Chinese Intellectuals Avoid Key Issues Amid Censorship Fears, Says Award-winning Author

Chinese writers have shirked their responsibilities in the face of tougher censorship over the past 10 years, one of the country’s authors has said.

Yan Lianke, whose bleakly humorous novel Lenin’s Kisses is published in Britain on Thursday, had two books banned in the past decade. He said it had been easier to publish in the five years before that.
He also criticised the intelligentsia – including last year’s Nobel literature prize-winner Mo Yan – for failing to speak out on important issues. “Chinese intellectuals haven’t taken enough responsibility. They always have an excuse, saying they don’t have a reason to talk or don’t have the environment … If they could all stand up, they would have a loud voice,” he told the Guardian.

Reformers pushed hard for change in the runup to the decennial power transition last year, suggesting the country’s new leaders may be willing to embrace political as well as economic reform. So far, however, there is no indication of such a shift.

“Each time, during the transition of China’s political leaders, Chinese people always have great hopes and then are disappointed. This time, as before, people have hope for the new generation, but it will take time to see whether they will disappoint the Chinese people again,” said the novelist, who was shortlisted last month for the Man Booker International Prize.

He added: “One book being published doesn’t tell you the whole system is getting better; one book being banned doesn’t mean publishing is [more] strongly controlled.”

Yan spent 26 years as a writer in the army and has won China’s foremost literary honours. Yet he is one of the country’s fiercest satirists. In his novella Serve the People, a young soldier and his superior’s wife fuel their illicit passion by smashing and desecrating the words and images of Chairman Mao. Its ban cannot have been a great surprise.

More intriguing is that Lenin’s Kisses escaped the same fate. The book details the ordeal of villagers in the Maoist era, and their suffering as greed and consumerism replace political imperatives. Its redoubtable heroine realises her community is better off outside both official control and heartless modern capitalism.

Its absurd plot is oddly plausible to anyone familiar with the grand schemes and great scandals of Chinese officialdom. An ambitious, narcissistic cadre organises disabled villagers into a travelling freak show, raising money to buy Lenin’s embalmed corpse and turn his county into a tourist destination.

“Chinese people probably would buy Lenin’s body, or even the dead body of a minister from England,” Yan said. “As long as it’s for development, everything is reasonable and could happen in China, such as forced demolitions of people’s homes [which happened to Yan] … Corruption also looks reasonable in Chinese eyes.”

Some hope Chinese literature may break through to a wider international readership after Mo’s Nobel prize last year, but Yan said its prospects depended on the quality of the work rather than a short-term boost.

He added: “I was very complimentary about Mo Yan’s work, but as an author and intellectual I don’t think he has done enough.”

Mo has been criticised for his closeness to authorities, sparking a debate about writers’ responsibilities. Yan added: “He was quite free to write before he won the Nobel. Afterwards he had pressure [from inside China]. The world expected him to say something that he didn’t say.”

Asked if he meant the belief that Mo should address political pressure, censorship or Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Nobel peace prize laureate, Yan replied: “All of those things.”

He said he had also fallen short, noting: “I understand the Chinese political and cultural environment well. I understand people who don’t use their voice. As an intellectual and author I should require myself to do it first. If I don’t do enough, I can’t require other authors to do so. There’s always a reason. There’s always one book or another; timing. But I think as an author I could have taken more responsibility and I didn’t.”

He still regrets self-censoring when he wrote Dream of Ding Village, which deals with the blood-selling scandal that led to mass HIV infections in Henan province. He wanted to ensure it was published, he said; but now his priority was reaching the highest literary standard.

A recent novel was turned down by 26 mainland publishers. His work in progress – “probably the most absurd but most real that I have written” – is unlikely to please the Chinese public anyway, Yan noted. In part, it explores their love-hate relationship with developed countries such as Japan and western nations.

Last autumn, amid anti-Japanese protests over the territorial dispute about the Senkaku, or Diaoyu islands, he praised Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s warnings against nationalism and said he felt ashamed of his slow response.

“Chinese people have become richer and China is stronger than before, but Chinese people think about the history of China being treated badly by other countries; by the US, the UK and Japan … China can’t beat the US or other countries; they can only wave a fist at Japan,” he said.

“This feeling has been suppressed, you could say, for 100 years. China is on the way towards pride, but also arrogance.”

- The Guardian, 6 February 2013