By Yan Lianke
BEIJING — Old habits die hard. Despite leaving my home in the countryside more than 30 years ago, I never feel that the first of January marks the start of a new year. In my hometown, the true beginning of a new year is the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
The year 2011 for me was as long and dark as a tunnel without light.
My dark 2011 started with my son’s search for a job. He had finished his studies in Britain and returned to China armed with a master’s degree in law. He believes that to make a difference in China he must start his career as a public servant within the legal system. However, because he is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party, it is almost impossible for him to sit for the national civil service exam to get the job he wants.
He considered joining the Communist Party more than once when he was an undergraduate. I talked him out of it every time, saying, “Do people have to be party members to get on in this life?” As a father, my son’s experience makes me feel I should kneel down in front of the party leaders and beg them to give young people who are not party members the same career opportunities it gives to those who have joined.
The darkness of 2011 continued. My latest work, “Four Books” — a novel that directly confronts the Chinese people’s traumatic experiences during the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s and the subsequent famine — was rejected by almost 20 publishing houses. The reasons I was given were all along the same lines: Anyone who dares to publish my book in China is certain to be closed down.
The novel took me 20 years to plan and two years to write. It is important to me as a writer, and I know it will be an important contribution to Chinese literature. However, I am fully aware of the realities of publishing in China, so I have no choice but to accept the fate of my book. All I can do is sigh.
COMPOUNDING the nightmare of my book’s nonpublication in China was the forced demolition of my house for a road-widening project in Beijing. It came like a hurricane. No one bothered to show the evicted residents in my neighborhood any official documents relating to the project; the non-negotiable compensation was set at a flat 500,000 yuan (about $79,000) per household, regardless of the area of the land or the original construction cost. The residents were told, “Whoever cooperates with the government will be further rewarded 700,000 yuan.” That’s approximately $190,000 in total. This seemingly large sum in fact is only enough to buy a toilet in a good neighborhood in today’s Beijing.
The conflict between the residents and the demolition crew was intense. Residents pledged to defend their properties and dignity with their lives.
The battle raged for months. One day the wall surrounding the neighborhood compound was demolished at dawn. Some elderly battle-weary residents had to be rushed to the hospital. Then came news of a series of “burglaries” in the compound, which everyone knew was a tactic intended to intimidate residents. Reporting the burglaries to the police was as meaningless as an elementary school student reporting a lost pencil.
On Nov. 30, one day before the forced demolition deadline, I wrote a petition to the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Jintao, and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and posted it on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, urging an end to the game of cat-and-mouse played with people whose houses were about to be demolished. I knew the letter would not reach its intended recipients, but I hoped it would attract enough attention to pressure the local government to avoid bloodshed during the demolition.
My letter was widely reposted and spread nationwide almost instantly. Still, it had no more impact than a whisper in the wind.
AT ABOUT 5 a.m. on Dec. 2, a group of uniformed men and women wearing helmets broke into my neighbor’s house through a window. After having told the intruders that he objected to the demolition, my neighbor was taken away and locked up. A few large pieces of furniture were moved outside and his house was bulldozed. He later recalled that when he was taken away that morning, he saw more than 200 people, all uniformed and wearing helmets, surrounding his house.
In December, more than 30 families were finally coerced into agreeing to the demolition. That marked the end of my dark 2011. The experience made me realize that in reality the dignity of a citizen and a writer is no more significant than a hungry dog begging its master for food; in reality, the rights a citizen can actually enjoy are no more than the air a person can hold in his hand.
I wanted to cry. Sometimes I imagine it would be a great privilege to be able to cry aloud in Tiananmen Square in the center of Beijing.
People live like dogs in this society. I dream of being able to bark out loud in my books, and of turning my barking into exquisite music. This strange life and this strange dream keep me alive, and sometimes even give me confidence. At the same time, I am constantly disheartened.
Emotionally exhausted, I longed to leave the dark Beijing of 2011 behind me and go home. I longed for a new beginning in 2012 — a new beginning in my hometown, to be with my mother, to be with my relatives, to let their simple warmth take away the coldness, anxiety and fear that had enveloped me in the dark tunnel of 2011.
I WENT home. For 10 days I spent all my time with my 80-year-old mother, my elder brother and his wife and my nieces in our hometown of Songxian, in Western Henan province. We talked about the past, told jokes and played mahjong. Not a single word about my writing or my unhappiness was mentioned. It was as if we all lived perfect lives.
All I could see was bright sunlight. All I could feel was the love of my close relatives. For 10 days, we sat in front of the TV. We watched silly soap operas and the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. The TV programs were mediocre, but the love of my family pushed away the darkness of 2011. I felt safe.
On the eve of the Lunar New Year we ate a traditional meal of dumplings together. Mother gave me a portion of her dumplings to show her love. A few wisps of white hair fell onto a face that was beaming with happiness. “Our country is rich now. Isn’t it wonderful!” she said. “We can now have meat-filled dumplings, as often as we ate wild grass when we were poor.”
My elder brother was a postman who rode a bicycle to deliver letters all his working life. He is now retired and drives a car I bought with royalties from my books. “Why do people hate the government?” he asked me while driving to visit a relative in a remote mountain village. “Our lives are good. Isn’t that enough?”
My two elder sisters are farmers. They loved the soap opera about a wise Qing dynasty emperor who treated his subjects well. My sisters want me to write a soap opera script like that to garner fame and fortune. Just one successful soap opera would let the whole family bask in glory, they said.
I don’t know if my family truly believes these things, or whether they were just trying to comfort me. I don’t know if their newly acquired wealth makes the Chinese people truly believe that warm clothes and a full stomach are more important than rights and dignity. Or did they always think that a plate of dumplings and a bit of money in their pockets are more useful than rights and dignity?
I didn’t ask and didn’t really want to delve into it because I know there’s no clear-cut answer. As for myself, I’d rather uphold my dignity even if it means dying of starvation. This belief is in my blood. It is supposed to be the guiding principle for all men of letters, but for many in today’s China it is no more than gibberish. Why am I complaining? If even men of letters choose a bit of food and a little money over dignity, how can I criticize my less-educated relatives?
THE SIXTH day of the Lunar New Year is an auspicious day to travel. It was time to leave. All my relatives came out to say goodbye. Mother was in tears as always on such occasions. She was quiet until the last moment.
“Make friends with people in power,” she whispered in my ear. “Don’t do anything to annoy them.”
My brother sent me a text message after I left. “I didn’t say this to you because it was a festive time. Remember: Never do anything to annoy the government, no matter what.”
My nephew accompanied me to the nearby highway entrance ramp. “My mother asked me to tell you,” said the boy hesitantly, “Look after your health. Don’t write too much, and if you really must write, then write something that praises the government and the nation. Don’t become foolish with age.”
“Tell your grandma, uncle and your mother: Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. My writing is going well. I’m doing well. Apart from acquiring some wrinkles and white hair, nothing bad will happen to me.” I drove away.
As I drove, tears streamed down my face for no apparent reason. I just wanted to cry. Was it for my mother, my brother, my relatives and the strangers who forget about their dignity as long as they have enough to eat? Or for people like me who worship rights and dignity but live the life of a stray dog? I don’t know. I just wanted to cry out loud.
I pulled over and let my tears flow — down my face and in my heart. After a long while, after my tears dried, I started the car again. I was on my way back to Beijing, panting and anxious, like a stray dog lost in a dark tunnel.
Yan Lianke is a Chinese writer of novels and short stories based in Beijing. His works include “The Dream of Ding Village,” about the blood-selling scandal in his home province of Henan. This article was translated from the Chinese by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz.