A grandmother, desperate to protect her family from a poisonous, airborne disease, locks everyone up in a hermetically-sealed flat. Years go by and the family survive the pandemic, only to discover that they lack the extra nostrils and yellow puss developed by those exposed to the illness which are needed to re-enter the real world. This story, written in 2015 by Tang Fei, one of China’s young SF authors, is ironically called “The Path to Freedom.”
It may be exactly what it appears to be, a work of speculative science fiction. Or perhaps it was written as an allegory about stagnation within a closed society. Either way, Tang Fei’s simple tale reads like an unnervingly accurate prediction of China’s radical response to COVID-19. And it reminds us that Chinese authors can be political, critical and topical, as long as they’re writing fiction. In China fiction, as opposed to nonfiction, offers space for authors to distance themselves from what they are writing, and for readers to interpret the meanings themselves, to read between the lines. Of course, fiction works this way in many countries but in a repressive country like China is emerges as less of a choice, than a necessity.
For a brief moment, non-fiction flourished in the very earliest days of the outbreak in Wuhan. As people hunkered down in their apartments writers, sensing widespread anger and suffering, dared to speak plainly and bravely. Poems flooded the internet, expressing fear of the unknown, theories about government cover-ups and commemorating the unburied dead, including the whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang who died from the virus not long after being penalized for “making false comments.” Most famous of all was Wuhan author and “battlefield diarist” Fang Fang, whose daily Weibo posts documented the individual heartbreak and hardship of those at the frontline and, therefore, the reality behind all the depersonalized—and often absurd—official statistics pumped out by the Chinese Communist Party’s jittery propaganda department.
The CCP’s statistics often feel fictional. From impressive economic milestones pinned to important dates celebrating the Chinese Communist Party, to bombastic claims that, since 2002, there are no unsolved murders in China. Or even absurdist graphs showing precipitous spikes in coronavirus cases, followed by sheer drops every time a new official or government policy was put in place, uncannily tidy bookkeeping is a soft target for Western journalists looking to pick holes in the official narrative.
Right now, the official narrators are riding high. Thanks to the comparative chaos, high death tolls and fraught vaccine debates in the West, and to a tightly-programmed year of propaganda and crackdowns to mark the CCP’s centenary, patriotism and pride in the government’s authoritarian tactics are soaring. And, as 1.2 million cubic meters of fake snow are pumped out over Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the absolutism and efficacy of the CCP’s zero-COVID-19 strategy, not to mention its ability to manufacture and harness the weather itself (Beijing is too dry for snow) is tribute to the government’s ability to insist upon its own desired reality.
Prior to the pandemic, Fang Fang’s award-winning fiction—including the banned novel Soft Burial about the traumas of land reform—was widely praised for its “Wuhan flavour” and for her realistic focus on the lives of ordinary people. Yet, just as Lu Xiaobo was not arrested for his poetry, but for his part in the Charter 08 manifesto, so Fang Fang, once hailed the “conscience” of Wuhan, has been left out in the cold since writing her personal testimony. She can no longer find anyone to publish her work in China and nationalist cyberbullies have bombarded her with tens of thousands of messages, including death threats, for agreeing to publish her diary abroad—proof in their eyes that she was a traitor pandering to Western audiences.
For writers instinctively tuned to the hidden influence of any master narrative, this era of economic ascension, authoritarianism and patriotism has been difficult. The ill-fated protagonist Winston Smith in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four said it “might be true that the average human being was better off now than he had been before… The only evidence to the contrary was the mute protest in your own bones.” So too, many writers in China are attuned to something being amiss, even if the numbers do add up. When visiting his family in rural Henan, Yan Lianke, who started out as an army propaganda writer and has become one of China’s finest authors, wrote about the despair he felt when his brother suggested he should write stories that won’t upset the government. “Our lives are good,” said his brother, “isn’t that enough?”
Three years later in 2015 Yan published his novel The Day the Sun Died about an entire village in the grip of a terrifying sleepwalking epidemic, a sickness that homogenises and atomises people, leaving them numb to themselves, and others. Yan publicly voiced his support for Fang Fang’s diary and online he implored his creative writing students to not let individual memories of hardship be drowned out by songs of victory: “Let’s not talk of collective, national, ethnic memories,” he said, “but our own.”
The reason authors and readers are drawn to magical realism, according to Salman Rushdie, comes from the realization that there is no agreed reality. It is no surprise then that many Chinese writers, including literary giants Can Xue, Mo Yan and Yu Hua not mention a raft of next generation surrealists, channel their personal experiences and anxieties into fiction, and do so in the tradition of magical realism. Yan Lianke has developed his own genre called “mythorealism” to grapple with what he calls contemporary China’s “unrealistic reality.” He has characterized both China’s metamorphosis from agrarian socialist to urban capitalist, as well as the government’s handling of SARS and COVID-19 as nothing short of miraculous; no different to the smelting campaigns of the Great Leap Forward, in which people were expected to believe that sand could be turned into steel. Worlds shaped by this kind of magical, alchemical thinking underwrite most of his novels.
Naturally, most authoritarian governments long for the day when everyone is on the same page as them. In China, this pressure has varied in severity over the last three decades, with a dynamic period of artistic output in the lead up to Tiananmen in 1989, and then a sharp tightening of the reins. Under President Xi Jinping, a self-confessed bibliophile, art must now contribute to a “harmonious” and “healthy” society, the bedrock of political legitimacy through stability, known as weiwen or 维稳. He has instructed writers and artists in China to take “patriotism as a theme”, for their work to “serve the people and serve socialism.” He states that it “is necessary to broadly unite and gather patriotic and dedicated literature and art workers under the leadership of the party.” Online writing platforms are now given a “socialist rating,” and those that fall short must be rectified. While the state-backed China Writers Association has a tendency to celebrate the (politically correct) writer, rather than the writing itself.
And yet, this is not dissimilar to the way Western readers think of Chinese writers. We demand the mirror image: opposition and defiance. The false dichotomy of patriot or traitor surrounding Fang Fang, while indicative of the fickle and temperamental political climate she’s had to weather, is a way to understand how we in the West engage with Chinese literature itself. Fang Fang certainly did not write her diary as a way to appeal to Western publishers and readers. But our eagerness to embrace it is as willful dissent (which, in large part, it was not: it was a plaintive and honest attempt to tell the uncensored truth) is also a reminder that, like the Chinese Communist Party itself (or the online nationalists), we tend to favor art that appears to adhere to our own political doctrines of free speech and anti-censorship. As a result Western readers have an undeniable penchant for anything that is controversial or banned in China, as well as a suspicion of writers, including Nobel Literature Prize-winning author Mo Yan, who thrive there. And it’s almost certainly why most people have not read, let alone heard about, much Chinese literature.
But the sheer scale and diversity of Chinese fiction—from a vast online fantasy fiction universe, to a migrant worker poetry movement, underground comics, peculiar crime capers and a golden age of science fiction—is both a tribute to the ways in which cultural strictures have both warped and inadvertently created works of incredible innovation and illumination, which reflect neither what Western readers nor Chinese censors want. The majority are not, in fact, writing about politics at all, but simply reclaiming—or escaping through fantasy—the messiness of personal and social experience. But even that risks being a political act when so many personal experiences, memories and desires contradict or clash with the Party’s authorized story and collective ideology. Much like the people who evolve in Tang Fei’s story to live with inhospitable air, Chinese fiction has developed some fascinating evolutionary quirks to survive China’s political storms—and we have a lot to learn from it.
Since the start of the Trump Administration, Brexit in the U.K., and the rise of right-wing populism in countries such as Austria, Poland and France, much of the West has suffered its own crisis of reality. People on both sides of the increasingly polarized political spectrum believe that the other side pushes fake news, delusional data and dogged biases in order to control the narrative. We are in danger of finding ourselves trapped in increasingly small, sealed rooms. For Winston Smith freedom was the ability to say that 2 + 2 = 4. For Yan Lianke, literature offers an opportunity to say that 1 + 1 does not equal 2. I predict that, as our own narratives are being rewritten, as we discover that we have not been on the same page for a long time, our writers of fiction will increasingly look to the mesmeric, non-linear, fragmented worlds of Chinese writers who learnt to sublimate this crisis a long time ago.
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