Chronicles of Myth and Reality
Walking a path not too far removed from that taken by China’s first Nobel prize winning author Mo Yan, “mythical-realist” Yan Lianke aims to elucidate absurdity without straying too far from China’s real-world problems
In the past five or six years, drafts of Yan Lianke’s novels have tended to circulate among publishers, before eventually being rejected. The fact that his latest novel Zha Lie Zhi (literally, Chronicles of Explosion and Split) has been published, he feels, is largely down to good luck.
Yan, at the age of 55, has been called China’s most controversial writer – several of his books are banned in the mainland, including Serve the People!, a story about an affair between a soldier and the wife of a general during the Cultural Revolution, and Dream of Ding Village, a story about rural populations infected by HIV.
In 2008, he published the novel Ballad, Hymn, Ode, telling the story of a college professor sent to an asylum after finding out about his wife’s affair, who ends up fleeing to his countryside hometown. Thanks to its unsavory portrayal of the dark side of the Chinese intellectual circle, the work provoked much debate.
“Writers mustn’t self-censor, but to publish you have to compromise,” said Yan. He admits that in order to secure the release of his new book, he had to make various concessions. Over the course of thirty years of writing, Yan has been trying to learn to fit into China’s highly politicized literary establishment, his sizeable talent and tendency to be outspoken often sabotaging these efforts – Yan, unsurprisingly, is no stranger to the censor’s red pen.
Chronicles of Explosion and Split, Yan’s latest novel, is a story of a village (called “Explosion and Split”) that mushrooms into a massive metropolis over the course of thirty years. Yan calls it a further exploration of “mythical realism,” a term he himself coined to describe his writing. The narrative is framed as a set of village chronicles, a style that evokes the strong Chinese tradition of local record-keeping.
Literary critic Chen Xiaoming called the storytelling in Chronicles “astonishing,” while popular post-80s generation writer Jiang Fangzhou commented that “while dealing with the complexity and queerness of the reality of contemporary China, the novel harnesses them easily, rather than responding to them passively.”
But Yan himself remains dubious about the value of his own works. “How could it be possible for a writer to examine three decades of anation and the psychology of its people in one book?” he asks, sitting in a café on Beijing’s West Third Ring Road.
Explosion and Split
Yan believes that content and narrative framework are equally important in his writing, and accordingly, the form of a Yan novel often alludes heavily to evocative Chinese cultural reference points. In Ballad, Hymn, Ode, Yan borrowed the table of contents from the The Book of Odes, the earliest collection of Chinese poems, to string the series of stories together. This time, he thought it more appropriate to elucidate change using village chronicles.
“Chronicles are very popular in China. Every county has its chronicles, and each of our ancient dynasties kept chronicles, too.” Yan says the style makes the narrative more direct, and makes it easier for readers to observe change. The records’ editorial board serves as a cast of characters, and “Chief Editor Yan Lianke” also appears as a character in the story.
Similarly to other controversial mainstream Chinese novelists (Nobel prize-winning magical-realist author Mo Yan being a particular example), Yan’s “mythical-realist” style seems to be designed to illustrate social ills with just enough abstraction to escape being blacklisted.
“Realism relies on cause-and-effect, as does absurdism to a certain extent. My ‘mythical realism’ is a combination of realism and magical realism, but it emphasizes internal cause-and-effect relations [i.e., those within the character’s conscience].” He points out a few examples: In Chronicles, when the protagonist Kong Mingliang is made mayor, his secretary Chengjing automatically loosens her clothes. “It does not look reasonable at first sight. But what I have taken hold of is internal cause-and-effect, or internal logic, that everyone is as obedient as a plant when confronting power,” explained Yan. He believes this style of writing is “more direct and powerful”.
2011 was a particularly eventful year for Yan. In an op-ed for the New York Times titled “The Year of the Stray Dog,” Yan called the year “as long and dark as a tunnel without light.”
First, Yan’s son, a returning graduate with a master’s in law from a UK university, was rejected for a government position in China’s legal system because he had not joined the Chinese Communist Party. Then his politically provocative novel Four Books, which he had spent twenty years planning and two years writing, was rejected by twenty publishers. The rest of the year, he had to face the reality of his mortgaged apartment being demolished.
It was only at Chinese New Year, when he returned to his countryside hometown, that he had a chance to relax for a week and a half. “Everything was delightful,” he said. As he left, six days into the new lunar year, Yan wept.
However, Yan knows it is impossible for him to return to the countryside. “It is devastating living in Beijing, but it is also not that easy to leave,” he said. “Besides, it could be hard to readapt to the countryside. The countryside is not what it once was. People have changed dramatically. We know, in fact, that all urbanization is an encroachment on the countryside.”
Yan was born in a village in Tianhu Town, Song County, Henan Province. The village is not far from Beijing, and he goes back there from time to time. Yan is familiar with his hometown, and the symbolic Palou Mountain in his novels represents his home. “Every writer has a place that he is familiar with, a place he knows exactly how to write about,” he said. In his new novel, the village of Explosion and Split is located at Palou Mountain.
“Why did I call the village Explosion and Split? Because that is what is going on in China now,” Yan explained. “Our society is one that is exploding and splitting, as are the minds of its people. Anyone who knows anything about China is self-conflicted at heart. [For example,] everyone wants to make money, and they all know it’s improper to evade tax and that corruption is intolerable, but it’s very difficult to make a fortune any other way.”
“Lowering My Head”
Despite being one of the most controversial writers in China, Yan’s early motivation to become a writer was actually rather practical: to escape the impoverished countryside.
At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Yan, then a senior high school student, once read in the afterword of a novel that the author’s writing prowess had led the government to relocate him to the city. He detected the possibility of changing his life through writing, and wrote a 300,000 word novel in two years. In need of fuel to keep the family home warm, his mother later burned the manuscript.
In 1978, Yan joined the army. He was promoted from private to platoon leader, and later to a political instructor. During this time, his talent for writing was recognized within the army, and at the beginning of his army life, Yan wrote a great number of propaganda novels and plays, earning him the opportunity to stay in the armed forces as a professional military writer.
Yan’s writing career saw a turning point between the late 1980s and early 1990s, during which time he completed People from All Walks of Life in Dongjing, a short story series. In the series, discussions about “lifestyle” are conducted through depiction of historical figures, demonstrating social changes and hardship in China over the course of a hundred years. He also wrote the Yao Gou series, broadly recognized as the point at which Yan began to depict suffering in a more starkly realistic manner. In this series, he examines rural China in a contemporary light, constructing a tiny artistic world of the northern Chinese countryside.
It was during this time that Yan joined the China’s Writers’ Association. Despite the organization’s inherent link to the establishment, membership did not stop him from looking in new artistic directions.
In 1997 he wrote Year Month Day, which won the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Prize. In 1998, his novel The Sunlit Years drew wide acclaim among critics, who said that the work marked Yan’s abandonment of realism, and the beginning of a shift towards fables.
After 2000, Yan joined the Beijing Writers’ Association as a professional writer, and wrote the novel As Hard As Water about the political chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and Enjoyment, which is widely considered a political fable. Serve the People! and the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted Dream of Ding Village, both critical of the establishment, consolidated the irony of Yan’s increasing entrenchment within the system.
However, Yan says that how others define him is unimportant, and his works will continue to contemplate history and examine reality, just as he does in Chronicles.
In August, Yan was awarded the Huazhong Literary Award in Malaysia. Speaking at the reception, he said, “I come from a distant village. While I was young, I bent my head constantly in pursuit of fortune and fame. It is literature that allowed me to find the real me. Literature has allowed me to hold up my head confidently, but now only when I write do I lower my head.”
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Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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