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Permission to Speak

For prize-winning novelist and screenwriter, Liu Zhenyun, writing is a means to find a person to talk with and to give a voice to people who want to talk

By Zhou Tian Updated Mar.18

These two ladies always remind me of a middle-aged woman in my village who sank into depression and hysteria after losing her hen,” said the 58-year-old Liu Zhenyun in an interview, only half joking when mentioning two women he had recently been paying a great deal of attention to: the scandal-plagued South Korean President Park Geun-hye and the Democratic Party’s candidate Hilary Clinton who had lost the campaign for US president.  

As well as these two high-powered women, Liu is also focused on an unprivileged woman, Li Xuelian, a character he created in his 2012 novel I Did Not Kill My Husband, who has been wronged and fights for 20 years to clear her name.  

All three are “poor women” in the writer’s eyes, but for him the difference between the former two and Li Xuelian lies in one point: the entire world, from CNN and the BBC to CCTV, is eager to hear the voices of the two powerful ladies, whereas nobody wants to hear the voice of peasant woman Li Xuelian. Struggling for twenty years to defend her reputation, Li has just one message: “I am a good woman, not a slut.” But no one listens.  

The 58-year-old author feels fortunate that he can still use his writing to help this poor woman get her voice heard. In November 2016, Liu and his old friend, “China’s Spielberg” Feng Xiaogang, put the novel I Did Not Kill My Husband on the big screen. The film adaptation, renamed I Am Not Madame Bovary (the novel in Chinese is called I Am Not Pan Jinlian, a character from the famous novel Golden Lotus), soon became a hit, the writer finding cheer in the fact the poor peasant woman eventually gets as much attention as Clinton and Park do.  

“2016 is the year of Liu Zhenyun,” Feng Xiaogang told NewsChina. Apart from I Did Not Kill My Husband, Liu’s most famous and Mao Dun Prize-winning book, One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand, has been adapted for film by his 29-year-old daughter Liu Yulin and hit movie theaters in November.  

Liu is regarded by Sinologists and translators as the contemporary Chinese writer most likely to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, following in the steps of China’s first winner, Mo Yan in 2012 and Chinese émigré Gao Xingjian in 2000. Liu’s cold humor, sharp observations of many facets of rural and urban society and astute depictions of the emotions of ordinary Chinese people, their desires, predicaments and anxiety have made him a favorite among readers.  

Liu insists on taking the stance of the common people, towards whom he has always had a deep sense of empathy. Writing, for him, is a way to help the neglected voices in society stand out and be heard.  

As Liu sees it, Li Xuelian can be regarded as a “national hero” of sorts. As a writer, he considers it his responsibility to dig out and put into words the neglected human emotions.  

A satirical comedy, I Did Not Kill My Husband follows Li Xuelian’s 20-year odyssey that begins with her husband’s absurd divorcing of her, calling her a slut in public. Li is determined to recover her reputation with a court case. When she loses in one court, she simply moves up the legal hierarchy. She journeys from her small town to bigger and bigger cities until she eventually reaches the capital. Over the course of two decades, Li’s savage determination takes down several members of the bureaucracy; newly unemployed officials drown in her wake.  

“Fortunately I am a writer so I can use words to make her voice heard. When we neglect such a woman, the trundling wheels of history and our own feet mercilessly roll over the feelings and life of the woman,” Liu told NewsChina.  

“Li Xuelian is a person who has been wronged but chooses to stand up and fight. Her boldness and insubordination will appeal to viewers who are accustomed to tolerating wrongdoing in their own lives,” the director Feng Xiaogang told NewsChina.  

Liu and Feng are old friends. They had previously worked together on three other projects: the TV show Chicken Feathers Everywhere (1995) and the movies Cell Phone (2003) and Back to 1942 (2012). I Am Not Madame Bovary, the film adaption of I Did Not Kill My Husband, is their fourth collaboration. 

Liu’s wife, Guo Jianmei, is China’s first full-time public welfare lawyer, and offers free legal advice to women who cannot afford legal fees or don’t know how to file a lawsuit. I Did Not Kill My Husband is Guo’s favorite of all her husband’s works.  

Having done her job for several decades, Guo has witnessed a great deal of the suffering that ordinary women go through. She was surprised that Liu could capture the lives and mindsets of both officials and low-level laborers so realistically.  

“As a nobody, petitioning is the only way that [Li Xuelian] knows how to defend her rights. But reality teaches her that such a struggle is doomed to fruitless, endless tragedy,” Guo wrote on social media on the movie’s release day.  

This fictional story is not fictional, for reality is far more absurd than fiction, Guo told NewsChina.  

An Boshun, a high-profile publisher told media: “It is a tragedy if contemporary writers cannot or choose not to speak up for social justice or give voice to common people’s needs and demands. Liu Zhenyun’s storytelling style is peculiar, but what makes his works extremely popular and fascinating is that he uses art to get deeply involved with modern lives and give a voice to people in need.”  

Village Complex 
Despite having left his hometown 45 years ago, Liu still speaks with a strong Henanese country accent and frequently refers to “my village.” Liu was born in the small village of Laozhuang in Yanjin County, Henan Province in 1958. Like the fictionalized versions of existing places such as Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Laozhuang Village in Yanjin County is the root of Liu’s writing.  

“[When I was young], my top ideal job would have been to become a cook in my own town – it must be a very cozy job since I would be working by the stove; my second choice would have been to be a percussionist in my village’s opera orchestra so that I could play the bangzi [a local percussion instrument] under the moonlight; my third choice was to become a village teacher, immersed in my own world with the sound of children reading for company. Nevertheless, getting into university pushed me down the fourth path – to be a writer, so I became an entirely different creature,” Liu once said in an interview.  

“Although I work in Beijing, I often go back to Yanjin, where I’m constantly in touch with the people in my village – the barber, the butcher, the tofu seller, the cook, the drum player and the bathhouse staff… More importantly, I always have a feeling that sometimes a word from my uncle, cousin or someone in my village is worth ten years of study in Beijing,” Liu told the Dahe Daily in 2009.  

Even today, Liu values the more straightforward wisdom of his fellow villagers. His uncle was a cart driver who would go to the county town, which, among his fellow villagers, made him the man who had traveled the farthest into the outside world.  

When Liu was still a boy, he had a life-changing conversation with this uncle beside a cowshed, which he recounted in a recent speech at a an even held by Tencent Entertainment: 

“Zhenyun, do you think you are clever?” 
“I’m definitely not clever, uncle.” 
“Do you think you’re a fool?” 
“Uncle, you ask me questions and I give you my answers. So I am not a fool.” 
“Then that’s a problem. Clever men and fools live happily. But people like you who are neither clever nor stupid will run into a lot of troubles in life. […] Have you ever thought of getting married, kid?” 
“I’m only 13. Do you think I should be thinking about it, uncle?” 
“You’d be a fool not to.” 
“Then I’ll think about it.” 
“People like you can only marry a widow. If you want to marry a good woman, leave home and head into the world out there, kid.”  

The 14-year-old Liu left his village, said farewell to his beloved grandmother, well-traveled uncle and four siblings, and joined the army aged 15 and served for around five years in the Gobi Desert. In 1978, Liu, then 20, took the college entry exam and got the highest grade in Henan Province, securing a place at the prestigious Peking University. After graduation, Liu became a journalist for Farmers’ Daily.  

Liu had begun writing for himself at the age of 15, but began getting noticed in the early 1980s when he had a series of short stories and novellas published by People’s Literature such as Tapu Township (1982), Work Unit (1988), Chicken Feathers Everywhere (1992), and Remembering 1942 (1993).  

Liu Zhenyun focuses on the relationship between humans and the social environment.   

Books like Work Unit and Chicken Feathers Everywhere depict how Chinese live in an authoritarian, seemingly homogenous society and how when they turn themselves into someone else, it is a painful and torturous process. Being regarded by critics as a the poster boy for neorealism, Liu insists on the stance of the common instead of the elite and vividly portrays the lives and psychology of the common people within contemporary society.  

As the Peking University professor Hong Zicheng puts it in The History of Contemporary Chinese Literature, in Liu’s works, uncontrollable desire, the weakness of human nature together with social power structures weave a web that common people cannot escape. “Compared with many other neorealist novels, Liu’s works embody a more conspicuous exploration of ‘philosophical depth’–they continuously reveal the omnipresent ‘absurdity’ and humans’ alienation in their daily lives,” Hong writes.  

Almost half of Liu’s books are set in Henan Province and his hometown Yanjin County. The hometown is most salient in Liu’s most popular novel One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand, published in 2009, and which won the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize.  

Liu sees hometown as the “compass” for his life. “My perspective and attitude towards life and society were developed in my hometown. When I lose my direction in the outside world, I will naturally think of my village as the compass to correct my direction,” Liu told the Dahe Daily.  

Someone to Talk to 
For Liu, writing is the same as finding a person to talk to. The fact that he easily feels lonely and craves having someone to talk with have become the motivation behind his creativity. Loneliness is a recurring theme in many of his works, especially in One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand.  

The novel is about inherent loneliness, about communication – or the lack of it – and about how the small distances that open up between people can so easily become vast. Liu Zhenyun regards the book as a companion volume to I Did Not Kill My Husband. The latter explores how difficult it is to correct what has been said, while the former is about how difficult it is to say anything.  

From Liu’s perspective, One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand is all about making friends. People in the novel – the tofu vendor, the barber, the butcher, the funeral singer, the cloth dyer, the food stall owner and even the murderers – are all struggling to find someone to talk with.  

“The biggest difference between a religious society and an atheist society is not that people have a god to worship, but that they have something to talk to. People in a religious society can talk anytime and anywhere, for God is omnipresent. But in an atheist society, it can be difficult to find a bosom friend to talk with. With nothing to eat, one can beg; with nowhere to talk, one can feel suffocated,” Liu told the Dahe Daily when talking about the theme of loneliness in One Sentence Worth Ten Thousand.  

Writing’s greatest attraction, for Liu, is being able to find close friends in a story. “People in reality are always impatient, while characters in books are unfailingly tolerant. When communicating with characters, I’m free to pause and take as long as I want to think since they won’t get fed up waiting. You can say they are my closest confidants. When I need them, they’re always there waiting for me. […] What I really want to know is what my characters will be like in 30 years. By then China will have changed tremendously. Will they change as well?” Liu told Xinhua.  

Many believe Liu to be a man full of humor who brings fun and laughter to the people around him. But the reality is quite the opposite. In the eyes of Guo Jianmei, her husband is a rather “boring” man of few words who seldom makes others laugh. “He’s hard to fathom. People who haven’t spent time with him are prone to forming wrong expectations,” Guo told NewsChina.  

Within the galaxy of contemporary Chinese writers, Liu is the star who most beautifully walks the line between serious literature and popular culture. He has been financially successful, both through writing and his film and television collaborations. “He just seems to live cheek-by-jowl with entertainment,” Liu’s wife Guo Jianmei told NewsChina. Though compared to interacting with celebrity directors, actors and writers, Liu feels more comfortable being with the common people.  

Guo told our reporter that Liu is particularly fond of wandering around construction sites, factories and markets, talking with migrant workers, shoe repairers, fruit sellers and beggars – a habit he’s had for several decades. “He is definitely a writer who empathizes deeply with ordinary people,” said Guo. 

Talking with the common people provides fertile soil for his creations. “The real writing is beyond the act of writing. Good writing is achieved when writers are not behind their desks. Sitting down to write is just the process of getting it down,” Liu told NewsChina.