Yan Lianke: What Happens After Coronavirus?
On Community Memory and Repeating Our Own Mistakes
On February 21, Yan Lianke, IAS Sin Wai Kin professor of Chinese Culture and chair professor at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, gave an e-lecture to his class of graduate students on coronavirus, community memory, and how storytellers will one day address the outbreak. Below is a translation of that lecture, published first in ThinkChina and translated by Grace Chong.
My dear students,
Today is our first e-lecture. Before we begin, allow me to first digress a little.
When I was little, whenever I committed the same mistake two to three times in a row, my parents would drag me in front of them, point at my forehead, and ask:
“Why are you so forgetful?!”
During my Chinese classes, whenever I failed to recite a literary text after I have read it for the umpteenth time, my teacher would order me to stand up, and question me in front of the whole class:
“Why are you so forgetful?!”
The ability to remember is the soil in which memories grow, and memories are the fruit of this soil. Possessing memories and the ability to remember are the fundamental differences between humans, and animals or plants. It is the first requirement for our growth and maturity. Many times, I feel that it is even more important than eating, putting on clothes, and breathing—once we lose our memories, we’ll forget how to eat, or lose our ability to plough the fields. We’ll forget where our clothes are when we wake up in the morning. We’ll believe that the emperor does look better naked than when clothed. Why am I talking about all these today? It is because Covid-19—a national and global catastrophe—has not truly been contained; families are still torn apart and heart-wrenching cries ring out throughout Hubei, Wuhan, and elsewhere. Yet, songs of victory are already echoing all around. All because statistics are looking up.
Bodies have not turned cold and people are still mourning. Yet, triumphal songs are ready to be sung and the people are ready to proclaim, “Oh, how wise and great!”
From the day Covid-19 entered our lives until now, we do not know exactly how many people have lost their lives to it—how many have died in the hospitals, and how many have passed away outside. We’ve not even had the chance to investigate and ask about these things. Even worse, such investigations and questions may end as time passes, and forever remain a mystery. We’ll leave the future generations to inherit a messy entanglement of life and death that no one has a memory of.
When the outbreak finally eases, we must not be like Aunt Xianglin (祥林嫂, a fictional character in Lu Xun’s novel, characterized as a lowly and foolish peasant woman stuck in feudalism), rattling on in perpetuity: “I only know that wild beasts will prowl the village during the winter when there’s nothing to eat in the mountains; I have no idea they’ll also do the same during spring time.” Yet, we must also not be like Ah Q (阿Q, a fictional character in Lu Xun’s novel, characterized for deceiving himself into believing he’s successful or more superior than others), time and again insisting that we are victors even after being hit, insulted, and being on the brink of death.
In the past and present times of our lives, why do tragedies and disasters always fall on the individual, family, society, era, or country, one after the other? And why are the catastrophes of history always paid for with the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary people? Amid the countless factors that we don’t know, don’t ask, or were told not to ask (to which we obediently listened), there’s this one factor—humans, all of us collectively as the human race, the ant-like nobodies—are forgetful beings.
Our memories have been regulated, replaced, and erased. We remember what others tell us to remember, and forget what we’re told to forget. We stay silent when we’re asked to, and sing on command. Memories have become a tool of the era, used to forge collective and national memories, made up of what we’re either told to forget or asked to remember.
Imagine this: let’s not talk about dusty old book covers that have become a thing of the past; let’s just recall the most recent happenings in the past 20 years. The events that people like you, the kids born in the 80s and 90s, have all experienced and remember—national catastrophes like AIDS, SARS, and Covid-19—are they man-made disasters, or are they natural disasters that humans stand powerless before, like the Tangshan and Wenchuan earthquakes? Then why is it that human factors in the former type of national disasters are virtually the same? Especially since the SARS epidemic from 17 years ago, and the escalation of the current Covid-19 epidemic seem as if they are works by the same theatre director. The same tragedy is re-enacted before our eyes. As humans who are but dust, we are incapable of finding out who this director is, nor do we possess the expertise to recover and put together the scriptwriter’s thoughts, ideas, and creations. But, when we stand before the re-enactment of this “death play” yet again, shouldn’t we at least ask ourselves what our memories were of the last one we were a part of?
Who erased our memories and wiped them clean?!
Forgetful people are, in essence, dirt in the fields and on the roads. Grooves on the sole of a shoe can step on them in whichever way they please.
Forgetful people are, in essence, woodblocks and planks that have cut ties with the tree that gave them life. Saws and axes are in full control of what they become in the future.
To us, the people who add meaning to life because of the love for writing, and the people who’d live their whole lives relying on these Chinese characters; to the master’s students of HKUST currently online, and of course including the authors who’ve graduated from or are still studying at Renmin University of China’s creative writing Master’s class—if we also gave up on our own memories of bloodshed and life, what’s the meaning of writing then? What’s the value of literature? Why does society need writers? How is your ceaseless writing, diligence, and the many books you have written different from being a puppet that’s controlled by others? If reporters do not report what they witness, and authors do not write about their memories and feelings; if the people in society who can talk and know how to talk are always recounting, reading, and proclaiming in pure lyrical political correctness, who can tell us what it means to live on this earth as flesh and blood?
Imagine this: the author Fang Fang did not exist in today’s Wuhan. She did not keep records or pen down her personal memories and feelings. Neither were there tens of thousands of people who were like Fang Fang and would send out loud cries for help via their mobile phones. What would we have heard? What would we have seen?
Amid the great torrents of an era, one’s own memories are often treated as superfluous foams, tides and noise that the era wipes out or carelessly throws aside, silencing them in voices and in words, as if they’ve never existed. Alas, with the passing of an era, everything fades into oblivion. Flesh and blood, body and soul are gone. All is well, and the little fulcrum of truth that could lift the world is lost. As such, history becomes a collection of legends, of lost and imagined stories, that are baseless and unfounded. From this perspective then, how important it is that we can remember, and possess our own memories that are neither revised nor erased. It is the least amount of certainty and evidence that we can provide when we speak a little truth. This is especially important for students of this creative writing class. The majority of us are destined to dedicate our lives to writing, seeking the truth, and living as a person through our memories. If there comes a day when even people like us lose that pitiable amount of authenticity and memories, will there still be personal and historical authenticity and truth in the world?
In actual fact, even if our ability to remember and our memories can do nothing to change the world or reality, it can at least help us discern that something is amiss when we face centralized and regulated “truths.” The little voice in us will say: “That’s not true!” At least, before the true arrival of the outbreak’s turning point, we will still be able to hear and remember the mourning and crying of individuals, families, and the marginalized, amid deafening celebratory and triumphal songs.
Memories cannot change the world, but it gives us a genuine heart.I hope that each of you, and all of us who’ve experienced the catastrophic Covid-19 will become people who remember; people who derive memories from memory.
While memories may not give us the power to change reality, it can at least raise a question in our hearts when a lie comes our way. If there comes another Great Leap Forward someday and people revert to using backyard furnaces, it can at least convince us that sand will not turn into iron, and one mu [a unit of measurement, approximately 667 sqm] of yield will not weigh 100,000 catties. We will at least know that this is the most basic common sense, and not some miracle of consciousness producing matter, or air creating food. If there’s another Cultural Revolution of some sort, we’ll at least be able to guarantee that we will not land our parents in prison or on the guillotine.
My dear students, we’re all arts students who will probably spend our lifetime dealing with reality and memories through language. Let us not talk about collective memories, national memories, or memories of our ethnicity, but our own; for in history, national and collective memories always shroud and change our own memories. Today, at this present moment, when Covid-19 is still far from being a memory yet, we can already hear victory songs and loud triumphant cries from all around us. Because of this, I hope that each of you, and all of us who’ve experienced the catastrophic Covid-19 will become people who remember; people who derive memories from memory.
In the predictable near future, as the nation celebrates its victory against this national battle that is the Covid-19 with music and song, I hope that we will not become empty and hollow writers who echo along, but people who are simply living authentically with our own memories. When the grand performance comes, I hope that we will not be one of the actors or narrators on stage, or one of those who applaud for the sake of being part of the performance—I hope that we will be the reserved and forlorn ones who stand at the furthest corner of the stage, looking on silently with tears in our eyes. If our talent, courage, and mental strength is unable to turn us into a writer like Fang Fang, then may we not be among the people and voices who doubt and ridicule Fang Fang. Amid the eventual return to a state of calm and prosperity while surrounded by waves of song, if we can’t loudly question the source and spread of Covid-19, then may we softly mutter and hum, for that is also a display of our conscience and courage. Writing poems after the Auschwitz concentration camp period was indeed barbaric, but it is even more barbaric if we simply choose to forget it in words, in conversations and in memories—it is indeed much more barbaric and horrifying.
If we can’t be a whistle-blower like Li Wenliang, then let us at least be someone who hears that whistle.
If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories. Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of Covid-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.