On the Distinctiveness of Writing in China



Yan Lianke at the Salon du Livre, 2010. Photograph by Georges Seguin, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED.

When I talk to non-Chinese readers like yourselves, I often find that you are interested in hearing about what distinguishes me as an author but also what distinguishes my country—and particularly details that go beyond what you see on the television, read about in newspapers, and hear about from tourists.

I know that China’s international reputation is like that of a young upstart from the countryside who has money but lacks culture, education, and knowledge. Of course, in addition to money, this young upstart also has things like despotism and injustice, while lacking democracy and freedom. The result is like a wild man who is loaded with gold bullion but wears shabby clothing, behaves rudely, stinks of bad breath, and never plays by the rules. If an author must write under the oversight of this sort of individual, how should that author evaluate, discuss, and describe him?

To address this question, we will first consider the distinctive conditions faced by contemporary Chinese authors.

I. Light and Shadows Beneath a Half-Open and Half-Closed Window

The entire world knows that China’s economy has recently undergone a process of reform and opening up, whereas the relationship between China’s advanced economic system and its conservative political system is like the fable in which the tortoise beats the hare who stops to take a nap. In the race between China’s economic and political reform, the economy is currently surging ahead while politics stops to take a nap.

In contrast to China’s economic tortoise, its political hare has not merely slowed down or stopped; it has even turned around and headed back whence it came. For instance, in discussing China’s freedom of expression and ideological emancipation, people sometimes refer to the nation’s prison house of language—and even if it is not technically a prison, it is at the very least a cage. Although the nation’s economic window is either open or in the process of being opened and its political window is either closed or in the process of being closed, its culture looks around in confusion at the resulting play of light and shadows. The nation’s literature—which is to say, authors’ writings—is also stuck in this intermediary zone. Meanwhile, the billion-plus Chinese people who gather beneath these windows to breathe and survive find that the brightness and warmth here are unpredictable; consequently, their souls, spirits, and hearts become increasingly variable, decadent, and dark.

For the past several decades, China has demonstrated that the success of a planned economy lies not so much in the planning of the economy itself but rather in the planning of people’s hearts. The ultimate objective of economic planning is not economic prosperity itself but rather control over the national and political aspects of people’s souls. In a market economy, the market includes not only the economy proper but also people’s souls and the freedom that must be banished for the sake of economic development. Because of the needs of power and politics, people’s freedom cannot strictly follow the rise and fall of the economy. When the economic window is open, the political window will be closed, and ideological power will be concentrated. People’s spirits will resemble a patch of grass struggling to grow in the intermittently light and dark area beneath these partially open and partially closed windows. Because there is insufficient light and irregular wind here (although it is certainly not the case that there is no light or wind at all), when this patch of grass manages to glimpse some light and wind, it will fight to secure them, and otherwise it will gasp and struggle in their absence.

This is the situation in contemporary China. The economic window is open and the political window is closed, and culture wanders in the intermediate zone between the two. Contemporary literature approaches the flourishing economy as though hugging a fireball and approaches the ubiquitous politics of contemporary reality as though embracing an enormous chunk of ice.

Politics expects that you write about the existence of that hot, bright, and visible so-called positive energy while also attending to the existence of that which, on the surface, appears to be a form of negative energy—including a reality that either cannot be seen or else doesn’t even exist. In this intermediate zone, all Chinese, including children from preschool forward (but excluding infants, who are of course innocent and pure), are influenced by what they see and hear. For instance, children all know that teachers will respond favorably if they are offered gifts. Meanwhile, if an old man collapses in the street, it is only natural that bystanders will help him, but when the old man responds by accusing the bystanders of having knocked him down and demands compensation from them, this becomes a special kind of incident—a legal case. Given that the frequency of these sorts of incidents has recently increased, we cannot help but suspect that these apparent victims must hold darkness in their hearts. Accordingly, now if someone collapses or is hit by a car, passersby will often hurry away as though they haven’t seen anything, and although we may find this situation unreasonable, at least we can understand it. This illustrates how, in contemporary China, people’s souls have become numb and dark.

What is bred under the open window of the economy is capital, desire, and evil, and what is bred under the closed window of politics is corruption, greed, and contempt for others. People’s hearts become deformed, distorted, and absurd. If an author wants to realistically describe people’s deepest souls, this is his God-given responsibility, and if the author gives this up, he will no longer have any need to exist. Meanwhile, the people who control when, how, and to what extent the two windows should be open or shut also control authors’ pens and remind them what they can and can’t write. These people constantly remind authors that the light of one person’s heart has positive energy and should be discussed in detail, but the darkness of another person’s heart cannot be discussed because such a conversation might touch on the underlying reason why their heart is dark in the first place.

Meanwhile, for the sake of their survival, honor, and status, the authors living under these partially open and partially closed windows (and under the supervision of the people overseeing the windows) must adopt one of the following three writing methods.

First, there is writing that welcomes light. When you see and obtain light, you write to welcome it. The more you write about light, the brighter your writing will become, and the more prestige and status will illuminate your life—the same way that sunlight shines into your room when you open a window in the morning.

Second, there is writing that borrows light. People who write to borrow light are all talented Chinese authors with a certain degree of conscience and wisdom. Because these authors are unwilling to write to welcome light but are also unwilling to give up their internal artistic sentiment, they have no choice but to borrow light from others. As a result, they always have a feeling of guilty gratitude and don’t attempt to explore the reality behind that half-closed window. They know that behind that window there lies the greatest truth, but because they have borrowed light, they resemble someone who—after using someone else’s tools or eating someone else’s food—naturally won’t excavate the foundations of that other person’s house. Therefore, these authors reach a tacit agreement that they will remain in the boundary zone between light and darkness and will use an artistic balance to complete a “literary idea” that belongs to both regions.

Third, there is writing that transcends light to reach the truth of darkness. This kind of writing is risky because you not only betray light after transcending it but also betray all the authors and works positioned in the intermediary zone between light and darkness. Furthermore, everything located in the light and at its margins is visible, whereas the truth of that darkness remains invisible and can only be felt. Therefore, your writing is not something everyone can recognize, and instead it leads people to doubt, argue, and spurn. This is also why writing that transcends light to reach darkness, and which proceeds from the illuminated window to the area beneath the dark window—this kind of writing requires not only courage but also talent and creativity. You need to know that the closed window is truth but that the open window is also truth. If you hope to perceive truth and existence in darkness, you must also see truth and existence in light. The question you should most care about involves not only the joy and propitiousness that people experience in the light together and the way they gasp and struggle in darkness, but also the anxiety they experience in the boundary zone between these two sets of windows.

II. The Unregulated Expansion of the Censorship System

When it comes to literature, a censorship system is like a cruel father admonishing his disobedient child. China’s authors are as familiar with the nation’s censorship system as a frequently beaten child knows the rules of his father’s anger—and it is as though every author who has memory and experience knows the system as intimately as they know the palm of their own hand.

China’s literary censorship system can be divided into three levels.

1. The national censorship system. For literary works, national censorship is a kind of ideological trial that involves a set of policies, rules, and regulations derived from ideology’s service to the regime. Although all laws and regulations are determined by individuals, their impetus and implementation ultimately relies on the nation’s reputation. Following a lengthy series of meetings and notifications, virtually every department and individual in contemporary China responsible for culture, news, literature, and art with ideological implications can consciously grasp censorship’s policies and framework, its bottom line, and its outer margins. They understand what can and can’t be written, what can be addressed in a vague fashion (like the Cultural Revolution) and what definitely cannot be mentioned at all (like June Fourth). However, what really leaves authors at a loss is the censorship operators: the individuals who implement specific cultural provisions on behalf of the Party.

2. Censorship operators. The censorship regime includes an array of different types of institutions that help implement literary policies. At the top level, these include the Central Propaganda Department, the General Administration of Press and Publication, and other high level departments; at the middle level, they include provincial-level institutions; and at the bottom level, they include specific journals and presses.

Two dominant characteristics of contemporary China’s censorship system include the abuse of power on one hand and publishers’ increased caution and expanded self-censorship on the other. Publishers were originally the most direct drivers of the publishing industry and of grassroots culture, but now that censorship has become stricter and bans have become more and more common, censorship operators are increasingly required to attend not only to a work’s subject matter but even to the use of specific “sensitive” words. As a result, it is very common for publishers and editors themselves to be examined, interrogated, suspended, and transferred.

Censorship operators frequently adopt a policy of punishing one author to serve as an example to others, following the logic that if you are bitten by a snake one morning, you will remain terrified of ropes for years to come. Accordingly, publishing organizations have become censorship operators on the principle that “all citizens are soldiers.” After a manuscript arrives, the first thing editors consider is not the work’s artistic or market value but whether it is sensitive and whether the author has attracted the attention of the higher-ups. In this way, editors become the book’s first censors. The publisher’s second, third, and final round reviewers serve not only as the manuscript’s artistic referees but also as its political censors. In the case of works that have artistic value but also carry a certain degree of risk, the publisher may extend the review process and allow the National Press and Publication Administration to make the final call.

3. Self-censorship. The national censorship system uses power and policies that supervene the letter of the law to call for the implementation and oversight of the censorship operation. Over time, however, this sort of operation ultimately succeeds in encouraging a process of self-censorship on the part of the authors themselves. If censorship operation is a kind of power and oppression, then authors’ self-censorship is simultaneously conscious, unwitting, and reflexive.

Like many works, my own Dream of Ding Village underwent a process of self-censorship. I have already discussed this process at length elsewhere, but what I would like to add here relates to the conscious and reflexive nature of this process. The harm it causes is far greater than the processes of censorship, editing, and banning that people can see—because it involves literary elements that are excised before they are even born. Like a fetus that is subject to One Child policy family-planning restrictions, these elements can disappear before they even have a chance to appear in the first place. Before they have even become a fetus, they are consciously and reflexively “planned” out of existence.

III. The Advantages and Disadvantages of the Professional Writers’ System

China’s professional writers’ system is the most distinctive feature of the nation’s socialist literature regime, in which power is used to standardize literature, thought, and art. This kind of administrative system is possible only in socialist countries, and it features the Chinese Writers’ Association, which offers a means of nurturing and managing authors’ thought, behavior, and writing (other art forms such as film, television, drama, painting, calligraphy, and folk art are overseen by the China Literature and Art Federation). The greatest advantage of the Chinese Writers’ Association is that it ensures that many talented authors won’t have to worry about basic living requirements and other practical considerations and instead can devote themselves to their writing. Instead of a salon system, writers’ associations use organizational and activity methods to discuss, pursue, and expand literature. However, because the basic objective of the professional author system is not artistic freedom and advancement but rather the management, regulation, and control of authors’ writing, thought, and imagination, the potential advantages of the professional author system are mostly lost. There is only a minority of authors who, working within this collective system, manage to preserve the independence of their writing and their literary personality.

Today, roughly 80 percent of Chinese authors who are middle-aged or older belong to these sorts of professional organizations. Young authors born in the eighties and nineties and new internet authors are rapidly being incorporated into this “unity” through membership in professional organizations such as the Chinese Writers’ Association and other national organizations (including the National Congress of Writers and the National Congress of Young Creative Writers), the literary prize system (including the Mao Dun Prize and the Lu Xun Prize), and other means of honoring works. Through a process of assimilation, cultivation, and transformation, authors first become “a member of the team,” then they gradually accept an assessment of literary value that is lacking in independent personality, and finally the system achieves its objective of preventing them from producing works that possess independence, freedom, and thought.

One of the greatest disadvantages of the professional author system is that it makes writers lazy and inclined to lose their creativity. Professional authors under this system receive the same compensation whether or not they actually work, and they achieve the same outcome whether or not they actually create anything. It has been thirty years since the beginning of the reform and opening-up campaign, and the market economy is now society’s most powerful force. However, professional authors can go for years without writing anything yet still draw a monthly salary from the Ministry of Treasury and Finance. This means that they could potentially write nothing at all and instead spend every day chatting, attending meetings, and participating in other activities. Many authors initially produce works bursting with talent when they start writing in their spare time, but their output decreases once they are incorporated into this professional author system. The issue is not that those authors stop writing because they have become detached from reality and their feelings but rather that the professional writer system encourages people’s inherent laziness, which in turn may dull their sensitivity, diligence, talent, and creativity.

Writing is a very solitary and lonely endeavor. However, the professional author system is essentially concerned with the collectivization, nationalization, and politicization of individual writing. The unification of thought, topics, and, when possible, artistic expression—all of this has the effect of collectivizing individual creation. From its initial publication, Mao Zedong’s Talks at the Yan’an Forum has offered a model for China’s policy on literature and art, and to this day it remains an important guide for ideology and for professional authors’ writing, speech, and action. For several decades, there has been considerable study of the origins of this speech and for whom it was intended, but essentially it sought to remove the religious sentiments that were in the service of the heart and soul. The text encouraged authors to abandon their individual religious sentiments and instead become members of a collective under a unified leadership and management. The result was to make literature eager to serve power and politics, as well as the Party and the Party’s needs.

If, as an author, you hope to maintain a certain amount of stability in your life, you’ll need to enter the ranks of professional authors. In doing so, your deep thought will have to undergo a process of collectivization, politicization, and nationalization. You’ll have to recognize the regulations that policies and power apply to your writing, and how the publication process has, over the past several decades, cultivated readers’ values. You will therefore transition from an individual into a collective. This is the system’s most effective chain for managing thought. Once you become a link in this chain, your literary perspective, worldview, and even views on life and value will lose their independence and individuality.

“Work within the system, but think outside the system.” This saying captures an attitude held by many institutional staff and Chinese intellectuals. Many professional authors give lip service to this phrase, but very few adhere to it in their writing. An author’s job is to write, and his speech and actions are his work. Meanwhile, his company is the Chinese Writers’ Association, and his bosses are political leaders and the Party that represents the people. This kind of system—in which I raise and educate you—is naturally for the purpose of having you work (write) for me. The system is not designed to encourage you to be independent, to be free, or to develop an unorthodox and unrestrained self-imagining.

To put it simply, the basic objective of the Chinese Writers’ Association is to transform writers into Party authors. Before the reform and opening-up campaign, all writers accepted the objective of becoming Party authors. Afterward, following writers’ pursuit of artistic independence, the term “Party author” continued to be invoked in periodicals and at conferences, but it began to fade in many writers’ hearts. Although the basic objective of the Chinese Writers’ Association did not change, its methods did. From a compulsory and oppressive system, it shifted to one that emphasized education and inducements. It used traditional methods of meetings and study, together with a process of issuing awards and cultivating literary values, to achieve its objective of transforming authors into Party authors, together with an arrangement that emphasized the “freedom of pure art” and not a work’s independent character.

The professional author system does not reject freedom of expression, but neither does it actively promote authorial independence. This system allows you to be a writer who is not a Party author, but it does not permit you to produce writings that are neither what the government calls “main melody” nor “positive energy” works. You can explore endlessly when it comes to your works’ language and form, but this exploration cannot extend to the works’ social content—including contemporary people, thought, soul, and sharp social contradictions. When it comes to artistic form, your thought can be independent, but when it comes to content, you are not allowed to think independently. If you disobey, your works will be rejected, censored, and derided, but if you obey, your works will be praised, promoted, and rewarded. In this way, a new standard for assessing literary value is established.

IV. A Coping Mechanism When Faced with Extraordinary Circumstances

Faced with China’s current contradictory environment, which features a relatively open market economy and a relatively closed political system—an environment that is neither extreme left, like the Cultural Revolution, nor fully democratic, free, and balanced—authors have the possibility of enjoying independent thought and imagination, while also encountering enormous obstacles of identification and seduction. They have adopted a variety of different responses to this predicament.

One response has been to behave submissively, prioritize profitable writing, and treat literary talent as a condition for honor, status, and profit. This kind of response is very common among Chinese authors, for whom well being and material security rationalize an exchange wherein authors take the position: “I’ll do my best on behalf of your main melody and positive energy, if in return you help improve my life by offering me cars, houses, reimbursement slips, prizes, and official positions” (positions like the director or deputy director of China’s various writers’ associations). The Chinese people have always contended that food security is an issue of paramount importance, and as soon as literature and life are united, all writing for the purpose of flattery, prestige, material benefit, and honor becomes legitimizedA second possible response has been to escape, resulting in a literature that is very deserving of respect. “Everything I do is for the sake of literature itself ”—this attitude involves reducing literature to a kind of ivory tower, or using the ivory tower’s reputation to distance oneself from the chaos of power, mainstream culture, and social complexity. In this way, one can sit alone in one’s study or stroll through the peach blossom garden, using writing as a shelter and Zhuangzi’s withdrawal as a model while enjoying a peaceful life and writing process. Even if one is not in one’s study or garden every day, and even if one enters secular life and social reality every day, one’s writing may still be characterized by a pattern of avoidance, escape, and a pursuit of “purity.” This is not merely an attitude; it is also a method and an entire worldview. It is a position that many contemporary Chinese authors adopt, despite possessing independent ideas, goals, and talents. It is also precisely the distanced, diligent quality of these works that enriches the existence and status of contemporary Chinese literature. Although these authors may not have much “I think, therefore I am” independence, however their writing possesses qualities and objectives associated with independence. They represent Chinese literature’s nucleus while ensuring its survival.

A third response has been adopted by writers who hope to preserve independent thought in their work while at the same time maintaining their status as independent authors. These authors dare to confront humanity’s predicament, to confront writing itself, and to confront literature’s position in contemporary reality, while also daring to confront the position of people and reality within literature. These writers do not seek to become independent by adopting the attitude of a provocateur; instead they use their position as authors to stand before reality while observing and reflecting on everything within that same reality. Without attempting to avoid anything, they instead display the greatest possible concern and love for contemporary China’s absurd, complex, and surging existence, as well as for the contemporary predicament in which people find themselves. They don’t imagine that literature will change anything overnight, but instead they focus on what literature might leave in this gap between history and the present. Their literature speaks not only to the present but also to life and to the world.

Among the most important Chinese works from recent years that examine reality we could cite Jia Pingwa’s The Shaanxi Opera and Old Kiln, Wang Anyi’s Age of Enlightenment, Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out and Frog, Yu Hua’s Brothers, Liu Zhenyun’s Someone to Talk To, Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption, and Ge Fei’s Spring Comes to the South, together with several more recent works that I read as I was preparing this manuscript, including Han Shaogong’s Book of Days and Nights, Su Tong’s Shadow of the Hunter, Jia Pingwa’s The Lantern Bearer, and Yu Hua’s The Seventh Day. Although these works are not necessarily the most emblematic of Chinese literature, or even of the oeuvre of their individual authors, each work nevertheless illustrates how its author abandoned a distanced attitude to investigate history and contemporary reality, and on the people who cannot avoid contemporary society’s absurdities. This clearly demonstrates that what these authors are pursuing is not only artistic completeness but also individual independence.

The individual independence and artistic completeness may not announce the arrival of a great era of true literature, but at least it foretells Chinese literature’s possible rise.


Adapted from Yan Lianke’s Sound and Silence: My Experience with China and Literature, translated by Carlos Rojas, to be published by Duke University Press next week.

Yan Lianke is the author of Discovering Fiction, Hard Like Water, The Day the Sun Died, The Explosion Chronicles, and many other books. He is the recipient of the Franz Kafka Prize and a two-time finalist for the Man Booker International Prize, and teaches at Beijing’s Renmin University and at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Carlos Rojas is a professor of modern Chinese cultural studies at Duke University and the translator of several of Yan Lianke’s novels.