Feng Jicai

Feng Jicai
b. 1942, Tianjin
Although born in Tianjin, Feng Jicai considers Cixi, Zhejiang, to be his ‘old home’ (laojia). Along with his wealthy parents he was singled out for abuse during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This decade-long event (1966–76) that Ba Jin once characterized as ‘China’s Holocaust’ registered effects upon Feng that have endured and shaped his work as novelist, painter, screenwriter, literary critic, editor and cultural preservationist. He and his writing are synonymous with Tianjin, a port city whose complex history of colonialism, imperialist aggression and revolutionary resistance is displayed in its eclectic architecture.
He is the author of more than forty works: essays, novels, short stories, prose pieces (sanwen)—such as the ‘Carriers of Taishan’ (1983), which has been standard reading for grade school children for nearly twenty years—documentary literature and literary criticism. Feng is best known for his literary production of the 1980s and early 1990s, that shortlived interval of ‘enlightenment’ (qimeng) and root-searching (xungen; see Root-seeking school) literature when Chinese writers encountered Modernism (xiandai zhuyi), and when narrative and the marvellous returned to acceptance.
Feng’s earliest published work was a two-volume experiment in historical fiction on the early twentieth-century rebellion of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists (Yihe quan., i.e. Boxers) co-written with Li Dingxing in 1977. By 1979 this work had brought him to public attention in the early literary waves of Scar literature (shanghen wenxue) from the Cultural Revolution. The absurdist, xenophobic but anti-dynastic heroism of the Boxers and their tragic slaughter at the hands of the British and American occupying forces in Beijing offered Feng a canvas especially well suited to the complex critique of culture and politics. This critique was continued in his subsequent work, most notably The Three-Inch Golden Lotus (Sancun jinlian), a tale of footbinding situated in the final decades of Qing era Tianjin, but focused on the barbarism of celebrating self-mutilation as art. The tale unfolds across three generations of bound-footed women, their binders and their admirers.
The Three-Inch Golden Lotus, a novella, constituted one part of a trilogy titled Curious Tales of a Strange World that brought Feng considerable notoriety in China and beyond. Published in 1986 on the heels of the Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign (Fandong jingshen wuran yundong), the novella confuted socialist realism, restored narrative for narrative’s sake, and urged readers to consider how the aesthetic of violence normalized in the Cultural Revolution made them complicit in their own destruction. The subject of footbinding is a keenly sensitive one in China’s cultural memory, and is, according to Feng, ‘a symbol of Chinese culture’s corruption and bad tradition [that] lets people believe that the ugly is beautiful and man-made abnormal things should seem beautiful’ (Barmé and Jaivin 1991: n.p.). The Three-Inch Golden Lotus is a fiercely clever and intensely political work that managed to elude censors because of the imagined quality of its history, emphasizing throughout the wholly fictitious quality of the tales: ‘If you’re looking for lies, then all becomes lies; If you’re looking for truth, then all becomes truth; But when you’re really into the story, you can’t tell the difference between the two’ (Feng Jicai 1994:3). He seized upon this problematic and artistically productive gap between true and false to paint a national canvas of the efficacy of deceit.
As a political allegory there could be no better metaphor for the distortion of self-imposed constraint and the wider coercion of social mandate than the binding and unbinding of women’s feet, which in Feng’s hands served as microcosm for the viciousness and savagery paired with high art of the revolutionary cultural politics of 1960s China. Here, the many perverse details of human tragedy became the stuff of connoisseurship. The singular interweaving of the fabulous and factional recalled the zhiguai and chuanqi literature of Qing writers like Pu Songling (1640–1715), and offered through this resemblance the revolutionary promise of old-time storytelling resurrected in the first decade following the rejection of socialist realism. Feng forged history, sociology, cultural psychology and allegory into a narrative of dissent, thereby creating ground for the self-constitution of the meaningful against the canons of a national fiction.
By 1988, when the ‘culture fever’ of the mid 1980s gave way to heated debates over pseudo-modernism (wei xiandai pai), Feng departed momentarily from fiction writing to take up an experiment in what he termed journalistic literature (jishi wenxue), recording the many tortured tales of the lives of Chinese during the Cultural Revolution and serially published in the journal Shiyue (October), in 1991. This work, The Decade of One Hundred People or Ten Years of Madness Yibai geren de shinian), is better understood as an ongoing project, the first twenty-four published accounts of which were culled from years of conversation engendered by Feng’s solicitation by newspaper announcement of personal accounts of the Cultural Revolution. The consequent incomplete literary record offers numerous vignettes of revenge, violence, victimization, cruelty, each of which is followed, in the manner of Pu Songling, by a single epistrophe, such as: The worshipped destroy the worshippers by killing their souls’, or ‘In dehumanizing times, the highest expression of human nature is destroying oneself. To date, there is no proper account of this era, but Feng’s searing, honest record of wanton human destructiveness and its ongoing consequences is, like the Holocaust, destined to be forgotten if not actively remembered.
In recent years Feng has returned to painting watercolours of city (Feng Jicai hua Tianjin) and countryside, and has received the numerous honours befitting an accomplished writer, including election as Chairman of the Chinese Novel Study Society in 2001 (replacing Wang Meng). He serves as the president of the city’s Municipal Federation of Literary and Art Circles and was honoured by Tianjin University with its establishment of the Feng Jicai Literature and Art Institute (Feng Jicai wenyi xueyuan). The last decade has been one of preservationist activism as Feng has undertaken the defence of the aesthetic and cultural integrity of his native city against the ravages of the bulldozers of development. His local success in this respect has led to a wider national initiative. In 2002 he formed a Chinese People’s Artist Federation, calling for a national symposium on the protection of Chinese cultural heritage in folklore and folk art. This work is ongoing and expanding on a national scale so that the traditional cultural heritage of China’s many peoples may be documented before it is extinguished.
Barmé, Geremie and Jaivin, Linda (eds) (1991). New Ghosts, Old Dreams. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.
Feng, Jicai (1985). Chrysanthemums and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company.
——(1987). The Miraculous Pigtail. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals.
——(1991). Paoda shuangdeng. Beijing: Huayi chubanshe.
——(1991). Voices from the Whirlwind: An Oral History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books.
——(1994). The Three-Inch Golden Lotus. Trans. David Wakefield. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
——(1996). Let One Hundred Flowers Bloom. New York: Penguin Books.
——(1996). Ten Years of Madness: Oral Histories of China’s Cultural Revolution. San Francisco: China Books and Periodicals.
——(1998). Zhonghua sanwen zhen cang ben. Beijing: Renmin wenxue.
Braester, Yomi and Zhang, Enhua (2002). The Future of China’s Memories: An Interview with Feng Jicai’. Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese 5.2:131–48.
Gaenssbauer, Monika (2002). The Cultural Revolution in Feng Jicai’s Fiction’. In Woei Lian Chong (ed.), China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: Master Narratives and Post-Mao Counter-narratives. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Little-field, 319–44.
Wang, David (1988). ‘Tai Hou-ying, Feng ChiTs’ai and Ah Cheng: Three Approaches to the Historical Novel’. Asian Culture Quarterly 16.2: 70–88.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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