Best-selling author escapes the censors
Leading mainland author Yu Hua's stories revolve around sensitive topics such as sex, violence and the mainland's political upheavals, but his works have always managed to get through the censors unscathed.
Yu believes he has been able to document the travails of ordinary people in politically sensitive times by presenting them as fiction, even when many critics consider his works to be political novels.
Through the characters in two of his best-known books - To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant - Yu describes the brutality of life from the civil war and the Great Leap Forward to the Cultural Revolution, with countless scenes of bloody violence. Both books were included on a list of China's 10 most influential books in the 1990s.
To Live was adapted into an award-winning film of the same name by mainland director Zhang Yimou in 1994. A film based on Chronicle of a Blood Merchant is now in the pipeline, with Korean director Lee Je-yong at the helm.
At the height of last year's crackdown by the censors in the lead-up to the 40th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, Yu released the best-seller Brothers I, which focuses on how two step-brothers survive the turbulent decade.
'I really don't know why it passed the censors. Maybe it's because it's a novel. If it had been written from an academic point of view involving opinion, I guess there would have been some controls,' says the 46-year-old Zhejiang native who now lives in Beijing.
Neither Yu nor his friends know why his books have not been banned. 'Some of my foreign friends find it very strange that my book To Live was passed by the censors, but then banned when it was made into a film.'
The second instalment of the epic story, Brothers II, was released two months ago to a mixed critical reception, but is selling well. The main characters, Li Guangtou and Song Gang , continue their journey into modern China, which Yu describes as a time of subverted ethics, fickle sensuality and absurdity.
Yu's original idea for Brothers was a 100,000-character novel, but the story took on a life of its own and grew into a 400,000-character epic, requiring two books.
The story starts with the audacious Li earning the admiration of his fellow teenagers when he is caught spying on the most beautiful woman in town as she is using a latrine. He was following in the footsteps of his peeping-tom father, who met an untimely end when he fell into the same cesspool and drowned.
A decade later, Li becomes a multimillionaire, constantly seeking attention through acts such as arranging a national beauty contest for virgins.
Song's tale is very different. Shy, dignified and upright, he struggles with life like millions of other laid-off workers. Out of desperation, he enlarges his breasts to become a seller of breast-enhancement products.
Readers' reactions to the second book have been extreme, which Yu puts down to the excessive sex and absurd situations. 'Readers either think it's a masterpiece or crap.'
Book two outsold the first, selling more than 460,000 copies in two months, while book one sold 540,000 copies in seven months. Overall, the two books have now sold more than 1 million authorised copies nationwide, a rare achievement in China's book market.
'I always wanted to write something that links the two eras, as they are two extremes yet closely related,' says the chain-smoking Yu. 'Without the unprecedented oppression and dehumanisation of the Cultural Revolution, there wouldn't be the unprecedented dissoluteness of today's China.
'Today's society is full of flaws and misfortune. Most people are like Li Guangtou - they are empty, and that's why they do so many absurd things.'
While the situations depicted in Brothers may sound ridiculous, Yu says much of his inspiration came from real life. The idea of selling breast and penis-enhancing products and man-made hymens came from spam e-mails promoting these products. Song's breast-enlargement operation was inspired by a newspaper report. Even the virgin beauty contest turned out to have a grain of truth. 'After I released the book, a reporter told me that in the city where he used to live, a beauty contest required candidates to provide a doctor's certificate proving their virginity.
'Today's China has been changing so fast that if you don't see a friend for one year, he will have changed into another person. But during the Cultural Revolution, he would stay the same for years ... People were wary of other people for fear of being labelled a counter-revolutionary, but they would still trust their family and friends. In today's China, people just don't trust anyone, which is even worse.'
Another way China is changing is that the media is becoming more outspoken without paying attention to ethics. 'Once they would self-censor what I said in interviews, and now they are publishing everything I say, and even things I have not said. I have received seven e-mailed apologies from reporters who have confessed to having written stories without even having interviewed me.'
Missing from the Brothers epic is any mention of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, in which Yu took part while studying literature at the Lu Xun Literary Institute. 'I went to Tiananmen Square almost every day, with more than a million people. At that time, everyone thought democracy would be coming,' he says, adding that he was not present at the time of the crackdown on June 4 because he was tired and had slept in.
When asked to comment on the protests, Yu quoted a friend, writer Wang Hui , who said: 'It started as a farce but ended as a tragedy when arms were used to resolve it.'
Describing writing as a mission to tell the truth about history, Yu said he would write something about the student-led protests one day, 'but I still don't have a comprehensive understanding'.
Born into a medical family - his father was a doctor and mother a nurse - in Haiyan county, Zhejiang, where most of his stories are set, Yu entered primary school as the Cultural Revolution started and graduated from secondary school when it ended. 'I basically received no education.'
After working as a dentist for five years, Yu became bored and turned to writing in 1983. He said he learned how to write from reading classic books and the big-character posters displayed on walls. Yu became one of China's leading avant-garde writers after publishing a few experimental stories in the 1980s.
'Mainland readers have a rigid reading style. Once they are used to one style of book, it's hard for them to try something else,' he said. 'I guess this has something to do with politics. Although the economic reforms have brought many new things into society, in some ways the people's mindsets are still under the influence of the Communist Party.' However, he denied this was why he shifted to a more conventional style that has brought him commercial success.
Yu said an English translation of Brothers was on the way, along with a travelogue of his visits to several European cities over the past few months, possibly with photographs he took.