One of the greatest things about this year’s edition of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) is the diversity of the festival. SWF 2015 is a celebration of the written word but also a celebration of the diverse mediums that the written word can be found in, including but not limited to plays, films, music. Diversity does not only extend to medium but even to language and one of the most hotly anticipated events of SWF has to be China Re-Visioned 另一个中国, a dialogue session with 2 prominent Chinese intellectuals, Hong Kong’s Chip Tsao (陶杰) and China’s Xu Zhiyuan (许知远).
First before I talk about the event itself, here’s a little context. 陶杰 is a prominent HK writer & journalist who is also a famous media personality. His fame was earned through his witty and sarcastic remarks on current and social affairs on radio, television and in print. 许知远 on the other hand is a journalist as well as a intellectual whose views are highly sought after and (to my utter delight) he’s also an independent book store owner in Beijing! The entire event was in Mandarin and held at the beautiful Victorian Theatre. Despite it being a ticketed event ($35 a pop), the Victoria Theatre was fully packed and it was evident that China was a subject that interested many. We even saw Member of Parliament Baey Yam Keng there, and yes he’s as good looking in real life as in the media.
陶杰老师 Photo Credit: cdn.thestandnews.com
The two speakers spoke on a wide variety of topics regarding China but tended to stay away from China’s politics and economics and instead focused more on Chinese culture. 陶杰老师 had a more traditional mind than 许知远老师. In his opening address, he screened a page from an old Chinese textbook which showed a father and son in traditional yet simple clothing planting vegetables in their yard. He explained that this was the 另一个中国 that he longed to see, a simple China where the vegetables you planted tasted better than any meat you could buy, a non-materialistic China that cared for the environment and cared for the betterment of the people. Throughout the dialogue, he expounded on the importance of traditional Chinese values as taught by 孔子和孟子. It is his belief that it is the people who make up a country and the people’s values is the country’s values, thus to change the country, one had to start with the people. In his view, Red China after WWII was destroyed by Mao, culture, learning, etiquette, basically everything that made life beautiful burned with him and the Gang of Four. After them, Deng Xiaoping in 1978 declared the goal of life to be one of economic progress for China and getting rich for the ordinary Chinese. The whole of China has since been suffering from the consequence of Mao and indirectly Deng. What made the dialogue interesting beyond the depthless treasure trove of knowledge these 2 men share between them is the witty and humourous way that 陶杰老师 puts his points and views across. They’re easy to understand, humourous and memorable, the 3 traits that has made him a hugely successful columnist.
许知远老师 on the other hand played Devil’s advocate to 陶杰老师 for most of the night. As a writer whose works are banned in China yet who continues to live in China, he has an in-depth understanding of mainland China and the Chinese youth. While 陶杰老师 is more traditional and quick to label technology as the modern day Satan (though he does acknowledge that it’s mostly through the way we use our technology), 许知远老师 opinions were more suitable for the 21st century and it was clear that his opinions were born out of long thought out convictions. One of the most memorable things that he said was to a question posed to him on how the ordinary Chinese could better shape the society that they want to see. His answer was succinct yet beautiful, it was to simply live life, to fall in love, to pursue your passions, to live life the way you want to. In order to understand something far bigger than the individual – the nation/country, one has to understand oneself, yet to understand the individual, one has to view it in a context of something bigger than the individual. It was a seemingly contradicting fallacy that when you think about a little more, made perfect sense.
许知远老师 looking pretty fly with the long hair. Photo Credit: cw1.tw
Interestingly, the main focus for much of the talk was about 海洋华人, Chinese people who are not from the Mainland but rather around the world including Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even in Australia or the United States. Almost all of the audience questions was with regards to 海洋华人 though it’s perhaps not too surprising since everyone in the Theatre is a 海洋华人. I felt that the curiosity of 海洋华人 and our place in Chinese culture was completely justified. We are developing our own unique culture and identity that is getting increasingly difficult to associate with the Mainland Chinese culture and worldview. Yet we are still proud to identify as Chinese and the disconnect between these 2 emotions has led to a huge identity crisis. However, both 许知远老师 and 陶杰老师 were quick to reassure the audience that often times, the best moments in Chinese history occurred during a fragmented China. The greatest poets/writers, thinkers, artists lived during an epoch where China was not whole and some of the worst moments in Chinese history occurred in a unified China. Even after the Cultural Revolution, it was the Chinese from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan who helped Mainland China rebuild, teaching them how to do business, bringing back books that were burnt or banned.
While politics was a topic that was sadly largely ignored, especially given China’s increasing dominance and confrontational stance, one of the most interesting moments was when a question was posed with regards to President Xi JinPing and his anti-corruption campaign. 陶杰老师 was quick to point out that while Xi might be doing a good thing, in the end, it’s merely targeting the symptom of the sickness and not the root of the sickness. He explains that Mao was once an idealist, at the age of 18, he studied hard to go to Peking University so that one day he could right the wrong and the injustice that he saw, but in the end, despite the idealism of Marx, he was corrupted by power. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” was the quote used and one that I had to agree fully. After his anti-corruption campaign, it will be clear that President Xi will wield more power than any man in China since Mao, how he will use that power though is unclear. 陶杰老师 cheekily asked us to ask President Xi himself when he comes on a state visit to Singapore next week!