Book Talk: Novelist portrays dark underbelly of Chinese politics

HONG KONG Thu Oct 25, 2012 3:08am EDT

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese author Wang Xiaofang, a former government official turned best-selling novelist, is a forceful advocate for democratization and staunch critic of Chinese contemporaries who he sees as too cozy with the establishment.

Since resigning as secretary to the deputy mayor of Shenyang city in northeastern China, Wang has written "officialdom" novels drawing on his Communist Party insider's experience to expose greed, intrigue, corruption and factional rivalry in the highly secretive and murky world of Chinese politics.

In "The Civil Servant's Notebook," his first book translated into English and due out next month, Wang, 49, skewers politicians reminiscent of Bo Xilai, the ousted politician at the center of China's biggest political scandal in two decades.

The Shenyang-based Wang, whose 13 novels have been widely pirated and have sold 3 million official copies, spoke with Reuters on the sidelines of the Hong Kong Literary Festival about Honore de Balzac and urine-drinking as a metaphor for absolute authority.

Q: What kinds of difficulties have you encountered in publishing your type of work in China?

A: "My fourth book, ‘The Mayor's Secretary,' made its rounds all over China in the search of an accepting publisher. I managed to get through to some publishers that would have frequent changes in management and editors so I can sometimes slip something through but even then, it would get rejected most of the time. I have not published for two years. I have four books waiting to get published. The environment has become more restrictive in the past two years.

"I stayed low profile in mainland China for a while. I don't publicize my work there. There's no TV series or film I can profit from. I have not received Chinese awards. They wouldn't dare make a film out of this, and they're not allowed to. In the beginning I received many threats, telling me to stop or they will chop off my hands. Some officials would look through my fictional work and say I'm writing about them and directly implicating them. They all look for themselves."

Q: How do you feel about the works of other Chinese writers? What's your reaction to Mo Yan being awarded the Nobel Prize?

A: "I give my congratulations to Mo Yan. His works stem from the stories and civilization of his hometown, depicting the life and culture of that society. Not all literature necessarily has to lash out against the government. One can certainly write about a myriad of things in life. Mo Yan took that route.

"Many Chinese writers do comply with the system. They have stable salaries even if they don't write. China's writers, once they earn a bit of reputation, will aim for official positions in writer's associations. The well-known writers in China are all vice chairmen or chairmen of these associations, which means they are Party officials. They have their private cars.

"Most Chinese writers in the mainland eulogize authority. For instance, something like Honore de Balzac's critical realism -- mainland writers do not employ that. They employ eulogistic realism. They applaud the system.

"I aspire to a new style of writing, like how Joyce and Proust made contributions to literary history with their stream of consciousness approach, or Franz Kafka's impact on 20th century literature. But there hasn't been a similar literary movement in China. They imitate previous styles and ideas from the West but never created their own genre. Lu Xun, for instance, whom I respect very much, did not create a new style."

Q: How are your books a commentary on the Bo Xilai scandal and on China's current political atmosphere?

A: "The Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun case may seem out of the ordinary, but they are in fact inevitable. There will be other similar occurrences. It's the system. They are all the same characters. There's a character similar to Bo Xilai in my recent book. As long as there's absolute authority, it will produce such authority figures. Absolute authority means absolute corruption. This event shows the urgency and necessity of reform in the Chinese system.

"In this book, one of the officials had been drinking urine for five years because he thinks it has medicinal benefits. Then during a banquet his friends poured him a beer and he cried because he had been drinking urine for such a long time. The urine symbolizes the cultural garbage inherent to the system that the official complies with, and that's believed to be beneficial. I won't comment on the political, but I hope that China can move towards reform. Reform of civil society and law is China's Golden Road towards future progress. I hope the new leadership can bring this about."

Q: Do you see a burgeoning Chinese literary movement? Will this society in transition produce a new crop of writers?

A: "If they all become party officials, then no. Many don't have the courage to rely solely on their pen to make a living...

"Most of the material coming from Chinese writers today, the ones translated into English, talk about the period before or during the Cultural Revolution but do not focus on China's current affairs. As for works that do focus on current society, the ones that write about urban life are full of depictions of song and dance and wealth, while the ones set in the countryside depict the beautiful scenery. They do not touch upon the darkness of current reality. Under such a system, we cannot be ourselves. We become spiritual eunuchs and helpless bystanders. This is extremely painful. Your soul is not free."

"In this man-made system, the human has become a non-human. So if I just sat on the inside and kept watching, then I will also turn into a beetle, like in Franz Kafka's ‘The Metamorphosis.' The person from my past political life has passed. The person sitting in front of you is an ordinary man, a writer."

(Reporting by Sisi Tang, editing by Elaine Lies)

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