SHENG KEYI IS a Chinese writer who grew up in Huaihua Di, a poor and isolated village of the Hunan province, on the banks of the Lanxi River. Sheng was sixteen years old in 1989, when student protests were violently suppressed at Tiananmen Square; like most Chinese citizens, she was introduced to the events through the government’s opaque re-telling on televised news media. Almost twenty-five years later, Sheng is a successful, translated novelist writing about Chinese society in a way that complicates that patriotic gloss. A denizen of Beijing’s literary circles, Sheng is reputed for her socially engaged writing and bold experimentation with form. Following her highly acclaimed Northern Girls (Penguin, 2012), which won a host of literary prizes and was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize, Sheng has recently had a second novel published in English, Death Fugue, which looks critically at the continuing impact of the government’s response to Tiananmen Square on the Chinese psyche and spirit – particularly people’s capacity for poetry and creativity. Though the manuscript was barred from publication in China, Death Fugue found a publisher in Australia last year with Giramondo. In it, Sheng uses both allegory and fantasy to contrast what China has become with what she imagines China could be. Her speculative projections for an alternative China also characterise her most recent short story, ‘A Little Life’, published in this issue of Griffith Review. For Sheng, it is this capacity to re-imagine contemporary reality that makes fiction writing a meaningful pursuit.
How did the reform of China’s economy affect your village and your decision to leave it?
SHENG KEYI: I don’t think my decision to leave my hometown was the result of the economic reform. I’d always wanted to know what’s in the far away place, what’s on the other side. When I was very young, ten years old, I swam over the [Lanxi] River to see what existed on the other side. When I found that the other side is exactly the same as our village I was shattered. I was so disappointed that I almost lacked the strength to swim back… When I left my village I did not think about what it’s like for the whole country, the big picture – I left because I was young and hot blooded. I had a dream I was pursuing.
Now when I look back, I think there was also an element of my own resentment in my decision to leave the village. It was very small and isolated – life there was monotonous. It was so boring. It gave people a sense of despair.
In terms of overall society, however, there was a wave of young people coming into Shenzhen. The Zhujiang (Pearl River) Delta became a very lively place, because everyone had a dream, and they were all there for their dreams. It was a little bit like a gold rush.
Now that so many people have left their hometowns behind, their villages have been neglected and, over the years, they have deteriorated. Many of them are experiencing extreme pollution, and have now become ‘cancer villages’: the land has become wild and the houses have collapsed, the pond that used to be filled with lotus flowers is now covered with weeds…many beautiful places have become ugly.
My own village has become a cancer village. Many people are dying at a young age.
Your experience of being a female ‘migrant’ worker in Shenzhen inspired your most acclaimed novel, Northern Girls (2002). What are some of the challenges women confront in making that transition?
Everyone’s circumstances are different: a situation that may be an issue for one is not a problem for another. However, in terms of social policy these people were unified by their disadvantage. They were given no social protection so they became a marginalised group, a weaker part of society. There was no protection by law, so someone may be working in a factory and if they have their hand cut off, they can get no compensation.
The main characters in Northern Girls are in that situation. The real-life protagonist [Qian Xiaohong] is an acquaintance from my village. She was really sexy, she was voluptuous, she was passionate, she was forthcoming – she was always running between jobs and between men. And so that’s her story.
It is very hard for them, without higher education, no social background, to find a dignified life in the city. They have to pay a price. And sometimes even when they do that, they cannot find the path for themselves. Some of them have just gone back to their village.
Personally I found the character of Qian Xiaohong very likeable…
[Laughs] Western people love Qian Xiaohong.
And not so much Chinese readers?
[Laughs] No, Chinese people talk about her very…like a bitch!
What are the consequences for women who give birth to a child out of wedlock? What are the legal and cultural attitudes surrounding abortion in China?
The attitudes have changed between today and the time when I was writing Northern Girls, almost twenty years ago. Twenty years ago it was very strict, it was illegal, and you couldn’t register the child. In China we have this registration system called the hukou system, which is very famous. It’s like a local registration with your local government. Today you can have the child and have it registered. But it is still illegal so you must pay a hefty fine, and that is called the ‘social upbringing fee’.
Back then, the society was very critical of the woman who has a child out of wedlock. The woman was denounced by society. Today, it is somewhat different, but people will still be looking at this woman with different eyes: they will still associate her with being bad. There is still the social pressure; it is still not accepted.
A friend of mine, she’s in her thirties and she can’t find the right partner. And so we were saying: why don’t you just get pregnant and have the baby yourself? But she was saying: what will my parents say? What would my friends and relatives say? So, there’s still that point that you can’t pass.
Those women who have children outside of marriage and decide to bring them up…they’re usually very independent and autonomous. For women like that, they don’t care what others think of them. As single mothers, they don’t see themselves as different from those who are divorced single mothers. And, at the same time they don’t have the complication of having the partner, so for them it is actually a simpler situation. These are the people who have the financial capacity to pay the fine, and who don’t care about what people think of them. But they are minority; the majority are people with an average income, and they are also the most conservative group, they will not take the risk of having a baby out of wedlock.
In a recent interview you said that you devised a deliberately optimistic ending for your short story as an antidote to the tragic result that you witnessed in real life, within your own family. Do you want to comment on that?
Well, yes, it happened to a relative. It was quite recent, it happened last year. The reality is just so cruel…as a writer, I observe, but there is also feeling, because I am a relative of that person.
In the story, there are two realities. In the real world she would have to have an abortion, although the baby is already seven months: she is poor, still a student, she’s using borrowed money, she can’t afford the fine. In the story, however, all of the relatives are happy and they decide to collectively bring the baby up, together.
So yes, the ending here has been idealised, and in a way it is an antidote to my sense of hopelessness – in a way, it mitigates that sense.
You worked for a time in a birth control clinic. How did that experience inform your exploration of pregnancy and abortion in both ‘A Little Life’ and Northern Girls?
Yes, although I was the communication part of the clinic, I got to see a lot while I was working there and got to know a lot of stories. Women have no control over their body, and have no say over their births. They are like animals to be slaughtered. In China, if you have a second child, there is no argument – either you or your husband will have to go to the clinic and have a procedure for sterilisation. I’ve witnessed many of those incidents, where people are treated like livestock. You see women being taken into the hospital and taken out, using a wheelbarrow, like livestock.
These procedures are ordered by the government. The number of people in a family is all under the government’s surveillance, so when one child is already registered to a family, the government’s knows that the parents need to be sterilised.
If you do not register the child to the hukou system then you may be able to get away, because they will not know that you’ve had another child. But what are you going to do with the child? What are you going to do about his or her education, and later on there are issues with land ownership…
When you get pregnant, you go to the government and they will give you a certificate for birth. This is a birth certificate in a different sense – it is a birth permit. You are allowed to have the child.
So when a Chinese person reads this story, they will probably think it’s quite unbelievable; but, meanwhile, it warms their heart. So what we are hoping for is that women will have more authority over their body and that the government’s policy can be made more humane. It should not only make the person caught up in the situation feel happier; it should also make the people around that person feel that life, after all, is beautiful.
And was it your witness to these experiences that prompted you to evoke the cultural strictures around family planning in your writing?
Yes, I’ve seen too much. I felt heartache seeing what I saw. As a woman myself I feel close to these pressures. I’ve seen my relatives taken, for no reason, and given this cut, completely outside of their will. Women have become this group that has been oppressed, repressed. I find it puzzling. Writing is a way of exploring what this puzzle means.
In your story these pressures are palpable, and yet those regulations are not being imposed from outside, by government officials – they come from the pregnant woman’s own relatives, both male and female. How embedded are those rules in the Chinese psyche?
You’re right, you don’t see the government officials or anybody like that. It’s the system: the system has engraved this into the consciousness of the people. It’s inside them. Some people don’t tend to pick on the system or challenge it, but rather follow it and negotiate a path to survive. But often they just find it ends, and there is no route.
Have these issues affected your own decisions around having a family?
I like children very much. Many people around me don’t want to have children in an environment where there is no protection, no social security in terms of medical support…it’s not the best environment for bringing up children.
Across your work you raise prohibited issues using metaphor, allegory and fantasy. Do you see poetry as more than literary device – is it also a political tool? How valuable has fiction been for dissident Chinese writers?
This is the difference I find between literature and journalism:
In literature we can use all of these devices for it’s aesthetics, and for it’s literary value. It’s necessary to use metaphor, allegory, and so…it’s necessary to construct a fiction to tell the truth. This is different from documentary or non-fiction.
My interest is in creative fiction; that is my art. I use these literary devices because that is what I like to do. I’m not interested in writing journalistically. I like fiction, also because it has a bigger scope for imagination and there is a bigger scope for participation in a fictionalised space. By writing fiction I can be embodied in a character and have a different experience, or I can look into the future and see really far. It has a greater capacity for exploring the possibilities of the world.
In a public presentation that you recently made in Sydney, you observed a tendency for international readers to value Chinese literature for its political critique. You wanted to remind us that – for you at least – fiction writing is primarily an artistic pursuit, and not a political one. ‘I love language’ you said. Can you comment more on this?
Literature is, after all, literature. There could be a difference in writing techniques and subject matter, but it is still literature. Some writers are very interested in politics; some are completely uninterested in politics. Just as I said in that lecture, some writers are like soldiers, and they like to fight, and some are like doctors, and they like to heal.
That is a compelling analogy. Do you see yourself as a bit of both – soldier and doctor?
[Laughs] I’m actually not particularly interested in politics; it’s more the space for imagination, the space for displacement.
When I was small – about twenty years ago, when I was a youth – what I had thought about the world, thinking about reality, I had a perception about truth. And now – ten, twenty years later – I have a different interpretation about truth. There is a difference, and that inspires me to write.
What I’m really interested in is humankind. So, the system is always in the background, while our fate is in the foreground. What I’m interested in is the fate of humankind.
Can you tell us more about the difference between those perceptions of truth you have held at different times in your life?
When I was small I saw reality through the television. For example, in 1989 the students were called ‘thugs’ – and that was the truth for me back then, And later on I realised that things were much more complicated then they seemed. Also, for any individual, they only know one piece of the whole – and even when you had these pieces together it doesn’t necessarily make it a whole, there are always gaps. There is always the unknown, and the unknowable. And it’s those pieces that really inspire me to write.
Perhaps this helps to contextualise your writing about Tiananmen Square in your recent novel Death Fugue. Should readers be resisting the temptation to politicise this text?
Yes, I’m not particularly interested in politics – I also do not know the politics. What I’m interested in is the impact of the system upon humankind, and the damage that it can cause.
For subsequent generations, the events of 1989 seem to be significant as a symbol of ‘the system’ and Chinese censorship – Tiananmen Square refers as much to the silence following the student protests as it does to the deaths that occurred that day.
Yes, for an individual, or a government or a country, it is possible that they will make mistakes – and we all do. But what is really important is after that, how to reflect on it – whether there should be an apology. And only through reflection can an individual, or a government or a country, learn and improve. Just like Tianjin. This is such a big event, and no one comes out to make an apology. So for the people who have no home to return to, or the people who have a home but who cannot return – these are innocent people who have been so severely affected. Who is going to be responsible? Who is going to give them the compensation? Who is going to take responsibility? It is a shameful situation. Humans are not being treated as humans.
In China, people are so ignorant; they really need to be opened up. When this is happening, some people are stopping the journalists from taking photographs and recording – this is unthinkable.
At the Byron Bay Writers Festival you said that there is a saying in China, which is that: people need to learn English in order to learn about China… Do you think this true?
[Laughs] This saying is a self-deprecation for Chinese people, because we exist in an environment of information censorship. The saying is really a longing for the open environment in the West, where the media has freedom.
Your interest in Western thought and literature is denoted explicitly in the title of ‘Death Fugue’, which borrows from Paul Celan’s poem Todesfuge (1948). Can you comment on your reference to that poem?
I read this poem a few years ago, because a collection of Celan’s poems was published in China. It was a very beautifully made book, with a blue, silky cover. For this poem, there were six or seven different translations in Chinese. I read all of them. From reading those translations I figured out the difficulties of translation. I find that when it’s well done, it really carries the original work’s spirit, and the verve of the writer.
Celan’s original poem was about the concentration camp massacre perpetrated by the Nazis, and I think what I’m writing about is a spiritual massacre. After the events of 1989, the Chinese intelligentsia lost their ideal, they lost their spirit. Now they just focus on migration, business, getting on with life. It is like they’ve been spiritually washed. The protagonist in my novel is a poet who decides to become a doctor. Just as the poet has lost all the passion for writing poetry, the country has lost all of its poeticism, lost its dream and its ideal.
Right now, the country is like a person with a very small heart. He can only take praise, he can’t take any criticism. He looks strong from the outside, but you know that he’s weak inside because that is reflected in his behaviour. So, the country is rich, but his people are poor.
How is the contemporary literary community able to challenge this spiritual desolation?
Well, compared with during the Qing Dynasty or the Cultural Revolution, now we are very fortunate. Back then it was called wenziyu, ‘the literary inquisition’ – that’s a particular expression from Qing Dynasty. Back then you could be decapitated over a single sentence, or the title or your work. Today, at least your life is not threatened.
Many Chinese writers are very independent, because writing itself is a private activity. But not necessarily, I might be wrong, because some writers are trying to pander to the government.