Emily Parker talks with Yiyun Li about self-censorship in China, the line between fact and fiction, and whether it’s possible to create good art under a repressive regime.
Emily Parker photo by Ronna Gradus / Yiyun Li photo by Roger Turesson
In May of last year, the novelist Yiyun Li sent me a message on Twitter. “I have a novel coming out about poisoning,” she wrote.
Li was contacting me in reference to an article, “The 20-Year-Old Crime That’s Blowing Up on Chinese Social Media,” that I had just written for The New Republic. The article was about a woman named Zhu Ling, who was poisoned by thallium in the 1990s when she was a student at Tsinghua University. Zhu Ling survived, but is paralyzed and reliant on her parents for care. To this day, nobody has been convicted of the crime. Many Chinese Internet users believe that Zhu was poisoned by her roommate, Sun Wei, who was saved by her family’s political connections. There is still so much outrage over the case that last year, following another, unrelated poisoning case, commentary on Zhu Ling erupted on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo. The interest was so intense that it seemed to make authorities nervous: at one point Zhu Ling’s name was censored on Weibo. And yet, to my surprise, my New Republic article was translated into Chinese and retweeted 125,000 times on Weibo.
The Zhu Ling case is described in my forthcoming book, Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, which is about how the Internet is transforming lives in China, Cuba, and Russia. Yiyun Li’s new novel, Kinder Than Solitude, also prominently features a poisoning mystery. I was struck by that similarity in our two books, both out in February, as well as other shared themes.
Although my book is non-fiction and Li’s is a novel, both of us look closely at contemporary China and explore how ordinary people are affected by politics, whether they realize it or not.
—Emily Parker for Guernica
Emily Parker: Is your new book based at all on the Zhu Ling poisoning case, or is it just a coincidence?
Yiyun Li: It’s not based on the Zhu Ling case, but I’m very familiar with it. I think this case has always been in the back of my mind, and it seems to me that it has a lot of significance to a whole generation of Chinese.
Emily Parker: Can you tell me about that? The case has all these elements of intrigue, but the fact that people are so obsessed with it, twenty years later—I’m really curious why you think that is.
Yiyun Li: I don’t know why. There is something about Zhu Ling’s case that nobody can let go. Zhu Ling went to this school which was really similar to my high school, and she went to the university next to my university. Her background was similar to many students growing up in Beijing. It seems there is a generational or group decision in China that she will never be forgotten. I was glad to see the case covered in your New Republic article, and also that the article was tweeted so many times in China.
Emily Parker: The reason I wrote the New Republic piece is because I saw the story of the poisoning case was blowing up on Weibo, so much so that Zhu Ling’s name was being censored on Weibo. It seems that this is really about justice. People feel that justice was never delivered in her case. There’s a lack of closure, this sense that nobody ever paid for it. And in my book I quote a blogger who says that “Chinese people don’t care about freedom, but they do care about justice.” I’m curious what that statement means to you, if anything.
Yiyun Li: I actually marked that line in your book. And I thought, Is that true? And is that true also here in America? Does justice occupy the same space in Americans’ minds? And in China, why is justice more important than freedom?
In China, your freedom is always limited, but this limitation applies to almost everyone. If someone does injustice to you, though, you have to find a way to avenge yourself—even by illegal measures. In a sense, injustice is more personal. This idea has always been in Chinese history. I think we read about freedom of speech, or lack of freedom of speech, in China so often. But I don’t think people here in America think about how justice, or the idea of justice, is so important in a Chinese setting. It’s probably more important than freedom of speech in the Chinese mindset at this moment.
Emily Parker: The blogger who told me Chinese people care more about freedom than justice was saying—to paraphrase the idea—“Look, to some people if you say words like ‘Internet freedom,’ it’s not going to mean anything. But it is going to mean something when they are not able to freely use the Internet to get justice.” In other words, some people in China don’t look at freedom of speech as an abstract ideal, but more as a means to an end. As in: this official did something bad to me, someone wronged my friend, and I can’t talk about it or write about it online, my posts are being censored, and so justice can’t be done. He was saying, I think, that Chinese people will protest against these specific injustices, but they will not protest just for the sake of free speech.
Yiyun Li: I think that’s exactly right.
Emily Parker: One theme that comes through really strongly in your book, and in your other work as well, is this idea of collective, societal guilt. Even the people who don’t commit the crime are guilty.
Yiyun Li: If people don’t speak up against a crime, they are guilty. In my novel one girl didn’t speak up, as she was trapped or manipulated by this other young girl. It was nearly impossible for her to speak up, but still, her silence contributed a lot to another character’s fate. Whether she chose to be a good person or not mattered less, as her actions influenced others. This is not a situation only for a Chinese character. No one is immune from either taking the wrong action or not taking action at all, but the sense that something is completely out of a person’s control is stronger in China.
As a fiction writer I’m always curious about flawed characters. I think for the same reason I find it interesting that in your book, the bloggers in China are very well balanced because they are not heroes and they are not villains. I think in the political setting—even in the setting of Internet freedom—it’s quite easy for people to become “good” or “bad.” We tend to see these people become two-dimensional, and your book has avoided that.
Emily Parker: There tends to be this narrative: “The heroic dissident blogger fighting the terrible regime!” And I didn’t really want to go there. I don’t think it’s very realistic. I tried to show different kinds of bloggers in China. There are people who are willing to work within the system, and people who don’t want to work with the system at all. The bloggers in my book are split into those two camps. There are people in China who don’t see the point of a confrontational approach.
Yiyun Li: I heard something similar from Yan Lianke. He writes audaciously about the Communist Party, and he said there is a line you don’t cross, otherwise you go to jail. And I find that interesting that he knows where the line is. I don’t know where the line is.
If you look at every revolution in Chinese history in the past century, or fifty years, nobody is really innocent. And everybody contributes something to the system, and everybody suffers from the system.
Emily Parker: This raises a much bigger question about writing on China. There’s this dilemma, and I’ve heard both sides of the argument. One side says writers who work inside China are trying to open up the country by creating art on the inside, and will exercise creativity within certain constraints. And then there’s the other side of the argument, which comes from the kind of writer who says, “You can’t create art in this environment, and I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to let you cut my work, and I’m not going to think about clever ways to get around the line.” Some writers like that choose to write for a Western audience. What are your thoughts on that?
Yiyun Li: I don’t write in Chinese, so of course I don’t belong to the first group. Does the fact that I write in English put me into the second group? I don’t think so. I would put it this way: I often forget that I actually write about China. I know I write about China. But I don’t think that’s my major concern. In this novel, for instance, what I’m really concerned with are these three characters. I could imagine these three young people in any country. The kind of psychological violence people inflict upon each other, that’s interesting to me.
Emily Parker: This might seem like a silly question, but if you don’t think China is your major concern when writing, why do you write about China?
Yiyun Li: Why do I write about China? That is a very good question [laughs]. I think there are questions about China that I haven’t been able to answer. The reason I write is that there are questions to which I want to find answers—or I want to find questions beyond those questions.
Emily Parker: What kinds of questions?
Yiyun Li: For instance, this collective guilt. Who’s guilty for doing what. And it’s not only about this murder case. If you look at every revolution in Chinese history in the past century, or fifty years, nobody is really innocent. And everybody contributes something to the system, and everybody suffers from the system.
My question for you is this: You wrote that sometimes a blogger would get arrogant and say, “You don’t understand China.” And I think people would say the same thing to me, “You don’t know China, you haven’t been living there.” So how do you maneuver this?
Emily Parker: With difficulty. One of the easiest ways to get the “you don’t understand China” response is to play devil’s advocate and say things like, “Well, the other side of that argument would be…” But what I’ve learned in many years of writing about China is that, “You don’t understand China,” is often another way of saying, “You don’t agree with me about China.” People have very fixed narratives, especially in the political sphere. That’s a theme that I explore in my book—that some people, even on the pro-democracy side, have an almost authoritarian way of expressing their views. It’s either you agree with me, or you’re wrong.
There’s a scene in my book where a blogger doesn’t understand the concept of devil’s advocate. For some people on the pro-democracy side in China, any argument that seems sympathetic to communism makes them really angry. The one thing I would say in their defense is that some of them feel like they are in an embattled minority. The pro-communist point of view is expressed in the media, it’s expressed on television. Some dissidents don’t feel like they need to engage it. They don’t want to listen to a devil’s advocate.
Yiyun Li: Here’s a question. Your book is dealing with real people in China. I am dealing with characters. Are the people in your book good at listening? Are they good at hearing things?
Emily Parker: Some are better at listening than others. One blogger became a much better listener in the course of the ten years that I knew him, and even came to admit that his previous way of arguing was rather black-and-white, and not very tolerant of opposing views. He grew up speaking the language of communism, and even after he became a dissident, he was still using a similar manner of speech.
I do feel, however, that sometimes in the debate over Chinese censorship, the two sides aren’t really listening to one another. It’s like when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize, and people immediately attacked him for being a stooge of the communist party, and some of the people who were attacking him didn’t seem to have read his work. In that sense, I don’t think people were listening to what he was trying to say or how he was trying to say it. What did you think of the whole controversy?
Yiyun Li: Personally, I measure Mo Yan by the merits of his work. I wrote a review that is not positive—but based on his work.
Emily Parker: What don’t you like about his work?
Yiyun Li: There’s this group of Chinese male writers of that age who write very sensual sex scenes as if that is their rebellion against the regime.
Emily Parker: I’ve heard that criticism of certain Chinese writers: graphic sexuality, excess brutality, grotesqueness. Where do you think that comes from?
Yiyun Li: I don’t know. But in my novel The Vagrants, there was this one scene where the woman was executed and raped. Her body was mutilated. It was a violent scene, but I wrote it in a non-violent way. It’s not in my nature to write things in a visual way. And I found that people reacted strongly, both American readers and Chinese readers, saying it’s a bleak and dark portrayal of human nature.
But when you go further, when you write something to the extreme, as Mo Yan did in Pow!, with all sorts of mutilations and bodily functions going on, people start to not take it seriously. They think: “This is not real, this is just not real.”
I don’t think any writer from any country should have an obligation to represent something other than literature.
Emily Parker: Do you think a writer like Mo Yan, writing inside China, who has an elevated status with a lot of readers, has an obligation to take a political stand? That’s what many other people are criticizing him for: “By not taking a political stand, you are complicit.” Is that fair?
Yiyun Li: I don’t think writers have to take a political stand. I do think he made extremely unwise comments on many topics that he would have been better not to comment on. For instance, he made a case for the necessity of censorship in China with the example that he had to go through security at the Swedish airport (but not at the airport in China, as the original comment seemed to indicate). I don’t think any writer from any country should have an obligation to represent something other than literature, but to speak as he did, you could almost argue he did take a political stand, which is to collaborate with and defend the system.
Emily Parker: I know your books are not published in China, but you must have Chinese readers anyway. Do you have readers on the mainland? Do you ever hear from them?
Yiyun Li: My books are not translated. I think there are Chinese readers, but more in America than in China.
Emily Parker: Do you think there are differences between how an American reader and a mainland Chinese reader would respond to your work?
Yiyun Li: A reader doesn’t come to the work transparently. A reader has in his or her mind how he or she wants to interpret it. And I think our eyes are trained to look for what we want to see. It’s the same everywhere. You would go to a European country and all they want to talk to me about was democracy. Because that’s what they wanted me to be. There are Chinese readers who get really upset because they think I am anti-communist, or worse, anti-China.
Emily Parker: Do people say that you are anti-China?
Yiyun Li: All the time. It’s mostly Chinese readers in the U.S. You are trained as a journalist. You’ve probably seen people with such ideas, and these automatic reactions. And your book—is your book going to be translated into Chinese?
Emily Parker: I just don’t know. I really tried to be fair, to give all the different sides of the story. But censorship works in terms of sensitive words. There are sensitive words in my book. My experience with the Zhu Ling piece was the first time I felt that I actually reached Chinese readers. I used to feel like in writing for Western publications, in English, you were writing for a Western audience and hardly anyone in China would ever read it. And China is so unpredictable! If you had asked me beforehand about that particular piece, I would have said, This piece will be censored, nobody in China will see it. And yet, for some reason, someone made a decision that the piece was harmless, at least for a period of time. It was an amazing experience.
Yiyun Li: I think the popularity of your piece is interesting. Your piece confirmed people’s belief that there is a huge injustice in this case, and it should not ever be let go.
Emily Parker: You write in English. But language shapes writing to some extent.
Yiyun Li: Yes, quite so. I don’t write in Chinese. I don’t imagine I would ever write in Chinese.
Emily Parker: When you were younger did you ever write short stories in Chinese?
Yiyun Li: No. I was a very good scientist [laughs]. When I was in the army, I could write the propaganda better than anyone else… So my squad leader would say, “You either write a speech for me, or you clean the toilet.” I’d always say, “I’ll write for you.” So I could use that language—Chinese—but it was a horrible experience for me. Horrible that you could write in a language so well, but have nothing meaningful to say.
Emily Parker: I’ve heard Chinese writers say that there’s so much censorship in China that people have actually become more creative, because they have to find innovative ways to get around this censorship. And you see this on the Internet. There will be a banned word and people find incredibly creative ways to say that word in a different way. People have to create their own shared language, and some say that makes the language more rich.
Then you have other people who say that’s ridiculous, that censorship is poisoning the language. That it’s not just about a publisher censoring your words. It’s self-censorship. It’s that as you’re writing, you’re thinking, “I could say this but it’s probably better to say it another way.” So my question for you is: Can great literature come from inside China in the current moment? At a time when there is intense censorship of language?
Yiyun Li: That’s a good question. One example that comes to mind is Milan Kundera. When he was writing before the Velvet Revolution, I think his work was much stronger because he wrote from within that system. And I don’t know if it’s the pressure—that when you put the lid on the pot, the pressure is to the point that you can create great literature. This example argues that great literature can be written within the system.
My reservation about China is that I haven’t seen enough convincing examples of that at this moment. I met this young woman. She says she writes two sets of writing, one for publication and one for herself. And that probably is an example, as you said, of censorship killing literature. She doesn’t take seriously her published writing.
Isolation in China is partly from people being pushed too close together, yet without enough trust.
Emily Parker: Self-censorship becomes a mindset. And you can justify it to yourself: I want this to be published, I want it to reach a large audience, and so I will use this word instead of another one. And people don’t even realize they are doing it.
Yiyun Li: Then it becomes a game. When you become part of a game, playing the game becomes the point. But do you think American writers don’t censor themselves?
Emily Parker: Of course, some do. The United States isn’t immune to this phenomenon. Censorship exists in so many different forms. If you are writing non-fiction, for example, you are going to think, “What group is this going to offend?” Maybe it’s political correctness. There are some things that are difficult to say in the U.S., but in China it’s more institutionalized. And the stakes are higher. In China there are really dire consequences for saying certain things. I don’t think the U.S. is on the same level.
Yiyun Li: That’s true. One of the people quoted in your book said that his parents told him not to trust anyone. And another made a similar comment. That’s a theme I picked up: distrust.
Emily Parker: Yes, distrust, and isolation. And isolation is such a big theme in your book as well. I feel like the three main Chinese characters in your book are all profoundly isolated. And even in the title of your novel, Kinder than Solitude, the idea of isolation is very strong. Everyone is atomized. And I find that there really is a sense of isolation in China. One doesn’t think of China as an isolated place because there are just so many people, and so little privacy.
Yiyun Li: I realize I’m going to make a generalized statement, which is never good, but I think people are not aware of the extent of their isolation in China. My two characters in America—they are isolated, too, but they choose to be isolated. They are aware of that situation.
It is complicated in China because it is not a country that emphasizes individualism. So isolation is tricky there. The line between being a private person and being an isolated person is blurry. It is a Chinese tradition that everyone has to be in everyone else’s life. As one character in my novel said, “Why can’t people just mind their own business?” Isolation in China, I think, is partly from people being pushed too close together, yet without enough trust.
Emily Parker: Do you think part of the isolation comes from the fact that so much is unspoken? 1989 is in the background of your book, and people aren’t really talking to each other about it, and people are afraid.
Yiyun Li: 1989 was one of the biggest historical events in Chinese collective memory, but if you think about other countries and other cultures, much remains unspoken. Look at the American women in the book club in my novel. They come together because they are too isolated in their own experiences of life, but when they sit together they are afraid to admit how lonely they feel, so they put up a façade.
I think the isolation in China also has to do with people’s memories being wiped out, collective memories as well as individual memories, by the fact that the recent history has been constantly rewritten and revised.
Emily Parker: I go back to Beijing now and I find that it’s changed so much, and the places I once knew when I lived there no longer exist. There’s not much of a connection to the past, it’s very disorienting. And in your book, I also feel a nostalgia for the old Beijing. You have this woman in your novel who takes pictures of the old Beijing. When’s the last time you were back there?
Yiyun Li: 2008. It’s been a while. When I went back I did not know any place. It’s most disorienting for me. I also miss the old Beijing. I don’t usually put myself into a book, but the whole nostalgia about the past probably came from me.
Emily Parker: Your new book has some political content, but it’s not that direct. Theoretically, it could be sold in China. It would probably have to be changed a little bit, but it’s not that controversial. So are you going to try to get it published in China? Are you interested in the idea of having mainland Chinese readers?
Yiyun Li: That’s a good question. To me that’s a very difficult decision, because then I would have to rewrite everything in Chinese.
Emily Parker: You wouldn’t trust a translator.
Yiyun Li: I would be wary about having my work translated into Chinese by another translator. It’s a different situation if you rely on a translator to translate the book into a foreign language, but into your mother tongue is complicated. I feel that this is a decision I have to make somewhere down the line.
Emily Parker: Would you ever write a novel fully set in America, with American characters?
Yiyun Li: In this novel I have American characters and part of it is set in America. The longer you live in a place, like you with Beijing, you start to know the place more, to develop a closer relationship with the place. With the experience of raising my children here in America, I start to get to know the country.
Emily Parker: Let me ask you a version of the question that you asked me: Do you think that there is censorship in the United States? What’s your feeling, living here? What do you think about the state of freedom of expression in the U.S.?
Yiyun Li: Overall there may be less censorship in America than in China, but censorship and self-censorship are not only from political pressure, but also pressures from other places in a society. In China, as you said, the stake is this: Can you survive this regime if you don’t censor yourself? Here, people are very afraid of offending other people. I don’t know if you have that experience. Even though Chinese people do self-censor, in general they are less polite.
Emily Parker: They are more direct.
Yiyun Li: There is a certain amount of politeness here in America, which is probably more than just politeness.
Emily Parker: I saw you tweeted about my article about Western self-censorship in China, and I wondered what struck you about that piece.
Yiyun Li: I feel that part of the argument for self-censorship among Westerners in China is exactly the same argument that some Chinese writers maintain. What’s interesting to me is that people are more or less the same. If you put a Western reporter in China, he has to adapt to that environment, and adopt similar logic.
You can write about a country without taking a stand, but you cannot write about a country without noting that there’s history, and that there’s politics.
Emily Parker: Although what’s different is that if you are a Western reporter, it is not okay to admit that you are doing this. There’s such a taboo around it. If you ask a Chinese person, do you self-censor, they might say, “Of course! Who wouldn’t? This is China!” Even pro-democracy dissident types will admit they self-censor, and some of them will say it with a certain degree of pride, like they are gaming the system. The logic is, “If I didn’t self-censor, I would be in jail, and then I wouldn’t be effective at all.” In the West it is considered just so shameful, this idea that you would change your words in order to appease China. People really, really don’t like to talk about it here. So there are two levels of self-censorship. There’s the self-censorship that I talk about in the article, and then there’s the self-censorship that prevents people from even admitting that they self-censor.
Yiyun Li: In that sense, self-censorship is more black-and-white here in America than it is in China.
Emily Parker: How so?
Yiyun Li: Because here, self-censorship is a moral issue.
Emily Parker: To return to something we touched on earlier, can you write about China and stay out of politics? Is it possible to write about this country without taking a stand in some way?
Yiyun Li: You can write about a country without taking a stand, but you cannot write about a country without noting that there’s history, and that there’s politics going on. To me, that’s the same if you write about America. You don’t have to write about politics, but the politics have to be present in the characters.
Emily Parker is the author of Now I Know Who My Comrades Are: Voices from the Internet Underground, which is published this month by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She is currently digital diplomacy advisor and senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Previously, she was a member of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff, where she focused on digital diplomacy, Internet freedom, and open government. Before joining the State Department, she was an Op-Ed editor at the New York Times and an editorial writer and Op-Ed editor at the Wall Street Journal in Asia and the United States. She has lived and worked in China and Japan, and speaks Chinese, Japanese, French, and Spanish.
Yiyun Li’s new novel is Kinder Than Solitude: A Novel. She is also the author of two story collections, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, and a novel, The Vagrants. A native of Beijing and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and the Guardian First Book Award. Granta named her one of the best American novelists under thirty-five, and The New Yorker named her one of twenty U.S. writers under forty to watch. Her work has been translated into over twenty languages and has appeared in The New Yorker, A Public Space, The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at the University of California, Davis.