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Need for modesty, respect
Loose cannon Han Han has got into trouble again. He is being lambasted for criticizing the literary giants of the last century.
[ 2008-06-30 19:38 ]

By Raymond Zhou

Loose cannon Han Han has got into trouble again. He is being lambasted for criticizing the literary giants of the last century.

Need for modesty, respect

In a television talk show, Han stated that the "writing styles of Bing Xin, Ba Jin and Mao Dun are terrible". The avalanche of disapproval can be summed up with a few points:

It is ignorance personified to speak ill of these towering figures; and more, it is an attack against Chinese culture.

Han is a young writer; he should assume modesty and respect older generations.

He should not publicize his personal judgment using a public platform.

Literary masters are not to be talked about and commented in this fashion. They symbolize the highest achievement in literature and must be held in awe.

For me, Han's comment - I don't see it as an "attack" - should be approached in two ways: First, does he have a right to comment on nationally recognized masters in one negative swoop? Second, is what he said right? Or more accurately, do you agree with what he said?

On the first point, I believe that anyone has the right to offer his observations and criticisms of any writer as long as the writer is published and the commentator has read this writer's work. His comments may not be conclusive if he has read only a sampling.

The tradition to put a great writer on a pedestal and shield him from damaging remarks may be well-intentioned but ultimately harmful to a healthy environment of literary appreciation. Once you hold certain people or certain works above the sea level of normal discussion, you turn them into "saints" depleted of the saltiness and nutrients of seawater. Pretty soon, they are fossilized into specimens to be gazed at from afar.

To equate the feelings toward one group of writers with the love - or the lack of it - for Chinese culture is preposterous. I adore the costumes of China's ethnic minorities, including cheongsam of the Manchus, but I'm turned off by the traditional Han garb, which some tout as our national wear. Does that make me a traitor of Chinese culture? But, hey, I admire the same black-and-white aesthetic that dominates old architecture in southern China.

On the second point, there is also room for debate.

Need for modesty, respect

Writers of the early 20th century were at the threshold of the vernacular revolution. They were exploring new territories. It is not surprising that some of the linguistic details did not make it to the mainstream usage of later generations.

What Han meant by "terrible", I came to interpret as "not quite readable to someone of our generation", judging from his more nuanced analysis in his blog. Television is good at soundbites, and Han has given it something out of context, which it turned around and used for shock value. It was intended for mutual publicity.

We must understand that Han was not offering a complete evaluation of these writers, but just their language skill. Even as many of us disagree with him, we should put his overtly sensational and simplistic statement in perspective. If you use the writing standard of this era, many of the sentences of those writers can indeed be less than mellifluous. But that is to disregard the evolution of a living language. Just imagine someone today who speaks or writes in Elizabethan English, he would be regarded as either a comedian or a lunatic. Nobody would see him as Shakespeare reincarnate.

When worse comes to worst, simply ignore Han. Banning outrageous speech will only choke the conduit of expression. It will never enrich our literature.

Email: raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 06/28/2008 page4)


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