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Two Chinese novelists brave bans at home to reach a global audience

Yan Lianke and Yu Hua discuss their works and writing for readers '50 years from now'

TOKYO Yan Lianke and Yu Hua, two leading figures of modern Chinese literature, recently sat down with The Nikkei on separate visits to Japan to discuss their works. Both are known for tales that are magnificent in scope, drawing deeply from the chaotic reality of contemporary China, and for their determination to describe the world from an Asian perspective.

THE WORLD IN A VILLAGE Yan has written a series of novels that pose questions for modern China, including "The Explosion Chronicles" (2013), about the rapid development of a poor village into a vast city.

Yan Lianke

"China's reality is complex and irrational. The people are always under the nation, their existence burdened by its great weight," Yan said. "I have been writing about people living under these circumstances, and believe my overseas readers can learn something universal from my stories about China."

Born in 1958 in a poor farming village in the central Chinese province of Henan, Yan started publishing novels in the 1980s and won the Franz Kafka Prize in 2014.

Yan advocates "mythorealism," a way of writing that hints at invisible, causal relationships beneath an odd reality. "Facing the absurdity of modern times, it's impossible to write a novel based on traditional realism," he said.

Free speech is restricted in China, and many of Yan's writings are banned. "I think the most important thing is freedom of the mind, which means free thinking, free ideation and free creation," explained Yan. "A day will come when the ban is eventually lifted. Writers can deliver their stories to readers 50 years from now. That's why I keep writing."

Yan's origins have significantly influenced the way he views literature. "I say half-jokingly, 'China is at the center of the world, [my native] Henan Province is its center, and the village I grew up in is its center.' So in describing one small village, I believe I can describe the entire world."

Looking ahead, Yan said: "Writers of the 21st century must create by looking for what was missing in 20th-century literature. That's a task for me, and for younger writers as well."

WHAT RESONATES Yu Hua has a large following for his satirical fiction about people in modern China. His novel "Brothers" (2005), which recounts the changing fortunes of brothers-in-law living between the Cultural Revolution and when the country began its reforms and opening up, was a best-seller in China.

Yu Hua

"Literature is the act of asking what humans are," Yu said. "Readers should be able to discover something that resonates personally when they read a good piece of literature, regardless of where it was written."

Born in 1960 in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang Province in eastern China, Yu grew up during the Cultural Revolution. After working as a dentist, he studied creative writing at the Lu Xun Literary Institute. His novel "To Live" (1992) drew wide public and media attention after it was adapted to film.

His style has shifted significantly over time. "In China after 1949 [when the People's Republic was established] there was no literature, only ideologically standardized narrative. After the Cultural Revolution, I learned about the richness of literature for the first time, and started writing what came from within," he said. "Then I came to see the rapid changes in society, and started writing 'Brothers' and similar works."

His essays on current topics published in The New York Times and other U.S. media have been widely discussed for their vivid description of Chinese society. "Some of my essays are banned in China. I'm pessimistic about the situation regarding freedom of speech," he said. "Times will continue to be tough, particularly for younger writers. Chinese writers must store their work on flash drives to someday publish them."

Yu said he has projects in the works that he expects will take 20 years in total to finish. "One is a novel set in the early 20th century, the other is about times during the Cultural Revolution. China is full of things to write about."

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