Courtesy of Ma Liang

Ma Liang: Postman, No. 1, 2008; from Jiang Jiehong’s An Era Without Memories: Chinese Contemporary Photography on Urban Transformation, published recently by Thames and Hudson

Can writers help an injured society to heal? Did Ōe Kenzaburō, who traveled to Hiroshima in 1963 to interview survivors of the dropping of the atomic bomb on that city eighteen years earlier, and then published a moving book called Hiroshima Notes, help his compatriots to recover? Did Primo Levi, with his several books on the Holocaust, from the shocking Survival in Auschwitz (1947) to the profoundly humane The Drowned and the Saved (1986), help Europe and the world to adjust to facts that might have seemed impossible to adjust to? It seems that writers indeed can do some good. It is not hard to think of other examples in modern history.

In China, the problem of moving beyond the disasters of Mao Zedong’s rule and its consequences (today’s authoritarian capitalism, despite its appearance of being opposite to Maoism in some ways, is one consequence) has been difficult. Chinese readers have not had enough help from their writers. Censorship of course is an important reason for this: Ōe Kenzaburō and Primo Levi did not have to write under regimes that were trying to repress them. The environment for Chinese writers has been closer to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Miklós Haraszti in Hungary had to cope with. Chinese who write candidly about Maoism and its consequences have often landed in prison, where Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo and human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang are today—or in exile, with Gao Xingjian, Su Xiaokang, Zheng Yi, Liao Yiwu, and others.

The phrase “write candidly” that I have just used raises an important issue, however. Fully candid writers in China stand at one end of a long spectrum. Almost no writer of any seriousness remains entirely unconcerned with the fate of humanistic values in post-Mao society. The question “What happened?” still lurks, as does the question “How can we look squarely at what happened, recover our balance, and move on?” But a problem always arises: How can a writer explore these questions and at the same time avoid punishment for the exploration? The roles of creator and self-censor tend to collide, and some kind of indirection, or midcourse evasion, often seems necessary. It’s as if a huge reverse magnet lay at the heart of the subject; writers move toward it, but then, as they draw near, are deflected to one side or another by a seemingly invisible force.

During the “scar literature” years (1977–1980) immediately following the death of Mao, the most common way to deflect was to keep things superficial or euphemistic. Deng Xiaoping’s regime had labeled Mao’s last ten years “a decade of catastrophe” and was urging writers to “liberate their thought.” But Deng also stressed “insistence on Party leadership and dictatorship of the proletariat,” and words like that caused most writers to settle for skimming the surface. They knew stories of murder, gouged eyes, and parents forced to pay for the bullet that executed their child, but they wrote only about “struggle” and “unhealthy tendencies.”

Another mode of deflection, which began during the scar years and flourished through the 1980s, was to move into modernist language. “Misty poets”—Bei Dao, Gu Cheng, Duo Duo, and others—wrote lines pregnant with meanings that the authorities knew they did not like even though they could not say exactly why. Fiction writers including Yu Hua, Su Tong, Han Shaogong, and Can Xue, whose childhoods or adolescent years were marred by the turmoil of late Maoism, created worlds that were filled with murderous toddlers, belching grandmothers, sunlight so hot that it melts the sand underfoot, horn-blowing deaf-mutes, hoodlums who grin as their electric drill penetrates someone’s kneecap, family history that gets more and more grotesque the deeper one digs, and more. Their surreal tales and bizarre images owed something to their discovery of Kafka, Gabriel García Márquez, and others in the outside world. But much of the writing expressed their own shock, indirectly reflected.

Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, has deflected topics such as famine and political persecution by treating them as jokes; he makes some points, but softens them by presenting them as black humor.* Among writers who confront the disasters of the Mao era squarely (while avoiding prison or exile), Zhang Xianliang, author of a series of labor camp novels, perhaps does best. His evocation of inmates’ psychology resembles Solzhenitsyn’s in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; but in the end, Zhang still dodges. He accepts a posture of basic loyalty to the Mao regime and a subordinate position for himself, saying, in effect, “Please keep me; we can do better next time.”


In the kinds of evasions I have noted so far, the writer is generally aware of the compromises he or she is making and controls how far they go. But there is another, subtler kind of accommodation as well. It is embedded in Party-approved phrases that have been part of the education that writers grew up with and that remain standard in the social milieu in which they live. At this level writers might not control or even notice what is happening. There is no evidence that Mao ever read Edwin Sapir or Benjamin Whorf, but the assumption that language use determines thought has been an article of faith in China’s Communist movement for decades. Say this, say this, say this—until you believe this. The method has worked.

In 2003, Liu Xiaobo—four years after his release from a labor camp and five before the commencement of his current eleven-year prison term—reflected on how, during his youth, years of immersion in Communist Party language had led him to accept hatred and lying as normal. He wrote:

These poisons of “Party culture” had permeated several generations of Chinese, and I was no exception. Even in the liberal tides of the 1980s, I had not been able to purge myself of them entirely. I knew at the time that Mao-style thinking and Cultural Revolution–style language had become ingrained in me, and my goal had been to transform myself from the bone marrow out. Hah!—Easier said than done. It may take me a lifetime to rid myself of the poison.

Liu was not the first Chinese writer to notice this problem. In the summer of 1989, when refugees from the June 4 massacre of that year gathered in Paris to form a “Chinese Front for Democracy,” they had a spirited debate over whether their manifesto in opposition to the Beijing regime should include words like dadao (knock down) or tuifan (overthrow). One side said yes—dadao is just what we need. The other said no, we must avoid that kind of Communist jargon and use language like “work for an end to the one-Party system.” Each side took itself to be the more radical.

Writers who have tried to pull free from Party language have worried about how it affects not only beliefs but behavior in the world. In one of his labor camp novels, Zhang Xianliang tells how a camp inmate (Zhang himself, clearly) is able to escape and to roam around outside for a while, but then returns to the camp of his own accord. There are several reasons why he does so, and one of them is that his ideological training has led him to an undue respect for official correctness. “My ‘thoughts’ told me that I should return to the labor reform camp,” he writes.

The problem continues to the present day for Chinese writers, and the books I am reviewing here in some ways illustrate it. Censorship, broadly conceived, appears at three levels. Level one is: “I wrote X and the censor took it out.” Level two is: “I want to write X but stop myself from doing so, out of fear.” Level three is: “It is awkward even to form thought X in the language that I have inherited.”

Sheng Keyi’s Death Fugue is an audacious challenge to the Chinese government’s ban on mention of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. She imagines a pile of excrement nine stories high in the central square of a city called Beiping. The government says the pile is merely gorilla dung and hauls it away. Students protest the removal. The allegory on you-know-what could not be clearer. A student leader echoes a famous line from the actual 1989 student leader Chai Ling when she says, “This is the only way we will awaken the conscience of those indifferent to our plight….”

From Tiananmen, Sheng’s novel moves into an imagined future one-party dystopia, a brave new world with Chinese characteristics that she calls Swan Valley, where, among other things, sexual intercourse is forbidden and “it is logical to be inhumane.” Toward the authorities in Beijing, Sheng is saying, in effect, “I am going to kick a couple of your hornets’ nests and see what you are going to do about it.” One thing the authorities did about it was to ban Death Fugue in China, but it circulates informally anyway and has been published in translation abroad. It is not very carefully written; Sheng allows herself lines like “his eyes felt as if they had tendrils growing out of them, crawling like ants across the floorboards.” But she should get an A+ for moxie, and has admirers in China among readers who can get hold of the book.


In the terms of that 1989 debate among Chinese democrats in Paris, though, Sheng is fighting back using her opponents’ tactics. Perhaps without meaning to, she accepts much of the Maoist view that words are tools of battle and that victory over an adversary is the goal of writing. She wins some of her battles but in a sense lets the authoritarians set the terms of the contest.

Ha Jin and Yiyun Li present a different pattern. These two writers grew up in China, with Chinese as their native language, and later moved to the US, Ha Jin at age thirty and Li at twenty-four. Both write fiction in English only. Their recent novels, A Map of Betrayal and Kinder Than Solitude, are about Chinese people who live on one or the other side of the Pacific, occasionally travel back and forth, and maintain ties of kinship or friendship on both sides. The two writers observe life sharply and with deep sympathy. Both (by chance) structure their novels using alternating chapters set in China and the US.

Ha Jin tells of Shang Weimin, a bright college graduate in China in the late 1940s, recently married, talented in languages, and naive about politics. The Communist Party of China, in its war with the Kuomintang, recruits Shang to be a mole in the United States Information Service in Shanghai, where he works as a translator from Chinese to English. With the Communist victory in 1949, the Party orders him to maintain his undercover niche with the Americans and to follow them—which he does, first to Okinawa and then to Washington, D.C., where he works for three decades in the CIA. At no point is he allowed to make contact with his wife or twin offspring in China: “The Party is caring for them.”

Lonely in the US, he takes a Chinese-American lover named Suzie Chao while also marrying an Irish-American waitress named Nellie, with whom he has a daughter, Lilian, who grows up to be a professor of Chinese history—and is the narrator of alternate chapters in the book. Eventually he rises in the CIA to a level where his secret reports become so vital to Beijing that Mao Zedong declares that “this man is worth four armored divisions.” In the end, though, the FBI discovers Shang and he is sent to a US prison, where he commits suicide. Beijing insists that it has never heard of him.

It is a measure of Ha Jin’s powers of imagination that he can bring a reader into full empathy with a CIACCP double agent who has two families and a mistress. But he does. Great superspy Shang, at every stage of his life, seems ingenuous and vulnerable. When he says at the end that he “loved both China and the US,” it rings true. Throughout the telling, Ha Jin’s eye for detail is on display. In Shang’s aging apartment in Alexandria, Virginia, we see a “mirror stained with coppery blotches and the slats on the venetian blind drooping with age.”

Yiyun Li’s Kinder Than Solitude is about four high school students in Beijing, three girls and a boy. It recounts how one of the girls is poisoned, survives in a vegetative state for several years, and then dies. The two other girls move to the US, take jobs, and go through a number of marriages, both real and green-card-related, while the boy stays in China, making money and chasing women. The question of who did the poisoning haunts the story, and in the end the answer is apparent. But the interest of the novel is in its lonely, intriguing, not-quite-likable characters, who spend their days as if in vertical cylinders, adjacent to others but separated, as well as in the author’s incisive asides on life.

Both Ha Jin and Yiyun Li touch upon what the Communist Party calls “sensitive topics.” Shaoai, the poisoned student in Li’s novel, is a veteran of the pro-democracy demonstrations that led to the Tiananmen massacre in 1989; she is eager to teach her younger cousin Ruyu, who is fresh from the hinterland, “to use her own brain to think [because] she’ll never learn that from school.” Ha Jin, borrowing the voice of his superspy, observes that Mao “sees China not as his responsibility but as his property.” Statements such as either of these would be almost scandalously bold if published or uttered publicly in Beijing. In these novels, though, they do not especially stand out; they are just part of the story. Sheng Keyi’s spirit of “watch me kick a hornets’ nest” is absent, and so, too, is Liu Xiaobo’s worry that Chinese writers are trapped in a language that deters or distorts expression of impermissible thoughts.

Might this be one reason why Yiyun Li and Ha Jin choose to write in English? I telephoned them to ask, and both said that it was. Ha Jin said that he enjoys the “native-speaker feel” that he has when writing in Chinese, and he does occasionally write Chinese-language poetry. But in his fiction he wants to write free from any need to guess what a censor might do, and for this English works better.

Li dislikes censorship as well, but to her an “internal constraint” seems at least as dangerous. When she writes in English she does not translate mentally from Chinese. (I’m sure this is true of Ha Jin as well.) Imagination and choice of words occur in English; the creative process is separated from the connotations, political or otherwise, of the Chinese language the writers grew up with. Free of both censorship and the conscious effort to resist censorship, they can go wherever they like.

Yiyun Li’s prose is rich and rewards slow reading. Kinder Than Solitude begins this way:

Boyang had thought grief would make people less commonplace. The waiting room at the crematory, however, did not differentiate itself from elsewhere: the eagerness to be served first and the suspicion that others had snatched a better deal were reminiscent of the marketplace or stock exchange. A man shouldered him, reaching for multiple copies of the same form. Surely you have only one body to burn, Boyang laughed to himself, and the man glared back, as though personal loss had granted him the right to what he was not owed by the world.

Li is good at showing the interiority of her characters, but also likes to punctuate her descriptions with comments on life in general. When a person in her story procrastinates, she writes a charming paragraph on “poor gullible Celia, believing, like most people, in a moment called later.” Elsewhere she notes that “the desire for clarity [is] not far from the desire to deceive,” because both cause us to tailor life into “presentable bites.” Or: “The line between innocent and heartless, if indeed there is one, must be so subtle that only those most experienced with human nature can perceive it.”

Li’s story originates in China, and the country remains in the background, but life there always seems a bit distressed and mysteriously out of focus; American life, by contrast, seems plain, perhaps even insipid, but somehow more “natural,” even to immigrants from China. Li is not concerned about explaining this difference, however; her focus remains on her characters and on what they reveal of the human condition.

Ha Jin paints Chinese life more realistically. He describes how Lilian, the historian, explores her father’s home village in Shandong province:

We stopped at a black brick house behind an iron-barred gate…. The instant we entered, two bronze-colored chickens took off. One landed on a straw stack while the other caught a top rail of the pigpen, both clucking and fluttering their feathers. An old man was weaving a mat with the skins of sorghum stalks in the cement-paved yard. At the sight of us he tottered to his feet, his gray beard scanty but almost six inches long.

The country’s troubles come into focus, too. Lilian, responsible China-watcher that she is, touches on most of the well-reported issues: pollution, food fraud, wealth inequality, conspicuous consumption, emigration of the elite, home-registry (hukou) bias, the razing of homes for development, and government demands that people love the government, among others. But she offers much more than a laundry list. Her (i.e., Ha Jin’s) reflections on “Chinese character” are as penetrating as anything modern Chinese literature has seen since the great story writer Lu Xun (1881–1936) raised the issue nearly a century ago.

Lilian observes that much of the “ardent patriotism” in China today is born of insecurity; a citizen loves the state not because the state is lovable but because it gives a citizen a stronger face to present to the world. Chinese character includes “many good qualities”—“diligence, resourcefulness, modesty, [and] respect for old people”—but also two very unfortunate ones: “petty cleverness and practical-mindedness.” Ha Jin here refers to the tendency, easy to notice in Chinese fiction and life, to analyze all the factors in a situation and figure out the smartest route to personal advantage. This trait, for Ha Jin, gets in the way of doing “what’s meaningful in the long run.” He quotes George Bernard Shaw that “the reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself; therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”; then he has Lilian tell her Chinese graduate students that “I hope that when you’re young, you cherish your unreasonableness, which, like the fire of life, might dwindle as you grow older.”

Ha Jin’s cultural criticism runs deeper than anything Jack Livings, author of the stories in The Dog, attempts. Livings is less immersed in Chinese culture than Ha Jin, and in any case Ha Jin’s degree of candor might seem insensitive coming from a foreigner. But Livings does have a remarkable talent for empathy with people of several kinds: an ambitious housewife, a young Uighur, an old farmer, a cynical teacher, a frightened scientist, a worn-out journalist, and others. His metaphors are vivid. A newspaper office contains “printouts of stories stacked like shale deposits on every available surface” and a badly written speech exhibits “a style that approximated ground meat shooting into a sausage casing.”

Livings must rely on imagination to write about China because he does not have many years of personal experience there. He spent a semester of college in Beijing in 1994 and returned for some traveling in 1997. “That’s all it took,” he said in a 2014 interview, and “the place had its hooks in me.” He began to read “everything I could get my hands on” about China. He tries to get the details of Chinese life right in his stories, but sometimes Western patterns slip in anyway, as when, for example, a man yells during the heat of an argument that “I’m calling a psychologist if you don’t pull it together!”—a line much more imaginable in New York than in Beijing. But Livings’s efforts to imagine and evoke the inner experience of people remain impressive nonetheless.

A story called “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” set in the days immediately following Mao’s death, captures Mao-mania better than what most Chinese writers have been able to get away with. In Livings’s story workers are ordered to build a crystal case to hold Mao’s heavenly corpse and to finish the job within ten months. They must guarantee that the panels of the sarcophagus contain not the slightest air-bubble flaw. Scientists know the task to be beyond what the laws of physics will permit, but “the Party outranked physical laws, scientific fact, logic.”

Moreover, a vice-premier holds the secret, which he shares with the workers: “Engage in successful practices.” Livings invents this detail, but it is perfect. The combination of grammatical wholeness and semantic vacuity, in which the speaker pretends wisdom but in fact hands problems—and fearsome responsibilities—to others, is a staple in Communist Chinese jargon. Livings also captures the responses of the workers well. They suffer fear, sleeplessness, and third-degree burns in building the sarcophagus, but in the end do achieve the great, glorious, correct result. “Their work finished,” Livings writes, “they averted their eyes from the immortal home of the Chairman.”

My favorite story in the collection is the shortest. Called “Switchback,” it is about a schoolteacher who is killed when a truck hits him as he is riding his bicycle on a mountain road. He is the only son of his parents, two uneducated farmers, who arrive, riding on their “two-stroke farm vehicle [that] resembled a mantis,” to do their duty of collecting the body while struggling mightily to cover their grief. The parents must pause while Public Security takes photos of the accident scenes, which, in Livings’s depictions, are poignant enough to make a reader’s continued reading a bit difficult. The Public Security personnel, it is worth noting, appear in the story with no subtle connotations either supporting or rebelling against Mao and his legacy. They are bit players. Could the lines that mention them translate well into post-Mao Chinese language? Or would the fearsome term gonganju (public security bureau) inevitably jolt Chinese-language readers into a different state of mind? I wonder.