Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mysterious division: A look at “Black Walls”

Mysterious division:
A look at “Black Walls”

Adam K. Dorsey

Chinese 503
Autumn Quarter 2008
Professor Kirk A. Denton
December 4, 2008

Liu Xinwu (Chinese: 刘心武, Liú Xīnwǔ) is considered to be one of the earliest proponents of the post-Maoist division of Modern Chinese literature. In his short story written in 1982, “Black Walls”, Liu focuses on an overcrowded court-yard tenement in the old city of Beijing. It is in this setting that Liu is able to display what the social pressures and burdens of years under Maoism did to the average Beijing resident. Liu is interested in the interaction between the individual self and the collective group.
The story of “Black Walls” centers on the actions of a relatively unknown “every man”, the tenement neighbor named Zhou. On the morning of the narrative, Zhou paints the walls of his own tenement black. Drama quickly ensues when Zhou’s neighbors congregate in another tenement to collectively disapprove and criticize Zhou and the black walls. The action of the plot is relatively minimal as Liu focuses more on the social aspects of the morning’s drama. Zhou’s neighbors seek to condemn Zhou’s action, and it becomes clear that there has been a paradigm shift away from the judgmental social structure created under Maoism that ruled their past. Liu uses narrative structure alongside the thoughts and speech of the characters in the group to define and measure this shift. As the story concludes, a young character reveals this measurement as ironic distance in the narrative as he confounds and indicts the old, leaving the socialist courtyard group speechless, but unchanged.
“Black Walls” is strictly organized, and holds to a tight linear chronological interpretation of a single morning’s events. Italicized lines at the opening of each episode read like a timestamp. It is through this structure that Liu plays with the expectations of the “old guard” Maoist Government. This is to say, the rigid censors who viewed Liu’s work in the past. It is true that Liu worked as an editor at a number of prominent government-sponsored publications throughout most of the 1980s. However, in 1987, he was fired as editor of the publication People's Literature after a story he allowed to be printed failed to meet government approval. It is with this in mind that the reader can see irony in the narrative structure.
So we can read the italicized timestamp: “Five, no, four to eight” (p.3) as humor toward the absurd expectations that the Maoist censors had toward the individual artist. The “Five, no, four to eight” timestamp is a statement that stands satirically opposed to the notion that an artist should be expected to report as a strict realist. That is to ask the censor: What time should be recorded if the clock’s minute hand ticks over while I am in mid-sentence? It is through over-emphasis of the details in the narrative structure of “Black Walls” that Liu makes his critical attack on the Maoist expectation of realism in literature. However, realism is not the only Maoist expectation critically attacked in Liu’s narrative structure.
Liu also points criticism toward the Maoist ideal of homogeny with his narrative structure. It seems, “Five, no, four to eight” is just one of many different ways to record a timestamp. Other methods Liu uses to report the time include: “About 7.46”(p.3), “About a quarter past eight”(p.4), “8.25, or thereabouts. Meanwhile –”(p.5) , “It was past 8.36”(p.7) and finally the he settles on, “8.37”(p.7) . It would appear to the reader that Liu is struggling to make his timestamps as diverse as possible. Liu’s heterogeneous time stamping asks of the reader: If these methods of recording time are all acceptable when presented in a homogenous way, why are the same methods agents of discomfort when presented heterogeneously? Through over-emphasis of diversity in the narrative structure of “Black Walls”, Liu critically attacks the structured expectations of the Maoist censors.
As if he were burdened to do so by the self-appointed censorship committee within his own plot, Liu adjusts his narrative structure’s time stamping into a completely homogenous line as the narrative progresses. What the narrative structure is left to resemble is the very theme Liu wishes to discuss. That is the question: What happens when diversity meets homogeny? Or, in other words, Liu reports the individual self’s struggle to remain independent of the collective, “individual-consuming” group. The reader is first introduced to this through the symbolic character for “double happiness” printed on the unmarried individual Zhou’s wash bin. “He wasn’t a day under thirty, and was most probably a bachelor, though he used one of those wash bins with a “double happiness” design in red on it. Strange that - maybe he was divorced.” (p.1) Liu establishes a narrative voice that is sympathetic to the homogenous group. This narrative voice allows Liu to draw the reader into the narrative and firmly establish expectations of the group. Furthermore, it allows Liu to assume the reader is aligned to the absurdly homogenous expectation of say, what a Chinese man should be at the age of “over thirty”. It is this first expectation of the individual self’s coupling or attachment through the age old institution of marriage that provides a gentle gateway into Liu’s thematic discussion of social constructions that seek to limit and consume the individual self.
As seen already with “double happiness” Liu uses symbols to represent larger ideas. “Black Walls” is a story that contains many images as symbols. One main way Liu approaches the theme of diversity vs. homogeny is through use of color imagery. To begin, Liu chooses the title “Black Walls”, perhaps, with interest in that mysterious unknown that divides neighbors. Indeed, the black paint acts mysteriously as a divider of neighbors. Mrs. Li’s thoughts about Zhou’s painting express the homogenous ideal: “Maybe he (her son) could make Zhou stop this silliness. Then they could repaint his place white together. White was such a lovely colour. How could the walls of a house be anything but white?”(p.10, parenthesis mine) The question in Li’s mind, while ironically distant from the author’s own artistic opinion, could be reframed as the question of this short story. It would then be asked as: With neighbors like these, how could an individual paint his walls anything but white?
Again Liu uses color as a dividing agent among the neighbors. Neighbor Qian reports a scandalous scene: “Just last week I saw Zhou airing his quilt outside his place – none of you others probably noticed – a quilt, mind you, with its cover made of red satin. Not all that strange, you may say; but wait for it: the underside was bright red as well! You can’t tell me he isn’t wacky!” (p.6) Liu uses the contrast between the colors black and white to symbolize the struggle between diverse individualism and homogeny. To the homogenous ideal, the walls should remain white. And again, to the absurd homogenous ideal, quilts should not be red on both sides.
Even among the homogenous group, color is used as a critical dividing line. While remaining a part of the homogenous group with his agreement on Zhou, neighbor Qian expresses his individual opinion. Old Zhao and his wife think divisively about neighbor Qian’s new found identity within the homogeny: “You’re nothing but an old tailor – they thought in unison. Back in the days when we had you pegged as a petty exploiter you wouldn’t have dared talk back like that. Now look at you: just because you make a bit of money by taking in work and sit watching your new colour TV, you think you can speak to us like that?”(p.5-6 italics mine) It is evident here that Liu is using the symbol of color television to express Qian’s liberation from the oppressive social pressures of the past.
Liu uses color imagery as a type of self-exodus from the black and white collective homogeny of the past. Colors provide Liu with a vehicle to criticize the past social order under Maoism. This criticism is Liu’s use of color alongside the new found expression of self in Post-Maoist China. Liu does not suggest that the individual self was completely swallowed up by the homogenous collective beast of Maoism. On the contrary, Liu uses neighbor Qian as an example to how the individual self has continued and, indeed, been redeemed from the past. By this “continued” is meant Qian’s individual self was not born after the death of Mao, it was liberated from the oppression that dictated it to be silent. And, by this “redeemed” is meant that Qian does not think differently then he did in the past, only that he is now able to, once again, express his thoughts.
Liu does not just use color imagery to establish social divisions among neighbors, it can also be seen a divider of generations. “A few of the young people living in the courtyard were going out as it was their day off. They were all dressed up One girl who spent her days selling meat had decked herself out in imitation jeweled ear-rings…cream coloured high heels…her automatic nylon umbrella with a floral pattern in blue burst open the moment she stepped into the street…The young fellow who worked in a foundry was sporting a jersey he’d got ahold of somewhere with the legend “Indiana University, USA” printed on it…a pair of corduroys made for a safari suit…tinted sunglasses...Then there was the girl who was studying business management…a pale green skirt that she’d made herself …” (p.3)
The colorful descriptions of these youth burst forth on the narrative like the young lady’s colorful umbrella bursts out onto the drab grey street. . It is with this youthful color that Liu transitions from the past black and white Maoist period into the bright future. Liu carefully places the fashionable individualism of these youth together with descriptions of their faceless servitude. While one is just the “girl who sells meat” during the work week, she becomes a jeweled, cream-colored, nylon-flower toting individual on her day off. This is something fantastic to the grey world around her. She is colorful, in spite of her environment, feeling none of the pressures to conform to the dreary concreted past of Maoism, and its social order. This is Liu saying that the frustrated, isolated, socially pressured individual self of the black and white past is now putting on the colorful future.
At the end of his narrative, Liu chooses to introduce a new character to the morning’s drama. Little Button speaks to the adults: “I know you’re all angry with Uncle Zhou for painting his walls. You don’t know him; he’s really nice, he’s fun to play with.” (p.11) With these simple words, Little Button confounds the “old guard” social order. Liu uses the innocent child to complete the overthrow the hypocritical Maoist social construction. While Little Button only represents a small portion of the narrative, his character and dialog are extremely important as they become Liu’s final verdict to the past.
Little Button’s work is not only to stun the past social order, Liu also uses Little Button to show vision of the future. And, again, Liu uses color in this vision. In particular Liu speaks to what he sees the colorful future holding for the individual self as an artist. Button continues to speak: “Once he (Zhou) called me into his room and showed me a pile of cardboard pieces. They were as big as the evening paper, and all different colours. He showed them to me on after the other, holding them right up close to my eyes so all I could see was that colour. Then he asked me lots of questions: ‘Do you like this one or not? Does it make you feel like going to sleep or going out to play? What does this one make you think of – or doesn’t it make you think of anything? Does this one make you feel scared or not? Does this one make you feel thirsty? Do you want to keep looking at it or not? He wrote down everything I said in a little book. He’s great fun, really.”(p.12)
Liu uses Little Button as the innocent spectator of art for Liu’s own hopeful vision of China’s future. “Black Walls” draws to a conclusion with the author appealing to the beauty of the aesthetic in art, that is to say the sensory contemplation of an object as beautiful. Art, then, finds its values in empathy, not politics. The questions that Zhou asks Little Button are personal and subjective. These questions serve towards the transfer of feeling and experience from one individual to another.
In conclusion, the author Liu XinWu’s “Black Walls” provides insight into an old problem. Lu Xun formed an image of this problem in his introduction to “A Call to Arms” when he described a crowd of onlookers at an execution. The apathy of the observers was startling. Again, Lu Xun wrote of these critical spectral crowds in “Diary of a Madman”, but he did not provide a hopeful transition away from the “cannibalistic” disapproval of “other”. Little Button provides Liu’s answer to the cannibalism. Liu seems to envision the individual transfer of empathy solving the problem of group apathy. And, if such a common “every man” as Zhou, in such a common setting as an urban courtyard can transmit this empathy to the next generation, there is great hope for the reformation of the larger society, through the individual. That is, if we can see past black walls that divide.

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