Liu Zhenyun: Oh China, Why Are You So Dirty?

Novelist Liu Zhenyun, Mao Dun literary prize winner and author of My Name Is Liu Yuejin, delivered this lecture last month at the “China Dream” Review and Forum: Reflecting on Thirty Years Since the Graduation of the Classes of ’77 and ’78. Beijing News columnist Cao Baoyin transcribed Liu’s speech and a portion of the question and answer session that followed. Read the original text at CDT Chinese.

Note from Cao Baoyin: The afternoon of June 30 I interviewed the  painter Luo Zhongli, drove him to the airport and then hurried back to the Western Returned Scholars Association [zh] to continue “listening in” on the forum. Not long after I sat down, I heard Liu Zhenyun, the famed author and recipient of the eighth Mao Dun Prize, deliver his speech. Liu and I are from the same hometown, and hearing the familiar inflections of my dialect in his voice was truly endearing. His description of the situation in the countryside was also familiar to me, so I enjoyed his lecture immensely. Liu’s speeches are every bit as brilliant as his novels—maybe even more so. Many times as he spoke the audience erupted into raucous applause. Their enthusiasm was real, not fake. The investor Xu Xiaoping, who was seated next to Liu in the VIP section, was often rolling with laughter. That evening as I dined with Liu, I made a point to say to him, in our dialect, “Your speech was really spot-on!” And because it was “spot-on,” I’ve decided to transcribe the speech from a recording and notes, even though it’s a terribly hot summer and I’m tangled up in other work. In order to preserve the original flavor of Liu’s speech, I abstained from making any grammatical or rhetorical adjustments, only polishing some of the text, adding notes about those present and splitting sections into paragraphs. This transcription has not been officially approved by Liu.

Like Huiyao said (Wang Huiyao, Vice Chairman of the Western Returned Scholars Association and Director of the Center for China & Globalization), in the thirty years since our graduation, members of the class of ’77 and ’78 have entered politics, business and every other kind of industry, rising or preparing to rise to the top levels of their respective fields. They are sure to make an impact on China’s next thirty, 300 and 3,000 years of development.

Actually, I think if they want to make a difference, it would as simple as asking ourselves: Can we first try out different ways of speaking, working and thinking from our own? For example, can we stop complicating simple things and simplifying complicated ones? Our nation has no need to search for absolute truths. People already have common sense; we’ll be fine so long as we utilize it. It is clear in our hearts what kind of life and society we should have, so why don’t we move in that direction? Why must we take these issues and make them so very complicated? Within these issues lie the problems of personal interest and interest groups.

And another thing: Can we stop being wasteful? On this matter, I think the change should not start from us country folk, but rather with those at the top. For example, tonight in my village, people will at most eat a bowl of noodles. But think about it: What kind of people are eating in all the restaurants and cafeterias from Beijing all the way out to the countryside? People with power and people with money. Of course, we do not object to eating. The problem is that upscale meals can cost tens of thousands of yuan. And did you eat it? For the most part, if we manage to finish 10% of the food, that’s not bad. So what happens to the leftover 90%? Compare us to another nation with an equal GDP or gross national product, and we would be at least 90% behind them. We produced this 90% and then wasted it ourselves.

And there’s also the waste of human resources. Could we start from the top here as well? I see those extravagant, completely useless award ceremonies on television, where all those leaders are just sitting there. How about we have just one leader sitting there, and all the others go do something else? I’m just a writer, part of a powerless group. I’m too weak to even tie up a chicken. So I’m just offering up some suggestions to you.

And another thing is our direction. There’s no more social country in the world than China, because China is a society of comedy. Can we maybe move just two inches in a more serious direction? China’s biggest comedy is Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播) [CCTV’s nightly news simulcast]. Leaders read speeches from a script. Every person in attendance already has a copy, yet they still take notes. What are they writing down? I can’t figure it out. I think this is hilarious. Who are they fooling? Are they trying to fool me, watching on the other side of the screen, or are they fooling the leader delivering his speech? Is the guy who’s speaking happy or unhappy? Is he an idiot? You can read, right? And here’s another comic act from the leaders: They’ll hug a child as soon as they see one. If they come across someone about their same age, they’ll call her Granny and ask, “What’s your annual income? How many people are there in your family?” Abroad, these kinds of questions would be considered a violation of personal privacy. The question will leave the person tongue tied, and then the provincial governor and provincial Party secretary (who are accompanying the Central leader) will get anxious. “The (Central) leader is asking you how many people are in your family.” The person being asked the question will think about it, then answer, “Six.” The governor and provincial Party secretary will start clapping. What are you clapping for? Are you clapping because you’re happy you found out how many people are in this person’s family? Could our leaders cut down a little on the comedy?

And there’s also letter writing. Ever since the Qin Dynasty, if you wanted to write a letter to my village, you would of course address it to “The People’s Republic of China, Henan Province, Xinxiang City, Yanjin County, Laoliuzhuang Village, Liu Zhenyun.” But in other countries, you’d start with “Liu Zhenyun,” then “Laoliuzhuang Village” and so on. It’s a different way of thinking.

Beijing is not much different from New York, London or Sydney. But as an author, I’ve travelled all over China, and I’ve discovered the biggest differences lie in the countryside. If you go to Europe, South Korea or Japan, you’ll see the countryside is filled with natural beauty. But what about us? The reality is that our villages are surrounded by garbage. There’s smoke everywhere. I am quite moved on the road. Ai Qing [Ai Weiwei’s father] wrote a great line of poetry: “Snow falls on the Chinese land” (雪落在中国的土地上). At the time he wrote this, China was a country with problems at home and abroad, and white snow fell on this land of ours. Now, after touring around, I can only come up with this line, “Oh, China, why are you so dirty?” In the next thirty years, can we take a look at this corner of the country? Can we stop being so careless?

I have an uncle. He was the village Party secretary for several decades. There are two people he has admired in his life. The first person was Mao Zedong. He says, “I don’t know if Mao was good or bad, but at that time if you were to look for the county head or village mayor, they would be sober. If I go to look for these people now, in the afternoon, these people are pretty much all drunk.” The other person my uncle really admired was the former leader of Chongqing. They used to sing red songs and beat black there. “The weather in a liberated area is always fine,” my uncle said. But one day, in the still of the night, the central authorities delivered a piece of news that sent my uncle over the edge. Xiaoping, this was a document from the central authorities! What are you laughing about? (At this point Xu Xiaoping, who was sitting next to Liu, began laughing hysterically.) My uncle absolutely lost it. He said if this were a credit card, the last bit of his credit would have totally been exhausted. Turns out the singers of those red songs were actually corrupt and the crime fighters were murderers.

I think this kind of comedy—our nation, our mothers—who is watching over our mothers? And what of the sons and daughters of our mothers, the sons and daughters on the banks of the Yellow River, by the sea in Dalian and on the banks of the Huai and Yangtze rivers? Stop clowning around with them. Thousands of years have passed. We’ve seen enough. Can you talk straight to us? It’s like writing a piece of literature or filming a movie and getting only lofty, impractical feedback in return. “It seems a little gray. It needs to be corrected.” What does gray even mean? How should it be corrected? Speak in specifics.

This is the point I’m making. Although I have little to contribute, I’m still concerned about the world. Hu Shi is also an old Beijing University classmate of ours. He once said, if a nation constantly promotes morals yet neglects rules, that nation will become increasingly depraved. A nation that no longer promotes morals yet whose people all abide by the rules will enjoy a safe, honest society. (Note: Hu Shi’s original words are, “If a dirty country abides by the rules yet does not discuss morality, in the end such a country will become a humane, normal place. Morality will gradually find its way back. In a clean country, if no one has concern for the rules yet everyone speaks of morality and nobility, with nothing to do everyday but talk about ethics and standards, it will become a depraved, dirty country full of hypocrites.”) I think Mr. Hu is almost in agreement with me. My point is, I’m a poor guy, but in my heart is the innocence of a child. This is all I can do. It’s not likely I’ll be able to make use of this innocence in real life, so I guess I’ll just use it in my writing. My film Remembering 1942 (温故1942) [based on Liu’s novel of the same name] will be out at the end of the year, and I invite you all to have a look and see how our nation stubbornly survived.

That’s how things stand. Thank you!

The audience was invited to ask questions after all lecturers had spoken, and Liu addressed one of the questions. As I consider this part of his speech, I have also provided the question and answer here.

Question: Hello everyone. My name is Li Ziyin, and I’m an urban planner. I have a specific question for Wang Zhenyao and Liu Zhenyun regarding the democratization of the countryside and land reform. We see China has entered into an age of modernization, yet China still thinks and acts like a large agrarian nation. It is possible that China’s most central problems or opportunities still lie in the countryside. Democratization and land reform in the countryside can provide opportunity to rural youth. What suggestions or solutions do the two of you propose?

Liu Zhenyun: I’m an expert on rural problems because that’s where I grew up. Just now our friend in the audience mentioned the countryside and democracy. Based on the experience of my father’s generation and that of my forebears, the thought of democracy starting from the village puts the cart before the horse. Throughout the world, historical change has never started from the village. Calling for change that begins from the countryside will cause revolt, just as my friend Xiaoping said. Chinese history has proven this. In every instance throughout history, including in Eastern Europe, the United States and Europe, democracy started from the top. Democracy is at first a matter of the privileged few and is later bestowed as a great gift to the people of a nation. This does not work in reverse.

And another thing, I whole-heartedly agree (the original poster of this article added two question marks here; it seems to conflict with what follows) with my friend Zhenyao (Wang Zhenyao, Chair of Beijing Normal University’s Public Welfare Research Institute) when he said China is incapable of drastic change. (But he also said that) if China were to instate a multi-party system, chaos would result, because society has no mechanism to date with which to balance itself. I sincerely disapprove of this. I think China’s path, that of democracy and freedom—there isn’t a country in the world, or a single political party, that wouldn’t agree with this.

I think that former Xinhua reporter who spoke a moment ago said it right: When it comes down to it, what changes the course of human history? We always assume it’s politics or society. Actually, what really ends up changing history is technology. The steam engine, for example, changed human society. That invention set off a fundamental change in how people interact, and this lead to societal change. Take electricity, cell phones, the Internet, Weibo. All of these things changed humanity in a way that other things couldn’t. Is European democracy too extreme? People say all kinds of dirty things, but this is the beginning of democracy. “But why do you people always complain so much in your meetings?” some may say. “Can’t you say anything constructive?” Cui Yongyuan [the witty CCTV talk show host] once said that complaints are constructive. This is Cui Yongyuan’s biggest linguistic contribution to society since [Cui’s show] Speak the Truth (有一说一).

Actually, real democracy is like this: Tonight I’ll sleep well, and tomorrow morning I’ll wake up and eat a great breakfast. This morning I skipped breakfast because I was in a rush to get to the Western Returned Scholars Association. Really, everything we all say here is meaningless. It won’t make any difference. But it’s already made a huge difference in that we’re sitting here speaking of these big matters. Because it’s not enough for China to just have money or just have knowledge. These are both weak entities. Here we are, members of different disadvantaged groups, holding a forum. And yet, I think our contribution has already been made. Zhenyao said something a moment ago with which I enthusiastically agree. He said there is hope for our democracy. Our endeavor for democracy has been passed on to the 80s and 90s generations. I think this is absolutely correct. What’s the biggest reason why? Members of the 80s and 90s generations simply do not watch Xinwen Lianbo. Although we don’t understand what’s said on Xinwen Lianbo, we’re still concerned with what is said there. But the young folks aren’t even listening. They’re concerned about who they’re going to eat dinner with tonight or who to fall in love with. I think this is their biggest contribution to democracy.

The problems we’re discussing, as we gather here, are all about where China has gone in the past thirty years and where it will go in next thirty. I think this question, if left to people of our age to discuss and solve, is a lost cause. The 80s and 90s generations are concerned about where they’re going personally. That’s the big difference. If China’s 1.3 billion people all concern themselves with where they are going personally, the prospects for this country’s prosperity, development, democracy and science are all bright indeed.

I’m bursting with confidence in our nation. Thank you!

Translation by Little Bluegill.