Dear Yan Lianke,
Writing you a letter after many years as a loyal reader, instead of losing myself in one of your books, feels - frankly - strange. I started a long time ago with “Serve the People” and “Dream of Ding Village.” After I finished those, I got hold of everything of yours that I could get my hands on. And when I started teaching writing classes myself, “Discovering Fiction” became one of my most important introductory texts when I worked with up-and-coming Taiwanese writers.
Every time I receive a new class full of fresh-faced young people who dream of writing books of their own, I cite them your words: “Great literary critics always know exactly how an author should have written to be considered 'good'; a good writer, on the other hand, never knows how to write so that what he writes will be good, new or great. A touch of uncertainty, a pinch of doubt, a little daring with a hint of fear - that's the writer's ideal state to start writing.”
With these words I welcome the young people who hope to be initiated by my lessons into the secret of “how to write a good novel.” Does this secret even exist? The way I see it, cookbooks are written all the time, but no celebrity chef bases his art solely on recipes. Your remarks have always been a great inspiration to me, especially this one: “[It is necessary to] capture the innermost core, the thing that people are blind to, that is covered up by so-called reality, to convey the logic that lies behind everything, but which no one has ever formulated or documented. This is the only way to understand why life, human nature, and the world are the way they are.”
“And yet it often happens that we ourselves don't really understand why the world is the way it is”
These words still speak to me today, reminding me of what writing is all about. And yet, it often happens that we ourselves don't understand why the world is the way it is either, do we? There was a time when books from China were banned in Taiwan. But during my school years, the state of emergency was lifted in 1987. From then on, Chinese literature and films influenced my perception of art.
Then, after a period of lively exchange, relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait gradually cooled. And today my works are subject to an - unspoken - publication ban in China. For a long time, I found it difficult to understand why some of your books were also banned. At that time, I probably still lacked a sense of the absurd or “mythorealism”, as you call it.
I have been to Beijing before and had the honour of contributing an introduction to the Taiwanese edition of “House Number 711”. Now I am sitting in my little garden house in Hualien and writing to you. It makes me think of the willow spade handle you once wrote about. You simply left it stuck in the ground in the garden, where it sprouted anew - until a few years later it became a tree again. I think of the manuscript you soaked in water to fertilise bamboo plants with the paper pulp....
Outside my window, the sun's rays are falling on a banana tree that has already grown vigorously this year. Bananas are difficult to ripen when they hang on the plant. One method of naturally ripening the kui-tsâng - which is Taiwanese for the entire bunch - is to drill a hole in the stem, pull a loop of aluminium wire through it and thus make an incision in the stem, putting the plant and fruit in a state that is somewhere between being attached and being detached.
I hope you are well. Yours sincerely
Translated from Mandarin by Johannes Fiederling
Reading your letter in this freezing, dust-dry winter has brought me a rare joy in the desolation I have felt for some time. Just over two months ago, my aged mother fell ill with corona in her rural home in Henan province and suffered a stroke. Since then, she has been paralysed and suffers from memory loss and confusion on top of that. As a result, our life at home is completely out of joint, and I hardly get to read or write, no longer find spare time for literature and no longer find any comfort in it.
And it is precisely at this time of inner instability that your letter arrived to pull me out of my depression. It has calmed me a little, so I can think about literature again, about my love of reading and writing and also about the sincere, deep love that I feel for Taiwan, a love that goes beyond all politics.
It reminds me how I first read the Mainland Chinese edition of your “Book of Lost Butterflies” and how amazed I was at the truthfulness of how it was written. The book has such purity of language, such empathy with the life of a butterfly and such caring love, it is as if the narrator had ascended into the clouds and there, with his childlike words, conjured up a potion of miraculous healing power.
Perhaps I have never said this before, but the love I feel for your writing, and that of your fellow Taiwanese authors, is rooted in the respect you have for language: The careful yet casual and natural way in which you choose each of your words! The works seem to be cast in one piece and are of impeccable beauty. When I look at my own books in the light of these works, I realise that in the field of language I am only capable of cultivating chicken millet and other coarse cereals.
“I think about the confusion that reigns among us, which arises from the conflict between modernity and tradition, from the groundlessness of our existence and its absurdity beyond all logic”
How coarse my books are! That's why I keep your “Book of Lost Butterflies” on my bookshelf at all times, and since I read your “Man with the Compound Eyes”, your works stand next to modern classics like the stories and novels of Shen Congwen and Xiao Hong. My love of Taiwanese literature often leads me to reflect on other issues, namely how complex life is here on the mainland. How grotesque and how laden with meaning.
I think about the confusion that prevails in our country, arising from the conflict between modernity and tradition, from the uncertainty of our existence and its utter absurdity. All you have to do is pick a handful of earth out of this turgid reality of life, earth on which someone has left his mark, and you will have a whole destiny full of inner truth that offers enough material for a new classic. We mainland Chinese writers need to put little effort into fiction, fantasy or craftsmanship. We only need to face our reality with an open, non-indoctrinated gaze and genuine courage.
But this is precisely what we are incapable of doing. In the face of reality, our sincerity and courage abandon us. Even when we do have this sincerity and courage, our language is still too coarse and too primitive. We too write Chinese, but it is as if we were trying to paint a traditional painting with a handful of hay. That is why not only I, but also many of our young writers look with envy at the linguistic artistry that distinguishes you and other Taiwanese writers. We resemble a bunch of stutterers or mutes watching professional performers take turns on the stage.
But this goes beyond envy and includes respect. For me personally, this respect also stems from the fact that many of my books were first distributed via Hong Kong or Taiwan, including the ones you mentioned, “Serve the People” and “Dream of Ding Village” but also more recent works such as “The Four Books” or “The Day the Sun Died”. Without the generous support of the Taiwanese public and publishers, I don't even know if I would continue writing. To be honest, Ming-Yi, I am unable to see the publication and the re-publication of my books as calmly as you do.
The environment I live in has made me highly sensitive to such things. My readership in Hong Kong and Taiwan gives me drive and gives my writing its meaning. Consequently, the love I feel for Taiwanese literature is so strong that I could not put it into words, nor should I, lest I become a nuisance.
That is why I prefer to break off my letter at this point. I do hope to hear from you again often and soon. I hope that we will meet again, wherever and whenever, to talk about language and literature in Taiwan and mainland China, before moving on to address every conceivable literary question, the differences between our writing and about our possibilities; and also about what we care about; the way we live and reside; our families; the chaos that reigns in this world; what we long for and loathe; and what we can and cannot do for the world. Let us talk from nightfall to dawn, from dawn to nightfall and on until the next morning dawns.
Winter is icy and dry as dust, take good care of yourself!
Translated from Mandarin by Marc Hermann
Dear Yan Lianke,
When I received your reply to my letter, I was on my way back from Hualien to Taipei and got flustered with joy. It must have been over ten years since you were in Hualien. I often wish you would visit again and give the students the opportunity to see you up close, experiencing your humorous and profound way of being.
In your letter you talk about your mother. I have had a similar experience over the past few years. After a serious illness, my mother can hardly walk anymore, and I visit her several times a week to talk to her or push her in her wheelchair to the temple so that she can pray. It is one of the few things in life that still gives her support. Week after week she prays like this and I can no longer tell if it is the medicine that keeps her going, some invisible deity, or even our presence that gives her strength.
You mention the freedom of speech in Taiwan and Hong Kong in your letter, and this topic also comes up in recordings of your lectures. I still have a memory of the times when the Kuomintang government did not allow independent media in Taiwan. Back then Hong Kong was the window through which a whole generation of intellectuals caught a glimpse of the world, as works from the West were widely published there in translation. During my time as a guest lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong a few years ago, students told me that it was banned to hold classes in Cantonese. Friends told me off the record about self-censorship in publishing houses, which has been commonplace since the umbrella protests.
As you write, your book “Chinese Stories” was published in Taiwan the year before last and I am convinced, no matter what you write about, Taiwanese publishers will not hesitate for a moment to continue to make your work available to the Chinese-speaking world from here. As for my publications in China, they were works that could pass as “publishable”. “Dreamed Routes” and “The Stolen Bicycle” however, are about Taiwan's “Japanese time” and our complex question of identity, so publication in China would probably not be an option anyway. Fortunately, the walls of our time are no longer fixed. There are ways to overcome them and pierce them.
“Before I left for the trip up north yesterday, I picked a handful of dwarf tomatoes in the garden to bring back to my four-year-old daughter”
In one of your lectures, you said that the biggest problem with writing in a socialist system is not the “iron cage” but the “self-control” that kicks in over time. Although the society in which I live is different, the rapid development of social media means that a kind of “self-control” can also be found in my generation and probably even more so in the generation of writers after me. You would think that writers would have enough depth and imagination but social media unconsciously tempts them. It makes them play to their followers in order to meet certain expectations. It's a unique way of negating and wearing down the soul that I try to be wary of as much as I can.
For some years now, I have often said that it is not great talent, special skills or fancy circumstances that have led me to writing, but that, conversely, it is writing that has enriched my life immensely: the characters I want to show, all the worlds and events, fantasies and dreamscapes, struggles and resistance; plus the books I have read along the way and the knowledge I have come into contact with. For even in this era dominated by profit and self-interest, there are works that show us ways of resistance and whose impact is as gloriously constant as the orbit of a planet around its fixed star. Your work is one of the most important landmarks on that trajectory.
Before I left for the drive north yesterday, I picked a handful of dwarf tomatoes in the garden to take to my four-year-old daughter. Because I don't use artificial fertiliser, my tomatoes aren't particularly sweet, but when I pick some early in the morning before the drive home, I just pop the ones that have already burst open into my mouth. They have a taste all their own. Next time you come to Hualien, you definitely have to try some.
Translated from Mandarin by Johannes Fiederling
When I read your letters, a feeling of warmth flows through me, and I also feel this warmth when I reply to you. I thank you for this gentle warmth. Especially the vivid scenes of how you push your mother to the temple every week and how you pick fresh tomatoes in the garden for your daughter. In my last letter I spoke of how extraordinarily sensitive I am when it comes to the publication or even republication of my books. In fact, I am already gradually feeling more numbness about this topic, like a person who no longer feels pain after a great loss of blood.
Frankly, at the age of 65, I am now at an age that jolts me out of all certainties and makes me feel my own nothingness. At this age, a writer - apart from the question of what kind of works he intends to write in the years he has left - should probably not lose himself in too many musings. To be honest, I approach life with a certain fatalism.
When I think of Lu Xun, Lao She, Shen Congwen, Zhang Ailing and all the other shining stars in the firmament of modern Chinese literature, for all the exuberant talent they were blessed with, they were only granted twenty or thirty years in which to develop their work to the full.
After that, times had changed so much that an entire generation fell silent. It is true that with the dawn of the “new” communist China, a generation of new talented writers came on the scene, but regardless of how we judge the artistic value of their “revolutionary literature” today, their creative period also lasted only twenty or thirty years.
Then, after the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, the era of reform and opening-up dawned, that is, another revolutionary new era, but the work of the generation of writers who entered the literary stage in the torrent of this new era is now also ending abruptly. A proverb inevitably comes to mind: “Every thirty years the Yellow River changes its course.”
But even if I have “lost my way” among today's writers in Mainland China, even if I have to painstakingly make my own way, entangled in endless debates, I too benefit from the fact that after three or four thousand years of chequered Chinese history, the last thirty or forty years of reform and opening-up policies have provided literature with a most favourable environment - and that these few decades have all coincided with my prime age as a writer. So I like to console myself by saying, “Yan Lianke, you should be content with your lot. Three or four thousand years of history, and you've caught the opening period and lived it to the fullest extent - that's reason enough to be satisfied.”
“And I confess that I loathe the novelistic quality of my novels, and that I harbour the audacious, hubristic longing to one day write a novel that is no longer novelistic”
I ponder these thoughts and console myself while another new era has dawned in China. At the same time, I also soberly admonish myself to stop wasting my energy brooding over the publication of my books, but rather think about what works I want to write towards the end of my life.
And I confess that I loathe the novelistic quality of my novels and that I harbour the audacious, self-assured longing to write a novel one day that is no longer novelistic. I want to create my own island of Wayowayo, a world where I can finish my very own path as a writer, but where I can also set out once again for new shores.
I hope that soon you will have the opportunity to come to Beijing. Or for me the opportunity to come to Hualien once more. As long as you are there, I will gladly refrain from giving any lectures to the students. I just want to push your mother with you, side by side, followed by your children and my grandchildren. Together we will go to that ancient temple you visit so often. Once at the temple, we will kneel and pray in silent remembrance for this world, and especially for the elderly and the children.
I wish you all the best! And please give my regards to your mother and children!
Translated from Mandarin by Marc Hermann. Translated to English by Jess Smee