Interviewed August 30, 2003 – University of Iowa International Writing Program, Shambaugh House – Iowa City, Iowa.
Special thanks to Nancy Tsai of the University of Iowa Translation Workshop MFA program who helped translate during this interview.
Standaert—Can you talk about what led you to leave dentistry to become a writer? Did this provoke any conflicts between you and your family, economically, personally?
Yu Hua—I decided to give up being a dentist twenty years ago. I had been working as a dentist for five years, but I didn’t like the job because I was looking into people’s mouths the whole day. The mouth offers the worst scenic view in the world. I was still young and I wanted to see other more interesting things. I noticed the people working at the cultural center wandering about in the streets the whole day. So I asked them one day, “Why aren’t you working?” They told me that their job was to wander about in the streets. I thought to myself, “Now that’s my kind of job.” I asked them how I could start working at the cultural center. They told me to write novels. Once I got my novels published I’d be qualified to work at the cultural center. So I started to write novels and get them published in various literary magazines. That’s when I went to work at the cultural center. In the early 1980s in China, you had no right to look for your own job. Jobs were assigned to you by the government. Because of this, I needed to ask the government for permission to give up my job as a dentist and work at the cultural center. When I left the hospital for the cultural center, there were no less than a dozen or so huge red stamps on my documents. I decided to arrive two hours late for my first day of work at the cultural center. It turned out that I was the first one to arrive. I thought, “Boy was this the right place for me.”
In China during the 1980s, a doctor wasn’t any richer than a worker. The doctors then were all poor bastards. They were given fixed wages by the government. So I gave up being a dentist to work at a cultural center without suffering any stress either emotionally or economically. On the contrary, I felt so happy I nearly woke up smiling. I turned from being a poor bastard who worked his ass off every day into a poor bastard who had a jolly good time every day. I was still a poor bastard, but a poor bastard in the cultural center who had every minute to himself. I slept until noon nearly every day. Then I would spend my time wandering about in the streets. If there were absolutely no people left to play with me, I’d go home and write. In 1993, when I believed I could support myself with my writing, I gave up the job, the one that offered the most freedom in the world. I settled in Beijing and began a life filled with even more freedom.
Standaert—From looking at your list of publications you seem extremely prolific. You’ve written how many novels since you left dentistry and began writing in 1984?
Yu Hua—I’ve written twelve books since 1984. I’m not considered a prolific writer in China. My contemporaries have published more than I have. Since I became a writer, I first forgot about holidays because I could give myself a holiday any day I wanted to. Then I forgot about schedules. What are mornings? Afternoons? Evenings? If I wanted to have a good time, I’d have a good time. If I wanted to write, I’d write. But of course I’d always make sure to eat well and sleep well before writing.
Standaert—What was your early life like growing up during the Cultural Revolution? What did your parents do? Where did you grow up?
Yu Hua—I grew up in a small town in southern China. Both my parents were doctors. I finished elementary school and middle school during the Cultural Revolution. I grew up in a period without books. Nearly all literature was burned. Occasionally, when I did get hold of a book, one that dwelled in the hands of many before they reached mine, it would be missing the first dozen or so pages and the last dozen or so pages. I read a couple of novels without knowing their titles, authors, openings, or endings. I believe my first real literary reading experience began with my reading Big Character Posters during the Cultural Revolution. Big Character Posters were filled with lies, accusations, denunciations, and attacks. The Cultural Revolution brought out the full potential of Chinese imaginative powers. People invented crimes for each other out of thin air. The crimes were usually made up of a series of stories. I remember carrying my book-bag on my way home from school and reading each poster as I walked along. I wasn’t interested in the revolutionary slogans. I was interested in the stories. Even the horny ones.
Standaert—Since there was little access to literature around when you were young, how did you become a reader and what do you read now?
Yu Hua—I am a very good reader now. Before you become a writer you must be a good reader. If you are not a good reader, you will not be a good writer. I’ve been reading a lot on China’s history for the last two years, mainly twentieth century Chinese history. I’ve come to realize that in the last one-hundred years China has gone through so much change. These books are written by people who have actually lived through these changes … writings by political figures, and collections of essays by ordinary people who have lived through the times.
Standaert—What deeply affects you about these changes? What do you see for the future of China?
Yu Hua—My generation seems to have experienced more than any other generation. I’m 43 now. For the first twenty years of my life, I was living in a time of poverty and oppression; the next twenty years were spent in a time of increasing wealth and freedom. The two periods are radically different. The gap between the two is like the gap between Europe in the Middle Ages and Europe now. You would almost have to be over one hundred years old to have experienced two such different periods. I often feel that I have the soul of a hundred year old man. I believe this is good for my writing. As for China’s future, I have confidence in it. My country has witnessed many miracles. The pace at which it is advancing often surprises me as well as my friends.
Standaert—With all the change over the last century is there a gap between the old and the young and their understanding of themselves, their understanding of China, their understanding of the future?
Yu Hua—The older generation still holds traditional values, they are more conservative. For example, they will not spend their money that much. For the younger people, those born after the 1970s and during the 1980s, they are much more like Americans in their values. I’ve read an article in a newspaper at home where girls only earning about 2000 yuan a month, spend it all on purses that cost 10,000. They would save it all up to buy a purse. And whatever is inside the purse would only be a few hundred. You may as well just put 10,000 in an envelope. (Laughs).
Standaert—Other than examples like this, what is most striking about these changes? You’ve alluded to remarkable changes along many levels, cultural, political … is there a central theme about this change at the heart of your writing?
Yu Hua—I have to think about this … (pauses) … I would say, for me, that the theme which is central in much of my writing is that I’ve realized that the Chinese people can overcome any difficulty presented to them … the Chinese character remains strong even after all the changes. I believe that whatever life you offer the Chinese, they will be able to deal with it. For example, during the 1980s when China was going though economic advances and the government told the people they would give them a raise, and they never did. Whatever the government wants to do, whatever they give us, we accept.
Standaert—Don’t you see that as a problem though, that they are willing to accept anything? People can only take character building for so long, correct?
Yu Hua—Of course there are people who will not be happy with the situation, and there will be people who will protest against the government. I mean more that when they can endure, they will. That is what I mean about the Chinese character. And since that time things are getting better, so it doesn’t strike the majority that they should do anything more than wait, endure, and it will get better.
Standaert—What fuels your desire to write? What passions drive you? Are there deep philosophical questions which haunt you?
Yu Hua—I mentioned before that I began writing because I wanted to be free to do whatever I wanted to do. But after twenty years of writing, I have come to realize that it has become impossible for me to ever put down my pen. I believe that each person has great desires and emotions that cannot be expressed in real life. But in writing, in the fictional life you have created, you are able to freely express these desires and emotions. Writing completes my life. I think I have two paths in life. One is real, the other is fictional. The relationship between the two is like that of health and illness. When one is strong, the other must weaken. When I find my fictional life getting more and more interesting, I find my real life becoming less and less so. But I wonder: Which is health? Which is illness?
Standaert—Is it hard for you to find a balance between your real life and your fictional life?
Yu Hua—It is hard to find that balance. Everyday life is basically the same every day, for me. My fictional life is completely different every day. The fictional life for me helps me get interested in the world again, like when you are a child, and a child is interested in everything they see. Everyday life is very boring. I already know too much about it so there is not much more to explore, so I turn to the fictional. Writing keeps me interested. That is where I find my balance. Because if everyday life gets too boring, it is unhealthy. Writing fiction can add to how you see the everyday.
Standaert—Do you see that as an escapism, or even a welcome escapism?
Yu Hua—On the surface it may appear that I am trying to escape, but really I think it is more of a coming into the world. My works are all about the real lives of others, so I’m somewhat escaping my normal existence and coming into the world of others.
Standaert—I’ve read that your writings have been considered controversial and avant-garde in China … Is this the case and if so, why? Were you trying to provoke?
Yu Hua—Yes, I was considered avant-garde and controversial in the 1980s. My works during this period have been translated into English by my friend Andrew F. Jones. The title of the book is The Past and the Punishment. It was published in the U.S. in 1996. Back then I wanted to explore the multitude of possibilities that the literary voice could offer. When I started to write, China had just gone through the Cultural Revolution. Literature was virtually nonexistent. Novels were all written in the same kind of narrative. It was a deplorable situation. The evolution of different narratives is what allows literature to survive. I believe that it is with my effort and the effort of a few of my contemporaries that Chinese literature now enjoys such diversity and abundance in narrative style. After 1990, when I finished To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, I started to write in a plain and less elaborate style because I started to hear the voice of my characters. I began to dissolve into my writing, to become the characters in my work. This is a truly wonderful feeling.
Standaert—What led you to change your style from avant-garde to more of a traditional style, this plain style you talk about?
Yu Hua—Critics in China have also been wondering this. I would say this transformation is because my attitudes toward my characters have changed. In the past, what I had written in the 1980s, my attitude was that the writer knows everything, the writer is god and can create everything. So, these characters were more abstract, like signs. But later, in the 1990s, I suddenly discovered characters could actually have their own voice, that they could talk for themselves. When I first started writing, I knew what I would write next, and next, and what would follow after that, and would know that—well this part will be difficult, and this part will not. This all started to change when I began to have a different attitude toward the characters. I found that the characters could lead themselves. The story would lead itself. That is when I found the difficult parts were not so difficult anymore since the characters had control, and they would lead. I would give up a lot of control and let them take me through the story themselves. After this realization, I’ve noticed these characters have become more alive, they have their own lives. Victor Hugo has a poem that I like very much … it goes something like … “The largest thing in the world is the sea/The sky is larger than the sea/The human heart is larger than the sky” … something like that. So, although I am writing about a character that is greatly different from me, even completely different, but because the scope of the human heart is so large, it is still a part of me. I can still understand the character because of this.
Standaert—You couldn’t do this before when you were writing more abstract works?
Yu Hua—There is a Russian critic called Belinsky (Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky, often called the father of the Russian radical intelligentsia in the early 1800s) … in the seventeenth century. He had one essay on Anna Karenina by Tolstoy that was important to me … Belinsky talks about how in the novel all the characters are Tolstoy. When I read this essay in the 1980s, I couldn’t understand this at all. Later, I began to understand … during the 1990s. I believe, now, that all the characters a writer creates are that writer himself, that he can be all encompassing, like the sky.
Standaert—Can you speak a little about contemporary literature in China today?
Yu Hua—The state of contemporary Chinese literature is difficult to describe. On the whole, it offers everything from truly exceptional works to truly disastrous ones, from erotic novels to detective novels. As the Chinese saying goes: Birds come a plenty when the trees are plenty.
Standaert—Your book, To Live, was just published here in the United States in English. Can you talk a little about the book and what it is like for you to be published in this major world market?
Yu Hua—To Live is my best-selling novel. It has already sold more than 500,000 copies in China. On Chinese websites, there are over 6000 reviews and related news items concerning the novel. It has gradually made its way into becoming a cultural emblem. Well, that’s what the critics say, not me. Zhang Yimou adapted my novel into a movie. We had a great time working together. People I meet in China tell me that the novel is much better than the movie. I think the people Zhang Yimou meet tell him that the movie is much better than the novel. The novel has finally come out in the U.S. I especially give thanks to Luann Walther, chief editor of Anchor Books. It was because of her enthusiasm that To Live was published. I am very lucky to have met such an editor here.
To Live follows the life of a man from the 1940s up to the 1980s. He has gone through war, famine, the Cultural Revolution, great economic changes. By the end of the story all of his close friends and family are dead, but he still retains his positive attitude toward life. It is a very moving story (laughs). It was first published in 1992, with 20,000 copies … in 1998 it became a best seller with over 500,000 copies … after it changed publishing houses.
There is an online bookstore (joyo.com) … where it has been on the top-50 list for three years. All the other books that were there when it first went in the top-50 are no longer there. There are 80 or so reviews of the book on the website … I’m often very moved by these reviews from ordinary people. One of the readers said he was a college graduate who did not have a job, could not get a job, and wanted to commit suicide, there was no point in living on … he had become a vendor on the streets … but he read the novel and wrote that he realized that here was someone who had a more difficult life than his own and that character still wants to live on, so why can’t I? There was another, a college girl, who immediately called her parents after she read the book and told them she wanted to come home to see them. There are so many more like this, I can’t remember all of them.
Yu Hua—(Laughs). Everyone was so moved. Moved to tears. (laughs)
Standaert—For the movie, did you have any say on how the film was made?
Yu Hua—I didn’t really have any say about how it was made. He was the director. I think he is a good director because he paid promptly for the copyright, not like other directors in China. I’m not sure about American directors, but in China, if a director can wait to pay, he will wait.
Standaert—Did you write the screenplay? Were you happy with the final product?
Yu Hua—I wrote the script, but others added into it. There was a scene with a puppet show that was not at all in the novel and turned up in the movie. Did you ask if I was happy with the movie? (Laughs). Didn’t I say that everyone had said that the novel was better than the movie? (Laughs).
Yu Hua—(Laughs). Yes.
Standaert—What drives you, preoccupies you? What do you dream about?
Yu Hua—When I write there is a constant voice in my ears. Sometimes I hear laughter, sometimes I hear sobs, sometimes I hear sighs, sometimes I hear myself. What preoccupies me isn’t an abstract idea but a living reality. My dream is to hear that knock-knock-knock when I’m writing knock-knock-knock. What captivates me the most is when I lose myself in my writing and I suddenly hear the voice of my characters. When this happens I often wonder, “Am I the author? Or am I the reader?”
Standaert—A second book of yours will be published in the United States in late October …. Chronicle of a Blood Merchant … what is the book about and what do you think readers in the English speaking world will derive from it?
Yu Hua—Chronicle of a Blood Merchant tells the story of a Chinese who sells his own blood for a living. In China there are countless stories of people who have sold or are selling their blood. I did a Google search on blood-selling and it came up with more than 10,000 hits. Selling blood has become a means of survival for the poor. Blood-selling villages pop up one after another. In the villages, almost every family sells blood. Blood-selling has resulted in cross-contamination and AIDS. Then the same blood-selling villages turn into AIDS villages. In Szechwan, Li Xiaoqing, a peasant who sold blood for thirty years, died in December last year after contracting AIDS. Li was the first AIDS victim to courageously face the media. Before his death he had already prepared his own shouyi, the outfit that he was to wear once dead. Li put on his shouyi four times and lay down on his bamboo bed four times. The first three times he escaped death, the fourth time he died for real. After his death, his impoverished sons still hired three local musicians at 350 (Chinese) a day to play in front of his dead body.
I’m not trying to tell a bizarre story to American readers. I believe that they will have eyes that see literature. They will see in the twist of fate and the shocking reality something even more deep and enduring. When they follow the fate of Li Xiaoqing, their eyes will dress him in his shouyi four times and they will shed tears for him four times. It is this subtlety of literature that distinguishes it from real life and historical facts. Literary works should be composed of such expressiveness and not drawn out with simple diagrams of life and events. This is why life and its events disappear into time while literature is polished by it.
Standaert—How rampant or widespread is this? How many people are actually doing this?
Yu Hua—I don’t know exactly because the government doesn’t release the statistics. I do know that it is more in the rural, poor villages. In my hometown they are doing this.
Standaert—Are people taking the blood out of themselves or do they go to a doctor to do this?
Yu Hua—People just go to a local hospital. Both of my parents were doctors, I practically grew up in the hospital. So I could see people going to the hospital to do this.
Standaert—Do people actually survive off this?
Yu Hua—In the hospital there was a person responsible for taking the blood and selling it. You had to have a good relationship with this person. There was bribing. There are women who sleep with this person in order to be able to sell their blood. In the 1970s the need for blood wasn’t that urgent so there was no great demand for selling blood, so you had to bribe this person in order to sell your blood. Now, it really doesn’t matter anymore so, there is so great a demand for blood that the bribing doesn’t go on as much. But there are other examples … one person who was responsible for taking blood in a hospital found out that in another province the price of blood was higher, so he took 1,000 people with him to sell their blood because they paid better.
Standaert—A functioning free-market economy.
Yu Hua—(Laughs). Yes.
Standaert—Has this book come out in China?
Yu Hua—First in 1995, and sold 20,000. Like To Live, it changed publishing houses and came out again. It comes out October 25th (2003) in the U.S.
Standaert—Would you ever go back and revisit your earlier writing style, a more abstract style, or is this too far in the past?
Yu Hua—I may, but it is hard to say. But not exactly like I did in the 1980s. I probably will write something more avant-garde, but definitely different from what I did before. The first position of a writer is to create something attractive to the readers. The reason many readers are disappearing is because writers are not able to write good stories, they scare them away with modernism.
Standaert—Do you think you were writing more for yourself early on?
Yu Hua—I have had to read a lot of stuff that is not very interesting too. So I asked myself, why should I write like that. There are a few writers I really like … Shakespeare, Dickens … I really like nineteenth century writers … Hawthorne … and of twentieth century Americans I like Faulkner the best. Among American writers still living, I like Toni Morrison the best.
Standaert—What are you working on now, here in Iowa?
Yu Hua—Right now I am working on a long novel. During my stay in Iowa, I will keep working on it. I am very happy to be able to participate in this thirty-five-year-old program. I am now reading American Child (1945) by Paul Engle, the program’s co-founder. Of course it is a Chinese translation. Paul’s poetry is inviting and moving. His wife, Hualing, also co-founder of the program, is a prominent writer in the Chinese literary world, a person whom we all look up to. She is also a best friend to us, the younger generation of writers. Although Paul is up in heaven, I still have the feeling that he knows we are here. He will encourage us from above so that we will be able to pursue a better life and produce better works.
The reason I was recently reading so much about the history of China is that the novel I am working on now follows the history of China. I have not finished this yet, it is very long and difficult to write. The publishing house is very angry with me now for not having this done, so I am working on something else, a shorter novel, which I can give to them.
Standaert—What is the short novel about?
Yu Hua—It’s about the two different Chinas … the first 20 years after the Cultural Revolution and the last 20 years. It’s about when I feel I have the soul of a one-hundred year old man.
Yu Hua (novelist; China, b. 1960, Hangzhou) published his first book in 1984, Shibasui Chumen Yuanxing (Leaving Home at Eighteen) which was followed by several more novels and collections of short stories and essays, most notably, Huo Zhe (To Live), which was awarded the Grinzane Cavour Award in Italy in 1998 and made into a film by renowned director Zhang Yimou. In turn, the film won the Grand Jury Prize and Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival in 1994. Educated as a dentist, Yu Hua left the profession after five years to become a writer. His works have been translated into numerous languages, and To Live (Random House, trans. Michael Berry) was published in English for the first time in August, 2003, followed by Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (Pantheon, trans. Andrew F. Jones) in November, 2003. Considered avant-garde and controversial, his fictions place him in the forefront of China’s literary scene.
Michael Standaert is a freelance journalist working in Iowa. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming inTechCentralStation.com, Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong), San Francisco Chronicle (book reviews), Central Europe Review (Prague), Vietnam News Network, Seoul Times, Boston Review, Maisonneuve (Montreal), Nthposition.com, and CritiqueMagazine.com and others.