WHISPERS FROM THE EAST

Pankaj Mishra trav­els through China and its near abroad in search of the new Asia

India Today - - LEISURE - By S. Prasan­nara­jan

The red star over China to­day blinds only those sub- ru­ral rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies who call them­selves Maoists, mostly found in the for­est com­munes of In­dia. Their blood­lust, ro­man­ti­cised by the pam­phle­teers of ‘ wretched In­dia’ as the armed des­per­a­tion of the dis­pos­sessed, is ar­guably the last salute to the Chair­man. In the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic it­self, his life is con­fined to the sou­venir shop— or to the aban­doned pages of the lit­tle red book. The post-Mao Chi­nese, the much in­dulged prog­eny of the “cap­i­tal­ist roader” Deng Xiaop­ing, lives in one of the world’s most pros­per­ous coun­tries, a walled repub­lic of plenty where free­dom is still an edited lux­ury. The old to­tal­i­tar­ian pre­tence— “be happy, but don’t ask ques­tions”— still runs deep in China, sus­tained by the pin­striped man­darins of Zhong­nan­hai who need the Lenin­ist party ap­pa­ra­tus to con­trol the con­science of the cit­i­zen. It is a place where so many ideas, not nec­es­sar­ily com­pat­i­ble, are at work. And that to a great ex­tent ex­plains not only China’s nev­erend­ing ar­gu­ment with its own iden­tity but the grow­ing le­gion of tea leaf read­ers from out­side as well. No other coun­try evokes as much awe, ad­mi­ra­tion, fear and in­tel­lec­tual cu­rios­ity as China does.

The most fa­mil­iar idea of China is the one about the fu­ture, an idea that soars, lit­er­ally as well as fig­u­ra­tively. It is about the Great Tomorrow— the Chi­nese Cen­tury as a coun­ter­point to Amer­ica. The new leader, Xi Jin­ping, has al­ready en­er­gised the de­bate about the fu­ture with a catch­phrase: The Chi­nese Dream, an ob­vi­ous echo of the Amer­i­can Dream. Is the new helms­man hint­ing at the pos­si­bil­ity of democ­racy, or what the Chi­nese dis­si­dents call the fifth mod­erni­sa­tion? Is he ac­cept­ing the in­evitable: You can’t for­ever have the du­al­ity of a free mar­ket­place and the fet­tered mind, or, you can’t for­ever sus­tain the ori­en­tal gu­lag be­hind the Great Mall of China? It is in­deed a dar­ing thing for a Chi­nese leader to “dream” the fu­ture. In con­tem­po­rary China, the idea of fu­ture is shaped by an over­whelm­ing sense of the past, which is a mixed text of glory and hu­mil­i­a­tion, of monar­chi­cal en­light­en­ment and western in­sult. In the twenty- first cen­tury China, Con­fu­cius and Adam Smith can co- ex­ist in per­fect har­mony, and ev­ery act of the para­noid state can be ex­plained by au­thor­i­ties as Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tic.

It is into this China, caught be­tween its own idea of the na­tion­al­ist self and the monochro­matic per­cep­tion of the out­sider, that Pankaj Mishra ven­tures. Mishra, thinker, trav­eller and critic, is an im­por­tant In­dian con­trib­u­tor to the cul­tural as well as po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion of our times. He has given the so- called Asian per­spec­tive an in­tel­lec­tual fer­vour ac­cen­tu­ated by a so­phis­ti­cated literary sen­si­bil­ity. In his last book, From the Ru­ins of Em­pire, he sketched the mind of two East­ern thinkers, Ja­mal al- Din al- Afghani ( 1838- 97) and Liang Qichao ( 1873- 1929), who chal­lenged the western in­tru­sion into Asia and the Mid­dle East. “Th­ese early mod­ern Asians stand at the be­gin­ning of the process whereby or­di­nary re­sent­ment against the West and Western dom­i­nance, along with anx­i­ety about in­ter­nal weak­ness and de­cay, was trans­formed into mass na­tion­al­ist and lib­er­a­tion move­ments and am­bi­tious state- build­ing pro­grammes across Asia,” he wrote. A Great Clam­our is not a se­quel; it is nev­er­the­less a log­i­cal ex­ten­sion of that ar­gu­ment to make sense of Asia’s most in­flu­en­tial— and equally com­plex— coun­try. His mis­sion is am­bi­tious: To dis­cover the in­ner life of one of the most-writ­ten- about coun­tries. The si­nol­ogy of

out­siders— for­eign cor­re­spon­dents, travel writ­ers, academics— is only good for “ini­tial po­si­tion­ing”; so Mishra in his “self ed­u­ca­tion” re­fuses to be judg­men­tal about his sub­ject as he dis­cov­ers China of the mind as trav­eller, eaves­drop­per, reader and con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. A Great Clam­our, in that sense, is a med­i­ta­tion on the ideas of China as ar­tic­u­lated by the Chi­nese caught in the whirl of moder­nity and tra­di­tion, of op­pres­sion and op­por­tu­nity.

To get an insight into post- Tianan­men China, for in­stance, Mishra seeks the pages of the self- ex­iled nov­el­ist Ma Jian, au­thor of Red Dust and Bei­jing Coma, “If I do wake up,” one of his char­ac­ters says, “I’d prob­a­bly want to for­get about pol­i­tics and con­cen­trate on liv­ing a happy life.” If only he wakes up. This pas­sage may not be as pow­er­ful as Mi­lan Kun­dera’s “the strug­gle of man against power is the strug­gle of mem­ory against for­get­ting”, but it nev­er­the­less re­flects the state of those who have stepped out of what Xi calls the Chi­nese Dream. Jack­boots and deep pock­ets are the mo­tifs of pol­i­tics in the China of so­cial cap­i­tal­ism, the re­cently con­cluded show trial of Bo Xi­lai, the purged princeling with an Amer­i­can style, be­ing the finest ex­am­ple of Chi­nese power strug­gle. Sabo­teurs of the idyll, whether it is an am­bi­tious in­sider or a mis­chievous artist or a dan­ger­ous blas­phe­mer like the No­bel lau­re­ate Liu Xiaobo, will be si­lenced. Maybe it is then bet­ter not to wake up. Bet­ter still, per­haps, to be a “crit­i­cal in­tel­lec­tual” like Wang Hui of the New Left. They won’t call the lie a lie; they are the dis­si­dents who play safe. One of them, Mo Yan, even won the No­bel for lit­er­a­ture in 2012, much to the de­light of Bei­jing af­ter that “in­sult­ing” peace prize for Liu.

A Great Clam­our is at its best when Mishra is a trav­el­ling con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist whose guide is not the stan­dard his­tory book but the imag­i­na­tion of those Chi­nese who are in a per­ma­nent ar­gu­ment with their in­her­i­tance. Mishra tells us that his book is “an at­tempt at bi­fo­cal­ism: an en­quiry about China and its neigh­bours whose start­ing and end point is, in­evitably, In­dia.” The book, though, has lit­tle space for In­dia, which gets only spo­radic asides. That is fine; af­ter all, in spite of the sub­ti­tle and the last chap­ters on China’s neigh­bours such as Ja­pan, In­done­sia and Malaysia, this is essen­tially a book on China as a coun­try and a con­cept. It is not the thun­der from the East but its whispers that sway Mishra.

SAU­RABH SINGH/

PUDONG DIS­TRICT,

SHANG­HAI

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