Arranging to meet Yan Lianke a few weeks ago was like walking into one of his allegorical novels, where magical accidents portend nation-changing shifts. While trying to organise our encounter, Covid-19 swept across China. Restaurants closed. Only some emails to Yan arrived, while others couldn’t be sent at all. Was this government censorship of a well-known and politically sensitive writer, or electric pulses straying on the frenzied internet? Neither of us could tell. Eventually we agreed to meet in his local park to discuss just how we might do our Lunch with the FT.
His home is close to Renmin University in Beijing, where he sometimes teaches a creative writing class. He has lived there for eight years; but in the park, every few turns the 61-year-old exclaims, “Oh. We’re here,” as if the paths were shifting under our feet.
The park is so full of people wearing masks that we can’t find a quiet corner. I ask Yan whether he is more concerned about social distancing or being overheard by state snitches. Yan is one of China’s best-known writers. Some of his most famous novels are banned, but others can be bought online, reflecting how his rudely satirical writing is warily tolerated, even under the authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping. His essays, often fiercely political, get deleted from the web and then pop up on other blogs later, as China’s literati evade the whack-a-mole of the censors. Yet Yan tells me he has never faced serious government harassment, and he has not been forced into exile like some of his contemporaries.
It’s the snitches, not social distancing, that are on his mind. But, he adds quickly, he is only a “little writer”, so why should the Communist party be concerned by his views? “Foreign media tend to think all my books are about politics. I’m not concerned with politics; I’m concerned with the life struggles of people — Chinese people,” he says. But, he adds, “Chinese people’s life struggles are often related to power, and so quite a few books have been banned.”
When we finally find a place in the park to sit, a sandstorm whips up, and chunks of tree branches fly at us from the sky, one hitting me on the head. Beijing’s air-pollution reading is off the charts. We talk about everything from the randomness of censorship to the vastness of Chinese society. I wash the earth from my face when I get home.
The next day we have the first ever videocall Lunch with the FT.
I am 10 minutes late for our virtual rendezvous. The delivery worker who has taken my order on one of China’s ubiquitous takeaway apps has gone to the south gate of our office block. But our guards have closed the gate in order to limit the pathogen carriers, also known as humans, entering and leaving the compound. They will not let him drop off my $6 rice-and-pickles lunch deal. I call the confused courier a few times and eventually arrange another drop-off point.
Lateness is no problem for Yan: he is immensely laid-back, in contrast to the calls to arms in his essays. When I had asked him on the phone what recent pieces I should pay special attention to, he replied, “Don’t bother with any of that. Let’s just relax and talk.”
When I start up the videocall, Yan’s light-grey hair and forehead appear at the bottom of the phone screen, the camera angled at his gold-edged ceiling. I study his wine collection until he tilts the phone back down towards him. I am struck by seeing him smile for the first time: we had conversed in the park entirely behind face masks.
Yan is at a table filled with dishes cooked by his wife: cucumber salad, a whole fish braised in soy sauce, stir-fried bamboo shoots, beansprouts and a large bowl of tomato-and-egg soup.
He did not always have it so good. He was the youngest child of a subsistence farmer in the impoverished Henan province. “I write about illness because it surrounded me since I was a child,” he says. His family never received the medical care they needed for his sister, who was bed-bound in her teens. Yan’s father died of a lung condition when Yan was in his thirties. At that time, he himself was suffering from a spinal disorder that meant he could only write while lying belly-down on his bed. He persisted.
Yan first took to writing to make money, he tells me. He joined the army aged 20 to escape rural life, and became a propaganda writer. His writing won literary fame and national prizes. But the publication of his novel Lenin’s Kisses in 2004 led to his expulsion from the army. His previous novels had garnered complaints over their mentions of sex and politics; the army believed he was becoming too much of a risk, Yan says.
He then took a job at the Beijing Writers’ Association, and later at Renmin University, to which he is still attached today and which provides a partial shield from political winds. A French publisher published his first foreign-language book in 2006; English translations followed. He has won the Franz Kafka Prize and been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize.
In the countryside where he grew up and where writing is a luxury, memory is especially important. Yan doesn’t know when precisely he was born; as with many rural families, his mother marked his birth by her memory of that year’s harvest, and he settled on 1958 when he had to fill in his application form for the army.
His books express an affection for rural traditions, but in many parts of rapidly urbanising China, these are kept alive only in memory. “For those of us who live in the cities, we sigh, ‘The farmland is no longer the farmland,’” Yan says. Moving to Beijing, he felt that other city dwellers saw him as a farmer; in his home village, others see him as an urban sophisticate. When asked to pick a side, he is unequivocal: he belongs to the farmland. “I’ve always said I have nothing to do with Beijing, I’m still a peasant.”
Henan, his birthplace, was also the centre of a major medical scandal that, like coronavirus, was first hushed up by local officials. Yan’s 2006 novel Dream of Ding Village is based on the Aids crisis in Henan, which erupted after Yan had left for the army. The disease spread through government-run blood stations, to which villagers sold their blood. The outbreak was exacerbated by a political cover-up. In the novel, a character switches from trading blood for profit to selling coffins as villagers start to die.
Yan Lianke’s house
Braised fish in soy sauce
Stir-fried bamboo shoots
Tomato and egg soup
The FT Beijing Bureau
Yunnanese “black three mince” (minced pork, finely chopped red and green chilli peppers, finely chopped pickled cabbage) and white rice RMB38
Total (inc packaging) RMB40 (£4.50)
“After this epidemic, let us become people with the ability to remember” is the title of Yan’s recent essay on the politics of coronavirus in China, originally given as a lecture to his literature students at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Yan exhorts them to remember Li Wenliang, the doctor punished by police for warning about the novel virus that had cropped up in his Wuhan hospital, and who later died from it, causing an outcry across China.
“If we can’t be whistleblowers like Li Wenliang, then let us become those who will hear the whistle,” writes Yan. He tells me the coronavirus has made him more focused on the need for tolerance of “benevolent disagreement” in public discourse. At the start of his writing career, in the 1990s, the state newspaper the People’s Daily would publicly debate the pros and cons of capitalism and socialism. Such a diversity of ideas is unthinkable today, Yan says.
The night before I met him in the park, I had stayed up writing about Beijing’s unprecedented expulsion of at least 13 American journalists, and texted him saying this was on my mind. “I feel the nation’s gates are closing,” Yan responded. He is a mixture of diatribes and shrugs: in a second he goes from ardently decrying the small-mindedness of some Chinese patriots to calmly stating that the lessons of Wuhan, too, will pass, “and be forgotten just like Sars was”.
Yan still believes that writing can change the world — another recent essay speculates about whether Auschwitz might have been closed earlier if the poems of those interned had reached the outside world. I press him repeatedly, but he refuses to say how writing could save the world now, as if being too explicit about one’s dreams would cause them to disappear, following the logic of his magical novels.
“Propaganda is a nuclear bomb,” Yan says, making me think of misinformation multiplying and spreading from person to person, like nuclear fission, or a virus. Yet he is careful not to criticise the writers who work for state media: “When it comes to survival, who can blame anyone?” he says.
Many of his literature students will go on to work for state media or the government, as he once did. “I simply tell my students, ‘At least don’t write lies,’” he says. But is the selective presentation of facts — the most skilled form of propaganda — lying?
Yan has not pulled his punches in criticising China’s political currents, although he believes he and his fellow writers know where to tread lightly and where to apply most force. The dance is an uncertain one, since only the censors know what they want.
What would he tell his own children, if they had become writers? “I don’t have any ideals now. In this environment, I just want my kids to have a healthy and good life, that’s most important. Then, I want them to be clear-minded and know right from wrong, and they don’t need to say anything out loud.”
Last year a student issued the first formal complaint that Yan has suffered in his teaching career. The complainant was an overseas Chinese student in South Korea, where Yan was giving a lecture that mentioned Hong Kong’s student protests. There has been a wave of “red” students reporting their professors for political speech, with one leading to the dismissal of a 71-year-old economics professor. But Renmin University supported Yan.
“I will be extremely patient with students who have complaints. I hope they can have a coffee with me, say ‘Teacher, what you said is wrong.’ I try to show them benevolent disagreement,” says Yan. I ask him, overall, how he thinks his students in Hong Kong and Beijing differ. “Students in Hong Kong are very naive: they believe in the rules and follow them to a fault . . . Chinese students are also naive, but in a different way: about their country,” says Yan.
When I first corresponded with Yan, he told me he was relieved I could speak Chinese. Despite being one of China’s most internationally celebrated modern novelists and the majority of his readers being abroad, he speaks not a word of English — or, as he calls it, “foreign speak”. The phrase is a nod back to the 1970s of his youth, when the world’s scripts were divided into Chinese, Russian and “foreign”.
He claims he’s too old to care about the reception of his books, or money (which he has enough of). But he loves speaking at bookshops abroad, which he does with a translator. He doesn’t use a VPN, a form of anti-surveillance software, to bypass China’s internet controls; so he only hears of foreign media coverage of him through his friends.
Yan decries the fact that the coronavirus epidemic means he can’t stop looking at his phone for alerts every half-hour. But his form of receiving feedback is through the opposite of mass social media: despite China’s censors, he has managed to create his own filter bubble of literary criticism in Beijing, by making sure to get 200 copies or so of every run of his books — including the ones that cannot be printed on the mainland — to give to his inner circle.
Yan’s family don’t read his books, and he’s glad: he flips suddenly into the role of a naughty child when talking about this. Nor, he supposes, do his army veteran friends, many of whom are now high up in the state media and publishing industry. When they meet for dinner, they talk about their children and their houses, the “firewood, rice, oil and salt” of life, as the Chinese proverb goes.
Yan has said several times before that realism cannot capture the many layers of modern China — only magical realism, or what he terms “mythorealism”, can. “There are things that happen in this country that you couldn’t dream up,” Yan says, citing a criminal case that went to trial in 2016. One person pays an assassin Rmb2m to kill off a rival. Instead of doing it, the assassin hires a cheaper assassin, giving him a cut of his fee; the second assassin then finds a third . . . all until the fee dwindles to a meagre sum, and the final assassin who agrees to the mission instead warns the target, staging photos of his death so the assassin could still cash in.
Despite all his work to improve the country’s literature and to teach students, Yan is convinced that “the golden era is over for Chinese literature” — and indeed world literature. He came to this conclusion on drawing up a 19th- and 20th-century Chinese literature course for his students at HKUST. “Literature cannot be separated from its era. A free inner heart is the minimum standard for good literature,” Yan says. “Today’s children are all very obedient children,” he adds — especially the ones born, like me, after the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy students and workers in 1989. “It would be very difficult for such a thing to happen today.”
I ask Yan whether obedient children make bad writers. “Literature needs a rebellious spirit. I don’t mean a rebellion against one’s family or society, but towards literature itself,” he replies.
I have barely touched my rice by the time the lunch is over, two hours later. As with a traditional Chinese dinner, I was waiting for Yan, the most high-ranking guest at our virtual table, to eat first. For a long time, it looks as if he won’t. So I wait, my takeaway lunch cooling on my table. Finally, he picks up his bowl and chopsticks and takes a few mouthfuls of his wife’s cooking. At the end of the call, he calls to her and I try to wave, but she’s not quite in frame.
I close by asking about Chinese writers abroad. Yan praises Yiyun Li and several other Chinese diaspora novelists, but adds that if they want to write about China, they are too far removed from it. Is Yan, living in central Beijing, as divorced from the farmland as Li is from China, I ask?
“It’s different,” he replies. I tell him that many of my friends in China face the same dilemma: stay in China and be restricted in what you can publish, or leave and forget the society you want to portray. “That’s why I say, you can’t blame anyone for what they do to survive,” Yan concludes.
Yuan Yang is the FT’s China tech correspondent in Beijing Additional reporting by Nian Liu
‘Three Brothers: Memories of My Family’ by Yan Lianke is published by Chatto & Windus
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published