Literature Bi Feiyu

A Month in Göttingen
There’s a great project at the Goethe-Institut. Every year a writer from Nanjing and one from Göttingen visit the other’s country. The two "exchange writers" don’t stay in a hotel as tourists, however, but lead a down-to-earth life in the middle of a residential neighbourhood.

I’ve taken part in all sorts of cultural exchanges in the past, but the month in Göttingen was frankly something quite special. I experienced each day there like a real Göttinger. I prepared my meals myself with German cooking utensils and cleaned up with German implements and appliances. I ate German bread, drank German beer and was invited by some young people to a birthday party. I paid visits to a primary school, a middle school and a kindergarten and talked to homeless people. I think that by the time the month was over I had already taken this city into my heart.

To grow fond of something, you have to really open up to it first. To my mind, that’s all cultural exchange is about: you have to open up to it first. If we’re to face up to this world with a modicum of respect, we have to acknowledge that cultural differences are something perfectly natural. It’s essentially the differences that make our world what it is. And yet how do I adapt to these differences? This is the decisive step in cultural exchange.

Plunging into life is of course one of the most effective methods. On the morning of my second day in Göttingen I went into the city. I met a busker in front of a Vodafone shop. He was over sixty years old but his singing was quite ambitious. Since I didn’t understand a word of the song, I asked him whether it was a German folk song. He said yes and told me he was the only singer in Germany who sings in German. He raised one finger for emphasis: "Only one." I couldn’t believe it. How could he possibly be the only one in Germany to sing in German?

It can hardly be denied that pop music the world over nowadays is almost entirely dominated by the English language. In London, Paris, Milan, New York, Zürich and Chengdu, in New Delhi and Hong Kong, you hear buskers warbling songs in English. Against this prevailing backdrop, however, there are always some individuals determined to hold on to their cultural particularities. It’s a paradox: on the one hand, we find ourselves in a state of constant exchange, on the other, we’re constantly defending our parochial interests. And yet this is precisely what gives rise to the most exciting configurations in our world.

This paradox informs my life, too. As a Chinese novelist, it is of course my profound desire to stress my identity as a “Chinese writer". And yet deep down inside I yearn every bit as much to acquire a broader cultural understanding. Can I then find peace as long as two hearts are beating in my breast? There’s a wonderful affirmative answer: yes, I can. For culture is like a plaited bread formed out of both an insistence on tradition and the absorption of new things. Any way you braid it, the bread is bound to smell good.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the Goethe Institut and the Centre for Cultural Exchange at the University of Göttingen for taking great pains to prepare such an original reading for me. A few years ago, a translator named Marc translated my novel 青衣 [“The Moon Goddess”] into German [Die Mondgöttin, translated by Marc Herrmann, Blessing, 2006]. Now a passage from the novel was to be translated back into Chinese. The exercise was quite interesting and worthwhile. First I read the text aloud in Chinese, then the German text was read aloud and in the end the "Chinese translation" was presented. Juxtaposing two different Chinese versions made the fruits of literary translation – one might also say of cultural exchange – visible to us.

The value of this reading became apparent after my presentation, when I discussed the slight discrepancies between the two Chinese versions with German and Chinese students as well as people who’d come from the city. In the example we looked closely at, the language used to describe the banquet in the novel brought out the striking differences between two kinds of “culinary culture”. A German woman who read my novel a few years ago and evidently didn’t understand it, put her finger on it: it wasn’t clear to her at the time that this was a description of a “meal”, she had presumed the description was of a "meeting". I explained to her that a "banquet" in China is simultaneously about politics and business as well as ethics and hierarchy. Those who don’t understand the Chinese "banquet" and its language will never really know China.

Our discussion became increasingly relaxed and we got to talking about language. We’d all noticed an interesting phenomenon. Whereas there were plenty of "le" particles (了) in my original novel, they had all disappeared in the translated Chinese version. As inconspicuous as the little word "le" may seem in Chinese, its mission is key to verbal expression. In Western languages, verbs have a tense and a conjugation. Chinese doesn’t have these linguistic "laws". In my opinion, the grammar of Western languages possesses an academic element, tending more towards science. Chinese, on the other hand, is closer to aesthetics. It is less strict, which is precisely what accounts for its charm and fascination. A tiny "le" can serve to express not only that something is "completed in the present", but also that something was "completed in the past". In Chinese, in other words, a lot more resonates between the lines and the language is remarkably elastic. For these reasons we may not be able to produce a Kant or Hegel, but Chinese civilization enriched humanity over two thousand years ago with a Laozi (老子) and a Zhuangzi (庄子,莊子).

The Goethe-Institut keeps doing its work. It’s clear to me that young and even younger generations will keep the exchange going. And yet will the different cultures keep coalescing over the course of future exchange? Or will they throw their idiosyncrasies into starker reliefdistinctive? I confess I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m willing to admit I find this uncertainty wonderful and fascinating. I like to see myself as a reader of the German-Chinese cultural exchange and I’ll go on following it page by page.

  •  Reader Talk with Bi Feiyu in Göttingen ©German-Chinese Institute for Intercultural German Studies and Culture Comparison at the University of Göttingen
    Reader Talk with Bi Feiyu in Göttingen
  •  Reader Talk with Bi Feiyu in Göttingen ©German-Chinese Institute for Intercultural German Studies and Culture Comparison at the University of Göttingen
    Reader Talk with Bi Feiyu in Göttingen

Bi Feiyu (毕飞宇), (b. 1964 in Xinghua (兴化), Jiangsu Province) is a renowned writer and professor at Nanjing University. He graduated in 1987 from Yangzhou Teachers’ College, Department of Chinese Language and Literature, where he then taught for five years. He also lectured at the Nanjing School of Special Education and worked as a journalist for the Nanjing daily, and was named professor emeritus at Nanjing University in 2013. His novel Seeing Hands (推拿) won the 8th Mao Dun Literary Prize, Woman in the Nursing Phase (哺乳期的女人) won the renowned Lu Xun Short Story Award, and his novel Three Sisters (玉米) was awarded the Lu Xun Literary Prize and Man Asian Literary Prize. Other major works by Bi are The Moon Opera (青衣), Pingyuan (平原) and The Panicky Finger (慌乱的指头).

English translations:
“The Ancestor.” Tr. John Balcom. In Howard Goldblatt, ed., Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today’s China. NY: Grove Press, 1995, 215-28. Rpt. in New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories in Chinese. Ed. John Balcolm. NY: Penguin Books, 2013, 33-62.
“The Deluge.” Tr. Eric Abrahamsen. Pathlight: New Chinese Writing (Summer 2013). Rpt in Pathlight (bilingual edition) (2016): 74-97.
Massage. Tr. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin. Penguin, 2016.
“Memory is Unreliable.” Tr. Zhang Xiaopeng. Chinese Literature Today (Summer 2010): 11-12.
The Moon Opera. Tr. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin. London: Telegram Books, 2007.
“A Professional Interest in Suffering: A Conversation with Bi Feiyu.” Tr. Bryan Davis. Pathlight: New Chinese Writing (Summer 2013).
Three Sisters. Trs. Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
“Wang Village and the World.” Tr. Eric Abrahamsen. Chinese Literature Today (Summer 2010): 6-10.