A Conversation with Yu Hua
Noted Novelist Speaks at UCLA
Yu Hua, the author of the immensely popular and critically aclaimed novels To Live (Huozhe; English translation published by Anchor Books, 2003) and The Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (Xu Sanguan Mai Xue Ji; English translation published by Panetheon, 2003) visited UCLA as a guest of the Center for Chinese Studies on November 24th and spoke, in Chinese, with about thirty students, members of the faculty, and journalists.
From Dentist to Novelist
Yu, in a highly casual and humorous tone, started his talk by tracing back his growth into one of China's most popular professional writers. Yu was born in 1960 in the province of Zhejiang. After finishing high school during the Cultural Revolution, he worked as a dentist for five years, from the age of 18 to 23, “spending my most precious youth in examining people’s opening mouths.” Yu gradually became bored with his job and began to envy professional artists working for government-sponsored cultural centers because they did not have to go to the office early and could always idle away time on the street. In order to escape from his job as a dentist, he began to write stories in 1983 and submitted them to literary journals around the country.
As Yu explained, he feels that the magic of writing is that it gives writers a chance to express emotions and desires in a fictional world that are usually not easily expressible through other means. Writing also makes it possible for writers to experience another life. Yu felt after he became a professional writer that his "true" life was becoming more and more routine and boring while the fictional world he created in his writing became increasingly exciting and rich. Yu talked about how his own understanding of writing has changed over time. In his early years of writing, he felt that the characters in his novels were just symbols whose personalities, emotions, and desires were all under the full control of the writer. Gradually, he felt that his characters began to gain a life of their own: once the writer creates the characters, they begin to have their own voices which the writer can no longer control. Along the same lines, Yu compared short stories and novels: characters in novels are more independent of the writer. Furthermore, novels are easier to escape from the writer's control, and compared to short stories they make it easier for the writer to experience a different, fictional life. For these reasons too, novels have a much higher market value than short stories.
The Movie To Live
When it came to comparing his novel To Live and the movie that was adapted from it (released in 1994), Yu recalled the time in 1992 when he and the director Zhang Yimou discussed the adaptation. They actually started by working on another of Yu’s novels. However, after Zhang read the draft of To Live, he immediately became captivated by it. As Yu himself was also more confident about adapting this novel into movie script rather than their original choice, the two soon agreed to work on To Live. Personally, Yu said, he likes his novel better than the movie. One reason, according to Yu, arises from the age difference between Yu and Zhang. To Yu, who was only a child when the Cultural Revolution broke out, the Cultural Revolution is just a childhood memory and serves mainly as the background of his novel. On the other hand, to the older Zhang, the Cultural Revolution was a highly involved personal experience.
A member of the audience asked Yu why his novels are embued with such a strong sense of violence and indignation. Yu guessed this might be an outgrowth of his childhood memory of watching executions in his hometown. The late Cultural Revolution was, as he put it, a period of deep mental depression for the people in his hometown. The execution of criminals thus became a festive occasion for the whole area. People would walk several miles to the beach to watch an execution. Besides that, he was raised in a doctors’ family and lived just in front of a small hospital, where he frequently saw bloody scenes, life and death stories. He also joked that many people think his later experience as a dentist, peering into people’s bloody mouths for five years, may also have contributed to the “bloodiness” of his early works. He then acknowledged that his early writings were so involved with violence that he finally felt he was on the verge of mental collapse. At that time, he dreamed a lot of chases, shootings, and killings. Gradually, however, he found a way to express violence through milder means. For example, in The Chronicle of a Blood Merchant the violence and indignation are expressed in a much more implicit and milder way, but, as one member of the audience commented, this makes them even more striking and impressive.
The Influence of Lu Xun
Yu also told of his appreciation of Lu Xun, twentieth-century China's most famous short-story writer and essayist (in fact, twentieth-century China's most famous writer period) and how Lu Xun's work affected the above-mentioned transition in Yu's writing style. When Yu was in primary school and middle school, where a lot of Lun Xun’s writings were required reading, he actually hated them. He now believes Lu’s works are not suitable for children. In the 1990s, after he had gained sufficient experience in writing, however, he began to re-read Lu Xun’s works and suddenly realized the their value and power. Yu found Lu’s fable style of writing simple but extremely rich and powerful and now regards him as one of China's greatest writers.
Writers and Literature in China Today
Yu closed with several comments on the general situation of writers and literature in mainland China. Comparing to the 1980’s, when anyone who wrote anything could claim to be a “writer,” the 1990’s was a more market oriented period. However, Yu does not accept the prevalent view that marketization ruins literature and that the market cannot accommodate the humanistic concerns of writers. He believes that writers, unlike university professors and scholars, belong to market. So, in the 1990’s, the market played a screening role and now only good writers can survive and attract readers. Thus, Yu proclaimed, “don’t feel sorry for writers!”
* * *
Xin Zhang is a graduate student in the UCLA Department of Political Science. He received his undergraduate degree in economics in 1997 from Fudan University (Shanghai). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published: Monday, December 08, 2003