Yan Lianke: 'In real life, I am a very old-fashioned, boring person'

We spoke to the writer about satire, amnesia and avoiding his fans

Yan Lianke is one of contemporary China’s most famous writers, as well as one of the most controversial. Often called China’s 'most censored author', the Henan-born novelist has created a canon of daring books, never one to shy away from tackling real-life controversies.

Some of his best-known novels include Dream of Ding Village, a satire based on the blood-selling scandal of the 1990s; The Four Books, a barely veiled allegorical attack on the Great Leap Forward policy between 1958 and 1962; and Serve The People!, which takes a darkly humorous look at the Cultural Revolution through a forbidden love affair. The Explosion Chronicles, Yan’s latest book, was published in English last year, and most of his recent novels have been translated into several languages, garnering a large overseas fan base.

This international acclaim has led to a number of accolades, including listings for the prestigious Franz Kafka Prize and the Man Booker Prize. He has also been awarded some of the most respected literary awards in China, including the Lu Xun Literary Prize and the Lao She Award for Literary Excellence. Even so, Yan has had a number of skirmishes with the authorities over his books, several of which are still not available in China.

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"Brother, we are truly corrupt"
The Explosion Chronicles, pub. 2016

You are the master of Chinese satire. Why do you choose that style of humour?
Humour and irony wasn’t really my choice. Each of my novels were written in a tragic, despairing mood, but to the reader, to the rest of the world, it has seemed to be irony. At fi rst I was dismayed by this interpretation of the novels as ironic, but then I realised that the problem wasn’t in my writing. It is inherent in China’s reality and history. China’s reality is a tragedy in so many ways, and it has its own distinct irony. So, it’s not really that my writing set out to portray ironic humour, but that life itself is just like that.

You were in the army before turning to novel-writing. How did military experience influence your books?
I’ve been writing novels for more than 30 years, but I spent 26 years in the military, and my best years were given to the military. Army life gave me a unique understanding of power, institutions, and human nature. The barracks are a fertile ground for witnessing blind heroism and nationalism, which is particularly distinct in The Explosion Chronicles.

Many of your books are set in Henan, your home province, including The Explosion Chronicles. Do you draw on real experiences and people from your home region?
My hometown is in China’s Central Plains region, and I thank God that I was born here. This region represents all the so-called Chinese characteristics in terms of its political, economic, cultural and historical aspects, the way the people embrace traditional Chinese culture but also look to the future. In my writing, I cannot leave behind this land; it is always there when I am imagining and creating my stories. People all over the world could say that I am the most creative and imaginative novelist in China, but I know that every detail of my imagination and creation is rooted in this deep and large land. That piece of land gave me everything today. I am a piece of the land, and this has filtered through into all my books.

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"I waited until the next rainy day, then did indeed cut open all ten of my fingers, and stood at the front of the field letting my blood spray over my wheat plants"
The Four Books, pub 2010

You often write stories based on historical events. Why do you feel this is important in China?
I usually focus on historical writing because China’s collective memory is often forgotten. This is true in literature, and so to write about this is to restore 'real' events that happened and the best way to extend memory. These events have been forgotten. Even now, there are countless people in China who still believe that the Cultural Revolution was good.

There is no doubt that a writer can choose, for history and memory’s sake, how to write these things. I believe it is necessary to have artistic courage, and to make some sacrifices. Whether as writers or intellectuals, we should not turn away from the truth; art must be allowed to tell the truth for readers now and future generations. If we do not seek truth, and let this truth fi ll the blanks of collective amnesia, then writing is not only lacking, but is more or less despicable. Your works are often simultaneously humorous and immensely solemn.

Are you a mischievous person in your everyday life?
In real life, I am really a very old-fashioned, boring person – I’m not one of those celebrated, exciting people. I think those who know me would say I am kind, moderate and quite tolerant. But in my literature I am not that person – I became another Yan Lianke. People who like my work and then meet me in person do tend to be disappointed. In order to avoid this disappointment, I try and meet people as little as possible… Being alone to read and write is my ideal lifestyle.

Several of your books have been banned in China but received international acclaim. How does it feel to have global fans but Chinese readers unable to access your books?
Helpless. But I have faith that they will one day see my works. I deeply feel the darkness of today, but I believe in the light of tomorrow. When they read one of my works one day, I hope they will say, 'Ah, we finally read it, how lucky we are!'

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"If you hadn't seen someone in the village for weeks, you didn't ask where he or she had gone. You just assumed they were dead"
Dream of Ding Village, pub. 2006

Do you ever self-censor content, or avoid controversial topics, to try and make sure your books are published in China?
Yes. When I was writing Dream of Ding Village, for example, I compromised on some of my writing, making it a milder form of what I wanted to say, in a definite act of self-censorship. But in the end, it was banned in China anyway. After that, I decided to make my writing more free and creative. Being published in China is my wish, but is no longer the purpose of my writing.

By: Helen Roxburgh
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