By Nupur Sachdev
A woman deeply rooted to her beginnings, another: an amalgamation of different cultural legacies; an Indian expert on everything Chinese, and India’s ambassador to China himself get together to ponder the confluence of cultures in the vast terrain of South East Asia.
The panel discussion began with Sabaree Mitra providing a socio-political and cultural backdrop to the evolution of Chinese Literature. She described how rich classical Chinese Literature, written by the elite and consumed by the elite, went through waves of transformation across decades. From having a revolutionary and counter-revolutionary context to gaining a multiplicity in discourse, the field of literature in China underwent a sea of change.
Thus, literature that came into existence in the early 21st century found itself at the crossroads of politics, society and the market.
Lijia Zhang, a social commentator and author of Socialism is Great, was asked to share her life with the audience. And what a life it was. An elegantly humble Chinese national, she explained that the modern memoir has changed – anybody who has an interesting story to tell can write a memoir.
“I was the daughter of a factory worker, although I had dreams of going to university and becoming a journalist and writer”, she said. She spoke of her teenage years in the 1980’s, when she was taken out of school to work in a factory and food was rationed at every meal. “Learning English was my escape route, it changed my life. I didn’t learn just the ABCs but the entire cultural packet. English was a language system so different from our character, and yet so fascinating.”
A fan of the Carpenters, she adopted a lot of Western culture in her youth, and started to listen to BBC. “My journey reflects the transformation of China during the 80s. It was a time that China began to dream the impossible, people began to read different styles of writing”, she mused as she recounted the impact that Western culture had on her life.
She went on to say that today’s China has no democracy but people certainly have personal freedom.
Zhang Su Li was then introduced by CV Ranganathan, as a “footloose and fancy-free” young woman. She chuckled and told the audience how honored she was to be a part of the panel discussion, saying: “Here, I’m outnumbered: three Chinese to one Indian!”. At this point the audience was baffled at the fact that she had pointed at herself while saying the word “Indian.” But they soon saw why.
Zhang Su Li is Chinese: born in Malaysia and educated in the UK. “I believe I was a Mahari (temple dancer in Odissa) in my previous life”, she said with a smile. “The strongest influence in my life is what I was in my previous life, which was Indian.”
In Malaysia, where she was born, there is a very strong influence of Indian culture. When she was around eith or nine years old, she became really interested in Indian classical dance. “My love of Indian culture started with Odissi and that is what brought me to India.”
Su Li went on to describe her book which is a compilation of short travel stories of different places around the world. Her favorite story, she says, is the one about India and the beauty of chaos that exists in the country.
Her eyes shone with passion as she mused “India proves me wrong all the time; You can’t love it without hating it!”