WHISPERS FROM THE EAST
Pankaj Mishra travels through China and its near abroad in search of the new Asia
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.