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Ma Jian: Stick Out Your Tongue

With the recent Olympics in Beijing, and partly inspired by the way book stores used this event to cram their promotional shelves with Chinese fiction, I thought it would be good to read a book from China since I hadn’t done so since enjoying Bi Feiyu’s delightful The Moon Opera. Given that the many of the headlines, especially in the lead up to the games, centred around the world tour of the Olympic torch being regularly threatened by protestors, a book that dealt with the subject of their protests sounded good. That would be Tibet, then.

Having never stepped foot inside Tibet – I’m sure most protestors haven’t clocked up the Air Miles either – my ready image of it is probably no different to that of others: of a quiet, meditative mountainscape disturbed only by the wash of monastery bells and Buddhist chants soft on the breeze. It’s the perfect postcard, this Tibet we want to see, and perhaps always will see unless we have experience it for ourselves.

Such is the point of Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue (1987), a slim volume of short stories that, as he notes in his afterword, sought to cut through the idealism of Tibet and give the people back their humanity. Banned in China as a “vulgar and obscene book that defames the image of our Tibetan compatriots”, it led to Jian’s exile from China. In a way exile may have been welcomed, as it was China that initially drove him to Tibet:

As my bus left the crowded plains of China and ascended to the clear heights of Tibet, I felt a sense of relief. I hoped that here at last I’d find a refuge from the soulless society that China had become. I wanted to escape into a different landscape and culture, and gain a deeper insight into my Buddhist faith.

For Buddhist faith, where else but Tibet, because:

In Tibet, religion permeates every grain of earth. Man and God are inseperable, myth and legend are intertwined. People there have endured sufferings that are beyond the comprehension of the modern world. I am writing down this story now in the hope that I can start to forget it.

What’s for sure is that if Jian can begin to forget the events told here, the reader certainly won’t. Each story follows a loose progression through Tibet, with Jian mentioning the people, stories and traditions he encounters, each told in a matter-of-fact style, such as the sky burial in the opening tale:

The burial master hacks all the flesh from the corpse and slices it into small pieces. He grinds the bones into a fine powder and adds some water to form a paste. (If the bones are young and soft, he will thicken it with ground barley.) He then feeds the paste, together with the flesh, to the surrounding hawks and vultures.

By not moralising over what he sees Jian allows the reader to form their own opinions about Tibetan societies on topics such as death, poverty, incest, and more, with the author noting in his afterward, “my idyll of a simple life lived close to nature was broken when I realised how dehumanising extreme hardship can be.”

In showing this darker side of Tibet, Jian still manages to keep a fine balance, offering up descriptions of the landscape, all mist and mountains, that bring the region to life:

The mountain was silent. Hawks and vultures sat perched on the summit. In the valley below, ribbons of mist rose from Yamdrok and rolled into a single sheet that slowly covered the entire lake. The mist thickened and spread, rising and falling like the chest of a woman breathing, drifting higher and higher until it veiled the blood-red sun.

That such inhumane acts occur in this beautiful place only hammers home the effect of the stories in Stick Out Your Tongue. The question, though, is to what extent it is all true. Yes, it’s fiction, but there’s a sense of travelogue here, and the afterward readily discusses what drove Jian to Tibet. But, as the author says, his account is not without the possibility of being unreliable:

From a distance, the wastes of the high plateau had a hypnotic beauty. But after I had trudged across them for days on end, the emptiness became stupefying. I lost all sense of reality and travelled as though in a trance. In the thin mountain air, it was hard to distinguish fact from fantasy. My mind was tormented by visions of Buddhist deities and memories of home.

In one of the stories there is a young lady, the focus of many a tossed stone, and when she sensed someone watching, “and didn’t throw anything at her, she would stick out her tongue in greeting.” As a greeting it may well be, but the title of the collection comes from the feeling of being “empty and helpless, as pathetic as a patient who sticks out his tongue and begs his doctor to diagnose what’s wrong with him.” In this book, Tibet sticks out its tongue, in greeting and in illness, allowing us into its postcard world, but unable to form a definite prognosis.

September 15, 2008

5 responses to Ma Jian: Stick Out Your Tongue

  1. John Self said:

    Jian (or is it Ma? I never know which is the surname and which the forename in eastern traditions) has a new book out I think, which has been all over the shops, so this is a timely reissue and a timely review. I have Red Dust which I picked up in a fit of enthusiasm for the pretty little Vintage East paperbacks, and I think only read two. Thanks for bringing him back to mind.

  2. Stewart said:

    Surname is Ma, forename is Jian. Surnames are typically one syllable in Chinese, as in Korean too. Uniquely, in Europe, Hungary also uses this ‘eastern notation’. It’s used in Africa too, as far as I’m aware.

    The latest book, I think, is Beijing Coma, purely because that’s the hardback I see in shops.

    Regarding those Vintage East paperbacks, I was tempted at the time but never did buy them. I occasionally pick the odd one up when out browsing, but never resolve to buy.

  3. jem said:

    This post and the following discussion has encouraged me to check out more literature from the East. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Vintage East range. I’ve read quite a bit of Japanese stuff, but haven’t ventured much beyond those shores. I think it would be good to read more authentic East books as opposed to ones written from a distance by Westerners.

  4. kukee said:

    “Beijing Coma” is a great read and make me want to find his other earlier books. Thank you again Stewart for your advice. Your blog is excellent. I will come here often.:)

  5. Stewart said:

    I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Vintage East range.

    It came out a couple of years ago in the UK. Here’s the web page to it. Lovely little covers. Expect, perhaps, to see something ‘authentic’ coming from the Phillipines, as a good number of longlisted titles in this year’s Asian Booker hail from there.

    Thanks for the compliment, kukee. I appreciate it.

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5 responses to Ma Jian: Stick Out Your Tongue

  1. John Self said:

    Jian (or is it Ma? I never know which is the surname and which the forename in eastern traditions) has a new book out I think, which has been all over the shops, so this is a timely reissue and a timely review. I have Red Dust which I picked up in a fit of enthusiasm for the pretty little Vintage East paperbacks, and I think only read two. Thanks for bringing him back to mind.

  2. Stewart said:

    Surname is Ma, forename is Jian. Surnames are typically one syllable in Chinese, as in Korean too. Uniquely, in Europe, Hungary also uses this ‘eastern notation’. It’s used in Africa too, as far as I’m aware.

    The latest book, I think, is Beijing Coma, purely because that’s the hardback I see in shops.

    Regarding those Vintage East paperbacks, I was tempted at the time but never did buy them. I occasionally pick the odd one up when out browsing, but never resolve to buy.

  3. jem said:

    This post and the following discussion has encouraged me to check out more literature from the East. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Vintage East range. I’ve read quite a bit of Japanese stuff, but haven’t ventured much beyond those shores. I think it would be good to read more authentic East books as opposed to ones written from a distance by Westerners.

  4. kukee said:

    “Beijing Coma” is a great read and make me want to find his other earlier books. Thank you again Stewart for your advice. Your blog is excellent. I will come here often.:)

  5. Stewart said:

    I didn’t know there was such a thing as a Vintage East range.

    It came out a couple of years ago in the UK. Here’s the web page to it. Lovely little covers. Expect, perhaps, to see something ‘authentic’ coming from the Phillipines, as a good number of longlisted titles in this year’s Asian Booker hail from there.

    Thanks for the compliment, kukee. I appreciate it.

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