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Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian

When I was walking down a quiet road in Rome about a year ago, searching for a present for Miss Jiwaku, I stumbled upon a little English bookstore, which according to the bookmark I got there was called “The Almost Corner Bookshop,” at 45 Via del Moro, Trastevere. I remember the shop a little, and it put me in mind of a little English bookshop I visited in Thailand, somewhere near Khao San Road, before I learned to avoid that district. Both of those shops were unusual in that they seemed to have a really literary clientele, well, assuming the books were chosen to suit their customers, anyway. The used bookstores in some places stock a lot of paperback thrillers and crime books; the little English bookshops in Korea stock bestsellers and Alvin Toffler. But bookstores like The Almost Corner Bookshop seem to service a much higher stratum than that.

Anyway, out front was a small stand containing a number of books, many of them also quite literary or philosophical. I grabbed a few books, but not many. One of them was Ma Jian’s Stick Out Your Tongue, a book of short stories concerning fictional (I assume) accounts of his journeys in Tibet.

Ma Jian is a writer who (at least when this book was published in English), had no existence in China. He claims, in his afterword, that his book was swept up in an anti-literary wave of persecutions, and that Stick Out Your Tongue was banned. (His later works, he claims, were released only after lots of official editing, and under a pseudonym.)

The effect of this news left me stunned because, frankly, I just did not see so much subversive about the book. Sure, there’s a lot of sex, and given the Chinese government’s bizarre sexual conservativism regarding films, I suppose literary censorship of sex ought not to be surprising, except… why? Do they really buy the tired and foolish line that sexual liberty ties up naturally with yearnings for political liberty? Or is it just that the country was (and still is) run by old men who simply expect everyone else to live in the (Chinese) 1920s?

Not that sexual themes are the only themes in Stick Out Your Tongue. These is obviously the way Ma depicts Tibet, and the Chinese colonial occupation of that land. Doubtless that has a great deal to do with why the book was banned. There is the depiction of Tibet as run-down, ruined, and trampled, and the sense that Chinese there are intruders, witnesses to something horrible. Yet when the book was banned, Ma claims he was criticized for  defaming Tibetans and not showing the “great strides” they had made towards a Socialist Tibet, but the criticism lingers on sexual themes, calling it “vulgar, obscene” and later arguing that:

… [t]he image of Tibet in this filthy and shameful work has nothing to do with reality, but is instead the product of the author’s imagination and his obsessive desire for sex and money… (“Afterword,” pg. 85)

While it’s easy to see why they pick on the sexual aspect of the book — there’s incest, there’s adultery, there’s all kinds of stuff going on between those covers — it’s not clear to me why the Chinese Communist Party is so offended by it. After all, they’re atheistic, right? So how does sex take on such a moral resonance in a “socialist” society without religion being legislated into national law? It baffles me, and also seems like bad strategy: far wiser to just promote sexual liberty, along the lines of Huxley’s Brave New World… I mean, if you’re a totalitarian, that is.

I’ve taken up a lot of this review discussing the politics of its banning because, frankly, that was the most interesting thing about the book to me. Ma Jian (or his translator) is skilled enough for the work to read smoothly and clearly, but I found myself often wondering what the point of his choosing to tell these particular narratives might be. He argues that the idealization of Tibet does as much harm as it does good in attracting people to the political issues, and that in his experience, “Tibetans can be as corrupt and brutal as the rest of us. To idealise them is to deny them their humanity.”

Sure, yes, but the tales seem to be handpicked for their tendency toward the depraved. There’s the tale of a girl who is trained, through childhood, for a tantric-sex ritual with a monk (and then must, to be initiated as the reincarnation of a monk because she was born on the day the monk died; the initiation involves her meditating for three days in (yes, in) a frozen river, with predictable results); another girl suffers from sex abuse at home; still another tale deals with the witnessing of a “sky burial” of a woman who has died in childbirth, and was the wife of two men.

So there is a sense of both deprivation and depravity, running through these seemingly fantastical tales, and it seems so concentrated, so pronounced, that it’s hard to shrug and write it off as a “Ma Jian thing.” But it’s not really clear to me what exactly Ma is trying to achieve in the accretion of those images and themes. Maybe I need to read the book again, though I’m not sure I’m inclined to do so… There is an air of constant violence, brutality, and suffering running through these tales, but much of it seems to be inflicted on Tibetans by Tibetans.  But China is, somehow, often involved, culpable on some level. Okay, but… why the extremities of depravity? It feels a little like the way a sympathetic colonialist describes the poor, downtrodden, but also corrupted colonial subjects, though perhaps I’m totally missing the point. I don’t know. Or maybe Tibet really was this utterly screwed up when Ma Jian traveled there… though that would surprise me. (The Tibetans I met in North India didn’t seem to have emerged from somewhere quite so Lovecraftian as this, though many of them did have horror stories of their escape, and of life under the Chinese; but that was seven years after this was published…)

In all, I found the book readable, and even at times interesting, but rather bleak and dry and depressing reading. I am not sure it’s something I’d recommend my friends, but at the same time I’m not averse to reading something else from among Ma Jian’s works, if it were easy to get hold of. After all, it is an early work and I’d bet Ma has moved forward rather remarkably since then.

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