Yan Lianke and Xiaolu Guo on Writing Through Rural Poverty in China
On the Life of the Chinese Novelist in Exile
Yan Lianke and Xiaolu Guo both visited New York City in the fall of 2016 to attend the FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards, where Yan was being honored as a fiction nominee and Guo was serving as a juror. Over breakfast at their hotel, they would exchange experiences as Chinese artists having lived inside and outside China, their childhood experiences, and the influence of their country’s history and collective memory on their writing. The conversation that follows is a continuation of their morning chats.
Xiaolu Guo: I can’t think of a single moment I have felt I have run out of subjects to write about. I would imagine you feel the same. There are always so many urgent things to speak about, to write about. Don’t you think Chinese writers are also very resourceful when you think of us having such traumatized histories within us and behind us?
Yan Lianke: Yes, in that respect I agree with you. We Chinese have very rich resources for storytelling. So many stories! We writers are like monkeys who face abundant fruits on a peach tree. Each peach is red and ripe. The monkeys are unable to decide which one they should pick and eat first. For Chinese writers, the issue is making a decision about which story to write first. Writers must be inspired by their real experiences to produce original work. Just as a unique story has to be born in a particular environment, we writers also have to live and sustain ourselves in a particular place. Without that particularity, there is no place or possibility for literature.
XG: Even though our ages differ by 15 years—and in China that makes us members of different generations—I feel that we (at least in our work) are both very much attached to a rural landscape. I guess this is based in our early experiences. The mythical and harsh peasant landscape has always inspired our writing.
My novels and films, and your novels and short stories are all deeply rooted in a particular geopolitical landscape. I have never been to your hometown, Song County in Henan province. What is it like?
YL: It sits in the Central Plains of China. We know China has seven ancient capitals, and three of them are in my province. Henan has a very unique historical importance in Chinese culture. But this rich history now only renders more depressing the reality of modern daily life—its poverty and banality. I think people in Henan have felt a sense of loss and bitterness, and this loss and bitterness deeply conditions the psychological life of the locals. You have to realize that Henan used to be such an imperial place with all sorts of significance, and now there is no dignity left among people. Henan people are the poorest ones in the country. Also, if you think about the landscape, in the past it was a land of mountains and rivers. But now it is exhausted, dusty, plain without much beauty at all.
XG: The Years, Months, Days, and Marrow, have this very surreal quality, like strange folkloric tales. What were your original thoughts when you constructed the stories?
YL: These two novellas are set in a mountain region, which is different from my usual kind of setting, by the Yellow River. Somehow I felt a mountain landscape to be larger and more imaginatively expansive than a riverbank setting. As a result the stories have a more mystical or folkloric quality. My aim was to return to the ancient tales and folklores with this book.
XG: Both novellas, are rather bleak but lyrical and totally metaphorical. In Marrow, the children of the You family are all disabled, suffering from epilepsy. Did you try to speak about China’s pathological symptoms through such a story?
YL: I didn’t intentionally write the two stories to discuss China’s inner diseases, but surely it was connected to my own diseased physical condition during that period.
When I wrote The Years, Months, Days, I was not even 40. I left my hometown and tried to find specialized doctors for my illness in Shangxi Province. I was on the road and felt very sick. One day I was walking along the cornfields when suddenly I had the inspiration for this novella. When I returned from Shanxi to my home, I lied in bed finishing the story in four or five days. It was really fast. I remember I just read the whole thing once after I finished the draft. I corrected some words and mailed it to the publisher and that was it. It was like writing in my dreams. I was out of my head.
I was so ill during that period. I wrote everything in my bed. And I had a special wheelchair, designed by a special factory producing aids for disabled people. So I wrote my books while I was in bed and in my wheelchair. All day long I was lying down and facing upwards—an awkward position to write.
But if you want, all these pathological symptoms in my novel were connected to my own experiences with illness and difficulties in my family. Of course, this is a collective experience too. Chinese in today’s China share a common life experience. I really don’t think that Chinese life has offered much individuality to its people. Our life is based in a collective memory.
You can feel a sense of despair and feeling of a decaying culture in my novels. A feeling of uselessness dominates people’s lives and that contributes to a fatalistic outlook among people. I think that’s the overall texture of my particular geopolitics. What about yours?
XG: Well, my source of inspiration is the fishermen’s life in a rural fishing village in Zhejiang province. Instead of the yellow soil of the plains, we have barren rocks, the East China sea and its foamy, salty water and a very long typhoon season. In the village of Shitang, where I spent my early childhood, there were mainly widows and children. Men would frequently die at sea, sinking to the bottom of the ocean along with their boats. Tradition did not allow women to go out fishing with their men. I don’t remember if I ever set foot on a fishing boat. But death was an everyday topic.
My grandfather was one of the old fishermen who didn’t die fishing. He killed himself instead. We never knew why he did it. Perhaps poverty or loss of dignity, having given up his fishing life in the 1970s. My father didn’t continue the family tradition. Instead he left the village for a nearby town to become an ink wash painter. So I grew up with my grandparents in a drafty stone house. The characteristic landscape surrounding my early years was that of rocks, ragged beaches and long fishing nets, stretched out on the beach and woven by fishermen’s wives. Along with it came an inexplicable sense of ennui. Strange, even as a child, I felt ennui.
Years later when I studied cinema in Beijing, I encountered Taiwanese filmmaker, Hou Xiaoxian’s films about teenagers wandering around coastal villages, and this sense of ennui manifested itself visually to me. That was one of the moments I really wanted to make films about that landscape and people I knew. After I left China, I often wondered whether growing up in the interior, away from the sea land, involved a different psychology, than that you get growing up by the sea.
YL: Yes, the land culture is the yellow earth culture, and the sea culture is the blue and more imaginative culture, I think.
XG: Perhaps this is true. The sea was always something I looked out through, imagining there was a faraway land which was better than my land. And I could escape one day from my land to this land beyond the sea. I wonder if that’s one of the reasons I ended up living in Britain. I wrote about the fishing village experiences in my early novel Village of Stone, I wrote it in Chinese when I was living in Beijing. Then twenty years later, after I moved to the UK, I began recounting again these experiences in English. Strangely, doing it felt as fresh as it did the first time in Chinese. And this is how Nine Continents was written. This time, I felt I could “see” that seascape even more vividly from such a distance. I think distance and time have transformed my literary memory, which shapes my ways of narrative.
YL: Yes, I think a writer’s social landscape is the womb for his literature. There is no writer who has no memory of any land, or no feelings to any landscape.
XG: We are both from proletarian families. Hunger must have been our common childhood experiences. In my case, watery porridge with pickled salty crabs was my daily diet. I can still taste that deadly salt! We also relied on the kelp that grew along the shore. We chopped it up and cooked it. My grandparents could not afford anything else. We also had no culture. My grandparents were illiterate and I grew up in a house of silence. The only noises in the house were my grandfather’s cough and my grandmother’s prayers to her Guanyin statue, muffled by her occasional weeping. I dreaded that place. When my parents came to take me to a town for school education, I realized how poverty destroyed my fishing village. It afflicted not only our stomachs but our minds too. I can only imagine your birthplace was even poorer and harsher, since you were born during the time of the Great Famine.
YL: That’s true. I was born in 1958. From 1959 to 1961 the official record of death in China was 15 million, and an unofficial figure of 40 million. Well, I survived.
XG: It’s quite a miracle that you not only survived but also managed to go to university and become a writer.
YL: That’s right. Even today, the village I was born in (it has now been upgraded to a town) is still an official “poverty town” according to the state census. If you look at how rich our country is today, you will feel this persistent poverty in my province is quite shocking. This destitution not only enabled me to depict the human struggle with hunger and survival, but most importantly, it reminds me of the profound indignity of those who have suffered. Of course literature is not to sing praises for the rich or cry for the poor. Literature is literature. It’s not a loud speaker for a particular group in society. But literature is always about humanity, the dignity of humanity and the memories of humanity. Literature is like a photo album, or an X-ray or a CT scan picture, which shows our angst in a very particular or extreme condition.
XG: Absolutely. Most of your novels have this mythical or surreal quality. Dream of Ding Village is a little different and is set in current Chinese reality. It feels more realistic in terms of social events (blood sales and AIDS epidemic). Your other novels are set in more historical times, especially your recent novel The Four Books. Can you talk about the background of these novels?
YL: All my stories are seeded in the reality of China, for example Endurance, and The Four Books as well as other novels. But with Dream of Ding Village, the seed was bigger, and the root was much stronger than in the other cases. I began to write that novel after I visited, on many occasions, so-called “AIDS villages” in Henan. I lived with villagers who were suffering from HIV infection. The shocking details in my novel are all real. Of course, if you talk about the overall story, it is a work of fiction. Actually, my original intention was not to write that novel. Originally I wanted to make a field study of China’s AIDS epidemic. But due to my fear of censorship I gave up my initial plan and wrote a novel instead.
With The Four Books, the background and surrounding landscape is the ancient waterway of the Yellow River. This was the area, during the 1950s and 60s, where the government set up labor camps for those accused of being “Rightist” or “Capitalist Dogs.” For me, Yellow River is my river. It flows in front of our house even though we Chinese call it Mother River. Since I am very familiar with that landscape, it is natural for me to set stories with it as the backdrop. I have sufficient knowledge and references for constructing the daily life of the locals there. Don’t you have this kind of writing habit when you begin to construct your books?
XG: Absolutely. This writing and thinking habit is almost automatic. My novels such as Village of Stone and Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, are drawn from my years of living in Zhejiang, South East China. Even with UFO In Her Eyes—it’s supposed to be set in Mao’s hometown in the middle part of China—but the peasant characters and the landscape in that book originated from those of my birthplace. I know the agricultural life in the south east of the Yangzi River, where the East China Sea is the main material source for the locals to make a living. So I always refer to that landscape and its people.
Also, as you know, my province is one of the major sources in China of legal and illegal immigrants to the West. One illegal method was to hide people for months in the cargo holds of ships going to Italy, France, or America. Now as people have become richer, they are adopting more sophisticated ways to leave China. Just check the Chinatown in Paris, and European cities like Parada in Italy. The Chinese there only speak my province’s dialect, even though these migrants live thousands of miles away from China. So for me, migration is a major theme in my books. It is always one of the motives of my characters’ journeys.
YL: Yes, I feel that strongly in your novel I Am China, and with your new memoir Nine Continents, too. These themes are very vivid. I think it also reflects your own life—now you live in both worlds and write in both languages.
We also have to admit that we are not free when we write, because we have censorship. So we have to use vast amounts of imaginative elements to tell our stories, and to decide what should be the subject of our next novel. Next year I will turn 60. And at this age, I think a lot about what subject will be my last novel. I hope there will be a strong and final outpouring.
XG: Outpouring, yes. But I am not sure about the “final.” A final work is like a death announcement. Don’t we writers spend too much time recounting, rather than living? If I were you, I would try to delay that “final one.” Or postpone it forever. Just for the sake of life.
Yan Lianke was born in 1958 in Henan province in China. He entered the Chinese army in 1978 and in 1991 he graduated from the People’s Liberation Army Art Institute with a degree in Literature. His novels include Serve the People!, Dream of Ding Village, Lenin’s Kisses, The Four Books, and The Explosion Chronicles. Yan received the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014, and was twice a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize. His new book, The Years, Months, Days: Two Novellas, is published by Grove Atlantic. He is based in Beijing.
Guo Xiaolu was born in 1973 in Zhejiang Province and trained as a filmmaker in Beijing and in London. After publishing several books in Chinese, she moved to the UK in 2002. Since then she has written several novels in English as well as a short story collection. Her work includes A Concise Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers, UFO In Her Eyes, I Am China, and the recent memoir Nine Continents. She has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2007, and was named as a Granta’s Best of Young British Novelist in 2013. She divides her time between Berlin and London.