Sheng Keyi - a brave work of speculative fiction, a cross between Cloud Atlas and 1984. In this utopia impulse and feeling are completely controlled, and every aspect of life regulated for the good of the nation, with terrible consequences

Sheng Keyi, Death Fugue, Giramondo Publishing, 2014.

Sheng Keyi was born in Hunan province in 1973 and lives in Beijing. Death Fugue is her sixth novel, and the second to be published in English translation, after Northern Girls (2012). It is a brave work of speculative fiction, a cross between Cloud Atlas and 1984, scathing in its irony, ingenious in its use of allegory, and acute in its understanding of the power of writing. The imagination that drives it is exuberant and unconstrained.

In a large square in the centre of Beiping, the capital of Dayang, a huge tower of excrement appears one day, causing unease in the population, and ultimately widespread civil unrest. The protest, in which poets play an important part, is put down violently. Haunted by the violence, and by his failure to support his girlfriend Qizi, who is one of the protest leaders, Yuan Mengliu gives up poetry in favour of medicine, and the antiseptic environment of the operating theatre. But every year he travels in search of Qizi, and on one of these trips, caught in a storm, he wakes to find himself in a perfect society called Swan Valley. In this utopia, as he soon discovers, impulse and feeling are completely controlled, and every aspect of life regulated for the good of the nation, with terrible consequences.

Death Fugue is a tale of two Chinas, but not the usual contrast of urban and rural or rich and poor in one of the world’s most unequal societies. Rather, it is a contrapuntal figuring of two opposed dreams of what China could be. ‘China Dream’ is the current mantra emanating from the country’s new supreme leader, Xi Jinping. The promise is an economically rich, militarily powerful and ideally civilised China, run by and for the Communist Party. This replaces the other dream of democracy that was crushed in the protests of 1989, in Beijing and elsewhere, when a generation tried to take China’s long revolution to a more humanistic conclusion. This dream of freedom has returned on the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks, upsetting the China Dream imposed from the north.
In Death Fugue, the novel by Sheng Keyi now published in English in a remarkable translation by Shelly Bryant, the longings of 25 years ago, personal as well as political, are remembered as occurring in a country that has been left behind. Her fictional state Dayang (Great Ocean) has at its centre a contradictorily Round Square where one day a great pile of excrement mysteriously appears, provoking concern, dissent and finally violence. This becomes known euphemistically as the Tower Incident. A literal shit-heap signifies a system mired in corruption and the ongoing stink it causes. For this outrageous image, read Tiananmen.
The idealistic young take to the streets, but their heroism proves futile against the violent apparatus of the state. In the wake of the suppression of the demonstrations at Round Square, an alternative world evolves, a futuristic Shangri-la where people can live a perfect life if they only comply. Part luxury holiday resort, part cultic retreat, Swan Valley (as it’s called) is an improved, re-ordered version of China that draws on the best from everywhere, more Switzerland than Beijing. The novel’s protagonist, a womanising middle-aged poet turned doctor, and a survivor of the Tower Incident, is teleported there. He can stay as long as he sticks to the rules, but he is sceptical and soon frustrated with this world of ersatz material perfection where everyone tries ‘to outdo the other in artistic, spiritual, or moral excellence’ under the guiding hand of the authorities.
The first to break the rules, however, is the author. Sheng Keyi’s book is a disorientating mix of satire and fantasy that restlessly challenges novelistic and other protocols. ‘Theodor Adorno said that after Auschwitz poetry was impossible,’ her hero recalls, adding, ‘but he later changed his mind.’ Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’) is a refutation of Adorno and Sheng Keyi takes Celan’s title, 死亡賦格 (siwang fuge) in Chinese, for her refutation of China’s version of Adorno’s famous aphorism: no literature after Tiananmen.
The Chinese government’s silencing of discussion of the events of 1989 has denied a generation of writers the possibility of reflecting on one of the formative ruptures of their lives. Literature has been stunted in consequence, condemned to work around a cognitive and emotional vacuum. Passionately lived values are substituted by cynicism and compromise. Writers have survived and even prospered by turning their attention as directed to the compensatory consumerist present — with satiric gusto in the case of writers such as Mo Yan and Yu Hua, and Sheng herself in an earlier novel Northern Girls: Life Goes On (2004; English edition 2012). But the imaginative pressure of that no-go zone has built, as Louisa Lim documents in The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (2014). In Death Fugue, through a slippery, elusive interchange between melancholy recall and shiny phantasmagoria, the intimate and the speculative, ‘those born in the 1960s in China’ – to whom the book is dedicated – begin to be heard in a new way.
Among the first literary responses to Tiananmen was poet Yang Lian’s The Dead in Exile, published in Canberra in 1990 — outside China. Yang (b.1955) had already left for New Zealand when the events of June 1989 occurred, having sensed that things in China were volatile. Now he would count himself metaphorically among the exiled dead of his title, along with his poet friend Gu Cheng (b.1956), who would die in a bloody murder-suicide in Auckland in 1993, and Duo Duo (b.1951), who flew from Beijing to a poetry reading in London in June 1989, where his collection Looking Out from Death was published soon after.
Duo Duo, who had worked as an agricultural journalist, travelling the length and breadth of China, was the oracle who first warned me, late in 1988, when I was working in Beijing, that if I stayed on in China for another year I would really see something. The suicide of the then little known poet Haizi (1964-89), who lay in front of a train in March 1989, came to symbolise the desperation of the time. His work now has cult status with young Chinese readers. After June 4, Liao Yiwu (b.1959) composed a long poem called ‘Massacre’, the dissemination of which led to his imprisonment. Years later, as he continued his literary activism after his release, he was refused permission to leave China, until he found his own way out surreptitiously. He is now exiled in Germany. The literary response to Tiananmen has been covert and never without its risks. ‘My Confession’, a mordant personal diary of 1989 by Ah Jian (b.1955), was written nearly 20 years later and published abroad in English in 2009. The translators preferred to remain anonymous.
Ma Jian’s (b. 1953) novel Beijing Coma (2008), translated by Flora Drew, is the most detailed of the various fictionalisations of the Tiananmen protests produced outside China to date. In an interview, Ma Jian has said:
When I write my novels, my first concern is that I live in England, so I have the freedom to write. If I were in China, I would know what I couldn’t publish or would be persecuted for, and I would be controlled by that. In England, I can write whatever I like. So I write about sensitive topics precisely because I have the freedom to, and therefore the obligation.
Such freedom has the potential downside of distance from the audience most likely to be affected by the work, and their changing sense of the meaning of the material. Beijing Coma gives a fascinating inside account of the campus debates in 1989, in which radicals were cautioned by conservatives. One of the latter, Li Keqiang, is now Premier of China. The novel’s hero ends up in a coma after the demonstrations are forcibly suppressed: that coma is an eloquent image for the paralysis that seized China’s space of ideas after Tiananmen. More recently, Yiyun Li’s Kinder than Solitude (2014) addresses the subject, as does Xiaolu Guo’s I Am China (2014), though less directly.
In Women Writers in Postsocialist China (2014), Kay Schaffer and Xianlin Song credit Hong Ying’s (b.1962) Summer of Betrayal as, for their purposes, ‘the only direct narrative to address the trauma of the Tiananmen Massacre and its aftermath written by a participant and observer of the event’. Summer of Betrayal was published in Taiwan in 1992, after the author left China for London, where it appeared in English in 1997. It has never been published in China. Schaffer and Song note, however, that ‘the Tiananmen incident’ has been ‘a catalyst’ for other writers in China, who ‘are more circumspect in their allusion to the event’, notably Chen Ran (b.1962) in A Private Life (1996; English edition 2004), where, as in Death Fugue, the author invents a ‘language of allusion’ and ‘deploys fictitious names for the locale in which the protagonist experienced a “tragic summer”, mentioning neither Tiananmen Square nor Beijing specifically by name’. For Shaffer and Song, ‘through her introspective style of writing Chen transcends the political, while also engaging in a searing critique of patriarchal relations in China and the silence surrounding the Tiananmen Square Massacre’.
Sheng Keyi’s canvas in Death Fugue is broader, her probe deeper. Her protagonist, Mengliu, has renounced his vocation as poet after the loss of Qizi, his abiding love, who plays an inspiring and heroic role in the protest movement at Round Square and is separated from him, presumed dead, in the violence and chaos that ensues. He becomes a surgeon instead, a competent professional, while continuing to look for her, or her replacement in other women. This brings him eventually to Swan Valley. He lusts and dreams, self-obsesses, self-justifies and self-pities in a characteristic way. Sheng writes him as a rich portrait of the impotent potency, or potent impotency, that has made Chinese intellectuals (mostly male) ineffectual in shouldering the obligation to change their society for the better. They feel useless, and they are.
The new China dream wants artists and thinkers to line up with official policy. That is how the Confucian precept of ‘rectifying the names’ is interpreted. The writer is expected to describe the state in a way that makes it look benign and virtuous, naming the good and shaming the bad as policy determines. The culture’s respect for the life of the mind means that intellectuals are valued when their talents serve the ruling agenda, rather than the rulers having to respond to critique from below or outside by superfluous individuals.
In Swan Valley, Mengliu’s poetic gifts are wanted. His poetry is to be reworked into a more refined idiom for the public good: to ‘serve the people’, in Chairman Mao’s foundational phrase for the People’s Republic’s cultural policy, ‘red, bright and shining’. ‘You will become a poet with impeccable character,’ the robotic spiritual leader of Swan Valley tells Mengliu. His failings as an ordinary human being will be purged in the interests of achieving perfection. ‘What use is humanity?’ the leader asks. ‘It will make a mess of everything.’
Mengliu has plenty wrong with him:
If you observed carefully, you could see clearly the traits of one who belonged to the 60s generation — teeth stained by tetracycline, a lack of calcium, shattered ideals and a perplexed idleness — rather like a mirror covered with a layer of dust that made you long to reach out and wipe it clean.
But at Round Square his poetry cuts through:
We will break the tyrant’s muzzle
And slowly make our escape.

His is ‘the crooked timber of humanity’ out of which ‘no straight thing was ever made’, in the phrase from Kant that Isaiah Berlin quoted to lash totalitarian ideologues, and which pops up here in an exchange at an art opening in Swan Valley. ‘Do you feel that Swan Valley is perfect?’ Mengliu asks. The reply comes, as ‘a waitress with a flower-trimmed apron served them onion rings, French fries, corn-breaded calamari and coffee’:
Of course, human nature, this crooked piece of wood. It is impossible for us to make anything absolutely straight.
But they are determined to try, at least on a collective level, and it’s scary.
Poets and the power of poetry are important in this story in a way that might seem exaggerated to Western readers. The written word is taken seriously in Chinese tradition, at least in theory. If names are to be rectified in accord with Confucian models, then language that offends, or undermines the official line, must be reshaped or silenced. That is why within China the writing of Tiananmen has been forbidden.
The contrast with visual art is revealing. A new Chinese avant-garde found its creative energy in the dissenting atmospherics of the late 1980s and went on to achieve international fame and fortune. Though suspect, art was harder to police. Text is easier to read literally, to scan and censor; images can baffle simplistic interpretation. How ironic that some of the most iconic works by leading contemporary Chinese artists manage to evoke the state’s June 4 violence against its citizens elliptically enough to avoid retribution. Zhang Xiaogang’s enigmatically empty ‘Tiananmen Square’ (1993), for example, sold for $2.3 million at auction in Hong Kong in 2006, while the overt cheerfulness of Shanghai artist Yu Youhan’s ‘Flowery Bicycle’, a key piece in the collection of the Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane, is poignantly undercut by its telling inscription: 1989.
Sometimes, however, an artist can be too literal. Chinese-Australian artist Guo Jian commemorated the anniversary of the Tiananmen protests in his studio outside Beijing this year with an artwork that consisted of a replica of the Square covered with 160 kilograms of bloody pork. He was detained and deported.
Writers can be accorded great respect and can be treated well, but their work comes under scrutiny because of the prestige and permanence of their medium. Nor is their work as immediately legible across the borders of language to an international community that might speak out on their behalf. Artist Ai Weiwei (b.1957) is the master provocateur in this cultural space. His father Ai Qing was a poet, a revolutionary who became vice-chairman of the Chinese Writers’ Association after his post-Cultural Revolution rehabilitation in 1979. This distinguished lineage still indirectly helps his son as he calculates his clever, courageous moves.
Sheng Keyi wants to wipe the mirror clean for her poet, which is what a determined writer can do. Too young to have experienced Tiananmen directly — she saw the Orwellian propaganda version on television in her home town as a teenager — she unleashes her imagination in order to understand the dialectic between what happened then and what China is becoming now. Mengliu is the everyman offspring of a one-night-stand between an orphan soldier and a country girl, his missing mother. He quests for this eternal feminine across the novel’s surreal topography, only to find her morphed into something unrecognisable and unreachable. While he appreciates the tasteful opulence of Swan Valley — the golden toilet bowls, the antique furniture and stained glass, the diamonds used as marbles — he also recognises it as a clinical re-education site, a sanatorium of total surveillance. When he makes a move on an attractive woman who seems to want him, an alarm goes off. ‘You still don’t get it,’ she says. ‘Swan Valley prohibits sexual intercourse.’ That is because of its policy of ruthless eugenics in service of creating a superior race. ‘We use artificial insemination,’ she goes on. ‘A clean, painless little procedure.’
The leaders of Swan Valley have improved on their foundational text, Thomas More’s Utopia, with a book on The Principles of Genetics. Mengliu is matched with his ideal genetic partner, a woman he doesn’t like, and the procedure happens:
their offspring would be a one-hundred-per-cent prodigy … the most perfect creation in history … Strong genes build strong countries … when a country is involved in international conflict it is a contest based on the quality of the people and their knowledge … riches and power begin with good genes, grasping the spirit of education … from birth … We … will capture the world’s attention in a few years.
So the theory goes. It would be terrifying if such passages couldn’t also be read as screwball comedy, an absurd parody of some of the more extreme, totalising Chinese rhetoric today. The ideology of perfection leads to death camps: in Swan Valley elimination of unwanted people happens early and late. ‘Flawed, rejected babies are discarded’ at a waste disposal site, while the nursing home for the sick and elderly is secretly a crematorium: ‘This is a place where they burn you alive,’ says one escapee. The beauty of Swan Valley is a façade behind which a prison cell and a torture chamber are revealed as the novel goes on. The tortures inflicted on women in the name of reproduction — a recurrent theme for Sheng Keyi — are the worst: ‘She had never been master of her own body,’ one character observes of a woman who becomes a sacrificial victim.
Yet the grand project is under pressure, as an epidemic proves uncontrollable and Swan Valley’s hospitals can’t cope. The cost of perfection is too high. Even the attempt to produce poetry to order is doomed to fail: ‘People in shackles only write shackled poetry.’ After Mengliu confronts this reality in the final shock of an accelerating plot, he can return to the world he came from, to a role as advisor on a film about the ‘Tower Incident’ called Death Fugue. ‘Sometimes art is the only means by which we may find out the truth …’ is the voice he heeds at the end.
In Sheng’s imagination, the flawed idealistic humanism of Tiananmen has mutated into something like its opposite, glorious and terrible, a boundless fantasy of power, riches, environmental control and non-natural selection. Yet the further Mengliu journeys, the more inescapably the past casts its dark shadows on the gleaming, perfumed present and the more inconsolable he feels.
Death Fugue extends the counterpoint of historically located realism and strange fantasy in Sheng Keyi’s earlier work. In her story ‘A Village of Cold Hearths’, set in a rural village during the catastrophic famines of 1958-61, the account of the desperation and cruelty of the villagers is given an original twist by the nightly appearance of an irresistible fish-woman. A young farmer falls in love with her, only to sacrifice her to the exigencies of material survival. His magical fish lover feeds and haunts his being, like a creature from the classic compendium of stories he reads, Strange Tales from Liaozhai Studio – the author’s signal that her own ghostly tale deals with what is unseen, as much as what is there to be seen. Female consciousness and the plenitude of a female life force are cannibalised by male desire and domination, expressed in destructively political forms.
Northern Girls: Life Goes On, Sheng Keyi’s full-length novel published in China in 2004, is a female picaresque that follows the divergent fates of two young women from the backblocks who head for the freewheeling Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen in the 1990s. In this epicentre of China’s export-led boom, they encounter all the predations of the times, where every opportunity is tainted with exploitation and treachery. The girl who dreams ends up tragically ruined. Her friend, Xiaohong, is sharper and stronger in her large-breasted individuality and lives to struggle another day. In an afterword for the English translation, the author writes:
Like many who make up the lowest strata of society, she possesses an impregnable vigour and vitality. In her honest way of living, she penetrates the duality of those around her.
Xiaohong takes responsibility for herself, empathises with others, acts or resists as necessary. Her survival impulse ‘drives her ever forward’, Sheng tells us, ‘a reality that many are forced to live through’ in today’s China. Northern Girls is a warm tribute to these Chinese women, as well as a flaying expose of the brutal sexual politics they must deal with.
Schaffer and Song find in Sheng’s writing ‘a rare insight, energy, and vitality’, noting how her protagonists posit ‘sexual desires as innate, instinctual and natural for women and men, only to be exposed to political, social and sexual inequality within an exploitive economic environment and an exacting patriarchal social system’. At the same time, they enjoy the ‘sardonic humour and narrative irony’ as China’s ‘much-glorified economic reforms’ are exposed from below by these migrant women for their human cost.
The women in Death Fugue exist in a more rarefied space. They are highly cultivated, but always with a teasing ambivalence about their duty to Swan Valley and their attraction to Mengliu. From Northern Girls to this new book there is a transformation of genre and theme, extending the author’s feminist analysis of both the politically courageous late-1980s and the overweening, utopian society that has been conjured into existence as an alternative. Male fantasy, its manipulation and its limits, is explored here with an oscillating insider-outsider perspective, marked, at one ludic extreme, by the repeated references to women’s breasts as fruit. As Mengliu sees it, his Swan Valley lover’s ‘chest boasted a pair of loaded coconuts, uniquely lethal weapons with which to wage her revolution … a potent pair of aphrodisiac tear-gas canisters’. The personal is political indeed.
The writing is sometimes quivering, feverish, wild, given to pursuit of similitudes in a Chinese style that is here more yin than yang. Compare, for instance, Mo Yan’s grounded animal earthiness in Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (2006) with Sheng’s flickering, code-switching image-making in some of the most intense passages of the book, where it is as if a fox spirit from Strange Tales from Liaozhai Studio has taken over the writing. These stylistic excesses have the effect of dizzying and unsettling the reader, especially when they are interspersed with grand, abstract inquiry. Such writing can be understood in terms of a prismatic changing of positions, where nothing is fixed. In this, it revels in the looser protocols of Chinese fiction, whether romance or erotica.
Sheng’s fantastically overheated story ‘An Inexperienced World’ portrays an older woman writer who desires the athletic young man sitting opposite her in a train compartment. She is alternately the woman who feels with an overwhelmingly intensity and the writer who overrides such feeling. A world of experience confronts a world of inexperience, as the protagonist understands it. The ‘identity of “writer” is draped on her like a tiger’s skin’, turning her clarity of perception into a kind of torment: ‘The outsider’s role creates a sense of disgust, filling the woman with self-loathing …’ Conflicted identifications, interiorities, roles and wants constitute a pathology. There can be no point of view that is not turning on itself.
Death Fugue depicts a world of deforming power and abused desire collapsing under the weight of hubristic self-creation. Grotesquerie, lyricism, anomie, cool humour and ironic grandiosity play together in a fugal manner, now andante, now scherzo, always returning to the vision of doom from which this world is in flight. While Celan may be Sheng’s reference point, a closer affinity is with the chronicling of disintegrative excess that overflows its bounds in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) or in Joseph Roth’s manic prose or, in a quite different context,  in the work of Philip K. Dick. Plenty of Death Fugue is gorgeous, overwrought or tongue-in-cheek, as it bleeds into soft porn and sci-fi at the edges. Much of it has a shocking immediacy, especially the scenes at the Square, rendered in subtly attentive prose of gripping power. More surprising, and moving, is the eloquent urgency of the argument, as in the novel’s final address:
Some may think that freedom of expression depends upon one’s environment, but I want to say to all poets and writers and artists that the environment shouldn’t be the real issue. The real environment is in your mind. If you have a flame in your heart, then you can make any kind of water boil.
Anyone remotely interested in an insider’s untrammelled, authoritative vision of what’s going on in China will jump into this fascinating cauldron of a novel, at risk of being boiled alive. - Nicholas Jose

Death Fugue, Sheng Keyi's second novel to be translated into English after Northern Girls, is, at its core, an absurdist take on the legacy of June 4, 1989, and the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government still in place today.
At the heart of the novel lies Yuan Mengliu, a poet who gave up poetry to become a doctor in the aftermath of a Tiananmen Square-like protest movement that occurs in a fictitious country called Dayang.
Unable to handle the government's violent suppression of the idealistic young students and poets, the deaths of his friends and colleagues, Yuan abandons writing and retreats into the clinical world of surgery.
At the same time he seeks solace in the arms of a multitude of young, attractive women. Once a year he heads out in search of his lost love, one of the protest's leaders who disappeared during its bloody conclusion.
On one of these trips a storm sends Yuan's boat to a land that at first appears to be a perfect society where creativity is praised above all else.
Far from being a utopian world, however, it is a tightly controlled society where sex is forbidden even in marriage, where torture is permitted, and where the elderly and genetically imperfect are cast aside. As reality dawns, Yuan tries to find a way out.
Sheng creates vivid worlds filled with over-the-top imagery, parodies and metaphors that are destined to leave a lasting impression but can at times detract from the narrative of the book.
The protest that anchors the book begins when a huge pile of excrement mysteriously appears overnight in Round Square. When the government announces that it is simply a nine-storey-high pile of gorilla faeces, citizens take to the streets to protest against what they see as a huge governmental cover-up. Events snowball from there.
The book's absurdity at times borders on the ridiculous, but never feels entirely unbelievable in a novel that doesn't try to hide its overall parallels with events that happened in China's recent past.
Yet on many occasions the novel fails to hit the mark. The story switches between the different time periods and so we see the young Yuan surrounded by impassioned protesters, the older Yuan chasing women, and the Yuan trapped in the dystopian world he's washed up in, but the transitions aren't seamless and the characters often feel like representatives of types rather than real people the reader should care about.
Despite this, Death Fugue, with its jarring and intense symbolism, is likely to leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads it. - Kit Gillet

Sheng Keyi has gone from promising talent, to established writer, to banned author in the space of six novels. Her breakthrough novel, Northern Girls, saw Sheng hailed as one of the brightest writers of her generation when it was published in 2004 and brought her global fame upon its release in English in 2012. But her latest novel Death Fugue, the English translation of which has just been published, was banned in Mainland China.
Where Northern Girls told the story of Qian Xiaohong, an economic migrant from the north of China seeking fame and fortune in the coastal boomtowns of the south, Death Fugue – deftly translated into English by Shelly Bryant – is at first glance a total departure. Named after a poem about Nazi concentration camps by Jewish poet Paul Celan, her sixth novel is a thinly-veiled metaphor for the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Set in fictional Beiping (a former name for Beijing), the book opens with a huge pile of faeces that has mysteriously appeared in Round Square. The government is quick to point fingers, blaming gorillas (animals not fighters). When people fail to swallow the proverbial crap, civil protests ensue.
In the aftermath, young poet Yuan Mengliu searches for a new identity. Haunted by his failure to save his girlfriend Qizi, one of the missing protest leaders, he sets out on a quest to find her. This takes him to Swan Valley, a false utopia where every aspect of life is regulated ‘for the good of the nation’, with devastating consequences. Sheng lightens the heavy subject matter with an absurdist touch. As in Northern Girls, the author uses exaggerated imagery, vivid language and metaphor to render modern China’s most urgent social issues as she sees them.
Despite plentiful accolades, Sheng’s allegorical style has not always gone down well. The Los Angeles Review of Books called her description of the female anatomy ‘unpolished and sensationalist’. Yet Sheng clearly has a genuine passion for such subjects. ‘I love short girls with big breasts,’ she says. ‘They have such a powerful vitality to them. Breasts are women’s secondary sexual characteristic. They have their own meaning, and when you encounter breasts, you encounter gender.’
Gender is a favourite topic of the author, who puts up no front when it comes to her personal presentation. Often dressed plainly, she rarely does book tours. In press shots she wears sunglasses or a flat cap that almost covers her eyes.
Born in Hunan province in 1973, Sheng grew up in a small farming village in Yiyang prefecture. She first moved to China’s manufacturing hub Shenzhen in the ’90s before settling in Shenyang, where she established herself as one of the ‘female writers of Guangdong’ – an informal writing collective including Wei Hui, author of Shanghai Baby.
A member of the ‘post-70s’ generation of writers, Sheng bridges the Cultural Revolution era and the post-80s kids who have grown up with economic reform and gained fame for their bold, if not naive, portrayal of modern China. Sheng’s early work stood out, winning her China’s Most Promising New Talent award in 2003.
One decade on, how does she feel the country has changed? ‘China’s growth over the last ten years has had some negative consequences: more and more normal people can’t afford to buy a house; food is becoming increasingly unsafe; and problems with education are becoming ever more serious. On the plus side, the household registration system is improving, which means people from the countryside who have worked in the cities long-term are entitled to the same treatment as urban residents,’ she says.
She also feels public opinion has become more constricted. In September 2013, guidelines were issued that saw internet users jailed for writing posts that spread rumours online. In April of this year, eight erotic fiction sites, or ‘slash fiction’ sites, were shut down and their staff arrested. In July, the Government warned domestic journalists to keep to official state media outlets. Death Fugue is partly a response to this.
‘I wrote Death Fugue as a political statement. The story involved revolution, betrayal, love, totalitarianism and history, and it had the feel of science fiction. It was completely different from anything I had ever written before. Though Northern Girls was a tragedy, writing it was a very novel and fun experience for me. Writing Death Fugue felt arduous,’ she says. ‘My mood when I wrote each of these two works was completely different.’ - Sheng Keyi

Despite the gloom, both works are ultimately stories of survival. The challenges of Qian Xiaohong in Northern Girls and the collapse in the ideals of the poet in Death Fugue are overcome as they reinvent themselves in a morally degraded society. It’s a determination that’s present in Sheng herself, who says, ‘I try my hardest to maintain my individuality. I want to create more freedom in my work.’
Sheng Keyi was only just too young to have witnessed the infamous crackdown in Tiananmen Square firsthand. A teenager in rural Hunan Province, she and her family watched the events unfold on television, where state-run media told a story of student protesters inciting violence and acting criminally. She knew no better than to believe it. Three years later, at nineteen, Sheng would leave home for the first time and go to Shenzhen, a booming city full of young migrant workers like herself. There, she would make friends who were only a few years her senior who had participated in the protests, and she would experience a kind of political awakening.
Sheng has been clear in interviews and in the author’s note that accompanies the book’s press release, that Death Fugue, her sixth novel and the second to appear in English, is a political allegory, the product of the Tiananmen moment, and reckons with the possibilities for China’s future. Shelly Bryant’s translation of this sprawling and chaotic novel is tireless and keeps up with Sheng’s often exhausting twists and turns. The novel follows the at times absurd journey of Yuan Mengliu, an orphan and erstwhile poet, as he grapples with the personal and political fallout of a pivotal political moment in his country’s history.
That moment centers around an enormous column of excrement. In the main square of a fictional city called Beiping, the nine-story tower suddenly appears, provoking students and others to protest after the government explains it away as mere gorilla dung and quickly removes it. Mengliu gets swept up in the protests only because his friends and girlfriend, Qizi, have enthusiastically taken up the cause. But an emotional breakup sends Mengliu into a deep depression, while Qizi sails to the top of the movement’s leadership before she disappears in the government crackdown on the square. Frankly, this plot alone would have made for an excellent 375 pages of reading, but this is only how Death Fugue begins.
But many of the more interesting questions and details in the Tower Incident sections are glossed over, missed opportunities for deepening the world of political dissent and distrust in the novel. Little is made, for example, of the numerous conspiracy theories that arise in the wake of the incident, with only passing mention of aliens and speculation about a “monster man.” Intellectuals do write about and respond—in prose and in verse—to the government cover-up, but we read very little of this material, left instead to imagine it.
When an apathetic Mengliu peruses a wall near his home where people go to pin notices, pamphlets, and anti-government screeds, he finds two poems written by his best friends: “They were written with a lot of passion. He was so excited that he fell into a fit of coughing.” But we don’t get to experience these poems, nor are we made to understand what Mengliu’s excitement means in light of the political movement growing around him. In fact, in this novel about poets, no poem appears until page 69.
The bulk of Death Fugue takes place some twenty years after the Tower Incident. Mengliu, now a womanizing surgeon who has sworn off poetry, wanders into a utopian society called Swan Valley after getting caught in a storm while on an annual trip to search for Qizi. Here, the novel shifts all at once from allegorical realism to dystopian fantasy. With its beautiful women, solid gold toilets, children who engage in philosophical debate, and relentless proselytizing about freedom and kindness, Swan Valley is a kind of new age, Huxleyesque, techno-theocracy where the populace is blissfully apolitical and genetics determines everything, from vocation to marriage. It is, of course, too good to be true.
The leaders of Swan Valley are especially eager to goad Mengliu into writing poetry again—specifically, an ode to Swan Valley. In fact, it is of such importance to them that Mengliu is badgered about it wherever he goes. The problem is that the Swanese are happy to see poetry as a bourgeois pastime, to fetishize it for its aesthetic qualities and strip it of its power to dissent and disrupt. When asked by one of Swan Valley’s more prominent citizens to compose a pastoral idyll, Mengliu gets prickly: “what a foolish suggestion that was—to rattle off a few simple pastoral stanzas and recover his fucking poetic identity. Only the people of Swan Valley had the idle time to treat poetry—a bold and powerful mastiff—like a pug.”
One thing that only becomes clear in the Swan Valley sections is that Mengliu has a good deal of respect for poetry and its potential to inspire change, even if it failed to do so during the Tower Incident. Whether this has always been the case (Mengliu remembers a poet friend who, with surprising conviction and rage, committed suicide during the demonstrations), or he is merely annoyed and pushing back against the Swanese, who insist he write again, is difficult to say. Mengliu’s refusal to write poetry does feel much more a matter of personal despair at losing the love of his life, Qizi, than it does a moral or political stance. At the same time, much of Mengliu’s despair stems from an important historical and political moment that his country has since silenced.
Despite its length, Death Fugue doesn’t linger on this question long enough for us to understand Mengliu’s motivations, in part because he is too distracted by his pursuits of the various women around him. Plagued by uncontrollable lust, especially for a Swanese woman, Su Juli, who takes him in when he arrives, Mengliu is in a constant state of arousal. This state yields some of the most dubious writing in the novel: “He felt her firm body warming quickly against him, becoming as hot and floury as a baked potato. All at once he knew how to strip the skin off the potato and consume the soft flesh inside it.” Worse, Mengliu vows on more than one occasion to “take” Juli whether she is willing or not, and is prone to misogynist generalizations about women: “He felt that a man should never engage in a war of words with a woman. A woman was like candy, and all you needed to do was keep her in your mouth and allow her to soften quietly until her hardness had completely disappeared.”
That Death Fugue is so sexually charged is not itself the problem. Sheng’s provocative approach could be refreshing and lighten a novel posing some very serious questions. But these passages—and there are a great many—remain unconnected to the overall political project of the book. There is only levity, when there could be much more. Many have read Swan Valley as a metaphor for present-day China, or for an ideal China of the future. Surely, in this metaphor, there is room for an exploration of desire, violence, and self-loathing?
It is a shame because there is otherwise so much to be excited about in Death Fugue. Sheng is only forty-one years old. She came up through poverty and the migrant working class. When word reached her village back in Hunan that she had become a famous writer, the local Communist Party leadership, not having any idea what Sheng’s books were about, invited her father to join the party. Sheng is nothing short of a superstar in China. But publishers there, including those who know Sheng and her work well, wouldn’t take Death Fugue, and Penguin China, who published her first book, Northern Girls, in English, never replied to her at all. To say this isn’t a brave book would be unfair. There are moments of real clarity and elegance in Death Fugue. It is full of clever observations, energy, wit, imaginativeness, and endless lush, colorful landscapes that toe the line between the beautiful and the fantastical. Its absurdity, while at times wholly unhinged, is also at times exciting and funny, as when Sheng describes the Beipingese language: “Sadly, there was no beauty in the language of Beiping, and its writing was ugly. For instance, the words ‘Long Live Democracy’ were inscribed ‘WlOrj ldlNOr!’” 
Death Fugue is long, vulgar, over the top, and addresses China’s most taboo subject. It is nothing short of ambitious and risky. But Sheng sought a provocative book, a place to say what she cannot say elsewhere. “A novel must have the power to offend,” she writes in her author’s note. Whether or not the reader can endure the provocation is another matter entirely.  - Amanda Calderon
This allegorical tale follows a womanising doctor living with the repercussions of his involvement in a mass anti-government movement. In a world that feels parallel with China, Yuan Mengliu is a poet who followed the charismatic protest leader Qizi into the streets to fight a dictatorial regime. Unable to save Qizi from a dark fate, he abandons poetry for medicine. Once a year he allows himself to search for her. His travels lead him to Swan Valley, a ‘perfect society’ and totalitarian nightmare where torture, forced labour and execution reign supreme over human expression.
Death Fugue is a mix of satirical adventuring, dreamy youthful romance, silly metaphor and brutal Orwellian terror. It’s all entertainingly jarring thanks to the author’s wry sense of humour. This type of parody – a mix of high- and low-brow – has been much more common in post-communist literature in Russia and Asia than in the Western world. Regardless of how unusual local audiences will find the style, the most compelling aspect of this unsettling tale is its unspoken but clear subject.
There’s no denying Sheng Keyi’s scatological absurdism makes for a messy allegory – this is an outrageous world where the struggle for freedom frequently crosses paths with unglamorous bodily functions. But this reflects a very dirty and uncomfortable secret that haunts contemporary China. Much as some might want to, the author’s generation cannot escape a legacy of suppression and brutality, and this is a wild, bold attempt to navigate that legacy.
While the Chinese government did not disclose overall spending on domestic security this year, for the past three years it has spent more on internal security than on its military budget. This is a sign it fears its own people’s thirst for freedom and equality more than any international threat. However quirky Keyi’s execution, for an author to tackle such a taboo subject in this context is extraordinarily brave. - Chris Dite

Chinese Writer, Tackling Tiananmen, Wields ‘Power to Offend’

Sheng Keyi, Northern Girls: Life Goes On, e-penguin, 2012.

Qian Xiaohong is born into a sleepy Hunan village, where the new China rush towards development is a mere distant rumour. A buxom, naïve sixteen-year-old, she yearns to leave behind hometown scandal, and joins the mass migration to the bustling boomtown of Shenzhen. There, she must navigate dangerous encounters with ruthless bosses, jealous wives, sympathetic hookers and corrupt policemen as she tries to find her place in the ever-evolving society.
Hardship and tragedy are in no short supply as her journey takes her through a grinding succession of dead end jobs. To help her through this confusing maze, Xiaohong finds solace in the close ties she makes with the other migrant girls – the community of her fellow 'northern girls' – who quickly learn to rely on each other for humour and the enjoyment of life's simple pleasures.
A beautiful coming-of-age novel, Northern Girls explores the inner lives of a generation of young, rural Chinese women who embark on life-changing journeys in search of something better.

“CHINESE FICTION IS HOT,” announced an October 23, 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek article by Christina Larson, which described an increased Western appetite for English translations of Chinese literature. This rise in interest began well before Mo Yan became the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in Literature that month. Penguin Books established its China division in 2005, the first of several Western publishing houses to arrive in the country seeking to serve as a bridge between Chinese- and English-language readers. The company made a big splash early on when it spent an astounding $100,000 on the English rights to Jiang Rong’s best-selling novel Wolf Totem. Though Jiang Rong has hardly become the household name among foreign readers that it is in China, Penguin’s move might be more important for signifying the company’s dedication to translation; Penguin China now releases a handful of translated novels each year.
But what to translate?
The Chinese literary market is massive, fragmented, and of uneven quality, as Julia Lovell documented in an essay for the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Asian Studies. Publishers often churn out books barely touched by an editor’s hand, while novels posted in online forums to evade state censorship might be widely read but poorly written. Genres popular in China, such as the “officialdom novels” chronicling the trials and tribulations of civil servants, might not make much sense to readers outside of China, unless they happen to have plot points that resonate with events making headlines (one recent work in the genre involves a fallen bureaucrat facing execution for corruption). And while foreign publishers like Penguin have certainly seen an uptick in Western interest in Chinese fiction, that growth started from a low level. Even Mo Yan might not really crack the U.S. market once the Nobel glow fades. After all, while the Paris-based Chinese writer in exile Gao Xingjian became globally famous when he won his Nobel in 2000, his novels are far from best-sellers.
But, cynical though it may sound, sex sells.
Thus it might not be surprising that Penguin China has chosen to release an English translation of Sheng Keyi’s 2004 novel, Bei Mei, or Northern Girls: Life Goes On. Sheng’s book, translated by Shelly Bryant, is a raunchy and provocative account of the lives of “Northern Girls,” young women who moved from rural China to the manufacturing boomtowns of the country’s southern coast during the 1990s and early 2000s (a topic explored, much more sedately, by journalist Leslie T. Chang in Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China). Sheng herself was a migrant laborer in the 1990s, before she turned to a writing career in 2001 and Northern Girls draws on her observations of life in the south for its material. In fact, Sheng writes in a new afterword, “[t]he hardships they [migrant laborers] encounter are actually more shocking than anything I’ve recorded, reaching well beyond the scope of what is represented in my novel.” This is, sadly, difficult to imagine.
The book’s protagonist, 16-year-old middle-school dropout Qian Xiaohong, is blessed — or cursed? — with enormous breasts, “much too large for civilised, polite society.” In the small Hunan province village where she’s grown up, Xiaohong’s real sin isn’t her figure — no one, of course, can blame her for that — but rather the pleasure she takes in flaunting it. Caught in bed with her brother-in-law, Xiaohong flees the village, first for work in a nearby town, then for the opportunities offered by the southern city of Shenzhen.
Xiaohong’s physical attributes attract both attention and suspicion, as men and women alike are fascinated by her but also wary of how her presence might destabilize their lives. This preoccupation with Xiaohong’s breasts, however, leads almost everyone in the novel to underestimate her mind; principled, shrewd, and ambitious, Xiaohong refuses to sell her body, either as a prostitute or surrogate mother. She works in a hair salon, a toy factory, a hotel, and a hospital, each move vaulting her another rung up the ladder, as Xiaohong exaggerates her skills and reinvents herself bit by bit. When confronted with her inability to speak an unfamiliar dialect, Xiaohong articulates what turns out to be her guiding principle: “Then we learn! There’s nothing that can’t be learned.”
The other half of that “we” is Li Sijiang, another Northern Girl who accompanies Xiaohong to Shenzhen and proves her most loyal companion in the alien city. The wholesome and innocent Sijiang wants no part of the drama that Xiaohong thrives on; she’s content to trudge along in her friend’s shadow, merely hoping to earn enough money to open a hair salon of her own, marry, and settle down. Xiaohong’s dreams are vague, though it’s surely not a coincidence that the “Qian” of her surname is also the Chinese character for “money.” But she dreams big: “Can I be the big boss of a company? Will I make loads of money? Become famous?”
Plenty of obstacles stand in the way of Xiaohong and Sijiang achieving their goals. Xiaohong initially imagines Shenzhen as “a romantic city that seemed to have risen right out of the lines of a poem, its streets filled with dignified men.” In fact, she and Sijiang find the metropolis gritty and the men predatory, quick to exploit the girls’ lack of sophistication. Sijiang proves especially vulnerable, and some of Sheng’s most moving passages come when Sijiang first reluctantly aborts a pregnancy and later mistakenly undergoes a forced sterilization at the hands of the family planning authorities. The men of Northern Girls are almost entirely unredeemed: some are conniving and exploitative; some are weak and conflicted. None are a good catch, and all of the Northern Girls seem better off on their own.
But when Xiaohong is present, there are always men, mesmerized by her breasts before them. Though Xiaohong professes an interest in having a boyfriend, she never pursues a lasting relationship, instead treating sexual desire as an itch to be scratched with any man available. Sheng seems uncertain about the message she wants to convey regarding sex and gender dynamics in the migrant communities of Shenzhen. In the Wild Wild West of China’s south, are women free to do as they like and sleep with whomever they please? Or, at the end of the day, do conservative traditional gender norms still prevail? At times, Xiaohong is assertive and confident, sure that she can manipulate any man in her path (even the policemen, whose authority instills fear in other migrant workers), and she appears indifferent to gossip about her exploits. But when one of her lovers professes his love for her, she refuses to believe him, because “[t]here was no reason for him to really love a girl who had worked in a salon and a hotel, nor was there a reason for any man to.” And although throughout the book Xiaohong has consistently examined marriage and found it wanting (at one point, Xiaohong sees a bride and describes her as “bound” by the jewelry she wears), toward the end of the novel, she suddenly wishes her life were a bit more like her sister’s: “Even though her brother-in-law liked to have his fun, the couple always slept side by side, quarreled with one another, made love and worked together in the fields.” Despite this momentary longing for a more settled life, Xiaohong remains in Shenzhen to continue her endless search for something more ... whatever that indescribable “something” is.
Xiaohong can be a frustrating protagonist — what does she really want out of life? — but she is also, despite all her experience, a teenage girl far from home struggling to thrive in a chaotic environment. A little uncertainty is understandable, given how frequently she hops jobs and even industries. When nothing is fixed from one week to the next, imagining two or three years into the future must seem impossible.
Even her body changes toward the novel’s end, destabilizing Xiaohong’s view of herself. Her breasts inexplicably start growing again, swelling in size until they literally cause her to fall to the ground. Xiaohong is no longer voluptuous and sexy; in the book’s final pages, she ages by the paragraph:
Her feet were still plodding forward at a steady pace, like an old beggar woman. [...] She saw a bus stop about five hundred metres away. Five hundred metres! But honestly, even if it was just five metres, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to make it. She couldn’t carry on, couldn’t manage to move those two sacks of rice any further. She no longer thought of them as breasts, but as two beggar’s sacks, waiting to be filled up with life and achievement. They were not a source of happiness or pleasure. They just kept weighing her down, pulling her down towards the ground.
In Northern Girls, Penguin China isn’t offering English-language audiences the cream of the Chinese fiction crop; the book is less The Great Gatsby than Fifty Shades of Grey. Instead, this translation enables foreign readers to learn, from someone who has been there, about the lives of young women on the margins in the ever-changing landscape of urban China. Sheng’s writing is occasionally unpolished and sensationalist, and the intermittent appearance of a narrator who addresses the reader is distracting. Nevertheless, the book as a whole comes across as a primal scream, a demand that readers acknowledge the financial, emotional, legal, and sexual exploitation suffered by millions of Northern Girls who have migrated to China’s cities in search of work.
Northern Girls ends on an ambiguous note, leaving Xiaohong one among the crowd on the streets of Shenzhen. Sijiang, broken and defeated, has returned to Hunan; the body that she once flaunted has become unrecognizable to Xiaohong. But she’s still clever and ambitious, so perhaps the future isn’t so bleak. As the English subtitle says, “Life Goes On.” - Maura Elizabeth Cunningham 

Northern Girls: interview with author Sheng Keyi

Book Cover:  Fields of White: Penguin Special

Sheng Keyi, Fields of White, e-Penguin, 2014.

Jason is a thirty-something, white-collar salesman on the verge of a mid-life crisis. The threat of redundancy and the demands of the multiple women in his life - wife, mistress and a business client with whom professional and personal boundaries have begun to blur – compound the symptoms of a mysterious affliction that appears to be taking over his body. When the seemingly separate strands of Jason's life start to converge, he discovers that the reality he knows and commands never existed in the first place . . .
From Man Asian Literary Prize nominee Sheng Keyi comes an offbeat and true-to-life tale of the inconstancy of modern life.