Academic journal article The Comparatist

Cannibalized Evidence: The Problem of Over-Incorporation in Zheng Yi's Scarlet Memorial

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Cannibalized Evidence: The Problem of Over-Incorporation in Zheng Yi's Scarlet Memorial

Article excerpt

In the late 1980s, novelist Zheng Yi set out to investigate rumors that cannibalism had broken out in the Guangxi region of China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). His research was compiled from October 1990 to July 1991, while in internal exile in China. In the resulting work of literary journalism, Scarlet Memorial (hongse jinianbei, 1993), Zheng Yi attempts to document evidence of the reported instances of real-life cannibalism. As a disaffected communist on the run from the authorities, his investigation takes the form of a political polemic. But, as the title indicates, he also hopes that this effort will serve as a memorial for all of those who were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. To this end, Zheng Yi fills Scarlet Memorial with first-hand accounts, interviews and official reports, as well as local mythology, gossip, speculation, and literary interpretation, all of which he reads on an equal level as "evidence."

First published in English translation in 1996, (1) Scarlet Memorial has received mixed reviews among U.S. academics and casual readers alike. Although the English-language text is heavily abridged--several hundred pages of political commentary were excised--readers must still grapple with the text's many excesses: too much violence, too much speculation, and too many sources. For some, these elements contribute to the text's believability and critical impact. (2) However, many critics and reviewers have argued that this over-inclusion compromises the book's aims. Katherine E. Palmer and Richard King in particular criticize Zheng Yi's failure to support his political analysis with concrete evidence. While Palmer acknowledges that the author has proven the occurrence of cannibalism in Guangxi, she claims that he resorts to specious explanations--such as patronizing depictions of the Zhuang ethnic group--in order to explain why. Objecting to the excess of political commentary, literary critic Gang Yue goes so far as to say "the book can and must be read as a fictional text, despite the author's claim to historical accuracy and scientific truth" (251).

Scarlet Memorial is a sprawling, protean text; one could easily argue that it exceeds the boundaries of form for investigative journalism--ostensibly the genre to which Zheng Yi aspires. A large portion of the text consists of testimony from eyewitnesses and alleged perpetrators, which is then supplemented with official records. These sources of evidence, in and of themselves, are compelling proof that such atrocities were indeed committed. However, Zheng Yi does not stop there, including many other nonfiction forms such as literary interpretation, political analysis, and ethnographic description. Reading the latter as a break in generic form, Yue refers to this portion of the book as "an 'ethnographical' detour in the text's transition from 'investigative journalism' to political polemic" (246). Yue's use of scare quotes reflects his doubts about whether Scarlet Memorial can adequately be considered within the framework of either investigative journalism or ethnography. Yue would seem to imply that the polemic is simply masquerading as one of the other, more officially regarded genres. Ultimately, this article argues against Yue's assumption: polemic is in fact expressed through ethnography and investigative journalism, as both forms were suppressed under Mao's dictatorship and Zheng Yi's use of them cannot be divorced from his political claims. With an understanding of how the author writes within and against a repressive literary history, we can explore how the various forms of evidence in Scarlet Memorial make an argument independent of simple fact claims. These types of evidence do not function simply to support an argument or bolster journalistic authority, but rather as a form of protest in their own right.

Although Yue claims that "taken as a whole, [Scarlet Memorial] is not a book of investigative journalism at all" (243), I argue that the text is indeed a very specific form of the genre. …

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