Interview with Li Jingze

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

China will be the guest of honor at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair next year, and preparations are already underway. The following conversation serves as a foreword to the informational packet being produced by the German Book Information Centre here in Beijing, which also includes a sampling of Chinese writers and works that will be featured at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Li Jingze (李敬泽), respected Chinese literary critic. Born January 1964, graduated from Peking University in 1984, now Editor in Chief of People's Literature magazine.

Li Jingze has worked as a literary editor and literary critic for many years. He has edited many influential literary works, and discovered and promoted many excellent authors. Since the 1990s he has been one of China's most active literary critics, and his criticism enjoys a high reputation both within literary circles and among readers.

He has authored nearly ten volumes of essays and literary criticism, and is the recipient of the Lu Xun literary prize, the Chinese Media literary prize's Annual Critics Award, and the Fengmu literary prize's Young Critics Award.

Jing Bartz, Director of the German Book Information Centre of the Frankfurt Book Fair in Beijing. Jing Bartz is responsible for coordination with China's General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), and is an advisor and consultant for the Chinese government's Translation Funding Project.

JB: At the Leipzig Book Fair this past March, I spoke with more than twenty German-language publishing houses about China being the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair next year, and asked if any of them intended to publish books by Chinese authors. Without exception, the German publishers all indicated interest. But the majority noted than they were particularly looking for works by the younger generation of Chinese writers. Does this preference make sense to you?

LJZ: I expect that many German readers are hoping to understand China through literature, and believe they will find a more direct understanding and experience of what's happening in China now through the works of younger writers. I should note that Chinese readers have the same hope – we too are deeply perplexed by and intensely interested in what is happening all around us in China. We hope that our literature can express the complexity of our experience, our wonderfully varied selves, and our quicksilver cultural and moral environment. In this regard, younger Chinese writers may be particularly sensitive and imaginative; they may also have more desire and courage to express themselves.

JB: In China, what is usually meant by 'the young generation of writers'? How old are they? Is there a fundamental, qualitative difference between their themes, styles and language and those of the previous generation?

LJZ: We're accustomed to grouping generations of writers by the decade of their birth. A few years ago, if you heard that someone was a 'post-70s' writer, that meant he was born in the 1970s and belonged to the youngest, most avant-garde generation of writers. Sometimes that might mean that a writer born in 1969 gets left out of the party, but time moves quickly and we've already got a new group of even younger, even more avant-garde writers: the 'post-80s' writers. People joke that we'll be seeing 'post-90s' writers soon; actually we already are.

This is a stupid way to draw dividing lines, of course – as if an entire group would have something in common just because they were all born in the same decade, and all chose writing as their profession. But a stupid habit like this becomes popular because it's an expression of a sincere, widespread anxiety: In China, we are experiencing dramatic changes in society and in our lives; old things are being swiftly devalued; each of us is experiencing a crisis of self-knowledge and belonging. We're eager to establish our selves, to prove that even amid this changeable world we are still in control of our own lives, that we possess a primary motive force; at least that we are part of a group which possesses a primary motive force. Young people believe that they are at the forefront of the times, and that the emblems of youth can be produced and disseminated more quickly and efficiently with the support of the media, the internet and popular culture. Thus they show they are leading the new experiences of the age, in possession of a collective cultural power stronger than the power of their elders – of course, this is probably only an illusion that is being tolerated for the time being. China is no different from other countries: the older generations are firmly in control of society. Moreover, as society is plagued by new anxieties, traditional authority is regaining ground.

So each new generation of Chinese writers takes great pleasure in announcing its complete independence from the previous generation. Of course, apart from the kind of superficial differences of experience which quickly fade, these writers are obliged to show that they can provide something more lasting. Over the past hundred years Chinese modern literature has developed its own traditional lineage, from which all writers depart, and against which they react. Declaring 'complete independence' is also a kind of reaction.

JB: Both foreigners and Chinese are accustomed to divide Chinese literature into avant-garde writing in the 1980s and realist reportage in the 1990s; what can we expect going into the 21st century? Do you agree with dividing literature itself by decade? Perhaps in the thirty years since reform and opening up began, each decade's massive transformations really have caused corresponding changes in literature?

LJZ: This is similar to the terms 'post-70s' and 'post-80s': we must be very careful when we try to use a single phrase to encapsulate and judge the literature of an age; we may end up obscuring the richness and variety of writing. It may satisfy our desire to have a handle on the truth, but it does little to actually advance our knowledge. In the past thirty years China truly has experienced massive transformations, and Chinese literature has reflected these transformations, but literature develops according to its own logic and at its own pace; it does not passively echo the changes of its environment.

Broadly speaking, Chinese literature of the 1980s was 'enlightened', it was 'avant-garde', it was 'roots-seeking'. In the 1990s, it turned toward the body, toward desire, toward daily life, toward the discovery and expression of the landscape of a society that's in the process of marketization. Of course this was tied to the large-scale marketization of China in the 90s, but it also reflected a desire for exploration and expansion on the part of literature itself. In 1977, as China's writers began to pick up the pieces, they discovered they had no themes or language that belonged to them. In the thirty years since then, they've swiftly recapitulated what their elders did in the first half of the last century, and what their foreign colleagues have done over the past two hundred years. They have released the individual from the confines of ideology, and engaged in broad exploration, familiarization and imagination with regard to humanity, giving our experiences and circumstances shape and voice. So the past thirty years have been a kind of catching-up, and there have been many changes. As you'd expect with anything done so quickly we've rushed it, we haven't taken the time to do it properly, and in this sense Chinese literature now needs a period of settling down. Recently, commentators have introduced the concept of 'literature of the new century', and claim that since the turn of the century Chinese literature has undergone some great change. But I believe the real change took place earlier, around '98 or '99: at that time I had a strong sense that the internet, consumerism, globalization, mass media and pop culture had truly arrived; within a very short period of time writers found themselves inhabiting a completely new linguistic, cultural and media environment. This posed a grave threat to traditional, intellectual 'pure literature', and to date Chinese literature has, to some extent, become a part of consumerist culture.

JB: Many works of Chinese literature are written on the theme of the countryside – it's even been said that 80% of Chinese literature is rural literature. What do you think of this?

LJZ: I don't know how they arrived at that precise proportion, but if you view the literature of the past thirty years as a whole, there certainly are a large number of works centered around rural themes, or written against the background of agricultural civilization. Originally, China was a traditional agricultural society, and the issues of the countryside are the issues at the heart of China's modernization – these issues have occupied the attention of intellectuals and writers for a very long time. Even today, writers over the age of 40 all have some degree of experience with rural life, and our traditional culture is primarily based on agricultural traditions. These traditions run long and deep, and when a writer writes of the countryside, he is following in the footsteps of a long line of predecessors, and he has many aesthetic resources at his disposal.

JB: The German media often carries reports on Beijing, Shanghai and other major metropolises. Young German readers also hope to learn about the urban lives of Chinese through literature. Statistics show that the economic growth of the past thirty years has increased China's urbanization to 35%. Do you believe that modern Chinese literature includes examples of outstanding, mature urban writing?

LJZ: In China, megalopolises are a completely new thing. The wave of urbanization – the migration from countryside to city, out of small cities and into large cities, and the emergence of the vast capitals – all this started in earnest in the early 90s. People our age all remember attending university in the 80s, when many parts of Beijing were still village, and the whole city retained a tranquil rural atmosphere.

So Chinese writers only really started to write about cities starting in the 90s, and they were more or less starting from scratch, with no traditions to draw upon. Many writers were obliged to fall back on historical memories of 1930s Shanghai. But in modern Chinese literature, with the emergence of a large new group of younger writers, works with an urban setting have now taken the lead, at least in terms of quantity. Writers such as Wang Anyi, Bi Feiyu, Zhu Wen, Li Er and Li Feng have made important contributions to writing about China's urban experience, and when we come to the 'post-70s' and 'post-80s' writers, most of their writing is urban in background.

During this process, writers have attended to the enormous influence of urbanization on our lives, and have striven to understand what exactly is happening around us, and to us. This has carried Chinese literature into a new realm, creating new themes, styles, and language. But we have not yet moved past the initial shock and stimulus of urbanization, and there is still much complex imagining to be done regarding the experience of urban transplantation.

JB: Wei Hui's Shanghai Baby is currently very popular in Germany, but many of those who have read it have been dissatisfied with its literary qualities. What are your thoughts on this book?

LJZ: Shanghai Baby is a very poor novel, of course. I understand that German academics and critics have also expressed disappointment and anger towards this book. But Chinese academics and critics think it's very strange that anyone pays attention to it at all. I think there's not a single serious Chinese critic who believes that it's indicative of the quality of contemporary Chinese literature.

JB: Besides Wei Hui, Hong Ying is another female Chinese writer who is gaining a name in Germany. Are these two representative of women's literature in China? Are there more female writers yet to be discovered?

LJZ: Women's writing is a very strong thread in modern Chinese literature, and includes some of our best writers, for instance Tie Ning, Wang Anyi, Chi Zijian. As for what's typically called feminist writing, Chen Ran and Lin Bai are particularly good examples. The appearance of so many female writers has been a particularly notable trend in modern Chinese literature; younger female writers presently active include Jin Renshun, Wei Wei, Dai Lai, Zhu Wenying, Qiao Ye, Lu Min, Zhang Yueran and Deng Xiaoqiong. They've all written much on the female experience.

JB: Wolf Totem is now being released around the world. Some say that, because the book tells the story of wolves, it will be more comprehensible to western readers. Do you think that's true?

LJZ: I don't know. I would think westerners would better understand stories about people.

JB: While speaking with German publishers at the Leipzig Book Fair, many of them emphasized that they were looking for the kind of Chinese book that can reflect modern China, the transformations of society, relations between people, and the feelings of the heart, and at the same time be comprehensible to western readers. You're very knowledgeable about the publication of western literature in China; do you believe that, comparatively speaking, modern Chinese literature will be hard for westerners to understand? Are there too many so-called 'Chinese elements'?

LJZ: Of course there is an enormous culture gap between east and west, and not every western reader will be familiar with our complex history over the past hundred years – this will make it difficult for Chinese literature to make inroads in the west. But one thing is for certain: to several generations of Chinese readers, Germany and German literature is quite well known. We're familiar with Kafka, Dürrenmatt, Hesse, Boll and Grass; my favorite German writer is Bonhoeffer – he may not be a novelist, but his writing has moved me deeply. So you can see that so long as we read, so long as we're willing to learn, gaps of culture or experience cannot stop us.

JB: Who are the three writers you appreciate most? And who are the three writers you feel have the most potential?

LJZ: Mo Yan, Zhang Chengzhi, and Wang Anyi. Mo Yan's spirit may be more Chinese than any other writer, and he has a strength that is thoroughly rooted in China's soil. Zhang Chengzhi is a writer with the power to disturb. He offers his unflinching ideas to the world and is not afraid to offend, and I believe he writes the best Chinese. Wang Anyi is our most deep-feeling novelist; she explores the depths of experience with extraordinary patience.

The three writers with most potential… well, this is just a shot in the dark… I'd say Xu Zechen, Lu Min and Tian Er. Xu lives in Beijing, Lu Min in Nanjing, and Tian in Hunan, the home of Mao Zedong. As you said at the start, German readers want books by China's younger writers – when I heard you say that, these writers were the first that came to mind.

May 2008, Beijing


# 1.   

Check this out: Wei Hui (of "Shanghai Baby" fame) and Hong Ying ("Daughter of the River") are described as writers who are "gaining a name" in Germany. Both had their initial works translated at least 5 years ago.

This tells you a lot about 1) How much more important it is to get a Chinese book published in translation in the West, than to worry about its literary qualities per se; 2) How fascinated western readers are with books which somehow fulfill their fantasies about China.

Wei Hui's original writing is a smoother read than Hong Ying's downright clunky prose, but neither can make any claim to being a polished writer.

It is their stories, or perhaps what some readers in the West want to make of them, that constitute their attraction. Wei Hui's Shanghai is peopled with two-dimensional characters and insipid conversations that would shame even a Hollywood scriptwriter, but she hit the spot in the West with her blow-by-blow accounts of homegrown Nikki and her Aryan sex machine on the job.

Hong Ying's fictionalized retelling of her upbringing in the slums of Chongqing during the Cultural Revolution has also won her some acclaim. I found some of it almost revolting, e.g., her description of vomiting stomach worms. But overall, it's hard not to feel that she is writing from the heart, if crudely.

Yet Hong Ying's early works focus on the Cultural Revolution, a time long past and easily exoticized for readers in the West.

One hopes that German readers will soon have access to a wider scope of translated fiction from China, because these women are both second-rate writers who have little to tell anyone about life in 21st century China.

Bruce Humes, September 29, 2008, 1:18a.m.

# 2.   

This made my day:

"JB: Wolf Totem is now being released around the world. Some say that, because the book tells the story of wolves, it will be more comprehensible to western readers. Do you think that's true?

LJZ: I don't know. I would think westerners would better understand stories about people. "

Surely one of the best ripostes ever to the "ask any old stupid question just to get them talking" school of interviewing.

Stuff like this makes me feel optimistic. One day we (English language media) might get past all the China rhetoric and just start reading and appreciating the authors.

Phil, October 1, 2008, 3:52p.m.

# 3.   


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