A Chinese Novelist on Faith

By Chloe Starr 

The relation between writers and strong-arm states has always offered paradoxes of acclaim and ostracism: consider the Latin American novelas del dictator, or Solzhenitsyn and Soviet rule. As Innokenty noted in The First Circle, “for a country to have a great writer…is like having another government. That’s why no régime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.” The role of seer, or truth-teller, is heightened when people cannot speak freely, and communist leaders have long valorized the power of literature and the prestige writers bring to a country, while retaining the right to circumscribe their influence.

The generation of Chinese writers who grew up at the height of the Maoist era lived under a state that that promoted an atheist orthodoxy and claimed the right to know and judge a person’s inner thoughts. The writer Shi Tiesheng (1951-2010), who was rendered disabled during the Great Proletarian Culture Revolution, was later lauded by state bodies for his “disability fiction.” One of his short stories, “Strings of Life,” a tale of a blind banjo player seeking the meaning of existence, appears in a middle-school text book that was read by all. But Shi was also deeply interested in the interior life, and in the last two decades of his life his non-fiction writings in particular explored meaning and personhood through a range of Buddhist and Christian ideas. Delving into the self and the psyche, exploring what it meant to be human from within one’s own resources and experience, was an act of defiance and an article of faith.

Unlike millennials today in China, for many urban intellectuals of Shi’s generation there were no certainties, no clear-cut definitions of faith. Myth and story-telling are the preferred tropes to explore transcendence. Shi eschews both orthodox Christian formulae and Marxist materialism in his enquiry into the need for a human “I” to give significance to life in the face of death, while his musing on human nature encompasses a range of contemporary existential crises: the myth of science; the seeming meaninglessness of fate; the future of designer humans.

Narrative experimentation in the 1980s and 90s enabled avant-garde authors in China to protest the strictures of socialist life and fixed meanings. In Shi Tiesheng’s non-fiction writings, fragmented narratives reflect the fractured nature of life—but one of his most consistent challenges to overarching national narratives was simply in the depiction of the human soul. On the back cover of Shi Tiesheng’s anthology Matters of the Soul (Linghun de shi 灵魂的事), with its terrible English translation of “Think on Soul” printed vertically next to the Chinese text, the publishers’ blurb includes a quotation from Nobel laureate Mo Yan saying “I am full of admiration for Shi Tiesheng, because not only is he an exceptional writer, but, more, he is a great person.” As Mo Yan implies, the philosophical and theological bases to Shi’s writing have a real, human outcome, and his questioning of what it means to be human, and his own achieved humanity, are fundamentally related to his religious vision. The gentle humor of Shi’s writing should not lead readers to underestimate the depths of suffering in his experience of being a sent-down youth and of lifelong paraplegia. (Shi once acknowledged that he wrote to ward off suicide.)

The heightened consciousness of mortality that many of Shi Tiesheng’s fictional characters display is present in his own ever-brooding sense of death. Death, he argues, is not a one-off event, but a process; people die little by little. Life itself is a passage: one arrives, unaware of the starting point until awareness emerges. Life, death, time, and history are all a matter of perspective, with the novelist’s task to observe, as through a telescope, and divine their meaning. Time and habit, suggests Shi, limit us and keep most of us mired in reality, extinguishing the miraculous. When the body is fixed in a bed or a wheelchair, the soul’s mind roams abroad on dark nights, leaving behind the body, the devilish tricks of daylight, and reality itself, and entering an alternative reality where dreamers can be heard and a play of wandering spirits unfolds. Illness and the dream world coalesce in that semi-conscious state that is a space of thinness to the divine. “In a dream I heard, the soul/ is like a horsefly/ buzzing against a window,” he writes in Matters of the Soul.

A semi-fictional imaginative essay, “Lucky Design” or “Designer Luck” (好运设计), published in 1990, provides an intriguing answer to the question of many of Shi’s fictional characters, why me? Why this illness, this fate? After setting out his checklist for what he wants in the next life (to be intelligent, handsome, with a good body: ideally the body of Carl Lewis, the suave bearing of Zhou Enlai, and the mind of Einstein), Shi acknowledges that “fate from the outset is unfair,” but that we have to accept responsibility for living with the hand we are dealt. In the scenario Shi sets up, he gets to choose the perfect designer self, with all the geographical and social advantages to make the best of his somatic perfection. Further reflection, however, suggests that rich parents, a loving home, and a future with no worries “are also a disability, a kind of cage” and that a degree of affliction and disappointment in life is necessary for human flourishing. Over several pages, Shi builds his picture of the ideal, the perfect “lucky design” for life, where “in all things you have been chosen by God to be the incarnation of the beautiful.” The “lucky” character studies at the most desirable university, runs a sub-10 second 100 meters, attracts hordes of girls—but, the narrative voice questions, mid-way: can a perfect life truly be enjoyed? Will it not be boring? With nothing to overcome, can there be any sense of achievement? Without pain and tribulation, Shi suggests, “you will never strongly feel happiness. Just a cozy mediocrity…”

The real problem with a life of unmitigated happiness, is, as it turns out, that it leaves one unprepared for death. A person who has never come across pain that cannot be dissipated or a barrier that cannot be overcome is like “a child spoiled by God.” When death comes, the perfect victor may question what all of his success has been for: if others cannot enjoy the same blessings of happiness and painlessness, can there be true happiness? Is this not a pyrrhic victory? The impasse, suggests Shi, can only be resolved if one begins to care about the process more than the aim. The one who lives life as process will be fearless in death. While we need ideals and faith to resolve questions of the soul, Shi argues, the process is itself the point, the ongoing realization of the ideal.

For Shi Tiesheng, the self is not just a body, and the essence of humanity lies not in the body but the “course of the heart’s journey.” “I” am not bounded by my body, and my soul continues over generations, living on as long as human life and love continue. Throughout his writing and his life, Shi Tiesheng’s bold thinking challenged the prevalent championing of science and scientific rationale as the be-all and end-all of human life. His notion of the human was gentle and affirming of all, affirming of bodily difference and mental difference. His ultimate response to suffering and evil in the world was a rejection of the alternative: of a perfect, designer world with no flaws and nothing to strive for or love. As Shi questions the accounts of the human that have been the mainstay of atheist ideology in Communist China, he points towards the great biblical narratives of creation and suffering, to myths and dreams for insight. But while God relates to humans, that relationship is all but unfathomable. The process of understanding is our undertaking; the way of the cross not the cross itself.

The post above is adapted from the author’s article, “Shi Tiesheng and the Nature of the Human,” published in Christianity & Literature 68.1 (December 2018), a special issue on Christianity and Chinese literary studies. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.