Chinese author Liu Xinwu is not afraid of censorship or government persecution, as he is already “an old man”. Yet, he believes his works today are not so widely distributed nor does he get awards, also because he continues to write whatever he wants.

By Luciana Leitão

He is usually referred to as the pioneer of Scar Literature — a literature that appeared right after the Cultural Revolution to denounce what had happened during that period, between 1966 and 1976. Having become famous and widely translated, Liu Xinwu says to mART,, on the sidelines of a session on “Writers on Revolution: The Cultural Revolution and the Carnation Revolution”, included on The Script Road — Macau Literary Festival programme — that, despite being in the country of censorship, he has always wrote whatever pleased him.

History books say Liu Xinwu was born in Sichuan, 73 years ago, but he lived in Beijing most of his life — except for a period under the Cultural Revolution, where he had to work in rural China.

In 1977, he published a short story called The Class Teacher, criticising the Chinese government procedure during the Cultural Revolution. “At that time, the government never had openly been against the Cultural Revolution, so the magazine faced a certain risk, by publishing my work,” he recalls.

From 1978 on, the government set a direction for development for China and it was towards “openness” — the Chinese Economic Reform, under former China’s chairman Deng Xiaoping — allowing more people to speak up. Only in 1980 did his literature — and of others who were writing about the same topics — start to be recognised as Scar Literature. “The government finally made a public announcement, saying the Cultural Revolution was wrong, but, at the same time, some people from the public started being against this kind of literature,” he recalls. Instead, some people started asking for authors to write literature revealing “good things from the government”.

Liu Xinwu

Image by Eduardo Martins

Liu Xinwu filled editorial positions in several government-sponsored publications, in the 1980s, but in 1987 he clashed with the government. He was removed from editor of the publication People’s Literature after a story published failed to meet government approval. After the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, he left all government positions, as his pro-demonstrators view was not being welcomed. Since then, he has devoted himself only to writing.

He tells mART his political views “never changed” and his writing has never changed. “People know that right from the beginning, I have been writing a lot, but they only know some things I’ve written,” he states.

He never stopped, throughout his career, writing all kinds of stories, even those from the Cultural Revolution. “I kept doing that, to reveal the real face of society, instead of only revealing the good things,” he says. Yet, now, he has “more variety” in his writing. “If you see my books, you’ll find that my work has [always] been in the same direction as in the beginning.”

He is “not a political writer”, so his projects are usually about people. And if his writing changed — as he now also writes about lives in Beijing and even architecture — it is not because of politics. “I do not always want to write in a political way. You have to go beyond the politics.”

An “old” man

His age prevents him from being persecuted by censors, he believes. “I’m an old man now, I’m older than the political people, I only obey to my heart, I don’t really care what they [censors] are talking about,” he says.

From the point of view of an “old” man, he believes young people have also changed, and are not really interested in certain topics. “Young people are more materialistic, they want happiness [pleasure] and entertainment,” he says, explaining that the Cultural Revolution topic is “too heavy” for them. Still, he insists on talking and writing about his past. “I have to do it in an entertaining way, I cannot tell History in a boring way.”

He has never stopped writing different topics, including these, but he has become less popular. “Western people — even Chinese — don’t really know about my works; every year, I have my works published, not only about the Cultural Revolution but also about other revolutions,” he insists.

Still, the number of sales is not so big — and, even though “no one [censors of government officials] comes against” him, he doesn’t have any awards and people “do not recommend” his work. Is it a way of censoring? He says yes, since “political people do not like his kind of topics”, but it is not only that. “Maybe the readers don’t like those topics — they are more interested in Internet novels and the adventure kind of thing. In China, it’s popular to have something to entertain, not something deep.”

Considering important that memories are not lost, Mr Liu says that he “cannot force youth” to read his work, so he has to think of ways of attracting them, using different techniques. “In one of my books [Piao Chuang (The Window)], there’s a person standing in the street and actually he is going to kill someone, but who is he going to kill?” He has started using enticing techniques, so as to draw readers — especially young ones — to his books. Why are young people so interested in only superficial things — is it because of the teaching system? “Yes,” he simply answered, without any additional explanation.

Two different revolutions

Liu Xinwu was participating on Monday, March 14, in a session on “Writers on Revolution: The Cultural Revolution and the Carnation Revolution”, together with Portuguese author Rui Zink. “How influent was the Cultural Revolution to the Carnation Revolution [movement in Portugal in April 25, 1974, which led to the end of dictorship in the country]?”, asked Yao Jinming, the moderator of the session. Rui Zink answered: “I don’t think the Portuguese Revolution has anything to do with the Cultural Revolution, zero.” From a distance, certain young people at the time thought of it as “attractive”.

Liu Xinwu recalled the end of Cultural Revolution, which was peaceful, as was the Carnation Revolution: “It was a disaster and devastating, but it ended without violence, after Mao [former PRC’s chairman Mao Zedong] died.”

The supposed mentors of the Cultural Revolution — usually known as the Gang of Four, a political faction composed of four Chinese communist party officials — were arrested, hence putting an end to that period. “The Gang of Four banned our connection with foreign literature, so in 1974 I had no idea of the Carnation Revolution.”

Answering one of the members of the audience that asked if literature in China has always been perceived as a way of serving the government, Liu Xinwu said: “You have to be independent to be a good artist; if you are independent, then your writing can be free.”

Another member of the audience asked whether his Scar Literature works are still influential. “For people born in 2000s, they know nothing about the Cultural Revolution, they are clueless,” he answered, adding: “If a nation loses memory, it is unacceptable.”

And he kept on the same topic, as the audience continued to be interested on the decrease of such works on Cultural Revolution, in Mainland China, and whether or not there “are boundaries” to what authors are able to publish. “We have boundaries, but we do not have a clear concept of the boundaries. I could [always] write what I wanted. We write for the sake of our hearts, we do not wait for publishers.”