An Age without Classics and the Writer’s Anxiety:
An Interview with Yan Lianke

By Haiyan Xie

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2020)

Yan Lianke and the author at the International Culture Center of Capital Normal University in Beijing.

The Multiple Dimensions of Anxiety

Haiyan Xie[1] : Professor Yan, thank you for taking some of your precious time to do this interview. First of all, when seeing you, I immediately think of two words that you mentioned on separate occasions: drift and stability. These form a pair of antonyms in some sense, but they seem to have been paradoxically projected onto yourself. If we take the “stable countryside” as the platform from which you write and the high ground from which you perceive the world, indeed, standing on that platform and high ground, you always seem to be in a state of internal drift.  Whether engaging with your novels, prose, or lecture collections, I can feel a lingering anxiety and unease in them. I felt this emotion or sentiment more intensely in your novels such as The Odes of Songs (风雅颂) and Want to Sleep Together Quickly (速求共眠). The feeling of anxiety I detected in your writings also reminds me of your talk entitled “In Search of the Lost Yan Lianke” given at the Perth Writers’ Festival in Australia. I would like to know if your persistent anxiety and restlessness, as stated in this talk, stem from your lost or never-gained independent spirit and existence as a writer? Or, while standing on this literary high ground and looking back at the world, you have felt the tremors that a drifting modern life brings to the countryside in your writing, which makes you anxious and restless?

Yan Lianke: Given my state today, I think my anxiety mainly comes from three areas. The first is a despair of reality. Living in this society, anyone with a little conscience must be in a very desperate state. Of course, this does not only refer to the social structure, but to all facets and many different aspects, such as problems of desire, morality, common sense, distorted value, etc. For example, in our everyday life, if people are worried about food safety when eating vegetables, if children drink milk without knowing whether it is fake, and if people are anxious about infectious diseases when eating seafood or meat, then anxiety naturally becomes a part of their life. This is one aspect of my despair. In addition, I think my anxiety also stems from the fact that I don’t have the right to express the world. If I cannot express my experiences, feelings, and thoughts, they will be crammed in my mind, and over time they will make me restless and eventually send me to the edge of an abyss of anxiety. The third is the anxiety that comes from the writing itself. While vaguely knowing what kind of novel is really good, I am no longer capable of creating it because life does not allow me to do so. In other words, I know my life is getting shorter by the day, and is fading away, but I haven’t written my most satisfying novel. At this point, it is no longer a matter of whether the work can be published or not. In fact, it doesn’t matter if I can or cannot get published, what matters is that I don’t have the ability or possibility to produce a good one.

Xie: Although I have seen you mention some aspect of anxiety intermittently in your previous interviews, I am wondering, after all these years, whether you have made certain compromises with these anxieties in your mind? Or have your anxieties intensified instead?

Yan: I feel especially intense and uneasy right now, particularly with the third point. That is, I know exactly what the problem with my novel is, but I cannot solve it. Of course, this does not all stem from the difficulty of publication or being unable to talk freely. After all, The Passage of Time (日光流年), Lenin’s Kisses (受活), Hard as Water (坚硬如水), and some other works were published and accessible to Chinese readers. The Odes of Songs was also published anyway, despite some revisions. Therefore, essentially, my anxiety does not reside in censorship; rather, it fundamentally comes from a dissatisfaction with my own writing. Dissatisfied and incapable of making changes, I think this is a kind of helplessness embedded in the writing itself.

Xie: From this perspective, your anxiety stems mainly from literary creation itself?

Yan: Right. Let’s say you are sixty years old and you want to write a novel that is different from anyone else’s work, but that is almost impossible.

Xie: But each of your works is different from one another, with a distinctive characteristic that is not easy to imitate. Can you talk about what criteria you mean by “difference”?

Yan: In general, it is that one day, you suddenly realize that the nineteenth century has its own great literature and so does the twentieth century. These literary works are connected, but also fundamentally different. The greatness of the twentieth-century literature lies in its stark difference from that of the nineteenth century. However, we are now in the twenty-first century, while our writing is still stuck on the literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I am not judging nineteenth-century literature anyhow because that was an era when literature should be brilliant. As for the reason why twentieth-century literature was drastically different from that of the nineteenth, it is because those genius writers of the twentieth realized the realist literature of the nineteenth was too great to be overtaken. Therefore, they all began to find their own path of writing, which led to the great literature of the twentieth century. But today we forget the twentieth-century writers’ endeavor to break away from their predecessors. We are living in the twenty-first century but writing novels from the nineteenth century. Awareness of this leads to a sense of despair about literature; that is, we do not have the notion that we should break away from the kind of creativity of our predecessors and create literature by going beyond our own time. As far as literary creation is concerned, no writer can be one hundred percent innovative and creative, but we find that our way of writing all has an origin and follows the footsteps of others. In realizing this, who won’t feel grief and whose mind can be as still as water? We have to speculate on questions such as: why did literature become completely different from that of the nineteenth century when it comes to Kafka, Joyce, and even Borges? And why did Chinese literature gain its moment immediately after it was written in vernacular Chinese?

Xie: I can see from your novels your efforts in this regard. In fact, each of your works is a breakthrough in its own right, varying greatly from one another and sometimes not even seeming to come from the same person. After listening to you now, I can clearly feel that you have larger ideals and aspirations hidden behind these attempts at writing. You are actually thinking about literature by situating your own writing in the context of world literature—that is, how to make Chinese literature a part of world literature or a shining star in the sky of world literature. Chinese literature has to both inherit tradition and be innovative. In particular, innovation does not simply refer to a novelty in narrative; rather, it means that while completely breaking with the world’s literary tradition or, more specifically, the conventional realist narrative, the work must transcend the limitations of its own time.

Yan: I think so. In the face of the history of world literature, Kafka, I think, wrote fiction that was not fiction to the reader of the nineteenth century. This was his greatest contribution to world literature. Borges also wrote novels that were completely unlike those written before his time. Marquez created a significant number of novels that were not fiction, either. But as far as Chinese literature is concerned, while we have too much “experience that is not human experience”—too abnormal to be understood as experience commonly shared by human society—we cannot write a “Chinese novel” that is worthy of this “Chinese experience.” Our fiction is just too “nineteenth century,” and is too much like a novel. I certainly cannot do it myself, but I am very eager for Chinese writers, especially young writers, to write novels of an alien Chinese experience—a novel that is not a novel, and one that will add a little fresh blood to the history of Chinese and even world literature.

Xie: I don’t think what you’re talking about is simply a matter of subject matter; rather, it has even crossed genre boundaries.

Yan: All aspects. Take Kafka’s The Castle as an example—it is a matter of both subject matter and method. Who could have written this kind of work in the nineteenth century? It involves a different experience, different story, and different approach compared to his peers’ writing. We are having different experiences and stories today, but we don’t have different writing today.

Xie: This goes back to the topic of realism and modernism. Kafka’s writing represents a different literary era, and what he has transcended is at the level of “ism.”

Yan: That is the difference between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We must realize that it is the twenty-first century now, but almost all of contemporary Chinese literature is still telling stories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the same way as writers did during those periods.

Xie: You once said, “in nineteenth-century literature, it is through society that man is represented, and in twentieth-century literature, it is through man that society is represented.” But few people have ever evaluated the literature of the twenty-first century, I suppose, because we are still in the middle of this century. But I’d love to hear what you think of the directions taken by Chinese literature or world literature of the present century?

Yan: If I could guess it myself, I would go to write it. The reason why we are anxious is that we know the present but don’t know what will happen in future. And we know that something shouldn’t be this way, but don’t know how it should be. In short, we know it but cannot grasp it. We are lucky that China is a translation powerhouse, and at least for the time being, many of the world’s novels, be they good, bad, or awarded, will be translated into Chinese within a short period of time. Even if some contents of the original novels are deleted due to censorship, these works allow us to see and feel the pulse of the entire world of literature. Nevertheless, let’s not say, in the first place, whether it is written well or not, or whether you like it or not, you will find that it is hard to find a truly “new” novel among them. In other words, contemporary world literature is still moving forward along the trajectories of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature, without stepping out of its comfort zone. Anyway, in this regard, it is the same case with literature all over the world! In this century, we do not know from whom, where, or in which country, an entirely new form of fiction will really emerge. It is possible that someone may have already created such a novel in other countries, or in other languages, and we just haven’t read it yet. In short, so far, we have not read a work of this new century as distinctive as the works of the early twentieth century compared to those of the nineteenth century. If a brand-new novel has not yet been produced in this century, then it is equally an opportunity for Chinese literature, because there are so many alien experiences and so many uncommon stories in China. Therefore, what Chinese writers need to do is just to write down, in an alternative way, their alien experiences and uncommon stories.

Xie: I can see that you have always talked about literature in a global context. Your vision has moved beyond the regional or national concept of “Chinese literature.” I think it is this international vision and foresight that drives you to be innovative and to break with tradition and stereotypes. I look forward to seeing this literary mission go further or be realized by you.

Yan: Writers of my generation are definitely not going to make it, and we can only put our hopes in young writers.

The Absence of Classics

Xie: Writers in every country have different external constraints during their creative process and have their own perceptual limitations. This has something to do with literary tradition, cultural temperament, and political ideology. As far as Chinese writers and Chinese literature are concerned, I am reminded of a comment made by your peer writer Jia Pingwa in an interview: “This is a time when, strictly speaking, people are more restless, and the commercial atmosphere is thicker, and thus it is an inappropriate time to produce literary classics.” And you said something similar in a 2018 interview: “An era of great literature has quietly disappeared.” I think there may be some discrepancy between the starting point of the “period” and the “era” in your respective contexts, but they both end up overlapping with the present. Can you talk a little bit more about what exactly you meant by “great literature”? Is it the “classics” to which Jia Pingwa refers? When did these disappear? Or why did they disappear?

Yan: First of all, I think that what Mr. Jia Pingwa and I were talking about is actually the same era. He does not think great literature can be produced in our time because of people’s restlessness and the commercial age, but I do not think these are the reasons we haven’t produced great literature. Our time cannot be more impetuous than the time when the great novel The Plum in a Golden Vase (金瓶梅) was written. What a commercial and impetuous world The Plum in a Golden Vase represented! And how similar the world in which the novel was produced was to where we are today. But while there were great works then, why can’t we produce the great works we crave in our time? I think, other than what Mr. Jia said, the reason is that the awareness of our time does not allow it. To put it simply, no matter how people see Defunct Capital (废都), it could only have been written in that era, not the present. Mr. Jia is the one who knows best why our time cannot produce great works, but he just beats around the bush and does not say it. There’s another point, and I’ve stressed it again and again, that there has never been an era that has given writers such a wealth of writing resources as the present. If one does not write, that is one’s own fault; but if the government does not allow one to write, that is the government’s fault. However, if one gives up publishing and writes quietly, no one will send him/her to jail. Therefore, not being allowed to write and not writing, these are two separate issues. It is not that one cannot write because one is not allowed to write; rather, even if one is allowed to write, one is not necessarily able to produce great works.

Xie: In other words, the main reason for the absence of classics is not the time, but the writers themselves?

Yan: It is the time, but the time is not the only reason. There will never be an era that provides us with such a wealth of writing resources as the forty years of our reform and opening up. One can find whatever writing resources one wants in our age—anything about power, money, desire, sex, distorted human nature, alienation, and things difficult to express in language. We have in our society everything that relates to literature and that can help to produce great literature. You cannot find anything in life that does not have a literary element. But we do not produce great works for many reasons, and mental limitations are just one aspect. And the main reason why we cannot produce classics lies in the fact that we do not have the talent, or we have the talent but do not have the guts to write. By contrast, look at those Western writers: some of them, in their 60s and 70s, are still writing about emotions passionately. Chinese writers are not able to do so. They dare not write it when young, and even more so when old. Certainly, there is a cultural difference involved. I know an American writer, and of course I think he has moral problems. He lived in Italy for two years and had sex with one after another Italian girl in order to gain real experience for his writing. He noted down all his sexual experiences with these girls but did not hurt them by informing them beforehand about his intent of having sex with them. Later on, he wrote these real experiences down and turned them into fiction. In the Chinese context, such a thing would, first, be a matter of whether one would dare to do and, second, even if one dared to do it and got the work published, how would people look at this writer? People would not pardon him. In fact, I do not think this is an approach by which good fiction can be produced, but I believe that the free spirit in this move does lay the groundwork for writing a good piece.

Xie: Yes, in Chinese culture, that would be an unbearable spiritual and moral weight for a writer. So cultural difference is like two sides of a sword: on the one hand, it maintains the uniqueness and heterogeneity of the work and, on the other hand, it creates some obstacles for Chinese literature in its journey to the world and to classic status.

Yan: American writers will not take things like this seriously, but to us Chinese, it involves our culture in which we cannot face ourselves if we act this way. I think, precisely because of the huge difference in cultures, there are so many things we can think about but are not able to do, nor can we write about.

Xie: This also brings me to another question: as we talk today about whether a new piece is classic or great, has our understanding of the definitions of classic and greatness itself changed? Especially in this century, a work that might otherwise be considered a classic cannot be recognized as one today?

Yan: Quite the contrary, our experience of interpreting the classics is not different from before; in fact, it is the same. One would think, for example, that if you are writing a Tolstoy- and Balzac-style novel, and if your characters and structure resemble those in nineteenth-century novels, it would be a good novel. But for the experience of world literature in the twentieth century, we have not learned much from it. World literature of the twentieth century has accumulated a wealth of experience that is as much a part of our tradition as it was in the nineteenth century, but we have not learned much. Today we are still—if we agree that literature has two repositories of nutrition, one in the nineteenth century and the other in the twentieth—mostly stuck in the former and rarely step into the latter. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that we are already in the twenty-first century without having learned from the literary experience of the twentieth century.

Xie: Your analogy is apt. The tradition of realism is deeply rooted in our mind, and it is also difficult for contemporary Chinese literature to break away in a real sense from its shackles and move toward diverse writing. There is, of course, a matter of Chinese literature’s own traditions and how to draw on and integrate the resources of Western ideas and discourses. I think your theory of “mythorealism” is a good attempt at this. It does not completely depart from the context of the Chinese literary tradition while critically drawing on the writing techniques of Western modernism. And you have been able to take this attempt to the theoretical level. There is no doubt that you are thinking more about this and are at the forefront of contemporary Chinese literature.

The Paradox of the Native Soil and the Role of the Writer

Xie: Over the years, you have taught literature in both Beijing and Hong Kong. Do you feel the difference between the two? I’m referring to the teaching environment and your target students.

Yan: Hong Kong’s side is naturally better in terms of environment, i.e., more tolerant in terms of speech, and more lenient in terms of everything, but we have better students on the mainland side. Anyway, Hong Kong can provide me with a more open environment to talk about literature, and I will feel a little more relaxed (although less so now) there.

Xie: What do you mean by “better students”? Can you talk a little more about it?

Yan: When it comes to Chinese language and literature, the students in the mainland are definitely better. I am one of the lucky people. For example, at Renmin University, where we have a writing class—a graduate class for creative writing—in which, those young writer-students, having read a lot, are very talented, and I have learned a lot from them. They inspired me in a way that I couldn’t experience anywhere else. Thus, it is certainly better to talk about literature back in the mainland, but if you want to talk freely about everything, Hong Kong is a better place. That is why I say I am a lucky man, who benefits from both sides.

Xie: Do you mean that some topics you can more easily discuss with students in Hong Kong?

Yan: Yes.

Xie: But it seems that to spark thoughts, you may still have to exchange ideas with mature writers on the mainland side.

Yan: That’s why I say I am a person who is favored by fate.

Xie: Can you list a few authors that you admire or like?

Yan: I like a few different writers at each stage. I want my writing to be diversified, and therefore my preferences for writers must also be varied. There is nothing wrong with people enjoying many writers or one type of writer in a lifetime, but their writing will not experience much change. In terms of literature, I hope that I can keep finding new and worthwhile things to read and works that can offer me a new reading experience. However, as I get older, I am getting slower. It’s harder for me to find something I really enjoy. But I might come across a short story and, if I am lucky, it might greatly inspire me to write a novel that is not taken as a novel in the conventional sense. But that kind of encounter depends on luck, like Joyce, who wrote Ulysses because of a chance reading of the French writer Édouard Dujardin’s The Laurels Have Been Cut (Les Lauriers sont coupés). And Édouard Dujardin wrote this novel because he saw the play written by the French classical poet and dramatist Jean Racine. As for Racine, he may have had no intention when he expressed “the supreme mind” in his poetry and plays. This chain reaction took place by chance, but such coincidence seldom occurs.

Xie: It probably depends on luck. Or maybe what you are looking for hasn’t come out yet, and it is still an ideal in your mind. I am thinking that, as you obtain richer experience, on the one hand you are experiencing two different Chinese realities while shuffling back and forth between Hong Kong and the mainland. On the other hand, you travel around the world a lot, and the world you know must be constantly magnified and diversified. Do these cumulative travel experiences have any impact on your previous rural experiences? Or do they help to reconceptualize the idea of native soil in your writing?

Yan: I don’t usually think about it that way. It is all old people and children in the countryside now, for example, but I think that’s a very simplistic and superficial perception of the countryside. I can offer no new commentary, but I feel that although a tabloid journalist in the countryside can see this, a writer’s vision should be broader. Literature should be concerned with enlarging our ideas about what is significant, but I cannot offer a way to regain a sense of the countryside either. If one can offer new insight, the novel that I called non-novel may be realized.  For this, too, I am full of anxiety: the country life I see does not offer me a new perspective to understand the world.

Xie: You have visited so many places in the world. For example, when you go to Hong Kong or visit a foreign country, you may have come into contact with different kinds of countryside; or when you look back at the native soil, after being exposed to various interpretations and views from different cultures about the countryside or the native soil, do you often feel something new in your mind? Or do you have the feeling that you don’t see the countryside the way you did before?

Yan: I actually think that the countryside, in one phrase, is despicable—but is also pitiful. If a little bit more elaborate, it is a kind of lively humbleness. I just got back from my hometown the other day. Every time I go back, I cannot treat myself like an outsider, seeing people there, including my own family, live a humble and pitiful life. But how can a writer fully depict the humbleness and lowliness of China’s countryside against the backdrop of modern society?

Xie: Do you think that they haven’t changed over the years? Has nothing changed regarding the financial situation or people’s inner lives?

Yan: Of course, they have. They are well fed and kept warm. The road is wider and their houses are more spacious.

Xie:  You have always said that your writing experience and resources come from the countryside, especially your hometown. But some of your works actually deal with the city, such as The Explosion Chronicles (炸裂志) and The Odes of Songs. As you are gaining more and more urban experiences, will you try to shift your attention from the rural to the urban in your future writing? Especially when you feel that the countryside is no longer able to offer you new ways of knowing the world, will you look for more writing resources in your urban experience?

Yan: I think even after living in Beijing for thirty or forty years, I still feel no stranger to the countryside. I have been away from that land for forty years and it still feels familiar to me. This is amazing. I have been living in the city for forty years, and I still think I don’t know anything about the city. However, I lived in the countryside for twenty years in my early life. My memory of the first ten years there may be misty, because I did not really understand anything until I was fourteen years old. But the countryside is always there, and even if I used to know nothing about it, I begin to understand it now whenever I go back. Therefore, as to whether or not to write about cities, I will not engage cities fully in my future writing, as you can see from The Explosion Chronicles and The Odes of Songs. On the contrary, I think I will still write more about the countryside.

Xie: Therefore, these “urban” works still emanate a strong sense of rusticity.

Yan: Generally speaking, the setting must be close to your characters. For example, if the story of The Four Books (四书) were set in Gansu province, I would be less familiar with it. But if in Henan, it is very familiar to me. All in all, each of my stories has to be situated in a place I know well so that I can handle it with ease, and I am even able to make all that does not make sense make sense. If placed in an unfamiliar setting, I would not know how to make sense of the story.

Xie: The memories of a familiar environment are all sedimented over time. Perhaps this is the reason why many native-soil writers have their own literary geography of origin, such as your Yaogou Village and Palou Mountain, Mo Yan’s Gaomi County, Jia Pingwa’s Shangzhou District, Liu Zhenyun’s Yanjin County, etc.

Yan: Right. For example, Lao She wrote about the Great Beijing his whole life. If we were to write it, how could we achieve his achievement? Conversely, if Lao She were to write about Shaoxing,[2] how could he do it?

Xie: You seem to seldom mention how you feel about cities. Beijing, for example, should now be your second hometown, and you must have different emotional attachment to it compared to your hometown in Henan.

Yan: For this city, I feel like I am only a sojourner living here who has neither love nor hate for it. I am still emotionally attached to the countryside, but my feeling toward my rural hometown is totally different from that of my son’s generation. While I have both love and hate for that land, my son does not have so many complicated emotions about it.

Xie: And the countryside is both your geographical and spiritual homeland. As you expressed in The Odes of Songs: one physically drifts through the rootless city, while the root of the spirit still needs to be found back on rural land. Also, I find it interesting that many writers consciously or unconsciously shape a dichotomy of themes in their writing, either glorifying or critiquing something. But this dichotomy is very rare in your work. Regarding the urban and the rural, although you have such different emotions about each in real life, you do not try to set them against each other in your work. Is it just an unconscious move or a basic position you take?

Yan: I think it is a process of reshaping the world emotionally and mentally. For example, that place (the countryside) is both despicable and pitiful. That is, when you stay there and feel it is despicable, that means you hate it and you are criticizing it.  But if you are at the same time filled with compassion for it, that’s another story. To put it in another way, why do people say that Lu Xun is not as great as Tolstoy? It is not so much a matter of the number of works; rather, it lies in the fact that Lu Xun seems to demonstrate more hate for people living in rural places, which makes his emotions relatively simple and monotonous, while Tolstoy expresses richer and more complex emotions toward his characters in his writing.

Xie: Your critique of the countryside is complex and even lurks in a timeless contradiction. For example, we can see in Dream of Ding Village (丁庄梦), Lenin’s Kisses, and more works of yours, the peasants’ numbness, ignorance, and sometimes even a kind of slavery that Lu Xun criticized in his days, but this understanding of your work seems too superficial. Your words reveal a kind of pain and sadness that constantly affects the reader’s judgement of some superficial “fact” that you have portrayed in the story. From the perspective of mythorealism, there is an inner reality that exists below a surface reality. It is this tension between the two realities that reinforces the complexity and depth of your work.

Yan: It probably stems from a contradiction in my own heart. This contradiction is of course also rooted in personal life experience. Let’s take Lu Xun as an example: Lu Xun’s family conditions were relatively good, and he had read a lot of books and received a good education as a result. Thus, his perspective of looking at the rural or people at the bottom would be different from that of a writer who was really born at the bottom. Lu Xun would subconsciously believe that it was the inferiority of the national character (which in his work mainly manifests in rural characters) that was dragging society down; therefore, reforming the national character had to come first, but he didn’t think much about how current society might be dragging these people down. He critiqued the great influence of traditional culture on the national character but failed to reflect on the plight these people experienced during his time; that is, why are these people, like Runtu,[3] unable to get rid of the habit of addressing Lu Xun as “Master”?

Xie: Your words also remind me of the other side of your “contradiction.” For example, you don’t seem to approve of Lu Xun’s efforts to critique the Chinese national character. For despite the efforts of Lu Xun and his generation, the critique seems to have gone nowhere, and has not had a great impact on our society in any real sense. This also touches on a more profound issue—namely, the social function of literature. What you seem to have been trying to work toward is a return to literature, i.e. literature doing what literature should do, rather than being a political undertaking or a tool for social criticism. But at the same time, I see a contradiction in you. For example, you are actually a writer who is much concerned about the underrepresented in society. In my opinion, you have a Lu Xun-esque “hate” for many abnormal social phenomena, and, writing in a form of an ostensibly “unreasonable” narrative, you criticize those unreasonable and abnormal social phenomena. Your works have obviously taken on the responsibility of social criticism. Is this a contradiction between the author’s undertaking his/her social responsibility and creating “literature for literature’s sake”?

Yan: Maybe it can’t be said that it is an author’s undertaking. I think it is the case that the world is inextricably linked to every writer—that is, every single thing in our lives is actively or indirectly related to the life of a writer. But writers are running away from that relationship, trying to cut it off in their writing. For example, if from a political perspective, the organization in charge of writers must function as part of a social institution, serving as the authority in charge of literary production, it is linked to every writer, taking care of the writers’ welfare and securing their right to write. However, writers are concerned with publishing and winning awards, which requires a writer’s relationship with these institutions to be at least “pleasant and harmonious.” But we rarely think about the contradictory existence of these institutions and writing itself—that is, writers need social care, but literature needs no institutional care or regulation. How should we deal with this least complicated conflict?

Xie: Do you write about this relationship between the writer and society, for example, between the writer and the organ of authority, and present it in your work?

Yan: That’s actually life. Life is very rich and you can’t just focus on one aspect of your life and run away from another. I think I just can’t escape the life I know in my writing, and I never thought I was deliberately criticizing anything. I wish I could present my life and feelings in my own enriched way. I don’t want to choose to avoid something in my familiar life. Of course, I am not opposed to others’ shunning or avoiding anything in their writing either, because everyone has to live and to feel safe to be alive. As for me, I think whatever life hands me, it is a gift of literature, and I have to reach out and receive it.

Xie:  I think this last remark basically summarizes the reason why your work is distinctive in this age.

Yan: I guess if there is anything different about me, it is just that I do not run away from the life with which I am most familiar.


[1] This interview was conducted by Haiyan Xie, hereinafter referred to as “Xie” in the transcript. Likewise, Professor Yan Lianke will hereinafter be referred to as “Yan” in the transcript for purposes of brevity and clarity. The interview was conducted in Chinese on August 12, 2019 at the International Culture Center of Capital Normal University in Beijing. The author translated the transcript into English.

[2] Shaoxing is Lu Xun’s hometown, in Zhejiang Province.

[3] Runtu 闰土 is a peasant character in Lu Xun’s story “Hometown” (故乡).