Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

why I write

Posted: March 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

This Friday, Beijing International Literature Festival will kick off. I’ll be moderating the opening session, bascially about why we write. I pasted below an interview with me on the subject.

Writers and Readers

Chan Koonchung, Linda Jaivin, Sheng Keyi, Xu Xi; moderated by Lijia Zhang | The Bookworm, Fri March 13, 8pm | BW13D

To kick off the 9th annual Bookworm Literary Festival, writers from across the continent will convene to talk about their work – from tales of ethnic discord to travel guides for history nerds to allegories a nd “third cultures” – and relate them to the audience at large. Who do writers write for, after all? Oneself, or readers? Come for the talk, stay to mingle. It’s festival time!

In 1946, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled Why I Write detailing the reasons why he put pen to
paper. In this Web series, authors talk about their literary habits and reading preferences,
and examine Orwell’s question that lies at the heart of being an author – why they write.

Lijia Zhang

Socialism is Great!

Lijia Zhang is an author and journalist living in Beijing. At 16, she was pulled out of school to work in a factory making missiles targeted at America. Her memoir, Socialism is Great!: A Worker’s Memoir of the New China, recalls the decade she spent in the factory, her eventual disillusionment with “The Glorious Cause” and her journey towards becoming a writer. The book was published in 2008 and has now been translated into seven languages.

Why I write
Because I am an ego-maniac – I often joke when people ask me this question. I am actually half-joking. Writing a book is such a huge undertaking it requires certain drive and of course ego. For example, when I wrote my memoir about my life at the missile factory, I needed to have the confidence that people out there would want to hear this story. I started writing my diary during long years of being stuck at my rocket factory. Writing has become a way to make sense of my life and express myself.

Do you write every day? If so, how many hours?
Yes, every day. When in the middle of completing a book, I try to complete 500 words every day. If I don’t write creatively, I write my journal. I live an interesting and eventful life. I keep a record as it is something I can draw from; and I need a place that I can be totally honest with myself.

Worst source of distraction?
My own addiction to excitement. I can never say no to a chance of going to a good party, meeting interesting people, flirting and dating, attending a good opera, participating in some literature festival, visiting an unknown place, giving lectures at universities, and trying new jobs. I’ve long decided that it is far more important to me to live a full and interesting life than to achieve highly.

Best source of inspiration?
A memorable character, an interesting experience or a story that moves me.

How often do you get writers’ block/doubt your own ability?
Like most writers in the world, I get writer’s block and I often question myself my ability as a writer. That’s not a bad thing. In this way, we have to try harder. I’ve revising my first novel. I am less confident as a fiction writer. But I want to give it a good go.

Contemporary writer in any medium who you never miss?
Good friends who write about China – Ian Johnson, Peter Hessler and my ex-husband Calum MacLeod.

Favorite Chinese writer?
Aileen Chang

Best book about China?
A Dream of Red Mansions

Favorite book?

Favorite writer?
Michael Ondaatje.

The book you know you should have read but haven’t?
I read many classics when I was young when I couldn’t really appreciate the beauty and music in literature. Anna Karenina is just such a book. I bought a copy already in English. Have not got around to reading it yet. I am reading Lolita. Again, I read it years ago in Chinese, which didn’t count.Lolitawas Nabokov’s love affair with the English language.

You look back at the first thing you had published and think…
My first printed article was a little essay published in my factory’s newspaper on some little while blue flowers blossoming in the factory compound – naïve but quite sweet.

China’s Sex Revolution

Posted: March 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

This Sunday, I’ll take part in a panel discussion about sexuality and China’s on-going sexual revolution. An old piece I wrote a few years ago could just answer that question.

Writing Between the Sheets

Faramerz Dabhoiwala, Jemimah Steinfeld, Lijia Zhang | The Bookworm, Sun March 15, noon | BW15B

Sexual openness is still perceived by many in China as a toxic Western influence, or a flaw in moral character. Yet, increasingly, people are risking disapproval to embrace sexual liberty in its many forms. Why, and how? Join us for a discussion featuring Faramerz Dabhoiwala, author of The Origins of Sex; Lijia Zhang, whose novel Lotus focuses on prostitution in modern China; and Jemimah Steinfeld, whose book Little Emperors and Material Girls examines China’s sex and youth culture.

China’s sexual great leap forward

Lijia Zhang

Sunday 4 November 2007 23.48 GMT

Profile: Dominique Othenin-Girard – Swiss filmmaker and Sinophile

The Swiss director tells Lijia Zhang about learning to lie, making a biopic about a hero and his fascination with China, which he now calls home



CREATIVE CONCEPTION When I was 12 or 13, a revelation came to me: I needed to leave a legacy behind. I told myself I would make love to and impregnate as many women as possible. Later, I realised that my films would be my babies. After they are conceived, I nurture them to their birth. Then I feel down – post-natal depression.

LIAR LIAR I was born into a creative family. My father was a painter and my mother a clairvoyant and an artist. As a child, I spent a few years in Iran, where my father taught at an art school he had co-founded. My father was rather strict. To avoid getting into trouble, I learned to tell lies – credible stories about things like where I went after school. Later in life, I had to make a conscious effort not to lie. Nevertheless, my storytelling skills have helped my filmmaking career.

My parents divorced and I returned to Switzerland with my mother and siblings. We lived in a small town called Rolle, on Lake Geneva. I had a tough time fitting into Swiss society. I found it suffocating. After secondary school, I ventured to London in search of a photography job. One day I came across the London Film School, in a rundown part of Covent Garden. It was a "light bulb" moment: it became crystal clear what I would do with my life. Without even an undergraduate degree, I persuaded the school to accept me onto its master’s degree course in directing. There, I felt a sense of belonging. After graduating in 1981, I had the good fortune to work as an assistant director for Karel Reisz when he directed The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

AFTER AFTER DARKNESS After I returned to Switzerland, I sold vacuum cleaners to finance starting a production company, through which I made After Darkness, a psychological thriller starring John Hurt. I co-wrote the screenplay and directed it. A breakthrough for me, it was nominated for a Silver Bear award at the 35th Berlin International Film Festival. I was 25.

The film market in Switzerland, sadly, is small. So I emigrated to Los Angeles with my new American wife, even though we didn’t know a single soul. As fate had it, our landlord was a screen writer – there were many of those around – with good contacts at a production company, with which I (went on to develop) horror film Night Angel. I later directed two more horror movies, Halloween 5 and Omen IV.

I honed my craft as a director during my 13 years in Hollywood. But I left to escape the horror film label and, more importantly, because I couldn’t finance the film (there that) I really wanted to make – Sandra, C’est La Vie, about the life of a young woman who suffers from Down’s Syndrome. It was inspired by my wife’s sister. Guiding an actor with a disability posed its challenges but the effort paid off. It became one of the highest rated films on TV5Monde, in France, and RTS, in Switzerland.

HOORAY FOR HENRY I was delighted to be invited to direct the film about the founder of the Red Cross (Henry Dunant). I had read about Dunant at school: he was our national hero. However, I didn’t like the original screenplay, as it over-emphasised his relationships with women. I felt the focus should be on his struggle to achieve his noble goal. I find it harder to portray a hero than a twisted villain. To make Dunant an interesting character, I depicted him as a determined man but also a romantic who cherished his freedom. The film is only loosely based on the historical figure. I think it is more important to stick to the probable truth than to the historical facts.

THE CHINA BUG Apart from Iran and the United States, I have also lived in France, Germany and Italy. I am curious about other cultures. But now I call China home. I first came in 1999, as a tourist. I fell in love with this extraordinary country, for its rich culture and its enterprising and friendly people. Once, I got lost on the streets of Datong (in Shanxi province) and three smiling grannies patiently showed me the way.

In 2007, I attended the Shanghai Film Festival as my film 1200° Der Todestunnel, which was inspired by the Mont Blanc Tunnel tragedy (in which 35 peopled died in 1999 in a blaze that turned the tunnel between France and Italy into a furnace), was nominated for an award. In 2012, I returned to direct (the Khloros Concert orchestral ensemble) at the Forbidden City Concert Hall, in Beijing.

Each visit deepened my fascination. In December 2013, I finally completed a four-hour-long historical docudrama I had been making called The Swiss – a homage to my motherland. I said goodbye to everyone and I moved to China to start a new life.

CATHAY SPECIFIC I have made 10 documentaries focusing on particular aspects of China, such as food, transport and insects. Chinese filmmakers could learn to tell their stories in a way that international audiences could more easily relate to. That’s where I feel I could make a contribution. One project in the pipeline is a feature film with the working title Made in Shanghai. It’s a coming-of-age story about a French teenager finding his way in China. I don’t imagine my future projects – all China related – will be easy. I am learning Chinese and feeling my way around. But the challenge is part of the fun. Like Henry Dunant, once I set my goal, I am determined to go for it.

Henry Dunant – Red on the Cross will open the official French Speaking Film Festival, in Shanghai, on Friday.

I am very excited to attend his book launching party in DC on March 19. I was the first journalist who ever wrote about him and later pursuaded Newsweek to do the cover story who subsequently made an impact in his life.

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  • Chinese Dissident Accuses Top U.S. Diplomat of Lying

    In April 2012, blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in a rural village and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The ruling Chinese Communist Party was furious, and demanded that Chen leave the embassy. When U.S. officials negotiated with Chen to find a way for him to leave, he asked for a guarantee that his family — who had been routinely harassed and beaten by plainclothes government thugs — would be safe.

    In a copy of Chen’s unpublished memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer, obtained by Foreign Policy, Chen details the promises U.S. officials made to him — and then broke. According to Chen, Kurt Campbell, the then-assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs and the highest-ranking United States diplomat directly involved in the affair, said that he and then-American Ambassador Gary Locke would personally reunite the dissident with his family.

    “‘I swear on my mother’s name, on the name of my children, in the name of God, that Ambassador Locke and I will go to get your family,’” Campbell told Chen inside the embassy, according to the dissident’s account. Campbell then asked Chen to make a statement “that the American government has been extremely helpful and that you completely trust us.”

    Campbell didn’t keep his promise to go to rural China and bring Chen’s family to Beijing. Instead, it was Chinese officials who did so, causing Chen to fear for their safety. The Americans, Chen writes, “relinquished control of the situation.” Furious, Chen instead made a different statement, and complained that U.S. officials abandoned him, exacerbating a diplomatic tiff between Washington and Beijing.

    Chen, who first incited Chinese officials’ ire by defending the rights of people with disabilities, had long been critical of the State Department’s handling of his case. In The Barefoot Lawyer, set to be published March 10, Chen releases some damning new details about his saga, which unfolded just days before then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to arrive in Beijing for talks with the Chinese leadership.

    In Hard Choices, Clinton’s June 2014 memoir of her time at the State Department, she devotes an entire chapter to her involvement in the Chen affair. Chen was “unpredictable and quixotic,” Clinton writes, but also “as formidable a negotiator as the Chinese leaders outside.”

    Chen, however, barely mentions Clinton in his book. In detailing the pressure American officials put on him to reach a deal quickly, it’s Campbell who comes off especially poorly. He warns Chen, according to the book, that “if you don’t leave the embassy, the Chinese government will accuse you of treason.”

    In an email, Campbell, who now runs the Asia Group, a consultancy, didn’t dispute the quotes, or the promise he made. “I respect Chen’s perspective and his many sacrifices,” he wrote. It was an “extraordinary experience,” Campbell added, and he was proud to have been part of it. (The State Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Chen didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

    It was also an intense one, for Chen, Campbell, and everyone involved. “I’m so upset, I don’t know how else to help you,” Chen quotes Campbell as saying. “‘We’ve been up for days and nights, and in Washington hundreds of people have been working on this. We can’t keep talking about it!’” Chen writes that Campbell, exhausted by the pressure, “shed tears before storming out of the room.”

    Chen also details for the first time his interaction with the Chinese side. Absurdly, the highest-ranking Chinese official whom Chen dealt with appears to be a man named Guo Shousong, who identified himself as the assistant head for citizen reception at the State Bureau for Letters and Visits — a toothless Chinese institution that claims to encourage citizens to petition grievances.

    “Don’t think of me as a nobody just because my position is not that prestigious,” Guo pleads, according to the book. “I’ve actually been sent by high-level central authorities.”

    Chen asks Guo about a rumor that “six buses of thugs” were driving up from Chen’s home province of Shandong to Beijing, with a mission to bring Chen back, dead or alive. In a nice bit of gallows humor, Guo cracks a joke. “‘Well, hopefully they won’t get in,’ he said, laughing stiffly.” (The State Bureau for Letters and Visits couldn’t be reached for comment.)

    After intense negotiations with Beijing, Clinton and her team — including Locke, Campbell, and the State Department’s legal advisor Harold Koh, all four of whom have since left the State Department — worked out a solution: Chen would be allowed to accept a fellowship with New York University. In mid-May 2012 he flew triumphantly to New York.

    In the years since his escape, Chen has lost much of his luster as a human rights icon. In June 2013, he claimed that because of “Chinese communist” pressure, NYU had forced him to leave. NYU denied this; the real reason may have been financial. Jerome Cohen, a NYU professor and confidant of Chen,told me at the time that Chen “shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds” him. I last spoke with Chen in December 2013, a few months after he accepted a three-year fellowship at the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank. If the State Department officials thought carefully reflected upon what happened in spring 2012, Chen told me, “they would possibly feel that they were again cheated by the Communist Party.”

    There are other portions of Chen’s book that appear to reveal new details about the diplomatic firestorm ranging during his time at the embassy.

    In April 2012, Chen released a video appeal to then-Premier Wen Jiabao, asking for justice for him and his family. Chen writes that he also recorded — but never released — a video thanking the actor and star of “Dark Knight” Christian Bale, who tried to visit Chen when he was under house arrest in December 2011.

    “You’re not just a knight when you’re acting. You are in real life, too,” Chen had recorded.

    Before Chinese officials let Chen’s wife leave Beijing, he writes, she waited in her family compound, as the thugs guarding her busied themselves measuring and photographing her house in preparation for an even stronger form of surveillance. She overhears a guard saying that the new measures “‘will be great—with an electric net, even wings won’t help them get away.’”

    Not everyone in the State Department comes across poorly. The most sympathetic character from Chen’s escape is Robert Wang, the then-deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy, who tries to console Chen as the situation appears to be rapidly unraveling. “Don’t be disappointed,” Wang said, according to the book. “This is how it goes with politics.”

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    Lotus – The Book Deal

    Posted: March 3, 2015 in Uncategorized

    When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I experienced such violent happiness. So much so that I worried that something might go wrong with my baby: it might have one leg or six fingers or such.

    Now I am again experiencing such happiness, mixed with similar anxiety. It also has something to do with birth – the birth of a book, my first novel Lotus, about prostitution in contemporary China.

    The pregnancy has been a very long one: I worked on it, on and off, for 10 years. Coming from a journalistic background, I found fiction a different ball game, with a host of different challenges from non-fiction books. I wrote, re-wrote, tried and tried. Now the effort is finally paid off.

    See below the official announcement.

    Author of the memoir Socialism is Great!, Lijia Zhang’s LOTUS, set in Shenzhen, China, “city of sins,” the story of a young sex worker and a photojournalist torn, like the city itself, between past traditions and modern desires, to Emi Ikkanda at Henry Holt, in an exclusive submission, by Becky Sweren at Kuhn Projects (NA).

    Henry Holt and Company is a top publisher in US, an imprint of Macmillan. It will come out around Feb. 2017: yes, publishing is a slow business.

    With the success of my memoir Socialism is Great!, I always had the confidence that I would find a home for Lotus but I didn’t expect such a decent home and such a decent advance. I simply can’t believe my luck!

    I wouldn’t have got where I am now without the help from so many friends. How lucky I am!

    My daughters, now 18 and 16, have turned out beautifully. Hope Lotus will, too.

    This morning I was being interviewed by Al Jazeera TV about the Galla.

    I find it a fascinating topic. The galla is very significant indeed as it has become part of the New Year celebration ritual. Indeed, it has become a cultural institution in China. Every year on the New Year eve, some 700 million Chinese glue to their TV and watch the show.

    It all started in 1983. At that time, urban families started to owe TV sets at home. Traditionally, Chinese families used to get together on the New Year’s Eve to enjoy the ‘Reunion Dinner’ – the most important meal in the whole year. (As a child, I lived for the festival because that was the only time that we could have good meaty dishes without limit.) After dinner, the families would sit around and make dumplings or prepare for the dishes that would last for the rest of the festival. My last impression of the festival was my grandma chopping mince. Slowly few would bother to make dumplings or mince – one can just buy them ready-made. And people need to be entertained, especially during the festival.

    The first CCTV galla made a major impact on its citizens. Wow! The variety show presented the best comedy skits, dances, songs, acrobatic shows and such. So it went on year after year.

    The first was probably the only one that focused on cultural and entertainment. In 1984, a famous singer from HK sang “I have a Chinese heart”, a patriotic song that soon became a hit in the mainland.

    As in most things in China, it is always entwined with politics. Given the large number of viewer, the authorities of course like to make use the opportunity to convey political messages, to inspire people’s patriotic feelings and to project China’s image as a prosperous and rising power.

    There’s little surprise that the galla now contains a segment recalling last year’s achievement and looking forward to this year’s upcoming events. Of course, Xi and his “China Dream” were featured.

    The rating – still around 90% – is in decline. Some young people chose to spend the New Year Eve with their friends, out and about, drinking and making merry. This new trend might have contributed to the lowering rate.

    In recent years, there has been criticism of the galla being lack of creativity and originality. After 31 years, the structure of the show remains largely unchanged. Some also complained that it has been too politicized. Last year, it featured the Detachment of Red Women, a popular ballet during the Cultural Revolution.

    I would call for the de-politicization of the show. The most important thing is to let people to have some fun as they deserve on the special occasion.

    I personally found the novel not so satisfying or engaging.


    Mo Yan’s ‘Frog’

    Julia Lovell teaches modern Chinese history at Birkbeck, University of London. Her most recent book is “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China.”

    FEB. 6, 2015A version of this review appears in print on February 8, 2015, on page BR14 of the Sunday Book Review

    In October 2012, Mo Yan became the first citizen of mainland China to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Since then, he has been attacked both inside and outside China for his collaboration with the Communist literary establishment: for his vice chairmanship of the state writers’ association, for remarking that censorship falls in the same category as airport security. In the summer of 2012, he controversially hand-copied, for a special commemorative edition, part of the 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art,” Mao Zedong’s statement of orthodoxy on the arts that became the theoretical ur-text of Chinese socialist realism and literary censorship. Yet readers will find little in “Frog,” Howard Gold­blatt’s fluent translation of Mo Yan’s 2009 novel about his country’s one-child policy, that validates the society created by the Chinese Communist Party. It is an anarchic, brutal book about the inhumanity of servants of the Communist state, the inadequacy of Chinese men and the moral vacuum at the heart of post-Mao China.

    Set in the rural northeast, the novel focuses primarily on the life and times of the narrator Xiaopao’s aunt, Gugu, from her birth in 1937 to her retirement in the early years of this century. In the brave new world of the early People’s Republic, Gugu possesses impeccable political credentials. The daughter of a Communist doctor killed in the latter stages of World War II, Gugu herself is held prisoner for several months by the Japanese Army. After the Communist “liberation” in 1949, she trains as a midwife in the new medical schools and becomes a star obstetrician in the area around her home village. In 1960, however, political catastrophe strikes: Her pilot fiancé defects to Communist China’s bitterest enemy, Taiwan, and Gugu becomes, by association, politically toxic. Like many others, she is beaten and humiliated during the Cultural Revolution. Yet this rough treatment doesn’t alienate her from the Party. Quite the contrary: She vows to prove her devotion by ruthlessly implementing the government’s policy against unauthorized births, which was introduced in the late 1970s after Mao’s death. Aided by her steadfast intern, Little Lion, Gugu imposes a reign of terror involving compulsory IUDs, vasectomies and late-term abortions. Eventually, after two women die at her hands (including the narrator’s wife), Gugu’s zeal for “family planning” fades. In retirement, she devotes herself to making thousands of dolls representing the fetuses she destroyed. Meanwhile, Xiaopao marries Little Lion, despite the role she played in the forced abortion that killed his first wife.

    Those anticipating an analysis of Gugu’s innermost psychology will be disappointed. Throughout the book, Mo Yan’s narrative attention darts here and there: Picaresque street fights sprawl across a dozen pages; a delusional villager hallucinates confusingly, convinced he is Don Quixote. Toward the end, Gugu drifts out of view as the narrative closes in on Little Lion’s unsuccessful attempts to have a child of her own. In a fantastical twist that’s all too believable in the commercial landscape of post-Mao China, a nearby bullfrog farm turns out to be a front for a human surrogacy business. Chen Mei (a young woman whose mother died during childbirth thanks to Gugu’s persecutions and who has herself been grotesquely disfigured by a fire in the factory where she was working to pay the government fine levied at her birth) serves as a surrogate mother for Xiaopao and Little Lion’s child. Yet Mo Yan does characterize Gugu sufficiently for the reader to deduce a skeleton psychology: the swaggering uncouthness produced by a Communist education, the desperation to prove herself a good Party member, the dazed guilt this generates in her later years.

    Mo Yan has made his name and his fortune as a best-selling novelist. I sometimes wonder, though, if his heart lies in more visual, linguistically pared-down literary genres — in drama and opera. His 2001 historical novel, “Sandalwood Death,” played out against an imagined soundtrack of the Maoqiang opera found in northeast China. And the most effective part of “Frog” is the final one, written as a nine-act play depicting the mistreatment of Chen Mei after she has given birth to Xiaopao’s surrogate child. By concentrating only on dialogue, Mo Yan zooms in on the surreal horror of Chen Mei’s situation as she is tricked out of her 50,000 yuan surrogacy fee. Battling the trauma of giving up her baby, she must fight for her rights through a system that seems determined to humiliate her at every turn.

    “Frog” will inevitably be compared with “The Dark Road,” an unremittingly bleak novel about the one-child policy published by the exile author Ma Jian in 2012. On the face of it, the two books are very different. Ma Jian’s is, for the most part, written in a spare, matter-of-fact tone that projects a relentlessly desolate view of China. Mo Yan, by contrast, favors a language of excess, notable for its manic mix of registers, for its graphic descriptions of gore, for its crude and hyperbolic dialogue (“One sniff tells me what kind of fart you’ve just laid”) and for its facetious in-jokes about famous foreign writers (García Márquez and Joyce being two particular favorites). Mo Yan’s portrayal of the pursuit of women carrying unauthorized fetuses sometimes verges troublingly on the slapstick.

    While Ma Jian crams his pages with references to tragedies and injustices from China’s present and recent past, Mo Yan skips nimbly over some of the key political taboos of the Communist era. The period from 1953 to 1957 is evoked as a golden age of peace and prosperity (“With plenty to eat and good warm clothing, the people’s mood was one of well-being”), while both Chinese and Western histories of this era point to the use of terror to humiliate and destroy perceived threats to the Communist state and the economic destruction wrought by helter-skelter collectivization. Mo Yan also whitewashes the causes of the appalling famine of 1959-61 (the soil, he writes, “refused to grow anything”) despite the fact that scholars see Communist economic mismanagement and ruthless grain requisitions as the cause of upward of 30 million deaths across these years. Those who know the history of this period will note the tactical omissions; the less well informed may be misled by the novel’s historical soft focus.

    Nonetheless, a careful reading of both “Frog” and “The Dark Road” will reveal that these two novels are perhaps not so divergent in their conclusions about the contemporary People’s Republic. Both describe a country that has lost its way, a land in which a repressive state has rendered individuals incapable of making independent moral judgments about political, economic and social behavior and in which women continue to suffer at the hands of reckless male politicians and son-fixated husbands. It was, after all, Mao’s encouragement of population growth in the 1950s and ’60s that led the population to almost double between 1953 and 1982. At one point in “Frog,” as a postpartum mother harried by Gugu into premature birth dies, her husband is too distraught, discovering that the new baby is a girl, even to notice his wife’s passing. Mo Yan’s account of the one-child policy is less overwhelmingly harsh than that of Ma Jian, but if the vice chairman of the official writers’ association takes such a dark view of its impact, then the reality must be utterly harrowing.