A Writer Has a Nationality, but Literature Has No Boundary

By Yan, Mo | Chinese Literature Today, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

A Writer Has a Nationality, but Literature Has No Boundary


Yan, Mo, Chinese Literature Today


Respected Mr. President, ladies, and gentlemen,

China has as its most fundamental situation a huge population.

And large populations produce large numbers of writers, which may also constitute a fundamental attribute of China.

In the history of the Frankfurt Book Fair, I suspect that there has never been a guest like China, with more than one hundred writers arriving at one blow. This not only shows that Chinese writers value and yearn to be part of this book fair, but also that Chinese writers want to take this opportunity to learn from their peers from around the globe, and perhaps especially from their German literary peers. Of course, our Chinese writers also want to take this chance to show our literary achievements and ambition to international publishing circles, to our contemporaries in world literature, and to international readers. And of course many Chinese writers will take this opportunity to visit the former residence of Goethe to experience the cultural and geographic environment that cultivated such a great mind and to learn more about the history of this great writer.

When I was here last month, I discussed a wellknown story about Goethe and Beethoven, who had come across a procession of Austrian royalty. According to the story, Goethe and Beethoven were walking together in the street when they encountered the royal family's honor guards. Goethe retreated to the side of the road and raised his hat in salutation. Beethoven, on the other hand, walked on by without addressing them. It was said that Beethoven had even declaimed that while there were many kings, there was only one Beethoven. When I was young, I looked up to Beethoven for his contempt for those dignitaries and went so far as to scorn Goethe for his genuflecting salutation. I should say, however, that as I age, I have come to completely understand Goethe in that story. I think it might not be so difficult to be like Beethoven in this case and rudely speak out or swagger off, but it may not be so easy to be like Goethe and lower oneself to respect world customs. Now I want to say that just because Goethe raised his hat in salutation doesn't mean he would submit to flattering such dignitaries, and that just because Beethoven walked on by without saluting doesn't mean that he would not flatter royalty when it would benefit him. I imagine that artists mostly live in two worlds: they either live in a common world as a normal person or in an imaginary, fictitious, and artistic world as an unusual person. The artist who entered into the imaginary and fictitious art world and could not get out was either a genius or a lunatic.

I think, as an artist, what is important is not either artist's attitude toward the royal members, but the work he creates. If Beethoven hadn't composed such great symphonies, he wouldn't have done anything useful even if he had spit upon and thrown rotten eggs at the royal guards of the king. And since Goethe created such great works, his greatness cannot be reduced by his salutations. Moreover, I have always doubted the authenticity of this story. The reliability of any wellknown story about celebrities is always questionable. During their lifetime, great artists mine the population for writing materials, but after their death, they become a resource for the people's imagination.

Before I came here, I had been reading Mr. Martin Walser's great work, Man in Love, a novel based on the real story of Goethe's love affair with a nineteenyear- old girl, Ulrike. If I had only read Goethe's Faust, I would regard him as a great, hermit-like man. But after reading Mr. Martin Walser's Man in Love, I feel that Goethe has both a great side and an earthly side, and it is precisely because of this that we can think of him as a real human being. It is also because of this complexity that he was able to create artistic works that drew equally from the divine and human realms.

In 1793, the great Chinese writer Cao Xueqin passed away. …

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