At a recent event at Bookworm, Beijing’s most popular seller of English and other foreign language books, European and Chinese writers were brought together on stage as part of a European Union and China collaboration. It was an intriguing mix of speakers — a Greek translator and writer, a Belgian actress and dramaturge who has written a surrealist novel, and a well-known Chinese author, Zhang Yueran. Zhang’s position as one of China’s “young” voices has brought her fame, but also exposed her to a level of expectation that appears daunting.

This expectation can work in different ways, and can come from diverse sources. During the inevitable Q&A at the end of the discussion, one foreign woman launched into a tirade about freedom and its lack in China, and how certain authors — they were enthusiastically name-checked — had the courage to take that issue head on. Clearly, because Zhang’s work isn’t overtly political, the listener making the comment believed that she lacked that courage.

Before we consider the breathtaking audacity of a noticeably affluent expat calling out a local-born Chinese for not being brave enough to buck her own system, consider Zhang’s response. She said that it wasn’t her duty to be China’s spokeswoman to the world, or indeed to tick off the boxes foreign readers were interested in. In fact, her job as an author was — and is — to be true to her own vision and inner voices.

I found this intriguing, only partly because of the smoothness of the takedown. It was a reversal of the commonly received narrative of Chinese arts — that the artist has a social and political role to play, whether propagandising or otherwise. The foreigner was trying to place the Chinese author in that box, albeit to her own end. The author pushed back with a trope of freedom, that of artistic integrity, that you’d normally associate with the “West”.

My feeling of being through the looking glass was heightened by the fact that the discussion was mostly in English, even though none of the discussants were native speakers. (Zhang is a capable English speaker, but chose to respond in Chinese, the language she works in. Everything was translated live through earpieces distributed free of charge.) I was drinking a locally-produced craft beer, one of many currently available here.

Urbane citizens of the world on stage. Earnest multilingual audience. Hip beverage choices, seamless tech, even the requisite ill-considered interjection from a listener who’d arrived fashionably late.

I could have been anywhere. It just happened to be Beijing.


To my mind, besides standing up for her right to write about anything she wanted to, Zhang’s great contribution to the discussion was to check off her issues, which she believed were shared by her younger writing colleagues. The huge ongoing migration from the countryside to the exploding cities was one; the move to individualism against the previous privileging of the collective was the other.

Clearly they’re both linked, as the bark is to its parent tree. This is something we’re seeing in India as well. The shedding of civilisational certainties proceeds apace in both my countries. In Nobel-winner Mo Yan’s Frog , the narrator — who has lived through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution and is now witness to a much-changed China — tells his air force-bound nephew: “Money and beautiful women are as transient as floating clouds. Country, honour and family are the only true treasures.” The young man replies, “You must be joking… Who says things like that in this day and age?”


The cult of “I”, obnoxious as it is, isn’t to blame for everything. Nor is it an unqualified disaster. Without “I” and its entitlements, where would art be? The liberty to focus on what you want, as an artist, as opposed to what others expect of you, is a privilege in itself. That the privilege is yours because you’re standing upon the shoulders of giants who came before doesn’t make it any less valid.

But on reflection, perhaps that hapless expat interjector was on to something, though she made such a meal of getting it said. Surely you as an artist must respect your privilege: surely your art must reflect at least some of the world. So those without your advantages in the race to “I” can have their stories told as well.

“We” and “I” have always been interchangeable among the privileged. An example from what I know: the almost monstrous self-centredness of men of a certain age stemmed from an utterly secure sense of their own place. That security and sense of place defined them and their worlds.

I’d like to believe that self-centredness, that interchangeability of “we” and “I”, is under threat; that it will give way in my and future generations to an understanding that we’re all travellers bound to each other, and our time in this world will inevitably and collectively pass. But in Delhi, as in Beijing, it would seem that the wave of “I” must peak before it breaks.

Outside the Bookworm, fleets of luxury cars broke upon the ranks of migrants from other places. Their hold upon the city is tenuous, but it is tangible at the same time.

It really could have been anywhere.

Avtar Singhis the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing