Xue Yiwei: In Search of Universal Values14 min read

A Chinese novelist talks to Jeffrey Wasserstrom, introduced by Amy Hawkins

My uncle, Xue Yiwei, is a Chinese novelist. Having moved to Canada in 2002, his translated works include Dr. Bethune’s Children, an epistolary novel addressed to Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor in wartime China, and Shenzheners, a collection of short stories inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners but set in Xue’s hometown of Shenzhen. Xue thinks that his latest novel, King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine, is the one that he was born to write. It tells the story of “the most extraordinary peasant” in rural China during the Cultural Revolution, whose love of King Lear leads him to a participate in a production directed by a visiting British poet-scholar (apparently William Empson was a prototype). The novel takes in all of Xue’s interests: Chinese culture, the interchange between “high” and “low” culture, and the role of the individual in the capricious tides of history. As relations between China and the West grow ever more tense, Xue imagines a world in which the flow of knowledge across borders is harmonious.

He started thinking about the book (which is currently being translated into English) when he was just eight years old and found a copy of Shakespeare’s tragedy in his grandfather’s desk. His grandfather lived a life of almost Shakespearean drama himself, from working with the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek, being branded as a landlord by Mao Zedong to being finally rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping. Such a trajectory is common in recent Chinese history. In this interview with historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom – who in turn introduced an interview I did with mu uncle that appeared in the LARB China Blog, a precursor to the China Channel, several years ago – Xue talks about the varied people and works that have inspired him, from Lao She to James Joyce. – Amy Hawkins

Jeff Wasserstrom: Can you share with readers of the China Channel some information about your latest writing project, starting with a few basic details about the main characters in it and the settings?

Xue Yiwei: When my Shenzheners short story collection was published in 2012, I was hailed as the representative of the newly-emerged “urban literature” by Chinese media and critics. In response to this, I told an interviewer that I would write an acclaimed novel of “rural (xiangtu) literature” in the near future, showing my mastery of the genre that dominates the Chinese literary landscape. After eight years, I have fulfilled my ambition with my latest work whose main characters are peasants. Apart from some urban scenes the protagonist experiences over the trajectory of his life, the main setting is a hovel in a village in Hunan province, not far from the village where Mao himself was born and grew up. So it is a novel born of a hovel, although its title, King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine, is somewhat exotic and sounds highly civilized to Chinese ears, and so would seem not rural at all.

It sounds like a complicated project. How long have you worked on it? And why King Lear? Why Nineteen Seventy-Nine?

I began to write the novel on November 28, 2018 and was writing all the way until March 8, 2020 – nearly sixteen months, without a break of a single day. But the title of the novel has echoed in my mind for at least twenty years, and the first epiphany of writing such a novel can be traced to much earlier. One afternoon around 1972 or so, while passing my school holidays in the village where my grandparents were living, I was shocked to see a little English book in a drawer where my grandfather kept his personal things. It was a copy of King Lear. That moment was not only the beginning of my latest novel, but also the origin of my entire literary career. And my grandfather, the owner of the book and the prototype of my novel, who used to work in Chiang Kai-shek’s central government, who had a university diploma and who could speak English, might well be the most extraordinary Chinese peasant of the Cultural Revolution. In 1979, year one of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening, the “hat” that was used to brand my grandfather as a landlord was taken off and his past was no longer a shame to our family. His new life began to shine. At the end of that year, he left the village to live with us. Since then, 1979 has become a vantage point for me from which to observe Chinese history.

What was your main motivation in writing this book, or your overall goal for it?

Every writer has a book that he or she must (or is destined to) write, and it is a book that only he or she is capable of writing, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  No doubt, King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine is such a book for me. In other words, to write it is my fate. Despite this, there is also another motivation. As China moves further and further away from 1979, in both literal and metaphorical ways, I am becoming more nostalgic about that incredible year that set the direction of history for the following decades and which has brought so many changes for the world as well as for China. Take Sino-American relations for instance. Turning the newspaper pages during that year, I was amazed that the hostility of thirty years between the two countries since Mao’s well-known essay ‘Farewell, John Leighton Stuart’ – the American ambassador to China from 1946 until 1949 – and the Korean War had left no trace. All of a sudden, America had become “great again.” In contrast to this, after a further thirty years, relations between the two countries have now become so problematic if not hostile that common ground has been lost on every issue. There is a saying in Chinese claiming that history will change direction every thirty years. Sino-American relations seem to be proof of this magical circle. Yes, as always, I hope that this novel will raise readers’ concerns about the fate of humanity and revive their memories of harmonious times when the dreams of the different races shared universal values.

Are there plans for an English language translation?

Yes, an English translation has been planned since January. The process will last one and a half years considering the length of the novel and the subtlety of its language. The novel is three times as long as Dr. Bethune’s Children, my only novel published in English so far. The good news is that, unlike Dr. Bethune’s Children which the Chinese reader has never had an opportunity to read, King Lear and Ninety Seventy-Nine has been serialized in a fine monthly literary magazine since March (even before I had completed it). This is unprecedented in terms of the speed and scale of publication, not to mention the timing. In recent weeks, I have received a considerable number of enthusiastic responses from readers, critics and publishers. By the way, even if the novel is not translated, the English reader can certainly understand part of it because there are about thirty original lines from King Lear scattered through the narrative. In fact, the protagonist, who plays King Lear in a university production and who also, like King Lear, has three daughters, always connects his emotional moments in reality with those in the play and the original lines that emerge from the depths of his mind. This is perhaps the first time Shakespeare has been so profoundly integrated into Chinese literature.

I am a fan of your novel Dr. Bethune’s Children. It includes many chapters in which the protagonist, who grew up reciting a famous piece by Mao about Dr. Norman Bethune, addresses comments to that Canadian physician, who died in China. The current pandemic has led to a great deal of interest in China in doctors, including some who are seen as martyrs. Some people have been addressing them in symbolic ways, or worked honoring them into marking Qingming, a holiday associated with paying respect to the dead. Do you see any links between these activities and what you wrote about? Is there any way that Dr. Bethune and Qingming went together in the minds of the Chinese generation you belong to and whom you described as his “children”?

One of the amazing things about 1979 is that “all the old stuff is re-emerging”, as my protagonist exclaims repeatedly in King Lear and Ninety Seventy-Nine. That “old stuff” includes the American ambassador, as well as traditional Chinese festivals like Yuanxiao, Qingming and Zhongqiu, which had been marginalized if not totally abolished since the heyday of the Cultural Revolution. In our childhood, we, the children of Dr. Bethune, celebrated May Day, National Day and the day the Communist Party was founded, not the traditional festivals. Even New Year’s Day surpassed the traditional Spring Festival in significance because in the morning of that day, we could hear the famous New Year Editorial from the loudspeaker, which was the political wind vane of the coming year. The first time Qingming played a significant role in our life was in 1975 when people gathered at Tiananmen Square to mourn Zhou Enlai who had just died and to protest against the Gang of Four. In spite of (or maybe because of) this, in the following years, Qingming was revolutionized as an occasion to commemorate the revolutionary martyrs, at least in Changsha, the city where I was living. We were organized to sweep the tombs for martyrs in the only park in the city, Martyrs’ Park. In fact, this became a compulsory political activity in our curriculum. Since 1979, and the coming of the Reform and Opening era, Qingming has resumed as a traditional festival during which people sweep their ancestral tombs. Nonetheless, it has still been politicized, and serves as a national day of mourning for whichever recent influential public tragedy. Rising to his superstardom during the Cultural Revolution, Dr. Bethune was never specifically connected with Qingming. Or put it this way, for us Dr. Bethune’s children, he was an example to follow rather than a martyr to put on display.

Last time you did a question and answer for a Los Angeles Review of Books-related site, one subject that came up was your interest in James Joyce. Are you still fascinated with him as a writer? If so, are there any works or sayings by him that have been on your mind lately?

Yes, I still am. When I was writing King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine, I read a few paragraphs of Ulysses every night before going to sleep. The reason that I kept this ritual is that I consider the book an encyclopedia of the humanities, and to go profoundly into the ocean of humanity is also the goal of the novel I was writing. In Ulysses, Joyce confines the narrative to an ordinary day. In King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine, I frame the life of my protagonist within an extraordinary year. Like Leopold Bloom, my protagonist is a man in search of home, and after having traveled around for more than half a century and over more than half the country, at the end of the novel, standing where he departed, he realizes home is always out of his reach, just like his American dream.

Going back to Norman Bethune, one intriguing thing about him is how famous he is in China, while being relatively unknown in Canada. Have you come across any examples of the reverse phenomenon, that is, of there being people or foods or objects originally from or associated with China that are better known in Canada than they are in China, or were in China during your youth?

That is a very interesting question. As far as I can recollect, there is no such example. But you remind me of a counter-juxtaposition. Four decades ago, there was a Chinese man living in Canada, Zhang Guotao, whose name is familiar to every educated Chinese but insignificant to almost all Canadians. One of the student leaders in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, one of the earlier leaders of the CCP, one of the major commanders of the Red Army, and Mao’s final and “fiercest” (as Mao later told Edgar Snow) rival in his ascension to the great helmsman, Zhang immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the 1960s and died a natural death in Toronto. In 2015, I found the small tombstone he shares with his wife (who was the first president of the Chinese Women’s Association) at a cemetery in a Toronto suburb. Looking at the tombstone, Mao’s magnificent memorial hall built in the center of Tiananmen Square came to my mind. Alas, history matters.

What have you read lately that has made a big impression on you in a positive or negative way?

In October 2018, I was invited to participate in a symposium celebrating the eightieth anniversary of Pearl S. Buck’s Nobel Prize for literature. The event was held in Zhenjiang, where the laureate grew up. In preparation for my talk, I carefully read The Good Earth from the first word to the last punctuation mark. My impression was mixed: partly positive, partly negative. But unexpectedly, this reading became the final impulse that pushed me to roll up my sleeves and write my own “rural literature.” After ninety years, now another Chinese peasant, a completely different one from Wang Long, the protagonist of Pearl S. Buck’s novel, has come before the eyes of Western readers. I am curious as to what their responses will be.

Finally, I’m very interested in Lao She just now, since I’m working on a book about the Boxers. His father was killed during the international invasion triggered by the actions of that anti-Christian group – around the same time, incidentally, that Pearl Buck’s father was almost killed by the Boxers. Lao She’s best-known works are set in Beijing, but I greatly enjoyed his novel about living in London and Cat Country, his sci-fi novel set on Mars. As a Chinese writer who has moved between worlds, is he an author who interests you?

Yes, among the writers in his generation Lao She is one of the most intriguing to me. He is more versatile and universal than the critics usually consider him to be. Even his works set in Beijing are rooted in universal values and show his broad understanding of human nature. And his life came to a tragic end, which makes his role as a so-called “people’s artist” even more interesting. I like your little book Eight Juxtapositions. I think now that if you want to add one juxtaposition about Lao She to the book, it should be ‘Lao She and Pasternak.’ About ten years ago, I published a provocative essay entitled ‘The Lethal Honor’ in Southern Weekend about Pasternak’s Nobel Prize. The tragic aspects of the Russian writer’s life always reminded me of Lao She. And what seems most interesting in some ways is that the way I first approached him was through “multimedia” or through seeing and listening instead of reading. In the early 1980s, when I was in Beijing as a university student, Lao She’s novel Four Generations under One Roof was being broadcast on radio. I tuned in every day and was enthralled. My ambition of writing a family saga like King Lear and Nineteen Seventy-Nine might be traced to this experience. But what most impressed me among his works is Teahouse, his play dealing with the confrontation between minor figures and grand history. I still remember the day when I first saw the film production of it. That was also in the Beijing of the early 1980s. Walking out of the cinema at Wangfujing and looking at the busiest street at the time in Beijing, as an eighteen-year-old computer science student, the portal of literature seemed wide open for me. More than three decades later, in March 2016, as a well-known Chinese writer, I had an opportunity to give a talk in SOAS, where Lao She worked as lecturer in the 1920s. This was certainly an echo of that remote and magical moment. ∎

Header image: courtesty of the author.