Words Bridge Worlds: A Chinese Nonfiction Roundtable
Ahead of the upcoming Sixth Tone China Writing Contest, Sixth Tone invited three of China’s most fascinating and boundary-pushing nonfiction practitioners — Chen Nianxi, Yuan Ling, and Zhang Huiyu — to take part in a roundtable discussion on Chinese nonfiction on March 6, 2022. The Chinese-language event was hosted by Lin Shiqi, a PhD candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Irvine.
For the benefit of readers unable to attend the event, we have excerpted and translated a portion of the conversation. To see the full recording, click here.
Zhang Huiyu: I think that learning how to write is the most formative part of education. Your choice of subject matter, the perspective from which you describe it, your judgments about it, and your theories as to why it is how it is all express who you are. For example, when you write from experience — when you take personal observations, put them down on the page, and share them with strangers — your writing becomes socialized, part of the collective consciousness.
For nonfiction writing specifically, what I’d like to emphasize is that it is a kind of participative writing. This is to say that I, as the writer, am highly self-aware throughout the creative process and am constantly present throughout my work. It is written by me and recounts the things that I see. I can only present my perspective. For example, in “China in One Village,” the author Liang Hong directly states that the work only reflects what she has seen in her hometown, and she doesn’t attempt to hide the relationship between herself and her interviewees. Self-awareness also means constantly reflecting on one’s role throughout the narration of the story. Am I imposing my own preferences and values on the subject of my writing?
Chen Nianxi: I think that literature’s most important purpose is to connect people. Most people’s understanding of the world around them, and even of the future, is based on literature rather than on dry historical sources. Today, we are inundated by information, as if there’s nothing we don’t know; people think the entire world is laid out transparently. I disagree. I think that every man is still his own island because we’re trapped within our own little information bubbles.
I’ll talk about two events in particular that left this impression on me. In 2015, I worked as a volunteer in the Migrant Workers’ Home, a non-governmental organization in Beijing’s Pi Village. As you may know, it’s a very Chinese setup. There’s a “migrant worker museum” there that displays many of the items that have been used in migrant work over the past 40 years. For example, temporary residence permits from different regions, different instruments of labor, carts, uniforms, and safety helmets, that sort of thing. Back in those days, they were all very humble objects. Once, when I went to visit, I discovered that these objects were very novel to many young people — say, people in their early 20s. Sometimes, they even struck the kids’ parents as foreign; they had no idea what they were used for. I was taken aback: 40 years is not so long ago. It was clear to me that people weren’t receiving the same information, even people in the same family, to the extent that there were kids who knew hardly anything about their parents’ generation, or the living conditions and experiences of their relatives.
The other event was in 2016, when I took part in a poetry exchange at Yale University. On that occasion, they played a documentary called “The Verse of Us,” which recounts the lives and fates of migrant workers since the advent of “reform and opening-up.” American audiences were fascinated: It was as if they were viewing something from another planet. This particularly touched me.
The path we’ve traveled in the past few decades is the same one that Americans took as they industrialized about a century ago. They should’ve been able to relate to many things in these workers’ inner lives. But I was wrong.
So, I think that literature — and, in particular, nonfiction — should serve the purpose of communication and connection. The information it conveys to strangers should offer insights into the lives and worlds of other people.
Chinese nonfiction was traditionally known as “reportage literature” (baogao wenxue, or jishi wenxue). But looking back now, this genre came with heavy baggage: Authors were restricted in terms of how they could represent things, and the pieces were very selective in terms of what they chose to remember and what they chose to forget. This baggage hampered their development. But I feel nonfiction today has overcome this by learning to be more insightful and focusing on expanding readers’ horizons. It doesn’t have any baggage, and is still charging ahead.
Yuan Ling: Personally, when writing nonfiction, one of the challenges I often face is the disparity between my own identity and that of my subject.
My father worked as a doctor who attended a vocational secondary school before completing a university degree as a “Worker-Peasant-Soldier student” during the Cultural Revolution. My mother is a farmer who only attended school for a few days before being called back to herd sheep. Our family could be said to be a “cross-class” union.
When I was little, I lived on the farm and helped work the land. Later, I lived with my father at the town hospital. Upon graduating from university, I found work as a journalist. In a short period of time, I went from living in a mountainside village to a small town, to the county seat, and then to a university on the other side of the country. I personally believe that my identity as an eternal outsider has helped me form connections with, and hear the stories of, people of different class backgrounds and identities.
Of course, this can be inconvenient. My experiences possibly prevent me from being able to truly seize the essence of a certain way of life. Take, for example, Chen Nianxi: He was originally a rural miner, so he has a powerful bond with this community and can offer profound insights into their adversities and strengths. His writing has a certain authenticity and impact.
Meanwhile, as someone whose profession consists of conveying others’ life experiences, my writing is like a series of concentric circles: from close friends and relatives to miners and farmers in my hometown, to classes and communities that are foreign to me — such as migrant workers, children, missing persons, and marginalized historical figures. So, I feel like the experiences I convey aren’t as specific or as impactful as Chen Nianxi’s. I can only do my best to do justice to my subjects.
Although I think that I don’t belong to any one particular social category, when you come into contact with someone with a particularly well-defined identity, it’s inevitable that they also attempt to define you. So, I think that your sense of identity shouldn’t be too strong — that is, the idea that you definitely belong to a specific social category, class, or value system. The second thing is, you need to recognize that you are two separate humans coming together. An interviewee isn’t just your subject or a canvas onto which you project certain social issues. Your concern for the subject can’t be purely based on your concern for a given social issue — I find that completely objectionable. If they don’t want to open up, that’s their choice, but we always have to be open to them.
If you find that nonfiction is unable to encapsulate your feelings, life experiences — that’s perhaps a good opportunity for fiction writing. If all of these experiences come together in a way that can be transposed and recontextualized, then they won’t lose their authenticity. They can grow to form their own world, like the branches of a tree, rather than a closed alleyway. Therefore, I think there shouldn’t be as many novels in the world as there are now. Instead, I think that a small number of novels should be produced on the basis of a large amount of nonfiction.
Fictional worlds in contemporary China are growing more and more confined, with novelists increasingly resorting to dramatizing their own family histories. What I want to know is, how can we create novels that have roots in nonfiction? That is, how we can ensure that novels are not limited to cynical twists and turns that pull on readers’ heartstrings for the sake of it, but which instead truly preserve different life experiences that provide us with diverse insights and challenge our perceptions, rather than sedating us with the same old escapist fantasies.
This pertains to two things: the accumulation of experience, which I spoke about before, but also language. The language used in Chinese novels nowadays is mollusk-like — spineless, gooey, lacking substance. If a novel uses thought-provoking language, if it even tries to step back into the critical tradition, it’ll be received poorly, as if it’s gone against or overstepped the line of what’s considered good fiction.
Lin Shiqi: What are the most difficult barriers to overcome when it comes to making connections? If we acknowledge the existence of these barriers in our writing, rather than pretending we can surmount them, are we doing a disservice to readers by allowing subjects to avoid the issue — or worse, by romanticizing the gap between writer and subject?
Yuan Ling: That’s quite a difficult question. If people are unwilling to tell their stories, then you absolutely have to respect that. Although I don’t like to adopt a cynical perspective of human relations in my writing, and while I hope that people can come together and open up to one another, there are indeed times in the writing process when you come up against stubborn subjects. If they don’t want to open up to you, you have to reflect that authentically in your work.
For example, I’m about to publish a novel based on the true story of an old man whose son was wrongfully accused of murder and who went to jail for several years. Upon his release, the old man went on another difficult journey of trying to get compensation from the state. He had a lot of pent-up anger and frustration. He was once the head of a district in Chongqing — a government official. When I met him, he was wearing very old clothes, with a badge of Chairman Mao. This epitomized the barrier between us. He suffered a deep injustice; at the same time, the badge showed me that he was living in the past, like a fossil. In the end, we couldn’t overcome this distance to engage in a meaningful dialog. So, in my novel, I had no choice but to truthfully document this fact, without making any value judgments.
I also wrote a feature about an old residential community in the Yimeng Mountains. Its traditions from the past, its modern-day poverty, as well as other complex factors that make it what it is: I wrote them all down without judgment.
So, when you’re truly unable to understand something, or when someone is unwilling to connect with you on a deeper level, what’s most important in those moments is conveying that truth respectfully. However, I think there’s no need to play up these gaps in understanding.
Chen Nianxi: It’s difficult to earn the trust of your sources. In one of my essays, I once wrote about how, in our digital age, matchmakers continue to play an important role in rural communities. On four or five occasions, I drove my motorbike to the matchmaker’s house, but there were many things that he was unwilling to discuss. Marriage is a very broad subject that can reflect many things, such as traditional value systems. There was the potential to write something really big, so I couldn’t help but feel somewhat disappointed. During the writing process, if I’m unable to obtain sufficient information, I may choose to simply present what I’ve found and tell the reader to make their own inferences — to expand upon it and create their own meaning.
So, when it comes to nonfiction, there’s some information that you can’t give, and some that you can’t get. That’s what makes it so hard.
Lin Shiqi: Do you think that the promotion of “migrant worker literature” is a form of exploitation of society’s least privileged? How should exploitation be defined?
Zhang Huiyu: Recently, there were a few extremely popular articles, “Nora in the Plains” and “Deliverymen, Trapped in the System,” or some of the reporting on that migrant worker who translates Heidegger, that, to a certain extent, were somewhat circus-like. I don’t think people read and share just because of the “circus-like” aspect of the story though — it’s also because people see themselves in these stories. Anxieties, fears; people feel as though they, too, are trapped — even if they may earn far more than the subjects they are reading about. This kind of empathy is not a bad thing.
Deep narratives fundamentally push back on fetishization. They often reflect the most implacable, insurmountable, and arduous problems of society. Even if you attempt to exoticize your subject, that tends to only work in the very short term — after a few days, or perhaps weeks, no one cares about the Heidegger guy anymore.
Yuan Ling: It’s common to exoticize. If you visit an inner-city village, where everyone lives in cramped confines, you’ll see there’s a certain degree of lawlessness and chaos — a feeling of liveliness and unpredictability. Readers who have long been tamed by the rules of modern society long for this. And it’s safe because you are keenly aware that you don’t actually live like them. That’s what generated this demand for working-class stories.
I think we rarely see real dialogs between intellectuals and the working class anymore. Public writing today tends to be either misery for misery’s sake, or just toothless family dramas and love tales. If you read Dostoevsky, you could clearly see how intellectuals’ cared about the less privileged. This is one of the reasons why Fan Yusu and Chen Nianxi are so popular: Their work isn’t all hardships and misery; it has a transcendental, poetic quality — a type of reflection that transcends boundaries of class and identity.
To learn more about the China Writing Contest, please click here.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: CSA-Printstock/iStock/VCG)