What’s in a Metaphor?9 min read

Jemimah Steinfeld talks to Sheng Keyi about her new novel


Ed: Scroll down for a short excerpt from the novel, courtesy of Index on Censorship

Sheng Keyi likes metaphors. In the increasingly controlled Chinese state, metaphors have the power to circumvent censorship. But they’re not infallible, and it’s their demise that Sheng explores in her new novel. The Metaphor Detox Centre, published today in Taiwan, imagines a world in which people who use metaphors are sent for re-education.

“Originally written as a nightmare, it is based on events that are happening in reality and have affected me,” Sheng told me. “Metaphor disease is defined as the excessive use of metaphors. The fear of uncontrolled speech and knowledge-dissemination prompted the ruling class to create a new centre for ‘healing patients’, which is actually used for controlling people. Creators of metaphors, and metaphors themselves, are imprisoned.”

With her raw, often humorous writing that takes on the bitter truths of modern China, Sheng has emerged as one of the most interesting and daring writers today. Her background reads like a modern fairytale. She came from nothing – a rural village in the southern province Hunan – and turned her fortunes around. Her first novel, Northern Girls (2012), was published globally, won several literary prizes and was longlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. But in China, Sheng was not willing to toe the Party line in exchange for the good life. In the author’s notes for her second novel published in English, Death Fugue, which considers the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests through a fictional town dealing with its own suppression of protest, she wrote: “A novel must have the power to offend.” And offend it did – publishers in China refused to touch it.

Sheng borrows from a long Chinese tradition of using wordplay to challenge authority. “Throughout history, writers have found techniques to criticise indirectly,” she said. “This includes writing fantasy works, employing metaphors or using the chunqiu technique of making subtle hints using omission and ambiguity.”

“A meticulous censorship system is winter for writers. Nothing grows.”

But she’s acutely aware of the limitations of writing in a hostile environment. “Censorship is fatal to writing,” she continued. “The writer’s expressiveness and free will are severely restricted. They are frozen over. It is not easy to survive. Writers collectively hibernate, or are forced to write works that conform to the policy guidelines or actively flatter these guidelines. Looking at the history of writing, a censorship system that is full of loopholes can lead to some fantastic ideas from writers, but a meticulous censorship system is winter for writers. Nothing grows. When writing is overly cautious, the mind stops working – talent becomes strangled and even the metaphor disappears.”

For now, China offers just enough freedom for Sheng’s creativity, and she continues to draw inspiration from the country’s myriad contradictions and challenges. “The next novel I will write will be about a 20-year-old country girl who was executed for murder. It is a true story,” she added. “I was shocked by all the misery that had been heaped on her, what she had endured, and that her anger had only really flared up when her son was strangled by her husband.” Herein lies Sheng’s other central interest – the plight of women in China. For her, the people with the least voice in the country are rural women.

“They lack opportunities to acquire knowledge,” Sheng explained. “They have an unclear understanding of their rights, yet they are responsible for work, childbearing and day-to-day chores. Sometimes rural women suffer domestic violence and all kinds of unfair treatment. They are put down and it seems that they are a kind of rural commodity.”

The battleground of female reproductive rights forms the backdrop to three of her upcoming books, which she describes as “a trilogy of the uterus.” Like many women in China, Sheng has been directly affected by the country’s Draconian birth policies, recounting the time she witnessed a relative being dragged back from hospital in a cart because she had been forced to undergo sterilisation.

Is the new change in family planning policy – that allows for two children for all couples – a cause for celebration, in her eyes? Not at all. “The abolition of the system does not reflect increased human rights,” she said, “but rather a response to the population crisis of China’s labour force and its relation to economic growth. Women are not free to give birth [as they choose]. The government is exploiting the womb again.” She cautions that access to abortions and contraception may now become more difficult, to encourage more births.

“In the novel The Metaphor Detox Centre, I imagine in a surreal way how the government develops its population. They make a deal with the god of death and rent the uteruses of female ghosts to repopulate the town,” she said. It’s not a plot the Chinese government is going to like, but Sheng isn’t in the business of pleasing them.


Read a short excerpt from Sheng Keyi’s new novel below:

The Metaphor Detox Centre

She recently discovered that nearly all of the patients suffering from Metaphor Disease were educated, idealistic and highly imaginative. In the middle of the night, the most serious cases made metaphors in their sleep, distinctly murmuring things like “democracy and freedom are like air and water”. The murmurers who weren’t securely fastened to their beds would hurl themselves at the iron gates of their cells the instant they awoke. The medical staff vigilantly gathered information 24 hours a day. If they heard someone using a metaphor, even in his sleep, they would rush to the patient, shake him, smack his head and pinch his arms, and finally force him to take metaphor abatement pills. Next they would play video recordings of national leaders giving speeches and audio recordings of correct ideological thoughts. Radiotherapy was thought to kill the diseased cells. If the patient had still not come to his senses, he would be taken to the special unit for targeted therapy, where the malignant cells in the imaginative part of the brain were obliterated. The targeted therapy had the unfortunate side-effect of damaging the memory, although the patient’s life was spared. Now she remembered that she had been subjected to a round of therapy. The device was dreadfully close to her ear, and the cauterisation sounded like buzzing radio waves and smelled like burning insects. She had no idea how many metaphor cells were burnt, but when she tried to think of a metaphor, her brain was filled with a blustery wind that swept up the ashes of all possible metaphors. Everything went hazy – she couldn’t find where the words went, or where the path to a metaphor lay, or even remember what she was called. Everything was shrouded in dust.

She met a lawyer one afternoon while she was out on the grass. She saw his silhouette, framed by a bright light. He was staring into space, right in the spot where she liked to stare into space, and stood in a position that she normally adopted. She watched him as he watched the sunset, intrigued. He turned around, and she noticed his glasses, his curly hair and the bluish part of his face where his beard had been shaven off, all framed by a halo of sunlight. He was a large man – she could have slipped right into his chest pocket like a baby kangaroo.

To the west of the centre was a hill. Wild flowers and trees grew freely there – no one bothered to interfere with them. Small birds hopped and chirped, while butterflies fluttered softly. The reporter and the lawyer went into the copse of trees, growing into one another. Leaves fell soundlessly to the ground. Later, on a sunlight-tinged evening, an almighty force grabbed the golden rays and scattered them among the trees, making the whole place more beautiful. The staff of the centre watched from the other side of the hill, lying in the grass like an old lion missing patches of fur. First the two pecked at each other like birds. Soon they were licking each other like dogs. They removed their clothes like two ravenous people peeling off the firm flesh of the bamboo shoot and exposing the delicious flesh underneath. Next they pressed close to each other, like two mushrooms. Their breathing mimicked the wind rushing through the trees. The two birds locked their beaks. The sun shuddered. In their own world, they folded into each other, and she curled up in his arms with her head on his chest. Finally their limbs intertwined like snakes.

Neither she nor he could have guessed that the Metaphor Detox Centre was experimentally using “love” as part of their therapy. When, peering at the monitors, the researchers saw her expression soften as she looked at him, they were inspired to conduct a “love experiment”. This was the first ambitious experiment carried out by the centre, which aimed to use love to numb the brain and kill off the metaphor-developing abilities. The patients would automatically lose interest in metaphors and those stubbornly held beliefs would gradually fade away as the patients achieved bliss. They began to test their theory. The meeting was short – only half an hour. Everyone rubbed their hands eagerly, filled with the excitement of going to battle. (Perhaps some of them were looking forward to a legitimate excuse to become peeping Toms.) If successful, the experiment would not only represent a medical advancement, it would also lead to accolades, pay rises, promotions and other benefits. Yes, this experiment was worthy. Their plan was to mount dozens of hidden cameras in the trees and conduct a clinical observation of the two patients. As she and he became different plants and animals, many pairs of eyes watched pruriently from their screens. The researchers recorded, analysed and discussed the thoughts and behaviour of the mating humans, gleaning the percentage of love they possessed from their body language and expressions.

When the man decided to do it doggy-style, the researchers split into two groups. One group argued that the new couple was being far too provocative and therefore was not in love. The other group believed that there were strong signs of love in the expressions of the man and the woman. Even though the man was not young, he blushed like a virgin; when she turned her head to receive his kisses, her eyes were moist with tears of joy. Her lips parted slightly – she might have been faking it – but rather than take a breath, her lips formed the words “I love you”. … ∎


Sheng Keyi, The Metaphor Detox Centre (Linking Publishing, Taiwan, October 2018). Excerpt translated by Michelle Deeter. Header graphic: Alex Green. Photo of Sheng Keyi courtesy of the author.
The rest of this extract is readable here (unpaywalled for us for a limited time only, until October 8). This article originally appeared in the Autumn issue of Index on Censorship. Also featured in the issue is an exclusive short story from Ian Rankin, as well as poems written from prison by British-Iranian mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Click here to find out more.