China's "ultra-unreal" literary movement takes inspiration from breathtaking corruption

How can Chinese novelists convey the sense of unreality of living in a country where raids on the homes of civic officials uncover so much cash that it burns out four bill-counting machines when the police try to tot it up, or when it needs to be weighed by the ton to approximate its value?

The barrage of nearly unimaginable corruption stories (the judge who died and had four widows come forward, none of whom had been aware of the others, all of whom had been married to him at the same time, thanks to marriage licenses he procured) has inspired a literary movement in China, "chaohuan," or "ultra-unrealism," that builds on the popular translations of Latin American magic realism but with Chinese characteristics, inspired by a civilization that has endured for 5,000 years with a succession of near-absolute rulers at its helm.

Novelist Ning Ken, whose latest, Three Trios, tells the story of a literary-obsessive who moves into a prison's death row to read the condemned prisoners like books, and is structured "not around chronological time, but place," explains chaohuan literature in relation to Chinese society, and sets out the four rules of writing ultra-unreal fiction:

1) Writing in the age of the ultra-unreal engages the present situation. Contemporary Chinese reality has brought about a seismic transformation to our world, and the writing of the current age should engage these enormous changes. It should engage the social issues that are the hottest topics of the popular discussion of the moment. But in engaging, it should remain strictly within the territory of literature, meaning that human beings should remain its central concern. Human beings have become as complex and multifaceted as the surface of a machine-cut diamond. The same modern technology that cuts diamonds and shapes people has ravaged the land. The state of the environment mirrors the state of our souls.

2) It is philosophically speculative. When we are critical of the world around us, we are very clear about what we are criticizing and why. But in literature worthy of the name we need to remember that in life and in human nature there is much that is not clear. In life and in human nature there are paradoxes. Some of what we do is in accord with our nature and some of what we do is at odds with our nature. The interaction of human nature and reality is exceedingly complex. There are things we can discern with clarity, and things we cannot discern with clarity. Therefore in our writing we need to allow ourselves a certain freedom.

3) It is has the quality of a fable or an allegory. Reality itself has the quality of a fable. Earlier I mentioned the short story "The History of Sound." After the "end of time," the two old folks are like an elderly Adam and Eve. One way to give fiction freedom is to maintain its "fabulous" quality.

4) It takes risks. The viewpoint of the "ultra-unreal" is a complex viewpoint; it is a complex modality of perception, and so when it becomes the foundation of fiction it changes the form fiction takes. There is risk in any change. There is an artistic risk for the writer, and if even the risk succeeds and the results are good, the reader still has to take a very big risk.

[Ning Ken/Lithub]

(via Beyond the Beyond)

(Image: Chine Yuan, Elyyo, PD)