By Riccardo Moratto
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September 2020)
Li Er 李洱 is a renowned contemporary Chinese writer. Graduated from East China Normal University in Shanghai, he used to teach at Zhengzhou Normal University. He is deputy editor-in-chief of Mangyuan (莽原) magazine and director of the Research Department of the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature. He is also the Vice-President of the Henan Provincial Writers Association. His works have been translated into English, French, German, and Italian. He is best known for his novel Brother Yingwu (应物兄) which won the Tenth Mao Dun Literature Prize (2019), one of the most prestigious literature prizes in China. He is also known for the two novels Coloratura (花腔) (translated into English by Jeremy Tiang and published by the University of Oklahoma Press) and A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree (石榴树上结樱桃).
Moratto: Thank you for accepting this interview. The pandemic is still gathering pace in most of the world. How have you spent these months? How is the situation now in the province of Henan?
Li: I am originally from Henan Province, but usually I live in Beijing. I moved to the capital in 2011 to work in the Research Department of the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a chance to visit this museum. Founded in 1985, it is the largest literary museum in the world and serves as a resource, research, and exchange center for modern and contemporary Chinese literature. However, I often return to my native province. My grandmother has crossed the threshold of ninety, one more reason to visit her. As a matter of fact, just a week ago I happened to be in Henan: I accompanied some poets up on Mount Wangwu (王屋山). We visited the Yangtai Temple (阳台宫), a Chinese Taoist shrine. To date, the only calligraphic work that still exists by the great poet Li Bai 李白 is entitled “Up toward the Yangtai Temple” (上阳台), and it describes this great Taoist temple. With regard to the current pandemic, both in Beijing and Henan Province there are no longer any isolation measures with consequent restrictions on movement. Basically, normal order has been restored by now.
Moratto: I remember reading in one of your interviews that for you writing is an “intransitive verb.” What do you mean exactly? What is the creative process of writing for you? And above all, what does it mean to write in today’s China?
Li: Writing for me is first and foremost a linguistic activity, and an inner spiritual activity. Many people find it hard to believe me when I say that prior to and during the writing process I never even think about publishing. By now Chinese publishers know that I refuse to sign a publishing contract until the work is complete because I don’t want it to become a commodity in advance. This is also one of the reasons why I refuse to write for film and television. In China writing has a special meaning: it is an important manifestation of personal freedom. In my writing I have always emphasized the dialogic component—that is, the dialogue between author and readers, between author and characters, but also among the characters themselves. Dialogue is an appeal to democratization through language.
Moratto: Readers may not know that Li Er is your nom de plume. Can you tell us why you chose this name and what it means to you?
Li: The Chinese character er (洱) is made up of two components: the left part means water and the right part means ear. With this name, it is as if I wanted to say “I can hear the sound of the water.” Where I was born, there is a river called Qin (沁河), one of the most important tributaries of the middle course of the Yellow River. When I was a child I remember that the Qin River was turbulent and impetuous, and you could hear the sound of the waves at any moment. It is a name that sort of brings me back to my childhood. It is also true that in China water represents the inexorable flow of time, but it also represents the search for wisdom. Confucius said: “The passage of time is just like the flow of water” (逝者如斯夫) but he also said: “The wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find pleasure in hills” (知者樂水，仁者樂山).
Moratto: In world literature, which author or school of thought was most important in shaping your style? Who are some of the writers you admire? Why?
Li: A few days ago, while attending an event, I saw Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and it occurred to me that I used to love this novel when I was younger. It goes to show that one often can’t quite say who one has been influenced by. Here, I will only talk about contemporary foreign writers. Many scholars have noticed the relationship between me and the French writer Camus. I do love Camus very much. I also really like the Czech writer Václav Havel, especially his essays, although he is not considered by many as a first-rate writer. Among contemporary Italian writers, I like Umberto Eco the most. Once I attended the Chinese launch of his new book. I have also noticed that some scholars have conducted comparative research between me and Eco. I think it is fair to say that the works of these writers, in one way or another, all engage in a profound analysis of the human mental condition; they are a subtle expression of the human dilemma and manifest a full awareness of the complex meaning of linguistic activity.
Moratto: Brother Yingwu is your latest literary work, for which you won the Tenth Mao Dun Literature Prize. Would you like to tell us about your style and what you draw inspiration from?
Li: For a novelist, everything can be a source of inspiration. In my opinion, inspiration is the ability that allows you to generate associations in an instant. Writers may be influenced by reading, by communication in everyday life, by a certain linguistic structure, a minor and apparently insignificant detail, a sentence, a phenomenon… One or all of these aspects may be quickly associated with a fictional text or a character, and then become an integral part of it. Although it is omnipresent, inspiration may not always be usable. It is necessary to grasp its profound meaning, think about whether that inspiration is interesting, if the relevant details have appeared in the work of other people, if it contributes to the narration and characterization. In short, the most important thing is not how to find inspiration or how to safeguard it, but how to choose and select the most appropriate one.
Moratto: It took you thirteen years to complete Brother Yingwu. Does writing a novel take such a long time or were there any unexpected events during the writing process? Would you like to tell us about your typical day when writing a novel?
Li: Telling funny stories, tragic stories, or even legendary stories that could satisfy some Western publishers would be a piece of cake. Way too easy. But this kind of writing would make no sense to me. And I don’t allow myself to do it. On the one hand, Chinese traditional culture is deeply rooted and still greatly influences people’s lives; on the other hand, China has undergone tremendous changes over the past four decades under the influence of Western culture. The conflict between these two aspects is intensifying in tandem with increasing globalization. This kind of conflict is most prominent among Chinese intellectuals. How do Chinese intellectuals survive in such a conflict, and how do they orient their thoughts and make sensible decisions in such a bewilderment? Giving voice to such an existential reality and such a mental condition represents a great challenge for contemporary writing. And this is why it took me thirteen years to conclude this book. It is also true that there have been several interruptions due to my mother’s illness and death. Under normal circumstances, I write every day, mostly in the evening, from 9:30 pm to 1 am. During the day, I revise what I wrote the night before.
Moratto: In 1983 you were admitted to East China Normal University, which was then considered the university with the best Chinese department. Do you have a love-hate relationship with the 1980s? In an interview you said that for you the 1980s were the childhood of culture and represented the adolescence of literature. Yet you admitted that few people read the works of that period, including subsequent avant-garde novels. Many years would have passed before these works came to the fore. How do you think your style was shaped by the cultural atmosphere of the 1980s?
Li: Since modern times, Shanghai has always been the most open city in China, and East China Normal University is probably the most open among universities in Shanghai. Academic freedom and inclusion are the most interesting features of East China Normal University. At least in the 1980s, this was extremely evident in Chinese colleges and universities, so a number of critics, poets, and writers could emerge from such an academic environment. Although the story of Brother Yingwu takes place in Jizhou, many scenes are still related to Shanghai. Of course, I have special memories of Shanghai. It’s true, I said that the 1980s were my cultural childhood, they opened my eyes, influenced my way of seeing the world and reshaped me considerably. So much so that I often call myself “son of the eighties.”
Moratto: Ge Fei 格非was one of your professors at East China Normal University. Did his advice help you in your career as a writer? What is your best or most unforgettable memory of that period?
Li: Ge Fei was two years ahead of me and he was my thesis advisor. I have always had great respect and deep admiration for him. He read almost all of my early works, and he also gave me some advice. He has always been very diplomatic in giving me suggestions, though, sometimes even in the form of praise; therefore, it has not always been easy to grasp all the nuances. Ge Fei is a somewhat traditional intellectual in his approach to relationships. We have very different personalities and interests, and very distant ways of thinking about things, including the way we write. Let’s say that Ge Fei is more serious, frowning, even more lyrical, he has a tenser relationship with reality; I, on the other hand, have a weakness for sarcasm, derision, and self-irony. Mr. Huang Xiaochu 黄小初, the editor-in-chief at Jiangsu Literature and Art Publishing House, has made a comparison between me and Ge Fei’s novels. Some of my friends thought that his comparison was very vivid and accurate. He said: “Li Er is unrestrained and self-indulgent, Ge Fei is like still water that runs deep. Li Er is like the warm steep cliffs lapped by the waters of Golden Sand, and Ge Fei is like the cold iron chains spanning the Dadu River. Their styles are completely different.” However, this does not affect our friendship at all. The last time he gave me writing advice was in 1996, about a novella, Dr. Gachet. According to him, the conclusion was not well written. I saw it differently, so I decided not to change it.
Moratto: You have also worked as a Chinese professor at East China Normal University in the past. Do you think that the understanding of writing and creative writing has changed over the last few decades?
Li: I was only a visiting professor in the Chinese Department at East China Normal University, and later a tutor in a creative writing class, not a full professor. Writing has changed so radically since I was a student. At that time, literature was the most important form of self-expression, and not only did Chinese faculty and students choose to write, but faculty and students from other disciplines engaged in writing as well. The number of those who worked with literature was much more conspicuous than today. The main reference models were the Western model and especially the Latin American one. Literature at that time paid more attention to exploration and innovation. The other thing, as I mentioned earlier, is that when I was young, writing did not involve any profit.
Moratto: You once said that your favorite authors are Borges, Márquez, Kundera, Kafka, Václav Havel, Saul Bellow, and Juan Rulfo. You mentioned that Borges’ influence is mostly felt in your early works. You also believe that very few have understood Borges. Why?
Li: I liked Borges at a time when few people in China knew about him, or at least I hadn’t heard anyone else mention him. I discovered him by chance, in a library. It is true, I admit it, my first works were deeply affected by the influence of Borges. He is still one of my favorite writers today. But over the years I have developed a personal style and therefore the stylistic link with Borges has faded. Perhaps in Coloratura you can still glimpse a little bit of Borges’ shadow. If you like a writer, you don’t have to try to imitate him, but you need to understand why he writes in a certain way. You need to analyze and understand the relationship he establishes with himself and the reality around him. Over the years I have seen many people get passionate about Borges and study him in depth. Just yesterday I received a novel by a young writer: his writing is basically like a Chinese translation of a Borges novel. This young writer asked me to give him some advice, but I haven’t answered him yet, because I don’t know how to tell him. As for Borges, I wrote two articles and focused on four key points. First of all, his language has made an essential contribution to Spanish, but regrettably, we cannot perceive this aspect [when reading him] in other languages. Secondly, his novels are a strong yet veiled opposition to reality, and even this aspect is often overlooked. Thirdly, his narrative is actually very tied to tradition, and even this aspect is often overlooked. Fourthly, his novel, which is a novel about the novel, also called metafiction, is a reflection on the novel, pardon the pun, and on writing itself, and is not just a way to play with the narrative structure; therefore, we should not assume that, in doing so, Borges is simply emphasizing the playfulness of fiction. Of course, these are simply my points of view and as such obviously questionable.
Moratto: Your novella The Tutor is Dead (导师死了) was published in Italy by Orientalia. Why did you decide to have your book translated into Italian? What was the reaction of Italian readers?
Li: Actually, initially an Italian publishing house wanted to publish A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree. We had also signed a publishing contract. Then, due to budget issues, they did not proceed with the publication. I was paid compensation. This happened over ten years ago. At present Patrizia Liberati is translating Coloratura. She has supported this book for years. I hope that the publication can proceed without any obstacles. The Tutor is Dead was translated by Laura Colangelo for Orientalia. She was the one who contacted me. At the time she had read all my books and much of the literary criticism of my works. We have had the opportunity to talk more than once. I know that The Tutor is Dead has been published, but I haven’t actually received the book yet and, honestly, I don’t even know how the Italian readers have reacted to it. [Since the interview, the publishing house has sent a copy of the book to the author.] I can only say that this is a very important book for me. I really hope that the Italian readers like it.
Moratto: For those who haven’t had the chance to read it yet, would you like to tell us a little bit about the content and genesis of this book (The Tutor is Dead)?
Li: The story tells the life of a professor of folkloristic studies and takes place in the late 1980s, to be precise in 1990. Numerous critics have noted that the novel is permeated with a strong sense of sacrifice to the departed souls, and that mourning and prayer can be regarded as the main themes of the novella. The writing process was very long. I engaged in fruitful conversations with my dear friend Ge Fei and editor Cheng Yongxin 程永新. The initial idea was a short story, then the number of words increased more and more until it exceeded sixty thousand characters. According to Chinese textual canons, it is still considered a novella and not a novel.
Moratto: Some critics say that your literature can also be classified as native-soil literature? What do you think about this?
Li: The reason for this is that I wrote a novel about rural China, A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree. It was perhaps the first Chinese novel to reflect on the issue of family planning.
Moratto: You are originally from the province of Henan. What does Henan represent for you? What role does it play in your works? What are the most obvious characteristics of people from Henan for you? Through your narrative, what peculiarities of the people of Henan do you wish to convey to the world?
Li: Henan is located in the middle of China and is known as He (river) nan (south) because most of the area lies south of the Yellow River. Ancient China was divided into nine states, and Henan was known as the Central State, thus showing that it was the center of traditional Chinese culture. Among the four major Chinese inventions, compass, paper making, and gunpowder were all invented in Henan. In the history of China, there have been 20 dynasties that built or moved their capitals to Henan, making it the region with the largest number of dynastic capitals, with the longest history of capital construction, and the largest number of ancient cities. Henan has a great power of cultural absorption and assimilation: over time it has assimilated the cultures of the southeast and northwest and even that of the Jews. Today many Jews live in Kaifeng, even if by now they have assimilated Chinese cultural traits. It is fair to say that Henan is a traditional yet open region, while its inhabitants are reserved and at the same time astute. In short, an atmosphere suitable for shaping a writer. And it is indeed so: Henan has given birth to numerous writers.
Moratto: Coloratura. This novel was published in 2001. For those who have not read this book, can you tell us something about it?
Li: Three people tell the story of a high-level Chinese Trotskyist intellectual using three linguistic styles from different historical periods, namely the Yan’an period (1935-1945), the era of the Cultural Revolution period (1966-1976), and the period of reform and opening up policies. The name of this intellectual is Ge Ren 葛任. Personally, I think he may have reached the realm of Jesus and Confucius. Some believe that I wrote this character based on Qu Qiubai, an early leader of the Chinese Communist Party. In fact, Qu Qiubai died in 1935, while the story told in this novel begins in 1935. There are also those who have surmised and speculated that the novel is the story of Qu, if he had not died. The entire novel consists of quotations. If you asked me to find a similar novel in Italian fiction, then I would cite Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, or Calvino’s novels. Both Benjamin and Calvino once said they wished to see a novel solely consisting of quotes. Well, with Coloratura perhaps I can boast that I have made their dream come true.
Moratto: Coloratura is considered one of the best novels of 2001-2002; it was selected for the Sixth Mao Dun Literature Prize and awarded the First Ding Jun Literature Prize, on a par with Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death. Do you think the awards are a moral encouragement or an obstacle to development? What does it mean to receive an award? Of all the awards you have received, which one makes you proudest? Why?
Li: Whether or not a novel wins an award is not an issue an author should consider. Receiving an award, big or small, just means acknowledging that one of your novels has won the praise of a select group of professional readers. It’s a kind of comfort. Apart from Sartre’s rejection of the Nobel Prize, I have never seen any writer reject this comfort. Of my three novels Coloratura and Brother Yingwu are the ones I hold most dear. Because I have placed many of my dreams in these two books. I am bound to them in a visceral way.
Moratto: Coloratura seems to make us reflect deeply on history and reality, truth and fiction, memory and oblivion, and other states of being. What are your reflections on these themes?
Li: Sometimes as a joke I say that Coloratura is like telling the story of Jia Baoyu in the revolutionary era. This is actually not in conflict with Jesus, Confucius, Trotsky, or Qu Qiubai. In reality, of course, the subject of Coloratura is more complex than that. Allow me to elaborate. For example, how do you view loyalty? This question has troubled modern Chinese intellectuals and remains so to this day. In the era of a so-called globalization, with nationalist sentiments on the rise, this question has actually become more serious and more difficult, and it has been generalized to be a question that not only Chinese intellectuals need to answer. In the relationship between the individual and the group, how can the individual remain independent and critical in resistance and gain a new freedom or, as Said puts it, a “new soul”? These issues are explored in a novelistic way in Coloratura.
Moratto: In 2005 you began writing Brother Yingwu. However, many things that radically changed your life happened during the writing of this novel. First, you moved from Zhengzhou to Beijing. Immediately after settling down, your mother became seriously ill. In short, the writing process was very difficult. Apart from the delay in publication, how do you think these events influenced the creation of this novel?
Li: You know, the reality in China is changing so radically; I often ask myself: how can I do justice in my works to such a changing reality? How can I accurately write about the various changes that have occurred in traditional culture in the era of globalization? These are questions I often think about. I try to do my best. Of course, during the writing of Brother Yingwu, as you rightly recalled, there were radical changes in my private life as well, which have made me savor the bitter taste of tragedy.
Moratto: In the Chinese version, Brother Yingwu counts more than 800 thousand characters, for a total of 1043 pages. The story, however, is very simple, if you like. How would you summarize it to our readers?
Li: The book retraces the last thirty years of change in China, the fate and thought of several generations of Chinese intellectuals since the late Qing dynasty, and the possible development of Confucian thought, practiced for more than two thousand years, in the era of globalization.
Moratto: How do you think Western readers will react to this book? Many of your books are quite challenging, both to read and to translate, as they require a somewhat in-depth, if not encyclopedic, knowledge of modern Chinese history, but also of traditional literature and history.
Li: This is a real problem, but I think a good translator can find solutions, so to speak, perhaps by adding notes. Coloratura has sold many copies in Germany, France, and Korea. Several editions have been printed in France and this shows that cultural aspects do not constitute a barrier or an obstacle to reading.
Moratto: In addition to the awards you received at home, your work has also been greatly appreciated by foreign media, for example in Germany. On October 24, 2008, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited China, she brought along the German version of the book A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree with her and presented it to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, asking him expressly to meet you. How does this make you feel?
Li: I believe that each book has its own destiny. Once written, it flows into the river of time. At the mercy of water, it can end up on the seabed and thus be forgotten, or maybe it can be picked up by a kindred soul, cross an ocean and trigger a new dialogue. Well, I believe that these new opportunities for dialogue are important and are reasons for happiness, not so much for me as for the protagonists of the book.
Moratto: Different countries react differently to the same book. A Cherry on a Pomegranate Tree, for example, was very successful in Germany (Der Granatapfelbaum, der Kirschen trägt). In France, however, it had a different destiny due to the translator’s standpoint, is that correct? Would you like to explain to us what happened?
Li: In the contract with the French publishing house we had stipulated a publication date. The translation, however, did not fall within this time frame and therefore the contract was terminated. In fact, I have great respect for the person in charge of the translation. I have never come across such a situation before. A professional with a strong character and a very strong subjectivity. During the translation, he realized that he did not agree with some of my views, so he opposed its publication in France. He is a staunch Maoist, he spent time in China during the Cultural Revolution, and is particularly fond of that historical period. I talked about it with the publishing house, asking them to meet this translator. They thought I wanted to seek revenge or pick a fight. How could that be? I just wanted to create an opportunity for dialogue! In short, they eventually gave me a sum of money as compensation. And the book was never published.
Moratto: The world is quite chaotic today. The protagonists of many contemporary Chinese novels are often bound by the implacable constraints of nature and destiny, yet they seem to find hope in simple, more humane things. What is the only lifeline for you?
Li: Leading an authentic and genuine existence and being honest with myself.
Moratto: Do you think that today’s young people in China are really as superficial as society often portrays them? Do they really only think about buying the latest cell phone, do they really live in a world where “mors tua vita mea” as if they were in a modern version of the Chinese imperial court? Or are there a lot of young people trying to give voice to their hearts and, although they scream and shout, society turns a deaf ear on them? What do Chinese people need most nowadays? Beyond the boundaries of the official narrative, what do people yearn for? What do they crave?
Li: For most people, it’s about wanting to make more money, to get rich. When I interact with young people, but not only young people, all they do is talk about money. This is not surprising, because China is still in the early stages of a market economy. Official narrative also promotes rhetoric of this kind. “Quick, come on, hurry up, don’t waste time!” “We have to keep up with the times, we have to change everything!” The sole purpose is to make China’s GDP number one in the world. When you talk to officials, their mantra is that there are changes every year, big changes every three years, and real leaps every five. Some friends of mine and I often ask ourselves: can’t we slow down a bit? There is an Indian myth that says: “Walk slowly and wait for your soul!”
Moratto: You once said you read Lin Mohan’s autobiography, in which the author talks about the most important lesson he learned during his life. He remembers that when he was young his father told him not to be too honest and not to always tell the truth. Having reached the end of his life, he regretted not having listened to his father’s words. Is this really the voice of one of the best Chinese intellectuals? What is behind this statement?
Li: Yes. This is true for a considerable number of intellectuals: it is what they think in their hearts, but they do not dare say. I am extremely saddened by this situation. This is also one of the themes of Coloratura.
Moratto: In one of your interviews I read that in this life you want to write three noteworthy novels: one about history (Coloratura), one about reality (Brother Yingwu) and one about the future. Have you already started writing your third novel?
Li: Yes, but who knows when I will finish it.
Moratto: Many critics have unanimously said that Coloratura and Brother Yingwu are your masterpieces. However, oftentimes writers do not agree with what literary critics say. I would like to ask you: which work are you most satisfied with in your writing career of over 30 years? Why?
Li: I really don’t have many regrets about Coloratura and Brother Yingwu. The only thing I regret is that during the publication and editing process, a lot of passages and words had to be cut out for reasons you might understand.
Moratto: Professor Li, are you happy? Does writing make you happy? What is happiness for you?
Li: Writing is a process that allows us to awaken through language and enables us to realize the many possibilities of life. During writing I engage in conversations with the most disparate characters. Among them, some are close to your heart, others you can’t stand. But the important thing is that at some point you open the doors of your heart and become friends. And it is precisely at this juncture that you will get to know each other better: you will realize that that person you care about is yourself. However, what’s even more important is that you will understand that the person you can’t stand is also a reflection of yourself. You are an integral part of humanity and, as such, you claim praise and forgiveness. What other activity, if not writing, can arouse such feelings? If this can be called happiness, then yes, I must admit that writing makes me happy. Does this mean that I am a happy person in my everyday life? I wish I were, but I am not.
 This interview is the (updated) English translation of the Italian original version I wrote and published in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto on August 19, 2020. The interview was conducted by Riccardo Moratto, hereinafter referred to as “Moratto” in the transcript. Likewise, Li Er is referred to as “Li” in the transcript for purposes of brevity and clarity. The interview was conducted in Chinese.
 According to legend, the Yellow Emperor used an altar on top of the mountain to offer sacrifices to heaven (祭天) where he received the Book of Nine Elixirs (九丹經), one of the earliest Chinese alchemical texts. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Wangwu
 In the Zi Han chapter of the Analects of Confucius, it says, 子在川上曰：逝者如斯夫！不舍晝夜. Translated into English, this means “Confucius, standing on the river bank, lamented: ’that which passes is like this river, flowing unceasingly, day and night’.” While different interpretations of this metaphor have been ventured throughout history, the phrase 逝者如斯夫，不舍晝夜 has come to refer to the passage of time, and of time as something to be valued. Source: https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/lang/archives/2017/08/07/2003676035