A Dialogue with MuXin

Toming Jun Liu interviewed MuXin in July 1993 in MuXin's home in a suburb of New York. The complete interview was published in Chinese in Lianhe bao (United Times, Taipei, January 23, 1994). Toming Jun Liu's English translation was published in the North Dakota Quarterly (Spring 1997: pp. 19-28) and has been shortened and rearranged here.

Toming Jun Liu: You came to the United States from China in 1982 and have since been living in the New York area. Between 1983 and now, you have written twelve books, eight of which have been published. These books include poetry, prose (sanwen),1 and fiction. Although it could be rather difficult to distinguish between prose (sanwen) and fiction, can you nonetheless try to delineate their differences?

MuXin: Prose is like a window; fiction is like a door. But it is not uncommon that he who should come in through the door jumps in through the window.

TJL: Your works of sanwen cover a wide range of thinking, whereas, in contrast, you seem to conceal the sharp edges of your intellect in your works of fiction. But if one reads your fiction closely, one can still detect a philosophical milieu. Does your fiction in fact contain such things as "ideas"?

MuXin: Why don't we place "ideas" where they belong, in the temple of essays? Why let them sneak into the hallway of fiction? "Ideas" can only be in the distant background of a work of fiction, something like a very low horizon. In the middle distance and foreground of fiction, there shouldn't be any "ideas" visible.

TJL: What are your thoughts on fiction?

MuXin: I feel that it would be tedious for a person to have only one life. It would be much better to have two or three lives going on simultaneously, hence my desire to split or transmute the self by means of fiction. The first-person narrator is a preference of mine since in my fictional works I can, by such means, arbitrate and master those I's. The bags are fake but those things inside the bags are real. Some of my readers and editors believe that those fictional I's are the author's own self; they have mistaken the bags for the real thing. When the bags are real, things inside the bags could then become fake.

TJL: How do you consider and handle such subjects as "remembrances of things past"? Can you please elaborate on that?

MuXin: What interests me is not "things past" but how to achieve simultaneously two I's through remembrance: one is long dead, the other is still living. According to a traditional custom in China, "the dead take priority." In the old days, for example, a feudal official traveling with his entourage would have his subordinates drive everyone else to the sides of the road and make them stand in silent awe. But if there was a funeral procession on the same road, the official and his entourage had to make way for the procession; it did not matter if the dead in the coffin was a nobleman or a commoner. My I in the present looks at the I in the past with the same kind of respect. However, the present I often instills into the past I certain "possibilities"; in other words, I let him do, within the realm of fiction, certain things I wanted to do then but did not or could not do.

TJL: An established view in literary criticism holds that even though a fiction is a made-up story, it is ultimately truthful. It sounds contradictory but it is really a paradox, is it not?

MuXin: Did you ever find that there is room between the two opposing rules of a paradox? That space between two almost opposite rules is the ground where I play and write.

TJL: Sometimes you call your fiction "narrative poetry." Can you also elaborate on that, please?

MuXin: For the longer fiction or the novel, I have a different definition. My short fiction is really narrative poetry, not unlike ballade in music. Thomas Hardy once advised us to record impressions more and to express ideas less. Now and then I would remember this advice. With those stories in which I record impressions more, I always feel more comfortable, both during the time of writing and afterwards. I feel ill at ease about those pieces in which I have tried to express ideas. The method I am using now is to present ideas through impressions. Readers immersed in the gradually unfolding impressions will form their own ideas, which might or might not be in agreement with the author's; that is fine either way. I hope that with time I can improve my method of presenting ideas through impressions. Speaking more technically, impressions are like pearls; ideas are like the string that turns the pearls into a necklace. The string is invisible, but it is not dispensable and cannot be broken.

TJL: Your works seem to resonate with Western culture. Sometimes, one is even under the impression that you create "Western" products. In what ways were you influenced by Western civilization? Is that the starting point, end point, or something else in your literary career?

MuXin: If a person in the West had not been influenced by the Eastern culture, it would be a regrettable missing link. If a person in the East had not been influenced by the Western culture, it would be equally regrettable. What would be missing then? The lives of many contemporary artists from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia are infused with Western cultural influences; their accomplishments, their efforts to fashion their own selves, are inseparable from such infusions. There seem to be no exceptions. Why should there be exceptions? What would an exception be? The first principle of modern cultures may be their connectedness. Culture is like wind and wind knows no boundary or center. Once there is a center, wind becomes a whirlwind. I walk on my literary journey with no resources other than my own personality. If I must name some starting point or end point or some other point, I would have to say that European culture is my John the Baptist, the United States is my Jordan River, and Jesus lives only in my heart.

TJL: What then do you think is the quintessence of Chinese culture?

MuXin: China was once a country of poetry. The landscape paintings (shan-shui) of the Northern Song Dynasty can be compared to Western symphonies; the various masters in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties all reached the peak in their own ways, which is a phenomenon in the history of world painting. Just as people in the West are good at dancing, we in China are expert at calligraphy. Of all forms of artistic expression, China's calligraphy is a special act of the intellect in its display of talent and training. In terms of the art of sculpture, the stone caves in Yungang, in their magnificent and perfect states, seem to have achieved a cosmic harmony. If we compare China's pottery, bronze and ceramic products to similar products from Greece, Rome, Byzantine, the Islamic world, Egypt, and India, then China, among these ancient nations, has a dignified superiority in its ancient craftsmanship. The masterpieces of our classic literature have attained a state of crystallization in which not a single word needs to be added or deleted. Our ancient philosophers were all first-rate stylists: as you contemplate their philosophical profundity, you fall for their literary charms. Why did Bodhi-dharma go to China and not anywhere else? That must be the greatest unresolved mystery in Zen Buddhism. My childhood and adolescent years were spent struggling in the sedimentary deposits of an ancient culture. But it gives me great pleasure to be able to see the world with two eyes provided to me by our ancient culture, because one eye is that of a polemicist and the other is that of a lover. What is art in the final analysis? Art is the shining forth of one's interiority.

TJL: Do you like to be called a writer in exile? If you are one, can you compare yourself to writers in exile from other countries?

MuXin: Joyce said that being in exile is his aesthetics. I believe that aesthetics is my exile: I refer to the infinite traveling in the conceptual world, in which each one of us is given our own share of fate. Homesickness is unavoidable; it is a matter of what attitude we have toward it. The homesickness of philosophy, for example, is the interest in theology. The homesickness of literature is the interest in humanity. When someone's homesickness is excessive, he is no more than a homemade clod. If you ask me why I left China, it's just that I went for a stroll and strolled too far away.

TJL: In the context of contemporary world literature, many writers-and even more critics-seem to emphasize nationalist and regionalist attributes in their literary works. You are Chinese, and you write on Chinese as well as Western subject matters. Are you concerned with some sort of universal or common humanity? Could you comment on such terms as "humanity" and "humanism"?

MuXin: You seem to want me to unravel, if I can, the disputes among literary critics regarding the East and West, North and South. Those disputes are often the clashes of swords of political biases as reflected in literature. It is often hard to tell which movement of a sword is right and which is not. If we insist that universal humanity is defined in terms of European culture, we already become involved in "Eurocentrism." I said before that any kind of centrism is some kind of racism, an attempt to create a whirlwind which does more harm than good-political biases and racism are probably not what we should be talking about today.

TJL: Please comment on "nationalism" and "universal humanity," then.

MuXin: That is the kind of question that becomes increasingly noisy in a period of crisis when the salt of the earth is diminishing. The Bible says: if salt is not salty, what else can remedy that? I care only about the saltiness of salt, not where the salt is produced. To regulate literature with such categories as nationality and regionality would seem to be expanding ethnographical research. But it could also become an activity in which the expert is trying to determine whose salt tastes less salty and whose more salty. The "human" tendency to eliminate "humanity" is getting more and more aggressive. What I know is this: there exists a view of human history that bears resemblance to natural ecology, that is: it looks as if "animalistic life" could trample "botanical life," but in the end "botanical life" will overcome "animalistic life." Politics and business are more like the "animalistic life"; they are tactic in nature. Culture and art are more like the "botanical life"; they are strategic in nature. I do not want to say who is going to win or who is going to lose in the future-what I have is not confidence but patience. The Chinese are extremely patient. Perhaps that is my own "national" or "regional" attribute.

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TJL: Nietzsche announced that God is dead. The death of God has been interpreted by some theorists to be the equation of the death of humanism. Indeed, Nietzsche believes that a certain kind of humanism, that as epistemology, is dead with the death of God. But what is the tragic spirit whose rebirth Nietzsche passionately advocated? Is not this spirit a more profound humanism? What are your thoughts about these deaths and births?

MuXin: A Chinese proverb says: "The greatest sorrow is the death of the heart." It describes the state or condition you were referring to. There are two more relevant proverbs. One is: "Life is found in a desperate condition." The other is: "Put someone in a place of death so that there can be a rebirth of life." Both are lovely oxymorons. Well, if life can indeed be found in a desperate condition, it is pure luck. That chance is slim. At best, that is a "soft" law. Putting us in a place of death before there can be a rebirth of life is, however, a way to force things to happen; it is the ultimate strategy for the artist of war. The reason I quote these two proverbs is not that we should wait for a chance resolution to a dilemma. You were wondering about the death of God and the rebirth of tragedy-the humanism that died with the death of God is the bitter Christian faith, a wish for a heavenly kingdom. But the humanism after the death of God should be the sweet Dionysian wisdom, a joy in this-worldness. This greatest event can be described in a small metaphor: if wheat does not die, how can there be a golden wheat field? God and wheat both die voluntarily. But we still do not see a golden wheat field yet, not even a sign. There is not yet interaction between the Hebrew and the Hellenic ways of life, no more mutual growth. This is the desperate condition and the place of death in which we find ourselves. I used to admit defeat, imagining that I was a traveler sitting in a night train passing by an area with an extraordinary landscape; but there was only pitch darkness outside the window and I saw only the mirror-reflection of my pale face on the glass. Gradually, however, I saw the light of daybreak on the window; I wrote a poem when the Berlin Wall fell; I wrote an even longer poem while witnessing the disintegration of the former Soviet Union. Although I see no miracle, I still expect justice.

1Sanwen, a Chinese literary genre that is an intersection between the essay, prose poem, and fiction, is translated here as "prose."