Published: April 8 2005 09:01 Copyright The Financial Times
The fried pigs livers with yellow wine were my idea – but the inspiration was really down to Yu Hua. In his masterpiece, Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, the downtrodden hero, Xu Sanguan, eats the dish in the belief it will restore his strength. So it seemed fitting to give it a try, even if we were rather more fortunate than Xu, sitting in one of Hong Kong’s most venerable restaurants discussing the books that have taken Yu Hua from an enfant terrible of China’s literary scene to one of its leading lights.
Blood, violence and hardship run through this body of work as they course through modern China, from the civil war to the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the other trials that bedevil the lives of Yu Hua’s characters, typically ordinary people who both suffer and express their country’s upheavals.
In truth, Yu Hua’s bleak tragedies are leavened by uplifting themes of fortitude and family bonds. But they are still hard to square with the affable 44-year-old, who looks nearer his thirties, as he pauses for thought, dipping his chopsticks into the grey yolk of a “1,000-year-old egg”.
The traumas, like much of his writing, are drawn from experience. The son of a doctor and a nurse, he grew up in a hospital in the eastern Chinese town of Haiyan, against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. “When my father finished a surgery we would see his coat stained with blood,” he recalls. “My mother would carry tins of organs out and pour them into a pond behind the hospital. In summer, the pond would be covered with so many flies it looked like a thick blanket.”
If home was where the blood was, the street outside was a stage for the brutality that features in many of his works. “There was a lot of violence then – even in our small town. I saw with my own eyes people beaten to death on the street.”
Yu Hua started his own working life as a barefoot dentist. Given the macabre detail of his early works, it prompted Mo Yan, author of Red Sorghum (made into a film by Zhang Yimou), to comment: “I’ve heard he was a dentist for five years. I can’t imagine what kind of tortures patients endured under his cruel pliers.”
In the event, the patients were spared. Hating the job and jealous of the artists and writers he saw walking around town, Yu Hua determined to enter the local cultural council. With most novels and virtually all foreign books banned at the time, he drew inspiration from the “Big Character Posters” that were plastered across the walls of Chinese towns denouncing “capitalist roaders” and other traitors to Mao Zedong’s causes. Many of these victims were known to Yu Hua before they were swept into public and, generally, tragic local dramas, and later into his bestselling books.
His lack of formal training led to a sparse writing style – prompting some critics to cite Ernest Hemingway as an influence. But Yu Hua has an alternative explanation. “I went to primary school in the year when the Cultural Revolution started and graduated from high school the year it ended. That meant I never studied properly, and knew only 4,000 characters,” he says. “That is why my style is sparse. Maybe Hemingway’s vocabulary was quite small too.”
As the style of Yu Hua’s books has evolved from experimental avant-garde towards more conventional narratives and commercial success, it is tempting to see a parallel with China’s recent evolution. The suggestion is reinforced by the fact that this former tyro of the Tiananmen Square era, who was involved in the student-led protests of 1989, is now comfortable with China’s recent development and his own move towards the cultural mainstream.
”There must be some connection between my writing style and the general situation of society at that time,” he acknowledges. “When I started writing, my style was rather radical and the characters in my books were completely under my control. I wrote like a dictator. In the 1990s, when I wrote the longer novels, I found characters had their own voices. This was an amazing experience and fundamentally changed my attitude to writing. Maybe this is a coincidence, but it is in some way consistent with the evolution of Chinese society, from highly authoritarian to more democratic.”
It is, of course, a relative progression. Yu Hua is tolerated rather than endorsed by Chinese officialdom and sails close to the lingering winds of censorship. While he denies he is a political writer, he sees the “truth of history” as his driving force and the messages of his books have strong political symbolism. An unfortunate character in the novel To Live, for instance, is bled to death during a transfusion to supply a party official, a literal expression of the extreme sacrifices demanded by the state. Arbitrary and ruthless decrees frequently dictate the fortunes of his characters.
”I don’t think they see me as a model writer,” he jokes.
His books have never been banned – but neither does he expect official recognition or awards. “I am comfortable with this position. A writer should not have a cosy relationship with the government.”
The tacit toleration of Yu Hua’s books probably reflects his “rear view” perspective and his focus on the monstrosities of Maoism. China’s current regime acknowledges mistakes from that period, although it has so far rejected a “reassessment” of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Yu Hua believes those chapters have closed, drawing a curtain on all-consuming ideology. “It is a good change. People may no longer believe in high missions and they are thinking of money all the time,” he says. “These indeed may cause many problems in society. But no matter how problematic, it is better than using one ideology. Trying to make one billion people think the same, as in the Cultural Revolution, is the most dreadful thing.”
While the era of choreographed campaigns has passed, Yu Hua sees risks to stability in the localised protests that are now bursting through the fissures of China’s widening social gaps. “Almost all the political movements in China were started by Mao Zedong alone, and he alone could then regain control of everything; whereas today’s small-scale upheavals are everywhere and they are not initiated by the government. When they come together to become a tide, nobody can control it.”
On a personal and professional level, this evolution removes the ideological targets that Yu Hua hit so unerringly in his previous works, challenging him to capture the more complex currents of contemporary China. “Writing about the past is much easier than writing about the present. The present in China is constantly changing, and increasingly quickly,” he says. “A European would need to live 400 years to experience such a sea change.”
Yu Hua has sought to chart this sea change in a new book due out in the summer. The two-part novel, still awaiting a title, records what he sees as the defining social shift in China – from the “self-denial” of the past to the “self-indulgence” and sensationalism of the present. “Today’s China is full of sensations. If you open the paper you will read about the most peculiar stories that could ever happen,” he says. He cites a story about a rich Chinese man taking his dog to a sauna and then placing the dog on a separate bed for a massage. Such a scene is a long way from the struggles of his earlier works. In those times, a dog would have been a bizarre luxury, or lunch.
The tone of the new novel will be dark. “It is full of sarcasm and even more cynical than my previous novels, because I think that tone suits our age.” Despite this, or possibly because of it, he sees no problems getting it published. He has yet to show it to publishers, but has already received an offer for an initial print run of 300,000 copies – a reflection of the following he has built as a writer and as a narrator of China’s unfolding history.
Amid the tumult of that history, it is a struggle to keep roots and memories intact. That is something that Yu Hua feels strongly about, personally. And as we move to the next dish – the head and legs of a lobster, with rice – it transpires that food is one way he seeks to preserve his own past.
”When I was a kid I was crazy about a local dish – rice cake with shredded pork. It is something you rarely had the chance to eat then. It no longer tastes that delicious to me today, but even so, I have to eat it at least once a month. Otherwise I would feel uncomfortable,” he says. “I eat this to make up for the past, because I ate too little at the time. I was constantly hungry as a kid.”
His experience of hunger rumbles through many of the most moving scenes in his books. When, in Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, Xu Sanguan is reunited with his first-born son, banished because of doubts over his legitimacy, their reconciliation is sealed over a bowl of noodles. In To Live, the mute and starving daughter is unable to protest in a desperate struggle over a single sweet potato.
Those days created demons as well as dramas. Shuffling his chopsticks, Yu Hua reveals that he writes for self-restoration as well as for his readers. “I don’t write to cure other people’s souls. I write to cure my own soul. There are problems with my own soul, and I need to work on them.”
As the dim sum dessert arrives, and the warm and surprisingly potent Shaoxing Chiew wine takes effect, this soul is in good spirits. “Sometimes I eat for the past. But today’s meal is fantastic,” he exclaims. “I feel I am eating for my present life.”
John Ridding is editor of the FT’s Asia edition.
Yung Kee Restaurant, Central, Hong Kong
1 x fish maw with mushroom soup
1 x pigs livers with yellow wine
1 x beef brisket in superior soup
1 x lobster ball in black bean sauce
1 x garoupa with bean curd
1 x lobster with rice in soup
1 x dim sum dessert
1 x Shaoxing Chiew wine