In addition to being a bilingual writer, Vanessa has an impressive knowledge of western, Chinese and Japanese literature, both classical and modern. She reviews books from all three cultures in her blog Intense Sensations.
I was interested in what Vanessa could tell us about contemporary Chinese literature, contemporary China and how her own writing fits into it all.
In your blog you review a very wide range of literature, including
books from young writers in China. Unless this literature is
translated, it’s inaccessible to most people in the west, so I find it
very interesting to read your reviews about it.
What would you say are the biggest trends or tendencies in Chinese
literature right now? What do you think is the most interesting about the literature that’s being published in China right now?
Well, first of all, I’d like to say that there is a huge range of things being published in China today. The main point I would like to make is that the books that you see translated into English and published in the West are maybe 20 or 30 years behind the times and they are a very small representation of what is being written by people in China now.
For instance, the books you can find in the West are the satirical and political writings of people like Mo Yan (Red Sorghum) and Jia Pingwa (Abandoned Capital). The much acclaimed writers Yiyun Li (A Thousand Years of Good Prayers) and Ma Jian (Red Dust) are also politically motivated. They are in a sense political exiles and writing about painful times. These times are in the past.
Even brash and vigorous writers like Wei Hui (Shanghai Baby), Mian Mian (Candy) and Wang Shuo (Don’t Call Me Human), anti-establishment writers whose work was banned because of its so-called decadence, are dated now. They are less relevant than they used to be to the cultural situation in China and they look very tame compared to mainstream Western literature.
One book I’d recommend as a modern bestseller that appeals to both Chinese and Western tastes is Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong.
To summarise the books that are being published today in Chinese is very difficult because there are so many. There are many young writers who celebrate the joys of being alive and their themes are love, romance and the pressures of making a living and staying sane in a world that is simply moving too fast for them. There are many writers of blogs and there are many ebooks circulating widely amongst the ex-patriot Chinese communities around the world.
I know you have read not only classical Chinese literature, but also
classical Japanese literature. We sometimes hear that especially older
people don’t want young people to read Japanese books or watch
Japanese films, due to enmities in the past. What do you think about such attitudes?
It is true that some of the older generation of Chinese people have a deep resentment against the Japanese because of their memories of the Japanese invasion and the atrocities they endured. But this is fading from our cultural heritage now. Young people don’t have this prejudice or fear.
I visited Japan not long ago and was taken to dinner by the father of a Japanese friend. We had a lovely time. Japan is a very friendly, safe place, and the people there are warm and hospitable. Its culture is also very rich and very influential. So of course I watch Japanese films, read Japanese books and play Japanese computer games.
You’re from a country that has seen incredible and massive changes
just the last 10-20 years and you sometimes mention this in the blog.
What have been the biggest changes for you personally?
Has publishing changed in China too? Do you think there will be an
e-book revolution in China?
There is already an ebook revolution in China. There is a lot of piracy of books. You can get almost anything online. But there is also a thriving official industry. The publishing model there is that authors can post online a summary of the book they want to write. Publishing entrepreneurs can then sponsor the ones they like and buy the distribution rights. There are hundreds of websites where these transactions take place and there is a huge thirst for modern romances.
By the way, there was an underground book production industry in China long before epublishing and modern self-publishing became possible. Writers in China would write books by hand and distribute them amongst closed circles of intellectuals. Many erotic novels were circulated in this way. I see myself as part of that tradition of Chinese erotic authors, although what I am doing is far easier and less dangerous than what those authors did.
But I see my writing as serious, literary and charged with emotion. Its explicit sexual nature arises from the fact that I am taking advantage of the freedom in the West to explore sexual themes with greater openness. What I am doing in my stories still couldn’t be done in China today, not without attracting the wrong sort of attention anyway.
As for the changes, yes, they are huge and incalculable. If you take the publishing industry as an example, it seems to me that in the West there are huge shock-waves going through that industry and people within it are struggling to make sense of what the changes mean. Some people are jumping on the epublishing bandwagon and others are desperately clinging onto the old model. This is what it is like across every industry in China right now. There are huge profits to be made for those who have the vision, courage and agility to take advantage of the new opportunities. But there are still also farmers in the fields and corrupt politicians struggling to maintain the status quo.
One thing that is very visible is the amount of building work going on. Apartment buildings that are only 20 or 30 years old are derelict. They are being knocked down and replaced with newer high-rise apartments everywhere. New skyscrapers are going up in every part of the country in all the big cities. These are very visible changes and have a huge impact on the economy too.
You say you couldn’t be writing the stuff you do now without getting into trouble in China. Would that be political trouble? Why would writing erotica give you trouble?
I don’t say I would get into political trouble, just that I would be seen as a bad person. Even in the West there are mixed reactions to the kind of writing I do. On the one hand you have rampant liberalism where virtually anything goes and on the other you have attempts to block pornography on the internet and clamp down on the sexualisation of young girls. The culture veers drunkenly from one extreme to the other.
China is in the early stages of sexual emancipation. People are now freer to express their sexual feelings but explicit eroticism is never going to be uncontroversial. I would like to be seen as a writer who experiences life through her senses. I don’t want to be a rebel. I just want to be free to explore my deepest impulses through my fiction. For me, that means writing uninhibitedly about sex.
I rarely meet people who know China from the inside and speak
English well, so I’m curious as to where you see China heading the
next few years?
Haha! China will buy the rest of the world. That’s all! Be afraid! Be very afraid!
Do you see China spreading its literature and films and popular music to the west like the US has spread its popular culture all over the world? Or is the language barrier too high?
I think there will be a symbiosis. More and more people in the West are learning Chinese. It is becoming easier to do so because more materials are being made available. It is a very interesting language and people are curious. It is also much easier now for foreigners to visit China and take language courses there. However, don’t forget that there are millions of Chinese people learning and using English. I even communicate with my Chinese friends in English because it is faster to type.
There is a deep distrust of China. Japan has a culture of honour and self-sacrifice that is admired. Hong Kong is known for its martial arts films. The Chinese have always been portrayed as inscrutable, cunning and brutal. Recently I have seen some very biased documentaries on UK television portraying Chinese businesses in the same way. Other nations fear the growing economic power of China and the Chinese government is invariably portrayed in a negative light. I think these factors will inhibit the spread of Chinese culture in the rest of the world. But changes will come through economic necessity. The economy is global. Western businesses must deal with China or be stranded in the past. Where business goes, culture follows.
You have also lived in Europe for a number of years and are well versed in classical European literature, as well as modern western literature. What would you say are the biggest difference between European and Chinese literature today?
The things Chinese people like to read are not much different from what Western people like to read. One of the standard plots in many Chinese novels goes likes this: A young girl, sometimes a princess, or the daughter of an emperor, is destined to marry a man from a good family but who is somewhat dull. Her life is thrown into turmoil by the arrival of an evil villain, an invader, a political enemy of some kind, who makes her his victim. She hates him. But the trouble is, he is very handsome. He is charismatic. He is very sexy. So you can guess how the story ends.
The Chinese also love paranormal romance. Ghost stories or stories with supernatural elements have always been mainstream in our literary heritage. A common plot here is for a young man to be seduced by a female ghost when he is striving to do something noble and good. These stories often end unhappily with the man driven to suicide in order to be united with his ghostly lover. But they can also be happy, with the lovers being like stars in the sky, immortal and eternally beautiful.
Chinese novels can be very funny but they can also be very sad, deeply moving and highly poetic. Poetic novels are impossible to translate because the way the Chinese language works is so very different from Western languages.
I will end by mentioning my two favourite Chinese writers. These are Eileen Chang (the author of Lust, Caution) and Qian Zhongshu, whose only published novel is Fortress Besieged, which sounds militaristic but is in fact a very funny comedy of manners. Their books have been translated into English but they are a thousand times better in Chinese!
I have very much enjoyed your questions and I hope this is the beginning of a fruitful cultural exchange. My answers are only my personal point of view at this moment, based on what I have observed in the UK.