China’s efforts to promote socialism in the late 1950s and early 1960s resulted in what is euphemistically known as the three years of natural disasters, during which more than 30 million people starved to death. One evening when I was a young boy, not long after the catastrophe, I followed my mother as she went to dump garbage outside the wall that surrounded our village, a poor and isolated town in central China.
Holding my hand, my mother pointed to the white clay and yellow earth of the wall, and said, “Son, you must always remember, when people are starving to death they may eat this white clay and elm tree bark, but if they try to eat that yellow earth or the bark of any other kind of tree they will die even faster.”
Mother went back inside our house to cook and left behind a long shadow. I stood in front of the edible clay gazing out at the sunset, the village and the fields, and an enormous sheet of darkness gradually approached.
From that point on, I developed a keen appreciation for the somber side of our existence. I came to understand that darkness is not the mere absence of light, but rather it is life itself. Darkness is the Chinese people’s fate.
Today’s China is no longer the China of my childhood. It has become rich and powerful, and because it has solved the basic problem of providing 1.3 billion people with food, clothing and some spending money, it has come to resemble a bright ray of light that illuminates the East. But beneath this light lies a long shadow.
When I look at contemporary China, I see a nation that is thriving yet distorted, developing yet mutated. I see corruption, absurdity, disorder and chaos. Every day, something occurs that lies outside ordinary reason and logic. A system of morality and a respect for humanity that was developed over several millenniums is unraveling.
Life is gloomy and depressing. Everyone is waiting for something dreadful to happen. This uneasy and fearful expectation has produced a collective sense of anxiety.
No one can tell us where the nation’s speeding locomotive of economic development will end up. No one can tell us what price should be paid for human feelings, human nature and human dignity, now that money and power have replaced socialism and capitalism. What is the price for abandoning the ideals of democracy, freedom, law and morality?
More than a decade ago, I went several times to visit an AIDS village in my home province of Henan. The village had close to 800 residents and more than 200 were infected with H.I.V. The majority were workers between the ages of 30 and 45 who had become infected because, in the pursuit of wealth and a better life, they had gone in groups to sell their blood and became infected in the process. Death was as frequent and inevitable as the setting sun. It became so dark it seemed as though the sun had disappeared permanently.
China may boast of having several thousand years of civilization, but when an old man collapses in the street, everyone refrains from helping him out for fear of being implicated, even as the old man bleeds warm, red blood. What kind of society do we live in when a pregnant woman dies on the delivery table and all of the medical technicians flee in order to avoid responsibility, leaving behind a tiny soul uttering a feeble cry.
It is a writer’s job to find life within this darkness.
I am reminded of Job, in the Old Testament, who after experiencing countless misfortunes said to his wife as she was urging him to curse God, “Shall we indeed accept good from God, and shall we not accept adversity?” This simple response demonstrates that Job understood that his suffering was merely God’s way of testing him, and was evidence that darkness and light must exist together.
I don’t pretend that I have been uniquely selected by God, like Job was, to endure suffering, but I do know that I am somehow fated to perceive darkness. From these shadows I lift my pen to write. I search for love, goodness and a perpetually beating heart.
At a symposium last week, President Xi Jinping met with a group of artists, including the Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, and talked about the value of art in China. According to the official China Youth Online, he said, “For art workers to be successful, they must breathe together with the people, share their fate and feel their feelings, rejoice at their joy, grieve at their grief, and serve the people like a willing ox.”
But only the pursuit of true art, unencumbered by anyone, can help us find the delicate light, beauty, warmth and love that are hidden in the darkness.
Yan Lianke is a novelist whose most recently translated work is Lenin’s Kisses. This article was adapted from his acceptance speech for the 2014 Franz Kafka Prize. It was translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas.