In the Shadow of Oxymoron

Xi Chuan  is a Chinese  poet, essayist, and translator.  He has published numerous poetry collections, including A Fictitious Family Tree (1997) and Selected Poems of Xi Chuan, 1986-1996 (2002), in addition to two essay volumes, one book of criticism, a play, and translations of works by Pound, Borges, and Miłosz, among others. The recipient of many literary awards in China and abroad, he has held various international appointments, including New York University and the University of Victoria, Canada.  He teaches Classical and Modern Chinese Literature at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Contemporary China, Xi Chuan insists, is a site of paradoxes. In the essay below, written originally (in English) for a symposium the IWP organized in Paros, Greece, on the topic of Home/Land Xi Chuan introduces this wonderland of complementary contradictions to a global audience. A leading avant-garde poet writing during an era of rapid commercialization, he uses poetic devices instead of trite sociology to reflect upon the various cultural and political phenomena manifested in the People’s Republic of China throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Under the banner of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it is money that talks while political slogans are rendered impotent. The marriage of socialism and capitalism has spawned knock-offs of everything from Louis Vuitton wallets to near-replicas of Apple and Ikea stores; in this “realm of fictitious reality,” sometimes the fakes surpass the originals, and even beggars can’t do without cell phones.

-- Jennifer Feeley

                               In the Shadow of Oxymoron 

According to Collins Dictionary of the English Language, “oxymoron” means an epigrammatic effect in which contradictory terms are yoked together. In A Glossary of Literary Terms, the American critic M. H. Abrams says, “if the paradoxical utterance conjoins two terms that in ordinary usage are contraries, it is called an oxymoron.” He cites examples such as John Milton’s “Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear,” from Paradise Lost, and says it is “a frequent figure in devotional prose and religious poetry as a way of expressing the Christian mysteries, which transcend human sense and logic.” If we are not so religious, does it mean that all things that “transcend human sense and logic” need an oxymoron to be expressed? The following questions arise: to what scale does Adams’ “human sense” pertain, and whose “logic” does he speak of?

Oxymoron, a linguistic term. But can we use it in a social sense? I feel an urgent need to widen the boundary of this word because I am from China, and the modern Chinese experience, which always “transcend[s] human sense and logic” yet follows its own sense and logic, shows a preference for paradox and oxymoron. In the late 1940s, Chairman Mao, describing the nature of the oncoming socialist system, invented a term: “the people’s democratic dictatorship.” A dictatorship was going to happen, but it should belong to the people, and relate to democracy. Is this political term difficult to understand? In the late 1970s, after the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Deng Xiaoping invented another term for the Chinese socialism: “Socialism, Chinese style.” Obviously a revisionist term, it points forward to the concept of “socialist market economy,” another distinctly socialist oxymoron. Taking its lead from this oxymoron, China has experienced a rapid growth in economy in the last 30 years.

An Indian poet once asked me whether the success of today’s Chinese market economics owes much to Marxism. To be honest, I don’t have a definite answer. Marx was hostile to the capitalist market, of course, but Marxism brought an egalitarianism to China which itself laid a foundation for a ready acceptance of economic reforms. But is Chinese Marxism really a full-strength Marxism? Guo Moruo (1892-1978), one of the founding fathers of the new Chinese literature and, from the 1950s on, its most famous hack, wrote in 1941 an essay entitled “Marx Has Entered the Confucian Temple,” satirizing the Chinese’s acceptance of Marxism. In it Marx and Confucius meet in a shabby Confucian temple and, to their surprise, find that they share their main points of view—a harmonious society, mutual love, communism, etc—with just one exception: Confucius is in favor of one husband with many wives, whereas Marx prefers one husband with one wife, a Christian attitude. We know this is a joke, but Guo’s meaning is clear: Chinese Marxism is located in the shadow of an oxymoron, with Marxism as one end-pole, Confucianism at the other. Now capitalism comes as the third end. All these three ends, or four ends, or five ends, embrace each other and make something wonderful, and funny.

 For instance: the Chinese population is made up by 56 ethnicities, and the government has in general been kind to the so-called “national minorities.” But maybe because it is an unbearable task to add further anthropologic distinctions, the government decided in the 1990s that China does not need any more ethnic groups. From then on, nobody has been allowed to claim to belong to a new ethnic group; regardless of ethnicity, everyone also has to obey the one-couple-one-child policy, a rule devised initially for the Han people making up more than 90% of China’s population. Another point: although we have 56 ethnicities, people are not so interested in being multi-cultural. Instead, what you usually find in China is the effort to integrate in terms of national affairs—a stance that comes right down from the First Emperor of Qin (259-210 BC). The latest in integration: since political slogans are becoming less influential, many people have turned to thinking that money is something very good.

Next example: China has the world’s biggest population of internet and cell-phone users. Recently I found a picture on the internet showing a street beggar using a cell-phone. The picture was taken in Shenzhen, a city neighboring Hong Kong. This exciting situation leads ordinary people in the direction of several different realms: 1) the realm of free information and free expression, the strengthening of grass-root culture; 2) the realm of fictitious reality, where people can enjoy distractions; 3) the realm of no-copyright, where people can examine the boundary between socialism and capitalism, between good and evil. In the warm spring of computer viruses, dirty words, and language violence, the Chinese people are enjoying unprecedented freedom. Meanwhile, the government is trying to exercise control—for the sake of social stability and so on. Political culture is looking down on political economy.

 Some thirty years ago, people said that in China “left is right and right is wrong.” And now, to live in the shadow of oxymoron means to live in embarrassment; it means to enjoy absurd happiness. Yet to speak in oxymorons means that you are a person who is not understandable. I am not using words like “contradiction,” because contradictions are to be blended and eventually dissolved, whereas the social oxymoron is the reality. Yes, I do know concepts such as freedom, justice, love, privacy, equality, democracy, the literati, the elites, etc. But these quasi-saturated concepts are stronger and more popular. The reason why things are going the way they are lies probably in the fact that overdone revolution has met half-done modernization. It may also derive from a geographic condition: although China is big, three fifths of its territory consist of mountains and plateaus unsuitable for agriculture. You have to learn to go with this natural condition, in the name of mercy. Even Confucius knew that. Life is ambiguous and uncertain, while the social oxymoron calls for wild smiles and spiritual blindness, so that a person with spirit will be equipped to reach in and explore the secret core of history—if one really exists.

 In 2004, a law of Private Ownership of Fortunes was officially passed in China. But whether one can really own his or her apartment or house remains in question. As for land, or buildings on the land, in theory you cannot own it privately because in theory China is a country with a system of public ownership even while it practices market economy. Here we can see clearly the oxymoron-like nature of the Chinese society: market economy on the one hand, public ownership on the other. Even if you built the house with your own hands, you can only rent it for possession for a maximum period of 70 years. After the limit of 70 years, the law asks you to re-rent it. In the formulation of the sociologist Fei Xiaotong, the Chinese social structure, supported by vertical relationships, is totally different from the Western social structure, supported by horizontal relationships. So if a Chinese is not able to pass on his fortune to his or her offspring, he or she has to disperse it in other ways—good or bad.

And since China is a secular country, for the Chinese there is no Other China or Utopian China. There is no other way to go. To live the life of oxymoron is something one must study one’s entire life. If you try to understand China from one perspective alone, you are bound to fail.

Jennifer Feeley teaches modern Chinese literature in the Department of Asian and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Iowa.