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Feature image: Cover images courtesy of Penguin Random House UK. Photo of Yan Lianke by Shiyi Peng.

12 January 2024

Mythorealism and Native Soil Writing in the International Perspective: An Interview with Yan Lianke

In this expansive interview, Haiyan Xie talks to multiple-award winning author Yan Lianke. Together, they explore how stories resonate across different sociopolitical boundaries and the ways in which authors are reconceptualising realism.

Native Soil Literature: Regional and International Dimensions

Haiyan XieThere is no doubt that native-soil literature is always characterised by its region and ethnicity, and I think this is probably why, in the conversation with Liang Hong recorded in Wopo de hongkuaizi, you disapprove of the notion that ‘the more ethnic, the more international’. 

However, many of your stories, while holding on to the village, are circulating in the world. They have transcended their specific regional significance. How do you see your work, from both the regional and the international perspective?

Yan Lianke: Several years ago, at a book fair in Hong Kong, I gave a lecture entitled ‘China and Literature in a Village’, which talked about the relationship between a village and China, and the relevance between a village and literature. I spoke of my village as the center of the world. Certainly, it sounds a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it has serious implications. The reason why I say a village is the center of the world is that in writing, I don’t merely examine my village from my personal perspective, nor do I simply write it in the eyes of the people of Henan. Instead, I keep updating my understanding of the village in the world context while simultaneously seeing the world the way the people of this village see it. To put it plainly, in writing, my vision of knowing the world may be that of a peasant, but through my depiction of the village, I hope to transcend the provinciality of my own culture and reach out to the world. I think that’s how my native soil writing is connected to the world.

As for the conversation with Liang Hong, it took place more than ten years ago, when I said that the regional was regional and the regional was not universal. Let’s take paper-cutting for example: the paper-cutting itself is regional and has nothing universal to say. It would also be poor reasoning if we think Peking opera is international just because Mei Lanfang’s performance overseas has caused a sensation. Instead, when we talk about the notion of being international, we say it in the similar sense that we refer to Tolstoy as a cosmopolitan author because his fiction has taken root in various cultures of the world. As for paper-cutting and Peking opera, since they have not taken root anywhere outside China, they undoubtedly remain regional. Therefore, I think the key to whether paper-cutting or Peking opera can become international lies not in themselves, but in what we use them to express and how we make them relevant to the world. 

Take my recent novel Xinjing (2020, Heart Sutra) as an example. This novel, in some sense, is like a comic strip or Japanese manga because part of the content is presented in paper-cuts. I used about a hundred individual paper-cuts to embed a story about a sad romance between Laozi and Buddha into the main story. Let’s, first of all, disregard the logic of the story. As far as paper-cutting is concerned, it does not only represent the local culture but also expresses a universal theme about religion in the form of the local culture. Anyway, what I am trying to express is this: when I write a novel, I am not simply telling a story. I will, first and foremost, think about ways to tell this story, so that it transcends provinciality and conveys universal meanings.    

Your local subject has covered many global topics and conveyed universal meanings. This has become a feature of most of your works.

A more convincing example is Lu Xun. Why do we say that Lu Xun is great? Through Lun Xun’s portrayal of Kong Yiji, a character that comes to life in his story, we see Lu Xun’s great compassion for the character, which is of course impressive. However, if we come to Ah Q, we will find this character is an epitome of the whole human race. People all over the world have the psychology of Ah Q: the spiritual victory method. That is, if I can’t fight you face-to-face, I can curse you in my heart. Ah Q’s spiritual victory has not merely reflected the national character of Chinese people, but revealed a universal human psyche.  

In other words, when a writer shapes characters and events, even if the story takes place in a local context, its meaning can go beyond the confines of place and become more universal ... In this regard, Ah Q is not only a figure in Lu Xun’s fictional Wei Village but also a person of the world, because in Lu Xun’s characterisation of Ah Q, we see the universal weakness of humanity. 

Right. Lu Xun’s greatness lies in the universal significance of the characters he has created. But the character Hua Laoshuan, the protagonist of Lu Xun’s short story ‘Yao’ (1919, ‘Medicine’), does not have as broad a meaning as Ah Q. After all, as far as detail is concerned, it is not that people all over the world can understand the psychology of those who eat human blood-soaked steamed buns. Even if there was such a thing in some parts of the world, it wouldn’t be as universal as Ah Q’s ‘psychological victory.’ Therefore, I am always thinking about what the story I tell and the character I portray would look like if they were situated in a culturally different context, and whether they would be universally meaningful. 

For example, in Shouhuo (2004, Lenin’s Kisses), the allegedly political metaphor is largely the matter of the county magistrate Liu’s plan to buy Lenin’s body. I think this absurd event, in itself, takes on a meaning beyond the regional through the ideology carried by the name of Lenin. This can be understood in the same way that we understand George Orwell’s 1984. In a sense, you can’t say that 1984 is merely a British novel; rather, it is of the world. Why? Since readers in both capitalist and socialist countries have come to be interested in it, this novel must have expressed something that readers in different social ideologies are concerned about. Regarding my own writing, whether Sishu (2011, The Four Books), Zhaliezhi (2013, The Explosion Chronicles), or Rixi (2015, The Day the Sun Dies), what I’ve been thinking about is that although these stories are based on my own culture, they become universally meaningful only if they convey meanings beyond the particularity of the given historical and cultural context.    

Politics, Ethics, and Three Types of World Readers

In the eyes of some western readers and scholars, you are an Orwell-esque novelist. The themes of your novels are often relevant to sociopolitical events that touch on the deepest anxieties of the nation. Have you ever considered that the conspicuously political aspects of your work may overshadow the more important themes and messages that you originally intend to express? 

The politics we are talking about are so well integrated into our daily life that we simply take them for granted. I think the basic premise of literary creation is that an author shouldn’t intentionally strip politics, or more specifically, power from life. In China, power is entangled with life, and power is part of the reality. The symbiotic relationship between power and life is overdetermined by the particularity of our social reality. However, when Western writers and critics review Chinese novels, they tend to separate politics from life and place politics above life. This is because they don’t understand Chinese society. 

Surely, in some sense, writers have freedom to decide what to write and what not to write. However, regarding some more provocative topics or controversial issues, I’m afraid most writers would be inclined to avoid them.

Probably. I write more about human pain and suffering. I do not deliberately avoid controversial issues in my writing simply because Chinese people’s suffering is often associated with social problems that are defined as sensitive. I think that human suffering in my stories is more salient than the politics per se, but unfortunately, some readers have reversed the focus of the stories, superficially understanding just the politics in them. In doing so, they find a convenient way to read a novel. You cannot say that they do not understand the story, neither can you say that the [stories] totally don’t make sense; however, in search of a shortcut, these readers have only pushed open the window that is easiest to push open. As for the window that is hard to open, they don’t even bother to give it a try. 

I would like to take Dingzhuang meng (2005, Dream of Ding Village) as an example. You cannot say that the novel does not involve any sensitive reality since all our lives are permeated by power in Chinese society. As for the kind of ‘politics’ that Western media interpret as politics, it constitutes a very small part of the novel. It is nothing more than the government’s organising people to sell blood. However, regarding this episode, two aspects must be considered simultaneously: selling blood, on one side, is a government call, and on the other, as the reader clearly sees, demonstrates the peasants’ desire for money. It is desire that makes it so. Admittedly, the government’s call to sell blood is not as oppressive as what they did during the historical period of the Great Steel Making. In the latter, people were coercively brought to the site to make steel even if they did not want to. In the current situation, however, selling blood is merely the government’s rallying cry — it is a seduction, but no one is forced to sell blood. In other words, it is the government who presents the peasants a way to ‘get rich’, and then desire brings people there. I think the desire that exists in humanity itself is far greater than the call that we see in the novel, but there are readers and critics who just want to understand the novel in an entirely political way. There is really nothing I can do but to leave it to them.

With regard to human desires, do you feel that they are present in themselves, like Pandora’s box that was not opened before, but is now opened by some external forces? Or is it something that gradually comes into being?  

I have talked about a relevant issue. That is, people have been discussing whether China’s forty years’ reform and opening-up is good or bad. Whether good or not, I think the greatest influence of reform and opening-up is that it has fully mobilized people’s desire and made this society progress. Nevertheless, similar to what happens in Dream of Ding Village, it is not the policy promulgated by the government alone that changes a society; instead, I think what really drove the progress of society over the past thirty or forty years was Chinese people’s desire.

How much of this desire do you think is good and how much bad? Or by ‘desire’, what do you specifically refer to?

When I talk about desire, I tend to understand it on the moral level. That is, it is the kind of desire that has been stripped of morality. We sometimes hear people say that somebody has ‘no moral bottom line’ to do something. I think this statement best illustrates what I mean by desire in my context. Meanwhile, we must also differentiate desire from ideal: the latter has to be realised by justifiable means while desire may be realised unscrupulously. However, when it comes to a specific issue, we can hardly apply the either-or logic to discussing desire. For example, we agree that human desire drives social progress; however, when we criticise desire, we paradoxically praise social progress. Surrounded by such a paradox, a writer has to learn to perceive life as multi-dimensional, and try to present the complexity of human society grounded in  the most complicated aspects of life.

I believe you have many ways of gaining feedback from your readers about your novels. The views of domestic readers and critics are relatively more accessible. Have you followed feedback from western scholars and readers? 

There must be a gap between Chinese authors’ writing and the focus of Western academic discussion. There are gaps too between how the Western readers understand the stories and what the author really tells in their stories. I think I can roughly divide the Western readers of my novels into three categories: those who really understand China, those who know nothing about China, and those who know not much about China. For example, one could certainly read The Four Books as talking about the Great Leap Forward and the Anti-Rightist Movement, but I think this is a lazy way of reading the novel. It is true that these events happened in China during that historical period, but while writing a novel, I would not write and perceive these things simply from a political or historical perspective, because literature should be differentiated from history, and a literary piece must be creative and illuminating. As far as the readers are concerned, some really know China and can actually read in Chinese. They know about that fragment of history I am writing about in my story, and understand that I contextualise my story in those concrete historical events in that particular year so that the story happens reasonably. If it happens in another setting, it may not make sense. Readers in this category are very familiar with China’s history, but their reading experience does not rest solely on a specific piece of history; instead, they tend to read beyond the literal meaning of the text.

The second category is represented by the readers I met in Europe, such as in France and Spain, where none of the readers I came in contact with would take The Four Books as a historical record or as historical fiction. They know nothing about what actually happened in China’s history, but they think this is a great novel. They tend to be more concerned with the questions of why this novel is written in an unrealistic way, and why some chapters of the novel use biblical language. Other questions they are concerned with are why none of the characters have names, and why they can hardly find a counterpart of the protagonist in world literature. The readers in this category, I think, appreciate this novel purely as literature. The third type of readers are those who know a little about Chinese history and are overly obsessed with the political dimension of the Great Leap Forward and the Anti-Rightist Movement. While I can’t simply dismiss what they say as right or wrong, this know-it-all readership is most likely to misinterpret a writer’s work grounded on their superficial understanding of Chinese history. What can an author do about this? Nothing but respect their freedom of interpreting the novel in their own way.

Mythorealism and Reconceptualising Realism

You often say that realism can no longer express today’s social reality. Do you specifically refer to the reality of Chinese society? If so, do you think that realism is also no longer up to the task in expressing the reality of the world?

Let me clarify what I mean by ‘realism’. First, I have always questioned the view that Chinese realism is the realism inherited from Western literature. Secondly, I don’t think that Chinese-style realism can express the reality of China. In fact, realism in China today only goes as far as expressing the reality that allows you to express it.

What kind of realism do you mean by Chinese-style realism? Can you explain it in detail?

I classify realism into several categories in my book Discovering Fiction. The socially-manipulated-and-purchased realism belongs to the first category, and the mundane realism the second, both of which are permitted in our literary production today. But the third and fourth category, life-experience-based realism and in-depth-soul realism, is largely missing from Chinese literature. In fact, realism in Chinese literature is not developing but stagnant, and it is not stagnated by literature itself, but by power. As we often say, if Lu Xun had lived to this day, he wouldn’t have been able to create those great works because the realism espoused in his time would not be allowed to be used to represent today’s reality. The realism we have today is pseudo-realism, a product of the combined socially-manipulated-and-purchased realism and mundane realism.

David Der-wei Wang asserts somewhere that realism is tainted with politics and becomes a way to discern ideological correctness. I think what you call ‘pseudo-realism’ has expressed the same meaning.

Yes. The realism we are talking about today is not the critical realism of the nineteenth century. On the contrary, we are departing from the spirit of critical realism. The realism we have today has too much of the mundane, expressing only the surface of our life experience. Unfortunately, this has become a common phenomenon in contemporary Chinese literature.

I feel like that you are reshuffling realist works from different periods of China, and reinterpreting realism based on the different types of reality it represents and the depth of the ideas it conveys. And you have specifically emphasised the ideological implications embedded in the realism we have today, which you call ‘socially-manipulated-and-purchased realism’, a typical product of ideology.

Yes. In particular, it is also combined with ‘mundane realism’. Because of this combination, one may even feel it is artistic. There are many TV dramas of this kind. For example, Chinese audiences like to watch TV series such as Liangjian [2005, Brandishing the Sword]. We cannot deny the fact that the characters in the series are lively depicted, but the descriptive technique used is nothing but a combination of the two realisms discussed above, at best, with a little bit of Lu Xun’s style.

Many literary theorists call for the need for literary forms to be constantly updated to keep up with the changing social realities. Fredric Jameson, for example, upholds Marxist literary tradition, but does not reject other literary forms. He argues that conventional realism is not sufficient to express today’s social realities, and therefore today’s realist writing should incorporate more writing techniques that have previously been strictly excluded from realism by Lukács and other theorists.

Therefore, literature should not rest in one place or be fettered by one doctrine. I often say that today’s Chinese writers are living a life of the twenty-first century with the vision of the nineteenth century. That is, they are telling stories of the nineteenth century in the twenty-first century. I think at this point, we might just need a different approach or doctrine to change this literary status quo.

I think the shenshi zhuyi (mythorealism) you have proposed is a good try. According to your definition, mythorealism is a literary method that abandons the seemingly logical relations of real life, and explores a ‘nonexistent’ truth. Mythorealism develops in your writing as both a coexistence and confrontation with the realist narrative. Would you like to talk a little more about your thoughts on mythorealism in your writing in recent years.

As far as my own writing is concerned, I hope that mythorealism should not only remain at the level of The Four Books or Dream of Ding Village forever. I hope it develops and changes, but as for what kind of change, I do not really have a concrete idea. However, one thing for sure is that each time I write, there are different elements representing  mythorealism. This attempt is evident in Heart Sutra, of which, each chapter centres on a nameless person, who constantly emerges in the story; but of course, the term ‘Namelessness’ itself can be used as a name in Chinese culture.

Is this 'Namelessness' the same person?

No, not the same person. In this novel, ‘Namelessness’ is a common name shared by different characters who do not have a specific name of his or her own. That is, while there is a Namelessness in this chapter, a new Namelessness appears in the next chapter. I think it is this seemingly chaotic logic that keeps the storyline moving on.

Will the readers be confused by this ‘seemingly chaotic logic’?

Probably not, but I’m less likely to be concerned with whether the reader understands or not. I will not consider for the reader where this character comes from and whether this person is the same one that shows up in the previous chapter. The story has many ambiguous plots.I have deliberately blurred the boundary between the real and the unreal.

I’m curious as to how you have woven these imaginations into the story.

Well, in the novel, I write about Laozi, Buddha, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, Muhammad, and all five great religions in China. Like The Master and Margarita, the devil also appears. He looks like an ordinary person, frequently making his appearance by walking through the crowd. But the readers don’t know if things really happened or not. I think if I hadn’t conceived the idea of mythorealism and written about it in Faxian xiaoshuo [2011, Discovering Fiction], I would not tell a story in such a bold way. With the idea of mythorealism, I write ‘illogically’ without the slightest hesitation; in fact, whatever comes to my mind can be reasonable, and the problem only lies in the limitation of my capacity of imagination.

I would also like to talk about the metafictional nature of your work, or more specifically, the author’s intervention into the story. For example, in The Explosion Chronicles, The Day the Sun Died, and Suqiu gongmian [2019, Want to Sleep Together Quickly], you intervene in the text under your real name, deliberately obfuscating the truth in the story and telling a realistic story in an unrealistic style. Do you consider writing within this framework as part of the mythorealist technique?

I wouldn’t consider whether it is part of mythorealism or not. However, I hope my novel, both in its approach and in its content, conveys rich meanings beyond that in my previous writing. In fact, in all these works mentioned above, you can see both mythorealism and something beyond it.If you give a close look at my novels, you may notice that my perspective of shaping the character Yan Lianke keeps changing: The Explosion Chronicles is a relatively ordinary story framework, in which the fictional Yan Lianke is the author of the book. In The Day the Sun Died, Yan Lianke appears as a foil character who is at his wit’s end with his writing. By the time we get to Yan Lianke in Want to Sleep Together Quickly, it is not that I bring myself into the story; instead, it is that the author Yan Lianke reshapes a protagonist named Yan Lianke in the story.

Yes, and the interesting thing is that this protagonist Yan Lianke, also the first-person narrator, in turn, constitutes a deep intertextuality with real life, with yourself.

Yes. Therefore, you can’t understand the text by simply focusing on the first-person narrator, which would be a very superficial understanding. Of course, if there comes a day when I can take the first-person narrator one step further, and shape the character in a more subtle and skilful way, I will still go with it. Otherwise, I will just stop writing ‘Yan Lianke’ in my future work.

I’ve noticed another way of your getting involved in the story. In reading Feng ya song (2008, The Odes of Songs), the story is narrated in the first person, but halfway through the narrative, a paragraph narrated in the third person was suddenly inserted into the text. This abrupt third-person narration seems to suddenly pull the reader back into reality after being immersed in an unrealistic narrative of ‘I’. Can you talk about your intent and the implication of this intervention? Or was it done unintentionally?

Actually, I didn’t do it intentionally. I often use ‘you’ and ‘I’ interchangeably; that is, sometimes, ‘you’ means ‘I’ in my context. Such shift of narration in my writing also indicates a kind of self-reflection, through which not only do I lend myself to the text, but I can see myself for what I am. In many cases, I want to develop a discerning attitude towards both  society and myself through my novels. Thus, the shift between first and third person indicates a different perspective of the world, the society, and myself. I think this thought of mine is best exemplified in my using a main character named Yan Lianke in Want to Sleep Together Quickly. But I think I am still far from what I ultimately want to express — especially with The Odes of Songs and I have left aside many things that I didn’t have the courage to write.

Yan Lianke is the author of the memoir Three Brothers and numerous novels and novellas, including Hard Like Water, The Day the Sun Died, The Explosion Chronicles, The Four Books, Lenin’s Kisses, Serve the People!, Dream of Ding Village, and The Years, Months, Days.
Haiyan Xie is an associate professor at Central China Normal University. She received her PhD in comparative literature at the University of Alberta. She has published several essays on Yan Lianke and is now working on her book project, tentatively titled “Mythorealism as Method: Form and Ideology in Yan Lianke’s Fiction.”
Winter 2023
Wasafiri 116: Shorelines - South East Asia and the Littoral

Wasafiri 116: Shorelines: South East Asia and the Littoral, our special winter issue guest edited by Nazry Bahrawi, Joanne Leow, and the late Y-Dang Troeung, features a range of creative, critical, and artistic work from Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar and their diasporas, exploring the littoral encounter of existing on the shoreline.

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