Earlier this month, I was in Guangzhou for a forum on modern literature. The participants hailed mostly from academic institutions and media organizations, but you wouldn't know that if you had only heard their self-introductions. They sounded like freelancers.
It drew my attention. The event was organized by Southern Metropolis Daily, one of the country's most influential newspapers. Like the newspaper itself, the literary forum and subsequent awards reflect its independent values.
The award carries the implication that your achievement is above the froth of political correctness or power politics. Of course, it has its own politics, but compared with the alternatives, it is fair and transparent. All the jurors' decisions are published, as well as their debate transcripts.
In other words, if you are a truly good writer but not affiliated to any organization, you may still win an award.
In the humanities and sciences, China has reached a special point when the power of influence is not monopolized by one force. As I see it, influence is shared by three inwardly separate yet outwardly interwoven forces. One is government sponsored, such as the Writers' Association; the second is the world of academe; and the third is the market, represented by best-selling books, high-circulating publications and a handful of online platforms.
There is a strict hierarchy in the first two, which represent the establishment. They assign titles that correspond to official positions. Also, they have the most resources, such as the ability to hire and enroll people into degree programs, etc. But they are often slow to recognize outside players.
I once asked a prominent scholar about two extremely high-profile writers in the same field - American studies. He gave me a quizzical look. "I've never heard of them," he admitted, without a hint of embarrassment.
When Xiamen University hired Xie Yong as a professor, it made waves. Xie, a freelance scholar who had published a dozen books on the subject of intellectuals, is arguably much more accomplished than many inside the ivory tower. People interpreted the move as a positive sign that the establishment was finally recognizing talent from the grassroots.
Han Han is the most dramatic case. The best-selling writer flatly rejected an invitation to join the Writers' Association. To add insult to injury, the 20-something laughs off the organization as being "superfluous and ridiculous".
Outsiders who do not know the intricacies and dynamics tend to see only a small part of the elephant, or through a preset prism. Grassroots players are often anti-establishment, so they must be dissidents. Not true. Many of them, unlike Han Han, are ready to rush into the embrace of the establishment, as testified by the actions of most of Han's young peers.
Moreover, most of those with voices hefty enough to make an impact have roots in the establishment. They have managed to maintain their independent thinking and use styles of mass appeal to talk to the public. And they may shift their positions to suit different occasions.
If you judge a person only by his resume or by talking to people in his circle, you may never know whether his sway is limited to one stratum or whether he straddles multiple layers of influence. Before Lu Xun became a freelancer, he dabbled in the worlds of academe and officialdom. That was early last century, but men of letters in China have a tradition of mixing Lao Tzu-style detachment and Confucius-style engagement.
(China Daily 04/26/2008 page4)