Interview. Yan Lianke told us from isolation in his apartment: ‘If there had been more tolerance and freedom of expression, the scale of the epidemic would certainly not have been of this magnitude.’

Chinese novelist Yan Lianke describes quarantine in Beijing: ‘I find support in literature’

We spoke with the acclaimed Chinese novelist about his experience under quarantine, anti-China sentiment and the inspiration for his books.

How are you experiencing these weeks of isolation because of the ongoing epidemic? I know you’re busy writing a new novel. 

My family and I are doing pretty well. We’ve been locked in our house for the past 30 days. In all this time, I’ve only gone down to the ground floor three times, and I never left the apartment complex we live in. And still, the anxiety and anger are slowly fading. We’re getting used even to this kind of life. Powerless. There’s nothing else we can do. Little by little, we’re trying to rationally reflect on this disaster that has hit China and the whole of humanity. This forced break has allowed me to focus on my new book. I hope to find help and support in literature.

What does writing mean to you? And what does it mean to write in China these days? 

Writing is a creative process, a journey without a goal or destination. It is us, as human beings, who are moving towards a goal. Writing makes me feel alive in my own uniqueness. In other words, I have always used literature as a creative process aimed at searching for the meaning of life.

image of Yan Lianke

The way the narrative of the epidemic was initially handled recalls in some ways your novel The Explosion Chronicles. How much do you think the initial lack of transparency contributed to the spread of the epidemic?

The theme of an epidemic is present in many of my novels. For instance, The Passing of Time, Dream of Ding Village, but also The Day the Sun Died. Certainly, the way in which the narrative of the epidemic was initially managed recalls my novel The Explosion Chronicles in some ways. The outbreak of the epidemic is linked to verbal censorship, to the deletion of online posts, to the increasing restrictions on the media and on speech.

If there had been more tolerance and freedom of expression, the scale of the epidemic would certainly not have been of this magnitude. That should give us pause for thought. Tolerance and freedom of expression are a fundamental prerequisite for the progress and development of society.

In recent weeks, it hasn’t been just the epidemic that spread, but also a strong wave of Sinophobia at the global level. The virus doesn’t discriminate according to ethnicity, but human prejudice does. How does all of that make you feel?

I live in Beijing permanently, so I haven’t had a chance to come into contact with this wave of Sinophobia. From what I’m reading in the newspapers, I wonder: if the epidemic had started elsewhere and only arrived in China later, how would we, the Chinese, have acted? Better or worse? How would we have reacted? I am very moved by the help that many countries are offering us. Instead of thinking about Sinophobic attitudes, we should be asking ourselves where we went wrong and why we got to this point.

What do you think about the wave of media panic that is spreading in Italy these days? What is your message to the Italian population? 

From a statistical point of view, COVID-19 has a high recovery rate, and if ad hoc measures such as isolation are implemented, the epidemic can be controlled and prevented from spreading. Of course, an immediate reaction of panic is understandable.

However, if you really want to control and prevent the epidemic, you need to follow the indications of the medical personnel, remain calm and not panic—whether this panic is spontaneous or willfully stoked.

I would like to say to the Italian population that I, as a Chinese citizen, am mortified and deeply saddened that the epidemic has spread throughout the world, and, above all, that it has caused so much damage and sowed panic among people.

A few months ago, your book The Years, Months, Days (ed. Nottetempo) was finally published in Italy, 23 years after its original publication. However, it seems more relevant than ever nowadays, especially regarding the relationship between man and nature. What is nature’s role in the life of human beings? 

I wrote The Years, Months, Days in 1996. It’s been 24 years already. Nature is a fundamental theme in the novels that were being written at that time. Does nature belong to man, or is man an integral part of nature? That’s a question I’ve been thinking a lot about. To answer the question, I don’t believe that nature has, or should play, a role in human life. We should rather think about what role man should play in relation to our planet. The history of human beings is so short compared to that of nature. Man has been usurping the environment for centuries, and now we are paying the price for it. The Chinese philosopher Laozi speaks of a “union of Heaven and Man.” All too topical, I’d say. Man is a constituent and integral part of nature.

You’re originally from the province of Henan. What do the Balou Mountains—the imaginary mountain range set in your native province—represent to you? And what was the inspiration for the name?

In Chinese, “balou” means a kind of rake used by farmers for sowing. So, for me, this name represents the agricultural civilization, the rural world. In fact, there is a mountain with that name near my home village, so, in addition to the meaning of the term, apparently hidden—at least for Italian readers—I was simply inspired by reality.

The protagonists of your stories, at the mercy of adverse destiny and inexorable nature, seem to find hope in the simplest and most human things. What is man’s only lifeline?

The only lifeline for human beings is that beam of light that opens a gap in the darkness, that glimmer that rips through the dark—and, if we wish, we could certainly call it love.

Your latest book, Heart Sutra, has just been published by the City University of Hong Kong Press. How does it differ from your previous books? Your stories are always permeated by a mythical, fairy-tale-like dimension, sometimes religious, but always rooted in reality. What role does religion play in the lives of human beings?

Heart Sutra is my first book to focus entirely on religion. It’s true, my stories are always permeated by a mythical, fairy-tale-like, sometimes religious dimension, but in the case of Heart Sutra, religion is the true protagonist. I would like to point out that I am a writer, and I don’t identify with any particular religious belief. For me, the religious dimension represents an outlet for the spirit, since the reality around us is full of paradoxes.

Which one of your books has been the most successful among Chinese readers, and which one among Western readers? How do you explain that? 

I’d like to point out that I wouldn’t call myself a “successful” author. I’ll explain it better: To Live by Yu Hua sold about ten million copies in China, as I recall. Well, in my case, if I manage to get a novel published, that’s already a victory. If I can sell a hundred thousand copies, I’m satisfied. In China, a lot of my essays and prose books in which I deal with various topics are selling very many copies. In France, I know that The Years, Months, Days and Enjoyment are selling quite well. In the English-speaking world, it’s Dream of Ding Village and The Day the Sun Died. Generally speaking, if my foreign publishers aren’t losing money, that’s already a great satisfaction for me. Also because, on a fundamental level, I’m writing for myself.

In your book Me and My Father’s Generation, you write that you feels a genuine sense of gratitude towards Zhang Kangkang, whose book The Boundary Line has marked your entire life. Why is that?

Because it was the book that made me realize I could get out of a rural environment and make a life for myself. It opened my eyes and made me who I am today.

In conclusion, can you tell us something about the new book you’re writing now? 

It’s a tale about all the women in my family. For Italian readers, it is certainly an interesting cross-section of Chinese life, as well as a window on women’s customs and social changes in the Chinese countryside over the last hundred years.

Irreverent and censored at home

Yan Lianke is an internationally renowned Chinese writer. Born in 1958, he is one of the most prolific, widely discussed and active writers on the Chinese literary scene. He is often described, and sometimes hailed, as the most irreverent and most censored writer in his country. He has won prestigious literary awards in China and abroad, including the Lu Xun Prize, the Lao She Prize, the Asia Weekly Best Ten Books Award, the Dream of the Red Chamber Award, the Franz Kafka Prize and the Huazong Prize. The novel Enjoyment (“Shou huo,” 2004), not yet translated in Italian, was the one that established him as a writer of international fame.

That work, published abroad under the title Lenin’s Kisses, was an enormous success. Le Monde called Lianke one of the giants of literature, and The Guardian praised him as a master of sarcasm. His books published in Italian include Serve the People (“Servire il popolo”), Dream of Ding Village (“Il sogno del villaggio dei Ding”), Me and My Father’s Generation (“Pensando a mio padre”), Magistrate Liu and Other Stories (“Il podestà Liu e altri racconti”), The Four Books (“I quattro libri”) and The Years, Months, Days (“Gli anni, i mesi, i giorni”).

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