The Ministry of Truth: The Four Books by Yian Lianke
Truth has often proved itself to be slippery. This isn’t my idea – it’s Nietzsche’s: “There are no facts, only interpretations,” he wrote. It’s Borges’: “Historical truth… is not what happened; it is what we judge to have happened.” It’s Larkin’s: “Strange to know nothing, never to be sure/ Of what is true or right or real.” And, of course, it’s Orwell’s. Orwell believed in the truth, certainly: “However much you deny the truth,” he wrote, “the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back”. Yet he was all too aware of its slipperiness, the ease with which it is manipulated. In 1944 he determined that the “really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future”, going on to add that “[h]istory is written by the winners”.
It is this idea which informs Yan Lianke’s disturbing depiction of a labour camp during China’s Great Leap Forward in his Man Booker International Prize shortlisted book, The Four Books. The narrative is pieced together through fragmented passages from the four books in question, the first of which is Heaven’s Child, an anonymous account of the events in this “Re-Education” camp bearing tonal affinities with the Old Testament (“So it came to pass” and “He saw that everything He had created was good” are not untypical pronouncements). Through this curiously biblical language we learn about “the Child”, the naïve overseer of the compound, and the Rightists he is charged with reforming, men and women known only by their occupations – the Author, the Scholar, the Theologian, and so on. The second and third texts are both written by the Author, an especially slippery character, who – in an Orwellian comment on the tussle between subjective and objective truths – is not trusted by the more ethically sound Scholar. Hoping to be rewarded by the Child, the Author agrees to write Criminal Records, a detailed catalogue of his fellow Rightists’ wrong-doings, but alongside this are fragments from his own novel, Old Course, a retelling of the events put down in Criminal Records. The final book, of which we see only a snippet at the end of the narrative, is a philosophical tract entitled A New Myth of Sisyphus, a further testament to Yan’s interest in allegory.
Not only is truth confused for the reader by these conflicting narrative voices (translated by Carlos Rojas with praiseworthy nuance), but it is also repeatedly confused for the characters. Towards the beginning of the book, the characters witness a scene from a play which – in keeping with the novel’s biblical overtones – is reminiscent of Pontius Pilate’s appeal to the crowd at the end of Jesus’ life. The plot “followed a professor who despised his country”, we learn. The actors ask the crowd what should be done with him: ‘“Shoot him!”’, they respond. ‘The crowd laughed, and waved their fists. “Yes, just shoot him!”’ And then, we read, the professor “collapsed like a rag doll. Everyone initially assumed this was merely a performance, but then they saw a pool of blood on the stage”.
Later, a pair of Rightists accused of committing adultery are “paraded through the streets of every Re-Ed district, the spectators repeatedly demanded that they perform the spectacle of their adultery, and would beat them if they refused”. What is real in this context and what is performance? The Author goes on to write that “[h]alf a month earlier, they had been two normal people, but now they bore no resemblance to their former selves”. Here, then, is when the truth is at its most slippery: when a sense of self becomes confused, when former beliefs and personal truths are lost. Is there any truth in being “the Musician” when you can no longer play music? “The Linguist,” we hear, “was the former director of the National Center for Linguistic Research, and had overseen the editing of dictionaries used throughout the country. But he now found himself at a loss for words. He looked at the Scholar’s inquisitive gaze, then silently bowed his head”. The Theologian, desperate for food, “took a portrait of Mother Mary from his pocket… and laid it on the ground, stomping on the figure’s head. He deliberately ground his foot on the portrait’s eye, leaving it a black hole”.
This loss of identity, this Orwellian triumph of an all-consuming system, is at the book’s core. We catch rare glimpses of an alternative truth beyond the Great Leap Forward:
With the Scholar and Musician wearing their dunce caps and placards, which years later would become priceless collectibles, the cart stopped in the entranceway to the district.
This parenthesis hints at a different reality, a time when the paraphernalia of humiliation has become a hangover from the past.
It is interesting, although unsurprising, that a book so laden with confused truths should be written by a writer whose work has shown a constant commitment to honesty. Yan examines the effect of an AIDS epidemic in rural China in his novel Dream of Ding Village, while unflinchingly satirizing the Cultural Revolution in Serve the People!, and, as a result of this subject matter, his fiction has been periodically banned in China. Confirming the importance of creative honesty, he says of The Four Books:
It is an attempt to write recklessly and without any concern for the prospect of getting published. When I say that I have written this recklessly and without concern for publication, I do not mean that I have simply written about mundane or contemptible topics, such as coarse and fine grains, beautiful flowers and full moons, or chicken droppings and dog shit, but rather that I have produced a work exactly as I wanted to.
The novel’s fascinating narrative structure, its ugly events and allegorical characters make for a thought-provoking read, but – above all – it is this honesty of intent that is Yan’s most remarkable achievement.
Befriend your future father-in-law, Choong says. She drives off to slurp noodles with childhood friends.
Jason’s body feels porous, his neurons balkanized. Splurge on first class and still this jet lag. But he’ll come to Guangzhou annually for Choong. Lack of money has kept her away from home for years. He has given her this. He always will.
Breakfast, Mr. Tan announces. Jason shuffles through air dense as gelatin. Mr. Tan ladles out the rice porridge called jook.
The taste is wondrous, as if to reassure Jason everything will be fine. He eats the steaming gruel and sweats in his gym shorts, his legs sticking to the vinyl of Mr. Tan’s rickety kitchen chair.
Mr. Tan switches on a fan. Hot, he says. On the floor a small gray lizard sniffs a blot of porridge by Jason’s foot.
Jason lashes out and flattens the creature.
No! Mr. Tan shouts. They’re good. They eat mosquitoes.
Jason moves his foot. The lizard’s insides have burst its skin.
I’m so sorry—I wasn’t—we don’t have them in New York.
Yes, Mr. Tan says, yes. He carries the dead lizard away.
I’ll always take care of Choong, Jason says. I love your daughter very much.
But Mr. Tan stands at the trash with his back turned. Jason, not knowing what else to do, asks for a second bowl of jook.
We’re happy to announce that the winner is Geoff Kronik with “A Second Bowl of Jook“. He wins £200 and the chance to attend a short course in the Chinese language at the Sheffield Confucius Institute. His winning story has also been published online at Litro. You can read it here.
The runners-up are Scott Green and James Watson.
Excerpt from Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants
Read an introduction and overview to Hsiao-Hung Pai’s work on the lives of Chinese workers here.
I visited the village of Juwei, in Yinxi district of Fuqing town. It has a population of under a thousand and looks like an old housing estate tacked to the edge of town, but I saw new houses being built and a playground being dug up, with bulldozers around. Juwei is the home village of a Chinese migrant worker I knew from the UK, Xiao Lin. Xiao Lin, now forty-five, is one of the politest men I’ve ever met. He has a studious look, spectacles, a soft-spoken manner, and the nickname Bookworm. We met in 2006 in London’s Chinatown, where he was working as a casual labourer unloading food products from factory vans for the supermarkets. I approached him to ask him about his work. He was open and articulate. After that, Xiao Lin and I would meet occasionally—sometimes at my home and others at his—and he’d share his thoughts and talk about his experiences working in London. In the entire time I’d known him, I had never heard him complain—not when he was dismissed for no reason from a bean curd factory in north London after two years of employment, nor when he was owed a week’s wages by a British Asian restaurant on Whitechapel Road in east London. (He eventually got paid, after I visited the manager and warned him I’d have him up before a tribunal). Xiao Lin seemed always to take life as it is.
Xiao Lin had told me a lot about his past and how he’d migrated. But it wasn’t until I visited his home village that I understood the force that drove him. His wife, Ah Fen, met me on the main road by their village and took me to their apartment. She was the same age as Xiao Lin, and looked worn out. Deep lines of hard work were written in her brown face. She was warm and hospitable, holding my hand as she walked me through the village and led me to a first-floor apartment, newly built, made possible by the money Xiao Lin sent. They’d just moved in, from their old residence on the other side of the village. The first thing she did when I sat down was prepare a plate of guangbing, a flat sesame bread filled with seaweed and minced pork, a local specialty.
Guangbing are named after Ji Guangqi, the general who drove the Japanese invaders out of Fujian in 1562. It was invented because the general didn’t want to slow down their marching speed for meals—the breads were shaped into rings so his soldiers could wear a string of them around their necks. Following the general’s victory, the recipe for this bread became popular—minus the hole in the middle. They tasted delicious and are good as an appetiser before your first Fujianese meal.
Ah Fen had been selling guangbing for a living when her husband attempted to migrate to the West for the first time. She’d picked up the food business again during Xiao Lin’s stay in England. She had been running her own street food stall until a month ago. She said age was catching up with her, and as the family’s economic situation had improved with the money Xiao Lin was sending, she felt that she could afford not to work for a while. ‘I’m on a break,’ she said, with a tired smile.
Xiao Lin went abroad for the first time in 1995. Before that, he and his wife had owned a piece of land, on which they grew rice and sweet potatoes. But their farming income was too small to support their aging parents. One day, the local authorities announced that they were taking over the land of the village for commercial use—the village committee had decided to sell it to a developer to build private properties and department stores, without consulting the villagers. No compensation was promised. The villagers were outraged. They got together and went to protest to the committee. They demanded proper compensation for the 200 households in the village. Fearing that the protest might escalate, the village committee said that the villagers would be given a one-off compensation of 7,000–8,000 yuan per mu. Most villagers had only two or three mu. This one-off compensation was much too cheap, Xiao Lin said. Villagers would be left without means to survive. They had no choice but to carry on their fight against this land grab. Xiao Lin helped to lead a protest that lasted three years. Every day, the protesters held village meetings and organised demonstrations in front of the village committee building.
There was no further response from the authorities. The villagers’ land was taken from them by force. To continue the fight, the villagers elected three representatives, one of them Xiao Lin, to go to the land bureau in Beijing to hand in their petition against the land grab. The six-hour train trip from Fuzhou to Beijing was paid for out of money put together by all the villagers for their action. When they arrived at the land bureau, they presented their petition, but the officials told them that they needed to visit the central discipline committee instead. So they did, but officials there ignored their demands and wouldn’t even look at their petition. ‘Go back to talk to your Fuqing municipal government,’ they were told. Predictably, the Fuqing city government ignored the petition, too. In response, Xiao Lin and others organised a protest attended by 300 people, who marched together to the city government building. ‘Return our land!’ ‘Save our livelihood!’ the protesters shouted out their demands. For an answer, the city government sent the police. Two protesters were arrested and detained for six months. The villagers realised that they were powerless in the face of the authorities. They returned home, dejected. Although some still fought on, others accepted the offer of a small piece of land (just under ten mu were allocated for the entire village), without proper compensation in money. Then many disillusioned villagers began to borrow money from relatives and moneylenders in nearby villages, in order to leave the country and seek other means of livelihood. Xiao Lin, then twenty-nine years old, decided he must leave, too. He felt that he had run out of choices. The majority of the villagers had opted for going abroad, because then they’d be able to earn ten times more than they could in local cities like Xiamen. The investment was seen as well worth it. Xiao Lin, following advice from other villagers and decided to try his luck in the US, like so many others.
He borrowed $20,000 from his relatives in and around the village. It seems an unthinkable amount of money for people with so little, but migration was such a tradition in Fujian that people would always help family members to go abroad, trusting that the migrants’ achievement would benefit the entire family. He used it pay a well-known Changle ‘snakehead’, or man-smuggler, to arrange his journey. Different snakeheads charged different prices for passage to the US. Migrants were willing to pay whatever it took to leave China. Those from Changle were charged more than those from Fuqing, since there were stronger social networks of Changle migrants in the west coast cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, giving new migrants from the same city a greater chance for success there. Fujian’s smuggling trade was also dominated by Changle snakeheads, because they were the first group of smugglers in the province. In those days, Changle migrants went to the US, using the UK only as a transfer point, because they had few social networks established there. (For similar reasons, most Fuqing migrants went to Japan.) The average price for US passage then ranged from $20,000 to $30,000; today it’s $30,000 to $40,000. It usually took a migrant three to four years to pay back the loan, borrowed from relatives or moneylenders (or, quite often, both). Normally, the migrant paid the smuggler a third or half the fee before setting off. On reaching the agreed-upon destination, he or she called the family in Fujian and asked them to pay off the rest.
The day before his departure, Xiao Lin spent half a day packing his clothes. His wife Ah Fen insisted that he take his winter jacket—and packets of instant noodles and shredded dried beef. And, of course, a bag of her guangbing to sustain him over the next couple of days. There was no embrace and neither of them shed a tear. Xiao Lin felt anxious about going on a small boat across the Pacific, but he didn’t share his worries with Ah Fen. He felt that she had already a lot on her shoulders: a two-year-old daughter to raise on her own. Xiao Lin wasn’t sure when he would return home, but thought he’d come back after a few years if he made enough money. The snakehead had given him no instructions except in which cities he should change buses, how to get to the port, and which hotels he should book into in various places along the way. Xiao Lin had no idea what the journey would be like, not even which US city he was bound for.
He set out alone from Fuqing, boarding a bus to Guangzhou. It was the first time he’d ever seen that city. Following the snakehead’s instructions, he waited in a hotel room near the train station, paid for by the snakehead. He began to feel more anxious about the trip, and spent most of his next two days smoking alone in the cheap, tiny room. The hotel staff hadn’t even prepared clean bedding here. In the evening, Xiao Lin ate two of the guangbing his wife had prepared for him. Each one was large and stuffed with much meat, and would keep him going. Two days later, still following instructions, and came down to the train station to meet his pickup man, who was thirtyish, had a Fuqing accent but wasn’t interested in conversing with Xiao Lin. They went to the bus station, where the man picked up three other migrants from Fuqing. He then put the four of them on a bus heading to Taishan, a small town by the sea, 140 kilometres west of Hong Kong.
Xiao Lin liked the look of it Taishan—the streets were clean and there was green space aplenty. He knew that the town was famous for being the ‘home of the overseas Chinese’—he had heard about Taishan being the birthplace of the overseas Chinese game volleyball. Taishan has always had a tradition of migration: the overseas Taishanese population has reached 1.3 million, and up to 500,000 Chinese Americans claim Taishanese origins. Xiao Lin walked around town with his three Fuqing co-travellers all day. It was Chinese New Year’s Eve and people were at home with their families—and most shops were closed. The four men all telephoned their own families. Xiao Lin told Ah Fen that he would be on the ship quite soon, and that everything would be fine. Then he and the others strolled up and down the port a few times. What’s on the other side of the ocean? One of them said that he was feeling excited about the trip. The other two chatted merrily about what they’d like to do once they’d reached the US. But Xiao Lin kept quiet. He only hoped that they would actually get there. His companions had come from another village and had paid a different snakehead. The pickup man who had led them here met up with them at 10pm that evening, just before putting all form of them on a small fishing boat. Within two hours, the fishing boat had ferried them to a huge cargo ship, about ten meters long, parked in the middle of the ocean. Xiao Lin could almost hear his heart beating. He and the other three migrants had no idea where they were—they had heard from the pickup man that the cargo ship wouldn’t be too far from the Philippines, but no one could really tell them.
A long rope ladder hung down the side of the cargo ship. A man on board told the four migrants to climb up. ‘Hurry,’ he said to them. Xiao Lin could hear people talking—it sounded as if some migrants were already on board. The four from Fuqing climbed up the long rope ladder, slowly, one by one. It took three minutes for the first man to reach the top and get on board. It didn’t look easy; he was waving and shaking as he climbed. When it was his turn, Xiao Lin had to throw his small bag of food away—the packets of noodles and other snacks that Ah Fen had prepared, so as to hold tight to the ladder and not fall into the deep, dark sea below him. He’d never been so frightened in his life.
When they were finally all aboard, they found they’d been only the second group of migrants to arrive. There were many more fishing boats to come with people from Fuqing and Changle. They had to wait for five to six days before the ship was full. When there were over 400 people on board, they started to move. The ship was from Panama, bound for Los Angeles. The eleven crew members—Xiao Lin had no idea what nationality they were, but thought they were most likely from Panama—had been paid to smuggle them through.
Their living area was three huge storage containers at the bottom of the ship, each of which could accommodate up to 200 people. There was no other cargo on board. Most of the migrants were from Fujian—and as usual, the Changle natives dominated. Only twenty to thirty were women, and most of them were married, with children they had left behind. Xiao Lin was herded into one of the containers, along with 200 other people, and settled down. Some of them laid out their clothing on the floor and tried to take a rest. No one had proper bedding because they’d been told not to bring any, as it would overload the ship and take up too much space. The snakeheads in Fujian had assigned the task of managing the trip to twenty migrants from Changle, most of whom had made a similar trip before. These migrants had been chosen when they approached the snakeheads to arrange for their trip, because they were experienced and knew what to expect during the crossing. Their compensation for managing the others had been a discount on the fees for their own crossing. These ‘leaders’ were asked to communicate by phone with the snakeheads in Fujian every day and to report on situations. No one on board thought much about these men’s roles but simply followed whatever instructions they gave. They were also responsible for feeding the 400 travellers.
They found some used round oil containers, cut off the tops and then built cooking fires in them using scrap lumber. They had been given meal plans and ingredients for the entire trip. Still, the food supply was so limited and distributed among so many people that each traveller got only two bowls of watery congee (rice porridge) with pickled vegetables each day. The water supply ran out after fifteen days, and they were forced to drink seawater.
It was cold—February, just after the Chinese New Year—but especially with no bedding. Xiao Lin had only a small bag of clothing with him, and some biscuits he’d put into his pockets before leaving home. They had been told not to bring much. His three pieces of clothing were not enough to sleep on. The cold kept him awake. So he’d sit up and work on a chart he’d drawn up of how many days they have been at sea and what happened on each day. Then he’d try to sleep again in the cold. He said that he was always gazing up at the high ceiling of the container, like the vault of a warehouse. ‘I felt the ship drifting in the ocean,’ he later recalled, ‘and I felt I was just drifting permanently.’
Often, he lay there talking to Ah Wen, a man from Changle who sat next to him. Each traveller had a tiny space, and kept to it, because the container was so crowded. Ah Wen had tried to go to the US three times already, by the same route and the same snakehead. The first time he was caught on the fishing boat before he could board the cargo ship. During the second and third trips, his ship was caught carrying Chinese migrants when they reached the US. Ah Wen wouldn’t give up. For him, there was no hope of bettering his life back on the farm. Like many from his home village, Ah Wen was still in debt from his previous trips—he owed 200,000 yuan that his relatives and moneylenders loaned him for the first crossing; the snakehead does not charge an extra fee if the migrant fails to reach the destination country and would like to try a second trip. Ah Wen believed it would be worthwhile. Xiao Lin was worried that they might get caught halfway there and sent back. But Ah Wen reassured him that the crossing was easier these days, judging from other people’s experience, and that it should take about one month, if all went well.
Two weeks had passed. The next ten days became even harder to bear, as the food supply dwindled and the migrant leaders were constantly checking the supply and calculating the number of days the food would last. Rationing became tight. All Xiao Lin could think about was how to survive the journey. Anyway, he had nothing else to do.
Then, a few days later, the ship suddenly stopped moving. They were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Real panic broke out inside the containers. What’s going on? Everyone got up from their sitting space and was asking anxiously for an explanation. Before long, someone brought the news that the ship had broken down, and that they were between the Marshall Islands and Hawaii. The crew had been asked by the Chinese leaders to repair the problem. But after half a day, the crew hadn’t been able to fix anything, and one of the Chinese leaders came downstairs with the rumour that the crew members were beginning to despair. Still, no one expected what happened next: All eleven crew members jumped into the sea in an attempt to escape the situation—possibly because they didn’t know what the Chinese leaders would do and they feared punishment. Five of the crew swam back to the ship almost immediately, realising the stupidity of their plan and gasping for air, and the Chinese leaders threw the rope ladder to them and pulled them back up as they climbed. The other crewmen never came back to the ship, and everyone assumed they had drowned in this bottomless ocean. Another rumour began to circulate: The crew members had been disputing with the snakeheads over payment and had decided to down tools and damage the machinery in protest.
All they could do now was wait to be rescued. Xiao Lin looked at his own chart and saw that it had been exactly a month since he’d left home. A long month without windows. And now his destination seemed unreachable.
Four days later, a few US helicopters appeared above the ship—the noise of their blades could be heard within the containers. Xiao Lin felt a coldness through his spine. He couldn’t speak. Ah Wen went quiet, too. Everyone looked, but obviously they couldn’t see anything from where they were. Then they all sat down and waited. When the news that troops were boarding the ship trickled down into the warehouses, the migrants began hoping that they might be sent to the US, instead of back home. The US border officers kept that hope alive, taking them to a military camp on the Marshall Islands, telling everyone they would be sent to the US. The migrants lived with this hope throughout their one-month detainment on the islands.
Finally, on the last day, the US officers herded them from their cells after providing them with one last meal, shackled them and loaded them into buses filled with other migrants and brought them to an airfield. They were finally leaving. This was the first time Xiao Lin had ever flown. It was the same for most of the others. Xiao Lin thought that this was the day he would be arriving in the US, but his hopes were dashed in an instant when the first hundred of them boarded the plane. There, unsmiling Chinese immigration officers were standing in a row, on a passenger plane, to ‘welcome’ the migrants back home.
On their arrival in Xiamen, the second ‘welcome’ the failed migrants received was the border officers’ request for a heavy penalty of 20,000 yuan (£1,810) from each of them. The thought of bringing this further burden on his family devastated Xiao Lin. He felt he was going to collapse. But he held back his tears like everyone else. He was kept at a poorly maintained detention centre in Xiamen until he could pay up. At least half of the migrants couldn’t pay up and had to wait at the centre. Few households had telephones at the time, so Xiao Lin asked the chief officer to send a messenger to his village to bring the news to Ah Fen, so that she could come to get him out with the required fee. He had to wait for five days for Ah Fen to borrow the fee from a moneylender in Fuqing and then travel by bus all the way to Xiamen. On seeing him, Ah Fen burst into tears, for the first time. They were now in huge debt, poorer than ever before. They didn’t speak a word on the three-hour bus ride home.
This is an excerpt taken from the chapter “Go West: The Migration Industry in Fujian” in Scattered Sand, and illustrates only half of Xiao Lin’s journey. Undeterred by his first experience of going abroad, he would go on to find passage and work in London.
Scattered Sand was first published on 21 August 2012 by Verso Books (UK), available now in hardcover and ebook. Hsiao-Hung Pai will be speaking about her book at a Foyles event as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas on 21 November. Her first book on Chinese immigrants in Britain, Chinese Whispers, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Orwell Prize, is available from Penguin UK. Both books are available on Amazon.com (also on Kindle) for US readers.
China’s Hidden Workers at Home and Abroad
Hsiao-Hung Pai is a London based journalist who has spent several years researching the working lives of undocumented Chinese migrant workers in Britain, sometimes even going undercover. In this article, she shows us a China we often hear about but never take the time to see, and tells us how she came to care, and why she still cares. We will also publish an excerpt from her new book, Scattered Sand: The Story of China’s Rural Migrants, tomorrow, here on Litro [update: here].
One of the first things that got me writing about the plight of many Chinese migrants living and working in Britain was the social response to the two most heartbreaking tragedies involving them. The first was the Dover tragedy, where 58 Chinese were suffocated to death at the back of a lorry coming into Britain. The second was the Morecambe Bay disaster, where 23 Chinese migrants drowned while picking cockles in Lancashire.
People were shocked, of course, but generally, mainstream British society and media displayed ignorance and misconception about these migrants’ backgrounds and their work-seeking journeys. Social prejudices about ethnic minority communities were amplified through the media, shaping and reinforcing the view that the causes of these tragedies were simply the human smuggling trade and the criminal organisations that enabled border crossing.
Even the Chinese communities in Britain were silent, and sadly, displayed an attitude of indifference based on class distinction and elitism. These attitudes were pronounced by many of the so-called Chinese community leaders and their organisations, who do not in any way represent the Chinese workers who died working in Britain. It was infuriating to hear Chinese community leaders, businessmen and middle-class artists talk as if the workers’ deaths were none of their business. They were of a different class, people without capital or power. No one seemed interested in hearing their perspectives.
In the following years, I explored the lives of Britain’s Chinese migrant workers. I went to interview many of them in factories and farms, in their workplaces and dormitories. I visited them again and again. I followed their stories. I went to find out about the death of Zhang Guohua, a former peasant who worked himself to death in a factory supplying Samsung in Hartlepool. I went to stay with men and women who were working for salad processing factories supplying Tesco. Then a man said to me: “To really understand this working life, you need to work and live like us.”
That was the first time the idea of working undercover came to me. Since then, I have worked undercover as a meat processor, a lettuce picker, a book factory worker, a restaurant waitress, and a brothel housekeeper. These experiences have helped tremendously in my effort to understand the reality of working as an undocumented migrant worker (and not just the Chinese) in a country like Britain, and which culminated in Chinese Whispers.
Many of the Chinese migrant workers I met had come from its rural parts. Some had worked on land all their lives. I wondered about their personal and family histories and how they had ended up selling their labour for cheap in Britain. I knew that tracing this migration would be a huge task, so I decided to focus on three groups of migrant workers: those who have migrated from the countryside to the cities within China; those who have migrated abroad; and the migrant workers in Britain who have achieved the dream of improving the lives of their families. The aim is to get a glimpse at the material circumstances that have motivated people to leave home and migrate, either into the cities or abroad, and to understand what has kept this migration going despite the difficulties in reaching their destination countries and the hardship that they will surely face when they arrive.
In writing Scattered Sand, I made many journeys of my own. I met northeastern Chinese migrants working in Moscow, Siberian towns and the border region. I befriended migrant jobseekers in Shenyang and followed one of them to Beijing, where he worked in the security industry. I visited the earthquake-affected Sichuan, and saw how migrant workers returned home to shattered villages and how they desperately sought compensation while trying to find work again. I travelled to the building sites and brick kilns of the northern towns and to the isolated factories of Shaoguan, Dongguan and Guangzhou of the manufacturing south. I saw how migrant workers’ aspirations and dreams to improve life for their families were shattered by the recession and the wave of lay-offs. I followed them from the dazzling special economic zone cities to the impoverished coal-mining villages of Henan. And finally, I travelled from central to northern Fujian, where communities were rebuilt thanks to remittances from abroad.
Through these journeys, I was sometimes able to establish friendships with the people I interviewed. During my research, I also relied mostly on railway to travel from place to place, which I found useful in terms of meeting migrants and interacting with them on a more personal level, as I often shared cabins with people. I usually met people at random (although occasionally with the introduction of my contacts), and as a consequence, I believe that the stories I’ve heard are representative of the reality of working life in which the majority of migrant workers find themselves.
What saddens me is to see how marginalised this group of workers are, though they are a massive group: over 200 million, an estimated 130 million of whom have migrated out of their provinces, while an additional 70 million migrants migrate within their provinces. They represent half of China’s urban workforce and are responsible for half of China’s GDP and yet, they are the least organized as a workforce and experience institutional discrimination and segregation. This segregation is maintained via the hukou system, a household registration system which works similarly to immigration controls and keeps the rural divided from the urban. Through hukou, migrant workers enjoy no basic rights and have little access to public services and education.
Migrant workers have bore and continue to bear the brunt of the impact of China’s opening up to global capitalism in the past three decades. Corruption, poor healthcare, poverty in the interior, and the widening wealth gap between cities and the countryside continue to motivate them to move in search of greener pastures; yet, the promise of a secure livelihood in the cities is often an empty one. Since 2007, the recession has both propelled and retarded migration. More than 600,000 small and medium sized firms closed down in China in 2008, throwing millions out of work. I witnessed many migrant workers returning home without any pay. The area most affected was the export-led manufacturing heartland of southern China, where millions of migrants from rural Sichuan, Henan, Hunan, Guangxi, Yunan and other interior provinces congregate to make a living.
In mid-2009, migrants went back into the cities again searching for work, as there appeared a shortage of labour in the factories. To lure workers back, local governments raised the very low minimum wage level, but it still remains 40-60% of the local average wage level. The rural-urban divide continues. Nearly 100 million migrant workers under 30 years old, who are the backbone of China’s industries, are still earning about half the income of urban residents. But the recent waves of spontaneous strikes show that they are not tolerating this second-class status any longer. They want higher pay, better conditions, and the right to organise their own union.
When the Chinese media talk of the “Chinese nation” as “one big family” and the 21st century being “the Chinese century”, it reminds me of the same notion of a “Chinese community” and the rhetoric of social cohesion that I often hear about among the British Chinese elite. What does a “Chinese community” mean to a Chinese worker toiling in a London kitchen for two thirds of the national minimum hourly wage? What can “national pride” mean when a large section of working-class people are having to cope with their exploitation on their own?
Scattered Sand was first published on 21 August 2012 by Verso Books (UK), available now in hardcover and ebook. Hsiao-Hung Pai will be speaking about her book at a Foyles event as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas on 21 November. Her first book on Chinese immigrants in Britain, Chinese Whispers, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Orwell Prize, is available fromPenguin UK. Both books are available on Amazon.com (also on Kindle) for US readers.
China is impossible to describe. An ancient civilization, a vast nation, the largest population in the world. All true, but what is it actually like? How can we attempt to understand a country with 1.3 billion people? What could possibly be representative? At times it feels like the Great Wall—so vast it can be seen from space—is a mental as well as physical barrier.
China’s official image gives a carefully considered answer: a modern political powerhouse opening up to the world—successful, disciplined and happy. But critics such as Ai Weiwei point to the cost of such Confucian perfection: an unsettling disregard for the individual’s rights compared to the needs of the state. To quote a well-known yet still deeply illustrative example, at the 2008 Olympics opening ceremony in Beijing, two girls were used for the solo recital—one for her voice, the other for her face.
Perhaps China has two faces: its face to the world, and the faces of its people—sometimes celebrated, sometimes hidden. But in these short stories we have discovered the individual voices from inside and outside this country; voices of protest and ambition, love and frustration, hope and confusion, all the richness of the human experience. We invite you to listen.
We would also like to thank Chatto & Windus for allowing us to reproduce “Then The Games Begin” by Xiaolu Guo, and also many thanks to Eric Abrahamsen at Paper Republic for his help in reaching out to writers based in China and the editors of Pathlight magazine – an excellent publication for Chinese short stories, by the way – for allowing us to reproduce A Yi’s “Common People”.
On the night Mrs. Chen got lost, she was wearing a golden amulet of the goddess Kuan Yin underneath her clothes, for protection. She took the subway home from the factory in Chinatown. Sitting on the long seat with her feet lightly grazing the floor, she felt the weight of sleep drag her head forward, her permed curls sinking towards the small neat hands cupped politely in her lap. As the half-empty subway car lurched through the tunnel, its movement sporadically flung her head upward. She caught herself from sleep in those moments, looking about her, alarmed, only to have exhaustion fall over her again like a blanket. The swaying of the subway threw her back and forth against the hard seat, the thin fabric of her flowered pants brushed against the shopping bag full of sewing.
[private]One… two… she had to take the subway fourteen stops to get home. The conductor’s voice in English was a river of sound in her ear, noise following noise like the falling of water over rocks. Three… four…
Mrs. Chen lifted her heavy head. Five… six… the door opened and her factory supervisor strode out of the elevator with her polyester skirt flicking about her legs, stepping quickly and fastidiously, as though the clumps of fabric dust on the sewing room floor dirtied her high-heeled shoes. As she walked, she waved one wide hand in front of her mouth to clear away the dust in the air—the other gripped a wadded piece of clothing. The supervisor only came into the work area when there was a problem; otherwise, she stayed in the air conditioned offices upstairs. Mrs. Chen could feel the supervisor’s presence passing through the rows of silent women bent over their Singer sewing machines; no one dared look up, their needles racing, piercing the fabric.
The supervisor threaded her way through the pack of women, bright in her silver-toned suit; its light gray material stretched across her fat stomach like the skin of a snake. She stopped next to Mrs. Chen and with fingers thick with rings of jade, snapped open the garment she had been holding—a skirt. Mrs. Chen, knowing it was not her place to meet the supervisor’s eyes, cautiously raised her gaze to the round collar of her shirt, while everyone about her seemed to busy themselves with their work.
“Your seams are crooked,” the supervisor announced, wrenching her mouth around the crisp Cantonese words. “This is not acceptable.” She always attempted to speak Cantonese, one of the so-called “sophisticated” dialects, although her accent was painfully rural. She told everyone that she had been born in Hong Kong where the cleanest Cantonese is spoken, but, Mrs. Chen thought, her peasant roots shone clearly through her words.
Mrs. Chen stood up.
“I am so sorry,” she said, her pronunciation flawless. She knew the supervisor resented her for the breeding that meant so little in this country. She could see the skirt was one she had labored over at night, sewing between the soft breaths of her sleeping family.
“May I see it?” she asked, taking a step closer.
The supervisor held it away from her. “If this ever happens again, just one more time, you will no longer be allowed to bring work home,” she said. “Please remember, Mrs. Chen, you are very new to this country—we have had much trouble with recent arrivals—and my uncle is doing you a great favor to allow you to take home extra sewing, and indeed to work here at all. I do not like to see ungrateful employees. You will, of course, not be paid for that entire bundle.”
Then, before Mrs. Chen could reach for the skirt, the supervisor took one corner of it in her teeth and the other in her hands, and tore it down the seams, in half. She tossed the pieces onto Mrs. Chen’s table as she turned on her heel and stalked from the room.
Mrs. Chen sank into her seat, spreading her fingers to shield her hot face. What crime have I committed, in which past life, to deserve these evil winds of fate that blow at my back? she wondered. She realized that everyone was watching her out of the corners of their eyes, pretending they had noticed nothing. No one said anything to her. The subway doors closed and her head nodded forward.
The last station sped behind her. The overhead light went out, and the fluorescent flashes from the subway tunnel gleamed in the darkness behind her eyelids, pane after pane like frames of a movie.
Mrs. Chen, then just a girl named Lai Fong, was in China again. She was wearing green silk, preparing with her mother the ceremony for the seven goddesses who protected virginal maidens; it was the last time she would do this, because she was soon to be married. She bent to kneel on the cushion before the goddesses at the altar. Her mother, already kneeling, stopped her with a touch on her arm. Slowly, her mother gazed up at her, and her small rounded features, so much like Lai Fong’s, were filled with grief and tenderness.
“My only daughter,” she said, “before you pray with me this final time, you must remember this: it is said, one who is human must kneel only before the gods.” She paused, and then said fiercely, “Never before anyone else.”
The screech of the subway rang in her ears, startling her. Mrs. Chen brushed her forehead three times, to clear away painful memories. She touched the amulet of Kuan Yin hanging from the gold chain around her neck; its shape underneath her blouse reassured her. Everyone knew that pure gold protected you from evil but even more importantly, the monks at Shaolin Temple had “opened it to the light,” so that the goddess could truly live in it, as though it were her temple. The amulet was the only part of her mother Mrs. Chen had been able to take with her when she left China.
More people filled the subway car than she had remembered. Two well-dressed black women across from her chatted, and as one laughed, the long yellow feather on her hat wiggled. A homeless man wearing a cardboard sign with English writing on it had wrapped himself around a pole near Mrs. Chen.
He gingerly peeled his hands from the pole, as if it caused him pain to do so, and holding out his left palm, began to make his way through the car. His rancid smell, like sour milk, reached her before he did, and she tried not to breathe too deeply. Spittle clung to the sides of his mouth, suspended in droplets in his rough beard, but his lips were full and red, as though they alone had not lost their hold on life. When he stood in front of her, she studied his dirty face, and she was not afraid. It is said, she thought, that we must all be beggars for one life, we only hope that that life has already past.
She opened her change purse and pressed a quarter into his palm. She had none to spare but in this world, she mused, the times when you are able to give are so few that when you can, you must; the gods always view compassion kindly.
“Haf nice day,” Mrs. Chen said, smiling. This was one of the few English phrases she had managed to learn.
The homeless man closed his fingers around the coin, his stare not leaving her smile as though it surprised him more than the quarter. He turned to the two women sitting across from her. They had stopped talking to watch Mrs. Chen. Now, they also took out their purses and gave him some change. As the homeless man went on his way, Mrs. Chen nodded to the women and they smiled back before resuming their conversation.
Mrs. Chen settled into her seat and closed her eyes. The subway car clattered; it was as though she and the women and the homeless man were all in a carriage together, riding to the same place. But where were they going? We are the Monkey King, the monk, and their two companions, seeking enlightenment on a road filled with demons and goddesses in disguise, she thought, and the voice of the English-speaking conductor sounded like her father’s voice in China when he would tell her stories that she was too tired to understand. Then it seemed to her that the homeless man had put his head on her shoulder and they were resting together, sleeping, with the women across the way looking on.
Suddenly, she sat up. What stop was this? This must be number fourteen! This should be the right one but why did everything seem so unfamiliar? Where should she get off? The black women were gone; there was no sign of the homeless man. Mrs. Chen grabbed her shopping bag and hurried out of the train just before the doors closed, hoping this was indeed her station. Mr. Chen always scolded her for being overly imaginative. But as she stood on the platform, with the rush of the subway wind at her back, she realized that she had never seen this place before.
She watched the few passengers make their way to the stairs. Then, from behind her, she heard the sound of footsteps. She panicked and fled for the exit, the shopping bag bumping against her legs. She had been mugged only a few weeks ago; she was the last one leaving the subway platform and a teenager in a leather jacket had blocked her way. He pulled out a long knife and held it in front of his body, half-hidden by the folds of his coat. His eyes horrified her. They were pale blue, blue as she’d only seen in the eyes of those blinded by cataracts in China, yet this man was able to see, as if he were some sort of demon. Without a word, he gestured with his knife. She gave him her purse; he took it and ran.
Mrs. Chen reached the token booth, passed it, and raced up onto the street. She stood outside the subway station, gulping in the cool night air, holding onto the stair rail. She looked around. No one had followed her. A desolate avenue lined with streetlamps stretched before her, the concrete buildings smothered in graffiti, interrupted by long alleys. In the distance, a dark figure walked down the block, only to quickly disappear around a corner. A skeleton of a car, windshield broken, stripped of all four wheels, loomed next to the subway entrance. She did not recognize anything.
This was a terrible place. She took the amulet out of her blouse and clutched it. A low wind whistled through the avenue, setting stray pieces of litter skittering across the concrete. She went back to the token booth.
She was relieved to see the clerk, a heavy man with a gray goatee, through the murky glass; he was an official, he could help her. She went around to the front of the booth and rapped on the glass with her knuckles.
“Hello? Hello?” she said.
He was talking on the phone and when he saw her, shifted so that his back was to her. She tapped on the booth more insistently. He waved for her to wait. She searched through her purse to find the piece of paper with her street address on it. Her son had written it out for her, just in case she got lost.
“Hello, hello?” she said, her voice growing shriller.
Hunching over the phone, the clerk ignored her.
“HELLO!” she screamed.
He turned around. Mrs. Chen quickly pushed the crumpled paper towards him. He studied it, and said some words to her in English.
“No,” she said, “no understand.”
He repeated what he’d said, only louder. She shook her head. The man ran his fingers across the top of his puffy hair, then pointed at the receiver he was holding, like she was keeping him from something. She pressed her ear as close to the glass as she could. She tried to understand something, anything, of what he said, but it was just babble to her.
“Dank you,” she said. “Bye bye.” The man shrugged and returned to his phone conversation.
She slowly climbed to the street. Please, Kuan Yin, let me get home to my child and husband… she prayed. There was a pay telephone on the corner. She walked to it as fast as she could, put down her bag, fumbled for a quarter and dialed her home number. Her husband answered on the first ring.
“Big Brother Chen?” she said. She never called him by his first name because that would be disrespectful, even though they had been married more than ten years.
“Where have you been?” he asked angrily.
“I don’t know—I’m lost.” She leaned against the side of the phone booth and began to sob.
“How could you be so stupid?” he yelled, as he always did when he was afraid. “Your son is here, waiting for his dinner—why don’t you ever pay attention to where you’re going? Where are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have to stop that crying,” Mr. Chen said. His voice grew more quiet. “Listen, don’t be afraid. We have to find out where you are and then we will come get you. Let me put Sonny on the line.”
She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and tried to pulled herself together. Her child must not know how upset she was.
His voice seemed much higher over the phone. “Mommy, where are you?”
“You have to help Mommy,” she said. Sonny was only nine years old but he was as smart as the boys a grade ahead of him. He was learning English so rapidly. She described her surroundings but he did not recognize them.
“I know,” Sonny said. “Can you spell the name of the street by you? Can you see the street sign?”
She found it but the word was very long. She had never been that good with the English alphabet.
“M… I…. no, E… and then A… no, R…” she began. In the middle of her spelling, she had to put another coin in the telephone. Finally, she came up with something that Sonny thought could be the name of a street.
“But I don’t know where it is,” he said.
“Do you have any maps?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “Let me check in my geography book. That has maps.”
She could hear him getting off the chair and running to his books. He was gone for a few minutes. Mrs. Chen looked at her amulet, glinting brightly against her dark blouse. She brought the golden goddess to her face and laid it against her cheek.
She heard shuffling, then Sonny came back on the phone.
“Mommy?” he said. “I can’t find it. It’s not in my book. I’m sorry.” He started to sniffle. “When are you going to come home, Mommy?” he asked.
“Shhh… don’t cry,” she said, trying to sound calm. She could hear Mr. Chen cursing in the background. “Mommy will be fine. I will walk around and maybe I will recognize something. Just tell your father that I will call soon.”
She hung up before she had to speak with Mr. Chen again. It would be more frightening to talk to her husband; he was just as helpless as she, and he would not be as easily comforted as Sonny. Her quarters were almost gone and she did not want to waste another. Perhaps she shouldn’t have given one to the homeless man. What was kindness in this world? She rested her head against the telephone for a moment. I invite the goddess Kuan Yin, she said under her breath, from the Shaolin Temple in the hills of Canton, to come to me now; so soon as I…
She felt a hand close to her ear reach for the amulet, as though it were trying to take it before she could finish her prayer. Mrs. Chen screamed and ducked at the same time. Grasping the shopping bag, she swung it in a circle, felt it hit, heard the sides rip. She hugged the bag and fled towards the subway station, hampered by its bulk. Someone or something seemed to race away in the opposite direction. So soon as I call her, she gasped, running, so soon will she appear…
As Mrs. Chen rushed to the steps, she caught a glimpse of features that looked Chinese. She skidded to a stop.
“Mister! Mister!” she shouted.
The young man turned, surprised. “Yes?” He was Chinese. He must be a student, with his thick glasses and a green bookbag slung over his narrow shoulder.
Mrs. Chen almost cried from relief. “I am lost,” she said, breathing hard, “and someone just tried to take my necklace.”
“My Cantonese is very bad,” he said in Mandarin.
“We are both Chinese,” Mrs. Chen said, part in Mandarin and part in Cantonese. “Please help me.”
She explained the situation to him, her voice breaking—how she was lost and almost robbed, how she couldn’t follow the token booth clerk, how her son and husband couldn’t help her—using as much Mandarin as she remembered and filling in the rest with Cantonese. She put her bag on the ground and took out the piece of paper with her address on it. The young man listened and nodded; he seemed to understand her story. He took the slip of paper and the two of them went into the subway station. As they approached the token booth, the clerk recognized Mrs. Chen, rolling his eyes.
The young man spoke to the clerk in English and showed him her address. Then he said to Mrs. Chen, “The train you were on must have been re-routed. They probably announced the change but you did not understand. What you must do now is take the train over here for two stops and then switch…”
But Mrs. Chen was frantic. She clutched his arm, shaking her head. He stopped speaking and looked at her fingers buried in his jacket. “I will go with you,” he said.
Mrs. Chen sighed and then offered to pay for his token, but he put one in the slot as he waved her hand away. When they got on the subway, the young man took out a book and began to study, only peering at her occasionally to check that she was all right. She was too exhausted to even try to make conversation. Kuan Yin, thank you for your aid… The student escorted her the entire way to her own station. Mrs. Chen asked him to come to her house, so she could at least give him something to eat to repay his kindness, but when she passed through the gate, he did not follow.
She turned back to him. “Thank you,” she said.
The young man grinned and bowed, his schoolbag slipping off his shoulder. She bowed in response but by the time she straightened, he was gone.
When Mrs. Chen got home, Sonny threw himself at her and cried, while Mr. Chen roughly patted her on the arm. They were quiet as she told them how the young man had helped her, how he must have been sent by the gods. Mrs. Chen lit incense at the altar in their kitchen to formally give thanks and noticed there were extra incense stubs in the holder—Mr. Chen had also prayed for her.
“We were afraid for you,” he said. “We thought we might have lost you.”
Later that night, she had to stay awake to do her work. She bent to sew the pieces of the torn skirt together, joining again the severed parts with thread.[/private]
Autumnal Absences by Fan Zhongyan (989-1052)
To the tune of Sumuzhe (Praying for Heavy Snow)
A green, cloudy sky; and yellow leaves covering the ground –
there are even autumn colours in the waves.
Over the waves, there hangs an emerald green mist.
Mountains catch the setting sun; sky and water fuse.
The fragrant grasses are heartless,
but move further, now, beyond the setting sun.
There’s homesickness and wanderlust.
When each night comes,
only happy dreams afford me sleep.
With the bright moon, on the balcony, I’m not to be alone!
The wine poured in my worry-guts
transforms itself to lovesick tears.
Translated by Julian Farmer with Liang Yujing.
Julian Farmer is a poet and translator from several languages, especially French, Classical Greek, Latin, Russian and Classical Chinese. His poems and translations have been published in Acumen, Staple, Stand,London Magazine, Epiphany, SHOp, and Modern Poetry in Translation.
Liang Yujing was born in Changde, China, and completed an MA in American Literature at Wuhan University in 2007. Now a lecturer at Hunan University of Commerce, he writes in both English and Chinese. His poems in English have recently appeared in Tipton Poetry Journal, Portland Review Online, Zouch Magazine, and Wasafiri.
The York Bar
“You want to know why they call me Sugar Daddy?”
A slender Chinese man with a pinstripe fedora angled on his head sidles up to Miranda and me, and a few of our friends, holding a few beers that look suspiciously unfamiliar. Miranda switches from her native Chinese to English easily, but runs her hands through her mass of curls at a loss for words. We shoot Miranda surprised and awkward glances as “Sugar Daddy” lets loose some rapid-fire Chinese and wrenches the caps off the bottles. We don’t spend much time in Hankou, the nicer part of Wuhan. Miranda drove us here in her red Buick, with a deftness that only comes with a lack of driving instruction. She often assumes the role of unofficial translator, so she leans over and says, “That’s the owner of the pub.”
As Sugar Daddy nods at her translation, we exchange sly smiles. This man is clearly interested in foreigners, and foreign friends receive free gifts. He settles in the chair next to me and grins to show off crooked teeth that move around like a series of zippers in his wide gums.
As we eye the bottles, I inwardly groan at the idea of drinking more fake beer. The Shanghaiist, a popular Chinese weblog and news site, once described the fake Tsingtao as a beer “steeped in nicotine wrappers and death,” and after a few nights out, drinking nothing but Tsingtao, I had to agree. The owner hands us bottles of Tsingtao and peels at the wrapper. It comes off with difficulty, while most other beers have wrappers flapping in the wind.
China sends out whatever goods they can, Sugar Daddy explains. Most people in the country will drink whatever is sold to them. The cheapest beer is called Snow, and for 5 kuai, it’s the US version of a Natty Light. We used to gather outside street vendors with some fresh lo mian andsuck down half-litre bottles of Snow. Once people are drunk enough, they’ll buy anything; they’ll drink anything. It’s good for business. We never get Sugar Daddy to admit what’s in the fake beer. A distributor sends him the real Tsingtao that usually gets shipped out of the country. We’ve taken to drinking “formaldehyde-laced Snow” when out at bars because of our lack of options. On those nights, we hover in the alcoholic stupor, as carboxyls and teeny hydrogen molecules release and eat at our insides.
The York Bar sits in the middle of a busy street in Hankou, the gentrified section of the three smaller cities that now make up Wuhan. Hankou comes complete with its own Soho, budding Chinese clubs and faux French restaurants just in front of half-demolished apartment buildings. There’s a Howard Johnson with a large sun sphere like the 1984 World’s Fair creation down the expansive street, which, after a few double takes and a few more beers, looks like downtown Knoxville.
The decorative outdoor patio is settled snug next to the newly paved street, with only a few feet and some transplanted shrubbery to separate us from the stream of taxis. Instead of the stuffy indoor bar, Sugar Daddy holds court on the outdoor patio from eight until whenever his customers decide to leave. He sashays around the deck chairs, places his palms on the wrought-iron tables and inserts himself into conversations.
“Real beer,” Sugar Daddy says. “From Tsingtao, where I’m from.”
“Why do they call you Sugar Daddy?” Miranda asks. He has never answered the question about his name and at first, his English comes out in stammered bursts.
“Foreigners all think I am being… mistrustful?”
A petite, red-faced woman comes by with a waitress and we pull out bills to cover the beers. Sugar Daddy waves the woman away and tells the waitress to bring over more beer. The woman yells, he offers a sharp response in local Chinese that even Miranda doesn’t understand, and the woman meanders off the patio and hovers in the doorway.
“I have the name because I like the way it sounds and then people say I should change it, but they always call me that. So I keep the name.”
The waitress appears again and apparently she and the angry woman would prefer if we not only paid for our beers, but drank liquor and ate something as well. After getting burned by “Johnnie Worker Red Labial” the week before, we decline the liquor and the woman storms off. Sugar Daddy responds by getting another waitress to drag out the rest of the case of Tsingtao. We slip the bills back into our wallets, settle in on the patio and get comfortable.
“Call your friends,” he says and we all pull out our phones.
“So why don’t we get the good beer?” I ask.
“You know, government. Money.” Sugar Daddy expresses these words in the absolute terms of a businessman acknowledging the demands of his culture. “But I am from Tsingtao.” As I raise my eyebrows, he puffs out his chest and rubs it, satiated.
The waitress returns with a menu, so Miranda orders the cheapest thing York has: popcorn. Sugar Daddy hustles the woman away and calls for more beer. The same red, angry face appears in the doorway and he throws his head back and cackles. He pulls off his fedora like an old pro and points to himself again: Businessman.
I text a bunch of American friends who often spend their weekends in a stumbling migratory pattern between Soho, a few buildings down, and 97, just across the street. When they arrive, the waitress proudly brings chilled fake beers for my friends, who don’t know what they’re getting or that I’ve been drinking steadily for three hours and haven’t paid for a thing. Sugar Daddy leans over to me, his conspirator.
“Once we’re friends, real Tsingtao. ‘Til then… blip!” He moves his right hand as if flicking away a fly.
My friends ask Sugar Daddy about the name of his bar. He shrugs. This is not the conversation he wants to have. He’s been watching movies, he tells me. He opens his arms like Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Sugar Daddy sucks up some unfortunate air and says, “This is China,” just before his lungs break down and he hacks out a few coughs, which he quenches with a swig of beer. He spreads his arms again, as if indicating his own impressive empire. And my friends, who have been drinking shit beer for months, honor their host as eager subjects. Happy to tell his story, he goes on as they invent and develop the dark conspiracy of “what’s in the beer.”
An hour later, all the foreigners are drinking the good beer for free. They compare the fake and real bottles as if analyzing counterfeit bills. They tear off the wrappers and wave them in the air to see their degree of transparency.
“Shit beer, shit glue.” Sugar Daddy now has a cigarette angled out of his mouth that he never lights. He tugs at the bottle wrappers to show his new, best customers. The angry woman has been relegated to the window, where her gaze is just as dangerous.
Miranda directs her thumb towards the ominous window. “You might have to fire that woman,” she laughs.
Our host leans back in his chair, slaps his thigh and claps his hands.
“I have tried! I have! That,” he says, “is my wife.”
He waves his hand to change the subject as if the motion could dismiss an entire marriage.
“I have hooked up in Tsingtao,” he says.
The group smiles, but no one says anything in a long pause.
He places the fedora over his face and laughs before he tosses it back on the table.
“I have the hookup.”
We decide how to get back home. Miranda’ll take a few in her car and the other handful will brave the drunken girls outside of Soho and commandeer a taxi.
“Hey Sugar, doing anything for the World Cup?” Miranda asks. The York Bar has a large screen set up to watch the preliminary games.
“My special guests! The best table and…” He points towards us with open arms—the maestro knows his audience.
“Real beer,” we chorale. We fall into the darkness, the silence of pre-dawn, and he stands. Instead of holding up one finger as if to say, “Shush,” he puts up the whole hand, pinky pointing out, with resigned but firm authority. That old-time country contractual obligation crosses his face. We nod in agreement.
“Good for business,” Miranda says.
We file pass the shrubs as he calls his wife to collect the empty bottles. Sugar Daddy walks us to the car and rubs at his face. He grabs my arm before I hop inside and kisses my hand. I get in the car and roll down the window. It’s getting late.
“It’s true,” he says. “This is China.”
Breaking Off in May by Zhang Xian (990-1078)
To the tune of Qianqiusui (A Thousand Autumns Old)
The frequent sound of the cuckoo
again proclaims the meadow flowers’ passing.
I enjoyed the spring, so pick its last blooms, even more.
There’s scant rain and cruel wind,
while yet the plums remain unripe.
The Yongfeng Willow
stands alone all day, its snowflake-catkins flying.
No plucking of my pipa’s highest string.
I hate it, for it speaks feebly.
Heaven won’t age, which makes love hard to break.
My heart is like a double silk net
with thousands of knots at its core.
Night is over.
My one lamp, in the eastern window, was put out, at first light.
Translated by Julian Farmer with Liang Yujing.
Julian Farmer is a poet and translator from several languages, especially French, Classical Greek, Latin, Russian and Classical Chinese. His poems and translations have been published in Acumen, Staple, Stand,London Magazine, Epiphany, SHOp, and Modern Poetry in Translation.
Liang Yujing was born in Changde, China, and completed an MA in American Literature at Wuhan University in 2007. Now a lecturer at Hunan University of Commerce, he writes in both English and Chinese. His poems in English have recently appeared in Tipton Poetry Journal, Portland Review Online, Zouch Magazine, and Wasafiri.
Then the Game Begins
The man who invented Mah Jong is a hero. Yeah, definitely a hero. He saves people’s lives, people like me who have nothing good to count on at night. You know I used to think that playing Mah Jong was only for grandparents, and a young woman like me would have better things to do. But now I know this game is for everyone, for all the people in China. I wonder what Chairman Mao thought of Mah Jong during the Cultural Revolution, maybe he tried to stamp it out. Very unwise I think.
[private]I feel a much stronger person since I started playing Mah Jong. And you know what’s more, it has brought about an affair.
Let me explain to you why I like gambling—and now gambling with my marriage as well. For the last three years I have spent every day answering telephones in my office in a perfect polite voice, answering every query with a smile, and every evening cooking dinner in an empty home, waiting for my husband Hui to walk through the door. God, how boring my life sounds—don’t you think? So by the time he arrives home the dinner I have laboured over for him is cold and unappealing, so I almost always eat alone. Then I watch crappy TV on our crappy television set until Hui opens the door, weary as always. He seems to have put on weight recently, I wonder whether he’s been drinking too much beer after work with his colleagues, or perhaps his cheap shirt is just too tight? You know he is not that handsome or special, after all. He is just an ordinary man, now I realise. Disappointing or not, that’s the truth.
You know I haven’t made a single friend in this city of eighteen million people. And why is that? I used to think I was one of the many victims of old Confucius’ rules—he says the good virtue of a woman is to belong to her husband; the rest is not worth consideration. I thought I was such a modern woman—pah! What did I know? What stupidity! You know, I started to ask myself why I was even living in this big city with my plastic modern flat, my tired and absent husband. There is a whole city full of possibilities out there, and I was sat here at home watching cheap soap operas day after day. My body was getting old and tired and flabby, my mind loose and lazy—I needed something to shock me into living, really living.
Then one night, I stayed up late listening to a new CD, an album by Nick Cave. There is this one song called “Nobody’s Baby Now”. The lyrics go like this: “This is her dress that I loved best, with the blue violets across the breast. And these are my many letters torn to pieces by her long-fingered hand, I was her cruel-hearted man…” When I heard those lines, my tears flowed out freely. I played the song again and again that night, as if on a constant loop. Then I dried my eyes and made a decision. I decided to give up my young-housewife life. I needed something to happen for a change and you know even if it causes a small disaster—I’m ready for it, I really am. I also realised that for an ambitious man like Hui, home is a drag, and coming back to spend time with the wife in front of the TV is a waste. I never realised that it might also be a waste for me.
And you know Hui and I don’t have a child. They say if a man doesn’t want to have children with you within three years it means he doesn’t want to be tied to you forever. Forever! Ha! What an ill-conceived and unworkable word. Good riddance to that. I’m not interested in forever anymore. It should only be written on Mah Jong tiles—passed around casually from person to person.
But now everything has changed. Since I’ve started playing Mah Jong, I get home late, often later than Hui. Only the other day I tiptoed into the flat around two in the morning to find him slumped on the sofa, his tie askew and his dinner half-finished on a plate on the floor. The TV was still on. Some late-night game show was playing and the volume sounded violently loud in the silent room.
Usually I play Mah Jong with Old Gold and his mates or his clients. Then he drives me home in his big shiny BMW round and round the dark ring roads of Beijing. Sometimes we play deep into the night in karaoke parlours or bars. And sometimes I just sit in Old Gold’s BMW listening to his CD collection. Three weeks ago we were sitting there on the tan leather seats with Bryan Adams playing some sentimental 80s crap rock—I told him I liked it—and suddenly I realised that Old Gold wanted to kiss me. He was looking at me with his head on one side, his arm draped over the steering wheel, leaning forwards. I knew I had a choice: I could go back to my old life, be the woman waiting at home, or I could let Old Gold kiss me, and maybe even enjoy it. So I leaned my head on Gold’s shoulder and we kissed. We had sex on the back seat; the leather squeaked and was slippery and sticky next to my naked skin. The parking lot was so quiet and the night porters were wandering around with their white torch beams raised and shining so brightly that I was nearly worried someone might find us.
I think I forgot to mention that Old Gold is actually my boss. My husband Hui has played Mah Jong with him and his wife Xing many times; sometimes we even play as a foursome: two happy couples. What a joke.
I work for Gold’s newspaper—the New Consumer. I used to be the receptionist and then recently I was promoted. I know that Old Gold noticed me. He used to comment on my clothes or hairdo, and occasionally, you know, I would find him staring at me while he waited in reception for a lunch guest or client. Now my job is to read western fashion magazines and to report on the latest trends from Milan, Paris, or London. Gold is a smart guy—he knows people from the government and seems to understand how to run a business in Beijing. And of course he was well ahead of everyone when he bought his 250-square-metre flat in fashionable Jian Wai Soho—the most expensive area in Beijing—way before it hit the big time.
One night as I lay on my bed, waiting for my husband to come home, the scenes in Gold’s BMW flashed through my mind like a film reel. I was so nervous, you know. That night Iplayed Mah Jong with colleagues in a bar, and Gold won all of our money. He flirted with me outrageously all evening, leaning in close, stroking my bare arm and commiserating with me on my bad luck. It was very late and he offered to drive me home. He was a little drunk and gloating about his winnings. I didn’t want to go home—I knew the life there too well. It bored me now. I wanted excitement and change, risk and adventure, and most of all, you know, I really wanted Old Gold. His body wasn’t great and his hair was greasy, but his touch had triggered something.
Three weeks later Gold’s wife Xing invites me and my husband to “build the Great Wall”—that’s what she calls Mah Jong. Now what can I tell you about Xing? So she picks great tiles… but what is that but just good luck? I can’t see that she has any other virtues. She is a fashionable woman who does nothing all day long, except for going to the hair salon and shopping for famous western brands. Before marrying Gold, she used to sing in a bar, screeching in her whiney high-pitched voice songs from Titanic and The Lion King, with the lyrics translated into Chinese. Actually, her voice isn’t that bad, but since she’s just been a housewife, she only uses it to order take away meals, or to curse Gold for not spending enough time with her.
My husband Hui loves playing at Gold’s place. He loves Gold’s brand new “Automatic Mah Jong Table”—a new gadget that automatically shuffles and arranges the tiles for you. It’s very popular because people save time in between each round and they can stay focussed on gambling instead.
So the day finally arrives when we four are supposed to build the Great Wall. It’s a balmy Saturday evening. I wear my best summer dress—fake Dolce & Gabbana—I imagine it being a bit like the blue violet dress in the Nick Cave song. Hui carries some beers under his arm. Arriving in Gold’s residential area, we have to pass through a whole series of security gates and wind our way along a complicated garden path. As we approach Gold’s front door, I hear a woman crying. I hesitate, but Hui has already pressed the bell. Gold opens the door with sunken cheeks, and right behind him we see his wife Xing’s swollen eyes. The floor is a mess. Broken china plates, hair clips, crumpled old newspapers, a woman’s underwear, and Gold’s leather handbag. You know right that moment I wanted to run back home as fast as I could, but Hui had already walked into their kitchen and put five bottles of beer on the table. He was smiling, trying to sooth the atmosphere.
“What’s the matter? You two had a little argument?” Hui asks in his best voice.
“Let me tell you what kind of asshole my husband is!” Xing sneezes.
My heart sinks. I steal a glance at Gold, but he has buried himself in a big leather sofa, and he doesn’t look up. He stares at his toes. “Look what I found in his bag!” Xing fetches a small gift box from the top of the TV set. She opens it. It’s a silver necklace with a dangling crystal heart. Then she unfolds a note from inside the box and reads aloud: “For my darling, happy birthday!” She looks around at us with wide wet eyes, “Ha!” She looks at Gold. “Ha!” The words come out sharp and hard like little bullets.
No one says a word. Gold seems to grow more depressed, Hui looks at me for a couple of seconds but he quickly shifts his gaze back to the angry hostess.
“Happy birthday for my darling! Did you hear? That can’t be me! My birthday was a month ago, that day we went bowling. He bought me a jade necklace and I’ve worn it ever since!”
I look at her and sure enough she’s wearing a green jade necklace. It sits heavily around her neck—the colour is dull and there is no shine to the stone. I’m getting restless. Does Gold’s wife know the date of my birthday? And has Hui remembered it this time? Last year he didn’t you know, and I ate a special home-cooked hot pot dish all by myself for two and half hours waiting for him to come home and remember. Anyway, it is next Thursday.
“Where are your guts now? Who is she? Eh?”
“I’ve told you twenty times, my dear, I bought it for you then I found the jade and I always think jade things suit you best!” Gold yells.
“Let’s leave this business for now, buddies.” My good-tempered husband finds a broom, starts to clear up the floor. “In my opinion, Xing, you need to trust your husband. I believe he bought that for you.”
Xing seems to withdraw a little from her hysteria. She stops speaking, walks to the sofa and curls up beside her husband. Her legs are close to his—no, actually it looks like she is clinging to him. Her gesture makes me feel very strange. I realise I don’t want to be in her place, snuggled up to Old Gold’s sausage legs and breathing in his musky smell; but I am glad of our moments in the back of his car.
Hui sweeps everything into a corner. Now, with a light-hearted manner, he unfolds Gold’s expensive automatic Mah Jong table, and installs it in the middle of the room. He does it as confidently as if this was his own house. From the sofa, Gold and Xing passively gaze at their guest moving around the room in front of them. What a great husband I have!
“Maybe we should go, we’ll come some other time,” I say in a tense voice.
“No way, you’ve come all this way! You can’t possibly leave now!” Gold is nearly begging us.
“Yes, let’s forget about this stupid necklace and have some fun!” Hui adds. “It is Saturday night after all!” He drags Gold and Xing out of the sofa. Yes, Hui is right, why we can’t enjoy this game? I mean, the game of playing a Mah Jong together.
We all take our seats around the Mah Jong table. I am facing Old Gold. His eyes are lowered and beads of sweat dot his upper lip. Hui presses the control button, and at once a bunch of white tiles appear. Automatically they line up into four neat, tight walls.
Gold grabs some notes from his wallet and places them on the table, so does Hui. Then Xing follows, with her crab-like fingers. We start with one-yuan notes, as usual. I take out my wallet filled with credit cards, but there’s no cash in it. My husband notices this and throws me 20 yuan; you know I can’t help smiling to myself at how sweetly innocent is my dear Hui.
We arrange our tiles. Xing seems less miserable than earlier. The Mah Jong tiles do have a special kind of magnetism which sucks her into the game—I know only too well. Gradually, she seems to forget the memory of what happened twenty minutes ago. Yet she throws the dices like a desperate gambler, hypnotised by disaster.
The first hour passes uneventfully. My husband keeps losing money, and Gold’s wife is winning. Neither Gold nor I say much. I make a point of being very attentive to Hui and I can feel Gold’s eyes on me as I touch my husband’s arm or kiss his cheek. I enjoy Gold’s stare.
Then the game grows more intense, Gold’s wife bids 10 yuan at each round. Hui grows desperate. He has lost nearly 400 yuan, and the game is not even halfway through. I keep as quiet as Gold, who drinks his beer with a professional gambler’s face—motionless and unreadable.
Midnight. The beers are all gone. The two men start to drink Er Guo Tou, the strongest Beijing sorghum liquor, while Xing nibbles at a pack of cashew nuts. I sip at my glass of water. The whole situation has my rapt attention: I feel like I’m watching a play enacted in real time, only forgetting that I’m one of the key players. I peek at Xing: she is totally taken by the game. Now she stands up, goes to the kitchen and brings back two pomegranates. She bites into the fruit’s hard skin, and at the same time, she hands me the other one. I take the pomegranate and put it on the corner of the Mah Jong table. I can’t eat. Really, how can she eat such a hard fruit in the middle of the night?
Waiting for the machine to shuffle the tiles, the two men chink their glasses and swallow the fiery liquor into their empty stomachs. With pomegranate seeds in her mouth, Xing gazes at me with a strange expression. Then she says: “That silver necklace,” she spits out some seeds onto the floor, ‘I know who it is for.’
I am suddenly uncertain. Bit by bit my resolve feels like it is being gnawed away by a mouse. The air conditioning is too strong. A chill runs down my spine. My legs feel prickle with pins and needles. They hang loose from my body like the limbs of a puppet. I feel stuck. I can’t move my body at all. What should I do? And where should I look? I pull my eyes away from the scene and glance outside through the double glazed windows: it’s a warm summer evening, a group of old people are sitting under a polar tree, fans in hand, drinking tea. I wish I hadn’t worn this thin dress, this Nick Cave blue violet dress. My nose starts to run with clear liquid and I begin to sneeze.
Gold and Hui freeze and stare at her, glasses in their hands, the liquor a sweet golden nectar.
The automatic table suddenly gets stuck. It makes a disturbing noise, and starts to click and whine.
No one knows what to say.
“I’m going to bednow, you three carry on.”
Very deliberately Xing rises from her chair, leaves the table, still biting into the hard skin of her pomegranate.
I let out the breath I’ve been holding for so long. Gold watches as his wife disappears down the corridor towards her bedroom, then looks back at the table. Still, he doesn’t look at me. What a coward, I think. He would never dare to admit to everyone that he likes me, let alone mention that we now make love in the back of his car after every Mah Jong session. I start to think that maybe I don’t know my boss at all. Perhaps today is the first day I have really begun to know him. Then beside me, Hui drinks another swig of liquor, his face growing red and swollen. Silence.
I stare at the pomegranate in the corner of the table. It is a big one, with pink and brown mottled skin, and a dirty white sticker saying “Product of Iran”.
The three of us sit there hoping for the tiles to be delivered on to the table. But the shuffling machine goes on clicking, like a dying lobster.[/private]
Julian Farmer is a poet and translator from several languages, especially French, Classical Greek, Latin, Russian and Classical Chinese. His poems and translations have been published in Acumen, Staple, Stand,London Magazine, Epiphany, SHOp, and Modern Poetry in Translation.
Common People by A Yi
Imagine—if you will—that you are a large bird, hovering over the town of Jujiu on 20 April 1998. You would have seen the county’s deputy mayor, Li Yaojun, getting unexpectedly promoted to legal-political commissar; Chen Mingyi, a secondary school teacher, smashing his head on the ground outside a department store; Li Xilan’s husband heading off (and not for the first time) to Beijing to get his impotence treated; a team of migrant workers digging a pit in the road outside the park; and Feng Botao—accountant at the Linye Hostel—suggesting a game of chess to Ho Lao’er, a security guard in the local building society. And if you had been asked to arrange these disparate pieces of information in order of importance, you would probably have placed the final fact at the bottom of the pile.
[private]Feng Botao trailed behind, as he always did. Ho walked in front, both hands behind his back. He puckered his lips sardonically when he encountered someone he knew, as if to say: “Pathetic, isn’t he?” I thought this was okay; I can’t think of a way round it. The townspeople of Jujiu understood the dynamic between Feng and Ho perfectly: it was as the moon is to the earth, or the earth to the sun. Today, though, there was something unsettling about the sight of the two of them together. There was a strange, bladelike glitter to Feng’s eyes—as if he were escorting Ho down to the underworld. But no-one could tell Ho he was about to die, just like you can’t tell a driver that he’s about to have an accident.
So all passers-by passed by, and Feng and Ho made their way to the lakeside. Ho settled his corpulent form on a stool, while Feng poured a plastic bag of chess pieces onto a stone chess board and carefully set them out. This was Ho’s last chance to read the expression on Feng’s face, but he saw only humility. He told Feng to start, and his opponent dutifully moved his cannon out. Feng had lost count of how many times he had tried this opening and of how many times he had sworn to abandon it. A sense of solemn finality overwhelmed him; the presentiment that today was the last time he would play it. Fuck you, he suddenly thought. Ho responded by moving his knight forward, as usual. After a few more moves, Feng drifted into a daydream: he was walking silently through a crowd of people asking him whether he had won. He looked to Ho for an answer; his opponent gave only a knowing smile. Its flash of contempt brought a flush to Feng’s face.
After a few brisk exchanges, Feng played the move that he had rehearsed the previous evening: as Ho’s hand paused over the board, Feng set his face into an expression of magnanimous victory. “Come on,” he hurried his opponent. Ho glanced at him and gave a strange, unnerving laugh—the sound of scissors skittering over sheet iron. Feng snapped out of his trance; he had already tried out his new move, he now remembered, one Mid-Autumn Festival several years ago. The game advanced, move-for-move, exactly as it had back then; even the casualties were identical. It was as if he were stuck in a time warp.
Ho, the eternal victor, made one more move and Feng’s position disintegrated irremediably. “This is our last game,” Ho pronounced. Usually, Feng’s response was abject; today he coolly agreed: “All right.” Slightly discombobulated by Feng’s composure, Ho made a few more swift, careless moves, watched his opponent reluctantly react to them, then left without completing the checkmate. Feng sat stock-still, as if paralysed.
Ho’s bloated, maggot-like form shuffled slowly home. As he searched for his keys outside his front door, Feng caught up with him. Again, witnesses noted the glitter in Feng’s eyes, except that this time, Ho saw it too. Somehow, though, he felt he couldn’t ask if Feng was planning to kill him.
“One more game.” Feng rattled the pieces in the plastic bag. Bystanders noted Ho’s discomfort, his attempt to make excuses. But eventually, he allowed himself to be hustled inside.
Seven citizens of Jujiu witnessed Feng enter Ho’s house at five o’clock that evening; no-one saw what time he left. Ho (a widower) was discovered dead at nine o’clock by another security guard picking him up for his shift. On the street outside, a long queue of ants had formed under the lamppost; the air smelt freshly of death. Ho was lying, face down, over his dining table. The back of his head was covered with a white towel stained red in the centre, like the Japanese flag.
At eleven o’clock that evening, Feng (also a widower) quietly unlocked his own door. Hundreds of fingers seemed to be pointing at him out of the dark. He staggered backwards but they still pursued him. The valuables in his hand fell to the ground.
Feng claimed that he had left Ho’s residence at six o’clock that evening. “You should play to win,” Ho had told him, seeing him out with a pat on the shoulder. After six o’clock, he had taken his usual evening stroll around the perimeter of the park. This detail was Feng’s undoing.
“Did anyone see you?” the police interrogator asked him. “I didn’t notice,” Feng replied. “I was only thinking about chess.” “So you just kept walking around the park?” “Yes.” “How many times?” “Once or twice.” “You’re lying. They’ve dug up the concrete.” “Yes, I noticed.” “Where?”
Feng had no answer to that. For four or five days, he was forced to squat, to stand on one leg, or was deprived of sleep. Through it all, he heard only one word: “Confess.” The mesmerising quality of the repetition almost broke his childish defiance but he somehow managed to resist. Surrender, he knew, would mean death.
On the seventh day, the new Commissar, Li Yaojun, arrived to take over as chief interrogator. “Look at me,” he said. Feng slowly raised his head: a ray of cold afternoon light fell onto his forehead. He immediately looked back down. Li repeated his command. Feng tried, but failed, to avoid the Commissar’s gaze. He began to feel like a naked woman in a room full of voyeurs and his body went into spasm, rattling his chains. Li continued to lock eyes with him, like a lion with its claws poised over a victim.
Eventually, Feng broke. Though his first attempt at an admission of guilt was rather garbled—as if suffering from stage fright—the second was more audible, and the murderous sharpness in Li’s eyes melted into tenderness. “I killed Ho Lao’er,” Feng repeated. “I’ve also embezzled three thousand yuan from the state, and stolen a hundred yuan from a blind fortune teller and…” Li left the room. By the time the police interrogator had taken his place, Feng was filled with anti-climax.
“So, how did you kill Ho?” the interrogator asked. “With a kitchen knife.” “No.” “With an axe.” “No.” “With a truncheon.” “You’re getting warmer.” “A hammer.” “And where was he when you hit him?” “Standing up.” “Have another go.” “Sitting down.”
To Feng, his interrogator was like a spoilt child whose every whim he wanted to satisfy. But there were a few things Feng just couldn’t get right, such as where he had hidden the key to the building society vault or the murder weapon. However hard he tried, he couldn’t guess what he’d done with it.
The investigation dragged on for six months (confession following retraction following confession) until the untimely death of Li Xilan’s husband. On returning from his third, fruitless trip to Beijing, despairing of a cure for his impotence, he threw himself under a train. With no need to worry about her reputation any longer, Li Xilan swore—on her knees in front of the office of the district prosecutor—that Feng Botao had been with her between six and nine o’clock on the evening of 20 April.
The public prosecutor sent Feng’s file along with Li Xilan’s testimony back down to the county police, with four comments attached. First, the motive was unconvincing; second, the murder weapon had not been found; third, the confession was full of contradictions; fourth, the suspect had an alibi. That evening, Li and a few of his retainers went looking for Li Xilan. He slammed her testimony down on a table and struck it with a rifle butt. “What were you doing with Feng Botao on the evening of 20 April between six and nine?” “You know.” “What?” “Having sex.” “How d’you know it was 20 April?” “My period had just finished, I ringed the date on my calendar.” “You can go to prison for perjury.” “I’m telling the truth.” “We had this case sewn up, you whore. You’ve messed everything up. And got me in trouble with my bosses.”
At this point, Li Xilan wet herself. “Take her away,” Li said. Two policemen picked her up, one under each arm, as if she were a paraplegic. She was fully incontinent before she was released a week later. “Your evidence is worthless,” a policeman told her. “You’ve no one else to prove you were having sex that night. If anyone could say they were having sex whenever they wanted, what kind of a mess would China be in?”
Li had started out as a village cadre, slowly hauling himself up the political food-chain: to deputy village head, deputy Party secretary, village head, Party secretary, then township head, secretary of the township Party branch, head of judiciary and head of transport. Finally, aged forty-five, he had been promoted to deputy mayor of the county. He’d only got the commissar promotion because his predecessor had died not long after getting the job, and his bosses had decided to give him a chance. On taking up his new post, he had sworn that no homicide would go unsolved. He didn’t want to release Feng, but neither could he keep him locked up, so he rang the District Commissar and begged him to get public security to call a meeting to discuss the case.
“There isn’t enough evidence,” the District Commissar told him. “What’s wrong with what we’ve given you?” “He won’t get the death penalty.” “Well, give him a suspended sentence.” “He won’t get that, either.” “Just lock him up for twenty years, then. I’m sure he did it. I’d swear on my rank.”
Feng Botao, rotting in jail, had no idea that he was being bargained over like a cabbage. When he learnt that the court would be trying his case on 22 November, he was sure that this was the end. He ate his dinner and masturbated long and hard, fantasising about Li Xilan.
But a well-connected lawyer got him out before it came to that. His wrists, released of their handcuffs, felt suddenly cold. Without shackles, he felt light as a feather—as if the slightest wind might carry him off. As he left the prison, he looked up at the deep blue sky, stretching out to the horizon like a shard of curved tile. He glanced back: at the black characters on the white sign over the entrance; at the glass-tiled roof over the iron door; at the grey brick walls. A sentry box nestled amid white poplars; a green-uniformed policeman, toting a submachine gun, paced back and forth outside. Anxious to get out of his line of fire, Feng quickly got into a taxi parked nearby and collapsed, weeping, into Li Xilan’s soft chest.
On the journey home, Feng more or less kept himself together; he even noted the existence of a new furniture store and the motorbikes they passed. But he broke down as soon as he got home; the thick dust over every surface reminded him of the desolation of the past seven months. Li Xilan had him put on a saline drip, and for two days he ran a high temperature. As he passed in and out of consciousness, he was vaguely aware of someone telling him he had important visitors. When the fever receded, he was convulsed by shivers. Finally, he craved food and drink: now pears, now stuffed rolls. Eventually, only the sight of Li Xilan’s breasts calmed him down.
Feng Botao slept and woke up feeling much better. A team of visitors burst in unannounced—Li Yaojun, the Chief of Public Security, the Director of Prosecutions. While Feng shrank back into his sickbed, Li seized him by the shoulder. Glancing nervously at him, Feng saw a tear forcing its way out of the Commissar’s eye. Li was gazing compassionately at him, as if Feng were a wounded younger brother home from the wars. “You’ve been wronged,” Li began, his voice husky with emotion. He produced an envelope: “This is four thousand yuan from the government, compensation for the 210 days you spent in prison.” Feng nervously touched the envelope lid. Thrusting it at him, Li quickly produced another package: “Here’s another seven thousand yuan—your salary for the last seven months.” Lost for words, Feng watched Li pull out one more envelope: “And here’s a sympathy collection that the police put together: ten thousand yuan.” When Feng tried to stagger out of bed, Li reached out a hand to steady him. “It’s too much,” Feng protested.
“Don’t be silly.” Li stuffed the third package under his pillow. “How can I ever thank you?” Feng mumbled. “Just concentrate on getting better,” Li replied. The delegation left, without touching the tea that had been poured for them. At the door, though, Li suddenly turned back around, as if he had just remembered something. “You know what reporters are like these days; always nosing about for stories for their shitty papers.” “I know,” Feng answered.
Under cover of darkness, several reporters did indeed pay Feng a visit. After ignoring them for a while, he felt he should at least open the door. “No interviews. My decision. If you write any rubbish about me, I’ll throw myself off your building.”
“We’re on your side,” one of them said.
“Get lost,” Feng replied.
Feng became very uneasy when he learnt, subsequently, that Li Yaojun had been demoted. Whenever he passed him on the street, he couldn’t look him in the eye. Feng also knew that he’d only been released because Chen Mingyi from the local secondary school had confessed to Ho’s murder, so it was Chen he really ought to thank for his survival. Bearing this in mind, Feng paid for some of the hospital treatment that Chen Mingyi’s father needed.
Chen Mingyi had been arrested in the middle of November. Three days in a row he had stolen Maotai—one of China’s most expensive spirits—from the local supermarket. On the fourth day, he was caught in the act. He was a slight, highly strung man, and the team at the police substation quickly terrified him into admitting several other thefts. After being transferred to the criminal investigations team, he swiftly confessed to Ho Lao’er’s murder as well.
According to his file, Chen Mingyi’s criminal activities began on 20 April. That day, after a meeting at the hospital, he had walked in a trancelike state to the department store, knelt outside and begun to smash his head on the pavement. People crowded around and asked what was wrong. His father’s breath smelt of urine, he told them. “So what?” they replied. “He needs dialysis.” What’s dialysis, they wanted to know. “Something that costs a lot of money.” Everyone vanished. Having driven away most of the department store’s custom, Chen proceeded to get drunk. At some point that afternoon, he watched a navy blue security van speed past, and Feng Botao and Ho Lao’er head off to the lakeside together. “Where’s his sense of dignity?” he heard Ho say.
Here was a solution, Chen felt. It was fate. He went home, washed his face, made a plan, washed his face again, then left for Ho’s house with a hammer. On his way over, he saw Feng Botao walking in the opposite direction, looking preoccupied. Ho must be on his own, Chen thought. He sat down, wrapped his shoes in plastic bags like a delivery man, put a pair of thick safety gloves on, and checked for the hammer in his pocket. Adrenaline made him meticulous. On reaching Ho’s house, he took a deep breath, opened the door and discovered Ho dozing face-down on the dining table.
“Lend me some money,” he said.
Ho twisted his fleshy head slightly to look at him, opened his eyes vaguely, and went back to sleep.
“Lend me some money,” Chen repeated.
Ho got angry: “Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep? Get lost.” He lay his head back down on the table. Chen Mingyi took a few steps backwards, paused for about ten seconds, then charged forward and struck the back of Ho’s head with the hammer. Ho shuddered, then went back to sleep with a grunt. Chen Mingyi fetched a towel from the kitchen to cover his head then struck him about another dozen times until the blood began to show through.
There wasn’t much money in the house, but Chen eventually found the key to the building society vault. His next plan was to kill the duty guard and raid the vault, but halfway there, one of his trouser legs began to feel rather heavy. Was Ho tugging on his leg? he wondered, shivering. He looked down and discovered he had pissed himself. He ran home, mewling.
“Why didn’t you use a kitchen knife?” the interrogator asked him. “He would have screamed if I hadn’t killed him straight away.” “What about an axe?” “Too heavy. A hammer was quicker and easier. I thought it all through beforehand. A hammer was best for killing a big man like Ho. I needed to take him by surprise and get the job done quickly.”
Chen Mingyi, the interrogator now saw, seemed to be enjoying his confession, as if he were an actor in part. “You’d never committed a crime before.” the interrogator now asked. “Why did you decide to murder him?”
“I thought I’d need at least twenty or thirty thousand yuan. You don’t get that without murdering someone. And if you’ve decided to murder someone, you have to act fast. There’s no way back.”
“Why didn’t you kill anyone else?”
“I lost my nerve. I couldn’t sleep.”
“How about now?”
“I feel much better now, talking about it.”
Eventually, after losing his way several times, Chen Mingyi guided his interrogators to a stagnant pond. After some migrant labourers had emptied it, the police discovered a hammer and a key in the silt at the bottom. Chen Mingyi was formally arrested, quickly tried and sentenced to death.
Once Chen Mingyi had been moved to a tiny cell—five or six paces by seven or eight—on death row, his morale broke. Every day he spent with his face pressed to the bars, weeping. His grief was contagious, and soon all the other prisoners were crying in chorus. The guard thought there was something unusual about his crying: most people in the cells wept from terror, but there was a tenderness in Chen’s sobs. One sunny day, the guard led Chen Mingyi—now pale and trembling with malnutrition—to his cubicle and offered him a cup of wine. “Who are you crying for?” he asked. “My father,” Chen answered. “I heard what you did for your father,” the guard sighed. “You’re the most educated person here, too. What a waste.” “I had no choice,” Chen said. “How come?” the guard asked. “The doctor told me that uremia destroys families. Far richer families than ours had been broken by it, he said. If the urine can’t leave the system, it’ll poison the body; my father needed a kidney transplant, or second best, dialysis. If you’re lucky, the treatment costs one hundred thousand a year, two or three hundred thousand if you’re not. The school lent me a bit, and so did my relatives; even my students chipped in. But it was gone in no time.”
“So you turned to crime?” “Robbery and murder.” “Why didn’t you just let him go? We’ve all got to die some day.” “I couldn’t kill my father.” “I didn’t say kill him. I said let him go.” “Letting him die would be murder. I owe everything to my father, he even sold his own blood for me. How could I let him down? He’s only 49—younger than you.”
The prison guard took Chen Mingyi’s hand and pushed up his sleeve: “You’ve sold your blood too.”
“Even when I was at school, I already felt I could never pay my father back. Every day I read the Classic of Filial Piety. If I were the emperor of China or a prince, I thought, I could repay him like an emperor or a prince. But I was just an ordinary person. Then again, Confucius said that anyone could be filial—it didn’t matter whether they were an emperor or a beggar.”
The prison guard grunted his assent.
“Confucius also said,” Chen went on, “that as long as you were frugal, your parents would live long lives. But these days, you need money to be filial. If I only eat a bread roll every day, will that help my father get better? And Heaven is supposed to take pity on the truly filial. Do you remember that Han dynasty story about Jiangshi? He walked two miles every day to fetch river water for his mother to drink, so Heaven brought the river up to their house. Or there’s the legend about Wang Xiang, who lay down naked on the ice to catch fish for his stepmother. So Heaven cracked the ice and two red carp leapt out. I’ve dug fresh thunder god vine and researched endless Chinese medicine prescriptions, and all that’s happened is my father’s got worse.”
“But Confucius also said that sometimes it was all right to give up. Like I said, we’ve all got to die sometime. You can’t make your father immortal. You tried your best.”
“If my father had a terminal illness,” Chen answered, “then I would have given up. But he hasn’t. I couldn’t leave him in the hospital to die.”
The guard sighed. “But the Classics also say that you should respect other people’s elders like you respect your own. You shouldn’t kill other people to keep your father alive.”
Chen Mingyi slowly drank his wine. “I don’t care who I have to kill to keep my father alive.”
The execution took place on a crisp winter’s day. As he escorted Chen to the ground, the guard urged him to have a drink. Chen wanted to know how his father was. The guard rang the hospital. Eventually, a doctor picked up. “He’s dead,” he told the guard.
The guard walked out in front of the firing squad: “He’s a bit better. He’s reading the newspaper.” Tears streamed down Chen’s face.
Afterwards, the guard went to the hospital and, on making enquiries, discovered that Chen Mingyi’s father had died like a pampered pot-plant. The doctors said that, like a plant, he would have withered without nourishment. But he had been watered every day. At one point, a thin man trailing behind a rather busty woman had come and paid for some of his treatment. But after that—no one. “All good things must come to an end,” the guard thought.
So here we are, still hovering idly over Jujiu, greedily hoping for the scent of death. If we stay there long enough, we’ll see Li Yaojun getting appointed chairman of the Political Consultative Conference; an employee at the supermarket sighing that only an idiot would steal the same overpriced alcohol from the same shop for four days in a row; and Feng Botao, accountant at the Linye Hostel, happily fucking Li Xilan—day in, day out. “Where’s that ring you promised me?” Li Xilan asks one day, after they’re done. It seems that Feng Botao has forgotten. “You’re a bastard,” Li Xilan sobs. “You cheated Chen Mingyi and you’ve cheated me. You’re a bastard.”[/private]
A Yi was born in 1976 in Ruichang, Jiangxi. He has worked as a police officer and editor of sports journalism. His works include Grey Stories, The Bird Saw Me, What Should I Do Next, Model Youth, and The Lonely One. He won the People’s Literature Novella Prize and the Young Writer of the Year Award, was chosen as one of People’s Literature’s Top 20 Future Masters, and won the Chinese Literature Media Awards’ Best New Artist Award.
Listings: September 2012
New St. James Theatre opens in London
St. James Theatre, the first newly built theatre complex in central London in 30 years, will open to the public this month. Rising from the site of the former Westminster Theatre at 12 Palace Street, in the heart of Victoria, the space will include a 312-seat theatre, a studio space, brasserie and bar. David Gilmore (Artistic Director) and James Albrecht (Assistant Artistic Director) will produce a varied programme to include musicals, comedies and classic revivals as well as offering a London venue to touring and regional productions. For more information, visit www.stjamestheatre.co.uk.
E17 Art Trail: 1-16 September
Art in all its forms will be popping up all over Walthamstow. Step inside neighbours’ houses or sample art on shop walls, hanging from trees, in estate agents’ windows, in galleries and gardens, on pavements and in pubs. Almost 3,000 people have contributed to this year’s programme of over 350 events to surprise, entertain and amaze residents and visitors to Walthamstow in the eighth annual E17 Art Trail. The full programme is available at www.e17arttrail.co.uk.
London Design Festival’s 10th anniversary: 14-23 September
This is one of the most important events on the global design calendar. This year, the Festival will present a programme that will more than equal the quality, imagination and innovation that it has demonstrated for the last decade. The inaugural Global Design Forum, a stimulating and intensive one-day event to set the global agenda for design, launches on 18 September at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Townhouse, another new feature of this year’s festival, will be located in a Georgian house in Belgravia, and will exhibit a rich diversity of contemporary design curated by Jan Withers. Other key Festival locations include: Trafalgar Square, Victoria & Albert Museum, and up to 250 smaller exhibitions, installations, talks and events. More at www.londondesignfestival.com.
Barbican presents Transcender Festival on 17 September
The Barbican’s contemporary music autumn season begins this month with a series of concerts that offers a look at transcendental, devotional, spiritual, hypnotic and psychedelic music. It explores music designed to transport the listener, to conjure trances or summon states of ecstasy. This year’s festival includes artists from Iran, the United States, Iraq and Armenia, and features a rare collaboration between Iranian maestro Hossein Alizadeh and one of Armenia’s greatest musicians, Djivan Gasparyan, a celebration of Iraqi music, the Sun Ra Arkestra led by Marshall Allen and a hypnotic multimedia collaboration featuring Oneohtrix Point Never, and Reliquary House at LSO St Luke’s. For more information visit www.barbican.org.uk/transcender.
Be Open Sound Portal (London Design Festival 2012) Trafalgar Square project, 19-23 September
This year Be Open, the new global initiative to foster creativity and innovation, and the London Design Festival are co-producing a project in Trafalgar Square that focuses on the idea of “design you can’t see”. Taking as its basis the idea of sound as a means of conveying memory and evoking emotion, the Be Open Sound Portal will be an immersive space in the centre of the square that will take visitors on an intriguing journey. The Portal will transport visitors to inaccessible places and remote environments through a series of three-dimensional soundscapes created by leading musicians and sound designers. For more information visit www.beopenfuture.com.
South Place Hotel to open in London
South Place is an 80-bedroom, design-focused property, due to open this month. The hotel’s rooftop terrace will offer 7th-floor views of the City of London. South Place aims to bring something different to the hotel scene in London. Combining the buzz of D&D London’s restaurants, Conran-designed interiors and specially commissioned work by contemporary London artists, South Place looks set to be “more meet than sleep” than most London hotels. Handy for Liverpool Street commuters will be the two restaurants, including a brasserie on the ground floor, plus bars from hotel owner, the D&D London group, which also owns restaurants including London’s Bluebird and Coq d’Argent. www.southplacehotel.com.
James Cousins: New Adventures Choreographer Award showcase Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 7 September.
Selected from hundreds, James Cousins is the winner of the inaugural New Adventures Choreographer Award (NACA). The evening features three world premieres. Cousins’ There We Have Been is a duet which takes inspiration from the climax of the 1957 novel, Jealousy, by Alain Robbe-Grillet; and Everything and Nothing is a dynamic collaboration between James Cousins, lighting designer Lee Curran and set designer Colin Falconer. The piece is performed to an original score fusing electronic and classical sound worlds by composer Seymour Milton. Visit www.sadlerswells.com.
Roald Dahl Day with Michael Rosen Cottesloe BS, National Theatre, 8 September.
A morning of brilliant stories about Roald Dahl, celebrating his birthday and a new book about him, Fantastic Mr Dahl, written by the former Children’s Laureate and poet Michael Rosen. For more information, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk.
The Bartered Bride / A Night at the Chinese Opera British Youth Opera, Sadler’s Wells Peacock Theatre, 8–15 September.
British Youth Opera celebrates its 25th anniversary with two new productions in association with Southbank Sinfonia. Smetana’s comic masterpiece, inspired by folk tales from his native Bohemia, tells of the Bartered Bride whose arranged marriage is thwarted by her true love’s cunning. A Night at the Chinese Opera is a colourful depiction of China in the time of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo and the “Orphan of Zhao”, whose tragic tale of military invasion and personal vendetta is mirrored by Judith Weir’s theatrically turbo-charged comic-opera-within-an-opera. For more information visit www.byo.org.uk.
Let It Be marks the Beatles’ 50th anniversary Prince Of Wales Theatre, from 14 September.
Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the world’s most successful rock’n’roll band, live in London’s West End. Let It Be is a spectacular theatrical concert jam-packed with over 20 of the Beatles’ greatest hits. Relive the Beatles’ meteoric rise from their humble beginnings in Liverpool’s Cavern Club, through the heights of Beatlemania, to their later studio masterpieces with live performances of early tracks including “Twist and Shout”, “She Loves You” and “All My Lovin’”, as well as global mega-hits “Yesterday”, “Hey Jude”, “Come Together” and, of course, “Let It Be”. For more information visit www.letitbelondon.com.
Private Peaceful Theatre Royal Haymarket, 18–29 September
Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful plays for a strictly limited 16 performances at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 18 September. Directed and adapted for the stage by Simon Reade, Private Tommo Peaceful is a young First World War soldier awaiting the firing squad at dawn. During the night he looks back at his short but joyful past growing up in rural Devon; and the battles and injustices of war that brought him to the front line. Visit www.trh.co.uk.
The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, 18–21 September.
Eccentric three piece band The Tiger Lillies comes to Southbank Centre with the UK premiere of their new show, The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet. Co-produced by Southbank Centre and Danish theatre company Republique, the show combines new music, circus acts, giant puppets and video projections to give a macabre twist to Shakespeare’s classic tale of the Danish prince. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk.
Jazz Nights in the Cafe in the Crypt St Martin-in-the-Fields, Wednesdays through September 2012
Café in the Crypt St Martin-in-the-Fields plays host through September to some of the UK’s top jazz musicians and singers. Get ready for jazz, swing, ska and rock and roll. Zena James’ heartfelt, unpretentiousness and lustrous vocals giving a fresh interpretation to soul-laden jazz and Santi, a bright-toned and nimble trumpeter performing world-class improvisation. For more information visit www.smitf.org.
Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde Tate Britain, 12 September–13 January 2013
Combining rebellion and revivalism, scientific precision and imaginative grandeur, the Pre-Raphaelites constitute Britain’s first modern art movement. This exhibition will bring together over 150 works in different media, including painting, sculpture, photography and the applied arts, revealing the Pre-Raphaelites to be advanced in their approach to every genre. Led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) rebelled against the art establishment of the mid-nineteenth century, taking inspiration from early Renaissance painting.
Art of Change The Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition brings together some of China’s most innovative artists from the 1980s to the present including Chen Zhen, Yingmei Duan, Gu Dexin, Liang Shaoji and Wang Jianwei. It showcases some outstanding early examples from each artist, alongside more recent works and commissions. The acceptance that everything is subject to change is deeply-rooted in Eastern philosophy, and the artworks deal with themes of transformation, instability and discontinuity. The works on display all alter their appearance over time, or otherwise convey a powerful sense of volatility.
Everything was moving: photography from the 60s and 70s Barbican Art Gallery, 13 September 2012–13 January 2013
This major photography exhibition surveys the medium from an international perspective, and includes renowned photographers from across the globe, all working during two of the most memorable decades of the 20th Century. everything was moving: photography from the 60s and 70s tells a history of photography, through the photography of history. It brings together over 350 works, some rarely seen, others recently discovered and many shown in the UK for the first time.
Walking Home, Simon Armitage British Library, 14 September
Part journal, part nature writing and part autobiography, Simon Armitage’s heroic and sometimes hilarious travelogue Walking Home: Travels with a Troubadour on the Pennine Way combines prose and poetry as Armitage recounts his 256-mile epic walk along the Pennine Way. Contemplative, moving and droll, it is a unique narrative from one of our most loved writers. For more information visit www.bl.uk.
The Book Show LIVE! on 22 September
The Book Show 2012 is a show for authors and publishers. This full-day event will be held on the 22nd September 2012 over three floors at The Hat Factory in Luton, Bedfordshire. Being overseen by the UK’s leading digital publisher, Andrews UK, The Book Show brings authors and publishers together in one space to talk, network and build relationships with one another. Come along and take part in a full day’s worth of panels with both authors and publishers; ask questions to digital and traditional publishers; meet other authors and like-minded individuals and find out about getting your work out there, whether through a publisher or going it alone with self-publishing; hear from people talking about their experiences of self-publishing and make up your own mind. With talks on PR and marketing, there’s a chance to hear the professionals explain how they do what they do and to speak to experts about the impact of social networking and other media. www.thebookshow.co.uk.
Litro partners with the University of Sheffield’s Confucius Institute and School of East Asian Studies for “China” flash fiction competition
The theme is “China”. Deadline: 3 October. The competition is open to all and each entrant is entitled to submit only one story of no more than 300 words to [email protected].
The winner will receive £200, be published online at Litro, and have the chance to attend a short course in Chinese language at the Sheffield Confucius Institute. Runners-up will receive £100 and £50 respectively.
Confucius Institutes comprise a global network set up with the backing of the Chinese Ministry of Education to promote Chinese language and culture.
Jung Chang, Ma Jian and Bi Feiyu on Chinese Literature and Censorship
Jung Chang, like 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (currently serving an eleven-year prison sentence in China), London-based novelist Ma Jian (Red Dust, Beijing Coma), 2000 Nobel literature prize winner Gao Xingjian (Soul Mountain, One Man’s Bible) and countless other less well-known poets and writers whose work have been banned in China, were not extended an official invitation by the British Council to appear at the London Book Fair. Many critics, Ma Jian and the exiled poet Bei Ling included, have criticised the British Council for kowtow-ing to the Chinese authorities in its glaring failure to invite dissident and exiled writers, effectively selecting only authors approved by the Chinese government.
Critics have cited the British Council’s cooperation with GAPP-PRC (General Administration of Press and Publication) as particularly abhorrent, since it is the official Chinese government agency responsible for the regulation and administration of all Chinese publishing, including the granting of publishing licenses and the censorship and banning of books. In his critique, Ma Jian calls Liu Binjie, Minister of GAPP, “China’s censor-in-chief” and “the point man” for “silencing” Liu Xiaobo.
In order not to give tacit approval to the omission of important dissident and exiled Chinese writers, English PEN decided this year not to host Market Focus authors at its PEN Cafe Programme, as it usually does. Instead, PEN invited its own guests, including Jung Chang and Bi Feiyu (winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel Three Sisters). The latter happened also to be part of the official delegation of authors from China, bestowed the added honour of “Author of the Day” on Tuesday, April 17. An English PEN spokesperson said that PEN had invited Bi Feiyu for an interview because they already had a working relationship with him (they had supported one of his books in the past), and that of course it isn’t the case that if someone’s work hasn’t been banned that they are somehow less worthy as a writer.
The downside of all the spotlight on which authors haven’t been invited to the Fair is that it has led some to dismiss the authors of the Chinese delegation as mere mouthpieces of the Chinese government, but this is probably too simplistic. As such, PEN’s criticism is aimed not so much at the inclusion of the official participating writers, but rather the exclusion of other voices.
In a letter to the British Council on April 10, the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) said, “As the official, government approved writers generally represent the government, the official literature allowed by GAPP-PRC is only a very limited part of Chinese literature, mainly representing so-called “socialist literature with Chinese characteristics”. It cannot but reflect far less than a full view of Chinese literature. Chinese literature must include independent literature, beyond official censorship and banning, heretical literature, underground literature, prison literature and exile literature.”
When I caught up with Ma Jian, he said, “The British Council didn’t invite Jung Chang, and this makes us feel humiliated on behalf of unrecognised writers. Because among English readers, or under the umbrella of ‘Chinese writers’, Jung Chang and I are forever Chinese writers. We write about China, I even write my books in Mandarin. On this point I also dislike the attitude of the English. How can they cooperate with a country that is so lowly ranked globally in terms of freedom of expression, 175th out of 179? Do they want the English to learn censorship? Do they want English civilisation to become more dirty?”
Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, her own family saga, celebrates its 21st birthday this year. In her interview with PEN at the Fair, when she was asked what it does for her now, reading it so many years later, she said, “Well, I’m not reading it. [Laughs] I think I’ve written it and it’s been tremendously cathartic for me. It helped me turn a very painful past into memory, which is a luxury that most people in China don’t have, because we were not allowed to think about, to talk about, this period.”
When asked what she thought of her contemporaries who had travelled to London as part of the state-approved delegation, she hastened to say, “I wouldn’t accuse the writers in China because it is very difficult. I mean, you could be sent to prison for over a decade for something you write. If you’re not thrown into prison you might be exiled, you might be forced abroad, in which case you can’t go home. I mean, Ma Jian himself can’t go home. He can’t see his parents, his children can’t see their grandparents, it’s a very, very hard choice to make. Nobody but the most hardened heroes can do this, and not everyone can be a hero. You have to think about your wives and your husbands, your families, your parents… it’s very, very hard. So I feel that we must have a lot of sympathy for them.”
She added, however, “Of course, if you peddle the party line unashamedly, that’s another matter.”
In response to a sceptical member of the audience as to whether really good literature can be created in China under a dictatorial system and a closed society, Jung Chang said, “Dictatorship can produce great literature—not because dictators want great literature, but because the anger, the fury, the repression will inspire great writers. But of course, for most people, censorship and dictatorship is a straitjacket that kills creativity.”
Similarly, when Bi Feiyu was interviewed by PEN, he was asked if he feels free to write whatever he wants to as a writer in China. He seemed to pick his words carefully, saying, “Regarding which parts are off limits, I think I have an idea. Some things I am not free to write about. But at the same time, I am also free. No matter what other people think, I will choose my own way to express what I think. One thing I would like to stress is that we should never underestimate the power of expression by an author.”
I asked Ma Jian, who was sitting in the audience, what he thought of Bi Feiyu’s interview.
He said, “I like Bi Feiyu’s novels a lot, and I can accept his viewpoint on literature. What I don’t quite accept about China’s official delegation of writers is that they tend to avoid some important public topics. For example, when the interviewer asked about the situation of the Chinese delegation and what it means, they make it their own individual problem. They won’t say what the problem is, they won’t tell you what they’re really thinking inside, and this is what I don’t like about them.
“In my opinion, as a writer, besides giving your readers a beautiful story to read, you should offer them some dignity living in Chinese society, by voicing their problems and society’s problems. In England, in Western civilized society, writers have two functions: one is to write a good novel, the other is to write columns for the newspaper to talk about society’s problems. But in China, there is no newspaper, only propaganda. These columnists do not exist in Chinese society.
“So I think it is important that Chinese writers have two wings. You can’t always just use one wing, and think, ‘Oh, I’m not into politics. That’s all nonsense.’ One wing is to write well, and the other wing is to be in touch with society. You have a responsibility to your readers, because you have thoughts, because you have a pen. You can speak out for them.”
A revealing anecdotal piece by Jonathan Mirsky at the New York Review of Books on the reactions of the Chinese delegation when he dared ask them about the absences of Liu Xiaobo and Gao Xingjian.
The Independent Chinese PEN Centre's letter to the British Council lists many writers, poets and essayists who have been overlooked by the organisers of the London Book Fair, drawing attention not to household names that the world is already familiar with, but to those we have never heard of largely because they have yet to be translated into English.
A heads-up to writers and translators: Litro's forthcoming September issue will celebrate China and its stories. Click here if you'd like to submit your work.