Writing the waves of change

Chinese author Yu Hua, who will be here this week, has seen centuries of historical development elapse in a matter of years.

yu hua 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yu hua 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Yu Hua has lived through tumultuous change. He grew up during the Cultural Revolution, witnessed the events of Tiananmen Square, and came of age during China’s economic boom. It is a period he describes as a uniquely Chinese experience, one where change that usually takes centuries were condensed into decades, where the pent up energy of the Cultural Revolution exploded into the protests and was then replaced with an enthusiasm for making money.
Today’s China, says the award winning author, with “its restless indulgence in debauchery,” is the other side of the coin from the “fanatical spirit and oppression of instincts” of the Cultural Revolution.
Yu Hua was born in 1960 in Zhejiang province. He finished high school during the Cultural Revolution and worked as a dentist for five years before beginning to write in 1983. He has published four novels, six collections of stories, and three collections of essays. His work has been translated into several languages including Hebrew. In 2002 he became the first Chinese writer to win the prestigious James Joyce Foundation Award. His novel To Live was awarded Italy’s Premio Grinzane Cavour in 1998 and was adapted for film by the acclaimed director Zhang Yimou. His most recent novel, Brothers, was a huge commercial success in China, selling over a million copies.
Ahead of the International Writers Festival, to be held May 2-6 at Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, Yu Hua conversed with The Jerusalem Post via email from his home in Beijing.
You started out your professional life as a dentist, and as a child you had very little exposure to literature. Why did you decide to leave your profession and how did you became a writer?
I was a dentist for five years. It wasn’t my wish to become one, but the will of the government. During that time in China the individual wasn’t allowed to choose his profession, rather it was allocated by the government. I didn’t like that job, looking into people’s mouths all day long – it’s the place with the least scenery in the world. At that time, whenever I’d see people who work in the cultural bureau, strolling down the street, I’d feel envious and ask them, “How come you’re not at work?” They would say strolling the street was work. Communist China was like that – everybody earned the same salary, but some worked hard and long hours, while others strolled the streets all day long. My biggest aspiration at the time was to be accepted to work at the cultural bureau, but I had to prove myself, so I started to write novels. After they were published, the government allocated me to the cultural bureau. I still remember my first day at work – I purposely arrived two hours late, only to find that I was the first one to report to work.
The Cultural Revolution is a theme that recurs in your writing. How were you influenced by your experiences during that time?
I grew up during the Cultural Revolution and my experiences of that time had a great impact on my life and my writing. It seems today, though, that people have forgotten about the Cultural Revolution, while in fact the Cultural Revolution is one of the factors influencing and shaping China today. Or, rather, it is the other side of the coin; many of the extreme phenomena of society today are a reaction born of the extreme phenomena of that time. To be honest it took me a long time to realize this as well. Before, I always wanted to write something about contemporary China, but at the same time I didn’t know what to write. Later I realized that we must look at contemporary China in relation to the Cultural Revolution China, because the two periods are closely linked together. If it weren’t for the inhibitions during the Cultural Revolution, we wouldn’t have such unlawfulness in China today. When unlawfulness comes out of release from constraints, it can be extremely turbulent. China’s development today is a swing of the pendulum in the opposite direction. If we are to say that that there was behavior typical of that time, then today’s behavior is completely opposed to it.
You were also present on a daily basis during the Tiananmen Square protests. How did that event influence you and how did it impact Chinese society?
That’s true; I took part in the events of Tiananmen in 1989. It is probably the most memorable experience of my life. As I look back at the events of 1989, I feel that it marks a concentrated explosion of the enthusiasm of Chinese people towards politics, or perhaps it symbolizes all the political enthusiasm of the Cultural Revolution released in one burst and then washed away. Later, an enthusiasm for making money replaced political enthusiasm. If you would have said 20 years ago that a student is not interested in politics it was a way of criticizing him; 20 years later this has become a kind of praise. This disappoints me greatly.
You have said in the past that Chinese tradition gave you your life, while western literature taught you how to write – what are your literary influences?
In China, some people contrast Chinese culture and western culture; I do not agree to this point of view. China’s culture is long lasting, well established, deep and wide ranging. The strong cultural tradition is open and will never be completed, or, rather, it is always awaiting completion. This kind of process requires continuous reforms, or modernization. Western culture’s influence on Chinese culture is a reforming – or modernizing – influence. This kind of influence can’t replace Chinese culture, only accelerate and develop it. I am such an example: Many western writers influenced me, such as Franz Kafka, William Faulkner and others, but at the end of the day I write purely Chinese novels. I once used this kind of metaphor: One writer’s influence on another is much like the sun’s influence on the trees – when the trees absorb the sunlight it is in order to develop as trees, and not in order to grow into a sun.
How do you see the relationship between writer and society?
In my opinion the connection between a writer and society transcends everyday relations. Everyday life may seem mundane, but it is in fact all-inclusive and full of moving human emotions. Politics, history, economics, society, education, culture, emotions, aspirations, secrets and so on, all exist in everyday life. My writing comes out of the lives of ordinary Chinese people, goes through politics, history, economics, society, educations, culture, emotions, aspirations, secrets etc. and finally comes back to everyday life.
How do you see the emerging phenomena of Chinese nationalism
In China the excitement from nationalism is mostly manifested in young people. Today’s youth in China are growing up in an ever-improving living environment. They have no understanding of China’s history, nor are they willing to pay attention to anything outside their own private lives. They are obsessed with wealth and honor, and are unwilling to tolerate any criticism of China. However, I believe that in ten years their attitude will change. Today, the difficulties of graduating students to find a job are already a projecting social problem. When this generation will begin to taste the hardships of life they will ask themselves “Why isn’t our society so ideal and perfect?”
You have spoken of the danger of the collapse of capitalism in China. How do you see China’s future.
The speedy economic development of the last 30 years covered up manysocial problems. We have a saying in China, “One pretty thing canconceal a hundred ugly ones.” Economic development can cover up manysocial problems, but it can only conceal them – it can’t make theseproblems go away. At the moment all these problems are beingoverlooked, but when economic development slows down, the problems thatwere covered up will once again be in the spotlight. In the next tenyears we will have to face the social problems we accumulated over thelast 30 years. Dealing with these problems is the most important job wehave.
Your most recent novel, Brothers, was anenormous success in China. Why has the book resonated so deeply? Is itssuccess a reflection of criticism of the excesses of modern dayChina?
Brothers is a novel born from the meeting of twoeras. The first part is the story of the Cultural Revolution; it is atime of fanatical spirit, oppression of instincts and violentdestinies. The second part is the story of the modern age; it is a timeof reversed ethics, restless indulgence in debauchery, and diversity.China of the Cultural Revolution and China today can be compared toEurope during the Middle Ages and Europe today. A person living in theWest will have to live 400 years to experience these two oppositepoles; a Chinese person needs only 40 years of life experience. Theupheavals of 400 years are concentrated into 40 years. It is a preciousexperience, and it is a uniquely Chinese experience – I have written itdown.
Yu Hua will be appearing in Mishkenot Sha’ananim on Tuesday,May 4. For more details on the festival: writersfestival.mouse.co.il;for tickets: (02) 624-4535, www.bimot.co.il.