobody’s business. And the quantities of drugs he is known to have consumed in the 1970s make it feasible that he thought himself arrived from outer space.
Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth casts pop’s original chameleon as a humanoid alien who drops from the sky in a rocket. His objective, sketchily outlined, has something to do with developing the technology to reverse the drought now killing his own planet, and to that end he brings with him high-tech patents that make him a billionaire overnight.
Unfortunately he does not count on human greed or decadence, and, sadly, things do not go well. Mary-Lou, a first-rate mentalist who falls in love with him, introduces him to booze and he becomes addicted to it, and to watching television.
But enough of the spoilers, other than to state that 1970s paranoia – about impending planetary ruin, the brain-sapping properties of TV, political corruption and big business being dreadful – is writ large. Ideas that now seem tired abound. And yet, the movie’s visual boldness, ambition and insistent focus on character over plot put it on a superior plane to most current genre film-making.
Roeg was on a rich vein of form (a run that includes Don’t Look Now – named best British film ever in an industry poll last year – Bad Timing and Walkabout) and by this time Bowie had conquered America. But when the brass at Paramount saw the final cut of The Man Who Fell to Earth, they refused to fund its release and the film struggled to break even.
It’s likely the studio felt it was too, well, alienating. Roeg cuts incessantly between scenes without explanation, only to then linger on things which interest him visually, not least the desert landscapes of New Mexico, where Newton (Bowie) opts to reside. The result is that the film-maker himself seems to approach America – whether New Mexico or New York – from an alien’s point of view. He confronts its strangeness, asks questions of its culture, puzzles at capitalism’s outward manifestations.
Naturally, Bowie is an alien with a British passport. Feeble, androgynous, melancholy, he is the ultimate outsider. And the ultimate tragedy is that like Icarus falling, almost unnoticed, into the sea – as referenced in the film by way of W.H. Auden’s poem about Brueghel’s painting of the scene – humans very soon lose interest in that which they don’t understand.
This article was published in Hong Kong Tatler
If there were any doubt that the art world in the 21st Century is a thoroughly globalised, geographically cross-fertilised business, a thumb through the catalogue for this year’s Fine Art Asia quickly dispels it. Local Hong Kong artist Tsang Chui-mei’s paintings very clearly combine the Chinese literati tradition with elements of Western abstract expressionism; Frenchwoman Fabienne Verdier, who spent a decade in China learning traditional ink painting, likewise channels a distinctly East-West spirit on her canvases; and local gallery FEAST Projects’ Chinese Artists in France features works by contemporary master Zao Wouki, who is said to have counted Joan Miro, Picasso and Matisse among his friends once upon a time.
One could go on – but perhaps it was ever thus. Here, for example, we have Galerie Dayan of Paris offering up a large Louis XV vernis Martin – imitation Chinese lacquerware – among its items of French decorative art from the 17th to the 19th Century.
Art fairs in general have about them something of the 19th Century – for Europe a period of global expansion, when, as the hoarding of artefacts and works of art from around the world became almost a competitive sport, major public galleries sprang up, taking art collecting out of its hitherto exclusively private sphere. And Fine Art Asia 2012, which boasts exhibits from across four millenia and confidently straddles Eastern and Western art, is no exception. Indeed, the flaneurs of Haussmann’s Paris might well feel at home at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai next month – were it not for the fact that modern and contemporary art and design sits jowl-to-jowl with that of older vintage.
“I think it’s a perfect match to combine these different strands together in one venue,” says the fair’s founder and director Andy Hei over lunch some weeks ahead of the eighth major international fair he has staged in the city since his first Art and Antiques Fair in 2006.
Hei (who, like his father before him, deals in classical Ming and Qing-era Chinese furniture) and his co-director Calvin Hui (a gallery owner and collector of Asian contemporary art) are bringing together more than 120 galleries from as far apart as London, New York and Singapore for next month’s event – making it the biggest to date and confirming Fine Art Asia as the region’s most prestigious art gathering.
Says Hei: “I come from an antique or heritage art background; Calvin is from the contemporary art world. We’re a small team and we don’t have a lot of resources, so we are basing everything on the position of Hong Kong and our reputation among dealers and buyers.”
The pair are palpably excited, almost skittishly enthusiastic. Hui talks about fluctuations in the market for contemporary Chinese art with the twinkling eye of one who knows what will count as having artistic, and indeed pecuniary, value, years hence; Hei waxes lyrical about Hong Kong’s advantages for art dealers of being a free port and not charging a sales tax on art (it’s little coincidence that the fair coincides with major autumn art auctions in the city). And as a double act they encapsulate what makes the fair work: theirs may be vastly different artistic backgrounds, but they share a belief in the intrinsic value of good art and a passion for bringing as diverse a representation of it together – under the same roof and in their native city.
“Hong Kong has always been the perfect gateway city,” Hei boasts. “It has always known how to deal between East and West. In the art world, it used to be a case of Western buyers buying Chinese art and taking it back to the West; but now you can see the process has changed direction, whereby both Eastern and Western art is moving east.”
With the art market very much driven by wealthy mainlanders right now, Hui believes the Chinese are first of all “buying back” their own heritage: “There is is a phenomenon in China referred to as the Return of Cultural Relics and this is part of that, whether it’s antique art or 20th Century modern Chinese art.”
But it’s not just about patriotism, he insists – mainlanders are also increasingly outward-looking. “Hong Kong has always been in touch with western culture and western art. In China, people are travelling more and going abroad to be educated and there’s a sense that they are experiencing what Hong Kong experienced further back.”
Much like 19th Century European collectors, he says, the nouveaux riches of China are decorating and furnishing their homes with art and artefacts from different centuries and from around the world. “They may not understand the art historical significance of everything but they will think nothing of combining Italian-design furniture from the 1950s with 5,000 year-old Chinese vases, 19th Century English silverware and Ming Chinese paintings.”
Such eclectic appetites are unlikely to be frustrated by the veritable goulash of treasures on show in Wan Chai. The breadth of exhibits at this year’s fair is truly astonishing: Chinese bronzes from the 13th Century B.C; Chinese and Western classical furniture; Asian and international antique ceramics, paintings, jewellery, watches, sculptures, textiles and decorative art; Dutch and Italian landscape paintings from the 17th to 19th Centuries; masterpieces from Pissaro, Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Guillaumin, Picasso and Miro; sculptures by Rodin, Bugatti and Guyot; works by Chinese “new ink” artists Liu Dan Wei Ligang and Qin Fen; vintage jewellery made for the famous 1920s American socialite Millicent Rogers by “jeweller to the stars” Paul Flato; and much else besides.
For his part, Hui is particularly thrilled to be welcoming the first ever 20th Century Italian Design Furniture Exhibition in Asia – which will run for the duration of September, ahead of the fair, at the K11 Art Mall in TST. Presented by Italy’s Novalis Contemporary Art, it features items by masters of modern design including Etorre Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, Merret Oppenheim and Studio 65. “For so many of us, Italy really defines design,” Hui says. “It is beautiful and regal while still being accessible in everyday life.”
Hei, meanwhile, identifies an expanded fine art jewellery category – spanning antique pocket watches, 19th Century gem-set brooches and Art Deco Cartier necklaces – as a definite highlight.
“An art fair like this is not just a trading platform,” he adds. “It’s an appreciation of design and art history.”
It should also be said that the fair does its utmost to support local artists by allowing students from the Department of Fine Arts at The Chinese University and Hong Kong Art School to showcase, and sell, their work in the hall. “We want to encourage students to stay in the art business,” Hei says. “Hong Kong needs that. It’s a chance for them to get in touch with the real art market.” In addition, Fine Art Asia supports the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children and the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, with the latter receiving the proceeds of a charity auction of works donated by local artists.
“My father taught me that if you gain something from the market, you have to give something back,” says Hei. “We’re not just taking Hong Kong as the venue for an art fair, we’re supporting it every way we can.”
This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
Even if you’ve never seen Chariots of Fire, you will have heard its theme: the one that goes “da na na na nah nah” and is usually accompanied on television by footage of people doing things in slow motion. (Come to think of it, the way it has been used as a de facto anthem for British athletics may help to explain why the country’s sprinters no longer win the same quantity of medals as they did, say, at the 1924 Olympic Games, which provide the setting for much of this film.)
Along with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Chariots of Fire is one of two very fine British films about running and in truth is no more about fire than Slap Her, She’s French. Fire does feature in a number of indirect ways, however.
For one there is a lot of smoking, clearly an aid to sporting achievement in the olden days. Secondly, it features two young men fired up, each in his own way, by zeal or ambition, one of whom, the Scotsman Eric Liddell, has more than a touch of Calvinist fire and brimstone in his makeup. In his unorthodox running style, he also often appears to have a rocket warming his bottom.
Where Liddell is running for God (he even refuses to compete on the Sabbath), Harold Abrahams – the son of a financier who happens to have been a Lithuanian immigrant – is motivated by a desire for acceptance among the echelons of an Establishment, exemplified by the dons at his Cambridge college, that is distinctly sniffy about his Jewishness.
Both are exceptional figures, plucked from real sporting history and held to embody certain virtues – honour, dedication, personal integrity – that infuse the film with a twilit poignance. That theme (composed by Vangelis) and the framing of the flashback narrative with scenes from a 1978 memorial service for Abrahams, add to an overall sense of nostalgia for gifts vanished, lives gone, the flame of camaraderie and love now sputtering or extinguished.
Besides excellent performances from Charleson and Ben Cross (as Abrahams), the supporting credits are chock full with British acting talent, including Sir John Gielgud as one of the dons and a young Nigel Havers in the role of Lord Lindsay, another Cambridge athlete.
There is also much delight to be had from what scholars call the “diegetic” music, i.e that which has a part to play in the narrative itself: plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan (Abrahams’ falls in love with a soprano from The Mikado) and, at the end, a rousing rendition of Jerusalem, the hymn adapted from the William Blake poem which inspires the film’s title with the line “Bring me my chariot of fire”.
The phrase in turn comes from the Old Testament and is taken as a byword for divine energy. Whether or not that idea moves you, Hugh Hudson’s film probably will.
This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
Do they still teach Hemingway in schools these days? Or have the post-modernists, feminist-syndicalists and other ne’er-do-wells succeeded in booting him off the liberal humanist syllabus on the grounds that he was prone to violence, wrestled with Biblical ideas and took delight in women?
I only inquire as I can’t remember what I learned about The Old Man and the Sea, if indeed anything at all; you know, about motifs and metaphors and whatnot. That was always the thing at school, if you recall. So, what have we here? Well, there’s an old man – Santiago – who symbolises “man”, particularly the oldish sort. And there’s the sea, which is, if you will, nature itself, and female at that: “She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel…”
But there are no actual women besides the old man, just a boy and an ocean full of fish. And in Hemingway, men come alive in nature, without and away from women; they hunt and fish and grapple with life and death, fear and courage, sin and impotence. The old man’s powers are waning but his struggle to land a giant marlin off the coast of Cuba is heroic. With his patience and humility, his bleeding hands and the mast he carries ashore on his back, he is a mortal Christ.
Jesus Christ never had to put up with sharks, though. Santiago does and they are his ruin. After hooking his eight-foot long prize and almost killing himself hauling it in over four days, he finds it’s too big to bring on board his skiff. The sharks come in pairs and packs and devour its flesh.
More than Santiago’s other adversaries – the marlin, his own frailties – Hemingway’s sharks are a truly mortal enemy. Not for him the fun, put-upon creatures Greenpeace would have us believe in: these sharks are hateful beings who kill and scavenge and cut the legs and heads off turtles when they’re sleeping.
It is said Hemingway – who in The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon had celebrated bull-fighting – never met an animal he didn’t want to kill, but Santiago is a compassionate fellow who sees his prey as a “brother” and grapples (briefly) with the morality of his quest. And where the corrida is depicted as ritualistic and somehow sacred – and thus possessing an authenticity Hemingway saw as lacking among his intellectual acquaintances in Paris – his treatment of sharks seems more rooted in notions of good and evil. As Santiago remarks with some relish to his (dead) fish, after smashing the skull of a shovel-nose with his oar: “We have killed many sharks, you and I, and ruined many others.”
Read all of this as metaphor if you must, but as a study of the human spirit and of what men endure, The Old Man and the Sea is a work of art on or off of whichever syllabus you care to mention.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post’s Review section
Most poetry is to some degree about experience. Much of it, though, filters experience in such a way as to partially or wholly uncouple itself from events. Often, as a result, the “what” it may be said to be about seems secondary to the “how” it goes about engendering meaning or meanings.
Liu Xiaobo is not beyond deploying metaphor or (nightmarish) dream-reality to say things pointedly, but his work is decidedly not of an abstract mould. And there can be no misapprehension about the subject matter in his collected June Fourth Elegies: these poems, written every year since 1990 to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing and the massacre of hundreds if not thousands of civilians under martial law, are an act of remembrance and an explicit response to events which have left a dark shadow on Liu’s own life and on China as a whole.
“Of such poetry it is profoundly apparent how impossible it is to contrive the live sparks of experience through which an aesthetic arises,” is how, in his afterword, Jeffrey Yang – the translator of Liu’s poetry into English for the first time – assesses the latter’s sensibilities as a writer. And in his 1992 offering, Suffocating City Square, in which he describes an un-named woman being mown down by gunfire, Liu seems to acknowledge that the poetic form is unequal to the task of rendering events whose horror, scarred in his memory, speaks for itself. “The death-cast girl”, he concludes, “has become a line of pure poetry/ that surrenders all ideograms.”
The translations come somewhat late in the day. Better known perhaps as a literary critic and campaigner for human rights, Liu has long railed against China’s collective amnesia about 1989, but he too is a victim of the government’s efforts at forgetting and containing the legacy of the crackdown.
It is said most on mainland China have not heard of him, even after he became the only Chinese to have won a Nobel Prize, in 2010, for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights.” And Yang, himself a US-based poet, publisher and editor, only read these “elegies” for the first time in 2009. His work, he says, was made all the harder for not being able to consult with Liu, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”, having been involved in drafting the 2008 “Charter 08” manifesto, a blueprint for democracy and basic freedoms; nor even Liu’s wife Liu Xia, who is under house arrest.
Under the circumstances, then, he has made rather a good job of it, helped, so far as the non-Chinese reader can tell, by Liu’s meandering but direct, almost conversational style. Liu may not be a “wildly imaginative innovator”, as Yang remarks, but the avoidance of elaborate metaphorical deviation adds to the unflinching visceral and emotional intensity of his ventings. Poetic verisimilitude really doesn’t come much starker than this couplet from 1990’s Experiencing Death: “Open fire – kill people/ kill people – open fire.”
And if there is an immediacy about this first effort at reliving that “bayonet-inflamed dawn”, it wanes little in subsequent years. By 2002’s June Fourth: A Tomb we are still being met with “Heads sliced off by bayonets/ … /bodies pulverised by tanks.” Blood and corpses, bones and despoiled flesh: the images of carnage echo throughout the volume, somehow liturgical in their reiteration.
Liu was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York when the pro-democracy movement erupted in ’89, but he returned to support it. He found himself at odds with many of the student leaders – he believed they should abandon the ideology of class struggle and had little time for their espoused patriotism – but he gained their trust. He and others declared a three-day hunger strike on June 2 in an attempt to pull focus on the campaign for democracy, but when it became clear that Tiananmen Square was to be forcibly cleared, he was among those who pleaded with students to leave of their own volition, which intervention saved countless lives.
On June 6, he was arrested and detained for two years. He was expelled from the Beijing Normal University and branded a “black hand” by state media. Since then, he has resisted the temptation to seek refuge abroad, even though his activism and articles (many published in Hong Kong) criticising the central government have curtailed his freedom: Liu has spent much of the last two decades either in prison or under house arrest.
It would be strange indeed if these experiences did not inform his outlook. If Experiencing Death (“that once familiar world/ cannot find a handful of dirt to bury itself in”) is apocalyptic, then the collection becomes progressively more so. Written from a place of spiritual darkness if not literal confinement, much of this poetry is haunted, even disturbed. Closing in and Breaking Through, from 1998, develops one recurring nightmare: “In order to escape the abortion/ the baby inside the mother’s belly/ learns to commit suicide.”
This hellish reductio ad finem cannot be explained, however, without acknowledging Liu’s sense not only of grief at the slaughter of innocent youth, but guilt, which he alludes to in an introduction to this book culled from a collection of his verse published in Hong Kong in 2000, and again in his Dedication to an un-named victim at the beginning of For 17, from 1991: “I’m still alive, already 36. Now, facing your departed spirit, being alive is a crime.”
That self-reproach would tend to suggest he is moved by survivor’s guilt, but there may be more to it. Of the June Fourth Movement, Liu was writing as early as 1994 that the events had actually “delayed the Communist Party’s democratisation process” and that students and intellectuals in 1989 had become conceited, “as though we had reverted to the time of the Cultural Revolution and felt ourselves to be the most revolutionary.” As though, indeed, things had been pushed too far too soon.
Liu’s statement during his 2008 trial, later read out in his absence at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, let it be known “I have no enemies” and there is a degree of martyrdom (one hesitates to call it Christ-like) in his acceptance of his own persecution. In Experiencing Death, there is even compassion for the executioners: “Young soldiers/ … / still haven’t felt/ the intoxication of a girl’s kiss/ but now in an instant/ experience the bloodthirsty pleasure/ of murder, their youth’s beginnings”.
It would be wrong, however, to accept that Liu does not make enemies for himself or that his poems are bereft of political ire. His essays are often scathing of Chinese history and culture: whether due to Confucianism or millenia of absolutism, he sees his compatriots as being too apathetic to challenge the system. And in his introduction, he states: “Today [in 2000] I lean toward ‘comprehensive westernisation’, in the sense of ‘westernisation’ meaning humanisation: to treat people equally as human beings. For in China, past and present, the government has never treated its citizens as buman beings.”
His subversion of the elegy, then – a literary form ubiquitous in classical Chinese poetry – may well be intentional, all the better to chafe the “educated elite”, who he says, in I Will Give My Soul Free Rein, from 1996, “had no time to clean the traces of blood from their turn-ups/ but plunged headfirst into the vast seas of trade.”
There is an element of the old Marxist charge of “false consciousness” about Liu’s denunciation of China’s “flashy bubble of prosperity” and “The ease with which money/ forgives bayonets and lies”. But it is worth reminding ourselves what it is he inveighs against: a state gorged on economic miracles but refusing to acknowledge responsibility for crimes against its own citizens and bullyragging anyone who in any way attempts to honour the democracy movement’s memory or ideals. And “a nation that tolerates a murderous regime and forgets the killed,” as Liu has it in 2004’s Fifteen Years of Darkness.
June Fourth Elegies is an almanac of rage against such injustice and betrayal. But it is also more than that: a plea for the nation to recognise its shame, finally mourn for the massacred and by so doing let human dignity take its place in public life. “The departed souls have left us a legacy and a test,” Liu writes in The Dead Souls of Spring, from 2007. Purposeful poetry is easy to denounce as propaganda. In this instance that would also be to denounce as powerful a case for humanity as you will find.
This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
It may be confidently asserted that the cypher-like emoticon things which nowadays adorn all correspondence amongst people under 30 do not derive their name from George Smiley. The taciturn intelligence officer central to a number of John Le Carré’s most memorable novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is rarely given to emotion, let alone enthusiasm. And with good reason. As Le Carre chronicles, from personal experience, the work of a Cold War spy is painstaking and unglamorous, a quid pro quo only for obscurity, paranoia, possible derangement and almost certain betrayal.
Brought out of forced retirement to hunt a mole (code-named Gerald) whom, it transpires, has effectively turned the Circus – the innermost circle of British secret intelligence – into an arm of Moscow Centre, Smiley is a man betrayed at almost every turn in Tinker, Tailor. Jaded yet loyal, we are led to infer that he feels Gerald’s deception, of the service and of Britain, deeply. That Gerald turns out to be the charismatic Bill Haydon, one of Smiley’s wife’s many lovers, adds further to his martyrdom. And, to top it off, his earlier banishment from the Circus was the price he paid for loyalty to “Control”, the boss ousted after a botched operation which was, it emerges, a trap set up by Haydon and Moscow.
Condensing Le Carré’s intricate storyline is no easy task – as Thomas Alfredson, who directed the recent film version, has attested. But as Smiley burrows deeper into past events – the novel begins in media res and jumps about – he assembles a mosaic of duplicity. Scholars have likened him to Homer’s Odysseus, the scorned outsider putting the kingdom bang to rights, but the Circus’s day of reckoning brings him little satisfaction. And when the final act of revenge, betrayal’s narrative bastard, comes, it is implied the bullet is fired by Jim Prideaux, Haydon’s old partner.
Haydon’s character is derived from Kim Philby, one of the so-called Cambridge Five traitors and the man Le Carré believes blew his own cover as a secret agent. The author knows of what he writes, then: a Britain on whose Empire the sun is setting, exposed to subversion from within the ranks of its own establishment. And the Circus serves almost as an amphitheatre for this attrition of old certainties. Espionage is no game of cricket, certainly.
Still, though, Le Carré manages to convince us of what is at stake: loyalty matters, betrayal of one’s own is contemptible. Smiley clings to a kind of unspoken faith that whatever foulness Englishmen may be capable of in defending British interests, they are still more moral than the other chaps, and that anyway it’s all worth it to uphold the rights of the individual against the tyranny of Soviet communism. In spying on the Circus, he may be “sinning against his own notions of nobility,” but Le Carré leaves us in no doubt that some betrayals are more pardonable than others.