Cultural Revolution. Censorship. Freedom of speech. The one child policy and an ageing society. The lack of a democratic system. One of the most famous contemporary Chinese authors, translated into many different languages, Yu Hua, faced upfront the most sensitive topics put on top of the table by the media, in a group interview, held on the sidelines of The Script Road — Macau Literary Festival.

By Luciana Leitão

Censorship in contemporary China is “not so severe”. And, even though it does happen, a writer must not be affected by it, as the work may still get published in Taiwan, in Hong Kong or find its way to circulate through the Internet, so said Yu Hua. In a group interview that crossed several different aspects of his life, the Chinese author talked about growing up and the Cultural Revolution, the lack of a democratic system, the freedom of speech and the population growth control policy.

When you google Yu Hua in the Internet, what immediately pops out are the several wikipedia entries on the author, in different languages. Considered currently one of the biggest names of Chinese literature, he is known for his novels frequently approaching the Cultural Revolution topic, depicting China’s reality in an absurd way, because “it looks ridiculous, but it’s the reality of China”.

He has published five novels, six collection of stories and three collections of essays. To Live became his most famous book — it was turned into a film by director Zhang Yimou, which was banned from Mainland China. When confronted with this event in his life, he says censorship does exist, but it’s more severe for films than for books. He recalled one moment in which Zhang Yimou told him: “If we stick to your novel, we may never pass censorship, so we have to revise.” The revision was made and yet the film didn’t pass.

In what concerns books, “censorship exists, but it’s not that severe,” as these “can still be published”. Novels can easily pass, since, “for fictional work, you can use so many different strategies to cover or to express something you want to write in a very explicit way”.

That may not apply if it’s a non-fictional work, as “you have to express yourself directly.” Regardless, he wrote the essay China in Ten Words with full conscience it might not pass. “The word People was about the June 4 incident [the Tiananmen student protests, in 1989], which was a forbidden topic in China and I thought it could never be published in China,” he says. Still, it could always be published in Taiwan or in Hong Kong. “Many Mainlanders could buy my book in Hong Kong and take into the Mainland”, he says. Plus, there’s a version circulating in the Internet. In his view, regardless of potential censorship, “to abandon a book” is not an option.

Yu Hua

Image by Eduardo Martins

Overall,  in what concerns freedom of speech, the author mentions the Government is “very childish”. “The reason you can sell newspapers is because you can cover the negative side, you can cover everything; this is the universal value of a newspaper, because you can cover good and bad, all comprehensive aspects of an incident,” he states. Yet, “the Chinese Government cannot understand the role of the media,” as its officials keep wanting the press to “praise” them.

As a writer in China, he believes it is more important to be independent than critic of a society. “Chinese writers like to be officials”, he says, emphasizing they are easily “bribed”. Thus, “independence is the key”.

The Cultural Revolution

A big part of his work covers the topic of the Cultural Revolution, which was a sociopolitical movement held in China from 1966 to 1976, led by the then chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong. “I grew up during that period; at the end of my high school, the Cultural Revolution ended, it’s my education period,” he says.

In such a violent political climate, in which he even “saw a person beaten to death,” he says “he cannot avoid” going back to the topic. While writing, he felt “haunted by it”, fueled by “blood and violence”. Plus, he realises “youngsters do not know anything about the Cultural Revolution,” as it seems “it has been erased,” which is “not good for the future of China”.

Looking back, he sees many “mistakes” being made after 1949, year in which the People’s Republic of China was created. Yet, there are some mistakes which cannot be revoked, he mentions, referring to the country’s birth control policies. Mao Zedong “did not control it”, which lead to “an inflation ballooning society,” resulting later to the one-child policy. Now, the country has “an ageing society” and these mistakes “cannot be revoked”.

Asked about the importance of the National People’s Congress, which has just took place in Beijing, Yu Hua devalued its relevance. Contrarily to what happens in other countries’ parliament meetings, “in two sessions [at NPC], you saw people sleeping,” he mentioned, referring to what might be “implicit” in this. “I’m 57, […] I never saw a vote [bulletin]. […]”

Asked about his literary influences, he mentioned several “teachers”. His first one was the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, while his second one was Kafka. “Kafka taught me the right of freedom,” he says. His third teacher was the American author William Faulkner.