Dazed Digital


The Shanghai Literary Festival

March 23, 2011

At the city’s most prestigious literary event, where are the hotbed of confrontational, local writers?

  • Text by Toby Skinner

The Shanghai International Literary Festival in March is the city’s number one literary event, and this year has drawn a host of big-hitting authors, from Australian writer Thomas Kennealy (“Schindler’s Ark”, which became “Schindler’s List”) to Emma Donoghue (Booker-nominated “Room”) and renowned Indian novelist and intellectual Amitav Ghosh.

Yet of the 77 writers speaking, only four are from Mainland China, and three aren’t big literary figures here – Zhao Chuan is the founder of a grass roots theatre group; Qiu Xiaolong is a US-based writer of slightly sentimental crime thrillers based in Shanghai but written in English; and Linda Xinrong Kausch’s first book tells the story of 12 Western businesswomen in China.

The only important Chinese literary figure at the festival is Hong Ying, 49-years-old and a female author from Chongqing, whose novels and memoirs are predominantly about marginalised groups in China, especially gay history. Her books have not only been successful here, but have been published in 29 languages.

Like a number of the Chinese writers who’ve made an impact with Western readers, she’s an outsider in many ways. Typically, she left the country for London in 1989 following the post-Tiananmen crackdowns, only returning to Beijing in 2000. As she says, “For much of my life I have felt marginalised. I grew up despised for being illegitimate. When I lived in Britain, I was an outsider. When I returned from Britain, the Chinese government considered me to be a foreigner. My writings are popular with the media and the people but I have never been recognised by the Establishment.” Her most famous book, “K: The Art of Love” – widely dubbed as the Chinese “Lady Chatterely’s Lover” for its history-based depiction of the illicit affair between a Bloomsbury poet and a Chinese writer – was banned in China for defaming the dead.

Censorship is a big issue for many other of the top Chinese writers (none of whom appeared at the Literary Festival) who’ve been translated – Ma Jian, for example, has written about rape and incest in Tibet, as well as the Tiananmen protests, earning a blanket ban on publication of his works in China; Yan Lianke has written about illicit sex during Cultural Revolution and an AIDs epidemic in a Chinese village (based on true history), with both books getting a ban.

Other heavyweight writers who’ve been translated – the likes of Man Asia Literary Prize-winners Su Tong (“The Boat To Redemption”) and Jiang Rong (“Wolf Totem”), as well as nominee Yu Hua (whose epic, “Brothers”, was a big hit in 2008) – are not only too few (there are very few good translators of Chinese into English, the brilliant Howard Goldblatt excepted), but have not quite become household literary names abroad. It’s a tough world for serious writers in China – and as much as the Literary Festival is so celebrated in the city, it would have been nice to have seen a few more of them onstage.

Photo of author Hong Ying

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