The Challenges of Conveying Absurd Reality: An Interview with Chinese Writer Yu Hua

By Megan ShankOctober 25, 2013

    As the Nobel awards approached, the Asia editors at Los Angeles Review of Books wanted to check in with Yu Hua, the spirited Chinese author of Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, To Live,and Brothers, among others, who also has a short story collection, Boy in the Twilight: Stories of the Hidden China, coming out in January. But Yu didn’t want to talk about the Nobel — “Let’s talk about literature instead. It’s more important.” Thus, Los Angeles Review of Books Asia Co-editor Megan Shank and Yu exchanged Chinese-language e-mails about history’s most over- and underrated Chinese writers, the evolution of an ancient language and why Yu will never read Anna Karenina on a cell phone. Below, Shank’s translation of excerpts from their conversation.


    MEGAN SHANK: Which Chinese writers do you enjoy? And what type of work? Who is the most underrated Chinese writer in Chinese literary history? And who is the most overrated? Please briefly describe the status of contemporary Chinese literature and the challenges it faces.

    YU HUA: Among classical literature, I most appreciate works of “biji.” [Ed. note: a work that may include short stories, literary criticism, anecdotes and sketches, philosophical musings]— from Tang and Song dynasty legends to Ming and Qing dynasty biji, they are brief and vivid.

    There are also many writers — too many to even name a few. As for classical essays, a good place to start is the Guwen Guanzhi, a must-read [Ed. note: Guwen Guanzhi is an anthology of essays first published during the Qing dynasty that includes works from Warring States period through the Ming dynasty]. As for the 20th century, my favorite writer is Lu Xun. Every word he wrote was like a bullet, like a bullet straight to the heart. Lu Xun’s contemporary Guo Moruo is China’s most overrated writer. Shen Congwen used to be the most underrated, but now he’s attained the stature he deserves.

    Contemporary Chinese literature is rich and colorful. There are all types of writers, so there are all types of writing, too. As I see it, the biggest problem facing Chinese literature is how to express today’s realities. Reality is more preposterous than fiction. It’s a difficult task to convey reality’s absurdity in a novel.

    So Guo Moruo is overrated and Shen Congwen is underrated. Can you elaborate? Also, when I asked you about Chinese authors you admire, you didn’t specifically mention any 21st Century Chinese authors. Why is that?

    For a long time, Guo Moruo had the same literary status as Lu Xun. But what did he write? Today nobody really knows. Even though Shen Congwen was recognized by the world of Chinese letters and by readers after the Cultural Revolution, I still feel that to date he’s not been given due credit. When many writers describe scenery in their work, it’s just scenery, but when Shen does it, the scenery becomes a fully formed character with flesh and blood. It’s really quite remarkable. As far as 21st Century writers go, they’re still writing, so it’s too early to judge.

    Readers around the world appreciate your work — it’s been well received in China and in the West. (Not unlike the Chinese writer Eileen Chang, aka Zhang Ailing, 1920-1995.) What does this mean to you? And how do you explain the widespread appeal of your books? What other writers in China today have this potential? And what must Chinese writers overcome to gain Western attention?

    This phenomenon is difficult to explain. I guess the only word I can use is luck. I’m really very lucky. I have a lot of readers in China, and a decent amount in the West, too. When I’m writing, I’ve never once considered whether the readers will like it or not, much less whether Western readers will like it, because readers are all different. China has a saying, zhongkounantiao, which means that no matter how good a chef is, it’s impossible to make a dish that caters to all tastes. So considering what the readers want isn’t something I do. As a writer, I am very strict with myself. Compared to other contemporary Chinese writers, I have published few works. I am never lenient with myself; I do not release a piece for publishing unless I’m extremely satisfied with it. If I’ve experienced any success, it’s because I’m always endeavoring to improve my work.

    You’ve said China has a diversity of writers, but when we’ve discussed Chinese writers in history, we’ve primarily spoken about men. Where are the women writers? How do you view them? In the world of letters, is it important to have a balance between the sexes? Why?

    This is probably because male writers outnumber female writers, so as we’ve discussed Chinese literature, we’ve mostly spoken about men. Actually, China has never had a shortage of excellent women writers, like Eileen Zhang, whom you’ve mentioned. Now there is also Wang Anyi. I think in the realm of literature, sex isn’t important. For example, in Wang Anyi’s work, it’s very difficult to tell that the writer is a woman. Excellent writers should be neutral — and be able to write men and women. And when you’re writing, you’re not writing as a man or a woman.

    In the past several decades, what kind of changes has the Chinese language experienced? Some say new works cannot be judged through old paradigms. But others say the Chinese language faces a real threat from Western influence — and that that influence is only growing. How do you see it, and what can be done to preserve the Chinese language?

    Chinese is changing very quickly, but the biggest factor isn’t Westernization — it’s the attack of online language. Sometimes I don’t understand the new language that pops up and I have to check it out before I understand the meaning. But I’m not worried about this. Language is always in a state of self-renewal. New language that has value will remain, while that without value will naturally die out.

    How do you view ordinary Chinese people’s reading habits? For example, what kind of thoughtfulness goes into most people’s reading in China? Over the past few years, new technology has changed how people read. As an author, how do you view these trends?

    On the subway, I see everyone reading on cell phones. You almost never see someone holding a real book. It’s hard to imagine using a cell phone to read Anna Karenina. I think the majority of these readers are reading “fast food” novels. Because they’re always using their phones, today’s youth are inflicting a lot of damage on their thumb joints. The ache is already starting to bother them, so maybe one day they’ll return to a more regular way of reading books. Reading on a Kindle isn’t bad. 

     “Self-help” and “get-rich” books overrun the shelves of Chinese bookstores. Who is reading serious fiction and non-fiction? If there are fewer and fewer readers, will these types of books face gradual extinction?

    You’re absolutely right. Books on how to make money and how to succeed are very popular, while serious fiction and non-fiction have seen their readerships decrease. This seems to be the same the world over. But at least it’s only a decline — not an abrupt and utter abandonment. There will always be new readers growing up who appreciate serious literature, so I’m not at all pessimistic. Today a high school student left a message on my weibo [Ed. note: microblog]. He said that he and his classmates had enjoyed reading my book Brothers together. But when the teacher discovered the book, the teacher confiscated it and told the young man that bringing such a book into the school was like poisoning himself and his classmates. The teacher required them to only read textbooks so that they can test well, but these students are still reading works of literature.

    What is the importance of literary criticism in China? What's the state of literary criticism in China? Recently, in Southern Metropolis Weekly (Sept. 12, 2013), Chen Sihe said that literary criticism should be more concerned with the real world. Do you agree? 

    I heartily approve of Chen Sihe’s viewpoint. Writers need to concern themselves with the real world, as do critics. In China, there are many who think that literature shouldn’t recount real happenings, that literature should be set apart from real things. Zhang Xinying, one of Chen Sihe’s students who is now a professor at Fudan University, said that if literature isn’t connected to anything then what sort of thing is literature?

    What can be done to foster young literary talent in China?

    In China, young writers develop on their own. They’re not cultivated. That’s because literary education at Chinese universities isn’t the same as it is in the States. In the States, excellent authors and poets serve as professors. At Chinese universities, most of the literature professors teach theory, criticism and history. 

    Some say leaders are not born but made. Can the same be said of topical writers? For example, how has China's rise influenced your work? And how might the events of living history influence young writers going forward?

    No writer can shrug off his or her relationship with the era he or she lives in. Of course, the approach varies. Some works are estranged from the times; others more intimately entwined. No matter what, the era a writer lives in has an influence that seeps into his or her blood. I feel fortunate to live in today’s China, because there are so many stories to tell. But the story angle is very important, because the realities of modern Chinese society are even more fantastical than fiction, and the requirements for the writers telling them are higher than ever. Chinese societal progress has already damaged an entire generation of young people who revere materialism. But as more and more societal problems emerge, young writers will change. Ultimately, they will resemble writers of my generation and care about social reality.

    How do you feel about the fact that your last book couldn’t be published in China? When you write, do you consider the censors? Do you worry about whether or not your books will be censored? What consideration do you give to the market? As a Chinese writer, do you have to implement an overall strategy?

    You’re talking about China in Ten Words. As soon as I was done writing the first article for it, I knew it couldn’t be published in Mainland China. But I still finished the book, because I believe one day it will be published [in China]. When I write I don’t give any consideration to the problems involving censorship, and I give even less consideration to the market. To write the next book or next article well — that is my only consideration.

    What makes you so confident your stories will be able to be published in China someday?

    It’s confidence in my nation. Since the 1980s, China has had an open attitude in regard to its economy. Even with the resignation of Hu Yaobang and the Tiananmen incident, the economy has been a domain free for debate. During the past 30 years, politically things have always been tightened, then loosened, loosened and then, as now, tightened again, but overall things have become more and more open.

    Can you tell us about what you’re working on now? 

    I’m continuing to write a column for the New York Times. In the first half of this year, I’ve written six pieces for them. I plan to write 12 more from October of this year to October of next year — a piece a month. At the same time, I want to write several short stories. I haven’t written a short story in nearly ten years now.

    You also have a short story collection coming out in January. Will you promote them in the States next year?

    I wrote all these stories in the 1990s in-between working on the novels Cries in the Drizzle, To Live, and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant. It’s interesting — at the time everyone was following my novels so closely, including me, so this volume of short stories didn’t attract any attention. I ignored them until an editor at Random House expressed appreciation of them. Only after a New Yorker editor also expressed admiration of the stories did I finally reread them and felt they were well done. I won’t come to the States to promote the collection. I have a lot to do next year. 


    LARB Contributor

    Megan Shank is a freelance writer and translator, Mandarin Chinese tutor, and Asia co-editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

    Most recently, she served as managing editor for East View Information Service’s The Current Digest of the Chinese Press.

    Shank’s work has appeared in Newsweek InternationalThe Daily BeastProspect, Ms., Bloomberg NewsThe Washington PostMiller-McCuneArchaeologyThe San Antonio Express-News, CNN.comThe South China Morning PostThe American Lawyer, and Global Journalist, among others.

    Shank wrote a chapter for Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land (University of California Press, September 2012). Her writing is also featured in the first edition of McGraw-Hill College’s Women Worldwide: Transnational Feminist Perspectives on Women (March 2010). She has worked as a researcher and translator for and has made guest appearances on NPR and Pacifica Radio and spoken at the Asia Society. She has blogged for the Huffington Post and Ms. and reported for a short documentary film about Chinese youth and pollution produced by Pearson Education.

    Working with Newsweek International and a Hong Kong partner, Shank helped establish Newsweek Select, the Chinese-language edition of Newsweek. As a senior editor, she trained Chinese and Western reporters, edited Chinese and English-language pieces, developed new sections, translated Chinese copy into English for the New York office’s review, and orchestrated a pan-Asian Newsweek foreign editions conference. During her spare time, Shank co-wrote, produced, and co-directed the Shanghai-staged play Impulse and used proceeds to create a scholarship for a Chinese woman in the arts.

    During her six-year residency in China, before her years at Newsweek Select, she performed with a Chinese jazz group, recorded cartoon voices for a Japanese educational company, taught kindergarten, and coached a high school girls’ basketball team. As Shanghai editor at Ringier AG, a Swiss media company, Shank produced the biweekly Shanghai City Weekend, the quarterlies Parents & Kids and Home & Office, and the annual Shanghai Bar & Restaurant Guide.


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