Bookforum Talks with Yan Lianke

Yan Lianke

Yan Lianke occupies a contradictory place in the landscape of contemporary Chinese literature: He is one of the country’s foremost novelists—winner of both the Lu Xun and Lao She prizes—but four of his books have been banned and can only be read in foreign editions. Once a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army (where he had a job writing propaganda), he lost his commission in 2004 after the publication of the Chinese edition of Lenin’s Kisses and was, for a period, barred from leaving the country. But the political winds have shifted yet again, and he now travels the world freely, giving remarkably candid interviews to foreign journalists and writing hard-hitting op-ed pieces for the New York Times on Chinese politics and culture.

Yan’s fiction is irreverent, confrontational, and often gleefully dirty. Serve The People! is about the affair between a young peasant soldier and his commander’s wife; Dream of Ding Village chronicles the death of an entire village from AIDS, part of an ongoing rural epidemic largely denied by China’s government; Lenin’s Kisses tells an unhinged fable about a village of disabled people who form a traveling circus in order to raise money to buy Lenin’s tomb: It put him on the shortlist for the 2013 Man Booker International Prize. 2014 will see the publication of the U.S. edition of Four Books, a complex, multi-angled take on Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the suffering it caused.

I tried to get Yan to sit down for an interview while he was in Taiwan for a conference recently, but he had just flown in from a book tour in Italy and was so overwhelmed that he asked if he could answer in writing once he got back to China. What follows is our email exchange.

BOOKFORUM: You spent sixteen years writing official propaganda for the People’s Liberation Army before you published your first novel (1994’s Xia riluo, as yet untranslated). What caused that leap from propagandist to artist?

YAN LIANKE: In 1980 our Corps Commander spent a year at the National Defense University and then returned with a frown on his face when he saw that everyone had started keeping chickens and ducks outside the barracks during his absence. He said something audible only to the staff officer beside him and left. When the reveille sounded the next day, each officer woke up to find his chickens, ducks, and geese dead from poison, including four ducks of mine. Everyone knew this to be the work of the Commander.

We all gathered in silence for morning drills, and the senior officers watched us march as if we were parading through Tiananmen Square, checking our formations and our uniforms. Then the junior officers were sent to meet the Commander. We expected to be chewed out but instead got a series of compliments on how well coordinated the marching was, and this surprise made us forget about our poisoned poultry. We all clapped as loud as a thunderstorm—the energy and unity made it sound as if it were coming from the sky.

The fact that the Commander had poisoned our chickens and ducks disappeared as if it had never happened, and life went right back to normal: Whenever we saw the Commander and the other senior officers we bowed with respect. But the incident made me wonder. I saw how unstoppable authority could be, and I became frightened of what power can do. So I decided to throw away the possibility of becoming a senior officer myself and began seriously pursuing literature.

Your first novel brought you considerable trouble: The book was banned and you were forced to write self-criticism for six months. What was that period like? Had you expected that kind of reaction? And what made you continue on as a writer?

The sometimes-loose-sometimes-tight policy on literature in China created an enormous puzzle for me. Though I was forced to do a half-year of penance, I was not actually charged with a crime, and for a while I thought I might try to alter my style and write something more positive. But my personality did not allow me to do that, and when I published Lenin’s Kisses in 2004 I finally got kicked out of the army. Even after leaving the army, however, I could not change my character, so it’s no surprise that the three books that followed, including Dream of Ding Village, were also banned.

Which writers are most important to you? I’ve heard Garcia Marquez mentioned, and Kafka and Tolstoy—a very diverse group. Do you see these writers in your work?

Different writers inspired me at different stages in my development. When I first started, Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Balzac influenced me. Later on I developed an interest in the Beat Generation, Henry Miller, Friedrich Schiller, Nabokov, Faulkner, Camus, Kafka, and Latin American literature. Eventually I came to the conclusion that Chinese literature has taken too much inspiration from Western experience and it is time to withdraw from that practice. That does not mean that we should go back to ancient Chinese and explore antiquity. Rather, it means that we should develop a modern writing style that is unique to us.

American and British reviewers of Serve the People! tended to mention D.H. Lawrence, because of the class difference that divides your two lovers, but I thought of Philip Roth—another writer interested in the subversive power of sex. Do you read Roth? And what role does sex play in your work?

I have a few of Roth’s novels in Chinese but haven’t had the time to read them yet. The sex in my novels is a force acting against politics, power, order, and also the mediocrity of ordinary life. It is to me a form of rebellion. China is careful about sex, but the irony is that people speak and act differently. In public places, we’re afraid to mention it, but in private we talk about it incessantly. Our greedy and corrupt government officials are just the same as the rest of us: Under investigation they turn out to have multiple mistresses. You don’t know how to react except complete speechlessness! For that reason, I use sex in my latest novel [Zhaliezhi, as yet untranslated] to satirize our current political and economic situation and show how we have given way to indulgence and darkness over the past thirty years in China.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, you talk about two conflicting language systems in China today: one official and Orwellian, the other human, the language of ordinary feeling. Serve the People! does a wonderful job of dramatizing the conflict between these two language systems, in a way that reminded me of the Czech writer Milan Kundera. Do you read Kundera? And what happens to literature when these antithetical languages collide?

I have had the privilege of reading some of Milan Kundera’s works, and he is definitely an excellent writer. I believe the split between the two modes of language in China, official and private, does hinder the development of literature. To compete with the weight and formality of public language, I use regional dialect and folklore to express my ideas. I am convinced that a truly great novel can transcend its social environment and be free from the chains that bind it. Even if it fails to break through the various barriers that block its way, it will stand out from its hostile environment because it illuminates society with a personal vision.

To Serve the People, Dream of Ding Village, and Lenin’s Kisses are as much about the fault line in human nature—our greed and love of power—as they are critiques of a specific political system. Do you see the real problem as human nature, rather than politics?

Human nature is inseparable from politics in China because politics is the catalyst that darkens and complicates us. I write novels in the hope that through the honest exploration of my characters I can reach a larger, deeper understanding of politics. For that reason, I am excited about the U.S. edition of my novel Four Books that will be out next year. I believe it will give a more thorough idea of how I see human nature and politics intertwining.

Your audience outside of China is growing, despite the fact that your work is deeply rooted in contemporary Chinese experience. How do you want Western readers to approach your work? What do you want them to take away?

I wish that my novels could be published first in my country, and read and understood by my people. The reality, however, is that a lot of my books are only available for overseas readers. I want overseas readers to appreciate them as literature, not simply as tools for understanding contemporary China. I hope that in the end my novels will return to their birthplace and be read by their people. I believe that the world moves forward, not backward, and I also believe that my people will eventually appreciate my work.

Translated by Ching-Hui Chiu and Winston Lai

Robert Anthony Siegel is a novelist teaching in Taiwan this year as a Fulbright Scholar.