Literary pleasure, Chinese cultural text and the ‘struggle against forgetting.’

Books from heaven: literary pleasure, Chinese cultural text and the ‘struggle against forgetting.’

Yao Souchou

The straggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Milan Kundera


Living in Singapore, I first discovered Xu Bing’s Tian Shu or A Book from the Sky not at the local gallery but, reasonably enough, from the cover of an international journal, Public Culture.(2) After its first showing in Beijing in October 1988, Tian Shu has since gone to the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Italy at the 1993 Venice Biennale. It is probably the most famous work of Chinese contemporary art in the West at the moment. One wonders what quaint and peculiar feelings are called up in Western viewers in the galleries where it is shown. The issue of reading arises here because of the specific ‘language’ of the work which is unmistakably drawn from Chinese cultural tradition and literary form. Well written exhibition catalogues no doubt help to guide a non-Chinese viewer through the strange geography of ‘heavenly’ signs and signatures made by an artist whose concerns are anything but with the immortal realm. On this occasion, I feel a strong urge to privilege my own reading. Xu Bing’s work speaks powerfully to me and it does so, as Roberts (1992:125) suggests, to one who was brought up on Chinese classics and Western semiotics. If I place myself within this group of people, I do so not to measure my scholarly credentials or cosmopolitanism. Rather, to be reminded of such a pedagogic experience is to enter the bitter contemplation of things which evoke a sense of personal uncertainty, cultural dislocation, and the destiny of nations which have made the moulding of their citizens a part of the enterprise of nationalism. It is this contemplation which makes it hard for me to respond to A Book from the Sky in any straightforward way. There is undoubtedly pleasure: a distinctive literary jouissance from engaging with a work immaculately laboured and crafted, and at the same time, deconstructive of literary form and practice at the centre of an ancient civilisation which still works its best and worst on its people. But it is a pleasure that only comes from a particular enactment of desire. In following every move of Xu Bing’s intricate discursive steps and cultural concerns, we turn the work into one of private contemplation of our selves.

Xu Bing was a former lecturer in print-making in the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, who left China in 1990 a year after Tiananmen and has since then been living and working in the United States. In the 1980s he spent three years carving more than four thousand characters on wood blocks. From these he produced with a traditional press a series of scrolls and books which were then bound and mounted in a number of ways. They are glued on notice boards like the ‘big character posters’ (da zi bao) found in China, hung from the ceiling like an ancient scroll of Buddhist script, or simply bound in traditional book form.

Tian Shu has an index and glossary, and will come with an ISBN number when it is published as a regular book (Lee 1992:165). What is remarkable is that the characters in these elaborately crafted works in fact do not exist among the thousands of Chinese words in use. They are meaningless script, made up of recognisable radicals or parts of Chinese words which the artist ‘arbitrarily’ put together to give them the appearance of standard Chinese characters. The work is therefore an elaborate conceit. And as a conceit, Tian Shu is most powerful when we see it, to borrow a phrase from Benjamin in his treatment of the baroque tragedy, ‘not merely as a sign of what is to be known but (as) . . . in itself an object worthy of knowledge’ (1977:184). Like the seventeenth century Trauerspiel which achieves ‘transcendence’ through the ‘world of written language (that remains) self-sufficient and intent on the display of its own substance’ (1977:201), Tian Shu moves resolutely from form to meaning in one moment, and back in another. In these movements, both form and meaning never loose their respective integrity in a seductive dance with the other. The work is intriguingly dialectical. For the aesthetic form is no mere shell only to capture and then liberate Xu Bing’s critical intention. Indeed the laboriously crafted work, in giving immaculate attention to detail and formal calligraphic conventions, assumes an identity of its own which words like ‘metaphor’ – or worse – ‘imitation’ cannot convey. Thus failing to be enslaved by the work’s signification, the formal materiality of Tian Shu perches on a cliff overlooking a deep yet bridgeable gulf: and here, script and motif, words and meaning – to elicit Benjamin again speaking of another concern – ‘confront each other in tense polarity’ (1977:201).


The affirmation of this dialectic makes possible, and at the same stroke, hampers an easy reading of Tian Shu. As a cultural critique, the work’s power is immensely subtle. Through the creating of the ‘heavenly words’, a ‘nonsense’ is injected into a cultural product that is the pride of an ancient civilisation. Lee comments on Xu Bing’s work: ‘The continuity from the sense/nonsense of the individual characters to that of the cultural products made up of them is seen as a systematic deconstruction of the written word and a denial of Chinese culture, a criticism of the politics of the Chinese nation-state, whose bureaucracies have inundated and controlled everyday life in a meaningless yet systematic fashion’ (1992:165-66). Roberts too sees Tian Shu as ‘a powerful negation of Chinese officialdom, history and literature . . . and a culture that prides itself on a long history that is largely based on information that has been handed down via text’ (1992:125, emphasis added).

If Tian Shu indeed ‘deconstructs’ and ‘negates’, its critical force is primarily located in the realm of its aesthetic form. For striking about the work is the very feasibility of an apparently simple deceit, by an artist’s making up at will a classical text and lexicons which for a moment, stand real. To a person brought up in an educational system in which the reading and writing of calligraphy is a major part, such an aesthetic sleight of hand is both intriguing and frustrating. That such an illusion can be so easily conjured up, a civilisation’s past so casually brought to the surface

through art and its making, is a powerful indictment of a culture and its dominant discourse. The result is to afford Chinese classical culture a sense of profound ambivalence.

Here we immediately encounter a major difficulty. As a project of cultural critique, I suggest, Tian Shu could not have done its work without observing the protocol of form – we are back in Benjamin’s territory. For it is only through the immaculate adherence to Chinese calligraphic form and the resurrection of a traditional aesthetics, that Xu Bing is able to break a crack in Chinese culture in order to show its living death. This is the deep irony of Xu Bing’s work. Much of the pleasure we have from Tian Shu lies in its elaborate reproduction of classical form, as if the artist has set out to dazzle and impress with his skill and cultural knowledge. However the validation of classical form is instantly followed by a gentle treachery of its dismissal through the very ‘nonsense’ of the work. There is pleasure in this too. When targetting an educated Chinese audience, the work’s double-move offers the viewer an almost masochistic delight that comes from an erection of aesthetic desire that is shown, just at the split moment of its glory, to be a futile absurdity. So what is one to do with a cultural critique that insists on an observation of traditional form, and on giving pleasure by pampering the viewer’s cultivated skill of literary recognition? This is the profound ambivalence of Xu Bing’s work. For in this crossing over between sense and nonsense, familiarity and betrayal, literary recognition and the shock of foreignness, Tian Shu seems to decry its own critical posture.

An aesthetic form, as Benjamin so brilliantly argues, always claims a life of its own apart from its role in the embodiment of meaning. What both Benjamin and Xu Bing’s work opens up is a general problem facing every project of cultural critique: the problem of transgressing the ‘language’ with which we frame our inquiry, a ‘language’ centrally implicated in the reproduction of power and hegemony. It may be argued that in regard to Tian Shu, the immaculate erection of classical aesthetic form is already a validation of the cultural tradition the work attempts to destablise. This strategic deployment, whether Xu Bing wishes it or not, calls up complex and seductive cultural memories that cannot be easily done away with by the gesture of critical denial. The gentle complicity of Xu Bing opens up Tian Shu to a wider semantic field, to a complex of cultural associations and thus, to a more insidious inscription of desire.

If Tian Shu strikes a note in those whose pedagogic experience has nurtured in them the desire for and pleasure in Chinese classical texts, it also reminds them of the repertoire of ‘nonsense’ scripts in Chinese society. Tian Shu keeps company with other nonsensical writings. I think of Nu Shu: an esoteric script by women to express their inner world of feminine friendship, patriarchal repression and domestic practicalities (Silber 1994, Zhao 1990). In a book of Nu Shu from Kan Yan district, in southern Hunan, the coded writing is used by women for recording ritual performances, celebrating ‘sisterhood’ formed outside the family, and above all, for she ku or ‘telling bitterness’ by ‘old women especially widows who after some calamities, or in a state of unbearable loneliness, try to shaken off their memories and sorrow’ (Zhao 1990:19). The parallel of Tian Shu, as Stone (1994) has pointed out, can also be found in the ‘wild grass’ style of Chinese calligraphy where the exuberant and idiosyncratic style is to be enjoyed for its formal beauty. Closer to anthropological interest are ‘heavenly words’ invented by Chinese secret societies like the Tian Ti Hui (‘Heaven and Earth Lodge’) to incarnate its shadowy world of arcane rituals and violent brotherhood (Schlegal 1991, Ward and Stirling 1993, and Davis 1977). Fu or charm papers filled with nonsense characters encoded with Chinese astrological principles were dispensed to the faithful to give them magical power and protection.

For those who have visited a Chinese temple in China or Southeast Asia, there are more familiar examples of fu. These are ‘heavenly scripts’ offered by temple priests, often written in blood from some act of self-mutilation – cutting the tongue or slicing the back with a sword – while in a trance. Other scripts of this kind are found in ritual papers for burning to appease the dead (Elliot 1955).

In all these forms, fu is recognisable by its stylistic elaboration and formalistic license. They are built on, but never erase, the familiar words of the secular world. The sign of being ‘not of this world’ is written by the dialectical coupling of sense and nonsense. And this sign in which both social recognition and its denial make their mark, is a call to heaven: it is for gods’ eyes only and its particular nonsense shields it from mundane human understanding (Saso 1974). Enmeshed in a world of esoteric ritual and bloodletting, fu characters come to nestle in the home of an ‘absolute language’. In the way Bakhtin (1981) describes it, an ‘absolute language’ is semantically bounded and self-referential, a language that speaks only to itself or to another absolute language. Fu characters as much as the nonsense words of Nu Shu, are similarly coded linguistic signs unified by their social secrecy and ritual usage. However esoteric they are, these nonsense writings nonetheless claim a place in the social order of things. Just as fu gestures a supplication to the spirit by an anxious mortal world, Tian Shu must call up a culture’s aesthetic repertoire in order to interrogate its evil and achievement. Just as fu characters are signs for the heavenly realm and yet of this world, Xu Bing’s imaginary words must reach back and wrestle with China’s cultural past in order to interrogate the present.


What Tian Shu illustrates is the specific problem of a critical engagement carried out within a culture’s own social and linguistic framing. That is why the work has to resurrect the particular cultural edifice in order to show its hegemonic intent, an edifice which continues to live on even after the invidious splitting of its enduring historicity and ideological imbeddedness has been done.

Then there is the question of desire. In the very moment they facilitate the making of political ideology, cultural forms offer crucial resources for the making of ourselves and our community. Culture is always double-edged. A critical erasure of culture will have to contend with our investment in its existential possibilities and no less importantly, promises of pleasure. Cultural forms and values become, in short, invested with desire which pushes them beyond the normal limits of their significance. Culture’s journey from pleasure to desire is one that traverses a strange and boundless geography of longing; in Lacan’s words:

Pleasure limits the scope of human possibility – the pleasure principle is a principle of homeostasis. Desire on the other hand finds it boundary, its strict relation, its limit, and it is in relation to this limit that it is sustained as such, crossing the threshold imposed by the pleasure principle (1979:31).

If the power of cultural form lies in its promise of pleasure, a pleasure that ironically comes from a promise always falling short of delivery, then critical erasure of culture too has to be ‘delayed’ in order to carve out a space from which pleasure and fulfilment can be harvested. Is it then this ‘delaying in critical erasure’ which tracks Tian Shu’s double movement of cultural affirmation and denial? And how do we locate the formation of this desire? Committed to the intellectual liberalisation of the post-Mao era, and living then in Beijing, Xu Bing engaged his critique very much ‘within’ China. Of his choice of 4000 words in Tian Shu, he said in an interview with Christina Davidson in Sydney in June 1993:

You talk about it being a critique. I think it is. I created about 4,000 words. Why 4,000 words? Because Chinese government publications often use about 4,000 words. This is the number of commonly used words in Chinese newspapers and official texts. . . . The Chinese government doesn’t like my work too much now because the government doesn’t like the people thinking too much (1994:520).

The meditation on the ‘numerical weight’ of Chinese characters in use recalls the harsh critique of the ‘structural tyranny’ of Chinese pictograms and their immobilising effects on Chinese thought (Zhang 1985).(3) And he points to the specificity of his work when he explains to an American interviewer:

In China, because of a very particular cultural and political background, because of their particular experiences, artists feel that there are things they have to do . . . Rebellion must have a target. . . . As a result, Chinese artists think about larger questions, they try to do more with their art (Taylor 1993: 324-25).

The statement and Xu Bing’s project generally underline the dramatic political and ideological shift of post-Mao China. From its first exhibition in Beijing’s China Art Gallery in October 1988, Tian Shu with its bitter and ironic intervention of Chinese culture and politics has helped to reflect the alienation among the Chinese students and intellectuals whose demands for change culminated in the Tiananmen demonstration of June 1989.(4) Just as the students in Tiananmen, for all their attraction to Western liberal ideas and symbols, wanted a democracy for and within China, the desire that underpins Xu Bing’s work still arises from a cultural/national concern.

And this concern stirs up dreams and wishes that go back to the tumultuous history of the struggle for modern China – from Kang Youwie’s reform at the end of the Qing Dynasty to the May Fourth Movement of 1919.(5) The major agendas of May Fourth established the intellectual heritage of Chinese cultural critique. Faced with Japanese imperial ambition in Northeast China, an ambition condoned by Western powers, and China’s own immobility under a corrupt and inexperienced government, it was necessary for the brilliant men and women of the time to seek radical erasure of all that they perceived to be the roots of China’s problems. They wanted reform or more frequently, outright rejection of institutions of the feudal past – parental control, arranged marriage, concubinage, and bound feet for women – and significantly, replacing classical literary form with vernacular Chinese (bai hua, or ‘plain speech’) as the tool for expressing modern thoughts and feelings (Schwarz 1986).(6) But the concern for cultural renewal and self-liberation that carried over from the New Culture Movement of 1917 was overshadowed by an even more pressing issue of ‘saving the nation’ (jiu guo). Jiu guo politicised the pursuit of modernity and Westernisation, a pursuit best summarised by the slogan ‘The West for the essence, China for the application’, the planting in Chinese soil of Western ideas for China’s use, So the central issues of May Fourth as much as Tiananmen were intensely national. They were concerned with reworking China’s past – weighed down by turbid cultural forms and corrupt bureaucracy and leadership – in order to move the nation to a modern political future.

It may be argued that Xu Bing’s work, far from being an invalidation of Chinese culture, is a subtle resonance of this historical project. As with Chinese writers in the 1920s and 1930s, writers like Lu Xun, Lao She, Xu Zhimo and many others who drew inspiration from Dickens, Flaubert, Gorky and Turgenev in order to comment on China’s tragic realities at the time (Spence 1982: chs 2-4); nationalist/cultural longing can be seen as centrally implicating Xu Bing’s project. What else are we to make of Tian Shu’s dialectic coupling of critical gesture with conservative observation of form? The result, as I have suggested, is a distinctive muting of the radical denial of Chinese culture that the work implies. Xu Bing’s complicity becomes even more palpable when we turn to another feature of his work. This is the resurrection of pleasure from a literary form that has been exemplary of scholarly achievement in Chinese society even today. This pleasure offers, through a sensuous pampering of desire, a powerful affirmation of a traditional literary skill and the social status of those who have acquired it. For them, the effect of Tian Shu is to evoke through its cultural imagining, a ‘literary community’. It is a ‘community’ based on a common pedagogic experience, a knowledge/power coming from the ability to recognise and understand Chinese literary form as a cultural trope. The sense of ‘membership’ may be only a vague feeling of a shared (Chinese) cultural knowledge and identity. But it is no less effective in embracing those in the know, and excluding others outside the bond of discursive knowledge and social experience.


These are interesting issues that only a work of power and sophistication can raise. However I must confess that what first attracted me to Xu Bing’s work was its evocation of something personal, something about the nature of literary pleasure and its betrayal, something about the elusive sense of ‘being Chinese’ that I have always felt. Tian Shu speaks to me in a language – almost a private code – that echoes my own diasporic longing. Like Xu Bing, however stringent I have been in my criticism of the repressive horrors of Chinese classical culture, I find it hard within myself to let it go. The undeniable literary pleasure, and the culture’s imbeddedness in my sense of self, would encourage me to situate the allure of Chinese classical texts in the realm of desire. And this allure has a psychic reality that neither critical necessity nor ideological consideration can easily renounce. Xu Bing’s project, it seems to me, brilliantly lights up the shadow in the hearts of those who, through whatever tortuous ways, still consider China ‘home’.

I like to think of this desire, not in terms of some foundational and universalising Freudian unconscious, but as something capable of admitting the dialectics of social experience and political unconscious – a return to a certain moment in Althusser’s ideological imaginary (1971). Through its discursive circularity – via the affirmation of a traditional aesthetic form and the silent referencing to other ‘nonsensical’ scripts in the Chinese cultural repertoire, Tian Shu becomes significantly contingent. If Tian Shu can be positioned as a nationalist project, it is one that insists on the validity of traditional cultural form and the pleasure it gives. For me, speaking from a different experience of social and national (dis)location, the nature of this politics is about the right to claim a space in which Chinese classical texts still have a place. Above all, the contestation has to be against the fetishised manipulation of the state which turns ‘culture’ into an obscene object of economic and ideological instrumentality.

There is of course the danger of revisionism here. For the hegemony of Chinese classical texts and the feudal crimes of the country’s past are so self-evident to a progressive discourse that anything less than a total opposition will be deemed guilty of complicity. Radical critiques of Chinese traditional culture, from the eager voices of the May Fourth Movement to the violent responses of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, have always carried powerful ideological forces that demand their privileged reading. There the repressive workings of tradition – patriarchy, feudalism, authoritarianism, and statism – are invariably brought up to show the devasting works of tradition and culture. In these discourses, something so spectacularly diverse, something that calls up dramatically different histories, is settled within a terrain of Fixed referents. In spite of our ideological sympathy, the exercise is suggestive of essentialism. When a critical project reifies Chinese culture into a static field of signifieds, it ironically repeats the same structures of power and knowledge that historically enabled the cultural texts to do their evil worst. For it is also the deployment of essentialism that has inscribed Chinese tradition (solely) in terms of the moral privilege of parental and state authority, and the ethical necessity of submission by the weak.

This is the dilemma facing us in Singapore. Chinese classic text, in the form of Confucianism, is at the centre of the production of a powerful state discourse (Chua 1995, Wee 1993). What takes place is a violent grafting of contemporary relevance onto the ancient philosophy. In the 1970s, Singaporeans were applauded by the State for their individualism because such ‘a keen self-centredness . . . motivated them to work hard in their struggle to survival’ (Chua 1995:27). However by the 1980s and 1990s, economic growth and urban consumption had so reshaped the attitudes of Singaporeans that a collectivist state ideology has to be promoted to rescue the nation from the fate of ‘deculturalisation’ and ‘moral disintegration’. Confucianism, first taught as a part of the moral education in school in the 1980s(7) has been reinvented as a prophylactic against decline in economic competitiveness and Westernisation to which the largely English speaking population are particular vulnerable. ‘Political signifiers, especially those that designate subject position’, Butler writes, ‘are not descriptive; that is, they do not represent pregiven constituencies, but are empty signs which come to bear phantasmatic investments of various kinds’ (1993:191). There is nothing more evident of this than the ‘use’ of Confucianism in Singapore. If Xu Bing’s ironic reference to Chinese classical form displays a poignant ambivalence, the use of traditional Confucian text by the State is remarkable for its violent semantic strategy that reduces the Confucian narrative to a single master trope – the moral status of the family.

Among the various renderings of the state agenda,(8) the most interesting is undoubtedly that of Professor Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former ambassador to the United States, lover of opera and the arts, chairman of the Arts Council of Singapore. He published an article in the International Herald Tribune in November 1993 called ’10 values that help East Asia’s economic progress, prosperity’. These values, to his mind, range from group orientation – ‘East Asians do not believe in the extreme form of individualism’ (1993:7) – to love of education, innate virtues of hard work and frugality – ‘East Asians believe [in living] within their means [in contrast] to the Western addiction to consumption’ (1993-7). But the signifier which ties together all the East Asian values is the recognition of a social community larger than the self. An individual, Koh writes, ‘is not an isolated being, but a member of a nuclear and extended family, clan, neighbourhood, community, nation and state’ (1993:7). These institutions thus form a hierarchy of increasing demands and responsibilities, with the family at the lowest rung and the State at the apex. ‘East Asians believe in strong families’, the author concludes. ‘Divorce rates are much lower than those in the West, and Asians do not as a rule abandon their aged parents. They believe that the family is the building block of society’ (1993:7).

In this celebration of ‘East Asian values’, as we read on, the ‘family’ quietly slips in and becomes a metonym for the State. It is love and the primordiality of the kinship sentiment that renders parental authority and children’s submission as both morally fair and ethically inevitable. The reciprocity between parents and children, organically constituted and morally natural(ised), is also on another plane, the basis for the ‘Asian version of a social contract between the people and the state’:

East Asians practise national team work. Unions and employers view each other as partners, not class enemies. Together, government, business and employees work cooperatively, for the good of the nation. . . . This philosophy, combined with the ability to forge national consensus, is one of the secrets of the so-called East Asian development miracle. (Koh 1993:7)

In this vision, the State is imagined as a family, and the family as a State. Confucianism is never mentioned, but its powerful echoes are everywhere. We hear its distinctive voice in the fetishisation of the family, the ethics of consensus, and moral priority of the State and other social institutions in which individuals are destined to seek their political and existential fulfilment. The natural primordiality of the family is sufficiently fecund to give birth to a ‘social contract’ that overrides different/differing political visions and individual yearnings. When the State dreams of Confucianism, it is the ‘mystification of consensus’ – to evoke a term of Gramsci (1971) – that is being dreamt of. ’10 Asian values’ merely embodies the state ambition articulated elsewhere, for example, in the White Paper on Shared Values, tabled in the Singapore Parliament in January, 1991, which is concerned with, among other things, nation before community; society before self; and family as the basic unit of society (Clammer 1993). And the promotion of these ‘Asian values’, in the words of the White Paper, is ‘to evoke and anchor a Singaporean identity, incorporating the relevant parts of our varied cultural heritages, and the values and attitudes which have helped us to survive and succeed as a nation’ (Government of Singapore 1991:1).


But the use of Confucianism by the State is no random or incidental plundering of Chinese classical text. Singapore has always fancied itself as a ‘Chinese city’ carved out of the broader framework of racial/cultural pluralism.(9) Even as the State attempts to appease the Malay and Indian communities, to meet their different and at times conflicting social and cultural aspirations, the Chinese cultural card is being played if only because – as the reasoning goes – the Chinese are the majority. The ‘phantasmatic investment’ of the State would lead the tropes of Confucianism and Chinese culture on a strategic path, according to the political and economic rulings of the time. ‘Things Chinese’ are never what they appear to be but always tinted with the State’s purposes. People who ignore this do so at their own peril.

In the 1950s and 1960s when Beijing-supported communist insurgency was a real and an open threat, Singapore’s trade with China continued. The Bank of China was allowed to operate because it was useful in ‘financing trade, particularly (cheap) imports from China . . . which helped to keep prices down’ (Drysdale 1984:296). However, economic ties with China did not mean political friendship. Singapore in the 1960s, then a part of the Federation of Malaysia,(10) was staunchly anti-Communist as it is today. When the Chinese-language Nanyang University began to harbour intellectuals with left-wing and perhaps pro-Beijing attitudes, the ‘centre of subversion’ was closed by the government (Clutterbuck 1984:159).(11) So policies to promote Chinese culture and education were from the beginning highly ideological. Culture and its institutions must be harnessed for the greater purpose of development and modernisation. ‘Chinese chauvinism’ was the label that implicated traditional interest groups like the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and clan associations (Hill and Lian 1995:171). They were charged with the sin of ‘cultural self-possession’ – a communal form of inward-looking that ignored the wider national goals defined by the State.

So ‘being Chinese’, in the past as it is now, has always been an entangled affair. It is a ‘fact’ that the State in Singapore actively promotes Chinese culture. For example, all children of Chinese descent must take Chinese as a second language in primary schools, and a pass in Chinese is necessary for Chinese students to enter the local universities. The State regularly runs ‘Speak Mandarin’ campaigns to encourage Singaporean Chinese to acquire the fluency necessary for claiming a Chinese identity and for doing business in China, it is argued. These measures, just like the State’s seizing of Confucianism, have an urgent and earnest air about them. But if a Singaporean Chinese identity has come out of these enterprises, such an identity is packed with contradictions. For the State, the formation of an identity based on ‘East Asian values’ will be instrumental in creating a moral immunity against what it perceives to be the tragic fate of the West: urban crime, family breakdown, social welfare payments, sexual promiscuity, excessive individualism, and lack of work ethic. Yet this identity must still gel with the attraction of Western global consumption – Coca Cola, MacDonalds, university education, farm holidays in Australia and New Zealand, and of course, Mercedes Benz cars of which more than a billion dollars worth is sold each year in a country where 0.95 million of the 1.5 million employed earn less than S$1,500 a month (Lee 1994). What a strange hybrid of ‘Chinese cultural identity’ has emerged from the effects of urban consumption, Confucianisation and State economic policy. It is an identity which must take the form of a ‘Janus faced’ (Hill and Lian 1995:37) congruity between Western modernity – science, development and progress – and an essentialised Asian/Chinese subjectivity anxiously avoiding the ills of the industrialised West. These are strange flowerings of a national project. Yet this appropriation of Confucianism in order to give birth to a unique Asian/Chinese modernity is not new. There was for example, reformer Kang Youwei’s re-reading of Confucianism which showed that, in the words of Spence:

. . . buried inside the original texts written by Confucius before they had been adulterated by later hands was a faith in the need for change and development. Such an interpretation meant that the new institutional and scientific elements being introduced by the Western powers could be seen as having antecedents in the Chinese tradition, and thus need not simply be rejected out of hand in an attempt to preserve some original Chinese ‘purity’. (1982:4)

But the political and financial bankruptcy of the Qing government and Western imperial ambitions in China doomed his project from the start. In spite of their vastly different historical circumstances, the projects of Singapore and Kang Youwei illustrate the profoundly political nature of their respective readings. But is it possible to subject the ancient philosophy to other readings, to ‘rescue’ it from the dust of its feudalistic significations? Such an enterprise, if it is worthwhile at all, can only be undertaken by someone with an impeccable political credential, someone like Mao Zedong perhaps:

When l was thirteen I discovered a powerful argument of my own for debating with my father on his own ground, by quoting the Classics. My father’s favourite accusations against me were unfilial conduct and laziness. I quoted in exchange, passages from the Classics saying that the elders must be kind and affectionate. (Mao Zedong, quoted in Snow 1968:132)


One wonders if Mao is hinting at a ‘progressive reading’ of Confucianism. If so, then one wonders too if a Confucian text can be turned around to show, not the absolute obedience of the young and the weak, but the obligations of the powerful to ‘earn’ their right to authority through a fair and just administration and governance. Chinese classical text is not a semantically sealed object. As we have seen, powerful ideological forces and historical circumstances were at work which had ‘fixed’ Confucianism as a signifier for feudal values and as a unifier of State policy and Chinese cultural subjectivity. It might be arguably possible to locate a third position that bypasses even if it does not nullify the polarisation brought about, for example, by the radical discourses of the May Fourth Movement and the repressive State ideology of Singapore. If there is another destiny for Chinese classical texts, then such texts may be necessary in the formation of cultural memory, in the ‘the struggle against forgetting’, to use a phrase of Kundera (1983:5). It is this issue which urgently begs for resolution when I confront Xu Bing’s magisterial meditation on the fate of Chinese classical text. Tian Shu highlights a point that seems to lie at the heart of this issue: that the material forms that culture takes demand their own reckoning. In a moment that brilliantly mirrors Benjamin’s own reflection on a similar theme, Xu Bing’s quiet reference to classical literacy and calligraphic aesthetics cannot by itself rescue ‘sense’ out of the very ‘nonsense’ of his work. Faced with this dilemma, Xu Bing’s brilliant move is to enact the very ambivalence of his project. Instead of cultural negation, he stages a dance of semantic entanglement where language and its referents – signs and signifieds – are intertwined in passionate tango to and fro, shuttling between attraction and repulsion, coyness and surrender. Instead of counter-narrative, Xu Bing gives rein to the inner prompting which – if only in the secrecy of his heart – celebrates the formal glory of Chinese text. The result is to rupture the privileged readings of Chinese classical text long dominated by both conservative and critical discourses. The ‘words’ of Tian Shu are dispersed instead to multiple geographies of sense and nonsense, in heaven and on earth; and there the re-reading of Chinese classical text is shown at once to be an ideological futility and a possible strategy for a re-visioning of Chinese traditional culture.

It is a re-visioning that calls for an elegiac remembering of China’s past. For me, China’s tradition, textually constituted, full of feudal horrors and cruelties, is also the same world that offers the pleasure of literary accomplishment and philosophic contemplation. Like Xu Bing, I also take much of that world seriously. It is a longing constituted by a reimagining of China ‘the ancestral country’ (zu guo). Zizek writes:

(The) kind of retroactive displacement of ‘real’ events into fiction appears as a ‘compromise’, as an act of ideological conformism, only if we hold to the naive ideological opposition between ‘hard reality’ and the ‘world of dreaming’. As soon as we take into account that it is precisely and only in dream that we encounter the real of our desire, the whole accent radically shifts . . . (Zizek 1993:17)

To give life to the real in this ‘world of dreaming’, I could do no less than to look at my social experience. Educated in the Confucius Chinese Middle School in Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s, I remember my engagement with Chinese literary works as both complex and absorbing. The teaching of literature had been singularly designed to socialise us in the literary and ethical worth of classical texts. For three hours a day, we read, copied and took dictation from an anthology consisting of excerpts from basic works ranging from the philosophic writings of Mencius and Confucius to the poetry of Li Po and Su Dong Po, as well as the modern works of Lu Xun, Ding Ling and Ba Qing. Brush calligraphy was an important part of our daily Chinese language class, in which I acquired sufficient skill to win the All Chinese Medium School championship. For most of us, moving between the classical philosophic texts and the vernacular modernist voices of Lu Xun and Ding Ling seemed most natural. They were all a part of the ‘Chinese cultural heritage’.

Through these texts, and art forms like brush calligraphy, we acquired a sense of ‘knowing China’. It was a sense of having a certain access to her tradition, culture and national aspirations which through some tortuous ways were made a part of ourselves. The ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983) was both a nation – which legally was no longer the concern of us living in Malaysia – and more poignantly, a race. The idea of being a part of a ‘Chinese race’ was a barely formulated awareness of belonging to an ethnic community stretching from China to wherever Chinese have made their homes. But it was the reading and copying of literary texts, day after day in the classroom and at home, which created among us a feeling of being part of the ‘ancestral country’ made tangible by the grand narrative of dynastic changes and cultural achievements. The lessons were often repetitive and boring – in going through again and again Ssu-ma Chi’en’s Shih Chi (Record of History) in order to sort out the diplomatic intricacies and battle orders of various conflicts that made and unmade dynasties, and in copying master calligraphers’ work to imitate their superior styles. But the lessons did leave something in our young minds, and miraculously, a certain pleasure and even excitement began to arise from the labour and discipline.

As I remember it, it was this fusion of ethnic attachment, cultural memory and literary pleasure which constituted my sense of being Chinese. In this fusion, pleasure offers a sensuous affirmation of the intrinsic worth of Chinese culture text. Even as I read about the tyrannies and injustices that were the constant themes of ‘progressive’ critique of the Chinese past, literary pleasure took me to the other end of the cultural discourse that speaks exuberantly of literary skill, philosophic wisdom and historical faith. The Barthian jouissance unites subjectivity and text in a moment that validates, and nurtures a desire for cultural products and the aesthetics that shapes them.


But the grounding of identity on Chinese cultural texts, and the pleasure they give, was politically highly contradictory in post-independence Malaysia. The major question facing us was (and still is): would our attachment to China be interpreted by the State as a matter of cultural longing afflicting all diasporic communities, or as evidence of national disloyalty? In the tense atmosphere of the communist insurgency before its end in 1960, having an interest in China and pondering on its political destiny was to tread the dangerous ground of a communist sympathiser. After Malaysia’s independence in 1958, Chinese schools were reformed to bring them in line with the national education system for the sake of ‘national unity’ under a common national language and curriculum (Tan 1992). In imposing a Malay cultural and political hegemony, the government regarded ‘the “legitimate aspirations” of the various communities (as) . . . simply “incompatible” with the creation of a national consciousness and the position of Malay as a national language’ (Tan 1992:191).

In the crisscrossing of these agendas and State demands, where did we find inspiration for nurturing the sense of Chinese identity of which we refused to let go even in the mercurial political environment? The learning of classical text was still necessary, so was its critical tempering by reading modernist writings. This had been the spirit of the anthologies at which we worked so studiously each day in the sunlit verandah which was our classroom; but their attractions were fading. New intellectual resources were needed to help us negotiate through a rapidly changing political terrain. Might we have turned to Mao or Marx, had their work not been banned by the government? I think not. We were looking for something that resounded with the best of our pedagogic experience: something ‘progressive’ and which at the same time satisfied our nascent literary taste. We found it, not in the movie magazines and crime novels from Hung Kong and Taiwan, but in translated Russian literature published by the Foreign Languages Press of Beijing that was being sold in the shops in Kuala Lumpur. So we read, with the same studious devotion as we read Chinese classics, in Chinese, works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. From the same editorial hands, other progressive literature of the West also came to the World Bookshop in Petaling Street, the Chinatown quarters in Kuala Lumpur: works of Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jules Verne, Theodore Dreiser, Ibsen, Flaubert, Zola and many others.

It is a strange desire constituted by the reading of these diverse and equally seductive literary works. Our sense of ‘being Chinese’ was anchored on the values and admonitions of all these texts, yet it was always in the process of change as we discovered other texts. As Hall writes:

Cultural identity … is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being’. It belongs to the future as much as to the past…. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they [identities] are subject to the continuous ‘play’ of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in a mere ‘recovery’ of the past, which is waiting to be found, and which, when found, will secure our sense of ourselves into eternity, identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past. (1990:225)

In our readings of these narratives, the cultural memory they evoke cannot be grounded in a timeless eternity simply because this memory – like my sense of ‘Chinese identity’- is a fusion of different critical voices and imaginings. Books are gifts from heaven, we were fold by our teachers. Reading and writing are special and indeed, god-given skills for pleasure and for ‘making a person’ (zao ten). Perhaps it was this faith in the innate worth of literary text that had guided us in our eager journeys among the diverse and contrasting literary works. And this faith was formed no less by pleasure than by the words themselves which through their intricate form and magical beauty, help to realise the pedagogic intentions of the texts. To engage with words is to engage with a desire which always lingers on their aesthetics even as powerful critique anxiously recalls their ideological entrenchment.

Is it this kind of entanglement with culture and desire that marks – to go back to the work that begins our discussion – the ambivalence of Xu Bing’s ‘heavenly words’? If not pleasure, then perhaps it is the nationalist agenda and cultural affirmation of both May Fourth and Tienanmen that has tracked the celebration of the formal glory of Chinese words. In the community of texts – in the company of other non.sense scripts – Tian Shu’s association with traditional forms and motifs ruptures its single signification and critical possibility. Let loose in the strange geography of cultural longing, Tian Shu, as much as classic texts like Confucianism, still has a certain discursive innocence. If traditional culture could be freed from the ideological endorsement of the state, then it would be transformed into a potent site in which we can contemplate its metaphysical subtleties and practical imperfections.

If the term ‘cultural identity’ means anything at all, it is not a timeless and stable selfhood immuned from the contingencies of power and history, as Hall in the previous quote has reminded us. If I see identity as something under threat, I find the cause not so much in modernisation and Westernisation, but in the relentless manoeuvres of the State. Since so many of the constituents of identity are drawn from notions of ‘collectivity’ – religion, ethnicity, epochal history, social values and practices; the State is able to build from these ideas a morally and politically exacting national community. The more progressive among us have attempted to factor out such national specificities in the sense of our selves However a paradox is evident here In our criticism of the State, we would put under suspicion all that the State says and touches. But as the case of Singapore demonstrates, the State is ceaseless in the search for cultural objects to be turned into ideological tools. Nothing escapes, least of all classical texts. To reject any cultural text purely because it has been tinted by the hegemonic intentions of the State would seem to me the folly of an orthodox and a totalising oppositional tactic. Such a rejection merely concedes to the State’s predatory move.

Resistance, it seems to me, is about re-negotiating those cultural referents we find meaningful but which the State has shaded with its own design. What Tian Shu powerfully evokes is the need to (re)create a space for ourselves to accommodate cultural text and aesthetic form in line with the multiple and contradictory experiences of our own reading and writing. The project, as Xu Bing’s intervention makes clear, is not about rescuing Chinese traditional culture; nor about working towards a paradigmatic constitution of (Chinese) cultural identity. If a sense of ‘being Chinese’ can be savoured in a space free from State intervention, it has to remain open, yet always in anticipation of the connectedness with cultural memories. The struggle against forgetting, to rephrase Kundera, is the struggle against the closure by the State which turns classic text like Confucianism into a parody of its impotence. Books are powerful tools in this struggle. If they are often caged and harnessed to serve the State, they are no less powerful technologies for dreaming. In books, Foucault writes of the fantastic in Flaubert,

… (the) domain of phantasms is no longer the night, the sleep of reason … but … wakefulness, untiring attention, zealous erudition, and constant vigilance. Henceforth, the visionary experience arises from the black and white surface of printed signs, from the closed and dusty volumes that open with a flight of forgotten words: fantasies are carefully deployed in the hushed library, with its columns of books, with its titles aligned on shelves to form a tight closure, but within confines that also liberate impossible worlds. (1977:91)

It is in these ‘impossible worlds’ of texts where nothing and everything imaginary seems possible that the entangled notion of cultural identity can hint at a resolution.


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