Chinese Writer, Tackling Tiananmen, Wields ‘Power to Offend’
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]HEN her village was still lush with lotus plants, and a crystalline river sparkled in the fields, Sheng Keyi, a very clever and very poor 16-year-old girl, watched television on a tiny black-and-white set at a neighbor’s house.
It was 1989, and the story that the world knows as the Communist Party’s military crackdown in Tiananmen Square was told in reverse on the grainy screen. The official version portrayed the students as violent criminals. The peasants, and the young Ms. Sheng, sitting around the television knew no better.
Now a prominent novelist and a denizen of Beijing literary circles, Ms. Sheng eventually fashioned that turning point in contemporary Chinese history into a stomach-churning, exuberantly written allegory, “Death Fugue,” which recalls Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”In “Death Fugue,” she tells the truth about how the People’s Liberation Army extinguished the student protest. She also creates a society, Swan Valley, that can be read as China today and in the future, where things seem superficially shiny and sleek, rich and productive.
Except in Swan Valley, there is no sexual freedom. Pregnancies deemed likely to produce children with low I.Q.s are terminated immediately, and nursing homes that seem welcoming on the outside are in fact crematories. The citizens are happy enough, though. The place is free of bribery, and a young doctor says he does not have to deal with colleagues from his former life — China, in the late 1980s — who sewed up patients’ anuses if they did not receive the requisite payoff.
“I am truly disappointed with present society,” said Ms. Sheng, 41, a petite woman in skinny jeans, a blue T-shirt and black stiletto heels with a sheath of long black hair around a slender face. Over coffee at an outdoor restaurant near her apartment in Lido, one of the cool neighborhoods in Beijing, a mixture of boutiques and bars, with expensive sports cars out front, she added, “When I talk with friends, I reminisce about the ’80s, when everything was not so tainted by the pressure of money, when poets didn’t abandon their work.”
Publishers in China, including Penguin, which released an earlier novel by Ms. Sheng, “Northern Girls,” about the sexual exploits of young women who migrate to the cities, passed on “Death Fugue.” Chinese editors decided the story line was too controversial. Penguin, she said, failed to give her a response. The novel has appeared in Hong Kong and Taiwan in Chinese, and last month, it made its English-translation debut with a small Australian literary imprint, Giramondo.
For Ms. Sheng, being shunned by her publishers at home was hurtful but not surprising. “When I wrote it I knew it couldn’t be published in China,” she said. “I discussed it with a friend — she writes poetry at the university of Chongqing — and she said, ‘You write it because you want to.’ ”
The resolve to tackle a subject as forbidden as the Tiananmen Squarecrackdown is in character with her tough childhood, and her insistence that she is a storyteller prepared to break taboos. “A novel must have the power to offend,” she says in an author’s note for “Death Fugue.” When it was suggested that some scenes were almost repulsive, she said, “Then I have succeeded.”
But it was not an idyllic existence. “When I was young, my sisters and brother hated my father because he was like the Chinese government: He made the decisions,” she said. To pay her school fees, her mother, a warmer presence, would sell 50 eggs at the beginning of the semester, then extra eggs for schoolbooks. Her teachers loved her; she was inquisitive, a fast learner and always first or second in class.
As a child, she was a tomboy and reveled in the bountiful nature of her surroundings, a kind of Garden of Eden that is now so polluted it ranks as one of China’s most cancer-prone places. Back then, she shot birds with a slingshot, climbed trees and fought with boys. “I always won,” she said. “I’m not afraid.”MS. SHENG grew up in the village of Huaihua Di in Hunan Province, the youngest of four children in a home so needy that vegetables and chickens were the basic form of currency. An oil lantern provided the only light at night.
At 19, she stole enough money from her mother for a train ticket, and with some extra cash from one of her sisters, she ran off to Shenzhen, the booming southern Chinese city. Her trek echoed one made by millions of young rural women eager to break the yoke of the village.
She found a job at a securities firm, and there met a man who had been a university student at Tiananmen Square in June 1989. “He was a person with a lot of morals, and he told me all about it,” she said. “He didn’t have anger about the ending, more feelings of pain.”
Gradually, she began to write short stories, and on the strength of those, she landed a job as a magazine editor. She built a small reputation, but believing she needed to polish her skills, she enrolled in a journalism course at a university in Shenyang, a city in northern China.
“The living was very cheap,” she said. “I lived on the second floor of a six-story house. I was 28. Every morning, with my hair hanging wildly, I would start to write. I would have no one to speak to. I felt lucky — I was quite successful.”
“Northern Girls” put her on the map, and she headed south again to the city of Guangzhou to write “Death Fugue.”
SHE mines for material for her fiction in the rich absurdities of daily life under the authoritarian government. She drills down on the collapse of ideals and the power of money in contemporary China. “Chinese people’s lives are full of unbelievable stories,” she said.
She offered an example from a recent news item. “A couple was resisting having their house demolished by the authorities who wanted to build a highway,” she said. “They were nabbed in the middle of the night half-naked and taken to a graveyard. They were left there half-naked, and in that time their house disappeared.”
The unmistakable message: “We will bury you alive unless you give in.” Would she work that tale into her fiction? “I am very interested to know what they were thinking in those four hours,” she said with a big smile.
There is much that is dark in “Death Fugue.” The bureaucracy assigns partners for marriage, and conversations often sound like a satire of Communist Party ideology. “Chaos isn’t freedom. Freedom comes from order,” a character says. Yet some of the descriptions of beauty hark back to Ms. Sheng’s village of years ago. “He recognized periwinkle, bluebells, marigolds, begonias, petunias and the short blossoms of morning glory,” she writes.
Now, when she returns home, all that has shriveled, replaced, she said, by factories that pour poisons into the river and smelly ditches filled with trash. Elections were held recently in the village but turned into a farce. “No one knows what a secret ballot is,” she said. “The villagers respect wealth, so the richest man got elected village head.”
When word spread in the village that she was now a famous author, the villagers had no idea what she had written, but they showered her with new respect. On the basis of her prestige, her father was invited to join the Communist Party, a wild paradox given her disdain for the governing political system, which is little disguised in her novel.
The friend in Shenzhen who had schooled her about the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was impressed with how she transformed that knowledge and channeled her scorn. After reading “Death Fugue,” he wrote her a note. It said, “The little girl has grown up.”