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From the Bamboo to the Iron Curtain
Global Times | October 25, 2011 20:42
By Zhang Lei
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Writer Monika Maron.

People from China and the former East Germany can look back now at their countries' pasts and compare experiences in the mid-twentieth century. Yet for some, like German author Monika Maron or Chinese writer Liu Sola, the period is far from over.

"You've got to live with it and enjoy it," Maron explained at Coming to Terms with the Past, a talk organized by the Goethe Institute to discuss historic perspectives between China and Germany.

Maron said she wasn't able at first to feel much pleasure in her freedoms after moving to West Germany 18 months before the country's reunification.

It wasn't until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that she permitted herself such enjoyments.

"But you can't dismantle China," she added.

60-year-old Maron is the stepdaughter of Karl Moron, Minister of the Interior of (what was then) the German Democratic Republic (GDR), an ex-member of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany and a former informant to the Stasi, the GDR's feared secret police.

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Writer Liu Sola.

From 1977, Maron went on several Stasi fact-finding missions over the Iron Curtain to West Berlin. Her reports were sharply critical of the GDR government and, as a result, after six months she was placed under surveillance herself when her role was terminated in 1978.

This dissatisfaction with the regime and its censors infuses her early work. Her 1978 debut novel, Flugasche (Flight of Ashes), which tackled pollution, was rejected by censors and only later appeared in the West in 1981.

Maron's work was published in West Germany but enjoyed covert – though censored – circulation within the GDR.

Her 1992 third novel Stille Zeile Sechs (Silent Close No. 6), a disillusioned intellectual's first-person narrative won the prestigious Heinrich von Kleist Prize. "Many writers want to achieve social change through literature but they didn't succeed. Maron reached her literary height in a country without freedom of speech," wrote one critic.

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Silent Close No. 6 by Monika Maron.

But when Maron's work for the Stasi was disclosed after reunification, there was much controversy surrounding her newfound identity as a  dissident, writer and social critic.

Reflecting on this checkered past, Maron said neither victims nor prosecutors are willing to talk about World War Two, for example: Israeli families can be unwilling to share bitter memories of the concentration camp because they are considered shameful.

Other people might say, "You are lucky you survived," a view which, to Maron, is "immoral and inappropriate."

Writer and musician Liu Sola provide the Chinese side of the talk, recalling her experience on the other side of the "Bamboo Curtain" under an isolationist Maoist era.

She considers the Cultural Revolution (1966-1967) the best domestic example of the term "reflection on history."

The period involved a mass movement of brainwashed youth known as Red Guards, reminiscent to Liu of the 1930s Hitler Youth; Wednesday, many are still burdened with guilt about their roles, "so they don't talk about it and hide it from their children."

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Female Purity Soup by Liu Sola.

Liu said novels and films that disinter the period are avoided by such people, not because they were victims but because they were perpetrators. "Now they regret it but don't know how to face it," she added.

Like Maron, Liu initially lived a privileged childhood as the daughter of socialist officials. Born in 1955 to Liu Jinghan and Li Jiantong, both influential members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), the family endured a catastrophic reversal of fortune in 1962 after her mother wrote a biography of Liu Zhidan, an uncle who was a high-ranking Red Army general until he died a Communist martyr in 1936.

Yet the book was perceived as "anti-CPC" and the family driven into exile. Everyone involved in its publication, from the editors up to Deputy Prime Minister Xi Zhongxun, father of current Vice-President Xi Jinping, either fell out of favor, was imprisoned or generally persecuted over the decade-long Red Guard period.

Leaving East Germany was to change Maron's writing subjects: from the grim, repressed world of East Germany to more light-hearted love stories.

Despite this, she said the ingrained ideological restraint that comes from growing up in a censorious environment "is not like clothes that you take off.
It's more like it has grown into your skin."

For Liu it was a similar, if somewhat different, story. Unlike her debut novel, written with a youthful ease and recklessness, Liu has been thinking and worrying more as she matures.

Yet like Maron, even as she moved to London then New York in 1993, Liu retained the natural habit of self-censorship.

Her political-mythological novel Small Tales of the Great Ji Family, written in 2000 partly to echo her mother's own cataclysmic book, involved "a process of self-censorship", she said. To bypass prohibition, it was first printed in China in the form of a comic strip.

Renamed Female Purity Soup, it was published in the mainland in 2003. She "thanked" those reporters didn't probe her too much regarding her own experiences. "This is called self-censorship," she explained.

Her first novel You Have No Choice (1985) gained critical acclaim as "the first truly Modernist literary work in China", and was also a cult hit, widely read by young readers at the time.

Returning to China in 2002, Liu devoted herself to exploring folk music and combining it with blues, publishing more works despite an ever-stricter writing and publishing environment. She now seems resigned to these bitter facts.

"I was born in Beijing and grew up here. I'm used to the self-censorship. I will keep my mouth shut if it's necessary," Liu said. "I can do a lot and enjoy it more, such as folk music. I can't find that anywhere else."


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