Is Asian Literature Political?

Aftermath of Barbi Masjid Riots between in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India (1992)

This 3000-word essay was a submission piece for the author’s literature module in university. It explores the political implications of literature in the context of Asia, with a focus on Ramayana and Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet.

Introduction & Definitions

Literature has been often used as a medium for the propagation of political narratives since time immemorial. This practice is perhaps best exemplified by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto, which has undoubtedly become one of the world’s most influential literary political works (Derrida, 1994) in recent memory. In the epilogue, Marx had famously ended his magnum opus by urging readers to rally in support of a socialist insurrection:

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, Unite!” (Marx et al., 2012)

While the work had a negligible impact at the time it was written, this “call to action” would see exponential growth in popularity during the 20th century — with almost half of the world’s population living under some form of communist rule during the post World War II boom. If the subsequent geopolitical tension brought upon by the Cold War has taught us anything, it would be that literature and politics are inextricably intertwined. Any works of literature are a result of the social and political environment when it was written and conversely, these same literary works may play a significant role in bringing about social and political change through the establishment and demolishment of different socio-political norms within a society. Hence in the context of this essay, we define literary works as political when these changes are observed within a society or when they are involved in the discussion of certain political affairs.

Where Asia is concerned, ensuing outcomes resulting from the interconnectedness of politics and literature have also been further exacerbated by a complex history of imperialism and convoluted postcolonial resolutions. This resulting environment breeds literary politicization despite the seemingly apolitical nature of certain literary works, providing conditions for many aspects of Asian societies to be shaped based on an amalgamation of Occident and Orient literature. In this essay, we will examine the cultural and critical contexts behind two different literary texts covered in this term: The Ramayana and Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet, before discussing how these works have engaged Asia’s dynamic political landscape.

Ramayana: Political Intrigue & The Subtle Art of Propaganda

A Statue of Lord Rama (Ramayana) at Batu Caves, Kuala Lumper, Malaysia

Sacred Moral Education Device

Ramayana’s profound and deeply entrenched reputation within the Indian society can in part be traced to its role as a moral education device. Prior to the advent of formalized institutions and centralized governance, moral education for the working classes mainly materialized itself through parenting efforts and self-discovery. For most inhabitants of ancient India, Ramayana was an indispensable piece of literature that served as an informal ethical framework. It would often come in the form of oral traditions, as written copies were rare and scarce; nevertheless, these stories would still deliver in its purpose to inculcate fundamental virtues into the common man. One such display of righteousness in the epic occurred during the announcement of Rama’s exile, where Lakshmana had argued against the unjust decision, asserting his will to “slaughter everyone who sides with Bharata or champions his cause.” (Sarga 18 Line 11). In response, Rama retorted for his younger brother to “give up this ignoble notion that is based on the code of the Kshatriyas; be of like mind with [him] and base [his] actions on righteousness, not violence.” (Sarga 18 Line 36). In essence, Lakshmana had argued for the realpolitik of the warrior ethos (kṣatrá-dharma) in stark opposition to the imperatives of filial deference and adherence to truth that have governed Rama’s acquiescence in his dispossession (Bose, 2004, p. 19–46). This contrast in the brothers’ approach to the exile accentuated the importance of filial dharma over brutality, as Rama remained virtuous despite the quandary faced moving forward. When taking into consideration of Ramayana’s status as a sacred and religious text in Hinduism, using it as a moral education device has hence entrenched the legendary epic’s disposition within the Indian society.

Technological Revolution

The emergence of mass communication technologies was also paramount in catapulting Ramayana into the center of literary politicization. Before the age of industrialization, oral traditions (such as Ramayana) would spread beyond the Indian subcontinent with trade and territorial expansions, eventually arriving on the distant shores of Southeast Asia. These cultural influences, for instance, would in due course amount to the founding of “Ayutthaya”, a Siamese kingdom (often considered the forerunner of Thailand) that was eponymous to the legendary city mentioned in Ramayana. The title of “King Ramathibodi” (meaning “Overlord Rama’’), was also bestowed upon the monarch. Just as Rama was deemed as an ideal ruler, the autarch of Ayutthaya also became by analogy, a revered and virtuous king — distinguished in his righteousness and just rule. Although the epic had left a significant footprint on Southeast Asia’s rich and vibrant history, these political impressions only eventuated after centuries of cultural integration.

In recent times, advancements in universally accessible television technologies formed a new medium for mass communication. Throughout the 1980s, experimentations in national satellite broadcasting and developments of a state-controlled television system enabled the ruling government of India to virtually monopolize television programming. In a bid to garner solidarity votes from the Hindu majority during the upcoming 1989 general elections, the Indian National Congress violated the constitutional assertion of secularity by endorsing the national broadcast of “Ramayan”, a TV series adaptation of the original epic. Ramayan would subsequently quickly see a meteoric rise to fame — to the extent where “millions have stood, sat, and kneeled to watch it; and millions more have fought, shoved, and keeled over, watching it” (Bajpai S., 1998, p.1).

When occasional power failures prevented people from watching the much-beloved TV series, vandalism and destruction of government property were common responses that conveyed the population’s discontent. Hence through technological advances, the fervent popularity of Ramayan and often violent reactions by the public would further ingrain Ramayana’s status as a household name — propelling its value beyond being a literary work and into the heart of India’s political sphere.

Analysis

The convergence between technological innovations and cultural influences has led to significant socio-political changes within India. Ramayan’s critical acclaim inevitably shaped perceptions of an ideal leadership as Hindu-centric, resulting in an increasingly nationalistic Hindu majority. This surge in chauvinism did not help the Indian National Congress in the long run, as the emergence of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had exacerbated longstanding tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities. In an endeavor to contest seats in the upcoming elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leveraged off the friction between ethnic groups by supporting the Hindus in their campaign for Rama’s birthplace; while the ruling government remained seemingly inert to the turmoil. When the mosque supposedly built on Rama’s birthplace was destroyed by Hindu nationalists in 1992, deadly riots broke out across the city of Ayodhya, resulting in the death of thousands. While not the sole reason for BJP’s rise to power, their success had often been attributed to the emphasis placed on Hinduism, and by taking advantage of nationalist sentiments among the majority they were able to use discord among religious communities as a contributing factor to solidify their position in the political arena.

Hence Ramayana and its adaptations could for all intents and purposes, be regarded as an apparatus for political power consolidation. Circumstances such as the symbiotic relationship between television technology and Ramayana’s cultural foothold have enabled an environment ripe for literary politicization, and political parties in India were aware of its prospects. For instance, the Indian National Congress had initially intended to pursue state hegemony through the airing of Hindu-centric Ramayan despite India’s constitutional declaration of secularity. A contrary effect was consequently achieved as the TV series further exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups — eventually leading to their abdication as ruling government and the rise of BJP as one of modern India’s major political parties. Moving beyond the scope of being an ancient religious epic, Ramayana now plays a critical role in perpetuating political agendas; and this could perhaps be best exemplified by the current ruling government’s decision to rerun Ramayan on national television during India’s pandemic-driven lockdown in 2020. Ultimately where Asia is concerned, literary works such as Ramayana (and their adaptations) are political due to the enactment of various social and political changes. The potential political impact can often range from aggravating religious divisions on one extreme, to building a common national identity in another.

The Political Commentary of Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet

A Photo of Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet by Su Dexin (circa early-1990s)

Shakespearean Rhizomes

In analyzing Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet, it is paramount to regard the play in a rhizomatic manner as existing interpretations based on the original can lead to the omission of subtle political commentaries. Often regarded as the magnum opus of Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet has spread across cultures around the globe and established itself as an essential piece of world literature. Today, hundreds of adaptations draw heavy inspiration from the original work, with each of them incorporating different cultural variances and novel perspectives to form productions that are often praiseworthy in their own right. In spite of this, most adaptations continue to suffer in different capacities due to the literary phenomenon of haunted palimpsests. Hence it is paramount to regard these adaptations not as spin-offs of the original work, but rather equally significant commentaries that move beyond the initial themes of Hamlet — serving as a raison d’etre for the field of Shakespearean rhizomatics (Lanier D., 2014, p.30).

China’s Shakespeare Canon

During China’s plight against the Japanese in the Second World War, authors and playwrights alike turned to Shakespeare’s Hamlet on multiple occasions in resistance against the belligerent occupation. For instance, Jiao Juyin’s 1942 huaju production was staged in Jiang’an in a Confucian Temple during the Nationalist government’s exile in Sichuan after Imperial Japan’s successful invasion of Eastern China (Li, 2003.; Semler, Huang, 2009). The founding principal of the National Drama School would later comment on the wartime performance, that “[t]he social significance of Hamlet is [it’s] progressive and revolutionary spirit, which is what the Chinese people needed during the anti-Japanese War… Prince Hamlet resisted the destiny arranged by fate, countered feudal oppressions, and sought liberation from an environment filled with licentious and corrupt individuals” (Huang, 2009, p.131). As evident in the founding principal’s observation, the presence of Hamlet is not a new one; and its involvement during one of modern China’s most turbulent periods exemplifies its importance in the local literary scene. With this prior knowledge in mind, Lin Zhaohua’s decision behind choosing a debut production becomes clearer, as one can draw parallels between the solemn time periods often associated with Hamlet.

Analysis

Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet conveys signs of national trauma through subtle political commentaries included in his adaptation, likely in response to the violent quelling of democratic youth movements in his city of Beijing, in addition to the increasingly problematic gentrification throughout all of China. In interpreting the play itself, the opening begins with two laborers shoveling the ground in a waist-deep ditch and engaging in a satirical cross-talk. For a rapidly developing nation, especially in large cities such as Beijing, the sights of workmen by the roadsides were not an unfamiliar one. Their common presence hinted at the arrival of a new modern China, but also the departure of the old — constructions of skyscrapers and massive shopping malls would forever bury the old traditional dwellings and permanently fragment hundreds of communities through evictions. When the two laborers had revealed themselves as gravediggers, the audience was then met with a sudden realization that more accurately, the presence of these gravediggers signified the death and subsequent burial of the old and now forgotten era.

The reappearance of the gravediggers in each act also reflected beyond the political commentaries of an increasingly commercialized China. Their repeated presence incessantly raised the question of who the graves belong to: was it for King Hamlet or was it a foreshadowing of Ophelia’s eventual demise? Perhaps the purpose of these ever-present graves, like the presence of the laborers themselves, was to subversively remind the audience of the “here and now” and the recent events at Tiananmen Square, which had just occurred the summer before (Walkling, 2018, p.159).

While the events that unfolded during the Tiananmen incident remain taboo for most Mainland Chinese, it is known that many that took part in the demonstrations were eventually punished as a consequence of their defiance against the central government. Nevertheless, the iconic image of an unnamed young man dressed in white bringing an entire tank column into a standstill remains an etched impression in the minds of those who were involved. So when Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet wore the traditional Chinese mourning color of white, one cannot help but be reminded of the tragedy. In spite of this, Lin has resisted making any direct associations to the culling that brought international condemnation, although in subsequent years he had admitted otherwise (Li, 2003, p.86).

The inclusion of gravediggers into Lin’s Hamlet, in light of the tragic events at Tiananmen Square, can hence be interpreted as the burying of the idealism of youth and the democracy movement (Walkling, 2018 p.162). Through the relationship between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Tiananmen incident, audiences can decipher a sense of national trauma. Although this reflection was not clearly flashed out during the Hamlet production, it was likely done in part of Chinese literary tradition — to speak of one thing while meaning something else entirely.

The ‘Apolitical’ Nature of Literature

Ramayan — A TV Series Adaptation of Ramayana in the late-1980s. It was the most-watched TV show in the world at that time.

Literature as a subject of study is and has always been formed on the foundations of artistic merit. While definitions have evolved over time to encompass other media such as oral communication and theatrical performances, the core value remains resilient in distinguishing literary works from that of conventional entertainment despite certain instances of unavoidable overlapping resulting from the capitalistic nature of the booming film industry. In the countless interpretations of what literature could possibly mean to a person, the vox populi perceives literary works as intellectual entertainment — divergent from common sources such as films and music (Latorre, J., & Soto-Sanfiel, M., 2011). This perception reflects the apolitical nature of literature, as consumers of literary works identify more with the amusement value proposition as opposed to the subtle political opinions interwoven into the media.

The Ramayana had originally been a moral education device prior to formalized education but above all else, a sacred religious text revered by the Hindus. When the TV series adaptation Ramayan was aired on national television, most Indians saw it as just another form of entertainment. For instance, a messenger from a bank was asked what he watched on television, to which he responded “We just switch on [the] TV for ‘time-pass’. For entertainment”. This reduces the possibility of their viewing experiences carrying over to daily routines, although the answer also suggests that when certain virtues are projected onto the distant past, both the plausibility and the implausibility of the story would be accommodated together in a dynamic contradiction, becoming part of the tragedy of the nation” (Rajapol A., 2001). In a bid to consolidate power within the Indian political sphere, BJP had used Ramayana as political leverage against the ruling government — a far cry from the virtues mentioned within the legendary epic. The seemingly apolitical nature of literature remains evident in Ramayana, but the process of politicizing it showcases how characteristics of literary works are ultimately subjective to how it is used. Despite literature being defined by its artistic merit and intrinsic intellectual entertainment value, the determination of its status as being political boils down to how the works have been interpreted and used in different cultural contexts.

Conclusion

The Ramayana and Ramayan have unequivocally altered the political landscape of India. While being apolitical in nature, the BJP was able to leverage existing political imaginations (Pollock, 1993) through the fundamental awareness of Ramayana’s importance to the Hindu majority. Both the original work and its adaptation have played a fundamental role in the subsequent enactment of major changes within the political arena — such as the ousting of the National Congress Party, the relegation of socialist welfare policies, and the introduction of right-wing nationalist conventions.

In a similar but yet separate fashion, Lin Zhaohua’s Hamlet reflects a sense of national trauma brought upon by the gentrification of China and the violent quelling of student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. In being subtle with its political commentary, the tenuous ideas do not protest against an increasingly foreign local, but rather engage the audience to contemplate the political implications of their surroundings. The ingenious use of mise-en-scène and typecasting during the play further reflects the nonlinear nature of the world — where even the good is tainted with evil and vice versa. This perhaps best illustrates his political opinion of the central government, although it is merely a hypothesis.

The politicization, therefore, comes in two main forms: the first being how a literary work is used for leverage within the political sphere while the second being how subtle political commentaries can be perpetuated through the work itself. This may not always be the case, especially when examining other literary texts which have not met our definition of a politicized literary work. However, in the contexts of the two literary texts discussed in this essay — where Asia is concerned, literature is indeed political.

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