Yuan Ling is a border-crosser: between village and city, academia and journalism, mainstream and underground—a writer who is sometimes censored but usually measured (or ambiguous) enough to be published in China.
His concern for China’s marginalized members of society is directly related to his personal biography. Born in 1973, he grew up in an impoverished mountainous region of Shaanxi province. With a mother who was illiterate, a father who was a local doctor, Yuan’s upbringing gave him an outsider’s perspective on Chinese society—and a desire to penetrate more deeply into questions of injustice and exclusion than was possible with his first profession, journalism.
He tested into university in the provincial capital, Xi’an, and then worked for some of China’s best-known media, including Caixin, Phoenix Weekly, Sina, and Beijing News. It was while at Beijing News in 2003 that he wrote one of the first investigative articles on how the reckless use of steroids on sufferers of an earlier Chinese epidemic, SARS, had led to chronic health problems for thousands of people. Other long-form journalistic work delved into topics as varied as the revival of opium planting, problems at the Three Gorges Dam, and the physical abuse of women at a notorious labor camp.
Besides reporting, he has also studied Daoist philosophy at Shanghai’s elite Fudan University, and spent time in a doctoral program at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, before finally leaving academia to pursue independent writing full-time.
I first met Yuan Ling in 2016 at a conference on literary nonfiction, or feixugou in Chinese. This is one of the last bastions of critical writing in China, mainly because government censorship works in stages: the media that reach the most people are the most tightly controlled, including films, radio, television, and blogs, while serious nonfiction books are given more leeway. This is partly because their print runs are lower, but also because this kind of writing in China tends to allude to problems rather than dissect them.
Yuan Ling is a master of this style, his spare prose rarely criticizing the government explicitly, even as it vividly portrays social problems. He is the author of nine books, the most recent being Silent Children, chronicling how children—rich or poor—lack a voice in today’s China (see a short video introducing the book here). An excerpt of this, titled “Outside Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road,” on poor rural children in the capital, was recently translated by Professor David Ownby of the University of Montreal as part of his “Reading the China Dream” project (which I discussed in a recent Review article). Also available in translation is another excerpt from the children book, and an essay about a victim of Maoist politics, “The Nursing Home Rightist,” both translated by Jack Hargreaves.
The interview below is the result of two talks I had with Yuan. I met up with him first in Beijing for a long conversation and then, more recently, spoke with him by phone for an update on his post-coronavirus life.
Ian Johnson: You’re now back in your home province, Shaanxi, but why are you under quarantine?
Yuan Ling: I took the high-speed rail and they said it was dangerous for spreading the virus. So I’m here in my apartment doing nothing.
That’s hard to believe.
In fact, I have had a chance to think and reflect. In the past, when writing about the realities in China, it was hard to find a milestone-type of event that has significance as a topic for writing. Sometimes you think there is a key event, but its significance disappears very quickly because, no matter what happens, there’s always the opposite argument and explanation. Things that you think matter often don’t matter to others. Even with big topics like the Cultural Revolution, some think it’s good, some think it’s bad, and others think it’s best not to discuss it. So it has been hard to find a starting point.
But the virus has already had a deeper impact on the people than even the  Sichuan earthquake [that killed 69,000]. The virus causes isolation and shutdown, which mirrors the isolation and shutdown in Chinese society, and also because it was directly the result of controlling speech and clamping down on “rumors.” Everyone is isolated, even though it’s not necessary. This is symbolic. During normal times, people aren’t free but they don’t feel it, but now everyone feels their unfreedom.
You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction. What would be the best way to approach Wuhan?
I interviewed a family in Wuhan. The grandmother got sick and died. Both parents are also sick but are away. When they finally got beds in the hospital, the child, who is only eighteen years old, now needs to shoulder a lot of responsibilities. I wrote a nonfiction story like that for Phoenix News.
But I don’t emphasize the boundary between nonfiction and fiction. I hope I can write a novel in the future with a core that touches on the truth about China’s real problems and is based on real things, instead of escaping reality in order to achieve literariness. We need to transcend the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction and reflect truth and be thought-provoking. Camus was a philosopher who wrote novels. His value lies not in the novels themselves but in how he brought up social issues and thought about the human condition.
A lot of people are talking about Camus and his novel The Plague. But you told me earlier that you’re reading Paul Celan [the Romanian-born German language poet and translator]. Why is he significant to you?
Celan lived through the Holocaust. China also has experienced many tragedies. Our writing is an act of reflection and persistence after these tragedies. It’s not some cheap praise for the glories of mankind. As we see in the Wuhan crisis, pessimism, desperation, and cheap praise are not good. We need to take part of the responsibility for the tragedies and reflect on them.
Paul Celan also reflected on whether God exists or not, the state of the world, the absurdity of the world. He had his doubts, and we share similar questions: Will the future be better? Is there hope? We live in all kinds of doubts. If we can keep writing and thinking while doubting, then writing is significant in itself.
I think that should be our attitude toward China’s reality: neither pessimism and disappointment nor cheap praise and optimism. So his influence on me is substantial, because Celan takes a truthful approach.
You’re a practicing Christian. Has your faith influenced your writing?
I will not become a writer who proselytizes. However, I think that the Christian spirit of caring for people, caring for the most common people, and not judging people too quickly has influenced me. I do not judge people without careful thought, and I don’t easily label things good or bad. The standard is not ours [because it is God’s], so I try to be as tolerant as possible. To be able to see things from the perspectives of my interviewees and my subjects has been a big influence.
When did you convert?
I was baptized in 2006. I had already begun going to church before that. Since university, my teacher and my doctoral adviser were both Christians. They had a great influence on me.
You were looking for something spiritual?
I was going back to our hometown in the countryside. At that time, I felt it was difficult to go back to the countryside and needed spiritual support. I was originally very interested in the Christian faith. At this time, I needed spiritual support so was baptized.
Did it help?
When you have faith, there is something higher than yourself so you can free yourself—I am not so great, but I am not so pitiful either. I have a suitable place in the world. I will feel more at ease in the face of success or failure. I will not be too proud when I succeed, nor will I be too sad when I fail. I can care more about others, and not see myself as the center of the universe. Many people are easily proud, especially in the media.
Another influence is that in the face of evil and darkness, I will not be too angry. I think something may be bad, but I don’t think of revenge with fury, or think of overthrowing anything. This is also the difference between me and some intellectuals.
Some writers, like Jiang Xue, are more explicitly political than you.
Jiang Xue and I are very good friends, but we have different points of interest. I am not much interested in conflicts within the political system. I am more concerned about human nature and thoughts. When I write about the prisons set up by the Communist Party, I do not write it as an indictment of the system. I write it as a [case study of] ideological remolding: How does the Party remold itself, and how does it attack and remold its own cadres?
My message does not lie in how much political struggle there is. I am more interested in ordinary people.
Why is nonfiction so popular in China?
Chinese literature has long been dominated by establishment writers due to the influence of [government-run] writers’ associations. After people become writers, they basically stop experiencing life of the common people and live in the writers’ circle. I send you some works, you send me some works, and we publish our works in [government] literature magazines. Even if they win the highest literature prizes, such as Mao Dun Literature Prize and Lu Xun Literature Prize, not many people actually read them because they are far away from ordinary readers. But people do have a need for reality, so literary nonfiction can fill this gap. It can convey reality.
Is it harder to publish these kinds of books?
Such books can still be published at present, but I always wonder if my next book can come out. For example, I will come up with a book soon called Lessons on Life and Death, which is about how Chinese people live and die. But it depends on the situation. The story “Outside Beijing’s Sixth Ring Road” was censored when it first came out [online], but the book [from which it was excerpted] can still be published.
The articles were censored?
Right. The articles were deleted on a WeChat public account. They were deleted twice.
Where exactly did you publish them?
The first time was when the book was not published, it was published on a platform called the Real Story Plan. It reached more than 100,000 views quickly [100,000 views is an unofficial marker of success for articles published on Chinese social media], the traffic was okay, but it was quickly deleted. Later, iFeng published it again, and the traffic rose rapidly. However, it was also required to be deleted because it involved Beijing’s removal of “low-end population.”
Other things, such as my writings about [Romanian dictator Nicolai] Ceaușescu and [China’s most famous political prison] Qincheng Prison have also been deleted many times. The one on [the late controversial scholar] Gao Hua, I could publish online when I was writing a manuscript, but I could not publish it as a book.
Whose work influences yours?
I have explored a lot of writers, because my writing style is a local style, and I don’t like it coming from foreign countries.
Truman Capote? A lot of Chinese nonfiction writers cite him.
I don’t like him too much. He is too [forced] literary and you don’t really understand the story. It feels artificial.
What is your style? It’s quite plain, almost flat.
My style is baimiao, a simple line drawing technique in traditional Chinese painting. That is, I don’t add too much discussion or write too obscurely. I can express life’s mood. In fact, I write very heavy things, but I don’t want to exaggerate them. Just like Chinese landscape painting, which leaves a lot of blank space. In some places, it does not necessarily require a lot of color, leaving a blank space that arouses people’s imagination and leaves them with an aftertaste.
I also hope that even if the life I describe is very heavy, readers will have a chance to use their imaginations. Therefore, I don’t want to emphasize this heavy darkness too much.
The children in Silent Children have their own lives. Although their lives are difficult, they have their own interests and possess their own kind of vitality. You can see that although they are poor, they have no lack of childhood innocence, and they even have an emotional appeal, and sometimes you can feel a sense of humor.
Why do you call these children silent?
They are lonely. Family planning in China has created relatively small families. This makes children self-centered, on the one hand, and lonely, on the other. Children are also very tired. Their school bags are too heavy, and the pressure is too much. Their parents often have conflicts.
What sort of conflicts?
People are self-centered, focusing on personal feelings, and money. People are already quite alienated from each other. Traditional society had a mutual trust, human relations, and human touch. Now this is rare. The entire society seems to have autism. No one leads an easy life, so children are lonely.
This interview is part of Ian Johnson’s continuing NYR Daily series “Talking About China.”