In the 1980s, when China was starting to open up to the world, Latin American literature, with Gabriel García Márquez as the representative, poured into China. When we read “magic realism,” it seemed familiar, it seemed close to us, and that is because in their suffering and their difficult, incredible histories, Chinese people and Latin Americans have a lot in common. Indeed, in the 1980s we often spoke of China as a place of “magic realism.” But since the 1990s, and especially in the past dozen years or so, China is no longer that place; it is now a place of the “ultra-unreal.”
Or maybe in China this has always been the case.
The third major force that distinguishes “magic realism” from the “ultra-unreal” is the internet. There has never been anything quite like it before. Many of China’s “ultra-unreal” phenomena are written about on the internet immediately after they occur. Reality is a text to begin with, and now that the internet can show us “ultra-unreal” phenomena that we otherwise would not know about, we end up with a sort of doubled “ultra-unreal.” This has created a huge challenge for fiction. Fiction can no longer just tell straightforward stories about single topics following single narrative arcs; reality is providing us with all sorts of rich possibilities for experiments in fictional form. To some degree, the more true to reality fiction is these days, the more avant-garde it will seem. The way we look at things determines the way we write about them. Reality is mutable. For instance, if you look at reality from the viewpoint of tradition, then the reality you write about will seem traditional. If you look at reality from the viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal,” then your writing will be “ultra-unreal.” This is not to say there is no difference between the perspectives. There can be no question that it is the viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal” that is more in tune with the present time.
I believe that “writing in the age of the ultra-unreal” is distinguished by the following four characteristics, which I will explain as simply as I can.
1) Writing in the age of the ultra-unreal engages the present situation. Contemporary Chinese reality has brought about a seismic transformation to our world, and the writing of the current age should engage these enormous changes. It should engage the social issues that are the hottest topics of the popular discussion of the moment. But in engaging, it should remain strictly within the territory of literature, meaning that human beings should remain its central concern. Human beings have become as complex and multifaceted as the surface of a machine-cut diamond. The same modern technology that cuts diamonds and shapes people has ravaged the land. The state of the environment mirrors the state of our souls.
2) It is philosophically speculative. When we are critical of the world around us, we are very clear about what we are criticizing and why. But in literature worthy of the name we need to remember that in life and in human nature there is much that is not clear. In life and in human nature there are paradoxes. Some of what we do is in accord with our nature and some of what we do is at odds with our nature. The interaction of human nature and reality is exceedingly complex. There are things we can discern with clarity, and things we cannot discern with clarity. Therefore in our writing we need to allow ourselves a certain freedom.
3) It is has the quality of a fable or an allegory. Reality itself has the quality of a fable. Earlier I mentioned the short story “The History of Sound.” After the “end of time,” the two old folks are like an elderly Adam and Eve. One way to give fiction freedom is to maintain its “fabulous” quality.
4) It takes risks. The viewpoint of the “ultra-unreal” is a complex viewpoint; it is a complex modality of perception, and so when it becomes the foundation of fiction it changes the form fiction takes. There is risk in any change. There is an artistic risk for the writer, and if even the risk succeeds and the results are good, the reader still has to take a very big risk.