The Ins and Outs of Modern Chinese Fictional Characters

Li Er

Hiding in the City No. 75 Provisional Wall by Liu Bolin.
"Hiding in the City–No.75 Provisional Wall" by Liu Bolin.


Novelist and short story author Li Er 李洱 graduated from East China Normal University in Shanghai and currently works at the National Museum of Modern Chinese Literature. He has published five short story collections, two novels, and approximately fifty novellas and short stories. His most well known works include Colouratura (Hua Qiang 花腔) and Cherry On a Pomegranate Tree (Shiliushu Shang Jie Yingtao 石榴树上结樱桃). Hua Qiang, widely considered one of the most influential novels of the post-Mao era, has garnered much attention in Germany and Korea in translation, and is one of the most exciting forthcoming titles in the CLT Book Series.

I love writing novels for many reasons, yet the most important is the experience of exploration and self-discovery inherent in writing fiction. When a fascinating character suddenly walks into your novel, when an amusing phrase comes out of his mouth, when this character and his words are, to some degree, inspiring to your cultural predicament, you might feel quite shaken up. And why would you be surprised? Because all of sudden, you realize that the character you are writing is, in many ways, yourself—you feel everything your character feels. Another familiar character is the cat you wrote into that novel—he stretches his body then jumps up to the roof, while you stretch your arms out before pounding away at the keyboard again.

During the winter of 1997 while I was writing The Afternoon Poetics, that unfortunate protagonist Mr. Bian spoke to me from out of nowhere. He said, "When you type these words on the keyboard, you are living outside yourself." A chill went through my entire body as I finished this line with a reawakened awareness of the isolation between a man and his experience. Despite what we may want to believe, we are not the only source of our experiences; we do not control the ways this world can be known; for a single person's experience is always incomplete and will always fall far short of the whole. Like infants' whose inner organs rule their behavior, control their desires, and determine their needs, people living in society today are equally guided by the discourse of others and our desires are largely determined by mass media. Such a line of thought opens up a kind of a meta-experience, or our experience of how we experience the world. Still, it is important to note that regardless of whether one possesses indirect experience, direct experience, or direct indirect experience, what it means to be human is in flux, and we cannot witness another's singing and crying from their "inside."

Many people are nostalgic for the old days of in the nineteenth century, that golden age of the novel. Even more people view novels from that age as the standard for measuring the quality of contemporary novels. During a spring 2002 seminar, one critic spoke highly of my novel Hua Qiang 花腔 (Colouratura); however, after offering those kind words, he said, "Compared with the novels of the nineteenth century, this novel still has drawbacks. For example. . . ." Hearing this, some people couldn't help laughing to themselves. It's true that this man had lost his mind, and you could even go boating on the vast, empty seas that filled his head. This reminds me of another man who lost his grip on reality, and who once wrote the most arrogant and self-abasing, the most witty and boring passage I have ever read. That man was Hemingway, who shot himself in the end. Hemingway once said, "I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn't too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupassant . . . and it took four of the best stories to beat him. He's beaten and if he were around he would know it. Then I tried for another guy . . . and think I fought a draw with him. This other dead character. . . ."[1] The dead character with whom he fought was Standhal: "I started out very quiet and I beat Mr. Turgenev. Then I trained hard and I beat Mr. de Maupassant. I've fought two draws with Mr. Stendhal, and I think I had the edge in the last one."[2] I think Hemingway was already quite inebriated when he wrote this dialogue. It seems to me that the critics from that 2002 seminar are not the only ones who lost their minds, for Hemingway had lost his as well. Nevertheless, behind those crazy words hides a secret yearning—readers always expect to see the questing hero, who faces insurmountable challenges on water and on land. He can also rise up, reach the clouds, and look out over the whole of human existence. His every cough is like thunder; even his urine seems like a blessed rainfall. He is a hero and a god.

This reminds me of another man who lost his grip on reality, and who once wrote the most arrogant and self-abasing, the most witty and boring passage I have ever read. That man was Hemingway, who shot himself in the end.

Creating such a hero or god was one major purpose for works of fiction written before the nineteenth century. A work that is considered "epic" has earned the highest merit for narrative works. These works glorify heroes who negotiate the internal travails of spiritual journeys and lionize those who embark on the long march toward unknown lands and alien worlds. The author employs an omniscient narrator and reveals his ambitions toward the world through his core protagonist. Thus the character's judgment of the world relies totally on the author's experience—the author's likes and dislikes become the standards of the character's worldview. These narrative works remind one of false religions, mythologies, and local legends. They also bring to mind the feelings that geologists and politicians held about their own positions in the world before the exploration of the New World: They were at the center of the world, surrounded by wilderness. Authors make their own voices heard through their characters, exerting extraordinary meaning through this combined voice. And because of this, the work can be thought of as prayers and chants. They are for the author himself rather than the protagonist.

A huge revolution in fiction came with the shift from building a hero to honoring the common people, from writing heroic legends to exploring the tragedies in the daily lives of the common people. When did this change begin? Did it start with Flaubert's Mr. Bovary, whose wife cheated on him; with Tolstoy's Ivana Ilyicha, with his dead kidney; or with Joyce's Leopold Bloom, who loved eating lamb's kidneys? A whole world of misty fog clouds the path between the author and the protagonist. In these works, it seems as though no one can truly lead a real existence as a complete and self-determined human being. A free, complete, and significant life gained by personal achievement has been totally destroyed by the gray, mediocre experience of the masses. When it comes to Beckett, even the gender and age of the protagonist Godot are in question. It even remains unknown whether Godot is alive or dead throughout the play. However, those changes cannot adequately prove that authors have lost interest in building characters, nor can it show that they have lost the ability to build characters in their works. Yes, although Godot—the central character of importance—never shows up, we still have two vagabonds on the stage.

Though the art of the narrative might undergo many and varied changes, writers will always be interested in creating and developing characters. To describe this in formal discourse: It should be that change is not the truth but the way to approach truth. Without a focus on the protagonists, without the exploration of mankind's spiritual state, the narrative loses its only reason for existing. As far as I know, after the radical movement in the 1980s, many novelists still have enough patience, interest, and courage to craft strong characters that keep standards high and can be described by words like "vigorous," "vivid" and "verisimilitude." Meanwhile, we—readers, critics, and writers alike—have to admit that certain stock characters that draw all readers' adoration are no longer the most important narrative goal for a novelist. In other words, novelists had previously based characters on taking one arm from Tom, one thigh from Bill, and a pair of breasts from the wife of Jack. Then they assembled a new character out of these parts, and the whole process was typical and took place throughout much novelistic prose. However, novels nowadays are no longer about building characters, but about giving voice to questions and doubts: Through the observation and description of a common person, an author can convey the predicament of modern society, his own slight hopes for its future, and also his sense of desperation and helplessness.

Perhaps it has become more difficult to epitomize and interpret the human condition. Robbe-Grillet's opinion that Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea and Albert Camus's The Stranger have no characters in them might be ridiculous, yet his description of the various dilemmas people face in modern society is accurate and powerful: the age of human identities reduced to a number or a code, the collapse of the idea of humans as the center of the world, and the cult of conformity. For writers in China, the situation is even more complicated: social changes take place under cover and spread out slowly as first like enemy soldiers sneaking into a village, only to emerge later as tanks or Bulldozers. This makes me want to say damn it all in these times when everything has been reduced to chaos and compressed into meaninglessness. One's ability to reason regarding individual and public life is devastated, and it has become increasingly difficult for intellectuals to ascertain the precise meaning of one action when they must consider both the historical and modern contexts in addition to the guilt and powerlessness they feel every single moment. Under such circumstances, it undoubtedly seems unrealistic to still hang on to the traditional narrative form and archetypal characters. Although the robust reading habits of some citizens might still engender an appreciative market for this kind of writing, does it still hold meaning in and of itself?

A huge revolution in fiction came with the shift from building a hero to honoring the common people, from writing heroic legends to exploring the tragedies in the daily lives of the common people.

Changes in the portrayal of fictional characters and in narrative style always correspond to changes in contemporary society. I am yearning for a kind of novel where the main character appears as soon as I pick up my pen to write. This character could be anyone, anywhere. His entire life is a paradoxical experience on the border between public and individual experience. A series of complex and meditative relationships is built between the author and character, between the character and the true self, and between the author, character, and the world. Here, language merges with cold, hard reality and also with the glorious dreams we stubbornly cling to. Maybe it's true that we live separated from our true selves, and it's also true that we cannot plan our own futures. But inside fiction, the "I" and the "we"—with our smiles still on our lips and the tears still in our eyes—are still touchingly vivid, both praying for and yet doubting our devoted efforts. This may be the last opportunity for writers to prove that we are not entirely separated from our true selves.

Translated by Jia Yanqin and Timantha Norman

1 James R. Mellow, Hemingway: A Life Without Consequences (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1993), 562.
2 Scott Donaldson, "Introduction: Hemingway and Fame," in The Cambridge Companion to Hemingway, ed. Scott Donaldson (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), 9.

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.2

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March 2011 Issue

Volume 2, No. 2


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Table of Contents









  • Editor's Note
  • Contributors
  • Chinese Literature in Review

ON THE COVER “Hiding in the City – No. 92 Temple of Heaven” by Liu Bolin


  • Mo Yan, Frog
  • John A. Crespi, Voices in Revolution: Poetry and the Auditory Imagination in Modern China
  • Yang Lian, The Narrative Poem
  • Li Hui, The Legend of Huang Yongyu
  • Wang Xiaoni, Some Flashes of My Mind
  • Ai Mi, Hawthorn Tree Forever
  • Xi Chuan, Personal Preferences
  • Su Tong, Boat to Redemption
  • Ge Fei, The Fall of the Last Blossom

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