Wang Xiaobo Interview
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
A year or two ago I went to a exhibition on Wang Xiaobo’s life at the Lu Xun Museum. Along with the entrance ticket they gave you a DVD with a half hour or an hour of footage of Wang Xiaobo, including an interview he once did for CCTV. I just recently found this interview on Youtube, and am linking to it here, along with a translation of the conversation. This is from 1995, remember, an era caught between the hit-him-with-a-stick Cultural Revolution, and the can’t-be-arsed-to-wag-a-finger 2000s. CCTV, we should note, had not yet achieved the high standards it boasts today.
The interviewer, Liu Wei (刘为), starts off civilly, but by the end he’s nearly given himself a hernia trying to paint Wang as a salacious destroyer of other people’s morals. Observe, particularly, his craftiness as he traps Wang into admitting his books are all autobiographical, and his beautiful parting shot.
Liu Wei: Today we introduce the writer Wang Xiaobo. He began publishing more than ten years ago, but his real brilliance has only become evident in the past few years. His more recent works display a fresh, unique style that is all his own, and this has attracted the notice of readers and critics alike. Recently he’s published a collection of novellas called The Age of Gold, which includes three of his most representative works: First is The Age of Gold, second is Love in the Time of Revolution, and last My Yin and Yang. The book has attracted both praise, and controversy. Now I’ll ask Wang Xiaobo to say a few words himself.
Xiaobo, love is the main theme of much of your fiction. You’ve written about love between young men and women, love between married couples, and even extramarital affairs. But it seems to me there’s no poetry in this love, it’s not romantic at all. For instance, a girl goes rushing over kilometers of mountain road in order to express her feelings to the one she loves. But in the end, all she says is, “So-and-so, I want to marry you. I want to be your wife.” What’s going on here?
Wang Xiaobo: I think it has to do with my own experiences, and the kind of life I’m writing about. Take myself as an example: I’ve lived through revolution, and being sent to the countryside; I’ve been a teacher, a worker in a manufacturing plant, and later became a university professor and a scholar. Now I’ve made it to forty, I’m past forty, actually, and if I were still writing about white knights and pure maidens, like Qiong Yao, I think I’d feel ashamed of myself.
LW: But don’t you feel that love is sacred?
WXB: Of course love is sacred. But the reason it’s sacred is that it remains sacred within such a wide variety of lives.
LW: The girls you write about are all very pretty. Even the older women still have their girlish charm. But your male characters, the main characters, are all either terribly ugly, or a little stupid, or else they’ve got something wrong with them. Is that right?
WXB: Yes, I suppose so. Though I don’t really agree with the theories of feminism, I do agree with some of their points of view. Call me a potential feminist.
LW: But then aren’t you just like Jia Baoyu?
WXB: Maybe men in love are all a bit like Jia Baoyu.
LW: Some critics have said that there’s black humor in your work. For example, your description of an armed struggle during the Cultural Revolution: A man is impaled on a spear more than a meter long. A few inches are still protruding from his body, and he’s howling in pain. The main character is watching him, and thinking, “look at him, he can only pronounce vowels now, no consonants.” Are you consciously working to achieve this kind of effect, this style?
WXB: It’s not something I work towards intentionally. That’s just the nature of the things I’ve seen. People my age lived through the Cultural Revolution, armed struggle, all sorts of absurd things. Those things may seem very heavy to us today, but when I was a child, I just thought it was all great fun. I didn’t think anything more about it.
LW: But other people from that generation, are they writing like you do?
WXB: Sure! I mean, maybe they aren’t writing that way, but I feel that, when it comes to all these tragic things, there’s no more appropriate way to deal with them than black humor. One of my principles in writing is, treat heavy things lightly, and light things heavily. If you tell a horribly tragic story in a very severe style, that would be too heavy.
LW: There’s quite a few descriptions of sex in your work. Although some have said these sex scenes are above-board, they’re clean, they’re not obscene, don’t you think that these descriptions might have some negative side effects?
WXB: I don’t think they’ll have any negative side effects. First of all, let me first say that the descriptions of sex in my fiction are all necessary to the story, they’re necessary to the plot. Second, I think people seriously underestimate readers. ‘Readers need guidance, we have to teach them the difference between wrong and right’, etc. I don’t agree with that.
LW: You don’t think guidance is necessary?
WXB: It’s like… There may be fewer readers of fiction these days, but I think those readers are very sharp. I’ve never felt that, when I’m writing, I should be acting as some kind of spiritual engineer. I feel like I’m conversing with the reader as an equal. It’s a dialogue.
LW: So, are you maybe subconsciously, despite what you say, are you maybe subconsciously using the sex scenes to attract readers, and increase sales of your book?
WXB: No, absolutely not. Because, look, this is my first book. It’s always hard to get your first book published, and with the sex scenes it’s even harder, never mind increasing sales.
LW: I want to ask you, how many sisters do you have?
WXB: Five sisters.
LW: Five. Older or younger?
WXB: I’m the fourth youngest.
LW: Fourth youngest. How about brothers?
WXB: I’m the second of three brothers.
LW: You’re the second. So in your works, most of what you write is in the first person. And the protagonist is usually called Wang Er, so that’s yourself?
WXB: No, that’s not right. I don’t think that’s right.
WXB: If everything that happened in my fiction had happened to me, my wife would quit! Because I’m… Actually I’m a very well-behaved person.
LW: Really? Has your wife ever been suspicious of you?
WXB: No, she never has, which goes to show what an upright person I am.
LW: Well, I guess we’ll take your word on that. Thank you very much. This is the writer Wang Xiaobo.