Liu Zhenyun in Present-Day Chinese Narrative

letras de Chile, 17th October, 2017
By Ramón Díaz Eterovic【Chile】
Translated by Gerardo Fernández Caballero【Mexico】

Chinese writer Liu Zhenyun, one of the most outstanding authors in present-day Chinese narrative, and whose work has been translated into around twenty languages, Spanish included. He was invited by the Confucius Institute in Chile to give talks in Arica and Santiago along with his daughter Liu Yulin, the director of a critically-acclaimed, award-winning movie based on his father’s works. The talk in Santiago was given at the National Congress’ former headquarters, where he talked about his origins as a writer, his studies of literature, and the main characteristics of his numerous works.

Liu Zhenyun (born 1958) was awarded the National Short-Story Prize in 1988 for his book A Small Town: Tapu (also known as College), and the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2011 for his novel Someone to Talk To. Part of his works can be located in what is called “new realism”, a trend in Chinese narrative that intends to account for the changes occurring in the country through daily-life stories of characters who try to find a purpose in life while struggling between tradition and modernity, and the values imposed by each. “New realism, in which Chinese literary critics locate Liu Zhenyun’s work, is characterized by its elimination of the boundaries between literature and reality,” points out Liljana Arsovska, academician of Colegio de México and Liu Zhenyun’s translator. “The writer, being only a vehicle reflecting reality, refrains from emitting personal judgments: He lets the characters speak for themselves; he lets ‘reality’ take place without forcing it or directing it; he restricts himself to registering it.”

A journey through three of his novels that have been translated into Spanish can start with I Did Not Kill My Husband, in which Liu Zhenyun criticizes bureaucracy and corruption, two evils that make one of the characters say, “Corruption, degeneration, and malpractice are problems that cause me the biggest headaches and have elicited the strongest reactions among the public. These problems are getting worse by the day […] Water can float a boat, it can also swamp it.” The story centers on Li Xuelian, a woman who has divorced from her husband in order to avoid the one-child policy and thus protect the daughter-to-be child she is expecting. The divorce is part of an agreement between her husband and herself and therefore presumed a fake; but her husband is of a different opinion and shortly afterwards marries another woman. From that moment on, Li Xuelian sets her mind on getting judicial support to declare the divorce false. But things are not easy for her: For years on end she travels across the different levels of governmental bureaucracy in search of what she wants. Li Xuelian portrays the prototype of a woman who is capable of breaking the barriers imposed by society and transforming her environment for a cause she considers right.

In his novel Cell Phone, Liu Zhenyun tells the story of Yan Shouyi, conductor of a television program who is notable for his fickle decisions, and who one day forgets his cell phone at home, triggering a series of changes in his life: His wife discovers he is cheating on her. He then has problems with his lover too, and finally ends up with a third girl with whom things do not go well either. All this—plus a series of good parallel stories—is told in a comical tone, but if we look past the irony and humor we can have a glance at present-day Chinese society: the way in which social and economic relationships develop, the desire for power and fast money; material and technological changes that happen in people’s lives all of a sudden, like a tornado stripping them of meaning and value. In the novel, almost everybody tells lies and plays the game of appearances; many characters look for contacts to help them get better jobs. The few ones who seem to see things clearly are the characters who live in small villages, and old people, who still live at a different pace—out of the overwhelming desire for material things and success that may vanish the next day.

Liu Zhenyun shows us a society where there are more means of communication, but not necessarily more or better communication. Couples communicate all day long, but they do not really say anything to each other; and, what is even worse—what happens to the protagonist—messages are often misunderstood. Private life has disappeared; intimacy can transform into a public scene; lies become increasingly harder to cover. Cell Phone is a nice and attractive novel; its structure and development follow the line of a story that keeps flowing from one situation to another, each one more interesting than the previous. The novel is a well-accomplished portrait of a social sector of China: one fascinated by technology and consumerism, but fragile in the building of solid relationships.

On a different line we find the novel Remembering 1942, which the experts in the subject locate in what is called “new historical novel”, a trend in Chinese narrative that has seen significant growth since 1990. In general terms, this kind of novels describe different episodes of contemporary Chinese history, not from the great historical figures’ or events’ perspective, but rather from the testimony of common people who witnessed the events or experienced them first-hand. In Remembering 1942, Liu Zhenyun uses interviews and press articles about the famine and subsequent locust plague that devastated Henan province in the years 1942-1943, causing the death by hunger of more than three million people. In those years, China was governed by the Nationalist Party, with Chiang Kai-shek as its chairman, and much of its territory under Japanese occupation because of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which lasted from 1937 to 1945. For many years, the Chinese famine of 1942 was an omitted episode in several historic records.

In 1942, Henan province suffers an intense and prolonged draught that affects wheat and other cereal crops drastically. The situation is serious, but nobody, including leader Chiang Kai-shek, seems to worry about it; the government is more interested in war and in confronting the Communist Party. Taxes were still being charged to the impoverished farmers, who, moreover, had to contribute with forage to feed the army’s animals. Disgrace falls upon peasants when the lack of food becomes evident; there are thirty million people under extreme situations.

Liu Zhenyun describes all this with careful detail and based on documents of the time. He talks at length about the manifestations of famine and the reactions of the people, who have to resort to feeding on leaves, tree bark, and domestic animals—there are even cases of murder for a ration of wheat. He also describes the painful scenes where starving peasants attempt to go out of the village using the train or setting off in long, desperate walks. Liu Zhenyun’s tale is startling. In one chapter, he tells us that, “When there was no more bark, weeds, or kindling to eat, people sold their children, family members with say-so selling off those over whom they had control. At times like this, compassion, kinship, customs, and morality no longer mattered, as the only thing on the people’s mind was food. Hunger reigned supreme. A nine-year-old boy could fetch four hundred yuan, two hundred for a four-year-old boy. Young women were sold into brothels and young men like my uncle were press ganged.” The first help for the starvers comes from a number of foreign religious missions; later, the government comes in as well, though with the same degree of indifference shown until then. However, many of the government’s help plans end up being ineffective due to bureaucrats’ negligence; as Liu Zhenyun points out, Chiang Kai-shek’s help order was “a publicity farce to show his actions to the people, to the world, to the foreigners and their governments.”

Fifty years after these events, Liu Zhenyun went back to his natal province and obtained the testimonies that nurture his tale. His eyes are set on their direct protagonists, many of whom saw their families destroyed forever. His book is among the heart-touching stories that account for the horror to which humankind was subject during the twentieth century.

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