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The Best Chinese Dissident Literature

recommended by Ma Jian

Writers in China are afraid to criticise the state and society, says London-based author Ma Jian. From the 3rd century BC to 2008, these five exceptional works show how it’s done.

Interview by Alec Ash

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Why did you choose these books to make a set of five? What common themes or perspectives do they share?

When I was thinking about this yesterday, I realised that the history of Chinese literature has often been shaped from outside of its society – by exiled writers and thinkers. From [3rd century BC Chinese poet] Qu Yuan to Confucius, the Tang dynasty to the Qing dynasty, right up to modern novels today, you find that those authors who in the end became central to Chinese culture were at the time writing from outside of their country – exiled, pushed out or banned.

Would it be fair to call them dissidents?

More or less. In their contemporary society, they couldn’t exist [be published] – that was only possible after they died. In their times, they were exiles like me. I think they had to be exiles before they could return into the midst of Chinese tradition.

What advantage is there to writing about China from the outside?

It’s precisely because I have left China that I understand China better. I see more facets of China, and have better information about it. I don’t know if writers inside China can climb the great firewall [of internet censorship], for instance – and their information influences the way in which they think. In China, your understanding of history and of the wider world is very different. So I think I understand China better from England, because I see more than one side to the story and know how unfree it is.

Writers inside China would respond that you haven’t lived there for over two decades, and don’t understand how much has changed.

I don’t think they understand me, because it’s like I don’t exist in China. If you search for my name on the Internet there, it doesn’t exist [because it’s censored]. I’m a zero. So maybe they think I’m not important. Specifically, it was only in 2011 that I was forbidden to go back to China at all. Before that, I went back there every year. I even bought a flat in Beijing. But the police were very strict with me, and controlled who I could see. I was forbidden to meet Liu Xiaobo during the Olympics. I’m one of the so-called “sensitive individuals”.

Do you write principally for a Chinese or English audience?

The main reader I write for is still Chinese. I’m constantly thinking how my books could be published in China [where they are mostly banned], even if they were censored or changed. Red Dust and The Noodle Maker were both published in China, but under a different name and heavily censored.

I write all of my books in Chinese, and they are then translated into English. I think that if a foreigner reads a Chinese novel, he or she can gain an entirely new experience of life from his or her own. To understand a different culture is like to understand a different language – you gain a lot of new wisdom.

Tell us about your first book, Li Sao or The Lament by Qu Yuan, from the “warring states” period of ancient Chinese history.

From my perspective, because I prefer to combine literature with history myself, Qu Yuan’s The Lament was an obvious first choice. If we’re talking about Chinese literature, we must wonder where it all began. Except for The Book of Songs [the earliest collection of ancient Chinese poems], The Lament is the earliest pinnacle of Chinese literature. I don’t know what it’s like in English translation, but it’s movingly written.

Qu Yuan was originally an official from the south of China. Then he was banished, because he was criticising the corruption of the Chu state, and became a dissident. He led a double life, and finally he committed suicide. He felt his life had no meaning. His country, his system, his people had all forgotten him. From the very top, step by step he fell to the bottom. You could say he experienced all the suffering of Chinese society.

The Lament is the story of Qu Yuan’s life, his autobiography. From this poem, you can see the changes in Chinese society, the people’s struggle, and the sorrow and despair of everyday life. The more he experienced – of both heaven and hell – the more mature he became. And what he was opposing in China at his time was more or less the same as the problems in today’s China, such as corruption of the leadership.

Criticising China from the outside, his situation has some similarities with your own.

I think the story of Qu Yuan is quite possibly the story of all genuine, non state-approved Chinese authors.

Your next choice is the famous Romance of the Three Kingdoms, set in the 3rd century.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms only became a book a thousand years after the events which it describes. You could say that its story is the story of all China, passed down from father to son. It is one of China’s four great classical novels, which also include the Journey to the West. But only with Romance of the Three Kingdoms did old Chinese stories really become Chinese literature. It’s also beautifully written.

A reader can harvest a lot of history and knowledge from this book, because it chronicles all aspects of China. You can discover in it the entirety of the Chinese character, ancient and modern. All Chinese people today can find themselves in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, whether you are rich or poor, old or young. For example Cao Cao, an important character in the book, was originally a low official, but later [became a warlord and] had everything under heaven – just like Mao Zedong.

Mao Zedong carried this book with him everywhere. In Communist Party meetings, he would ask his comrades if they had read Romance of the Three Kingdoms – he thought that reading it showed how to overcome all problems in China. I think the connection between Mao Zedong and Cao Cao is very close. Another character, Zhuge Liang, a very good chancellor and strategist who was faithful to his ruler and worked himself to death, is similar to [current Chinese premier] Wen Jiabao.

Are Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping in there as well?

That’s right! They’re all in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Your next choice, a story by the 20th century writer Lu Xun, takes us forward to the early republic era of modern China, which Lu Xun criticised as feeble and cannibalistic.

This story is very famous, and also very short. Lu Xun didn’t write much in his life, and wrote both journalism and essays in newspapers, and literature. He was very outspoken in both. If a writer loses his criticism of society, I think that he is afraid to write about the truth. From reading Lu Xun, we can discover how authors must maintain a critical perspective.

Just how did Lu Xun hold the light up to the China of his times, and does it have any relevance to today’s China?

One half of what Lu Xun wrote was about society, the other half was literature. These two halves are united in The Real Story of Ah-Q. Through it, we can also understand why he wrote such critical essays about the government. So Lu Xun combined political and literary writing very well – which is precisely what contemporary Chinese writers are most afraid of doing. The Communist Party, after it came to power, prevented that type of writing from being publishing. Now, even those writing such essays on the Internet are all in prison.

The story follows the adventures of Ah Q, a very weak and petty character.

Lu Xun used Ah Q to express the character of China at the time. It’s very representative even of China today. When Liu Xiaobo was arrested, many Chinese writers said it was his own fault and that he deserved it. That is just like Ah Q.

Writers like [popular Beijing-based novelist] Mo Yan may show a little criticism of Chinese society in their novels, but when the literary community in China is hurt, as it was with the arrest of Liu Xiaobo, they don’t write about it. They say Liu Xiaobo isn’t an author, he is only concerned with politics. In China there is a contract not to write about politics. If you ask literary writers about politics, they reply that they don’t discuss politics, they just write literature.

But surely literature is intimately connected to politics, most of all in less free countries.

That’s certainly my opinion.

Gao Xingjian is a Chinese-born writer who lives in Paris and won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2000. Please introduce One Man’s Bible for us.

Gao Xingjian finished One Man’s Bible in the nineties, in Hong Kong. We talked continuously while he was writing it. In this novel, we read about how an average man experienced the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution had a huge impact on Gao Xingjian, and it’s an experience which speaks to many people in China. By reading One Man’s Bible, anyone can empathise with that experience. He combines reality, history and literature very well.

Gao Xingjian is also an exiled writer. If he was in China, he wouldn’t be able to write this book. Of course, writers inside China such as Yu Hua and Mo Yan can also write about the Cultural Revolution, but the Cultural Revolution they write about is not the Cultural Revolution Gao Xingjian writes about, because they are subject to state censorship.

Your final book is Tombstone by Yang Jisheng, which will finally be released in English translation next autumn. Published in 2008 and banned in mainland China, it’s a bit of a tombstone itself at two volumes and 1,208 pages.

It’s a very thick book. My first impression of Tombstone was that it really surprised me, in a good way. We all know that in the sixties, during the Mao era, there was a terrifying period of the Great Famine. That was a secret for a long time, which no-one revealed. But with this book, we can now read extensive evidence of it. Of course, Yang Jisheng isn’t a literary writer, he’s a historian. He lives in Beijing and spent many, many years collecting the material for Tombstone. It’s absolutely terrific, and I really admire him.

Do you consider it a responsibility of Chinese writers to shed light on China’s troubled past?

It is a must. Chinese writers must always think of ways to shed light on these secrets.

And are writers inside China living up to that responsibility?

No. Most of them are afraid.

What are some of the topics that are off limits within literary China today?

There are very few books on the Cultural Revolution, unless they talk about it in a roundabout way. Inside the system, it’s just not possible. The Tiananmen incident is also something you can’t write about, or the anti-Rightist campaign, or land reform. And you can’t write anything directly about the Communist Party.

Ideally, you would be able to write about all of these things from within the system, but it’s only really possible to talk about them from the outside. If you do write about them in China, you run a great personal risk. But if you don’t write about them, then you are partly to blame for the system yourself.

You certainly don’t shy away from sensitive topics. In Beijing Coma you wrote about the Tiananmen square protests, and in Red Dust the Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign of the eighties. Do you deliberately rock the boat? Isn’t there more to modern China than just its controversial history and politics?

When I write my novels, my first concern is that I live in England, so I have the freedom to write. If I were in China, I would know what I couldn’t publish or would be persecuted for, and I would be controlled by that. In England, I can write whatever I like. So I write about sensitive topics precisely because I have the freedom to, and therefore the obligation.

In China, everything is political. Even air pollution is political. Even if someone in China says there is no politics and everything is free, then that is also politics. England is a developed country, with a democratic and free system in which you can say what you like. While in China, there is no progress and a totalitarian society in which writers can’t criticise the government. In China, the government controls the people. In your country, the people control the government. So China has more need for writers to speak out.

This interview was translated from Chinese

Interview by Alec Ash

May 4, 2012

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Ma Jian

Ma Jian

Ma Jian is a Chinese-born author. His novels include Beijing Coma, set during the Tiananmen square protests of 1989, and The Noodle Maker. In 2011, he was banned from re-entry into China. He lives in London with his wife, who is also his translator, and four children

Ma Jian

Ma Jian

Ma Jian is a Chinese-born author. His novels include Beijing Coma, set during the Tiananmen square protests of 1989, and The Noodle Maker. In 2011, he was banned from re-entry into China. He lives in London with his wife, who is also his translator, and four children