CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 28, December 2011


The Cloak of Invisibility | China Heritage Quarterly

The Cloak of Invisibility

Yang Jiang 楊絳
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé


As we noted in the June 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly, the writer and literary figure Yang Jiang celebrated her centenary on 17 July 2011. Christopher Rea, a scholar of Republican-era literature, translator and specialist in Chinese humour, wrote an essay to mark Yang's centenary for that issue of the journal entitled 'Yang Jiang's 楊絳 Conspicuous Inconspicuousness: A Centenary Writer in China's "Prosperous Age"'. An issue of the translation journal Renditions, guest edited by Chris Rea and devoted to Yang Jiang's work appeared in the northern autumn of 2011 (Issue 76).

The following essay was used as the Afterword to Lost in the Crowd: A Cultural Revolution Memoir (the Chinese title of which is 陸沉), a translation of Yang Jiang's cadre school memoir (乾校六記) made by the editor of this journal and published in Melbourne by McPhee Gribble in 1989.

Mocun and I have jokingly discussed what type of magical powers we'd like to have if we had a choice. We both decided on the cloak of invisibility. With it we could go travelling together and do as we wished, free from all restrictions. Not that we'd want to do any evil or harm. But quite possibly we'd get carried away and upset some innocent person with our mischievousness. And finally our presence would be detected and we'd have to flee in panic.

'Heavens, in that case we'd also need the power to travel long distances instantaneously.'

'And talismans for self-protection.'

The more we thought about it the more we knew we'd need. In the end we decided to forget about the cloak of invisibility altogether.

But you don't need supernatural powers to do things that are not allowed in this world of ours. You can find the cloak of invisibility wherever you are. It is a cloak made from a humble, insignificant weave. If you occupy a lowly station in life, you're sure to be 'seen through', to be treated as if you were invisible. People don't think of this cloak as something precious: indeed they are terrified that once they've put it on it will stick to them like a wet shirt and they'll never get it off.

Fig.2 Cover of Lost in the Crowd with the calligraphy of Qian Zhongshu 錢鐘書

An old Chinese story tells of the spirit of a dead man who returns home to find his family in mourning. They cannot see him. He speaks, but no one hears his voice. They are seated around a table eating and he eagerly tries to join in, only to find that there is no place set for him. People of lowly status are like that disembodied spirit. If you are nothing in other people's eyes, then naturally they will not see you; if they don't acknowledge your existence in their hearts, then they will look straight through you. No matter how mortified you feel, or how much you grieve at being slighted or insulted, no one will take the slightest notice of you. You exist, but you feel totally insubstantial, as if you had never been born. Is not a life so spent no life at all? To don the cloak of invisibility, to proclaim its virtue and to revel in its power, is (so some might say) to play the Ah Q; in other words sour grapes.

Chinese is full of expressions about trying to be 'a man among men', or seeking to put yourself 'above the common herd', 'enjoying the limelight', becoming 'a tall poppy', or 'pushing yourself to the fore'. This is itself proof that most people aren't happy to be ignored. They resent obscurity, they chafe at it; they do their utmost to cast off the cloak of invisibility and to make themselves the centre of attention.

In Anglo-American culture, society is compared to a snake pit. Snakes lie in a tangled heap at the bottom of a pit, each struggling to poke forth its head and thrust upwards, squeezing through the mass to get on top. Heads rise to the surface and sink down to the depths again; bodies arch upwards and subside; tails become entangled in an inextricable knot: you're on the top, I'm on the bottom, it's a life-and-death contest, a ceaseless struggle. Unless you can get your head up and out of the heap, you will spend your whole life buried. Even if you do succeed, you'll be no better than a dancing bubble of foam on a boundless ocean, sparkling for a single moment in the sunlight. An outstanding person may realize certain ambitions, but the time spent on the crest of that wave is still only an instant. Certainly, that instant may well mark the highpoint of a lifetime, something to be proud of. But are you 'a good-for-nothing' if you do not excel? On the other hand, will you be satisfied to spend your days subservient to others?

Heaven gives birth to all creatures, beautiful and ugly, talented and worthless. The fame of one outstanding general is built on the corpses of thousands; how else could a mere soldier become a grand hero? Some of us are born to sit in palanquins, others to carry them; there are the hosts and guests who occupy places of honour, and servants who bring them tea and food. At the banquet table there is a guest of honour, and less-important guests. In the kitchens a cook tends the stove while the menials add fuel. The talents with which nature has endowed man are all so different; how can there be such a thing as equality?

People's ambitions differ vastly as well. In Chapter XXVI of The Scholars! Madame Wang enthusiastically describes the magnificent feast and entertainments she has enjoyed in the Sun mansion. She was given the seat of honour and as she was wearing a veil of giant pearls, the maids on either side of her had to part the pearls so she could sip her honeyed tea. Sancho Panza, on the other hand, declares in Chapter XI of Don Quixote that he prefers to eat a simple meal of bread and onions in a corner, free from the constraints of table manners and etiquette. Some people yearn to fly high; others are content 'to drag their tails in the mud'.[2] Each to his own.

Some people know just what they want out of life and it is useless to try to persuade them otherwise. If, for instance, they want nothing more than to drag their tail in the mud, it's best to let them be. Then there are those who never realize their ambitions, who are forever at odds with fate. There is the mediocre fellow, and his futile determination to become 'a man among men'. Ambition is the root of all frustration; and the higher a monkey climbs, the more clearly its shiny red behind can be seen. Blissfully unaware that he is dressed only in the emperor's new clothes such a fellow strains to throw off the cloak of invisibility; all he does is reveal his own ugliness and perversity. Many people of moderate ability waste their lives trying to outdo others and still achieve nothing. It is all so futile.

The ancients said, 'they are but human, like myself'. Westerners have a similar notion. Such sayings encourage people to do their best without becoming self-destructive. In Spanish it is said that 'you are what you do'—a person's worth is determined by their own efforts, not by birth or social position. Perhaps we should add, however, that 'what you are determines what you can do'. If you're a turnip then you should hope to be a juicy and crisp one; if a cabbage then the ideal is to be a solid full-hearted vegetable. Both of these vegetables are used in daily cooking and make no pretence at being fit to join the lavish offerings in a temple.

A children's rhyme from my native place goes 'On the third day of the third month, the shepherd's purse vies with the peony'. One would think there was no competition. Once I saw a delicate little blue flower in a patch of wild grass, and because it was so small as to be almost invisible I have often wondered if it was what Westerners call a 'forget-me-not'. But flowers and vegetables growing in the wild have no concept of being (or not being) 'forgotten': they just blossom at the behest of the sunlight, the dew and the rain. 'Grasses and trees all possess a nature of their own, they wait not for a fair maiden's hand to pluck them.'

I love the line by the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo, 'One can hide in the sea of humanity'; and I admire the philosopher Zhuang Zi who spoke of the sage who 'drowned on dry land'. Well may we compare society to a snake pit, yet in the skies above that pit birds fly free; in the ponds beside it fish swim at will. There are people who have always chosen to avoid the snake pit altogether, concealing themselves in the crowd or drowning on dry land. Their aim is to disappear like a drop of water in the sea, to be a wildflower camouflaged in thick grass, free of any aspiration to be a 'forget-me-not' or to 'vie with the peonies', at peace in their own niche. If people have no desire to climb to the heights, then there is no need to jostle with others, no need to fear a fall. They can retain their innocence, fulfil their original nature, and concentrate on goals that are within their power.

Dressed in this cloak of invisibility, you can achieve things nobody can ever take away. Su Dongpo said, 'The bright moon that floats between hills and the clear breeze on the water are all part of the inexhaustible bounty of nature.' Certainly these things are to be enjoyed, and so too are man's own creations: the ways of the world and the complexity of human relations are even more delightful and intriguing than the bright moon and the clear breeze. They can be read like a book, or enjoyed like a play. No matter how lifelike the descriptions in books or performances on stage may be, they are, after all, only make-believe. The real world is often stranger than fiction, so strange that it leaves us shocked and astounded. It possesses a more vital worth, a more wondrous ability to delight. Only the humble person has the opportunity of observing the reality behind the ways of the world, as opposed to the spectacle of art performed for an audience.

But I'm probably wasting my breath. Those anxious to abandon the cloak of invisibility will hardly be impressed with what I am saying; while those who were unaware of the cloak's existence will gain nothing from the knowledge of it. In all honesty donning the cloak of invisibility, be it magical or mundane, has drawbacks and considerable inconveniences.

In The Invisible Man H. G. Wells describes a man who achieved invisibility by scientific means. Yet his invisibility brought him only pain. When it was cold, for example, he would have to stay indoors unless he wanted to go out without any clothes on. When he did get dressed—with shoes, hat and gloves—he would appear to others as a faceless man; and if he went into the street he would cause a fearful panic. Thus he was forced to conceal his face by pulling a hat over his brow, wrapping a scarf around his mouth and wearing a pair of dark glasses. He covered his nose and cheeks with gauze and sticking plaster. What lengths he had to go to, to conceal his invisibility!

Such are the results of a blind and mechanistic science; they cannot compare with the magical cloak of invisibility. The cloak conceals normal clothing and may be cast aside at will. But the body it disguises is one made of flesh and blood, one that feels both heat and cold, and which can be hurt all too easily. A brick, or a club, or a clumsy foot can be painful enough, but what of the agony one must endure if attacked by knife or gun, if scalded by water or burnt by fire? If one has not the magical ability to make a timely escape, the only way to ensure safety is to acquire an adamantine body.

The cloak of invisibility has other drawbacks. The human heart which it conceals is all too vulnerable, it is sensitive to heat and cold, it cannot withstand rough handling. It is an arduous process, to steel oneself to this, to train oneself to be impervious to all manner of attack and insult; and-to watch what happens in the world without such training may make the heart burst with indignation, it may break it. In such conditions it is inconceivable to view things like a carefree playgoer. Perhaps one should simply choose not to watch at all. After all, the world is not a variety show.

If Le Sage's 'Devil upon Two Sticks'[3] were to invite me to go abroad with him one night, accompanying him as he lifted up the roofs of houses to peek inside, I would certainly decline. Is it necessary to see and experience everything in order to achieve wisdom? And by seeing and experiencing everything, will you necessarily obtain wisdom? How many lives does one have? The belief that on the basis of the experience of one lifetime you can achieve a unique vision and understand all of human life, may deservedly win no more than a furtive smile from others.

The cloak of invisibility can be found everywhere. It is no rare or magical treasure. Many people wear it. Are they all blind?

And no matter how you think of it, the cloak of invisibility is better than the emperor's new clothes.









且看咱们的常言俗语,要做个‘人上人’呀、‘出类拔萃’呀、‘出人头地’呀、‘脱颖而出’呀、‘出风头’或‘拔尖’、‘冒尖’呀等等,可以想见一般人都不甘心受轻忽。他们或悒悒而怨,或愤愤而怒,只求有朝一日挣脱身上这件隐身衣,显身而露面。英美人把社会比作蛇阱(snakepit)。阱里压压挤挤的蛇,一条条都拚命钻出脑袋,探出身子,把别的蛇排挤开,压下去;一个个冒出又没入的蛇头,一条条拱起又压下的蛇身,扭结成团、难分难解的蛇尾,你上我下,你死我活,不断地挣扎斗争。钻不出头,一辈子埋没在下;钻出头,就好比大海里坐在浪尖儿上的跳珠飞沫,迎日月之光而生辉,可说是大丈夫得志了。人生短促,浪尖儿上的一刹那,也可作一生成就的标志,足以自豪。你是‘窝囊废’吗? 你就甘心郁郁久居人下?








英国威尔斯 (H.G. Wells) 的科学幻想小说《隐形人》(Invisible Man) 里,写一个人使用科学方法,得以隐形。可是隐形之后,大吃苦头,例如天冷了不能穿衣服,穿了衣服只好躲在家里,出门只好光着身子,因为穿戴着衣服鞋帽手套而没有脸的人,跑上街去,不是兴妖作怪吗?他得把必需外露的面部封闭得严严密密:上部用帽檐遮盖,下部用围巾包裹,中部架上黑眼镜,鼻子和两颊包上纱布,贴满橡皮膏。要掩饰自己的无形,还需这样煞费苦心!




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[1] The Scholars, also known as the Unofficial History of the Literati, is a satirical novel by the Qing-dynasty writer Wu Jingzi (eighteenth century).

[2] This is a reference to a story about the Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zi who rejected a plea by the King of Chu to manage his state. Zhuang Zi, who received the king's messengers while fishing one day, said, 'I believe the King of Chu prizes a three-thousand-year-old supernatural tortoise shell which he keeps in a basket covered with a cloth in his ancestral temple. Now tell me, what you think the tortoise would prefer: to have its shell thus honoured, or to be alive and dragging its tail in the mud?' The messengers replied that the tortoise would rather be alive. 'Quite so,' retorted Zhuang Zi. 'Now leave me to drag my tail in the mud.'

[3] This is a reference to Alain René Le Sage's 18th-century satirical fantasy Le Diable Boiteux.