Fall 1993, Volume 10.3


Robert A. Rees

A Conversation with Deng Youmei, Secretary of the Chinese Writers' Association

Robert A. Rees is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is currently doing humanitarian service in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he is a Visiting Professor of American Literature at Vytautas Magnus University. A scholar, essayist, and poet, Rees is also a filmmaker. His documentary film, "Spires to the Sun: Rodia's Towers in Watts," was recently shown on America Public Television and on Luthuania Television.

The following interview was conducted on 26 October 1988 during a tour of the United States by Deng Youmei, secretary of the Chinese Writers' Association. The interview was ready for publication when the 4 June 1989 massacre in Tienanmen Square occurred. Because of the precarious situation faced by most writers in China following the massacre, it seemed prudent to hold publication of the interview until now.

The interview was conducted by Robert A. Rees. Dr. Rees was involved in four exchanges between American and Chinese writers, two of which took place in China and two in the United States. The fifth exchange, originally scheduled for fall 1990, was postponed because of the situation in China in which many writers were silenced or persecuted. Fu Hong Chu, a graduate student at UCLA, served as interpreter and translated the recorded interview.

Deng Youmei was born in Tianjin, China, in 1931. During the Second World War he was captured by the Japanese and forced to work in a factory in Japan. After the war he joined the Communist-led New Fourth Army and taught himself to read and write. In 1955 his story "On the Precipice" won first prize for new writers. just as his literary career was blossoming, he was labeled a "rightist" and spent the next twenty years doing physical labor under the "re-education" program of the Cultural Revolution. After the downfall of the Gang of Four, he resumed his writing and was immediately recognized for his fiction. Individual stories won the National Best Story Prize in 1978, 1979, and 1980. Three novellas, Women Soldiers Running After Their Troops (1982), Nawu (1984), and Snuff-Bottles (1985) also won national recognition. A collection of essays, Grapes and Cherry Blossoms, was published in 1986.

During a conversation at the meeting of Chinese and American writers in Chengdu, China, in the spring of 1988, Deng Youmei was asked if something like, the Cultural Revolution could happen again. He responded, "It may, it may, I'm afraid."

Rees: What do you see as the major challenge facing young writers in China today?

Deng: The major challenge for young Chinese writers is their level of, knowledge. Recently, I was at a dinner in New York that included some American writers and a young Chinese poet. One of the Americans asked, the Chinese poet whether he read classic Chinese poets. He replied, "No, I want to read them after I am forty years old." The American writer next' asked him if he read foreign poets. The Chinese writer replied, "I read the translations only because I don't know foreign languages." "Besides your own poems, do you read others' writings?" the American asked. "Generally we don't read the novels by contemporary Chinese writers," said the poet, "because we don't have enough time." I find this very puzzling, because no matter what literary school you may belong to, if you have only your own intuitive talent, it is not enough. You must have a knowledge of your own national literature as well as that of foreign literatures before you can pursue your own work further and in a more profound way.

Rees: Is this the result of the Cultural Revolution that prevented a generation of young writers from really knowing their own tradition or knowing the West?

Deng: Definitely. Those young writers who grew up during the Cultural Revolution had only limited education and didn't have the chance to study foreign languages and classic Chinese literature. But that is only one aspect of the issue. They now need to have the desire, which is also important. I am a case in point. I had only four years of elementary school education. Everything after that I learned by myself. Young writers may be at a disadvantage because of the Cultural Revolution, but I don't think they should use that as an excuse. If they have the desire to make up for the loss, they can do it. One advantage young writers in China have now is that they are very sensitive. They hold their own views on various issues. That's good, but in my opinion it's not enough. They lack the thirst for knowledge and diligence of my generation or a generation earlier.

Rees: What can be done to encourage young Chinese writers to read the Chinese classics and familiarize themselves with the tradition from which they are cut off?

Deng: If you advise them, they will turn a deaf ear to you, because they are still too proud of their own achievements. I'm afraid the only way they will really learn is by experience. If they produce a piece of work and it turns out to be a failure, or if it lacks something substantial in a traditional sense, en they will come to realize that they really need something else.

Rees: What about those now in school? Is there a return to teaching the classical Chinese poets and novelists, and can one hope that the next generation of Chinese writers will be more oriented toward that tradition?

Deng: One can be more hopeful about the rising generation of writers cause they have access to both classic Chinese as well as foreign literature. they are different from those who had their educations cut short, who may not realize that their education is lacking.

Rees: What is the effect of the new economic reforms on young writers in China?

Deng: The economic reforms are having a great impact on the young writers in the sense that they are among their strongest supporters. On the other hand, since the start of the economic reform, people have looked forward to making more money, and this is having a negative impact on some writers in that they cater to the taste of the populace. They want to make more money by writing detective stories or popular romance novels, not good or serious literature. They say, "I want to make money first. Then, when I have money, I will write serious literature." But this is not possible, because once you write for money you are not likely to return to literature. Still, there are a few young writers who pursue serious literature. They are content with loneliness and poverty, because they want to create significant literature. In every province, there are some such young writers. The Writers' Association tries to encourage and support such writers' work. For example, there was a young writer in Beijing who was disabled, so the Writers' Association helped him remodel his home. For some other writers, the Writers' Association covers part of their living expenses and their traveling costs. We want to encourage to the utmost those who write serious literature, but the Writers' Association cannot solve all the problems.

Rees: As the Secretary of the Chinese Writers' Association, what are the most important objectives you've tried to accomplish?

Deng: I've had two main objectives. First, through my work, I have tried to improve conditions for writers, both spiritually and economically. Second, I have tried to make the Writers' Association a better organization for the benefit of writers. I have achieved something in both directions so far, but I have not completely fulfilled my goals. In addition, I have tried to develop a truly mutual understanding between Chinese and foreign writers. Such a step is very important because it encourages mutual understanding between two countries.

Rees: Given the fact that the political climate in China shifts and changes, it must be very difficult for a writer like you not to be schizophrenic, not to be always worrying about whether someone is looking over your shoulder, whether you are going to get into trouble, or whether you are free to write what you truly think and feel. I would be interested in your opinion as to how a writer is able to maintain artistic integrity in such a highly volatile political climate.

Deng: Personally, it is easier for me to maintain artistic integrity because I have already had ups and downs in my career and I've already had my, road made for me. So whatever the climate, I will go on resolutely as I have in the past. However, as the Secretary of the Writers' Association, I feel it is very difficult to maintain integrity because, on the one hand, I hear a voice constantly coming from above, from the government. Whenever the political climate changes, I feel new pressure. On the other hand, I want to protect the creative initiative of the writers whose voice I hear below me. I have a hard time balancing things between these two positions. I do not want to offend the voice above, but neither do I want to stifle the creative initiative of the writers. That makes my job very difficult. It's one of the reasons I have decided to resign.

Rees: It seems to me that it is a position that requires the utmost diplomacy.

Deng: It's more difficult than writing novels! It's difficult because the voice from above is very powerful. I cannot, I dare not, offend. But the writers are powerful in their own way: if you suppress their energy, their initiative, they will oppose you in various ways.

Rees: What kinds of pressures from above are most difficult for you to deal with?

Deng: The most difficult thing for me is when the opinion of the government concerning a work or a writer is different from my own. Usually this is a result of some misunderstanding on the part of the government, and in that case I have a hard time persuading them that they are mistaken. Sometimes it is even more complex because within the Writers' Association itself opinions differ. Whenever the voice comes down from above saying, "We don't like this writer, we don't like his work," as members of the Association we discuss among themselves how best to reach a balanced view on the writer or the work. And when we are divided, some supporting, some opposed, we have a hard time protecting the writer.

Rees: When a writer gets in trouble with the government, is it usually because of ideological or stylistic matters?

Deng: Sometimes it is because the writer's ideological orientation is different from the government's, and sometimes it's because of his style. But most often it is for ideological differences. Style can play a role in that too, because sometimes the people who are in charge of literary or cultural affairs in the government object to a certain style. So whenever they see such a style exemplified in literary works, they say it is a bad piece of literature. They ask the Writers' Association, "Why do you allow such a bad piece be published?" When we publish such works in the Association journal, for example, we are criticized. In our opinion, the work is good and should be praised; in the opinion of the government, it should be criticized. So it's really a difficult job.

Rees: How has Wang Meng [the Chinese Minister of Culture and a distinguished novelist] fared? He's been in the same kind of bind, hasn't he, as Minister of Culture and also as a writer? Has he handled that well?

Deng: Wang Meng is a rare talent in my opinion. I can't imagine anyone replacing him or doing a better job than he has done. It seems that his every proposal can be accepted by various kinds of people from above and below. And he is able not only to carry this off in terms of official cultural and literary policy, but he does so in a way that brings the initiative of those writers into full play. So in my opinion, he is really doing a great job.*

Rees: I believe that the world would be better served if there were more novelists and poets in government positions.

Deng: I don't agree with you. As Minister of Culture, Wang Meng is doing a good job, but I doubt that he would do as well if he were minister of some other area. Writers and poets are good at voicing their opinions, which may be excellent, but when they actually become officials, they tend to be worse than the bureaucrats themselves. To support my opinion, I offer the following: Since the institution of economic reforms, many members of local writers' associations have gone into business and, in my opinion, none of them has really succeeded.

Rees: I guess I would make a distinction between business, where writers generally have no business being, and government, where, hopefully, they would bring more sensitive and humanistic values to play on decisions that affect humanity. A poet who is in a position to influence people is likely to be more aware of human values and human suffering than a bureaucrat would.

Deng: But still poets write by emotion and government offices work by reason. So once the poets express their opinions by emotion, they would probably be heedless of something like reason. So I worry about their competence in that respect.

Rees: Well, perhaps you're right. After all, Mao was a poet!

Deng: But mainly he was a statesman.

Rees: I'm interested in knowing what writers have influenced your own writing. I know Tolstoy was an influence in your younger years. Were there other writers who were important in your development as a writer?

Deng: As a young writer, I admired and was moved by Tolstoy's strong religious piety. I was also influenced by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. My own style is close to theirs. As for the Chinese writers who influenced me, there is Lu Hsun, whose personality I admire. Dream of Red Chambers has had a strong influence on me. Both Lu Hsun and Tolstoy believed that a writer must be a good person in order to write well. One must be an "iron" person to produce "iron" literature. If one knocks on iron the sound will be of iron. If one knocks on wood, then the sound will be merely that of wood. The sounds are quite different. So in Lu Hsun's opinion, you must strive to become a perfect human in order to write good literature. Tolstoy held similar views.

Rees: Excluding yourself, what contemporary Chinese writers do you consider the most important for Americans to read?

Deng: There are a number, but the most important in my opinion would be Wang Meng, Lu Wenfu, Wang Zenggi, Zhang Jie, Jia Pingwa, and Gu Hua. As for the younger writers, there are Chen Jiangong from Beijing, Wang Anyi from Shanghai, and Chen Naishen, also from Shanghai.

Rees: Last year on the way from Leshan to Chengdu, we had a long conversation about religion. What evidence is there of a new interest in China in religious or spiritual values and is this reflected in the works of contemporary writers?

Deng: I believe that at present there is a revival of religious values in literature. As you know, the Chinese nation, historically, has been Buddhist and the Zen Buddhist influence is very strong now. In some of the middleaged writers and even some young writers, I can see traces of a social and historical point of view from a religious perspective.

Rees: How important are spiritual values in your own writing?

Deng: I believe these values are very important, and in my writing I cannot help but voice them. Literature should save the souls of the people. Writers should expose evil and praise goodness, so that by reading literature people become better, and the world thus becomes a better world.

Rees: At our conference in Leshan there was a discussion about the fact that no Chinese writer has yet been awarded the Nobel prize for literature. But the feeling was that there were some who clearly deserved to be considered. Could you name any Chinese writers who in your opinion are worthy of consideration for the Nobel prize?

Deng: When we were having the discussion, I thought that perhaps Shen Congwen might be a candidate, but unfortunately he passed away immediately after our conference. Two other possible candidates are Ba Jin and Ai Qing. Both have bodies of work that are equal to those of writers who have won the prize.

Rees: As one reads literary history, one realizes that some of the greatest literature comes out of deep suffering and great human tragedy. I know in things that happened during the Cultural Revolution. I believe that I myself was a little bit responsible, because before the Cultural Revolution I sometimes wrote articles and essays in praise of Mao. Surely, blind worship contributed to the occurrence of the Cultural Revolution. I also believe that, in a sense, everyone in China experienced some redemption when the Cultural Revolution ended. There is one more point I'd like to make: When I was in favor [with the government], at times I criticized others; and I was not always sympathetic with those who were criticized by the government. Later when I had gone through my own personal suffering, when I was the underdog, I reflected on my earlier behavior and felt guilty for how I had treated others.

Rees: I was deeply touched by a particular story you told about an experience you had during the time of your greatest privation and suffering. You had been incarcerated for a long period of time and didn't have much food. You were living in an old ox-hut. And yet there was a Manchu, an old man from Manchuria, whom you took into your hovel and with whom you shared what little you had. As I recall, it was bitter cold and the only place you could find to protect yourself from the elements was this oxhut. You had no fuel and so you would cover yourself with blankets and dance around all night, and sometimes you would vomit because you were so sick. And yet you saw a man who was worse off than you were and took him into your ox-hut and took care of him. If I remember correctly, that man had lived in Beijing for a good part of his life and, during the time you lived together, he told you all about what life was like in Old Beijing, and all of those stories served as the background for your collection of stories about Old Beijing.

Deng: Actually, my suffering has become an inexhaustible treasurehouse for my writing.

Rees: That is the point I was trying to make about something redemptive coming out of suffering: You gave a gift to the Manchu and the Manchu gave a gift back to you. In that little ox-hut two human beings touched one another in a significant way, and one was an artist who was able to take that material and give a gift to the world.

Deng: That was a time in my life that I cherish deeply because I came to understand that everyone, in his or her extreme situation, when stripped of all pride and pretense, all falsehood, begins to treat others as genuine human beings.

Rees: It's the lesson of Shakespeare's King Lear. It's when Lear loses everything that he can empathize with the outcasts of the world, with madmen and fools. It is in seeing them that he can finally see himself, not as a king, but as a human being.

There was another experience that you had that I found deeply touching. In the United States we have a saying that the difference between a statesman and a politician is that a politician is worried about the next election and a statesman is worried about the next generation. I remember your telling me that during the Cultural Revolution, you would be paraded out and made to kneel in the streets, and school children would be marched by to spit on you. And I remember very clearly what you said: "I was not humiliated for myself as much as I was for this generation of young people who were being schooled to be insensitive and inhumane to others."

Deng: The terrible thing about the Cultural Revolution is that spiritually it destroyed an entire generation. When the school children spat on me I felt okay because I didn't lose anything. But I felt terrible for them because what they were led to do planted an evil seed in their young minds.

Rees: Where are those young people now?

Deng: Because of the Cultural Revolution, many of those young people, some of whom are now in their 20s and 30s, lack moral integrity. As adults they are more liable to become evil because they don't know how to respect others. They take pleasure in giving vent to their own feelings and that accounts partly for the moral qualities of the entire generation. In some parts of China, there is a high crime rate. This may have something to do with the way those young people were educated.

Rees: One final question. When they accept your resignation as Secretary of the Writers' Association, what are you looking forward to writing about?

Deng: I want to write the sequels to some of my stories, and I want to write a novel on my own experience during the Cultural Revolution.

*In the aftermath of the 4 June 1989 massacre, Wang Meng was released as Minister of Culture and is currently in disfavor with the government.