Author Sheng Keyi on banned book Death Fugue

The Chinese author talks about freedom, bans and big breasts

Sheng Keyi has gone from promising talent, to established writer, to banned author in the space of six novels. Her breakthrough novel, Northern Girls, saw Sheng hailed as one of the brightest writers of her generation when it was published in 2004 and brought her global fame upon its release in English in 2012. But her latest novel Death Fugue, the English translation of which has just been published, was banned in Mainland China.

Where Northern Girls told the story of Qian Xiaohong, an economic migrant from the north of China seeking fame and fortune in the coastal boomtowns of the south, Death Fugue – deftly translated into English by Shelly Bryant – is at first glance a total departure. Named after a poem about Nazi concentration camps by Jewish poet Paul Celan, her sixth novel is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Set in fictional Beiping (a former name for Beijing), the book opens with a huge pile of faeces that has mysteriously appeared in Round Square. The government is quick to point fingers, blaming gorillas (animals not fighters). When people fail to swallow the proverbial crap, civil protests ensue.

In the aftermath, young poet Yuan Mengliu searches for a new identity. Haunted by his failure to save his girlfriend Qizi, one of the missing protest leaders, he sets out on a quest to find her. This takes him to Swan Valley, a false utopia where every aspect of life is regulated ‘for the good of the nation’, with devastating consequences. Sheng lightens the heavy subject matter with an absurdist touch. As in Northern Girls, the author uses exaggerated imagery, vivid language and metaphor to render modern China’s most urgent social issues as she sees them.

Despite plentiful accolades, Sheng’s allegorical style has not always gone down well. The Los Angeles Review of Books called her description of the female anatomy ‘unpolished and sensationalist’. Yet Sheng clearly has a genuine passion for such subjects. ‘I love short girls with big breasts,’ she says. ‘They have such a powerful vitality to them. Breasts are women’s secondary sexual characteristic. They have their own meaning, and when you encounter breasts, you encounter gender.’

Gender is a favourite topic of the author, who puts up no front when it comes to her personal presentation. Often dressed plainly, she rarely does book tours. In press shots she wears sunglasses or a flat cap that almost covers her eyes.

Born in Hunan province in 1973, Sheng grew up in a small farming village in Yiyang prefecture. She first moved to China’s manufacturing hub Shenzhen in the ’90s before settling in Shenyang, where she established herself as one of the ‘female writers of Guangdong’ – an informal writing collective including Wei Hui, author of Shanghai Baby.

A member of the ‘post-70s’ generation of writers, Sheng bridges the Cultural Revolution era and the post-80s kids who have grown up with economic reform and gained fame for their bold, if not naive, portrayal of modern China. Sheng’s early work stood out, winning her China’s Most Promising New Talent award in 2003.

One decade on, how does she feel the country has changed? ‘China’s growth over the last ten years has had some negative consequences: more and more normal people can’t afford to buy a house; food is becoming increasingly unsafe; and problems with education are becoming ever more serious. On the plus side, the household registration system is improving, which means people from the countryside who have worked in the cities long-term are entitled to the same treatment as urban residents,’ she says.

She also feels public opinion has become more constricted. In September 2013, guidelines were issued that saw internet users jailed for writing posts that spread rumours online. In April of this year, eight erotic fiction sites, or ‘slash fiction’ sites, were shut down and their staff arrested. In July, the Government warned domestic journalists to keep to official state media outlets. Death Fugue is partly a response to this.

‘I wrote Death Fugue as a political statement. The story involved revolution, betrayal, love, totalitarianism and history, and it had the feel of science fiction. It was completely different from anything I had ever written before. Though Northern Girls was a tragedy, writing it was a very novel and fun experience for me. Writing Death Fugue felt arduous,’ she says. ‘My mood when I wrote each of these two works was completely different.’

Despite the gloom, both works are ultimately stories of survival. The challenges of Qian Xiaohong in Northern Girls and the collapse in the ideals of the poet in Death Fugue are overcome as they reinvent themselves in a morally degraded society. It’s a determination that’s present in Sheng herself, who says, ‘I try my hardest to maintain my individuality. I want to create more freedom in my work.’

Northern Girls is available on, priced 140RMB