A Literary Genre with “Chinese Characteristics”

By Wenguang Huang

Embellishing a piece of nonfiction work with elements of fiction is a big no-no in the West. Writers and publishers are expected to avoid blurring their boundaries. But it’s a different story in China. Nonfiction writers follow what they call the “doculiterary” genre, which incorporates some literary elements into journalistic works, claiming their writings as pure fiction. In this way, writers and publishers can skirt government censorship and get their works published in China.

Yu Jie, a Beijing-based independent critic, discusses this new trend in a recent essay. He writes: “It’s not that Chinese writers don’t know the difference between fiction and non-fiction writing. The tough political environment in China has presented them with no choice.”

Yu uses writer Yang Xianhui’s Woman from Shanghai and its sequel, The Jiading Orphanage, as examples. The first book, in the doculiterary style, chronicles the lives of thousands of intellectuals who were locked up inside a Chinese labor camp during Mao Zedong’s Anti-Rightist campaign in 1957. Chapters of his books first appeared in a literary journal in Shanghai, where the editors published them under the category of “fiction,” even though they were well aware of the journalistic nature of Yang’s work: descriptions were based on true events, and some stories had been taken literally from the author’s interviews with victims.

Despite the “fiction” label, Yang’s stories reignited a nationwide debate on the tragic consequences of Mao’s political campaign. Many survivors, who had remained silent for years, stepped forward to confirm the authenticity of Yang’s work. Several government-run newspapers and magazines, emboldened and encouraged by Yang’s success, carried short memoirs or essays penned by survivors and victims’ family members.

Subsequently, the Shanghai Art and Literature Publishing House gathered all of Yang’s stories into one volume, and, perpetuating the pretense, published them as fiction in 2003. Last year, a new edition was published by the Flower City Publishing House. So far, the author says the government has been silent and both books are selling well. “The fiction label has given me greater flexibility to maneuver in China,” Yang says in a recent interview. Yang has even won numerous national accolades, including the Best Short Story award from the Chinese Academy of Short Story Writers in 2003.

In the old days, writers tried a different approach, promising to cut and rewrite “sensitive” materials that were considered offensive to the Communist Party. Despite their carefully orchestrated self-censorships, many still fell under the ax of the Department of Propaganda. An example is writer Liao Yiwu’s Corpse Walker, which records the lives of individuals who were either thrown into the bottom of society during the various political purges in the Mao era or who have been caught in the tumultuous changes of today’s evolving Chinese society. According to Liao, the Yangzi Publishing House released a sanitized version in 2002; the book became a best seller and was reprinted five times within three months. As expected, the book caught the attention of officials at the Propaganda Department, which soon ordered all of Liao’s books off the shelves on grounds that the book had exposed too much of “the dark side of socialism.” As a consequence of these policies, many nonfiction works, including Prisoner of State, a memoir by former premier Zhao Ziyang, can only be released in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Some writers overseas have challenged this literary genre. In his essay, Yu mentions Cao Changqing, a US-based Chinese critic who is quoted as saying, “After learning and reading extensively about Western news features and investigative reports, I begin to resent more and more the Chinese way of mixing news with literature, which violates the basic news reporting standards. There is no way to tell which part is news and which part is literature. In the publishing world, fiction and nonfiction are distinctively two different categories and one cannot blur the line.”

Yu defends the new genre by saying that the doculiterary style is a survival strategy. “I do believe that, having lived in the West for many years, some writers have forgotten or neglected the reality in China. An urgent task is for writers to protect and defend history and our memories, which are being unscrupulously rewritten and sabotaged by the government.”


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