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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 3, 2012


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."

Sheng has 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.

Asia Times Online: What's changed in China since Northern Girls was published in 2004? How different would the story be if you were writing it today?

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.

ATol: Northern Girls 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 social class.

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.

Men, society, 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 Girls].

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.

For 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 others.

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 winning adherents?

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 writing style.

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?

SK: 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.

I 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 readings.

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?

SK: 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 conscience.

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 Writers Festival.

Northern Girls: Life Goes On by Sheng Keyi, Penguin Books (May 2012). Format - eBook price. ISBN-13:9781742535104; ISBN-10:1742535100. Price AU$19.99.

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 of Hong 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. (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


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