By Sihan Tan
How does one argue for the burning of books? Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China and mastermind behind her Great Wall, incinerated three thousand years of literature precisely because of his love for the past, or so Borges romanticises. Not exactly, says Yan Lianke, the sui generis Chinese writer whose three decades spanning career returns time and again to the Cultural Revolution. Aren’t all acts of abolishing the past motivated by a desire for history to begin anew? And because books do burn, the Henan native has spoken, in an interview with The Guardian, of his wish to address an “amnesia with Chinese characteristics”, a state-administered loss of memory that “the regime sees as essential to its survival”.
Yan, winner of the 2014 Franz Kakfa Book Prize, has had several of his works banned, not burned, in China. These include his first novel, The Joy of Living, which got him expelled from the army; Dreams of Ding Village , previously adapted into a film starring Chinese superstars Zhang Ziyi and Aaron Kwok; and Serve the People!, another satirical opus chronicling starvation and AIDs during The Great Leap Forward. A military propaganda writer upon enlistment in his teens at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Yan is not unfamiliar with the mechanics of this particular amnesia “achieved by shackling people’s minds, altering historical records, manipulating textbooks, controlling literature and the arts, and using financial incentives to entice people to give up their memories.” Perhaps as a consequence of his country’s growth during the Reform Era, which mirrors the length of his own career, it is precisely China’s eagerness for the new that Yan Lianke’s latest work The Explosion Chronicles seeks to resist.
Crisply translated by Carlos Rojas, The Explosion Chronicles follows the Kongs and two other families of train robbers, mamasans and industrial bigwigs in the backwater village of Explosion. The race to become its new mayor quickly mutates into a race to ‘metropolise’ Explosion. Greed and Capitalism are the twin forces of gross development, and the hyper-linear novel reads as a breathless set of historical chronicles destined for combustion. As far as loose trilogies go, The Explosion Chronicles can be tryptyched with his other novels, Lenin’s Kisses and The Four Books, the latter of which was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
Yan Lianke has won two of China’s premier literary awards, the Lu Xun Literary Prize and the Lao She Literary Award, but has only been belatedly discovered in the last decade through his English translations. In an exclusive interview with the Columbia Journal, courtesy of his translator Carlos Rojas, the Beijing-based writer talks about coining the term Mythorealism, the need for ‘the story of China’, censorship and writing from the periphery.
Questions and Answers translated by Carlos Rojas
Sihan Tan: What was your personal motivation in penning The Explosion Chronicles and how is it similar or different from your older books?
Yan Lianke: My only motivation in writing The Explosion Chronicles was simply to write a different sort of novel. I wanted to use an entirely new structure and narrative form to tell a “mythorealist” Chinese story—a miraculous story about China and its people.
ST: You coined the intriguing genre term ‘Mythorealism’ to describe his works and its increasingly popular standing — with comparison to Latin American ‘Magical Realism’ — seems almost an act of resistance to the rampant neo-capitalism of modern China: existing at once a homage to the rural, more naturalistic past and a spiritual defiance before the 21st century’s eagerness for the New. I understand this blend of realism and mysticism has existed in the East since the sage days of Lao Tzu, going on to Water Margin, Liao Zhai Zhiyi; to films such as Zhang Hanyi’s Life After Life and Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues who are both contemporary directors in their twenties. Could you say more about this continuous Mythorealism ‘antidote’ to a persistent amnesia akin to book-burning, and the role The Explosion Chronicles plays in keeping the dialogue between the non-linear past and present going?
YL: “Mythorealism” itself is not something I invented or created, but rather it is a product of contemporary Chinese reality. All I did was discover and help consolidate it. Actually, the appearance of mythorealism is merely a gesture of resistance to twenty-first century processes of globalization and a world view that stresses novelty and eternal contradiction. Mythorealism is also a gesture of resistance to antiquated literary formats, and attempts to offer stagnant world literature a bit of novelty and new possibilities. Within the Western canon, mythorealism can be traced back to the Bible, Homeric epics, and so forth, while in a Chinese context it can be traced back to classics such as The Classic of Mountains and Seas, Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, Journey to the Western, and so forth. As for films such as Life After Life and Kaili Blues, I haven’t seen them, so there isn’t much I can say. However, what I can say is that mythorealism is not solely a product of the classics, but rather is also a product of Chinese reality. Contemporary China, regardless of whether we view it from an economic, political, human, moral, or spiritual perspective, is very complex, odd, and strange, and is impossible to understand; and we therefore have no choice but to use a term like mythorealism to describe and summarize it. With the emergence of mythorealism, Chinese literature has been able to provide a new and more accurate explanation of Chinese history, establishing a mutually transformative relationship China’s reality and its history. More importantly, with mythorealism it is possible to create a true “story of China” and to generate a prototypically “Chinese” character who as been missing from Chinese literature ever since Lu Xun’s satirical early twentieth century work “The True Story of Ah Q.” I feel it is precisely in this that we may find the literary significance of The Explosion Chronicles.
ST: I’m thinking of Serve the People! and the writers, Shen Congwen, Wang Anyi, Can Xue and Mo Yan. Does everything, especially in the narrative of Modern China, begin in the village? Should it end there too?
YL: Thank you for your very perceptive question. I can’t speak for other authors, but feel that all of my works end in the village, while also representing the end of the village itself, the destruction of the village. In literary terms, an end is also a beginning, and destruction may also mark a moment of new creation.
ST: As with your prior books, the propulsive, deceptively simple narrative style of The Explosion Chronicles services the similarly relentless and porous nature of the Mythorealistic story. Could you talk more about your influences, the difference between your influences and your hope for the future of this broad and brisk style of narrative technique? Would it be appropriate for Western writers to write in a similar way or is it something specific to the East?
YL: I consider your characterization of my narrative style as “propulsive” to be a compliment of the highest order. Chinese novels generally have an excessively slow and convoluted narrative structure—to the point that it impacts their readability. Accordingly, I hope that the background rhythm of my novels will be powerful and propulsive, like a steam engine; and that they will have a simple narrative but rich content, with a clear structure but full of cultural significance. This is the sort of structure and narrative to which I aspired in writing The Explosion Chronicles. The genre of the historical chronicle occupies an important position in Chinese culture, as can be seen in works such as Sima Qian’s Records of the Historian, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as well as the local gazetteers that can be found in every province, city, and county throughout the country. It is this tradition of the historical chronicle that provided the opening and the narrative path out of which The Explosion Chronicles emerged. Therefore, this history of Explosion and its people becomes contemporary Chinese literature’s most distinctive “story of China”—out of which emerged the narration of The Explosion Chronicles itself. I hope that my readers—both in China and abroad—will be able to accept and appreciate this narrative mode. But at a more basic level, I have pursued this narrative form out of purely literary considerations, and did not give much thought to how Chinese or foreign readers would receive it—though I remain confident that readers will ultimately accept it the work as good literature.
ST: You have had various run-ins with censorship. What are your hopes for the future of literature in China and advice for writers in similar political situations?
YL: It is true that China has a strict censorship system—though as for myself, I personally don’t have a censor. My mind is free and unbounded, and I can use my free imagination and creativity to write my novels. With respect to questions of censorship and publication, I try not to think about them. My only objective when I write is to do so in the freest manner possible. In this respect, I hope that my readers, fellow authors, and friends in China and abroad will approach my novels as purely literary creations, and not view them in political or ideological terms. To view my works from any perspective that is not fundamentally literary reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of my project.
ST: There is emerging consideration for peripheral writers outside of the Western Canon. To some degree, the nature of works of Alain Mabanckou to Hungary’s László Krasznahorkai explore, in your words, “ a kind of ‘non-existent’ reality, an invisible reality, a reality that is occluded by reality.” Do you envision the increasing influence of Mythorealism to continue in world literature?
YL: With respect to mythorealism’s ability to represent a kind of “non-existent” reality, an invisible reality, and a reality that is occluded by reality,” it is possible that these are characteristics that are unique to China, but it is also possible that they are characteristics that may be found throughout the wold. As for whether mythorealism has been widely adopted among “marginal,” “third-world authors,” this is not a topic I have considered in detail, though in general I’m convinced that mythorealism is something that has a long history but is particularly prominent in contemporary China. In the future, mythorealism may become even more pronounced is other areas around the world, and it may therefore emerge as a new reality for literary traditions outside of China.
ST: Being a 3rd generation immigrant Chinese, there is an indescribable nostalgia when contemplating literature from the mainland. What would you say to the millions of Chinese people worldwide, having taken the leap of leaving one’s village behind to populate all parts of the world (an external and simultaneous antecedent to the mass migration of the young to big cities in China), and are no longer in touch with their dialects, folk tales and roots?
YL: Of course, I always hope that my novels will offer readers a kind of legend and a taste of the mythoreal, while also creating a dialogue with overseas Chinese around the world.
Questions and Answers in Chinese (translated by Carlos Rojas):