Interview with Prof. Mauricio Santoro
Mauricio Santoro is an adjunct professor at the Department of International Relations of the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). He holds a Ph.D. and a Master’s in Political Science from the University Research Institute of Rio de Janeiro (IUPERJ), as well as a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). He was a visiting researcher at the New School (New York) and Torcuato di Tella (Buenos Aires) universities. He has worked at Amnesty International, O Globo, and the Federal and Rio de Janeiro State governments.
Pedro Steenhagen. In 2014, while receiving the title of doctor honoris causa from the University of Macau, Mo Yan, who has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, said that “in the past 30 years, our literature has achieved a lot and is by no means inferior to global literature”. In your opinion, is it possible to draw a parallel between the growing interest in Chinese literature around the world and China's increasing presence in international politics and economy?
Prof. Mauricio Santoro. Of course! There is even a great book written by historian Julia Lowell about this topic ("The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature"), which demonstrates how obtaining the prize became something important for the Chinese diplomacy and its quest to globally assert the country’s soft power. Truly, the first Chinese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature was Gao Xingjian in 2000, but, since he is a French citizen and lives in Europe, this award did not fulfil the Chinese government’s goals and requirements.
Since the beginning of China’s reform and opening-up, there has been a process of increasing international appreciation of Chinese artists in literature, movies and fine arts. This is linked to Western curiosity about China, after decades of closure under the Maoist regime, and to the desire to better understand the country and the social transformations which have been taking place since the Revolution of 1949.
Furthermore, on the cultural aspect, the last decades have been truly extraordinary with the rise of renowned Chinese artists. In order for us to limit ourselves to literature, I mention writers such as Mo Yan, Yu Hua, Ha Jin, Xinran, Jung Chang, Li Yiyuan, Liu Cixin... It is a fantastic generation!
Pedro Steenhagen. In 2019, the Chinese film “The Wandering Earth”, based on Liu Cixin's book, had one of the most impressive box office numbers in recent times. In the following year, China’s Yoozoo Group and the United States’ Netflix announced the joint release of a series inspired by another famous and award-winning book of the author, “The Three-Body Problem”. What are the peculiarities found in Chinese science fiction which differentiate it from that of Western countries, including when it comes to its international expansion through cinema and TV adaptations?
Prof. Mauricio Santoro. I really like science fiction stories from any country, but in communist nations this genre has a peculiar history due to the devotion of these regimes to technique and science, as well as for being a style which allows greater speculative freedom to writers in face of censorship that, for example, realist social novels have to deal with. Chinese science fiction is experiencing an extraordinary moment. Liu is, in my view, an author as great as Isaac Asimov or Arthur Clarke. “The Three-Body Problem” is a masterpiece comparable to the “Foundation” trilogy or “2001”, as it is focused not only on the issue of how societies respond to major crises, on how they transform and adapt, but also on how this process is never fully rational and always comes marked by fanaticism, religious fundamentalism etc.
With that said, although Liu is a master, his style is not easily accepted by Western audiences. Both “The Three-Body Problem” and “The Wandering Earth” have a narrative logic which defies Hollywood formulas and that of the hero who faces a huge problem and has a happy ending. Their tone is much more related to sacrifice, to loss, with an emphasis on the collective rather than the individual. Nevertheless, if it is a well-made adaptation, it will attract fans in the West, even if this happens in a select circle.
Pedro Steenhagen. Recently, new and necessary initiatives focused on the promotion of cultural exchange between Brazil and China have emerged. Regarding literature, an example on the Brazilian side is the “Classics of Chinese Literature Series”, launched by publisher Unicamp, in partnership with the university’s Confucius Institute, and an example on the Chinese side is the collection “Understanding Latin America”, to be published by Peking University and the Centre for Chinese and Latin American Studies (CECLA), both announced in 2021. How can literature be an important bridge between Brazil and China and positively contribute to their bilateral relationship?
Prof. Mauricio Santoro. Art is an essential bridge between peoples. The Sino-Brazilian relationship is a giant when it comes to economy, trade, and investments, but it is still very fragile when it is related to cultural exchange. There is a lot of space for the promotion of more dynamism in the area to take place, and collections like these are an excellent starting point, just like a greater diffusion of cinema and TV productions. Chinese dramas, for instance, are starting to make considerable success amongst young Brazilians, as they become more common in streaming platforms. Culture reduces the strangeness associated with China, as well as prevents and restrains fear, misinformation, and prejudice.
Pedro Steenhagen. The Brazilian and Chinese cultures have many differences, but also many similarities and relevant historical connections. Yet, there is a feeling that there is still a long way to go to improve mutual knowledge. If you had to suggest five books from Chinese literature to a Brazilian person, and five books from Brazilian literature to a Chinese person, in order to encourage a cultural rapprochement, which books would you recommend?
Prof. Mauricio Santoro. For the Brazilians, I would recommend some classical ones, such as “The Analects” by Confucius and “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, and contemporary books, such as “To Live”, by Yu Hua; “Frog”, by Mo Yan; and “The Three-Body Problem”, by Liu Cixin.
For the Chinese, my recommendations would be “Iracema”, by José de Alencar; “The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas”, by Machado de Assis; “Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon”, by Jorge Amado; “The Hour of the Star”, by Clarice Lispector; and “City of God”, by Paulo Lins. With these books, the reader will have a broad understanding of different periods of Brazil’s history and its various regions.
Both lists are only attempts, suggestions. The books could easily be others, since the literatures of both countries are very rich, but I think that, with these, it is possible to start a good cultural conversation!
Interview conducted by: Pedro Steenhagen Date of publication: August 23rd, 2021