Interview with Yu Hua

Posted by Goodreads on January 6, 2015
Yu Hua rose to international fame in 1994, when the release of To Live, a Zhang Yimou film adapted from his novel of the same name, led the Chinese government to ban the Oscar-nominated director from filmmaking for two years. It gave Yu a notoriety that he has put to good use, writing sharp but generous observations of the absurdities of life in a modern Communist country in his collection of essays, China in Ten Words, his columns for the New York Times, and novels like the exuberant Brothers.

The human capacity for goodness is at the center of his latest work, The Seventh Day. In this slim-but-weighty novel, the recently dead Yang Fei wanders the Land of the Unburied, searching out mysteries from his own past and also meeting his fellow undead, who tell him their stories of love and sacrifice in the rubble of the living city.

The Beijing-based author talks to Goodreads (via translator Allan H. Barr) about realism in the face of absurdity, growing up across the street from a mortuary, and searching for reading material during the Cultural Revolution.

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Goodreads: You once said, "My writing is always changing because my country is always changing." How does The Seventh Day reflect that change? Do you feel that this book is a reflection of China as it is right now?

Yu Hua: It was certainly my intention that The Seventh Day reflect China as it is today. Brothers was a story about China from the Cultural Revolution up to the present. But when it was finished, I felt I had still more to say on the topic, and so later I wrote China in Ten Words. After that, I wanted to take a break from the Cultural Revolution and write a book like The Seventh Day, a short but meaty novel that would focus on the absurd realities of China during the last 20 years. I hit upon the idea of a Land of the Unburied, a place that tends to conjure up images of dread but which in The Seventh Day is a place of beauty—a little like a utopia, but not one, a little bit like China's legendary Peach Blossom Spring, but not quite that, either. From the land of the dead we can look at the real world of China today, its ugliness all the more apparent from the beauty of that vantage point. Although the book has only 224 pages, it is, I think, an ambitious work.

GR: It is always more difficult to be ambitious in scope than in size! Meanwhile China has, of course, changed a great deal since you published your first book. Which changes have you been most eager to document? Why? And how have those changes been reflected in your writing?

YH: I am a realistic writer, and if my stories are often absurd, that's simply because they are a projection of absurd realities. I will turn 55 this coming year, and when I look back, I realize I've always been living amid absurdities. The Cultural Revolution was absurd, and today's China seems even more so. If you are constantly living in absurdity, you can easily lose your awareness of it. During the Cultural Revolution, you saw portraits of Mao Zedong everywhere, even in toilets, but nobody thought it at all strange to see Mao on the wall of a toilet. It's just the same now: We're all so used to the absurdities of life in China today that we don't give them a second thought. Chinese society is constantly changing in absurd ways, and as a realistic writer, I need to keep constantly alert to such changes. If you visit China as a tourist and check into a hotel, chances are you will see a "No Smoking" sign on the coffee table—and next to it an ashtray. That's what I want to write about—the ashtray next to the "No Smoking" sign.

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GR: Your last book, Brothers, has a scene in which one of the main characters, Baldy Li, is famous in his small town for peeping at women's bare bottoms in a public toilet—especially since his father slipped and drowned in a cesspool doing exactly that. And then in this book Yang Fei's mother accidentally delivers him in the toilet aboard a moving train. Is this a sly callback?

YH: The thought didn't occur to me when I was writing The Seventh Day, but now that you make the connection, I do feel there is a subtle echo there. Writing is a process of endless discovery, and reading is just such a process, too—and an even more expansive one, for different readers will make different discoveries as they read the same book. This reminds me that a question in China's college entrance examination a few years ago involved a story of mine called "On the Road at Eighteen," which has become prescribed reading in Chinese high schools. Many students gave the wrong answer, apparently, to the detriment of their overall score. When I found online the favored interpretation of this story, I have to admit that the analysis was brilliant, but if I were to face that same question on a test, I would give a "wrong" answer, too.

GR: You grew up across the street from a mortuary. How did you think about death as a child? Did you think it was a permanent condition? A step into an eternal afterlife?

YH: My parents were doctors, and we lived in a hospital compound, right opposite the mortuary. As I was growing up, there were countless nights and early mornings when I was woken by the weeping of people mourning their loved ones. Death was stationed so close to me, you could say that I was its neighbor. I could not see the dead as they lay in the mortuary, and for me death was simply a little room, a concrete slab, a place that was spotlessly clean from which would emerge the lilting song of people in grief. Summers were very hot, and we had no air-conditioning, so sometimes I would take a nap in the empty mortuary that I found so cool and refreshing. To me when I was small, the mortuary was a mysterious rest stop, a rest stop on the journey from one world to another.

GR: How did that view shape the world of The Seventh Day?

YH: Stories are so often about people who live and then die, but The Seventh Day moves in the opposite direction, from death to life. I think this is closely linked to my childhood experiences: Through my acquaintance with the mortuary, I got the idea that death is not the end of life but just a turning point. One stage in life arrives at this little rest stop so tired and worn that it falls asleep, and then another stage of life begins.

GR: Tell us a little bit about the genesis of this book. Did you start with the idea of the afterlife or with the idea of telling stories of "the casualties of today's China," ordinary people whose deaths are the byproducts of current issues and problems?

YH: I spent several years thinking about this project. Then one day the following idea came to me: When a man dies, the funeral home calls him on the phone and urges him to hurry to his cremation, for he's late. That's when I knew I had a story. In China there's traditionally a notion of the "first seven": the first seven days of death, when the soul of the deceased roams restlessly around the places most familiar to him in life, and so in my scheme the dead begin to roam restlessly, too; and then the Land of the Unburied became part of the picture, the place where a host of people forsaken by an unequal society come when they die. Because they can't afford a grave, they end up in this lovely spot, where all are equal in death. So then I began to write. That's my writing practice: If I have the beginning worked out, and then can think of some section in the middle, and can imagine the ending as well, then I can write the whole thing. It's a bit like firing a gun: If you have three dots lined up, you can press the trigger.

GR: Your protagonist, Yang Fei, roams the afterlife with all of the unburied dead, the ones who do not have a burial plot. He says, "In the other world no one would wear a black armband on our behalf—we were all grieving for ourselves." From reading this book it seems as if sometimes your view is that we are doomed to solitude, and other times it seems as if there are connections to be made everywhere if we just look. What are your thoughts on this?

YH: Yang Fei is a lonely soul, and the others in the Land of the Unburied are also solitary figures abandoned by the world. When they come together in one place, they see their own plight in the experiences of others, and when misfortune becomes a shared destiny, loners no longer are loners and the unfortunate are no longer unfortunate. There's an adage in Chinese: "Fellow sufferers sympathize with each other," and that emotional connection enables them to move all at once from being complete strangers to becoming intimate friends.

GR: Yang Fei's relationship with his father was so moving! I don't want to give too much of the plot away, but I think we can say that his father finds him by the side of the railroad tracks and brings him up, sacrificing his own potential advancement and happiness for Yang Fei's.

YH: When I wrote about the bond between Yang Fei and his father, I found myself reduced to tears, partly because I found their relationship moving, partly because, with the real world as cruel as it is, the bonds that do exist between people are all the more precious. In The Seventh Day I wanted to write about human goodness: Though characters may have cut short their own lives in one way or another, they still make their way forward into the present, never forfeiting their capacity for love and sacrifice. That's true of Yang Fei and his father, Mouse Girl and her boyfriend, and all the others who find themselves in the Land of the Unburied.

GR: Whom do you count as literary influences? The Seventh Day had echoes of Borges and Calvino, and also, in a way, of Ingmar Bergman films.

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YH: I admire Borges and Calvino, and Bergman, too. There are so many authors who have influenced me, like Kawabata, Kafka, Faulkner—the list could go on and on till it's the size of an army. Some influences I am already conscious of, and others I may realize in the future, while still others I may go through life quite oblivious of, though they may guide my writing in mysterious ways. As I put it once, the influence of one author on another is like the influence of sunlight on a tree: The tree is affected by the light, no question, but the key thing is that it grows in accordance with its own nature, not with the sun's.

GR: When readers and writers face censorship, satires and veiled critiques of the political system become all the more delicious. I know that there was some worry that The Seventh Day wouldn't be allowed to be published in China, but as an American reader, it's hard to see what could be offensive in the book. Why do you think some feared it would be censored, and what does it mean that it wasn't?

YH: Some Chinese readers of The Seventh Day were surprised that it could be published, and I think it is the critical tone of the book that caused that reaction. When I had just finished writing the book, I, too, thought it possible it might run into difficulties. Some publishing houses in China did decline to take it on, but China has a lot of publishers, and one of them had the courage to publish it. Now over a year has passed since the book's release in China, and it has not been banned. I feel I've been lucky, but beyond that I don't know what more to say.

GR: Most writers begin as readers. You came of age during the Cultural Revolution. How did you get access to reading materials? What did you read?

YH: As he writes, an author wears two hats: that of a writer and that of a reader. His investment as a writer enables the story to move forward, and his investment as a reader controls the direction and proportions of the narrative. In China the Cultural Revolution was an era without books, for practically all literary works were regarded as "poisonous weeds" and either banned or destroyed. A very few books circulated surreptitiously among the populace, but typically with ten or more pages missing at the beginning and the end, and all the books I read during that period were headless and tailless things. I could live with not knowing how a story began, but I found it unbearable to not know how it ended. So I had no choice but to think up endings for myself, and that proved a blessing in disguise, training my imagination from a tender age.

GR: In the '80s, you were employed by the Cultural Bureau—what does a state-sponsored writer do?

YH: In 1983, when I started work in the local cultural center, we had to publish a literary digest every year—that was the sum total of my responsibilities. Two colleagues collaborated with me on the editorial work. A year later the magazine folded for lack of funds, and I no longer had any specific task to perform, so then it was simply a matter of staying at home and writing when I felt like it. In those days China had just begun to embark on economic reforms, and it was still an era of everyone eating from the same pot: Some jobs were intense and exhausting and others were relaxing and comfortable, but everyone was paid exactly the same. My job at the cultural center did not involve doing any real work. Things have changed now, though: When I was back in my hometown this last summer, I learned that people employed at the cultural center now have to clock in on schedule.

GR: Goodreads member Steve asks, "So many people want to know more about China these days, and there is a huge and expanding reading list of nonfiction books about China available today. What do you think foreigners can learn about China by reading fiction that they would not necessarily pick up from nonfiction?"

YH: I'm very pleased to see your question. I hope that there will be more and more books about China available to American readers. By reading nonfiction books about China you can gain a direct understanding of some aspects of China's history and Chinese realities. Fiction may touch only indirectly on China's history and Chinese realities, but through it you can come to appreciate the emotional dimensions of Chinese life, and that's very important, too. Reading some fiction and some nonfiction is probably a good way to proceed.

GR: Goodreads member Jo writes, "After reading China in Ten Words nearly two years ago, I went and bought a book of the complete fiction of Lu Xun. As a Westerner, I hadn't heard of Lu Xun before and was intrigued by his significance to Yu Hua and to the Cultural Revolution period. How significant is Lu Xun for you? Are you influenced by his style?"

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YH: Lu Xun's style is piercing: Whether he's writing about society or about human nature, he always gets to the heart of the matter. I hope that my writing is as incisive as Lu Xun's, but I would like to think that my stories are touching as well, and that is a quality Lu Xun's stories tend to lack. I am not saying that is a weakness, for every writer has his own style, and Lu Xun's is so cold and cutting that it does not need much emotion. My writing often works in both directions, and when I write about something cruel, I need to write of something heartwarming at the same time, otherwise I can't go on. Lu Xun wrote about the reality of his era, and what I want to write about is the reality of mine. Lu Xun's greatness lies in the fact that the reality he described still sheds light on China's current realities: In this sense what Lu Xun wrote about is not just the reality of his era, but also the reality of ours. In recent years Lu Xun's works have gradually been removed from Chinese school textbooks, and the official explanation is that they aren't suitable reading for the grade-school pupils of China today. There's some substance to that claim, because Lu Xun is indeed more appropriate for readers with considerable experience of life. At the same time Lu Xun's works are likely to trigger discontent with China's current realities.

GR: Goodreads member Iamjane asks, "It seems like there is a definite generational gap in Chinese literature: those of your generation who are lauded for drawing attention to recent history and reviving the 'return to the roots' movement, and the younger generation who switch between writing fast-paced modern novels and blogging. What is your opinion of modern Chinese literature?"

YH: Chinese literature today is extremely varied, with all kinds of styles, and I relish that diversity. I'm not really qualified to evaluate work by the younger generation, but there's one point I'd like to make, and that is: No matter what kind of work it is, whether it is focused on society or on the individual, I like to see writing that touches the heart and doesn't just focus on physical gratification. To explore people's emotional secrets is more appealing to me than to measure their bodily secretions.

GR: Do you have any writing rituals? A breakfast you always eat? An exercise you do? A pen you must have on hand?

YH: I observe very little discipline in my life, with no set breakfast and no steady commitment to any exercise program. Once I began using a computer in 1993, I stopped carrying a pen.

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GR: What are you reading right now?

YH: I'm reading The Classic of Mountains and Seas, China's earliest collections of myths, a remarkable book, rich in imagination.

GR: Do you have any advice for young writers? Especially for young writers who may fear censorship?

YH: Don't think about censorship when you're writing— think about it only when you're finished.

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Thank you for the comrehensive analysis of yuans works. I have read very few books about China since Pearl Buck and Water Buffalo Children. I did like Maos Last Dancer. I felt the China of more recent times to be less repressive than North Korea in Nothing to Envy.

message 2: by Steve (new)

Steve Thanks for publishing this! His non-fiction book, "China in Ten Words" is one of my favorite China books.

message 3: by Piresportuga (new)

Piresportuga Escrevi muito sobre psicologia, sociologia, e filosofia do capitalismo, comunismo e anarquia em português e italiano.
Gostaria de escrever um livro em inglês, em colaboração com alguém de madre língua inglesa ou que escreva melhor do que eu em inglês, a língua mais internacional online. Muitos escrevem só bem ou mal do capitalismo, comunismo e anarquia. Eu penso que cada sistema tem aspetos positivos e negativos com grande relatividade psicológica, sociológica e filosófica.
Para um estudo mais científico e de maior valor para inventar um futuro melhor, seria importante a colaboração de diversos autores de diferentes idades e crescidos em diferentes sistemas.
Eu nasci e cresci no capitalismo de Salazar em Portugal, vivi em 4 continentes, conheci muitos sistemas comunistas na prática e frequentei muito o mais popular fórum de anarquia tradicional: Indymedia.
Desta experiência e do meu interesse sobre este argumento poderia escrever um ebook. Mas mais interessante seria se encontrasse colaboração para um "PeBook" ou "CeBook"...
Mais online das minhas ideias sobre psicologia, sociologia e filosofia do capitalismo, comunismo e anarquia: como aproveitar o melhor e excluir o pior para um futuro global melhor:

message 4: by Joanne (new)

Joanne Si.

message 5: by Yang (new)

Yang Huang A wonderful interview with Yu Hua, a writer I deeply admire. In fact, Library Journal reviewed my novel Living Treasures and said, "Reminiscent of Yu Hua’s To Live but with a lot less tragedy and heartbreak."Living Treasures

message 6: by Liya (new)

Liya Personally, I think The Seventh Day is nowhere near To Live or Brothers in terms of literary expression and emotional penetration. Yu Hua describes himself as modern-day Lu Xun which is laughable given how the Seventh Day was patched together. Lu Xun was a true warrior whose contribution through his writing and words were revolutionary to the development of modern China. And what did Yu Hua do besides displaying a collage of social problems, weak and undeveloped characters, and no meaningful/constructive takeaways?

message 7: by Shirley (new)

Shirley Yu Hua is a good author. Well, I still have to say, after some readings, my impression is that contemporary writers like Yu Hua,Su Tong,Mo Yan,Wang Anyi etc. write TOO MUCH about stories situated in the past China, like the Cultural Revolution(maybe it is because they did have the experiences, which is understandable). But China isn't all about this absurdity.This is a different age. Those old stories have gone long.I hope the writers can write some more modern stories about modern China. I think some unknown writers do better in this respect.

message 8: by Diane (new)

Diane French I have never read his works but intend to . Very good interview

message 9: by Mahmoud (new)

Mahmoud Gadin Very nice interview.. Thanks

message 10: by Nikola (new)

Nikola Tasche Like his books, thanks

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