In China, writing reality as fiction – by Li Jingrui

A few years ago, Li Jingrui switched careers – she quit her job as a journalist (she reported on legal cases, and had a column in the Chinese edition of The Wall Street Journal) and turned to writing fiction. We selected her short story “Missing” for the Read Paper Republic series, and also featured it in our first Speed Book Club event. The story is about a young woman whose husband mysteriously disappears for a few months, and at the book club this opened up an amazing discussion, drawing comparisons with the wives of los desaparecidos in Chile. We also selected a non-fiction piece “One Day, One of the Screws Will Come Loose” by Li Jingrui for the 2nd Bai Meigui Translation Competition with the Writing Chinese project at the University of Leeds. For Global Literature In Libraries this month, we asked Li Jingrui to tell us about her transition from legal journalism to creative writing.

By Li Jingrui: “Missing” and “One Day, One of the Screws Will Come Loose”

In 2007 I moved to Beijing. It had been snowing heavily when I arrived, and the following day, when I went to register at the press bureau, there was a freshness in the air, blue sky, white clouds, and because of the Olympics, there were so many brand new buildings, and a heady scent from the lime trees lining both sides of the road – everything was brimming with hope. Ten years later, we rarely see snow in winter any more, and every month, yes, every month, I get a cough, and headaches, and complain about the smog. Almost all my colleagues from the bureau have left the industry, and are now working in PR, HR or non-stop business. I’m the only one still writing. In my eight-year career as a legal reporter, there wasn’t a single moment when I didn’t feel anxious and frustrated, whereas now all I have to do is sit in the study every day and calmly write as I please, because now what I’m writing are stories.

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Oracle Bones, by Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial)

It was after coming to Beijing that I first read Peter Hessler. I was visiting a friend, and saw a book on the sofa, which had a yellow-brown cover, with a yellow-brown mountain, and a yellow-brown river, and a little yellow-brown boat on the river. The title was Oracle Bones, so I assumed it was a book about archaeology. A few months later, when travelling abroad, I saw the same book at the airport in Singapore, and bought it. The English wasn’t so difficult to follow, but it still took me more than a couple of weeks, on and off, to read it. As expected, it was about archaeology, at least to start with, and Hessler even gives a detailed description of the Luoyang shovel. But, of course, it’s not only about archaeology, and when I reached the end of the book, I felt so angry, that I was learning now, for the very first time, about the life of Chen Mengjia, in a book written by an American. Hessler wrote that “When it was announced that faculty as well as students were to take part in daily collective calisthenics, he [Chen] paced the floor in circles while complaining loudly, “This is 1984 coming true, and so soon!” Oracle Bones hasn’t been published in China, but because of this book, people around me are gradually beginning to mention Chen Mengjia’s name, though in general, he remains someone screened off from history and from memory. This seems to have become his fate, both during his lifetime and after his death. We learn in Oracle Bones that when the Institute of Archaeology (Chinese Academy of Sciences) printed Chen Mengjia’s Our Country’s Shang and Zhou Bronzes Looted by American Imperialists as a restricted access edition for internal circulation, they did not even mention his name.

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River Town, by Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial)

A few months later, I read Hessler’s River Town, and this made me even angrier. I could see that there might be political reasons (a weak excuse) why a Chinese person hadn’t written Oracle Bones, … but River Town? Fuling isn’t far from where my family lives, and everything in the book was familiar: the damp air, the spicy food, the chaotic lives of people twisting and turning as fate calls, and their helplessness, ignorance and astonishing courage. The book mentions a big banner hanging at the entrance to the local theatre in Fuling: “The Futong Jewelry Store is the Sole Sponsor of Titanic, Which Has Been Recommended by President and Party Secretary Jiang Zemin”; and says that “when there were serious car accidents, people would rush over, shouting eagerly as they ran, ‘Sile meiyou? Sile meiyou?’—Is anybody dead? Is anybody dead?” There is one scene I will never forget, when Hessler has his students perform Hamlet, and those children, village kids from head to toe, who put on cheap suits and became the Prince of Denmark, spread newspaper on the ground before they died so as not to dirty their clothes. To be or not to be, that is the question. And that will always be the question, whether you are in a European royal palace in the eighth century, or rural China in the twentieth century. I’ve also written a book about my home town, but I didn’t write stories like that, stories with humor. Hessler wrote in River Town, “I could almost bear the falseness and the lies, but I could not forgive its complete absence of humor. China was a grim place once you took the laughter away.” But what can I do about it? Perhaps the comedians will have to come out and applaud themselves, because most of the time, I can only write dark, cold stories.

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Strange Stones, by Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial)

After his last book Strange Stones, Hessler left China, went to Egypt, then returned to America. My favourite story by him during this period is “Tales of the Trash”, about a refuse-worker in Cairo, and again, in the dark and cold, I could see the laughter. “Since we moved into the apartment, the country has cycled through three constitutions, three Presidents, four Prime Ministers, and more than seven hundred members of parliament. But there hasn’t been a single day when the trash wasn’t cleared outside my kitchen door.” The next time Hessler gathered his thoughts and described a country and its people, the Chinese media was heading downhill. The tide had turned towards self-media and start-ups, and there were limitations in the system. That wasn’t the only thing though, far from it. In that kind of Chinese language environment, to continue as a reporter is akin to acknowledging failure, and who, in middle age, wants to be associated with failure? It was exactly as Hessler wrote, “In the West, newspaper stories about China tended to focus on the dramatic and the political, and they emphasized the risk of instability, especially the localized protests that often occurred in the countryside. But from what I saw, the nation’s greatest turmoil was more personal and internal.”

Eight years ago, reading Oracle Bones, I envied Hessler’s fee: “The fee for a single published word in the New Yorker—more than two dollars—was enough to buy lunch in Beijing. With one long sentence, I could eat for a week.” These days I’ve lost interest in counting words. A friend told me that native advertising on a well-known public account on WeChat can bring in a far bigger annual profit than a journal with a circulation of 100,000. “How much are you talking about?” “20 to 30 million.” “Oh.” That was out entire conversation about counting words. The system killed the first half of the industry, and now we’re killing the second half ourselves.

I have no regrets about writing stories, it’s what I always wanted to do, and when I had no way of escaping the system, stories awakened my freer self, and the stories I couldn’t tell when I was a reporter, I can now give new life to in fiction. I have no desire to write about politics, and yet it annoys me that politics is taboo, and so I have written pieces like “Missing”, and “Northern Boulevard”, and perhaps there will be more in future. When you think about it, it’s absurd to have to put a fictional hat on reality, just like years ago, when Yang Xianhui could only publish his Memory of Jiabiangou and Records of Dingxi Orphanage in China if they were classified as fiction, although what he wrote is irrefutably Chinese history.

I still flick through Hessler’s books now and then, to see how he describes this country’s mixture of sadness, misery and dark humor. In the last ten years there have been huge changes in China, and it’s exactly as Hessler said: “in Beijing, sentimentality was often just a year away.” And yet, Hessler’s narrative hasn’t dated. The faster a river flows, the more difficult it is to catch a drop of water. And the changes have been fast: from news to literature, it seems in China that these industries are gradually being shoved aside by time. But in my mind, they are still the best jobs, and no matter how fast time flows, I will fish out the stories.

– translated by Helen Wang

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]

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