The award-winning writer and artist discusses her life-long relationship with literature and the politics of being a writer in China, on the occasion of the publication of her new novel Crystal Wedding (Balestier Press).
Translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman and Natascha Bruce.
I was born into a family of intellectuals, descended from a long line of scholars. My father was a very honest, kind-hearted man. He was well-educated and became, at the age of 29, the youngest Assistant Professor at Jiaotong University. I was his favourite child, and the one he worried most about. I began painting at two or three years old; at the age of seven, I wrote my first poem in Chinese classical metre. My outstanding academic results won me all sorts of prizes at primary school and made my father very proud. When I completed primary school, my teacher came to tell my parents that he was putting my name forward for admission to an elite secondary school. Only just then, the Cultural Revolution broke out and everything ground to a halt.
To start with, I was intensely curious and rode my bicycle from campus to campus reading the big-character posters. My natural scepticism made me wary of the official newspapers, and I wanted to know the truth. However, I soon lost interest in the slanging matches between the warring factions, and steered well clear of the bloody violence. When I witnessed our elders and betters being paraded through the streets in dunces’ caps, the nursery school head being put on a stage in the searing summer heat and spattered all over with paste and ink, the adults around me committing suicide, my father working day and night without a break, my mother being forced to learn the ‘loyalty dance’, it dawned on me just what the truth was…
Both my parents were engineers and, although they loved to read literature in their spare time, literary studies in those days were not held in high regard. The watchword was ‘maths, physics and chemistry will get you anywhere’. Even though the schools were closed during the Cultural Revolution, I often got together with school friends on the university campus and we amused ourselves by conducting physics and chemistry experiments, for instance, boiling water in paper cups over a candle flame, and engraving designs on eggshells. Maths was my chief love, and I dreamed of becoming a scientist when I grew up; reading was just something I liked doing in my spare time. But the Cultural Revolution shattered all our hopes and dreams. Looking back on those days, I realized that my father was intensely anxious about what might happen to me; it was for this reason that, cleverly playing on my love of reading, he brought out the collections of books we had at home (we were fortunate in that they had not been confiscated by the Red Guards) and added to them works translated from western writers, such as Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Resurrection, the complete Comédie Humaine by Balzac, and works by Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Mérimée, Zweig, and Stendhal borrowed from the university library. Imagine how bizarre: outside the windows, loudspeakers blared amid a sea of red flags, while behind closed doors, a young girl, bent over those then-prohibited works, was drawn into a whole new world, completely at odds with the spirit of the times. The fantasy world I lived in then is the subject of a novel I wrote years later called Sunshine on Judgement Day.
In using books to keep me out of trouble, my father could hardly have imagined that literature would lead me on a secret inner journey; nor did he know that this inner world would prove even more dangerous than the tumultuous world outside. At 13 years old, a girl is on the threshold of adolescence, getting her periods, beginning to notice subtle changes in her body, feeling the first stirrings of love. An encounter with literature can make her restless for the rest of her life.
I had to laugh when, a number of years ago, a completely unrealistic story about Heilongjiang [the province where Xu Xiaobin was sent to work during the Cultural Revolution] appeared. I found out later that the writer had never done a day’s labour in the countryside, having been a cadre for his entire life. He is still a favourite in literary circles today; true, he has made a few comments apparently critical of the system in order to make himself popular with the reading public, but he has also been careful to protect his personal interests. The truth is that in any society, he would be among the elite. He is one among many chameleon-writers in China: loftily apolitical to the general public, while behind closed doors they scrabble for power and influence, smoothing their career paths with gifts and letters. These people are clever; they are also the kind of freaks that the system produces. Writers ought to maintain a tension with society, see themselves in confrontation with it, but those who flourish here have done so because they have learnt how to tell lies and make people laugh, how to say what people want to hear, how to win over all and sundry, young and old, men and women, high-ups and humble…
In my novel Feathered Serpent [English edition 2009], the hero says: ‘The past ten years have allowed the genie out of the bottle; the devil has slipped out and can never be put back. The country will rise, economic material will be gained, and we will catch up with advanced countries; but what about the realms of the spiritual and metaphysical? Will they ever be restored? This is a quandary that is more frightening than being poor.’ Sadly, all my predictions in Feathered Serpent have come true.
As a young woman writing Feathered Serpent, I felt acute grief for my beloved country but powerless to change the situation. Along with this pain, I was suffering personal heartache, so every word was written in blood and tears. Crystal Wedding, on the other hand, is a simple record of what happened between 1984 and 1999. When I wrote Feathered Serpent, I still had tears to cry, whereas now I am dry-eyed. If anything, hurting and not being able to cry runs even deeper and is even harder to cure.