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How is Creativity Served by Revisiting Our Childhood Past?

By Su Tong

Su Tong

In 1084 AD, the Chinese poet Su Dongpo visited Mount Lu in Jiangxi Province, where he composed a verse that has since been memorized by innumerable readers:

From side                     cliff walls                      yet a peak from base

Far      near                 high     low                   never the same place.

Since I                           stand here                   within its midst

How     can                  I know                          Mount Lu’s true face?

Today the phrase “to know Mount Lu’s true face” (lu shan zhen mian mu 庐山真面目) has come to mean that one truly understands something. In a public address entitled “Where Do We Encounter Reality?” delivered at a Sino-Japanese-Korean writers’ forum held in Seoul, South Korea, in 2008, the novelist Su Tong recalls his own 1991 trip to Mount Lu to revisit this perennial question.
He considers how writers as diverse as Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, and Edgar Allan Poe have interrogated the ways we position ourselves in relation to our claims to represent reality.

In settling on today’s topic, my two experiences climbing Lu Shan Mountain came to mind. Lu Shan, located in Jiangxi Province near the city of Jiujiang, is celebrated for its scenic beauty. My first visit was in 1991. I remember that there were many villas on the mountain, most built during the Republican era, and in so many different styles that they resembled a small United Nations. My second visit was a few years ago, and the houses once again left an impression on me: in the ten intervening years, many new houses had appeared on the mountain, notable for their modern building materials but also for their ugliness and mediocrity.

You’ll no doubt have noticed that in speaking of these two trips to Lu Shan, I haven’t mentioned the mountain at all, but rather only the houses on the mountain. In fact, given the number of houses on Lu Shan, I find it impossible to speak of the mountain, as it has been covered over by houses, though it should be the houses that are overcome by the majesty of the mountain. It is strange indeed that such a lofty and majestic mountain should, on account of its habitual reticence, finally be buried by houses. The result, in any event, was that from my two trips to Lu Shan, I remember only the houses on the mountain and can scarcely recollect what the mountain itself was like at all.

Needless to say, this was not a consequence of my own shortcomings as an observer. Upon careful examination, it is clear this outcome was not the mountain’s fault, nor was it that of the houses, nor of those who built them more than one hundred years ago, nor of myself. What Lu Shan is meant to be like, I really have no way of knowing. I only can know that one thousand years ago, our great Song Dynasty writer Su Dongpo left for us an account of similar perplexity in “Xilin Wall,” in which he wrote, “Lu Shan’s true face I cannot know, / When I stand among its peaks.”[1] This poem provides the best answer not only to the problem of perspective posed by standing on the mountain but also to the problem of life itself. Life, after all, also has its true face. In the context of my understanding, this is reality. When we are on a mountain, we cannot see its true face. Every day we encounter life experiences, but from what position do we truly encounter this reality?

Today I would like to draw on these reflections to discuss with you the nature of that reality we find in our literature, how many types and what kinds of reality our literature demands, and whose reality it is that literature represents. Because literary exchanges don’t take place between people and mountains (we need not consider the mountains’ feelings) but rather only between people, and because communication between people is always the most necessary and the most difficult kind, the critical question is whether the reality we find in literature is the reality of the author or of the reader.

We cannot help, at this point, but enter into another problem concerning the creative process. Put most simply, it is the problem of the origins of creativity, a problem to which everyone knows the standard answer, which is real life. This is by no means incorrect. But to take the problem further, how is it that when confronted with the reality of the same era, different writers discern different spirits of the age, some singing songs of praise while others sing songs of mourning, some positive and optimistic in their outlook, while others are negative and pessimistic? Who represents the majority? Who represents the tide of history? And who represents the true essence of literature? The French Revolution left different marks on Hugo and Flaubert, leading one to regard it with passionate enthusiasm and the other with a cold eye, but whose reality was the reality of France, and whose reality is the reality the world’s readers most need? Perhaps there is no standard answer after all.

Our confusion in the face of this question only demonstrates the mystery and fickleness of literature, in that these mysteries may often arise from authors’ approaches to capturing reality. These mysterious methods are accountable to no rule. What is the original impulse that animates a text? What aspect of reality pricked or tugged at the texts’ authors? What method do the authors use in harnessing reality? Sometimes they tell us, but what they say we needn’t entirely believe. Some are recklessly indiscreet, others put on airs, while still others have commercial aims and seek only to further heighten their text’s aura of mystery or divinity or superiority. So what writers (including me) say about their own creative process is not entirely to be trusted.

Writers’ creativity is itself a kind of reality, requiring readers first to probe, to dig deeply on their own initiative in order to make a real discovery. Some authors write only of what is close at hand: to review their life histories is to weave loose strands into a rope we can then use to tie down the authors in order to satisfy our curiosity about them. But we know that most writers spend their lives in pursuit of what is far away at the expense of what is near at hand. Except when they write autobiographies, which require taking the knife to themselves, they busy themselves incessantly in diverting south-flowing water to the north and north-flowing water to the south, insistently avoiding their own lives, so that their demands for reality seem utterly out of place. To draw an analogy, writers all resemble fish in a pond. Regardless of the rank from which you come, life is fair: it gives you a pond you can stay in. Whether the quality of the water is good or bad, the water in a pond is sufficient for a fish to enjoy its life. So why is it that leaping out of the pond becomes the aspiration and the fate of so many fish?

Here common wisdom constrains our thinking— where, exactly, do these leaping fish want to go? We generally suppose that they are seeking out a larger, freer place, but what if these fish are not, in fact, in search of a different body of water, are not leaping from a tank into a river, are not seeking out a greater expanse in which to swim? Perhaps the fish just want to give it a try, to see whether they can still breathe after they’ve left the water, and whether they can still live once they’ve landed in the dirt beneath the underbrush. They are not in search of anything in particular, that is, but only an encounter—an encounter with reality. To leave Lu Shan, perhaps, is the best way to encounter Lu Shan. This analogy is perhaps imperfect, but it is an apt one for making sense of writers’ grand ambitions and for demonstrating the brash and risk-taking spirit of literature.

In some sense, writers begin by doubting their immediate world, just as Su Dongpo had doubts about Lu Shan. For writers, real life always comes up short and can never hope to meet their demands of reality, which are far more complicated than a fish’s demands of water. So the problem that we face, in fact, is that writers are self-centered, independent-minded, and generally dismissive of readers, so that in their hearts they’re always putting themselves over their audience. They are constantly preoccupied, in other words, with convincing their readers that my experiences are more important than yours, that you are deceived by life’s false appearances, that I can discover the truth for you. So reading is also a battle in which the writer sets out to capture the reader, to demand that the reader encounter his reality in the work. And this is bound to be a dramatic reality, as readers can generally discover the more mundane realities on their own. Matters that are common knowledge don’t require reading to be understood; the most shocking matters, in contrast, are often hidden in a corner and covered over by the dust of everyday life. Oftentimes they are hidden in a text as well, as they are also the most powerful realities of a writer’s innermost being.

By way of example, the meaning of Kafka’s The Castle, which everyone has read, lies in the most extreme revelations of a writer’s inner reality, a reality that violates common understanding. The surveyor can see the castle but has no way of actually getting inside it. We know that, with the exception of castles in the sky, places we can see we can eventually reach, but Kafka tells us of a kind of reality that simply cannot be reached. If he told us the surveyor finally arrived at the castle, the tale would be commonplace; it would no longer be Kafka. Likewise in Metamorphosis, if the lonely Gregory did not become an insect, if his parents had sent him to a sanatorium, we might have before us another lonely young Hans from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, who went to a sanatorium to visit a tuberculosis-afflicted cousin with the expectation of staying for three weeks, only to discover at Magic Mountain patients from all over the world who took full pleasure in their illnesses as they awaited death, with the result that Hans stayed on for seven years.

A man becoming an insect is the reality that Kafka discovered, and that magical mountain is the reality encountered by Thomas Mann. Regardless of whose reali- ties they are, they have no relation to our experience of daily life. But our outlook is blinkered and muddled by this daily life. The tangle of banalities that make up our quotidian existence at times conceals everything, including the reality that we most need, which might be either massive and powerful or very slight. I don’t recall which poet it was who wrote the line, “Where is heaven? Heaven is in a grain of sand!” I believe that reality, too, may be concealed in a grain of sand. It was such a grain that, once encountered by Kafka and Thomas Mann, became reality. We accept it, not as a source of knowledge, nor even necessarily as a means of engaging with or responding to emotion. We must recognize it, rather, as a distinctive form of reality that we must accommodate and attempt to explain.

We can see that the perceived reality that novels offer us is not necessarily true reality, as so-called true reality must conform to the order of our daily lives. This order, related as it is to the natural laws of time and space, resembles a clock with its predictably turning hands. But in a novel, the hands of a clock can turn counter- clockwise, as the wild ambitions of many writers lead to attempts in their novels to completely rearrange or at least to repair the order of real life. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier has a story “Journey to the Seed” that begins with the death of an old man and then recounts his life backwards from there, until he becomes an embryo in his pregnant mother’s womb. With respect to the laws of time and space, this narrative method is completely irreverent and preposterous. While it cannot be said that Carpen- tier’s counter-clockwise narration alters our view of the progress of life and aging, we have to grant that the story provides the vicarious experience of dying first and living afterwards, which, as a way of recounting an old person’s life, comes closer to the truth than any other.

Writers of every ilk conjure up in their novels worlds of every kind. In the best of these novelistic worlds, we can experience the writer’s meticulously rendered reality. This reality may sometimes appear estranged from life as we know it in society, separated, perhaps, by a paper window or, perhaps, by a mountain. The reality in the novel and the reality of our lives regard one another across this mountain, but occasionally the mountain suddenly vanishes and the two types of reality fuse into one, at which point one can no longer say that one type of reality is the writer’s reality while another type is our own. This kind of writing can be explained with perfect clarity: precisely through restructuring the order of reality, the writers of such novels have imbued that reality with an ingenious foresight. Edgar Allan Poe has a very short story called “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” which he based closely on tabloid reports of an ongoing murder case concerning the death of a flower girl. The investigation was unfolding in New York, and for a long time there were no breaks in the case. Poe, for some unknown reason, changed the setting of his story to Paris. The progress of the case was equally inexplicable in its resemblance to a fictional plot, as the murderer was eventually, sure enough, apprehended in Paris. A writer in his study, as this case makes clear, can discover the whereabouts of a murderer by simple virtue of being Edgar Allan Poe.

There is more to be said about the kind of reality writers need, but I unfortunately must now conclude my remarks. I hope it occasions no misunderstanding that I happen to end with Edgar Allan Poe, as if writers, in their discovery and mending of reality, are all working for the police department. Of course, I have neither the qualifications nor the opportunity to offer any suggestions to Edgar Allan Poe. But I am certainly still able to adjust the reality he discovered in that murder case. Given a suitable occasion, I would like to try my hand at “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” not in order to predict the arrest of the murderer, but rather to see whether it might be possible to foretell the death of the flower girl, in which case my prophecy would strike fear into the hearts of all the Marie Rogêts, but also be quite useful to all the flower girls. I think this would be the best kind of prophecy: some times, the best form of reality is prophecy and at other times it is fable. Some part of novelistic reality is bound to become the author’s individual reality, while another part becomes a miracle. We never know when and where this part might be suddenly transformed into just the kind of prophecy and fable that everyone needs. This is another fairy tale in itself.

Translated by David Porter

1 Given the importance of Su Dongpo’s poem to Su Tong’s lecture, the relevant lines are translated more literally here with a focus on content. The version translated by Jonathan Stalling in the introduction above reveals more of the formal structure of the poem’s original language.

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 3 No. 1 & 2

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March 2011 Issue

Volume 3, No. 1&2

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Table of Contents




Chinese Poets Writing in English

  • 35 Qiu Xiaolong
  • 38 Yun Wang
  • 40 Wai-lim Yip

Non-Chinese Poets Writing in Chinese

  • 43 Jami Proctor-Xu
  • 45 Denis Mair
  • 48 Afaa Michael Weaver




  • 95 Small Town by Yu Jian



  • Editor's Note
  • Contributors
  • Chinese Literature in Review

ON THE COVER Chinatown Sunset, 2013, by Fong Qi Wei


  • Featured Essay
  • Introduction: Writerly Self-Knowledge, or When Authors Confess, by Alexa Huang
    Writing Chinese Literary History: A Tweet for Sore Eyes by Sabina Knight
  • Sheng Keyi, Northern Girls. Shelly Bryant, tr.
  • Petrus Liu, Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History
  • Ba Jin, Ward Four: A Novel of Wartime China. Haili Kong and Howard Goldblatt, tr.
  • Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature
  • Michael Gibbs Hill, Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture
  • Xi Chuan, A Bend in the Great River: Thoughts in Search of Poetic Possibility
  • Lai Hsiang-yin, Thereafter
  • Yu Jian, On the Long Journey. Tang Xiaodu, ed.
  • Shijiang Li, The Chinese Department
  • Gu Mingdong, Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism

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