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The yin and yang worlds of a Chinese literary outlier


I don’t know if Wang Xiaobo had his essays in mind when he spoke of “literature.” For a long time, and even to this day, many readers still think his essays are better written than his fiction, a comment he took as an insult. In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” he says essays are no more than talking sense — you see the sense there, and you go ahead and talk about it. Fiction, on the other hand, requires a deep understanding of the beauty of invention and a talent to make something out of nothing; he would rather focus on fiction and do it well. But as a human being, he recognizes a need to take moral responsibility and talk sense at certain times, when he can’t hold himself back.

The concept of yin and yang can be applied to Wang’s writing as well. Generally speaking, consciousness might be considered yang, and subconsciousness considered yin; logic is yang, and art is yin; reason is yang, and irrationality is yin. Talking sense and distinguishing right from wrong are conducted at the conscious and logical level; thus, in the realm of yang. Wang Xiaobo’s fiction presents a world that is much darker and more complex, filled with details and images from the subconscious that recreate the strangely familiar and absurdly irrational “reality” of an authoritarian world, whether past, present, or future. As his editor Lǐ Jìng 李静 once wrote, Wang used essays to express his “beliefs” and fiction to sustain his “doubts,” an observation that brilliantly summarizes the major difference between his essays and fiction. In his essays, we see a witty and humorous Wang Xiaobo who has full confidence in humanity’s reason and knowledge; but in his fiction, pessimistic and gloomy clouds are always lingering, the shadow of death looms large, and many scenes remind people of the surreal world in Salvador Dali’s paintings.

Perhaps the best example to illustrate Wang’s unique, subversive understanding of the yin-yang concept is his novella My Yin and Yang World. The narrator of the story is named Wang Er (literally, Wang No. 2), a casual, symbolic name used for most of Wang’s protagonists in fiction. A technician at a Beijing hospital in late ’80s, Wang Er’s wife divorces him because of his yangwei, or “the shrinking of yang” — i.e., impotence. To avoid ridicule and embarrassment, he moves to the basement of the hospital and lives the life of an outcast, amid junk from different clinical departments and samples of deceased body parts. Quiet and eccentric in his colleagues’ eyes, Wang Er is not all that unhappy about his solitary, underground life. For one thing, he is free of the obligations to attend endless political meetings and study sessions; for another, he is left alone and can indulge himself in activities that seem useless in others’ eyes, such as writing stories that lead him nowhere but into trouble, translating Story of O over and again, a novel that would never get published in China. He calls the time he lives in the basement the “soft period” of his life. During the hard period of his life he lives in the light, and during the soft period he lives in the shadow — these are his yin and yang worlds. He finds that human history can also be divided into yin and yang periods. He quotes what Arnold J. Toynbee says in A Study of History, which Wang Er uses as a textbook for learning English: “Mr. Toynbee says: human history is divided into two states of yin and yang. During the yin state, mankind scatters around the world and lives a primitive, unexamined life of sleeping after eating and eating after sleeping. Later mankind gathers along some river valleys and plains and lives a gregarious life, from which civilizations arise and thus come all the troubles. Like that, my life also has had two states of hard and soft, closely resembling the two worlds of yin and yang.”

It happens that there is a similar character in the story: a much older man, Mr. Li, who also lives in the world of yin. Originally a Russian translator, he later quits his job and devotes all his energy to the study of the Tangut language from the Western Xia dynasty, an endangered language that the country has no use for and people have no need to understand. Unwanted and unemployed, Mr. Li also suffers from public humiliation and his neighbors’ intrusion into his privacy, just as Wang Er suffers the intrusion of his work unit and colleagues. Because of that, Mr. Li regards Wang Er as one of his kind, saying, “From the beginning of the creation, there were two kinds of people in the world: one is our kind, and the other is not our kind. Nowadays there are still two kinds of people in the world. In the future there will continue to have these two.” “We” are the ones who live for what “we” want, and “they” are the ones who live for what “they” should want. In a word, “they” want to live a life that is pre-defined and pre-designed by others.

The idea of yin-yang here reminds me of the yin-yang hairstyle popular during the Cultural Revolution, forced on “Five Blacks” and “Cow demons and snake spirits,” the perceived class enemies of the revolution and the Party. To shame these enemies in public, young Red Guards would shave half their heads and leave the other half unshaven, giving this style of haircut its name: yin-yang. Sun is yang and moon is yin; hot is yang and cold is yin; white is yang and black is yin. My Yin and Yang World also reminds me of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The narrator, an unnamed young Black man, has experienced erasure and invisibility numerous times in his life and lives in an underground manhole. Like Wang Er, Ellison’s invisible man is abandoned by the society of yang and lives in the world of yin. And like Wang Er, he finds freedom and comfort in his underground life and enjoys his lack of social interactions. Both protagonists write stories and want to live their lives free of control, oppression, and humiliation. While the invisible man loves light and writes about his own life, Wang Er enjoys night and darkness, and we don’t know what he writes about. Wang Er is certainly not an angst-laden character in search of his identity; his self-sufficiency and philosophical sense of life gives him almost a Daoist approach, although not in a traditional sense.

Perhaps people in China are seeking in Wang Xiaobo something they lack.

There is a mirror-image quality about Wang Er’s fiction, in which yin and yang need to be perceived as reversed. For instance, the traditional theory of yin-yang claims that men are yang and women are yin, but in “My Yin and Yang World,” both Wang Er and Mr. Li are passive males depicted as the embodiment of the yin energy, and Xiao Sun, the young woman gynecologist, is dynamic and self-assured, full of the positive energy of yang. Toynbee refers to human life at its pre-civilized, uncultivated stage as the yin-state, but both Wang Er and Mr. Li want to live a cultivated life in pursuit for knowledge and creativity. People usually think the yang world is full of sunshine and happiness, as opposed to the dark, suffering life in the yin world. But in the story, the yang world aboveground is a space where everything is controlled by authority and individuals hardly have any freedom. The life in the underworld of yin is free and calm. There, Wang Er can fart freely, translate forbidden books, and write stories at will. In the context of Wang Xiaobo’s fictional works, the world of yin is a freer, more desirable place to live than the one of yang.

Eventually in the novella, thanks to the tenacious efforts of that young gynecologist Xiao Sun, who inhabits the borderline of the yin-yang worlds and can travel freely between the two, Wang Er cures his impotence and has no reason to continue living in the basement. He returns to the yang world aboveground, marries Xiao Sun, and leads a normal but constrained life. The ending seems to suggest that the freedom in the yin world, however limited and latent, has its cost. Wang Er can only live a free underground life in a compromised state of undernourished yang. There is no real solution to the dilemma except for traveling back and forth between the two worlds.

Twenty-four years have passed since Wang Xiaobo’s death in 1997, yet the Chinese public’s passion for this literary outlier has only grown stronger and deeper with each year, a phenomenon that still puzzles many readers and critics. Why would so many readers in China love a writer so uncharacteristic of China? Every time I wonder about this question, I can’t help but think of a comment made by professor and critic Ài Xiǎomíng 艾晓明, who was among the few scholars to first recognize Wang Xiaobo’s literary and intellectual value and remained a dedicated promoter of his writings. In her afterword to the memoir that she and Wang Xiaobo’s widow Li Yinhe co-edited, The Romantic Knight: Remembering Wang Xiaobo, Ai Xiaoming quotes an idea about books from Jorge Luis Borges to explain the Wang Xiaobo phenomenon. In his essay “On the Cult of Books,” Borges writes of how each country chooses to be represented by a book that is usually not characteristic of the country. For instance, Shakespeare is undoubtedly the most famous English author, yet none of the typical English characteristics of reserve and reticence are found in him. Shakespeare flows like a great river and abounds in hyperbole and metaphor. In Goethe’s case, while Germans are easily roused to fanaticism, Goethe is a very tolerant man who even greets Napoleon, the notorious invader to his own country. Borges concludes that it seems as if each country looks for a form of antidote in the author it chooses.

Perhaps people in China are seeking in Wang Xiaobo something they lack. His rationality and emphasis on individuality, his pursuit of knowledge for the pure pleasure of thinking, his playfulness and dark humor all offer something like an antidote to China, a country characterized by its practical and collective mentality, obedience to authorities, and a tendency to be “easily roused to fanaticism.”

With nationalism and fanaticism on the rise today, China needs an antidote like Wang Xiaobo more than ever.



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