Stranger Than Fiction

A Q&A with Yu Hua

In the short twenty years since Yu Hua, a fifty-three-year-old former dentist, has been writing, China has undergone change enough for many lifetimes. His country’s transformations and what they leave in their wake have become the central theme of Yu’s writing.

Many readers consider him China’s greatest living author. They have loved him since he published his early novel To Live, which chronicled the life of a family visited by wave after wave of political turmoil in the first decades after the revolution. Still, like any good writer, he also has myriad critics, some of whom bemoan his failures of imagination or style even as they clamor for his next books. The Seventh Day, published in Chinese at the end of June 2013, saw 700,000 pre-orders—more than the print run for most books over an entire lifetime.

Chinese people often worry Yu’s writing will be banned. Luck has played its part in keeping his works in print. But more than luck is in play. To Live has had six million copies printed over twenty years and was made into an internationally acclaimed film by the director Zhang Yimou. Critics hailed Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995) as one of the most influential books of the 1990s.

A novel by Yu Hua

Boy in the Twilight, a new novel by Yu Hua.

In the fall of 2013, Yu started to contribute regular essays on contemporary China to The New York Times. As the first among his Chinese novelist peers to reach out to global media this way, Yu has had to strike a balance among his many identities as a writer. At home, he must also navigate censorship writing about issues the Chinese government deems “sensitive.”

In January, Yu’s Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China, was published in English in the United States by Pantheon. His latest novel, The Seventh Day, will be published in English in January 2015.

I conducted this interview with Yu over email over several months beginning in July 2013.

Zhang Xiaoran: In the postscript of your novel Brothers, you wrote, “A Westerner would need to live four centuries to experience epochs as poles apart as the two Chinese people have lived through in just four decades.” What did you mean? How did this rapid change affect the Chinese people?

Yu Hua: I was speaking about my own experience. I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Then came Reform and Opening and the economy’s explosive takeoff in the ‘90s, and then came the fantastic wildness of the new century and our world-view and our value system were both turned upside down. We moved from one era to another that was absolutely different—it seemed to happen with no transition period, which only makes the contrasts between the two periods of time that much more stark.

I wrote [that sentence in the postscript] in 2005. Taking that rollercoaster ride left Chinese people lost. The change came so fast it was dizzying. People didn’t have time to react. That was when I finished Brothers and then the criticism started–most of it was directed at the second part of the book in which I describe contemporary Chinese society. Some readers said it was too far-fetched, not true to real life. Some of the critics thought so too. But now that we’ve been through the past seven or eight years, China looks way more surreal than it did. Now no one says Brothers was unrealistic.

Personally, I never thought of the book as absurdist, just maybe a little hyperbolic. My new novel, The Seventh Day, is a true absurdist novel, so it has surprised me that many Chinese readers consider it a work of realism.

Judging from the readers’ responses, Chinese society is what’s absurd beyond comprehension.

It seems like you could say the same thing about China in Ten Words. How did your perspective differ when you were writing China in Ten Words?

Yes. What I just said relates to an intense personal experience about which I feel very deeply. I treasure it because, before my generation, no one in China had lived through anything like it, and probably no one in the generations to come will either. After I finished Brothers, I started to work on other novels, but I still felt I hadn’t finished what I had started. I wanted to write non-fiction; something on the same time period as Brothers. That was how China in Ten Words came about. When I had finished the first chapter “The People,” I knew that, for the time being, I wouldn’t be able to release the book in mainland China, but I still finished it because I was convinced someday it would become possible to publish it.

After The Seventh Day came out, I wrote a tweet on Weibo. I said, “People ask me why in The Seventh Day I wrote about a mayor and not about a Municipal Party Secretary.” I said, “It’s simple. By the time The Seventh Day is a classic, readers won’t have any idea what a Municipal Party Secretary is. This post was reposted by more than 2,400 people, many of whom said things like “[I] hope the day The Seventh Day becomes a classic comes soon.” One person left a comment that moved me: “I’ve started to believe in the future.” So have I.

Your experience during the Mao era—the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution—left an indelible mark on your life. You said that you once indulged in writing about violence to the extent that you found yourself on the verge of a nervous breakdown. When you realized this, you quit writing about violence all at once. But this didn’t happen spontaneously, you had to force yourself to stop. So do you still feel inclinations to write about violence and, if so, how do you handle them? How do you think about this shift in your writing?

I grew up during the Cultural Revolution. Childhood experiences greatly impact the rest of a person’s life. To me, the bloody struggle at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution and the oppressive atmosphere at the end were both forms of violence. As the Cultural Revolution came to an end, China commenced the era of Reform and Opening, and I began writing novels. The violence that began in my youth hung over me like a shadow. I wrote about violence a lot in my novels and I wrote about it very directly. After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I deliberately tried to distance myself from violence in my writing, but it continues to appear indirectly in what I write. That’s because Chinese society never made a clean break with violence, it just made superficial changes. Today’s forced demolitions and forced abortions are both forms of violence. You’re right that violence has long existed in my subconscious. My current writing is just a way to transfer it. But where does it go? That’s not something I can decide. I write about real life, so when there is violence in a certain place in society my writing follows it there.

Michael Lionstar
Yu Hua

Do the logic and discourse of violence in the Mao era still influence you today? How do they influence your writing?

In the 1980s, the whole process of writing for me was about casting off or revolting against Mao-era discourse and logic. I picked it up again twenty years later, but this time I tried to get at it through humor. Given the indelible imprint that logic and discourse left on that particular era, if I’m going to write about that era, there’s no way for me to avoid it. But now I freeze it with irony or burn it up with satire.

China in Ten Words seems like a summation of your previous work in that you connect the history of the Mao era with China as it is today. You move back and forth through time and space. It’s a technique you use in many of your novels, but in this book it’s more pronounced. One of the things that’s most distinctive about your writing is the way you connect the Cultural Revolution to the present. How did this conception of time emerge?

It’s something that emerged through the process of writing. I came up with the idea for China in Ten Words while I was working on another novel. The first four novels I wrote all deal with the Cultural Revolution and all four depict Chinese society before and after. Particularly when I was writing Brothers, I realized that even though the difference between China during the Cultural Revolution and China today is so stark, they have fundamental things in common. Take feverishness. During the Cultural Revolution the fever was for politics, today it’s for money. Take violence. Then it was the violence of revolutionary struggle, today it’s the violence of economic development. The substance is different, but the fever and the violence are unchanged.

You have been writing about social issues in a very direct way for a long time, beginning in your novels and now also in The New York Times. You seem to have collected hot button issues and systematically put them in your books. Aren’t you worried about getting into trouble?

I may write surrealist and absurdist novels, but that’s because of the increasingly pervasive absurdity of Chinese society. But I’m still a realist writer. Our lives are formed from a lot of different pieces. There are the things that happen to your family and friends, the things that happen in the place you live, the things you hear about that happen in the news…These things surround you. I don’t need to go out and collect them, because they’re the kinds of things you run into constantly in the course of everyday life. Unless you turn a blind eye, you can’t avoid them even if you want to.

I’m not a brave person. I used to have a lot I wanted to say, but I was scared to say it. I hoped someone else would speak up and say it for me. But gradually I came to realize that if everyone thought that way, China wouldn’t have such a bright future. So I told myself that I had to stand up and speak my mind—and I did. I have a lot of hope for China’s future because more and more people are speaking up and criticizing the government.

Will that get me into trouble? I just don’t have time to think about that right now.

I personally think that in the final analysis most of Chinese society’s problems emanate from the political system. But your novels don’t broach that topic. Is that because of censorship or for some other reason? How has censorship affected your writing?

It takes time to evaluate a novel. Decades. At least one decade. So people today may think they are only reading about contemporary social issues, but future readers may perceive my criticism of the regime more clearly. Still, one thing will never change: whether a novelist is facing history or the present, he should approach it novelistically rather than issuing political manifestos.

When I’m writing a novel, censorship is never a consideration. The release of Brothers was smooth, as was that of The Seventh Day. I may see a lot to criticize in the current system, but you’ve got to admit Chinese society is getting more and more permissive. When The Seventh Day was released some readers worried it would be banned in China, but even more felt comforted that Chinese society was making progress. The same thing happened when Brothers was released.

China in Ten Words couldn’t be published in mainland China because one of the chapters discusses the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, which is still off limits.

You use a lot of Internet slang, puns, and humor—the language people use to get around censorship. In a certain way this language is a necessity, but it’s also a way of letting off steam and is a source of creativity. What do you think about this kind of language? How do you evaluate this language? Is it a real form of criticism? Is our ability to speak critically improving or deteriorating?

My friend Emily Parker was an editor of the Op-ed section of The New York Times. In 2009 she came to Beijing and asked me to write an article, and we became friends. She did research on the Internet in the U.S., in Russia, and in China. She says in the U.S. the Internet was boring, in Russia it was dull, but in China it was fascinating. Why? Because China’s strict censorship was forcing people to be creative. They skirted around sharp corners to launch their critiques of the government, they became masters of disguise and subterfuge. By the time the government figured out what they were really saying and came after them, they’d switched tactics.

I wrote an article about this for The International Herald Tribune. I said in this kind of cat and mouse game, the “mice taunt their adversaries, they make sure to have a bolt-hole right next to them.” Ironically, at least in my mind, China's censorship hasn’t suppressed people’s critiques, it has sharpened them.

China in Ten Words is your first collection of social commentary. Has the shift from fiction to nonfiction been difficult? Is it permanent?

It came very naturally. When I wrote China in Ten Words in 2009, I had been writing novels for twenty-six years. I had a lot of ideas I didn’t feel I could express in another novel. I needed nonfiction.

Is the twentieth century Chinese writer Lu Xun the writer who has influenced you most deeply?

Lu Xun is my spiritual guide, he’s my only spiritual guide. A lot of other great writers have influenced the technical aspects of my writing, but he has influenced me the most deeply. Especially in the last ten years, Lu Xun has encouraged me to be independent and critical, and I’ve tried my utmost to achieve that. I think he’d be happy. Ten days ago, at a symposium on The Seventh Day at Beijing Normal University, a professor said that I was channeling Lu Xun. This was a compliment. But I know how far short I fall. Especially when it comes to essays, I can’t do social satire the way he could.

A commentator at Sanlian Life Week magazine after reading your novel The Seventh Day said in this age of information where everything is laid bare, people are no longer moved by literature because they’ve already been numbed by the news. He said, “This places even higher demands on writers, because in China how can you surpass the news? How do you tell that to Tolstoy?” What do you think?

He is half right, half wrong. When it comes to Chinese society today, no question: the news has literature beat. Still, in the long run, people forget the news, but they remember literature. News gets there first but it doesn’t stick like literature. So I won’t tell Tolstoy immediately. But when people have forgotten about the news, I will fly all the way from Beijing to Moscow, take a two-hour bus to the Tolstoy State Museum, stand alone beside his grass-covered grave and quietly tell him about it all.

Among contemporary Chinese novelists of your generation, you’re the only one who also writes nonfiction social criticism. How do you balance these two identities? For you, where is the line between fiction and reality?

Writing novels and writing criticism are two completely different matters. I always remind myself that I can’t bring the language of news commentary into my novels. The language of commentary needs to hew closely to reality, but the language of a novel must do the opposite. It’s interesting, sometimes bringing narrative techniques into a piece of social criticism gives it a new feel. I did that once and it seemed to work. But never the opposite. A novel written in the mode of social criticism would be a disaster.

For me, a single principle governs both kinds of writing: the author should value truth above opinion. When Sewell Chan, an editor at The New York Times, invited me to do a column, he said that he did not want a series of political proposals or denunciations—something I agreed with. Sewell is a great editor. We agree on everything and we work well together. My translator, Allan Barr, is a brilliant translator, and always has thoughtful suggestions. We have done six essays together, in which I have tried to let the truth speak for itself.

Should literature critique the real world? What’s the purpose of literature?

What’s the purpose of literature? Honestly, I don’t know. But one thing is certain: literature may not exist only to critique reality, but it critiques reality all the time.

This interview was translated by Zhang Xiaoran, Abigail Collier, and Susan Jakes.

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