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Respect for Experience is Respect for the Body

A conversation with Yu Jian (extract)


A recent issue of the Chinese literary magazine Huacheng featured a dialogue between the poet Yu Jian and the critic Xie Youshun. In this excerpt, they discuss the importance of the body and tiyan (“personal experiencing”, literally “body experience” in Chinese).

Yu Jian: Talking about the body, emphasizing the body does not in the least mean that it is nothing more than carnal desire, corporeality, hedonism. If human beings possess what are called “souls” and “spirits”, then what I’d like to stress is that these things require a carrier. Regardless of where the soul comes from, it cannot exist without a body, so the body if you like is the abode [guisu] of the soul. If you talk about the body without reference to souls, then this body is merely an animal-like body. What we’re on about is the human body, the bodily nature of human beings [ren de shentixing]. The body definitely possesses a soul, possesses a creative dimension: it is a body capable of creating culture. The discourse of the past stressed the soul, stressed creativity, stressed metaphysics, but it neglected or chose to ignore the fundamental starting point for this metaphysics, this spirit, this soul: all these require a place in which to exist, a habitat [qixi zhi di], an abode—this abode is the body. For this reason I think that only a writing with body can be a writing with soul. But if the writing is merely a kind of corporeality, then this body will have no creativity and will be unable to express itself and we can say that it has no soul. Only those things which have a body and soul are creative.

Xie Youshun: In an essay I once wrote I specifically made a distinction between the body [shenti] and corporeality [routi]. Corporeality primarily refers to the physiological aspects of the body, the lowest and the most basic aspects. In addition to such aspects the body also possesses various other elements—ethics, soul, spirit, creativity—which are likewise contained within the body. A dialectical relationship ought to exist between the body’s ethics and its physiology, and when I use the word “body”, I generally mean it in the sense of a unity of ethical and physiological qualities. Only when the two are unified can we really talk of a complete body. Otherwise, what we are dealing with is only corporeality, and that as such cannot form a basis for writing.

Yu Jian: In fact, the “body” we are talking about is the human body [renti], not the body understood in a generalized sense.

Xie Youshun: It does not refer simply to blood, flesh, arms, legs and the genitals: this is a simplistic way of understanding it. The human being is incredibly complex. This complexity not only includes the complexity of the body [i.e. its physiological dimensions] but also the complexity of the other aspects it contains such as thought, feeling, will etc. For this reason, the complexity of human beings is a total composition [zongti goucheng]. The ethical nature of the body (that is to say, the body’s soul) is the authentic existence. I once expressed the following view: the body is the material manifestation of the soul, and the soul needs to realized by the body. Without the passageway of the body, the soul is an abstraction, it becomes an entirely unreal entity. Once an individual’s writing becomes dominated by the thought that there is only soul, not body, then this individual quickly tends towards metaphysics [xuanxue]. As a matter of fact, there is already a lot of contemporary metaphysical writing and, while it looks deep and meaningful, it is in fact utterly hollow, an experience of reading rather than [the product of] one’s own personal experiencing. Only a soul with body is solid, an outgrowth of the human body. The soul is not abstract, and the body cannot be reduced to corporeality. Some people think that the mere mention the word “soul” makes you a member of the abstractionist school, but this is a serious mistake. In actual fact, many of the most abstract philosophies and theologies do not deny the existence of the body and its importance. Take the Bible, for instance. Many people have not really understood the Bible and they think that what it is talking about is faith, a mythology, and so must be entirely unreal. This is not at all the case. In chapter one, verse one of the Gospel according to John it says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This everyone’s familiar with, but in verse 14 it says: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” I took the trouble of looking up a dictionary of ancient Greek and discovered that the words for “truth” [zhenli] and “reality” [shiji] were one and the same word. This was curious. Why was something said to be true? Because it was real. If something wasn’t real then it couldn’t be the truth. Many people suspect that they are dealing with mythology when they read “In the beginning was the Word” but they never get as far as “And the Word became flesh”: the Word was realized, the Word became reality, became something that could be realized within the physical body [roushen] and was no longer that abstract Word. If the Bible only dealt with that abstract Word, that Word that moves through the Heavens and has no connection with human beings, then we simply wouldn’t read it. However, because it tells the story of the Word made flesh, of a passageway established between God and humanity that connects the Word of God with the life of human beings on earth, the most abstract and the most concrete are brought together. Couldn’t writing likewise be a process in which “the Word” becomes “flesh”? However, in this case, the “word” is merely the individual thinking of the writer, while the “Word” of the Bible is God’s “Word”. Despite the difference, both share the goal of realizing something within the physical body, of being on the scene of the body [huode yige shenti de xianchang].

Yu Jian: I think of it in this way: the body needs to create, it ought to speak out in its own voice, only in this way does it have soul. The soul is created by the body, but the body is only a human body if it creates, only then is it not a body in the ordinary sense. The soul is not outside the body, or something that comes before the body: because there is, first of all, a body, the soul is created—only then is there a soul. True writing is a writing which has soul. The world “soul” has been used in a vulgar sense, as if it had nothing in common with the body, the body being ugly, the soul—something noble. A writing with soul is, of necessity, first of all a writing with body. A writing with soul but no body is a writing with dead soul, that so-called “soul” is nothing more than a dead soul because it has no carrier. In contemporary Chinese poetry, that writing that is metaphysical for metaphysics’ sake is a writing with dead soul and can exert no influence on the wisdom of humanity. In the Analects of Confucius it says: “The topics the Master did not speak of were prodigies, force, disorder and gods.” Actually, this indicates Confucius’ awe and veneration of so-called “sacred” things; at the same time, it incorporates Confucius’ respect for experience, and this respect for experience is, in fact, a respect for the body. Writing with a dead soul is a refusal of experience, a refusal of the body, and for this reason it is liable to go off into wild flights of fancy, to fall into that trap of “prodigies, force, disorder and gods”. This reminds me of the poet Haizi who committed suicide a decade or so ago. In certain writings found after his death, he described how he had practised qigong, how he went too far and became obsessed by it. His suicide is bound up with prodigies, force, disorder and gods: writing which lacks a body enters a state in which experience is “transcended”, thus becoming [a matter of] “prodigies, force, disorder and gods”. In contemporary China there is something of a tradition of “prodigies, force, disorder and gods”. The Cultural Revolution was the greatest instance of “prodigies, force, disorder and gods” in Chinese history because it departed from the basic experiences and common sense of Chinese history, because it left behind the body of China to fabricate a blueprint for a society of the future that transcended experience. A process combining fabrication and its enforcement on the part of the administrative powers produced [a climate of] “prodigies, force, disorder and gods”, violence, the resort to violence, a heedless destruction of the earth. For this reason, we have all along mistakenly taken this writing that refuses the body for a writing with soul. In face, the opposite is true: it is a writing with dead soul. That soul is not made of flesh and blood, it is not something created by means of a physical carrier, a corporeal body. Once this wild flight of fancy links up with power and gets out of control, it becomes “prodigies, force, disorder and gods”. If it’s only the poet who goes off into these wild flights of fancy, if you want to remove yourself from the world of experience to indulge in flights of fancy, then this is the freedom of the poet, but this mode of thinking. . . . For instance, there are a lot of these kinds of poets in America, a lot of American poets suffer from mental illnesses, and in their poetry, the “prodigies, force, disorder and gods” is their creative freedom and as such should be respected. American society emphasises experience, so the prodigies, force, disorder and gods of a minority of poets is of no serious concern—indeed, it makes their civilization richer and more varied. But China is not the same: this mode of thinking that does away with the body does not merely belong to a small number of poets: it is a mode of thinking that belongs to an entire nation, an entire politics and culture. I was a bystander during the Cultural Revolution and I believed it exercised a profound influence on contemporary Chinese culture. Some examples: the “spiritual revolution” [linghun de geming], the suppression of the body and of everyday life. I myself saw how, in the shoe stores in Kunming, all shoes were considered to be [part of] the capitalist life-style—they only sold straw sandals. The Cultural Revolution was not only directed at culture; it was also directed at life, something unique to China. When you read those works from the Stalinist era [in the Soviet Union], people are not permitted to speak, but they are able to perm their hair, wear high-heeled shoes, and play the piano—wasn’t Chingiz Torekulovich Aimatov’s short story called My Little Poplar in the Red Kerchief? Traditional ways of life and experiencing were not the target of that revolution. “Righteousness above family loyalty” and informing on other people all for the sake of political correctness reached unprecedented levels during the Cultural Revolution, while the destruction of ethical relationships for the sake of political correctness led to the disintegration of a fundamental trust between one person and another. No relationship could be relied upon; only relationships to politics were completely secure. Other problems included the period’s obsession with empty rhetoric (“false, exaggerated, hollow”), metaphysics, the nihilism with respect to Chinese history, the unthinking glorification of everything new. All these things came out of an a priori social blueprint, and were the result of regarding a world view derived from actual and traditional experience as a kind of hell. This metaphysics of prodigies, force, disorder and gods is an enormous latent influence on contemporary culture and this influence has even spread to the Chinese language—and by this I’m not merely referring to certain items of vocabulary that can be discarded because they were a product of their time.

This conversation was originally published in Huacheng 3 (2003).I would like to thank Dr Lyndall Morgan of the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies, University of Queensland for her expert help and advice on Soviet literature.

© Xie Youshun, Yu Jian  
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