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Liberating China’s Past

An Interview with Ke Yunlu

With the closing of this month’s National People’s Congress, China’s political season is upon us. It will culminate in the autumn with Xi Jinping’s almost certain reappointment to another five-year term. With Xi rapidly becoming the most important Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, I began thinking about some of his formative years, especially the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 when he grew up, the 1980s when he served in a rural county at the beginning of the reform era, and the 1990s, when he was an official during an explosion of religiosity known as “Qigong Fever.”

This, in turn, got me thinking about Ke Yunlu. The pen name of Bao Guolu, Ke Yunlu was one of the most popular authors in China in the 1980s and 1990s. Though none of his books have been translated, he is well-known in China for his politically prescient novels, including one that is widely seen as having predicted Xi’s rise, and others that sympathetically described Qigong, a kind of meditation and physical practice that Ke and others believe can cure illnesses or even result in supernatural powers.

Ke has also done extensive historical research on the Cultural Revolution, writing a series of non-fiction books in which he has highlighted sensitive topics. One is that—contrary to the Party line—abuses were committed by a wide swath of the population and not just a small clique that grabbed power and committed crimes in the Party’s name.

Born in 1946, Ke grew up in Beijing and attended the prestigious 101 Middle School, where he came into contact with the offspring of China’s ruling elite—some of whom run China today. During the Cultural Revolution, he was one of tens of millions of young city people whom Mao sent to remote parts of the country to labor before being allowed to return to Beijing in the late 1970s. These experiences made him a sharp critic of the Mao period, and also gave him a mystic belief that China’s traumas can only be resolved through spiritualism.

Ke currently lives in Beijing’s western suburbs with his wife, Luo Xueke. Since the crackdown on the Qigong movement in 1999, many of his most popular books have been banned and he has lived as a recluse, communicating with the outside world only sporadically through his blog, and refusing all interviews. For over a year, however, I conducted a formal interview with him by email, which Ke consented to have published.

Ian Johnson: Tell us about your first big success, the 1984 novel New Star (Xin Xing). You portrayed a well-connected young official, Li Xiangnan, who volunteers to take a hardship post to push through reforms despite opposition. What was your goal in that book?

Ke Yunlu: This was the end of the Cultural Revolution and people were thirsting for change. New Star is meant be a picture of society in the 1980s. Regarding the main characters in the novel, I made Li Xiangnan the son of a [Party] cadre because there were people like Li Xiangnan who were keen on reform, including those who held high posts. Most were the children of high-ranking officials. I came into contact with people like Li Xiangnan.

Many people speculate about the inspiration for Li Xiangnan. I have heard two theories. One is that Li is mainly based on Weng Yongxi [a brilliant young agricultural reformer in the early reform who ran into political trouble when he took a rural posting]. Another is that the character is a composite, based on Weng, Li Yuan [a top general and son of the former Communist Party leader Liu Shaoqi, who was killed by Mao], and China’s current leader Xi Jinping. The parallels to Xi’s life are actually quite striking because he worked in a rural county, and faced opposition. Can you tell us more about this character?

In terms of who Li Xiangnan was based on, there have been many explanations that have circulated, including those you mention. New Star and the rest of the trilogy are novels. Even though they originated in life, they are not the equivalent of real life.

Also, to take the entire origin and development process of creating a novel, and to directly disclose it, is not a smart way of doing things. I would rather let readers decipher it. If you definitely want to say something, you can say that I paid attention to the young politicians of Li Xiangnan’s generation, and knew them well, and in fact knew them much better than many people.

What can we learn about the current leadership from the New Star trilogy?

As I said previously, I knew people like Li Xiangnan. If they headed an administration, there would be some special characteristics, such as:

  1. They are comparatively strong. They dare to act.
  2. They have a consciousness of reform. In some areas they are not sticklers for the legacy of their predecessors.
  3. They have a strong consciousness of national revival.
  4. They have ample political experience.
  5. They are idealists as well as pragmatists, but everything depends on feasibility.

In the next phase of your life, you were intensely involved in the Qigong revival [a popular religious movement in the 1980s and 1990s characterized by meditation and light exercises meant to unlock “qi,” or the energy force within our bodies]. You published novels, such as The Grand Qigong Masters (Qigong Dashi), which was estimated to have sold 700,000 copies. You also published a series of non-fiction works arguing that Qigong could lead to extraordinary powers. What led you to that?

I believed that China’s “Qigong Fever” was set off by the craving for the liberation of the mind in the post-Cultural Revolution era. At the end of the 1990s, Qigong Fever was restricted and suppressed by the mainstream ideology. Those books of mine were also criticized. Personally, I was also to some degree marginalized.

Do you feel that this permanently affected you? Or were you able to recover from it?

The criticism and suppression of Qigong definitely had a lasting effect on me. To speak frankly, it’s been rather large. That series of books was later banned, and could not be reprinted.

The decision to ban them happened in 1999. Why do you think they were banned?

There are multiple reasons. The short answer is that today’s society is not ready to tolerate and digest such ideas. This task will be left for later generations.

The Grand Qigong Masters and Deciphering the Mysterious Appearance of People (Renlei Shenmi Xianxiang Poyi) were very important works for me. I have paid a huge price. But I do not regret having written them. They are also my glory. I trust that posterity can understand and even value the effort I put into this subject.

Looking back at the Qigong Fever of the 1980s and 1990s, was it in part a form of psychological release after the Cultural Revolution?

The Cultural Revolution was an extremely autocratic period in Chinese history. Its biggest contribution to Chinese history was its failure. The successes [concerning China’s economic growth and stability] in the post-Cultural Revolution era are due to the country rebounding from its negative repercussions. This is true for economics, the liberation of thought, China’s cultural revival, fewer limits on personal liberty, and fewer limits on religion. We can see much of this reflected in Qigong Fever.

Qigong Fever helped to compensate for the monoculture found in the Cultural Revolution. But because Qigong Fever exceeded what was allowed by mainstream ideology, it was restricted and suppressed.

Then you turned to the Cultural Revolution itself, with books like The Land of Hibiscus (Furongguo), Annals of the Black Mountain Fortress (Heishanbao Gangjian), Barbarism (Mengmei), Sacrifice (Xisheng), and What Did You Do That Summer? (Neige Xiatian, Ni Ganle Shenme?), as well your analysis of the period, Ten Years of Extremism (Jiduan Shinian). These books describe how ordinary people tried to navigate these historical events and also how they try to remember or deal with these traumas. What drew you to this topic?

This was a period I lived through so to me it is essential to understand it, but also for our nation. The two million characters in these six works expressed my critique and recollections of this period of Chinese history. One could say I have written more about the Cultural Revolution than anyone else. I am very happy that I wrote these works while I was still energetic. More people in China should write about this period of history, and more people should research it. But as time has elapsed, this period of history has gradually been forgotten. This is a national tragedy.

Your own books on this topic are very hard to find. Ten Years of Extremism—your account of the origins, causes, and effects of the Cultural Revolution—could only be published in Hong Kong, and the other novels were not widely discussed in the media.

Over the years of publishing many books, the most tortuous were the books about the Cultural Revolution. If you include Qigong, the most important of my works are banned or not publicized. This is a lonely feeling.

Is the silence about the Cultural Revolution a self-imposed amnesia, or mainly the result of government policy?

I believe it is mainly the effect of the dominant ideology [i.e. the government]. Publishing these kinds of books is difficult. They have to go through several layers of censorship. And if they are published, they will not be publicized. And adaptations for film or television will be even more limited. Several directors expressed interest in my works on the Cultural Revolution, but have never been allowed to pursue it.

But there is also the issue of forgetting. My novel What Did You Do That Summer? describes how a group of youth in the Cultural Revolution first persecute and then stone a teacher to death. In the years that follow, those involved carefully evade facing their mistakes. By accident or design, they rewrite and falsify history.

Should more people apologize for or reflect on what happened?

In accounting for one’s mistakes in the Cultural Revolution, apologizing is better than not apologizing, and reflecting is better than not reflecting. As for whether the apology is adequate, or the reflection is deep enough, that’s another matter, but we should treat well those who have apologized and reflected.

More important is liberation from the dominant ideology. The Cultural Revolution shouldn’t be a forbidden territory. The authorities should allow academic circles and thinkers circles to begin deep research into the Cultural Revolution, and speak without inhibitions.

This interview, part of Ian Johnson’s continuing NYR Daily series “Talking About China,” was supported by a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.