Transnational China Project Sponsored Commentary:
"Issues in Contemporary Chinese Literature"

Roundtable Photo of Liu Sola Roundtable Photo of Zha Jianying Roundtable Photo of Wang Meng
(Left to Right: Liu Sola, Zha Jianying, Wang Meng)

Informal Roundtable Discussion by Three Authors:
Wang Meng, Liu Sola, Zha Jianying
Baker Institute, Rice University,
March 10, 1998
Translation by Marshall McArthur)

Chinese Text:

(Moderator Zha Jianying introducing her two guests)

Zha: I think everybody is familiar with both of our participants, since Wang Meng and Liu Sola are both well-known contemporary Chinese writers. Wang Meng gained notoriety in the 1950s when he published his short-story "The Newcomer in the Organization Department", and later became a controversial figure who was labeled a rightist and sent to Xinjiang where he spent twenty years before being allowed to return to Beijing. In the 1980s, he was one of China’s experimental writers, and since then has been active as a fiction writer and essayist. From 1986 to 1989, he also served as China’s Minister of Culture.

Our other participant, Liu Sola, is a graduate of the Beijing Central Music Institute, and in the mid-1980s, became famous for her novel No Other Choice, which caused a stir and made her one of the representative young authors of that time. As part of her dual role as author-musician, Ms. Liu also composes and sings. Since 1988, she has lived both in England and America, writing music and fiction.

Now with that brief introduction, let us start the question and answer session. These are questions which have been submitted by students and professors in the Chinese departments at Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin, and neither of you should feel obligated to answer each question. We can summarize them, and let them serve as the general thread of our discussion. However, both of you should feel free to make digressions or offer any extemporaneous comments which you have, since we don’t want to restrict ourselves to the extent that the discussion becomes a dry question and answer session.

As moderator, let me first "throw out" the questions, and both of you can answer in the order you like, and just follow the themes as we go along. All of these questions deal with recent developments (the 1980s and 1990s), and include Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese. The first question is very contemporary, and asks since 1995, which is to say since "The Wang Shuo phenomenon", including the publication of The Abandoned Capital [Fei Du], what other incidents, trends, and controversies have there been in Chinese literature?

[Brief silence]

Liu: I definitely can’t answer that, since for the past several years, I’ve been living in America.

Wang: (To Liu) You still might say something.

Liu: Well first of all, I’m not a professional writer. And second I haven’t been in China in the 1990s. So with regard to China, I really can’t say what incidents there have been in the 1990s.

Wang: There have been a few "incidents", but since we are using the term "incident", some of these might not necessarily be in the area of literature, and can be related to other non-literary factors.

Zha: That’s right, socio-political factors.

Wang: One of the deepest influences on me from the last few years in literature has been the recent "Wang Xiaobo" phenomenon. Wang Xiaobo is a writer who is outside of the system, who last year suddenly died of heart disease. His books were all the rage and he had a large audience of young readers, especially students at Beijing University. His novels were really too long, and a lot of his work I haven’t finished , but one anthology of his critical writings titled My Spiritual Garden, which I have read, makes some pretty interesting points. Something interesting that Wang Xiaobo mentions is that Chinese people are able to discuss many types of problems, but once culture is brought up the discussion becomes a matter of who is "good" and who is "bad", and when this occurs it becomes a matter of life and death, because the "good guys" have the authority to exterminate the "bad guys".

Wang Xiaobo says that cultural discussions can be compared to the public toilets in Brussels, Belgium. That’s because in the toilets, you find every kind of great human question, like calls to overthrow some tyrant, demands to protect the environment, demands for women’s liberation, statements sympathetic towards Iraq or to attack Iraq, or maybe calls to rescue the human spirit; it’s all there.

Zha: You mean graffiti.

Wang: Everything is there. Sharp criticisms, some of it half-serious.

Zha: This proves that people in Brussels are a lot more serious than Americans, writing such lofty, weighty things.

Wang: I’ve seen public bathrooms here too, like the ones in Houston, and have seen the basic tenets of the Green Party. All of the great questions of the human race can be found in bathrooms. So Wang Xiaobo was an important case. Then there is Han Shaogong’s Horse Bridge Dictionary. This is generally considered to be well-written, and in Taiwan has been included in the China Times’ list of ten best books of the year.

[Liu and Wang speaking at the same time]:

Liu: Is it a bestseller in Taiwan?

Wang: [Not answering Liu] Horse Bridge is a place name.

Liu: Is it fiction?

Wang: Yes. But it’s arranged as if it were a dictionary. The book lists a lot of individual entries, which could be entries for a person, or tell a story. There were two young critics who said that Horse Bridge Dictionary was not well-written, and that it was just an imitation of the Ha-za-er Dictionary by a writer from El Salvador. Because of this accusation there was a lot of serious name-calling back and forth. This is just as Wang Xiaobo described; all controversies over culture in China ultimately become a matter of life and death. If the discussion is about anything else, say economics or science, this won’t happen, but as soon as the topic turns to culture, everything becomes a matter of good guys versus bad guys.

Zha: The controversy over Horse Bridge Dictionary eventually turned into a lawsuit. Quite a few writers came out and signed a declaration supporting Han Shaogong, and there were some on the other extreme supporting the critics.

Wang: A lot of controversy.

Liu: That’s right. That’s the way it is in music too. For example, as soon as the rock-star Cui Jian appeared on the scene, there were a lot of people who wanted to repress his voice. So we have the same phenomenon in music; that it seems impossible to have a lot of different schools in competition at the same time.

Qian: According to Wang Meng’s definition, Wang Xiaobo’s case seems to count as a literary "phenomenon", and Han Shaogong’s Horse Bridge Dictionary became a literary "incident". [Qian Nanxiu is an assistant professor in the Department of Asian Studies at Rice University, and came to sit in at the roundtable].

Wang: [Laughing] That’s right, Han Shaogong’s affair later turned into a kind of man-made affair, a controversy between individuals. Whereas Wang Xiaobo had already died, so people were paying more attention to his commentary. Additionally, he [Wang Xiaobo] wrote quite a lot of fiction dealing with educated youth going into the rural areas. He also wrote about the classical era, and the backdrop for a lot of this fiction was a little strange, taking classical stories from the Han and Song Dynasties. Wang Xiaobo also had a lot of sex in his work, but when he wrote about sex, it was like a naughty little boy. And there was also his poetry, for example in one of his poems he imagined that he was flying about in the sky, with his penis suspended in the air.

Zha: Actually the poem reads "hanging upside down", not "suspended".

Wang: Then, hanging upside down. His wife said his poems were quite beautiful. Simply the best poetry.

Qian: [To Wang] And your opinion would be...?

Wang: I don’t totally understand this poem of his. Wu Xiaoru is very scholarly, and has been to America several times. It's almost impossible to find a scholar of classical Chinese literature better than Wu. And people like Wu Xiaoru simply can’t tolerate Wang Xiaobo. In contemporary China, there are a lot of high-brow people. Wu Xiaoru has written one essay, and at the very beginning says that Wang Xiaobo’s literature is very low-class. It is important to note that Wu is a professor who really excels in classical literature, he’s not just some writer. Just like when Wang Shuo emerged, there was a group of outstanding, high-quality, high-brow writers in Chinese society who just couldn’t tolerate Wang Shuo. They couldn’t tolerate Jia Pingwa's The Abandoned Capital, and couldn’t tolerate Wang Xiaobo either. In China, there are really too many of these high-brow types.

Qian: Actually, regarding the controversy of the last two years between Wang Shuo and Zhang Chengzhi, I can stomach some of the other high-brow critics, but I’ve got something to say about Zhang Chengzhi being high-brow.

Wang: [Laughing] Why?

Qian: Because he’s always waving a high-brow flag, and always doing shameful things.

Zha: [Laughing] What do you mean by waving a high-brow flag and doing shameful things?

Qian: He’s the same age as I am. He was in the Red Guard and I was really kicked around by them. So there is a lot of class hatred there.

Wang: [Laughing]

Qian: He’s always been there using somebody else's "will" to revolt. And it’s always legal revolt. He uses the law to support his revolt, which always is for his individual goals -- whether for fame, or for profit, but probably predominately for fame. To protect himself, he always uses the most fashionable revolutionary theme as his authority or guide. At first it was Mao Zedong, and after Mao was out, he discovered Malcolm X, a contemporary black leader, or the Black Panthers, and from Japan the Red Army.

[Translators note: in this section of the roundtable, Ms. Qian is a bit hesitant of the names she is mentioning. There is some discussion, to clarify the names and background).

Wang: You mean the Red Army Faction.

Qian: Yes, the Red Army Faction. Zhang Chengzhi appropriates all of the most powerful and prominent groups; he tries to exploit everything.

Wang: [Laughing] You’re talking about his motives, which isn’t something we’re going to discuss here.

Qian: But this can’t be left unmentioned, because Zhang Chengzhi has had too great of an influence. At first, I didn’t have a very good impression of Wang Shuo, but when I saw him being attacked by Zhang Chengzhi, I immediately took Wang Shuo’s side.

Wang and Liu: [laughing]

Qian: That was a little unprofessional of me, sorry.

Wang: That’s okay.

Zha: Actually, now that we’ve mentioned Wang Shuo, that leads into the next question, which currently everybody is taking about. This is the "commodification [or commercialization] of literature" since the 1990s. Commercialization is not limited to literature, but has also expanded into areas such as music, newspapers, publishing in general, television, etc. Currently in China this trend falls under the name of "commodification" [shangpin dachao]. On the part of Chinese writers, one can see all kinds of reactions and ways to deal with it, over which there has been some heated controversy. So the question submitted to us is essentially asking what both of you have to say about this change.

Wang: Well, Chinese literature really has not become very commercialized. This is because in China there are so many literary magazines and writers associations, and as long as the expenses for these aren't too great, financing them doesn’t pose a problem, since most of them have government backing. Therefore, with the majority of writers in China receiving state salaries, myself included, those of us who get this salary are "cadres", essentially the same as government bureaucrats. So, this literature is not very commercialized.

Zha: There are also people who get these salaries who aren’t professional writers, for example editors.

Wang: That’s right, that aspect isn’t totally commercial either, but currently there is another type of commercialization, for example publishers. The burden for publishers to make money has become serious, and a lot of publishers issue their editors a "standard", telling the editors how much money they need to make for a given year, usually over 50,000 books. When they reach this standard, they are paid a percentage, so editors have to try as hard as they can to find books that will make money. But at the same time, they also look for "award winning books" which are in line with demands of the upper-ranks. Currently there are some books which both sell and win awards. Most recently, one type of popular political work has emerged, like Zhang Xianliang’s most recent book Small Talk China. Small Talk China doesn’t treat China in a grand way, but rather looks at small aspects of China. This book advocates a market economy, and it has not really been interfered with because political policies have been consistent since the 15th National Congress. Another example is Liang Xiaosheng’s recent "Analysis of Social Classes in China in 1997".

Qian: What’s that?

Wang: I’m not absolutely sure myself. It is a very long article. The part of the title "Analysis of Social Classes in China" is actually taken from one of Mao Zedong’s very well-known writings of his early period, which is always the first article in any anthology dealing with Mao. Liang takes 1997 as a time-frame, and analyzes different classes from 1997. For example, Liang calls the group making a lot of money the "Big Bucks" group [Da kuan], and has other groups like "male and female laborers" [Da gong zai; Da gong mei], but I haven’t read this very carefully.

However, Liao Xiaosheng has spoken to me about his overriding themes, which are that (1) he insists on taking the side of the common people and sympathizes with them. (2) He advocates amicable relations between classes, and even though he sarcastically takes the group known as "entrepreneurs" to task and shows a lot about how they operate, he doesn’t advocate violent revolution against them; nobody these days would do that and such an action would be intolerable to everybody. While we are still on the subject of commercialization, recently there has been another phenomenon, or incident. The Liaoning Spring Wind Press has an editor named An Boshun who has organized a Cloth Tiger Anthology. When he was recruiting writers for this project, he had three conditions which were (1) the writing should relate a story (2) he asked the writers to write about urban life (3) he hoped to be able to provide people with a few ideals. This third condition meant that he had to be able to approve it. So if something couldn't be "approved", than any hopes for making money would go up in smoke.

I wrote some for him, and just used a very common literary topic, and supplied my own content. Tie Ning, Hong Feng, and Zhang Kangkang have also written for him, and each edition Liang has come out with has sold at least 100,000 copies. Zhang Kangkang’s Gallery of Romantic Passion sold 200,000 copies, and Zhang Kangkang was able to use his earnings from this book to buy a car and a house. And since the Cloth Tiger Anthologies appeared, a "Cloth Tiger Culture Company" has also started as an adjunct, with the two more or less feeding into each other.

Of course, there is a small group of writers like Zhang Chengzhi -- for example Han Shaogong and Zhang Wei -- who considered in terms of being older and from their writings are really the best of the best -- all express strong critiques against commercialization and feel that writers have sunken into a decline.

Zha: Since you put it this way, both sides have their representatives, and are known as the "the two Zhangs and one Han", Zhang Wei from Shandong Province...

Wang: Zhang Wei has recently published some longer fiction which is rather good, like Clan, Baihui, Old Boat, and September Allegory. His main theme is known as "Defend the Countryside", which emphasizes that the rural villages are the best thing in China, and that all kinds of development and reforms are trampling the countryside and debasing it.

Qian: What are the names of these some of these?

Wang: He’s written one very good essay which is quite emotional, called "Defend the Countryside". In a nutshell, people writing such prose adopt very critical attitudes, but the attention paid to it was fairly brief, with some people applauding it, and others disapproving of it. But it is not a very hot topic right now, and is discussed mostly at a theoretical level.

Zha: Since I’ve brought up this controversy, maybe you could say whether you approve of it or not. The "Two Zhangs and One Han" are representative of the views of one side, and on the other side we have "The Two Wangs" -- Wang Meng and Wang Shuo. Consequently a lot of people have been affected, and a lot of writers and scholars have gotten involved, and the matter has become quite controversial.

Qian: I never would have thought that Wang Meng and Wang Shuo would be on the same side.

Wang: That’s because I wrote several articles in which I said some good things about him, and afterwards several of the best writers became very angry. Since Wang Shuo belonged to the "ruffian" clique anyway this was no surprise, but for the dignified Wang Meng to go so far as take the side of a "ruffian", well, that’s like ...

Zha: Well, in China is there something in between? For example we’ve just discussed commercialization, and on the other hand extreme idealistic works; are there any works like there are overseas, which are somewhere in between literary and commercial?

Wang: Most works are in between. How could there really be such extremes? At first, we had Shanghai, which is the most sensitive. So there was the worry that "oh, here comes commercialization, what is it, where did it come from, and what can we do about it?" And I thought, "So? If it’s here, it’s here. What can anybody do about it."

Zha: [laughs]

Wang: There’s no reason to do anything about it. It’s not taking anybody’s rice away, and everybody still gets their grain coupons, and they aren't being thrown out of their houses. So what? People are making money. Let them make money.

Qian: A lot of writers felt they had been given the cold shoulder. I know because I’m acquainted with some of these people in Shanghai.

Wang: They would say things like, "what are we going to do", or "who’s going to watch out for us in the face of this new trend?" Well, who do you want to watch out for you, can’t you take care of yourselves? It’s not as if you’ll have to start begging on the street. I can’t remember why, I’ve don’t know what it was exactly, but a reporter asked Wang Zengqi about something, unfortunately he has passed away now. Wang Zengqi said, "It doesn’t bother me!", and I really admire that statement. Let people make their money, there is no need to get upset about it -- if people get rich it’s not like the money is coming out of your pocket. Sometimes I defend the trend towards commercialization, because to some extent it has given us a more flexible atmosphere, and opened up new spaces, for example newspapers are all adding new sections, and now we have a few evening newspapers with feature sections, and weekend editions. We also get things like satirical essays, miscellaneous prose, and some light columns, such as cooking. What’s the point of opposing these kinds of things? But there are some people who very energetically oppose them.

Zha: The entire situation is extremely complex, and not necessarily a simple case of "you versus me", or of a clear difference between what’s negative and positive. There are a lot of overlapping position. It’s not necessarily true that some of the great writers haven’t written things of a popular nature, or that people writing popular things have totally sold out the spirit of literature, but as soon as the controversy emerged, it became very heated, and it was as if two armies formed, and everybody lined up to take one of the two sides. However, it seems that in the last two years there hasn’t been any such controversy, and the controversy has shifted into a more theoretical realm.

Wang: There is a big difference between the 1980s and the 1990s, and the 1980s has been aptly described by Chen Sihe, who said that there was a Common Subject [Gongming Wenxue].

Zha: Where is this term from? Is it a Western academic term which has been translated into Chinese?

Wang: No, it’s Chen’s own term. In the 1980s, it didn’t matter what you wrote, in the past there was always a center, like criticizing the radical leftist line during the Cultural Revolution, or later advocating the Four Modernizations, or perhaps saying that China should establish a democratic legal system, or raise the status of intellectuals. Since the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s, there has been one line after another, and this has continued very clearly into the 1980s. But in the 1990s, it has become difficult to grab onto a common subject. This is a good thing isn’t it? So the 1990s are quite different. In the 1990s each generation is very different. If one compares the changes in America over the last fifty to one hundred years to changes in China, the changes in America are much less drastic. Changes in China occur about every ten years, and each change occurs under a totally different environment.

Zha: Speaking of this comparison, last year in Beijing I saw an American who had been a student in the 1960s, and is currently a judge. She said that in the 1960s, "our parents thought that there were great changes, and that there were a lot of heated controversies, particularly since our parent’s generation had been so stable. But when I consider the changes that had come about by the 1990s in China, I simply can’t imagine what Chinese people been through. To us, the speed that change has come about in China is mind-boggling" [Zha explaining the English term "mind-boggling" to Wang Meng, saying that it was as if everybody were experiencing heart-attacks]. This judged wondered how in just twenty or thirty years we could deal with such violent, rapid, and monumental changes? First we would have one social reform, and that would be immediately followed by all kinds of movements, all of broad scope, so with all of these changes, she couldn’t imagine how the mind-set of the Chinese people could deal with all of it. She felt that Westerners all need to have set cycles, or value systems to keep things steady, and wasn’t sure if Chinese people had them or not. At that moment, I couldn’t think of any such system, it seems there is none.

Wang: These changes from one generation to the next are really too great. Anybody alive now who is over ninety years old -- May 4th writers like Ba Jin, and Xie Binxin -- all noble and prestigious writers. They like young people, and young people like them. Ba Jin doesn’t say much about recent changes, but Xie Binxin does. Xie Binxin remarked that she really likes women writers, because at least Wang Shuo isn’t included in that group.

Zha: She said that publicly?

Wang: That’s right. And then it kept circulating. Wang Shuo does like to cause trouble. There was someone who asked him if his appraisal of Chinese culture wasn’t too low, pointing out that Chinese music was quite good. They told Wang that the Chinese zither was good, and instruments like the suona and the erhu were nice too. Wang Shuo said, well if Chinese instruments were so great, than why didn’t we use the suona to play our own national anthem?

Zha, Qian, and Liu: [all laughing]

Wang: These are the kind of things he would howl about on the Beijing Radio.

Zha: [laughing] Sola should say something here. Sola was not only a representative writer in the 80s, she was also one of the most talented of the up-and-coming musicians, although since that time she has been abroad.

Wang: You weren’t in the Red Guard were you?

Liu: I was one of the youngest. The others didn’t want me, and complained I was too young. I missed it by about two years, but I tailed along after the older Red Guards. I was really curious about what people were doing.

Wang: So what comments would you make on music?

Liu: Listening to you all discussing literature makes me particularly sympathetic towards Chinese musicians. This is because in Chinese music circles, there is never any kind of controversy. The only ones who have created a stir are a few musicians who have gone abroad.

Wang: Created a stir?

Liu: The ones who learn something abroad and go back to China, are the "prodigies", that’s a stir. And these people go back fooling everybody that they are prodigies because they’ve been abroad. People in music are naive, thinking that those people are prodigies. This is unlike literature, and hearing people talk about literature is really interesting to me, because you’ve all got so much to talk about.

Zha: We can at least make a start.

Liu: In music we can’t even make a start. It’s really a shame, that’s my feeling. Aside from this, since we mentioned Chinese music, I don’t have anything to argue about with Wang Shuo, because I really like his writing. If he doesn’t like Chinese music, well, he just doesn’t like it.

Wang: He’s just shooting off his mouth.

Zha: That’s his nature.

Liu: That’s right, you can’t take him seriously. If you listen to what he says, it’s better to just laugh it off.

Zha: Now as for Chinese music, this isn’t strictly talking about music, there’s also culture involved...

Liu: Because I’m abroad, I am adamant about developing Chinese music. After becoming a musician outside of China, I’ve always thought that Chinese music is especially important. Western music has such a presence, but I really like Chinese music, if you can see its strong points, and you will also feel that it really must be preserved.

Zha: When the time comes, you can become a "Nationalist" [laughing]. Right now in China there is a debate over nationalism [translator; Zha is playing on the Chinese word minzu yinyue, which literally means national or folk music. In the previous contexts minzu yinyue was rendered as Chinese music. By analogy, Chinese music could be called Nationalist music].


Qian: Well, there are definitely a lot more people in music going abroad than there are from literature.

Liu: Yes, but does that really show anything? What I’m trying to say is that there is always some information about literature in China. But there are a lot of music institutes in China. The students are very good, like students from the Central Music Institute, who not only are extremely talented, but also quite motivated in their studies, but there’s never any information, and information doesn’t seem to get in either, nobody knows a thing. This is something you should have a talk about with Mr. Wu Zuqiang.

Qian: Why?

Wang: Wu Zuqiang. He was the Chancellor of the Central Music Institute.

Liu: First of all, there are so many institutes of literature, so many literary journals and publishers. But music doesn’t have all of this, there are only a few music institutes. And if all of the information is controlled by the music institutes, basically, there is no information. And the record industry wants to examine everything that’s imported, so it makes it difficult for music to get off the ground; there’s really no comparison between the situation in music and other areas. The main topic for today is primarily literature, but if you want to discuss music, it’s quite difficult.

Zha: One aspect of Chinese music is similar to the "root-seeking" trend in literature. That is to say, the question of Chinese music and learning from the West.

Wang: This doesn't pose a serious problem.

Liu: I remember once when I was in England at a conference, somebody asked you [indicating Wang Meng] that now since China has opened up, and with the prevalence of modern literature whether you worried that Chinese literature would disappear? Do you remember?

Wang: No, I don’t.

Liu: Well, I still remember your answer. You said, China wasn’t afraid of this, that China’s national culture would never become eroded. That one shouldn’t worry about it getting lost, because national culture is so deep. Later, I saw that in the case of music, what you said is true. On my last trip back, I asked a lot of young people what kind of music they liked. Currently there’s a lot of music going into China from Hong Kong and from Taiwan, and you can see things like MTV in every city. But I discovered that a lot of young people like to listen to Beijing Opera, and they actually have a strong interest in Chinese music. I asked them why, and they said that listening to popular music made them feel annoyed, and that they didn’t want to listen to it. They really differ from people from Hong Kong and Taiwan who love pop music.

Wang: That’s right, it is different; there is an entirely different air of commercialization in society within China.

Liu: There is a very strong sense of nostalgia.

Wang: Actually, the government has done a lot of work here, like television shows which teach people how to sing Beijing opera. In Shanghai, there are well-known performers who teach singing at cultural centers. All of this has provided a good base.

Zha: The last few years when I’ve gone back to China, there are a lot of youth in the audience at Beijing operas, and in the past there were very few.


Wang: There is a big difference between literature from Taiwan and Chinese literature. There are however some areas from both sides that have influenced each other. Personally, I like the "great leftist writer" Chen Yingzhen the best. Of the newer writers, I like Zhang Dachun, who writes in a mocking tone. But from Taiwan, I feel that Yu Guangzhong has had the greatest influence on mainland writers. This influence is seen from both his poetry and his prose. Taiwan’s poetry has had a great influence on the mainland, poets like Ya Xian, Luo Fu, and Zheng Chouyu. As for Yu Guangzhong ....

Zha: Have they been as influential as Qiong Yao?

Wang: Qiong Yao hasn’t had an influence on serious fiction from the mainland. If you are talking about who’s more influential, that would be Jin Yong.

Qian: Wang Xiaobo did say that Jin Yong had had a great influence on him.

Zha: A lot of Chinese writers are Jin Yong aficionados, and it’s "fashionable" to say that you have been influenced by him.

Wang: It’s easy to see from Yu Guangzhong’s prose that he’s from Taiwan; mostly because he has a bookish air; extremely bookish. The majority of Chinese writers are rural writers, and have all had to go work in the countryside. For them to also write takes a special kind of "Kung Fu" [Everybody laughs].

Zha: What’s your impression of new generation writers (from Taiwan) like Zhu Tianxin and Zhu Tianwen?

Wang: I haven’t read very many of the new generation writers, so I’m not very sure. In China, every time we had a new phenomenon like "Root-seeking" or "Experimental Fiction", Chinese people always wanted to "conceptualize" them, but after things would develop somewhat, people would forget about the conceptions.

Liu: China’s cultural and artistic groups are really lacking in natural feelings. When writers look at other writers, or even when considering themselves there is this lack of naturalness.

Wang: Some of these conceptions are brought up by the writers themselves, like for example "Root-seeking", which was mentioned by Han Shaogong.

Liu: What I’m trying to say is that Chinese writers always lack a natural enthusiasm -- like saying "I think I should do this, so I’ll do it". But the majority of artists don’t do this. They always want to look around and see what everybody else is doing.

Wang: There aren’t very many of those people, how could people like that write anything good?

Qian: Recently in the mainland, have there been any notable developments in literary criticism? I know that for writers critics are your enemies.

Wang: Recently, Xie Mian has edited a set of books titled Chinese Literary Classics Over One Hundred Years, published in Beijing. There was also a set published in Shenzhen titled One Hundred Years of Classics in Chinese Literature. The content of both of these collections are actually quite different. So as to what exactly constitutes a classic, people all say what they want and have their own opinions.


Zha: A few of the questions submitted to us ask what books have been influential in China. In the 1990s, there have been quite a few books reminiscing about the Mao era, and these have taken various forms.

Wang: Currently there is a group that emphasizes Lu Xun. And when they mention Lu Xun in their writings, they don’t refer to him as Lu Xun, but say "Sir did this" or "Sir did that".

Zha: Like the way people talk about Confucius.

Wang: Like they are talking about God. Very stiff.

Zha: About the nostalgia on Mao. Generally speaking, the people who feel nostalgic about Mao also feel nostalgic about Lu Xun. After the 1990s, a lot of Chinese writers have gone abroad, and there have been some periodicals as a result of this, like Today.

Wang: It’s actually quite difficult to strictly demarcate some of these things. A lot of the articles which were published in Today had been previously published in China, and some authors submit their work to more than one place at the same time. So they might publish in China, abroad, and in Taiwan.

Liu: Some of the writers in exile have written Maoist works, and this is something that they trained themselves to do abroad (Everybody laughs).

Zha: Recently there was a conference -- this conference included writers from China and Chinese writers living abroad. They were all more or less the same age, but everybody said there were a lot of areas in which the two groups couldn’t communicate. The writers abroad all come to realize that the world was really a big place, and that their work had all developed in that regard. But the writers who were still in China were still limited to a certain level. The writers from China said, "We knew that too!..."

Wang: Actually literature has been greatly influenced by other regions and other countries, and so this doesn't really need to be emphasized. During my trip to Taiwan, I met a lot of writers who were always theorizing. They would say: "A small island is capable of producing a great writer". Now that's funny! If you want to say you’re a great writer, say it. This doesn’t have anything to do with living on a small island. (Everybody laughs). And then I said, of course a small island can produce a great writer, and a manger might produce a Jesus, but that doesn’t mean that every child born in a manger is going to be Jesus. The question really is, are you or aren’t you a great writer? If you aren’t, then there is nothing to be uptight about. Wait until you are and then talk about it. What you just said about Jin Yong and the others is more or less the same. You can say you’ve got a lot of information, but just having a lot of information doesn’t necessarily produce a great writer. Did Cao Xueqin have access to a lot of information? What about Li Bai, and what about during Shakespeare’s era? But Cao Xueqin became Cao Xueqin. If you aren’t a great writer, then you’re not. Where you live isn’t important, if you keep moving around does that show anything? If you are a great writer, then everything is fine, but if you’re not, than what's the use of saying that you are?

Liu: It doesn’t matter how long you stay abroad, as long as you keep writing in Chinese, your writing isn’t going to be that much different.

Zha: Ultimately, what’s most important to writing is the individual.

Wang: Somebody might say they represent Beijing, or perhaps Houston. That’s impossible, you only represent yourself, who can really represent everybody else? Wait until you’ve become "great", and other people come along and see that you’re from Hebei or Henan, Shanghai or New York.

Liu: But all of the writers in exile have experienced the solitude of "greatness" (everybody laughs). So in your solitude you can feel extremely "great". But this is really the result of education.

Wang: A lot of people put themselves in a certain category, and keep telling themselves that they belong there, and this helps the category take hold. In practice all one can do is look at the works. If the works are good, I’m content, and I don’t need to know if you’re from Henan or Hebei; if you’ve gone abroad, or how many languages you speak. This is all irrelevant to me. I just look at the work, and if its "great" then I’m satisfied.

Liu: I still have a feeling about writers in China, that they all want to win the Nobel Prize (laughs).

Zha: This is something people always ask about. All of the really famous Chinese writers seem to have a "Nobel complex". This is debated every year, with people wondering why the Nobel isn’t awarded to a Chinese person. Wang Meng, would you say that in the past few years that there is less of this kind of talk?

Wang: I haven’t heard much about it; nobody has been discussing this recently.

Qian: Could you give a little background about the Mao Dun Prize?

Wang: I’m not very familiar with the details. They have formed a review committee, chaired by Ba Jin, and Liu Baiyu is the assistant chairperson. The voting system requires a two-thirds vote to approve a work.

Qian: The types of works that works that win these awards are set anyway, so there's not much insight to be gained from them.

Wang: Currently there are all types of awards, some are given by the Ministry of Propaganda, and others are given by the Chinese Writers Association.

Zha: Didn’t Mo Yan’s Buxom and Hippy win the Mao Dun award last year?

Wang: No. It was White Deer Plain.

Qian: Recently there has been a lot of historical fiction, and I have something to say about that. If you’re going to pervert history you shouldn’t pervert it to this extent.

Wang: Have you been reading it? I haven’t.

Qian: Su Tong and Yu Hua are like that. I heard that they relied on a lot of local histories, and wrote about any kind of weird things they found there.

Zha: You can’t totally look at it from that perspective. These are novels, and not really history or ...

Wang: That’s right, it’s entertainment.

Qian: This is my pet peeve. I feel like these types of things should be culturally authentic.

Zha: It’s like Hollywood movies, which makes entertainment its trademark.

Wang: Currently there are a few historical novels in China which are really popular. Like Zeng Guofan, written by Tang Haoming. Later, he also wrote Yang Du. People say that one is better than Zeng Guofan. I haven’t read either of them. I did read one by somebody named Zhang, called The Hundred Days Reform.

Qian: Is this considered as serious fiction?

Wang: Yes, it is. And what's interesting is that when you read it, it does convey the sense of wisdom intrinsic to history.

Qian: Then you get the reward of reading something based on real events, as opposed to Yu Hua or Su Tong, who use casually use history as background but make it into a kind of game.

Wang: I think that we should allow some room for this type of playful fiction. Novels always seem to be offering some lesson, and are too stuffy. But currently we do have fiction that is more leisurely and entertaining. Our current lifestyles definitely have this mass, fast-food type of reading, which is intended to help get rid of your worries, or maybe just give you something to do when your airplane is delayed.

Qian: Those novels that you just mentioned, have they been influenced by Gao Yang?

Wang: I'm not very clear on Gao Yang's fiction.

Zha: Gao Yang is a historical fiction writer from Taiwan, and his novels were popular in China for a short time.

Wang: It's difficult to be sure of the reasons that affect book sales when comparing China and Taiwan. Yu Qiuyu's bestsellers provide the most interesting example. His books were extremely popular in Taiwan, but didn't catch on in either Hong Kong or China. Shanghai writers still won't accept him either. But Yu Qiuyu's books have twice won prizes in Taiwan; one could say that anything he publishes will be a success.

Zha: Yu Qiuyu's prose certainly has it's characteristics; it's gentle yet historical, and also has that "bookishness" which you just referred to.

Liu: It's well-suited for Taiwan.

Wang: Recently there has been another writer very popular in Taiwan; Yan Geling. If she writes a book, it will win a prize, so she's become a "prize expert" in Taiwan. To a large extent her life relies on winning these prizes. And what's interesting is that when her books were published in China that didn't get that kind of reaction at all. But in Taiwan they eat her stuff up, the same as Yu Qiuyu. The fiction is soft and guileless, with a classical touch. I'm not really sure what to make of it.

Zha: A Taiwanese flavor.

Qian: They can't handle spicy food.

Wang: That's right. It should be sweet and sour.

Zha: And maybe a little bitter (laughs).

Wang: Can you sing this tune in Taiwan?

Liu: If you pinch your voice.

Wang: You mean fake it.

Liu: That's right, make it sound soft. Taiwanese women are more "elegant" than women from the mainland. Mainland women aren't elegant. Well, it seems our topic now is mainland women ... (everybody laughs).

Zha: Well, if we're just going to chat, we might as well say that our formal discussion has ended, and is pronounced a success. Thanks to all of you.


NOTE: Translated and transcribed by Marshall McArthur, Doctoral Candidate in Chinese Literature, University of Texas at Austin. Contact Marshall McArthur at See copy of his curriculum vitae (in Big 5 Format).


Go to the homepage of ALSO Productions, where you can find more information about the work of Liu Sola, including sound samples from her new album, HAUNTS.