Yan Lianke's Newest
By Eric Abrahamsen, published
The following is a translation of this Chinese article, which appeared a few weeks ago, about Yan Lianke's newest novel Fengyasong (Elegy and Academe), a satire of academia and university life in China. The book drew heavy fire from some quarters, particularly professors at the universities to which the book alludes. The fictional 'Qingyan University' within the book is an amalgamation of China's two top universities: Qinghua and Peking Univeristy (the latter was once called Yanjing University).
The book that offended Peking University
"I think the critics at Peking University are being too sensitive." Yan Lianke's eyes are bloodshot, his face sallow, he looks exhausted.
No sooner had Yan Lianke's novel Elegy and Academe been published by the Jiangsu People's Publishing House than it elicited intense counterattack from the faculty and students of Peking University. Sharply-worded posts appeared on the internet one after the other: "I'm livid: Yan Lianke slanders Peking University in Elegy and Academe", "I've burnt Yan Lianke's Elegy and Academe!". Criticisms of the book by some Peking University critics were also published in newspapers; they felt that Yan Lianke had used fiction to "cast aspersions on Peking University, slander the humanist traditions of higher education, and to wantonly demonize intellectuals at institutes of higher education."
All this because of Yan Lianke's mention in Elegy and Academe of "'Qingyan University', the finest liberal arts university in the imperial capital". Yang Ke, associate professor at the Chinese department of this university, returns home with the manuscript of Elegy for Academe, five years in the writing. He catches his wife and the vice-president of the university in flagrante. Not long after that Yang Ke makes trouble for the school with his anti-sandstorm activities, and the school leadership votes unanimously to commit him to the insane asylum attached to the school. In the asylum, he is directed by the asylum head to lecture to the other inmates on the Shijing [The Book of Odes, a collection of classical poetry]. The inmates are thrilled and react with thunderous applause. Yang Ke later escapes to his ancestral home of Qiansi Village on Palou Mountain, but discovers that his intended haven has been transformed beyond recognition. His first love, Ling Zhen, has become the madam of an underground brothel on Heaven Street in the county capital. The girls in the brothel become Yang Ke's most eager students, and devoted intellectual companions. When he returns again to Qingyan University, he finds that his book Fengya zhi Song has been published by his wife Zhao Ruping as Poem of the Homeland, the vice-president of the university is now president, and the two are living together openly. His old lover Ling Zhen dies of AIDS, leaving behind a daughter who looks just like her. On the night of the daughter's wedding to a carpenter named Li, Yang Ke kills the groom in a fit of jealousy. He leads the prostitutes of Heaven Street, along with some scholars and professors, to the "ancient city of poetry"… but all that awaits them is emptiness and disillusionment.
Yan Lianke was surprised to meet with so much un-literary criticism. "Earlier, I wrote a novella called In the Two Chengs, which was set in the villages of Chengyi and Chenghao, during the Song dynasty. The villagers in those places said I was disrespecting their ancestors, and were going to come to my village to fight. They gave up only after they discovered that my village had made preparations for the attack. I can understand this sort of thing, because they are peasants, but I could never have imagined that Peking University's faculty and students would react so absurdly, and think my novel was a slander of Peking University."
In truth, the fierce reaction did not come entirely without warning. Elegy and Academe was published in the second issue of West China Literature this year, and Yan Lianke received word via various channels that "people were saying this guy is desecrating the ancestral graves of Peking University, and of education itself." This critical point of view was very common within academic circles, causing some difficulties for Elegy and Academe's publication. "First it was the Jiangsu Art and Literature Press. They stopped just short of signing a contract, saying the subject matter was too sensitive. Then the Writer's Press wanted to publish it, but proposed 20 edits and asked me to change the ending Then they gave it to one of their leaders to read and he said it was too dark, and there were no redeeming characters. After that I gave it to the Oriental Publishing House, the People's Publishing House and the Shanghai People's Publishing House, but it wasn't actually published until I brought it to the Jiangsu People's Publishing House."
Not long after publication, a critical review appeared in The Journal of Literature. Shao Yanjun, an associate professor at Peking University's Chinese department, wrote that "the author lacks a deep understanding of the true cultural spirit of the university where he has situated his main character. Exaggeration and distortion were taken to vile and preposterous extremes, to the point where an exploration entitled 'the dissolution of modern man's spiritual homeland' has lost all grounding in that homeland. The appropriation of cultural symbols such as 'fengyasong' or 'Qingyan University', is superficial, forced and crudely twisted, and smacks of claptrap written purely to titillate."
Another doctor of literature, Li Yunlei, wrote the following pointed criticism: "The author lacks all understanding of the nature and operation of universities and the cultural world, but adopts a knowing attitude in his violent criticism, criticism which entirely misses its mark and fails to strike at the heart of the matter, leaving a rather laughable impression. The novel makes blatant insinuations about Peking University. Criticizing Peking University is fine, of course — plenty of people including me are not satisfied with it, but to make these insinuations out of nowhere, as he has done, is attacking the wrong target, and using excessive force. This breaks a major taboo of writing: that it should adhere closely to real life, and to real people. He has substituted his own fantasy as a target for criticism."
Yan Lianke does not accept the criticism of Shao Yanjun, Li Yunlei and others. "You may say that from a literary point of view Elegy and Academe is poorly written or tasteless, but for them, as literary critics, to use the criteria of truth to judge a novel, and say I am slandering Peking University… I guess their artistic insight isn't as lofty as I had imagined, nor their literary credentials as worthy of respect as I'd thought. I am not a realist writer, and this story itself is not realist. I've said from the beginning that this is a novel of the absurd."
Chen Xiaoming, also a professor at the Chinese department of Beijing University, feels that Yan Lianke is one of the few authors in China who possesses ideals and a sense of responsibility. Though many of Yan's novels constitute extreme criticism, they often do strike at the Achilles' heel of society. Chen Xiaoming takes exception to the controversy surrounding Elegy and Academe, saying that Yan Lianke's new novel is simply the writer's 'daydream', and that his attacks on Peking University and Qinghua are only the writer playing 'little tricks' or 'clowning around'. The writer himself has no ill-intent regarding Qinghua or Peking University, he is simply making a broad critique of university culture and spirit, never mind that that a novel is a fabricated thing to begin with. Seen from that angle, trying to align fiction to reality is rather pointless.
Lin Jian, editor-in-chief of Contemporary Writers Review, opined that "the degradation of academic morale is an uncontested fact, and the belief that university professors are 'engineers of the human soul' in the old sense is now only the wishful thinking of a few academics and professors, I'm afraid. Of course, though the image of the intellectual Yang Ke may have some representative value, he is not meant to be representative of the general nature of Chinese professorship, and seeing it as evidence that Yan Lianke is demonizing intellectuals as a group would be overstating the case."
One Man's Spiritual Autobiography
While being interviewed by this journalist, Yan Lianke referred to Elegy and Academe several times as his spiritual autobiography. "The plot of this book is invented, but the core of its spirit and its experience are my own."
Much like Mo Yan and Jia Pingwa, Yan Lianke made the move from countryside to city. He was born in 1958 in a remote place in Song county, Henan Province, called Tianhu Village. He is the fourth child of his family, with two sisters and a brother before him. Both Yan Lianke's parents are completely illiterate peasants.
At the time he should have been in high school, Yan's family was experiencing difficulties and couldn't afford his tuition – even getting enough to eat was a struggle. His uncle, working in the Xinxiang Cement Factory, brought Yan to work with him at the age of 18. At that time Yan, making concrete tiles, had to push wheelbarrows of sand and plaster, and learn to mix concrete, build walls and install tiles.
During that period, while spending each day in heavy labor, Yan Lianke read Zhang Kangkang's story 'Dividing Line' in a literary magazine. It was that story that brought Zhang Kangkang from a farm in the north-eastern wastes to the city of Harbin, and landed her a job in the Writers Association. This gave Yan hope that he might change his own fate. "I toiled at back-breaking labors during the day, and at night wrote by the light of a coal-oil lamp. My parents had no idea what I was doing, and thought I'd lost my mind, but at the same time they thought it was very mysterious." Yan Lianke recalls that his parents would extinguish the light at 8pm to conserve oil. In those days the greatest support his family could give him was to allow him to keep the lamp burning and write into the night.
Towards the end of 1987, Yan Lianke signed up for the military as a way to escape his village and change his fate. At last he had enough to eat. Yan was placed in a company of new soldiers, where the company commander observed that he wrote well and assigned him to compose the blackboard announcements. The company political instructor was a literary youth named Zhang Yingpei who loved writing guti poems [poems in an ancient style, with 5 or 7 characters per line], and when he saw the pieces of doggerel Yan Lianke wrote on the blackboard he went to have a chat with him. After reading his fiction he transferred Yan to the company headquarters to work as a reporter.
In 1988 'The Story of Tianma', Yan Lianke's first piece of fiction, appeared in the Wuhan military region edition of Battle Review, and Yan became renowned within his division as the 'literary genius'. This made Yan Lianke think that writing, too, could be a way to change his fate. But, on the other hand, if he were promoted to a position as cadre, he could stay in the army and no longer be tied to the land. Unfortunately, at the time Yan Lianke became qualified for promotion, the Retaliatory War of Self-Defense Against Vietnam was just concluding and opportunities for promotion were reserved for soldiers returning from the front. The next time the opportunity presented itself, army authorities gave notice that new cadres would no longer be selected from among the ranks of ordinary soldiers; they had to attend military academy. "There was an age limitation on ordinary soldiers entering the academy — they could be no older than 20." Yan Lianke was 24 at the time. His hopes dashed, he prepared to return to his village and work the land. He had already boarded the train when his company commander called him down again – a one-act play he'd previously written had just won first prize in an all-military theatrical competition. The leaders had allotted the Wuhan military region 20 extra places for the promotion of new cadres, and Yan Lianke had the good fortune of being one of the new promotions.
After becoming a cadre, Yan Lianke was assigned to be a librarian at the division headquarters.Happy at last, the new cadre found a wife with urban housing registration who could move with the army; Yan Lianke thought he'd finally settled down. "I had changed my fate through literature, but I was still wavering between becoming a writer with a pen in his hand, or a high-level military official carrying a gun." Reality caused Yan Lianke to entirely abandon his dreams of generalship, and to set foot wholeheartedly on the path of literature. On the strength of a series of literary publications, Yan Lianke became a scholar at the Liberation Army Art Academy in 1989. Seeing the exploding fame of Mo Yan, another scholar in his class, spurred his desire to scale new heights. During this period Yan Lianke gradually began to draw more and more attention from the literary world.
In 2004, the novel Shouhuo pushed Yan Lianke into the thick of fame — winning him the third annual Lao She literary prize on the one hand, drawing controversy on the other. He was interviewed for Phoenix Television's 'A Talk with Lu Yu' program. The day after the program was aired, he received a phone call from his superiors ordering him to change careers and transfer out of the army. "One leader read Shouhou and said if there were ever another Anti-Rightist Campaign, Yan Lianke would be a target."
During the three years prior to this, Yan Lianke had made multiple requests to change careers, but had always been urged to stay for reason of 'treasuring talent', and his applications denied. But now, with a single phone call, he was sent away from the company where he had spent so many years, to the Beijing branch of the Writers Association. "This struck me as enormously absurd. It was like a Kafka novel, like I'd been transformed into vermin overnight," Yan said.
A Man With No Home
Yan got the idea for writing Elegy and Academe seven years ago. After returning home, Yan heard the following story from a friend: a female associate professor at a college in Henan had failed to make full professor for many years, despite being perfectly qualified, because of the school's limits on faculty numbers. After three years she sent in her application materials once again, but heard that the wife of the college president, whose discipline was similar to hers, was applying for the same spot. Worried that her position would be taken from her, the associate professor rushed into the president's office and publicly kneeled in front of him, begging him to give her a chance.
Yan never learned the end of the story, but for years the incident remained in his thoughts. Later Yan participated in a seminar in Beijing, and not long after it began he noticed several other professors looking down to check the envelopes containing the 'transportation fees' they'd been paid. The day after the seminar, he heard that one of the professors who'd been counting money during the meeting had gone that night to 'find a girl', and while feeling her up had given her an earnest lecture about cleaning up her act and returning to school. The confluence of these two stories formed the earliest basis for Elegy and Academe.
"That kneeling associate professor in Henan reminded me of myself — placed in the same position I might have done the same thing. When intellectuals find themselves in a position of weakness and helplessness, the only recourse they have is to kneel down and beg, beg for mercy. These alienating events and moments are without doubt drawn from my own experiences and observations."
Like all writers who have moved to the city from the countryside, who have slowly crawled up from the bottom, Yan knows how important power is to deciding a person's fate. "Even now I'm always very deferential to the village, township and county heads in my old home, because my relatives still live there. Though I'm already 50 and have a good career, I'm still very respectful to them when I meet them."
Despite being a famous writer, Yan can't even find jobs in Beijing for his nieces and nephews back home, and faced with the hopeful gazes of his extended relations he often feels himself to be powerless. "I always feel that my life has been so meaningless; 30 years of struggle have brought me nothing but exhaustion and illness, and these writings that have caused me so much trouble."
Yan, who has lived in Beijing for 20 years, often dreams of his old home. "But the little stream outside my house is gone, and so is the peach orchard that was on the hill behind us. The sky is full of dust, and my parents are gone. The young people and able workers have all left my village looking for work, and only the old and sick are left. There's no life to the place any more. The old rural poetry, the neighborly feeling, is all gone. I've got nothing to talk about with my old friends, even my family members, and we're often left feeling awkward — all we can do is play drinking games."
This hesitation between city and country has always troubled Yan Lianke. Even as a professional author and member of the Beijing Writers Association, Yan has always felt like a country person. "This is a center of power, a vanity fair of culture, and it has nothing to do with the common people. Your housing registration, your wife, your children and your house are all here, but your heart is always empty, neither soaring nor settling, pining for something lost, a house without a home. Elegy and Academe was nurtured by a years-old desire to go home," Yan says. "This is something that torments everyone who has come to the city from the countryside. My son's generation already belongs in this city: Beijing is his home; Henan the home of his ancestors. But to us, Beijing is just a way-station in our lives, and we've lost our real homes. Then again, perhaps ceaseless wandering is the true meaning of life. If everyone had a home, that sense of homelessness would be harder to find."
At fifty, we know Heaven's will. Yan Lianke, however, is still pining for the passion and courage of his youth. He hopes that in writing Elegy and Academe he will recover the feeling and outlook he had while writing Shouhou. He says that "a writer like me may only have 15 really good years, enough time to write two or three novels. I've got no more time for vacillation."
"Starting today I'm going to be like Lu Xun: someone who faces reality and refuses compromise. What could a wandering ghost, with no home of his own, possibly have to fear?"