I love similes and metaphors. I’ve just been editing a draft of my new book, and noticing that I use them in practically every other sentence. ‘He looked like a blinded survivor’, I wrote, of a character who has just received an appalling shock. Clearly I don’t see the world as it is, but as it almost is, as it might be; through a sort of double vision in which everything that happens is a comparison to something else.
Alongside the editing, I’ve been reading about recent events in China. It’s a relief, now that I’m out of the country, to be able to open web-pages without wondering if they will be blocked, to do internet searches unhindered by crude word filters.
The friends I made back in China are not so lucky. If any of them are searching sites like weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) this weekend, they will find the warning coming up even on the apparently innocuous word ‘blind’, that ‘According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, these search results cannot be shown’.
‘Blind’ is not a metaphor. It’s a possible reference to the dissident who escaped house arrest in China two days ago, and who happens to have lost his sight. As far as Chinese official media is concerned, Chen Guangcheng’s escape has not happened. It’s a non-story; a blind spot. His name, or those of his family and friends or the village from which he fled, have disappeared from the media, from on-line vocabulary, along with ‘blind’, ‘embassy’ (he’s assumed to have sought protection in the US embassy), ‘consulate’…
In their place something else has appeared on weibo: a cute story about a little mole who escapes with the help of his friends the mice from some not-very-nice wolves. Lest you miss the point: moles are, of course, famously blind.
Under political systems like China’s, similes and metaphors are not a matter of literary style. They are the only way of telling the truth. When you are not allowed to describe the world as it is, your mind has to find other devious and inventive ways of expression.
We had conversations in China about how repression can lead to great literature; Bulgakov, for example, writing in the Soviet Union his story of a dog’s heart transplanted into a human. The Chinese writers were depressed. Not in China, they said. Not yet. We lack the imagination, the courage…
I don’t think the story of the mole is great literature, but it is, obviously, an extended metaphor. The little tale ends with the mice spreading the news of the mole’s escape ‘but they couldn’t decide whether the escape was a victory, or whether it was just the beginning of more hardship.’
As far as I know, Chinese government censors have yet to block searches on weibo of the word ‘mole’. As I continue to edit my MS for excessive use of simile and metaphor, I am humbled by the use Chinese writers make of literary devices, and I worry for my friends, and for all their colleagues in China.