Yu Hua: 'In China, book reviews are not important'

The renowned writer and NYT columnist on latest novel The Seventh Day

The only Chinese author to appear in the top ten lists for both the fiction and non-fiction categories in Time Out's best Chinese books of the last century, Yu Hua's latest novel The Seventh Day has recently been translated into English. In his first interview for a year, the renowned writer discusses his work, Zhang Yimou’s film adaptation of To Live and why he doesn’t trust book reviews in China

It’s a bleak winter’s day in Beijing and Yu Hua’s default expression is tough. Sunken eyes and a down turned mouth are offset by thick, wiry hair, which springs from his parting in no particular direction. But when he smiles, warmth rushes to his features, giving him a mischievous look.

His outfit is well-worn casual. Jeans and a comfy woollen jumper stand out against the sophisticated setting of the lobby bar at Liangmaqiao’s Kempinski Hotel. Although his books have sold over ten million copies, Yu Hua is no celebrity writer. His (slightly mud-caked) boots are firmly on the ground.

In the lobby, there’s a sense of occasion in the air. The author has not given an interview in over a year. Since the publication of his most recent novel, The Seventh Day (Alan H Barr’s English translation of which was released last month by Penguin), he has refused all media requests, both Chinese and international. Surely, that’s the last thing an author should do after a new release?

‘I don’t want to be interviewed again for just one book, it’s too tiring,’ Yu says flatly between sips of Coke. ‘I think that once a book is published, [the author] ought to listen more to what the readers have to say, rather than rush to speak himself.’

It seems strange that the author would caution against being too self-referential, given that in 2013 he signed a contract with the New York Times for a monthly column of his musings on Chinese society. But perhaps there is another reason. In China, the media represents the State, and Yu Hua has not always had an easy relationship with the authorities.

Yu made his name in the late 1980s with a series of unsettling and violent short stories inspired by his experience of the Cultural Revolution. Since then he has written five novels, the first of which was the James Joyce Award-winning To Live in 1993, which was adapted for the big screen by director Zhang Yimou. The story centres on a forbearing peasant whose son dies after a blood transfusion, and led to the author becoming renowned as a master of circumventing censorship.

Yu’s not always managed to sidestep the censors, however. His 2011 non-fiction work China in Ten Words was banned on the Mainland. And more recently, he has vented anger and disillusionment in his New York Times column, with headlines such as, ‘Jokes, Lies and Pollution in China’ and ‘Feudal Answers for Modern Problems’ – not likely to be met with approval from the powers that be.

Yu highlights other reasons for the lack of press surrounding his new work: ‘In the West, when a book is published, the reviews are very important. But in China, book reviews are not important. This is because of social realities. In the earlier days, the book reviews in newspapers were bought with money, so they became known as “red envelope book reviews”. As a result, a few years ago these critics became known as “red envelope book critics”. Often they write a 1,000-word book review and receive a 5,000RMB red envelope; and for 500 words they get 2,000-3,000RMB – the prices are clearly marked,’ he explains.

Yu’s silence over the last year has nonetheless proven his seat in the hall of the greats; he is popular enough not to need book reviews, paid for or otherwise. That’s not to say Yu is oblivious to his commercial success. On the contrary, he has a sharp mind for figures, paying close attention to book sales on Amazon China and Dang Dang, where he says proudly that the numbers speak for themselves.

To Live has sold 7 million copies alone in China. Last year, in its 23rd edition, it sold 800,000. The English version has sold 40,000, and there are additional translations in almost 20 languages.

Of Zhang’s film adaptation (which also features in Time Out Beijing's list of the best Mainland Chinese films of all time), the writer professes to be unpeturbed by alterations to the storyline. ‘I don’t think film directors need to be faithful to the original. This movie was very successful. But after To Live – and many people also agree with this – he [Zhang] didn’t make another good movie.’

Like many writers of Yu’s generation, his glittering career may have never have come about were it not for the events of the Cultural Revolution. Born in 1960 in Hangzhou, Yu’s family relocated to the small rural town of Wuyuan 60 miles away when he was three. At 18, Yu became a dentist – a job he’s made no secret of disliking. In 1983, he began writing stories because, he says, it was a career that gave him the freedom to sleep late.

Since then he has written five novels – To Live, Cries in the Drizzle, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, Brothers and, most recently, The Seventh Day – as well as six collections of stories and five collections of essays.

His first four novels deal with the Cultural Revolution, but his latest is more concerned with modern times.

The Seventh Day
, which Yu says took six years to conceptualise and six months to write, is about a lost soul named Yang Fei, who spends his life searching for a place to belong in a nation that is ceaselessly reinventing itself, and his death encountering casualties of today’s China, the organ sellers, young suicides and innocent convicts.

‘My Japanese translator, when he finished reading this book, said that it was very similar to the book Shishiruyan [Life Like Smoke] that I wrote 30 years ago,’ Yu says of the work.

But despite the stylistic similarities to Yu’s previous writing, is The Seventh Day a sign that he’s now turning his attentions toward contemporary China, or even the country’s future? ‘I don’t know what I’ll come up with next, because I find I change throughout the writing process, from my own personal growth to what’s happening around me,’ he says. ‘But whatever I write will be intimately linked to the realities of Chinese society.’

The Seventh Day is available from Amazon.co.uk priced at 150RMB. Read more

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