Li Ao, 70, is a prominent writer and political commentator in Taiwan. Mirth or laughter, bouts of anger or strings of curses, all make excellent writing under his pen. Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolis Weekly caught up with the feisty 70-year-old Li on January 26 for his views on the state of literature on the mainland and life in general.
According to Li, the Chinese mainland is currently devoid of any renowned literary figures. Following the "cultural revolution", there emerged the so-called "trauma literature" of the 1970s and 80s. Gripped by extreme sadness, writers of this genre lamented the past and were "good-for-nothing."
He added that although some of today's best-selling authors might earn good money, they shun reality. Citing Nanjing-based Yu Qiuyu, a popular prose writer, he said: "All he did was just travel. And he took some notes to amuse himself."
The post-"cultural revolution" generation has been given relatively ample opportunities for personal development. However, society has at the same time become more institutionalized, leaving young people less room to display their individuality and talent.
"Having choices and options are essential, especially for someone who's feeling beaten. But modern times have deprived people of this right, even the simple pleasure of living a pirate's life as British philosopher (Bertrand) Russell recommended.
"So, the literati on the mainland as a whole is not worth mentioning."
Ji Xianlin, 95, a professor from Peking University's School of Foreign Languages and a famed academician, recently declined to accept the titles of "Guoxue (Chinese culture studies) Master," "Leading Scholar" and "National Treasure."
"As the saying goes, 'In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'," Li said. "As all the other masters died off, Professor Ji became the only remaining man of great learning. But he is not yet entitled to be a 'master'."
Turning to last year's Guoxue fever on the mainland, Li defined it as a good way to escape from reality. "In the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong ordered a compilation of the Complete Library in the Four Branches of Literature. The decade-long project involved several hundred scholars from across the country as it was both interesting and removed from politics. Meanwhile, I won't deny that Guoxue can help to strengthen the self-confidence and cohesiveness of the Chinese nation."
Not long ago, several mainland PhD students published an open letter, calling on people to reject the concept of Christmas as imported from the West.
"Chinese intellectuals should know how to understand and appreciate the merits and essence of Western culture, and in turn make a cultural comparison between East and West," Li advised.
Li is noted for his unconventional and untrammeled remarks and articles. Many readers feel that his writing style is similar to that of Lu Xun (1881-1936), a highly respected writer from the mainland who studied in Japan when he was young. But Li has quite a low opinion of Lu.
"Have you ever heard Lu cursing Japan?" Li asked. "Rather interestingly, on his deathbed, Lu still received money from the KMT National Government's Central Academy, and his books were never banned. I'm more a follower of Hu Shi (1891-1962) who advocated democracy and science during the May 4th Movement (a political and cultural movement in 1919 against imperialism and feudalism). Lu at that time even opposed the idea of parliamentary politics."
Li doesn't believe himself to be a scholar, "but I am unique in terms of how I digest and apply in a creative way what I have read."
A born optimist, the dare-to-think and dare-to-do Li Ao claimed that he was the "only one in history" who helped intellectuals, labeled as Choulaojiu (literally translated as "Ninth category stinking people) during the "cultural revolution," to hold their heads high.
When delivering a speech at Peking University in September 2005, Li expressed the wish to retire on Hainan Island.
"Su Dongpo (1037-1101), a famous writer and calligrapher of the Northern Song Dynasty, lived there in exile for three years. Penniless and frustrated, he couldn't even afford a writing brush.
"Besides, the island is part of the mainland, neither too close nor too far. Living there, you still feel that you are all alone. I like this special feeling."
(China.org.cn by Shao Da, February 2, 2007)