Often considered by critics and scholars to be a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Yan Lianke is a world-renowned and uniquely versatile Chinese writer, recognized for both his artistry and his hard-nosed political stances. The most prolific and outspoken of Chinese authors, he is a masterful writer of fiction, blending the realistic, historical, supernatural, surrealistic, and folkloric. In his novels and essays, he has bravely confronted the problems of China’s social and political history head-on, often defying past and present government policies in the process.
Lianke was born in Henan, China, in 1958. He received a degree in politics and education from Henan University and a degree in literature from the People’s Liberation Army Art Institute. He is the author of seventeen novels, over two dozen collections of short stories and novellas, and nearly as many collections of essays, as well as television and film scripts.
At first, Yan wrote strictly realistic fiction, but by the end of the 1990s his work took a sharp turn toward extremely imaginative and satirical political allegory, containing what he’s referred to as “a realism that transcends reality.” Much of Yan’s work is set during turbulent historical periods in China, including Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, which provides context for it to challenge government policies. In his fiction, he has also addressed controversial social issues such as the Chinese government’s response to the AIDS epidemic. Yan’s nonfiction includes literary theory and criticism, along with more lyrical personal and cultural essays, with topics ranging from the everyday lives of Chinese people, to stories of his own family and friends, to the course of nature during the year.
In Beijing, Yan teaches writing and literature at Renmin University of China (People’s University of China) and one semester per year at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). Many of his novels—Dream of Ding Village, Serve the People!, Lenin’s Kisses, and The Four Books—along with some of his essays and speeches, have been banned in China because of their handling of sensitive historical and political matters. As a result, though he lives and teaches in China, Yan’s later work has largely been published in Taiwan, and many of his books have been translated into more than thirty languages.
The following conversation took place in March 2019 in Yan’s apartment at HKUST, overlooking Port Shelter in the New Territories of the city, where he works—writing by hand—with an astonishing view of the water and mountains. Over tea, he talked about his path to becoming a writer, his aesthetic principles, his experience writing in the military, and his reaction to his work being banned. He was friendly and welcoming, listening carefully and speaking with surprising modesty and great wit.
Yan’s native Mandarin has been translated into English here, and the transcript of the conversation has been edited slightly for clarity. (The editors gratefully acknowledge the work of the translator, who has requested anonymity due to the political risk of translating Lianke’s controversial writing and commentary.)
I. “I DO NOT HAVE MUCH TALENT”
THE BELIEVER: In a recent interview you said that your mission here at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is “to break the myth of literature,” and at an earlier time you referred to yourself as “a traitor of literary writing.” Can you tell us what the word literature suggests to you and explain why you work against it in your teaching and writing?
YAN LIANKE: Thank you very much for your interview. I want to demystify literature when teaching at HKUST, especially for the students majoring in science and technology. I want to tell students that literature is not something scary, and everyone can read and write it. I want students to have confidence about literature. Although the students here are studying science and technology, I am sure that if they want to focus on literature, they can do it well. For them, literature is mysterious because they have not read a lot of it, but I want to tell them that they can also find their own way.
BLVR: The poet James Tate, who was my teacher, used to do something similar that gave us confidence. He told us, for example, that a writer like T. S. Eliot wrote some remarkable poems but that other work of his isn’t so interesting. He would tell us that when we write, our voice has just as much right to be heard as anyone’s, and that writers at the top really have, in many cases, written just a handful of strong things. I also remember being concerned that I had to be a scholar to call myself a poet. Tate assured me this wasn’t true.
YL: You had a wonderful learning experience, which is almost impossible in China. I always tell my students that Lu Xun is a great writer, but even some of his works can be simple or meaningless. Here at HKUST I have great students. One-third of my students every semester produce great short stories at the end of my class. My goal here is to teach students to write, to make them feel a sense of accomplishment because they wrote a short story in their life. It is not necessary that everyone I have taught becomes a writer in the future. My goal is to bring literature to them and to make them enjoy reading.
BLVR: Is it common for creative writing to be taught in China?
YL: In the US you have the tradition of teaching creative writing, but in China after 1949, for a very long time, no such courses have been offered, until only recently.
BLVR: Do you teach creative writing in Beijing as well, like you do here in Hong Kong?
YL: At Renmin University, in Beijing, my students are established writers in China, and they have rich experience. My students here do not know much about literature. So my teaching at HKUST is very different from that at Renmin University. I often joke to my students that if they have worked on fiction, they can write beautiful love letters. Last year, I had a student from Hong Kong who wrote great stories. His short stories have won prizes and now he has started writing a novel. I have seen thirty to forty thousand words from him. So far it’s gone very well.
BLVR: When you decided, as a young man, to write fiction, how did you learn the art?
YL: My experience is quite absurd. Before I reached twenty years old, I had never left the countryside. The books I read were all the red classics in China. I thought that world fiction was just like that. But after I reached twenty, I joined the army, and I read Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I realized that this is how foreigners write their stories, and that it is much better than our fiction. The fiction that I read before was meaningless.
BLVR: How did you get access to fiction from outside the country? Was it a sudden change of political climate?
YL: In the village where I was born, we did not have any library. I had never heard about the differences between the short story, novella, and novel. It wasn’t until I joined the army that I had access to a library and started reading real fiction. Of course, I was lucky that I became a librarian and worked as one for over two years. This made up for the lack of reading in the first twenty years of my life. When I started writing, I did not think about becoming a writer. My original goal was to escape the country life, to move to the city. I wanted to change my destiny by writing fiction, to get a promotion, and to become a city resident.
BLVR: When you were in the army, were you writing propaganda? Was there also some kind of narrative fiction that you were assigned to write, or were you writing on your own?
YL: In the army, I was mostly responsible for documents, such as writing speeches for leaders and preparing archival documents. This was my job during the day. At night, I wrote fiction, but mostly realist fiction, without too much independence. Mostly revolutionary realism.
BLVR: Did you show this fiction to other people?
YL: My colleagues did not always love literature. I normally just published them.
BLVR: How was the transition from serving in the army to becoming a professor of literature and writing?
YL: I think it is my fate. I do not think that I have much talent. This is all due to my fate. Everything that has happened in my life, good or bad, ups and downs, including joining the army, moving to the city, getting married—everything relates to literature. Of course, it also includes being expelled from the army, my books being banned, constantly writing self-criticism. I do not have much talent. I do not think I am a competent professor. I am grateful for the care of my friends and people’s respect for literature.
II. THE MORNING MIST
BLVR: In the US these days, most writers come out of MFA or PhD programs. One of my friends, a great prose stylist, didn’t take any creative writing classes, but just through reading and practice, he learned the craft. I wonder if simply by reading fiction you suddenly started creating stories. Did it come easily to you? Did you have people collaborating with you or editing your work?
YL: I only studied for one year in high school. I did not study much about literature. It was not until I became famous that I joined a literature program in Beijing for two years. But this program was only to gather us to write together. I constantly say that I am a barbaric writer and the fiction I wrote does not follow the rules.
BLVR: When you talk about barbaric or anti-literary writing, it reminds me of the great Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, who referred to his work as “anti-poetry,” which was supposed to mean extraordinarily natural, maybe even almost primitive poetry, without any mannered literary gestures or literary style. He, in fact, was a professor of physics. I appreciate his effort to be rough, conversational, and anti-literary.
YL: My sources for writing are coming from my reading, and also from my everyday life. Before I reached twenty, all I read was revolutionary literature. But in February 1979, there was a war between China and Vietnam. It was my first year in the army. Everyone was afraid of war, but everyone had to write a petition to go to the war. Before, in the books I had read and the movies I had watched, I saw that everyone wanted to be a war hero. But it was that moment that made me realize that it was unreal. I realized that the distance between literature and life was great, and that was when I started to write.
BLVR: What were these revolutionary stories like?
YL: The alleged “red literature” from 1949 was all about revolutionary heroism and revolutionary romanticism. Everyone was fighting for the nation, for the country. Everyone wanted to be a hero. The literature must have “three prominences,” which demanded highlighting positive figures, heroic figures, and especially principled heroic figures.
BLVR: Is there a prototypical protagonist?
YL: He needs to be a fighter and not be afraid of sacrificing his life for the country, the party, and the people. But I do not think it is completely unreal. In China, there are such people in real life.
BLVR: I think this style of art is functional social realism. I’m reminded of how Vladimir Nabokov was very critical of social realism in the Soviet Union. He felt it was predictable and unimaginative.
YL: Because Chinese revolutionary literature came from the Soviet Union, Chinese literature could only get an F.
BLVR: You mentioned the influence of Gone with the Wind and how you wanted to write in a new way. Writers in the United States have often tried to follow the adage of Ezra Pound: “Make it new.” I find your work completely original. I am curious to know what some of your other literary influences are. Are there other particular works or schools that have inspired you?
YL: I’ve had different preferences at different stages of life. After reading Gone with the Wind, I started reading works written by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Flaubert. Afterward, I read American and Japanese literature. I think modern Japanese literature is much better than modern Chinese literature. The American literature in the 1950s and 1960s had a great impact on me. It is the type of literature that has tremendous destructive force, the power to destroy life. Afterward, I started reading Latin American literature, many French nouveaux romans, and works by Kafka. Today I pay more attention to Eastern European literature. I have never finished reading all the works of a single writer. And there has never been a single writer that I prefer for the whole time I’ve been writing.
BLVR: Who are some of the American writers who have influenced you?
YL: The first was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Then works by Mark Twain. Then the works by the Beat generation, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn; Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. These works became popular in China in the 1990s. The American writer that has influenced me for the longest time is William Faulkner.
BLVR: That was going to be one of my questions: What kind of influence has Faulkner had on your work? His sharp focus on the land, on the natural landscape, reminds me of your own.
YL: Faulkner pays special attention to the narrative and structure of a story. Besides, his fiction is filled with darkness. It is not necessarily that the plot is dark, but his fiction has a dark feeling permeating it, like the morning mist.
BLVR: One striking example of your description of landscape is a sentence from your novel The Four Books: “Everything was so quiet you could hear the clouds slide through the air.” Do you usually write about your own local landscape?
YL: Chinese writers normally use their own village as the theme for a series of stories. It is the same for me. I create a village based on the village I came from, but it is a different, imaginary village.
BLVR: The work of yours that I’ve read also has a folkloric quality, the elements of a “tale”: fast-moving action, allegory, direct narration, with a history that also feels timeless, mythical. Has Chinese or other folklore influenced your writing?
YL: Among my readings, the things that never bore me are legends, fables, and fairy tales. I am always fascinated by those stories, regardless of their origin: Greek, European, or stories of the Chinese national minorities. I feel more excited about them than great novels. Another thing that has a great impact on me is the local operas in Henan province. Henan is the province that has the greatest variety of operas in China, over 130 types. And it is also the province that has the largest audience.
Opera music and plot are both important, but the musicality of the opera is the thing I try to manifest in my work, not the story. When I was little, in the village, the music I listened to was only from the stage. I did not have access to Western opera, TV, or orchestral performance. The opera music had a decisive impact on me. On the other hand, the stories of the Chinese traditional operas are quite simple. They cannot compete with Shakespeare’s plays or the stories in literary works.
BLVR: People are concerned about the shrinking audience for Chinese opera. Do you think that the popularity of the opera is fading?
YL: Chinese traditional operas are declining. You might even wonder whether they are going to disappear one day. There are over 130 types of opera in Henan, but we can watch less than twenty types nowadays. There used to be over one thousand types of opera in China, but now we know only around fifty to sixty types well.
BLVR: Chinese opera is powerful and totally new to me.
YL: Different cultures have different arts. When I first listened to American country music, I was shocked too. It was completely new to me. As for the influence of local opera, I do not know whether it gets translated, but when writing fiction, I care a lot about the rhythm of a story. It is not the tempo of modern music, or Western music; it has to be the tempo of folk music or local opera. Every time after I finish a novel, I re-read it many times to adjust the rhythm. I add or delete characters to make it sound better. Maybe the readers could not tell the difference, but it is very important to me.
III. “A NO-TRUTH AGE”
BLVR: Your narrators use similes often. Can you say anything about the repetition of simile and certain phrasing?
YL: I did not realize this, the repetition I’ve used. A common practice in Henan opera is to sing about similar content multiple times, but every time with a minor change or progression. Even in long novels, I sometimes include paragraphs and paragraphs of repetition. I do not know how they are translated, though.
In China, when my editor had a complaint about my repetition, I also needed to hire a typist to enter text for me, and sometimes the typist would make big changes. I had to find someone else to redo it for me.
BLVR: You have said that “the reality of China is so outrageous that it defies belief and renders reality inert.” Can you define a bit further what you call “mytho-realism” or “the reality that is covered up by reality”?
YL: We are in an era that does not have truth. We cannot fathom the truth of anything. Or the truth is covered by another truth. And the real truth cannot be detected by our own eyes. It is a nonexistent truth, imaginary truth. In a no-truth age, it is useless to describe the truth in life. That is why I propose the idea of mytho-realism. It is based on our understanding of truth. And it makes us get closer to the truth.
BLVR: So the creation of mytho-realism is a conscious choice not to represent life as it is?
YL: In writing, I reveal the truth in my mind, the truth that is closer to reality, but it needs to be based on the suspicion of the truth. The logic in life is shattered. I have to rebuild a new truth. This is mytho-reality, psychic reality, spiritual reality. It looks ridiculous superficially, but it might be how life really is.
BLVR: How is the Chinese fiction of mytho-realism or spiritual realism different from surrealism or magic realism?
YL: I wrote a small pamphlet called Discovering Fiction. The English translation of this book has been completed and it will come out soon. There I talked a lot about this. In magic realism, there is a semi-causal relationship between things, because there is real logic in the magic things happening. For example, in the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez talks about how when Melquíades came to Macondo, he used two metal ingots to make pots and pans come out from their places and even objects that had been lost. This is, of course, exaggeration, but it is also based on the physical property of a magnet. This physical property is real, but it just got either exaggerated or reduced. That is what I call a semi-causal relationship. But in mytho-realism, there is no such causal relationship. There is another relationship that I am developing.
BLVR: Do you find yourself trying to balance between the “real” and the “mythic” or “magical,” and do you think your work has become even more magical or fantastical as time goes on?
YL: Another example to illustrate the difference between magic realism and mytho-realism: In The Four Books, there is one plot, during the Great Leap Forward, that describes how in order to produce an impossible amount of grain in the field, people used earth that had emperors buried underneath it. And the intellectuals used their own blood to water the plants. As a result, a grain of wheat became as big as an ear of corn.
BLVR: You could almost believe that the blood causes bigger plants to grow. I notice that magic occurs again in The Four Books, when we learn that suddenly things roll uphill unassisted.
YL: Before, I was wondering whether readers could accept what I wrote. But after I finished The Four Books and proposed the idea of mytho-realism, I no longer cared about it. I think I have solved the logical problem, including the rolling stone. Of course, there is another explanation about the stone rolling uphill. In the Western mythology, the stone is rolled upward; the roller needs to look upward to look at heaven, the god, the soul. In my story, the stone is being pushed downhill, and the roller is looking at the secular life, the village, the kitchen smoke, the kids playing. What I want to present is the belief in the secular life by Chinese people and Chinese intellectuals. Every god is turned into something secular, not spiritual, for us.
BLVR: What caused your work to change in the ’90s, as it moved away from social realism toward more mythological writing?
YL: Actually, for a very long time, I was not much interested in modern literature, including the French, Latin American, and American literature I mentioned earlier. I preferred the nineteenth-century literature that pays greater attention to plot, characters, and details. In general, I preferred critical realism. But then, around 1990, I had a cervical vertebra disease, and I could no longer walk. I could only lie in bed. And then I suddenly became fond of twentieth-century literature. The things I did not enjoy reading, such as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, became attractive in the first half of 1991. It was totally due to my illness. It also affected my writing. Before when I read Kafka, stream-of-consciousness novels, different modern writers, I was not interested. But then one day, after a night’s sleep, when I woke up I realized I could no longer walk. It did not hurt, but for some reason my legs felt soft; I could only lie down on the bed. I cried. I had to rely on my wife for everything. Then I suspected that all the literary geniuses in the twentieth century are suffering from certain illnesses. I think Kafka and Faulkner are ill. I think twentieth-century literature, in comparison with nineteenth-century literature, is pathological. Nabokov’s Lolita is pathological.
BLVR: Have you read Nabokov’s lectures on literature?
YL: I read Nabokov’s and Italo Calvino’s lectures, and I feel their first task is to find out what to talk about to fill up the class time. And this is their priority. The content of the lecture is their secondary concern. Milan Kundera wrote The Art of the Novel. Someone asked him why his novels are always so short, and he answered that it was because they fit the movements of a symphony. I believe he was just joking. Writers are not always serious when they talk about fiction writing.
BLVR: Was there a change in publishers’ attitudes in the late 1980s and 1990s, when more Western literature came to China?
YL: World literature produced in the last two hundred years was introduced in China in ten years, starting in 1980. People did not care about copyright issues. In the mid-1980s, Tropic of Cancer was introduced to China as pornography. You could find it everywhere in the street markets. Afterward, Lolita was also first read in China as pornography. It was not as popular as Tropic of Cancer, though, because it came in later. It was the most open-minded moment in China. What Chinese literature has achieved now should be attributed to the 1980s.
I think people are paradoxical in China nowadays. People, including writers, have their doubts about the standards for good literature. You have to keep your independence as a writer to grasp literature. In China, I think most people are following their old habits. Only very few with strong minds can maintain their independence. In China every year there are over two or three thousand novels being published, which means there are seven to eight novels being published every day. This is scary. I am not including electronic or digital literature.
BLVR: In the preface to The Four Books, you say that this novel was an attempt “to write without any regard for publication,” and you go on to define this aim as a wish to write “a work exactly as [you] wanted to.” Do you continue to maintain this stance as you write new books?
YL: I don’t think I will change this attitude. If you want to publish in China, you apply a certain type of restraint, you self-censor not only the content of the story but also the way it is told. I think that, as a real writer, you gain the biggest freedom by not writing for publication.
BLVR: Considering the recent ban of your work in China, whom do you currently identify as your main audience of readers? Do you imagine your Chinese audience to be mainly those in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Mandarin-Chinese-speaking readers living elsewhere in the world?
YL: My ideal readers are definitely Chinese speakers. They can understand every character, every word, and every detail I write. I do not know any foreign languages, and I do not know how my works are read outside of China. Besides, I cannot communicate with the foreign readers. I believe that one day my work will return to mainland China, even if there is just one reader remaining. I believe in progress in the long run. Maybe I won’t be able to witness the day coming, but I believe that my children will be able to see it. For each work, I print a few hundred copies to send to my friends.
BLVR: Borges says he writes “for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passage of time.”
YL: I don’t think my work enjoys a great readership in China, but I believe that the readers who want to see my work can get access to it in one way or another.
BLVR: I imagine there are many Mandarin-Chinese-speaking readers abroad reading your work.
YL: There are not that many people reading literature in general. I tell my publisher that as long as they do not lose money, I am satisfied.