Chinese Writers and Chinese Reality

An Inteview with Liu Zhenyun

My first encounter with Liu Zhenyun was in 2003. At the time, cell phones had just become available in China and they were complicating people’s relationships. I witnessed a couple break up because of the secrets stored on a phone. I watched people getting more and more adept at lying to the person on the other end of the line, saying they were too busy to talk. When the film Cellphone hit theaters that year, I noticed that, despite its sharp observations about these subtle changes, or maybe because it treated them with such caustic sarcasm, it was not a movie people wanted to talk about over dinner. Its black humor seemed to mock us. The film was directed by the popular Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, and he wrote the script with Liu Zhenyun.

Later on, I learned that Liu was not just a screenwriter, but a versatile novelist. His novel Back to 1942, first published in 1993, recounts the devastating 1942 famine in his hometown in Henan province. The novel didn’t become a sensation until 2012 when Feng released his screen adaptation starring Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins. People walked out of the cinemas in tears. The film had likely passed the censors because the famine it depicted occurred on the watch of China’s Nationalist Party (not the Communists), but clearly it reminded the audience of the more recent ravages of the famine that Mao Zedong oversaw between 1959 and 1961. Liu’s 2009 book, One Word is Worth Ten Thousand Words, demonstrated a different side of Liu’s creativity. The book told the story of China’s transformations—stretching from the chaotic fall of the Qing dynasty through painful foreign invasions to the volatile revolution and the tumult of reform—all from the perspective of ordinary people. This book shared the ambition for panoramic historical narrative found in the novels of Liu’s old friend, Nobel laureate Mo Yan. But unlike Mo Yan, Liu consciously avoids connecting ordinary people’s suffering with historical events. When I asked him about this different approach, he said that a plate of tofu’s going rancid on the dinner table matters more than so-called big historical events do.

Born in 1958, in a small town in Henan, Liu Zhenyun witnessed and experienced China’s cataclysmic transition, as did many of his peers—Mo Yan, Yu Hua, and Yan Lianke. He grew up during Mao’s radical social “reconstruction,” served in the army for around five years in the Gobi Desert, and went to China’s most prestigious college, Beijing University, right after the Cultural Revolution. He has become financially successful both through his writing and his collaborations with the film and television industries. In Liu’s view, the suffering he and his generation experienced provides rich soil for a writer.

Following are Liu’s comments from an interview I conducted with him in New York in 2013.—Ouyang Bin


There isn’t a country that doesn’t impose censorship on artistic and literary works. Additionally, in China, the situation has improved noticeably in recent years. If we take the movie Back to 1942 as an example, people’s first reaction after seeing it is often surprise and wonder that it was approved to show in mainland Chinese theaters. But it was. This was due to the efforts of the film’s creative team. They underwent a lot of hardship outside of the filmmaking process, that foreign writers and directors never experience.

In a sense, one could view censorship as an important factor in the creation of great writers and directors in China. Pressure is not necessarily always a bad thing.

Contemporary Chinese Authors

What distinguishes our generation of writers is that we have lived through relatively rich historical periods. We all have in common that we have risen from poverty. Many of us grew up in the countryside, including me, Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, and so on. We all lived through years of not having enough to eat, of starvation, of almost starving to death. So above all, we share a kind of terror of the world. Because the world almost abandoned us.

On another note, we spent our childhoods and youth in a turbulent and especially politically unstable society. We lived through the Cultural Revolution, for example. At the same time, we have witnessed other formidable social transformations. Dramatic changes have occurred in this society since the Cultural Revolution.

Thirty years ago, Chinese society was a society of authority and politics. It was a society in which politics and political power dominated people, dominated society. Where people had no choice but to follow a single path.



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I have written stories about this. Books like Work Unit and Chicken Feathers Everywhere depict how Chinese live in an authoritarian, homogenous society and resist living their common daily lives; how they turn themselves into someone else and then how they change from being someone else into a newer form of themselves, which is a painful and torturous process.

Thirty years on, the most significant change in Chinese society is that it has gone from being homogenous to very diverse. It is still a power-driven society, and it is also a money-driven society.

Thirty years ago, people would discuss China’s future. Now, people talk about how to make money.

What's more, the subtle and illicit connection of power to money gives rise to shadowy, intricate, ironic, complex, and all kinds of bizarre and grotesque sights. Witnessing this transformation has had a definite impact on this generation of writers and their sensibilities. The kind of knowledge they have accumulated as a result is somehow richer as a result. Their work is more layered. It’s no less profound than the work of the May Fourth generation writers.

Wealth and Creativity

First of all, who says inspiration ought to come from poverty? I’m saying this because there is a belief in traditional Chinese culture that intellectuals must be poor. Being well-off makes one illegitimate. Even intellectuals themselves agree. Living in poverty may help create great works, but someone living in constant poverty definitely cannot create great work.

Second of all, it’s absolutely wrong to think that all Chinese writers are now rich. When you say someone has made a fortune off royalties, you first need to define the word fortune. The wealthy in China are not writers. The wealthy are in business, in real estate, in the Internet business, and in government. Especially those businessmen and politicians who collude for mutual gain are commonly found to possess hundreds of millions, billions, ten billions, or even hundreds of billions. How could a writer ever possibly make this much? The richest writers have hardly more than the bare necessities. Is this something that should be criticized?

What I wish for Chinese writers is that they be able to live with enough dignity and honor to assure a stable life so they can create profound stories.