Xue Yiwei: 'We are all lost in translation'

We chat to the controversial author ahead of his talk in Beijing this week

Xue Yiwei is 'a maverick in contemporary Chinese literature', according to National Book Award winner Ha Jin, despite the fact that Xue has lived overseas more than a decade.

One of his most famous works, Dr Bethune’s Children, recently translated into English, tracks the traumatic events of the late 20th century in dialogue with Dr Norman Bethune, a Canadian pioneer who came to China nearly 100 years ago. Ahead of his talk in Beijing on July 12, we spoke to Xue about his novel, and about China's relationship with its own history.

Lots of readers outside of China might not have heard of Dr Bethune. Can you briefly explain who he is? Is he still a significant figure in China today?
Norman Bethune is a Canadian surgeon who came to China in 1938 to support the Chinese communist cause and died of a medical accident 20 months later in the front of the anti-Japanese war. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s short essay first published in 1939, 'In Memory of Dr Bethune', became one of the most notable texts in the Little Red Book. It was a text that every child was obliged to memorise in school. It turned Dr Bethune (Bai Qiu’en) into a household name and the synonym for Canada. Today, Dr Bethune is no longer as significant as he used to be. But he is still a figure that bridges China and Canada, and the generations grew up under his influence are now playing a key role in the Chinese society.

Xue Yiwei credit Isabelle Lafontaine

Time is a malleable concept in Dr. Bethune's Children. The narrator writes letters to a historical figure that jump backwards and forwards through the narrator's life. What message were you trying to convey about the Chinese people's relationship with their own history?
History, or rather, the conflict between an individual and history, is the major concern of my writing. In Dr. Bethune’s Children, I tried to examine recent Chinese history through the mystery Dr Bethune created. Some elements of this mean it is still a book that can’t be published in China. As a result, some critics have labelled it as 'our Dr Zhivago'.

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The letters that the narrator writes to Dr Bethune form a very intimate, one-way dialogue. Is this epistolary style a form of self-exploration?
Yes, letters create an intimate space to present the inner world, and epistolary is the best style to represent this emotional story. It was in the autumn of 2007 that I first got the idea to write a novel about the relationship of my generation with Dr Bethune as our spiritual father. 'Dear Dr Bethune…' was the first line that I murmured. In other words, it was destined to be an epistolary novel.

There are some comical moments in the book when the Chinese narrator talks to his Canadian neighbours about Chinese history. From your experience living in Canada for the past 15 years, how do you feel Chinese history and culture is perceived in the West?
We are all lost in translation. We are lost in communication. Misunderstanding is part of our history as well as part of our reality. And to a great extent, globalisation is a process that is pushed forward by cultural misunderstanding. There are so many missing parts and misunderstandings in the Western knowledge of Chinese history and culture. Dr. Bethune’s Children is certainly one of them. To get a full picture of China, sense of humour is necessary. Tragedies can also be dark comedies. If you fail to feel this, you won’t understand what is happening in China now. Dr. Bethune’s Children deals with love, loss and life in Chinese history of recent four decades. The comical moments are crucial in this novel.

If you could meet Dr Bethune today, what would you say to him?
On the steamer from Vancouver to China, Dr Bethune sent a note to his lover, which began with, 'You see, Pony, why I must go to China.' This 'must' was a mystery to me before I set out to write Dr. Bethune’s Children. If I could meet the spiritual father of my generation, I would ask him the same question I asked myself during the long process of writing it: 'Dear Dr Bethune, why must you go to China?'

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