The Challenges of Conveying Absurd Reality: An Interview with Chinese Writer Yu Hua
As the Nobel awards approached, the Asia editors at Los Angeles Review of Bookswanted 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.