This worldwide Chinese diaspora has changed the Chinese literary landscape and transformed what it means to be a Chinese author, to the point where much of the most robust "Chinese" literature is no longer even written in Chinese. In just the past decade, Chinese émigré authors who have adopted other languages have gained prominent seats in the world's literary pantheon. Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, written in French, was an immediate best-seller in France and won five prizes. Anchee Min's 1994 English-language memoir, Red Azalea, was named a "Notable Book" of the year by the New York Times, and Ji-li Jiang's Red Scarf Girl, also a memoir written in English, won a number of children's book awards in America, including a gold Parents' Choice Award in 1998. Jung Chang's Wild Swans has sold nearly eight million copies since it was first published in Britain in 1991. Lulu Wang's debut Dutch-language novel, The Lily Theater, became a publishing sensation in Holland.
Yet how has this flowering been perceived by those left behind in China? Perhaps it hasn't even been noticed. Four years after U.S.-based Ha Jin won a National Book Award and three years after France-based Gao Xingjian was honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature, the work of these two internationally hailed Chinese authors is still largely unseen inside China. Sadly, the China-born authors now emerging on the world's literary stage remain largely unknown inside their native country. Some are still banned.
Nobel laureate Gao pre-sented Liu Zaifu, who left China in 1989 and was one of Gao's early advocates, with one of the three gold medals he received from the Swedish academy. Liu, a literary critic residing in the U.S. state of Colorado and a former director of the literature department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, explains why exile in the West has played such a key role in the life of émigré writers: "After fleeing from China, life was hard. We had to adjust to a new culture at a late age. Gao didn't have a job and tried to survive by selling his paintings. Another author, Ah Cheng, did everything from auto repair to fast-food delivery. 'What does America mean to me?' Ah Cheng asked himself and found that it was simply the entitlement to freedom."
Exiled authors like Gao and Liu travel the world, living in a fusion of cultures. Their somewhat marginalized life in the West allows them to think about religion, faith, history and culture, and to search for their spiritual home. "Our perspectives have changed," says Liu. "In China, we had struggled between life and death in different political movements and already had a deep understanding of China and humanity. The displacement and exile has set our minds free!" But exile strips émigré authors of their natural place of belonging. Liu, one of the most admired authors in China in the 1980s, has been banned on the mainland for more than 10 years and is gradually being forgotten. Though his newer books have found publishers in China again in the past year, he has lost much of his influence. Apart from the fact that Liu's name may not be mentioned in the Chinese media, today's Chinese readers are more interested in pragmatic issues than in the abstract philosophical questions that Liu has spent his life exploring.
Chinese emigre authors who received advanced education in the West are more likely to write in English. Both Ha Jin and Jung Chang hold doctorates from Western universities, and Da Chen, author of Colors of the Mountain, received a law degree from Columbia University. Anchee Min completed a master's in fine arts at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Authors who stick with the Chinese language, such as Hong Ying and Ma Jian, are able to get Western exposure thanks to diligent translators. Ma's girlfriend, Flora Drew, and Hong's husband, Henry Zhao, are their avid advocates and translators. Ma stubbornly defends his unwillingness to read or write in English: "I believe one might benefit from reading great works in English. But I haven't tried to learn English at all. I'm a genius. I write because of my talents and inspiration. I don't need another language."
Geling Yan, author of The Lost Daughter of Happiness, was already a critically acclaimed writer before moving to the U.S. in 1989. Her husband, linguist Lawrence A. Walker, is the English translator of her first book published in America. Yan wanted to switch to writing in English but found the transition difficult. "The youth of my generation," she says, "was wasted in reciting from Mao's Little Red Book. I learned English rather late. As for Chinese, I already had my own style." Just last year, after living in the U.S. for more than a decade, Yan began screenwriting for Hollywood in English.
Anchee Min says her decision to write in English was a matter of survival. When she moved to America in 1985, her written Chinese was limited to slogans and big-character posters. "Since both languages are new," she thought then, "perhaps it makes more sense to learn English since I'm in America." Min has written four books in English but still thinks and takes notes in Chinese. Chinese-American author Lisa See comments that "even though Min's English isn't 'perfect,' that roughness is very refreshing."
Unlike Min, I have shifted in my writing from Chinese to English for the sake of creativity. Although I've been publishing in Chinese since age 14 and am more fluent and comfortable in Chinese, English enables me to write without self-censorship and worries about cultural land mines.
When I returned to Beijing in 1999 after six years in Berkeley, California, a Chinese reader scolded me for switching to English. "What's the point of laboring 10 years to write a novel in English when you could have published more books for starved Chinese readers in your mother tongue and let the translators do the rest of the work? Nowadays, authors can get famous much more easily in China than in America." He is somewhat right. The bookstores in China are always packed, while the average Borders bookstore in America is the most peaceful place in town. Compared to America's saturated literary market, China's is hungry for talent. Often, Chinese authors are treated like stars. After I wrote a best-selling Chinese-language book about Berkeley, I went to Beijing to visit family and friends. At the Beijing airport, journalists pointed cameras at me and college students waved posters. Some readers even had me autograph their T shirts.
To escape that sort of idolatry, I write in English. Readers' adulation and expectations can be a burden for an author and lead to self-censorship. In English, I feel no expectations from old fans and no negative cultural associations. The 26 letters of the English alphabet make me a child againnaive, bold, fearless, primal. I can profane, question and break the stranglehold of traditional Chinese culture. English is my rite of passage.
When I finished my first English-language novel, Lili, in 1998, it took me three years to find an American publisher. During that time, agents and publishers suggested that I publish Lili as a biography or memoir instead of as fiction. The commercial success of Nien Cheng's Life and Death in Shanghai, Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Adeline Yeh Mah's Falling Leaves had proved that memoirs about China sell. When I refused to change categories, I was turned down. But when Ha Jin's novel Waiting became a best-seller in the U.S., my luck changed. In fact, Pantheon Books, the same New York publisher that brought out Waiting, published Lili.
Yet success oustide China does not always translate into success on the mainland. Min's manuscripts are being rejected by Chinese publishers. "The Chinese who have gone through what I have gone through," Min says, "would have a better understanding of my writing than Western readers. But, ironically, they don't necessarily appreciate my exposing the truth. My books are like mirrors. Readers in China find their reflections unflattering. I don't think Chinese critics and readers will be ready for my work until they achieve something fundamental in their lives: an honest attitude and an independent mind. Although my American readers only know China on a very basic level, they are capable of independent thinking, and you can't fool them."
Min enjoys freedom and recognition in America, but in return she has given up her Chinese market. Young Chinese journalists only became aware of her name when American film director Oliver Stone, one of their idols, came to China with the idea of turning Red Azalea into a movie. The plan was dropped by the end of his trip.
Yan is one of the few émigré authors with a readership in both the West and China. In the past five years, however, her focus has been on the West. She thinks the Chinese market has become too commercial and low brow. "I don't really care how many readers I have in China," she says. "I only care how many of them are people with taste."
Yan's other frustration is that few Chinese publishers abide by their contracts. "There's no way for authors to keep track of their sales records," she says. "Even worse, Chinese publishers sometimes publish your work without telling you." It has never been easy for authors to make money in China. A regular Chinese book costs only $2, and a print run of 20,000 is considered good for a novel written by a well-known author. With an 8% royalty, an author can expect to make only about $3,200a pittance in comparison with what can be made in the American market, where Da Chen received a $400,000 advance for his debut novel, Colors of the Mountain.
Wang Shuo, who has to his credit several screenplays and numerous novels (including Playing for Thrills and Please Don't Call Me Human), is one of the rare Chinese authors who has made his fortune by writing for the domestic Chinese market. "I've always written for money until this novel that I'm working on now," he says. "I finally don't have to write for the market!"
Wang claims to be the freest-minded author in China but admits that there are many restrictions on what Chinese authors can write about. "I can't mention Mao, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) or Muslims." He shakes his head when asked whether Mo Yan and Li Rui, two mainland authors favored by American and Swedish sinologists, are as free as he is. "No," he says. "They both love the peasants so much that they start to beautify them. Are Chinese peasants really that nice? Mo Yan and Li Rui are both nostalgic about the poor days of China. But I think poor Chinese people have the right to be corrupted by material wealth. To me, freedom means being unbiased and original. Authors shouldn't stereotype a group of people. In that regard, they aren't nearly free."
Each year, China publishes almost 180,000 titles, half of which are textbooks. (The U.S., by contrast, publishes about 60,000 new titles annually.) The publishing industry is China's third-largest taxpayer, behind the tobacco and liquor industries. Because of the huge potential of China's book market, international publishing groups like Bertelsmann are waiting to pounce.
Yang Kui, an editor at the Writers' Publishing House, one of Beijing's leading publishers, tells me that he has a high appreciation for literature, "but we are living in a transitional era. What does that mean? The likelihood of seeing masterpieces is narrow," he says. "We have neither the time nor the financial capacity to support unknown novelists. We have to care about pragmatic issues."
What are those pragmatic issues? "Since all the publishing houses are state-owned, making the government and the Ministry of Propaganda happy is the most important thing," he says. "We need books with the correct political tone to win government awards. Once we are awarded some prizes, we can get benefits, like unlimited ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers). It simply means money. Besides appealing to the government, we have to take aim at the market. Our books must sell. Literary books are our last concern."
Author Wang Shuo has mixed feelings about the Chinese publishers he has worked with. "They're all profit-seeking. They use me and I use them. Most of the time, they care only about making big money. They have a huge first print run of my book. Afterwards, they don't bother printing 10,000 copies per year because it's small money. That's why you can hardly buy my previous books now."
Because publishing is considered part of the state's ideological apparatus, each year the government allocates a certain number of ISBNs to state-owned publishing houses. One way for publishers to generate profit is by selling ISBNs to the private sector. An ISBN can be sold for $2,000 to $4,000. Although this is illegal, according to China's General Administration of Press and Publication, it is common practice among Chinese enterprises.
Vestiges of censorship in China and the blockbuster-driven nature of the publishing business encourage many Chinese authors to write knockoffs of foreign best-sellers. The copycat phenomenon is called dache (free ride) in publishing circles. Once Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient became a best-seller, writers quickly composed books with similar themes, calling them The Beijing Patient or The Chinese Patient. After Marguerite Duras' The Lover turned into a hot book, Beijing Lover, Singaporean Lover, Hong Kong Lover and English Loverall written by womensoon saturated the market.
Many talented literary types who would, in other countries, seek a career in letters are not even bothering to become copycatters, choosing other, more-lucrative fields instead. "Self-reliance and financial independence are the most crucial things for the Chinese intellectuals who used to rely on politics to survive," says Qian Ning, son of China's Vice Premier Qian Qichen and author of the best-selling Chinese Students En-counter America. "That's why I don't want to be a full-time author." Without the money he earns as a business consultant, Qian probably wouldn't have written a historical novel about an ancient prime minister (which didn't sell).
Qian Jun, a professor of literature at the City University of Hong Kong, believes the best literature about China will come from middle-class, Western-educated Chinese returnees. "Critical thinking and a universal perspective on human life are foundations for great literature. Such quality and insight, plus the observation of China's sweeping socioeconomic changes, can lead Chinese literature into a mature stage."
No one can picture how the Chinese literary landscape will look in the future. But with China's willingness to engage the international community, I think it is possible that great literature about China's past, present and future can be written and valued, both in the West and in China. After all, there are more and more people like me who live in both places.