INTERVIEW China: No country for young
women By Muhammad Cohen
UBUD, Bali - Sheng Keyi, one of China's
leading young female writers, insists she's not a
feminist. "I don't want to be identified as a
feminist," Sheng said in response to a question
from the audience during a panel at the Ubud
Writers and Readers Festival earlier this month in
Bali. "But the characters I write about in my
books are very independent."
published more than 10 novels and other works over
the past decade, all in Chinese. Born in Hunan
province, Sheng left home to work in Shenzhen for
some time before moving to Beijing. Her
experiences as a migrant worker formed the basis
for her first novel, Northern Girls, which
she says, was written with "the ecstasy of ... a
wild horse galloping on the grassland". The
novel this year became
Sheng's first work to be published in English.
Sheng gave the following interview to
Asia Times Online as part of her visit to
the Ubud festival.
Online: What's changed in China since
Northern Girls was published in 2004? How
different would the story be if you were writing
Sheng Keyi:Northern Girls was my first novel, written
in 2002. A decade has passed since I began my
writing career and China has undergone significant
changes over the past decade. Social behavior is
getting worse: devotion to money is widespread;
social values are distorted; individuals give up
their moral bottom line; the media is no longer
guided by justice and conscience; materialized and
self-materialized "New Women" and ignorant,
morally degenerated "Successful Men" can be seen
everywhere; people work exclusively for profit.
"No money, no use" has even become a
common saying among rural women. The happiness
index of the common people fails to keep pace with
the growing indicators and figures in government
reports. Life seems harder than ever. We have an
affluent material life thanks to the fake
commodities in the market; we have a poor
spiritual life owing to lack of honesty.
Luckily, I finished Northern Girls
with an almost unscrupulous zeal at the beginning
of my writing career. If I were to write such a
novel today, I might be more adept at creating the
structure of a novel and more practiced in my
writing skills, but I would have definitely lost
the wild unconstrained style that is present in
the novel, especially the very conscious sense of
humor born out of the cruelty of reality. I
cherish this sense of humor, which seems missing
now. In short, I feel that I would not do better
than 10 years ago if I were to write Northern
Girls now. This novel cannot be built upon,
and I have no regrets in this regard.
depicts a male-dominated society. To what extent
does that represent China today? To what extent
are the situations of characters Qian Xiaohong and
Li Sijang consequences of their gender and to what
extent are they consequences of their class, their
rural origins and lack of education?
SK: This male-dominated
society not only refers to the real men, but also
refers to the combination of power, wealth and an
unreasonable social system and values. It is
almost impossible for women from all social
classes to escape such social pressures. Thousands
of years of political traditions and social
customs are deeply rooted in Chinese society and
prevent women from overcoming the limitations
caused by their sex. Northern Girls depicts
the life circumstances of women from a specific
It is a work of fiction but
it is also the grim reality. It is just the tip of
the iceberg in broader Chinese society, and the
extent is beyond our imagination. Females like
Qian Xiaohong and Li Sijiang who have nothing but
their bodies are bound to be at a disadvantage in
competition. What they try to seize in the boiling
waves of society is dignity as a human being. They
have to pay more for it.
system - in China, the poor and the lowly have no
dignity; the empty-handed enjoy no rights. All is
opening a bloody mouth to them. Qian Xiaohong has
the strength for self-defense thanks to her
instinctive bravery and intelligence, while Li
Sijiang submits to the mercy of others.
ATol: How unusual is it in
Chinese fiction to write so explicitly and frankly
about sexual matters and bodies? Was it a
difficult taboo for you (editors and your
publisher) to break? Would you write about people
from a higher class the same way? What has been
the reaction from readers and reviewers?
SK: Obviously, descriptions
of sex in publications are wider in dimensions
than those about politics. Recently I read the
Chinese version of Empress Dowager and I,
[the autobiography of Sir Edmund Blackhouse]
written by a foreigner, which gave an account of
the sexual relationship between himself, the
Empress Dowager Cixi and another participant in
the royal palace: three people or more making love
together, homosexuality and so on. The book
aroused no disputes after it was published [in
2011, though written in the early 1940s]. The
social context has changed compared with that of
10 years ago [when Sheng was writing Northern
I make no distinctions between
the high and the low in my novel. The accounts of
sex are not to cause controversy but were
necessitated by plot development and the needs of
the novel. Primary instincts play an important
role in deciding people's behavior.
instance, in Northern Girls, Qian
Xiaohong's pursuit for sexual freedom is actually
a resistance against the materialized or alienated
society. She hopes to be released from
hypocritical morals and material oppression, to
restore the freedom and harmony of human nature.
Sex helps to interpret the characters and the
stories. It functions as a metaphor and need not
be avoided or played up. I am only responsible for
my work and can't comment on the reactions of
ATol: Although Qian
Xiaohong has heart and soul, Northern Girls
depicts a society that's largely heartless and
soulless. Is that a fair assessment of China
today? Is China a society looking for something to
believe in, and what things to believe in are
SK: It is
common to observe society through a novel.
However, the novel is nothing but a novel. It only
provides a perspective, a scene. It cannot reflect
the overall situation; it only reveals the living
circumstances of an individual, a small group of
people. However, you may find that the situation
at the deeper level is no better than what you see
from this perspective.
People from this
social class are like lifeless machines or living
animals. They are speechless and have no say. They
lack social security and care. China is a society
where privilege, wealth, success and power are
worshiped. These faiths attract devoted followers,
men and women, old and young, one after another.
ATol: How typical is
Northern Girls of your other work?
SK: In my eyes, Northern
Girls has unusual significance in my writing
career. I still remember the ecstasy of writing
like a wild horse galloping on the grassland.
Later when I learned how to restrain myself in my
writing, the daring and fearlessness particular to
a fresh hand disappeared. This book has left an
indelible imprint on my writing career as it
records women's rugged treks towards cities in
China's urbanization process, and it predicted my
In addition, this is my
first book in English, so I have the chance to
come into contact with foreign readers and to hear
their comments on the book. They are greatly
surprised at the living circumstances in China.
What they usually see about China is the stunning
surface, but actually it is an apple of Sodom.
They can get a glimpse of Chinese society through
my writing. In addition, I am happy that they
really like the characters such as Qian Xiaohong
in my work. I hope that more people will know Qian
Xiaohong instead of me.
ATol: What's the status of
fiction in China today? Is being a novelist a
respected profession? Is it more difficult for
women to be recognized and respected as writers?
Is there a vibrant writing community?
SK: The status of fiction in
China may be described with one word - prospering.
However, prosperity may not be good because it
shows the status of the group instead of
individuals. I mean that most writers are diligent
and honest. It seems that a net is cast to catch
all fish. In fact, there are fish which split the
net or which sink with the split net, although
most fish may be mild-tempered. Likewise, some
super talents are showing their ferocious features
and are biting the pulse of the society till it
bleeds. Among high achievers, the novelist is the
least conspicuous and the most worthless.
In the eyes of men, women are not welcomed
to the profession of writing. They are only
curious about the women writers, regarding them as
aliens. In a society where worship of wealth and
power prevails, in the world where people are
impoverished spiritually and indulge in
materialistic desires, they do not need souls, and
literature is deemed useless.
ATol: I've read that you
have left some of your work unpublished rather
than change it to satisfy censors. Who are these
censors? What kinds of things have they asked you
to change? Would it be possible to publish those
things unchanged if you lived in a different place
or had a publisher in a different country, or
would you face consequences for that?
SK: Well, yes. It makes no
difference to me to publish more or less. What I
value most is the free expression of my inner
thoughts. I would certainly like to publish my
works without changing it, if circumstances
permit. I don't want to lose readers, nor do I
want readers to miss the honesty in my novels.
Censorship is carried out by reporting to
the higher levels, and we cannot see the person
who has the final say. He is invisible and has
absolute power. I think that in an increasingly
civilized and rapidly developing country, I
occasionally got something out of the waves of
history by inventing stories, which will cause no
consequences other than disturbing the ghosts.
ATol: What impact has having
your writing translated into English had on you
personally and on your work?
SK: It would be dishonest to
deny the impact. I secluded myself in Huangshan
Mountain to write a novel in July and August, but
I left my work unfinished because I had to apply
for visas to attend literary festivals and events
for Northern Girls in several countries.
Besides, I got many interviews. I am slow in
answering interview questions just as I am in
writing. I am a professional writer, and my job is
writing and reading. The English version of my
work is an encouragement to me. I always say to
myself that I will never let down the readers, but
offer more good works to satisfy them.
ATol: Which non-Chinese
writers do you enjoy reading? Which Chinese
writers, modern and classic, do you enjoy reading?
To what extent have any of these writers
influenced your writing?
This is the most frequently asked question and my
answer to it varies because good works and good
writers keep emerging at different times, which
causes surprise, admiration and the regret not to
have come across them before. For instance, when I
was tidying up the bookcase the other day, I took
out Thomas Mann's short stories and novelettes to
read - the books were buried in the bookcase
immediately after I bought them - and I was
captivated by his writing. In addition, there are
Salinger's Nine Stories and Steinbeck's
writings, which I hate to part with. I want to
recapture sometime the feelings these books
aroused in me the first time I read them. My
favorite foreign writers include George Orwell,
[Argentinian novelist Julio] Cortazar, [American
William] Faulkner, to name just a few.
also love classical Chinese writings, like
Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio (Liaozai
Shiyi), A New Account of the Tales of the
World (Shishuo Xinyu), Extensive Records of
the Taiping Era (Taiping Guangji), Tang poetry
and rhyme prose of the Han Dynasty - too many to
list them all. In general, I prefer classical
ATol: Did you have
any concerns about coming to the Ubud Writers
Festival in Indonesia, given Indonesia's history
of anti-Chinese violence? What, if any, image does
Indonesia have in China?
There are complicated reasons behind every major
incident, especially when it involves politics or
history, which may confuse the public. I am slow
in reacting to politics, but I believe that all
forms of violence and bloodshed should be avoided
and condemned. It has been many years since the
anti-Chinese violence in Indonesia happened.
People will recover from it through rational
introspection over the years. A lamp is on at
midnight in the heart for every one to examine his
I am glad to attend the Ubud
Writers Festival because literature is accessible
to everyone, irrespective of nationality or race.
It is about the hearts, about love and pain, about
sin and redemption. I hope that a literary storm
will sweep through the land during the Ubud
Northern Girls: Life
Goes On by Sheng Keyi, Penguin Books (May
2012). Format - eBook price.
ISBN-13:9781742535104; ISBN-10:1742535100. Price
Macau Business magazine
special correspondent and former broadcast news
producer Muhammad Cohen told America's
story to the world as a US diplomat and is author
Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997
handover about television news, love, betrayal,
financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. See his blog
and more at MuhammadCohen.com.
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