Chen Xiwo: Rebel, by Harvey Thomlinson

46-Logo makedoTo continue our countdown to Chen Xiwo’s visit to Leeds on October 9th, Make-Do Publishing‘s Harvey Thomlinson tells us about Chen, his work, and his refusal to compromise. 

In June 2007, the Fuzhou office of China Customs intercepted a package addressed to a teacher of comparative literature at a local university. The customs officers ascertained that the package contained twelve copies of a book that had been mailed by a Taiwanese publisher to the academic, who was in fact its author. The book, a collection of short novels called The Book of Sins (冒犯书) was quickly deemed ‘prohibited’ because it contained the ‘pornographic’ and ‘anti-human’ novella I Love My Mum.

What happened next was possibly unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic of China. The author, Chen Xiwo, launched a legal case against China Customs for confiscating his book. For centuries, Chinese writers had more or less accepted the right of the authorities to act as censors of their work. If a work was banned then writers would typically agree to make a self-criticism. But Chen Xiwo went to court, and an uproar exploded in the Chinese media at the absurdity of a writer having his own book confiscated.

The scandal surrounding Chen Xiwo’s novel I Love My Mum in many ways epitomizes a writing career characterized by a refusal to compromise. Chen Xiwo is a child of the Cultural Revolution, and his work preserves the flavour of that Zeitgeist: the demand for an impossible ‘purity’, coupled with first-hand knowledge of the amoral darkness at the heart of human nature. Above all, an appetite for unrelenting struggle. For many years Chen went unpublished. Even when, in the early 2000s, he began to win recognition and prizes, his work continued to divide opinion due to its pessimistic view of human nature and its preoccupation with dark sexuality.

In 2007, The Book of Sins was published by China’s prestigious People’s Literature Publishing House (Renmin Wenxue Chubanshe). For some, this collection represents the pinnacle of Chen’s writing career to date. Like the Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Decalogue film series, each story was supposedly inspired by one of the Ten Commandments. However, one story was missing from the collection as published in China – deemed beyond the pale even for a collection of such literary merit: I Love My Mum.

Even those who are not generally inclined to side with China’s censors may feel some empathy in this case. I Love My Mum concerns one of the deepest human taboos, incest – and it doesn’t pull its punches. Because of its status as a cause célèbre and the extreme reactions it provokes, I Love My Mum has in many ways become the work by which Chen’s writing is judged.

Chen Xiwo is from Fujian province, which he credits with having helped to shape his values. Fujian, in southeast China, adjacent to Taiwan, has historically been on the margins of the Chinese empire, usually receiving attention from emperors only in times of crisis. Fujian was also one of the first parts of China to feel the influence of western cultures, both in the late Qing dynasty, when the area enjoyed a commercial flourishing, and in the 1980s after Deng launched his opening-up policy and it became the host of one of China’s special economic zones. Yet in the first half of the twentieth century, on the ‘frontline’ of many of the conflicts that consumed China in those decades, Fujian became poor. These currents combined to give the province the flavour of a region apart, and may have helped contribute to what Chen describes as his ‘distance’ from the Chinese mainstream.

In the 1980s, Chen Xiwo got the chance to go to college where he studied with ‘Misty Poetry’ school poet Sun Shao Zhen (孙绍振.) Unsurprisingly, Chen was a radical student, to the forefront of the debate and ferment that developed in a more liberal intellectual climate in the middle of the decade. His parents grew concerned that he would get into trouble and decided to send him to study abroad. With prescient timing, he left for Australia in 1989, just a few months before the Tiananmen uprising. The events of 4 June confirmed Chen’s belief that it was better for the moment for him to develop his career outside of China. He soon moved to Tokyo where he embarked on a PhD in comparative literature, and altogether Chen was to remain away from China for seven years.

It wasn’t only developments in China that kept him away for so long, however; he had embarked on a love affair with Japan and Japanese literature. It was during this period in Japan that many of Chen’s important preoccupations as a writer took shape. Out of sympathy with prevailing realist currents in Chinese literature, he admired Japanese writers’ characteristic concern with individual psychology rather than social responsibility, with weirdness rather than conformity. His affinity for the dark concision of writers like Yukio Mishima and Junichiro Tanizaki is evident in his own work.

Chen’s stay in Japan also allowed him to further develop his interest in the theme of ‘perverse’ sexuality — although he disavows the term, as he regards all sexuality as ‘perverse’. To fund his studies Chen worked for a time as a Tokyo ‘mama-san,’ which may have influenced the topic of his ultimately unfinished comparative literature doctoral thesis: S&M. Chen’s view that ‘sex is always the first prohibition of power’ owes a lot to his reading of both the Marquis de Sade and French philosopher Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

In Chen’s view, Japanese literature was far superior to Chinese in its treatment of sex. Chinese writers wrote about sex in a superficial way, or else treated it purely as fun. Rarely did even the Chinese classics, like Jin Ping Mei (金瓶梅), focus on the dark side of human sexuality. Chen’s works explore the link between dysfunctional society and dysfunctional sexuality, arguing that ‘extreme’ sexual behaviour is often the sign of a soul and a culture in a poor state of health. This terrain is one Chen returns to again and again.

Chen eventually returned to his native Fujian province and took up a comparative literature teaching position at a university there. In the early years of the twenty-first century his work finally reached a wider audience through the internet. Chen’s talent was gradually recognized; and in 2001 he won his first major award, the Chinese Literature Media Prize (华语文学传媒大奖), with My Dissipation (我们的苟且). This brought him to the attention of the literati, and his works won further awards.

Nevertheless, Chen’s relationship with the literary authorities remained difficult. It was impossible for his work to be published without being cut or banned, which engendered considerable misunderstanding of his writing in China, where he was sometimes viewed mainly as a pornographer even by (especially by) his fans.


I Love My Mum is often held up as proof of Chen’s anti-humanism. In fact, despite his interest in Foucault’s ideas, Chen draws back from Foucault’s contention that ‘human nature’ is a bourgeois construct. On the contrary, as the structure of Book of Sins with its framework based loosely on the Ten Commandments, suggests, Chen has traditional moral concerns. The novella does not merely advance a generalized bleak view of human nature, but a view of China specifically as a society ruined by its lack of freedoms and failure to place ‘people’ at its centre.

Chen deliberately sets I Love My Mum in a city that has been corrupted by the lust for wealth. The opening paragraph establishes the context after the police captain has been too zealous in his ‘cleaning-up’ operation. His superior reprimands him, saying: ‘The sex industry is a pillar of our city’s economy. Do you want us to get rich? Well, a city has to rely on whatever resources it has. What we have here is prostitutes.’

The murderer’s ‘amoral’ reasoning, far from being aberrant, echoes:that of the captain.

 ‘Morality?’ He laughed coldly. ‘Morality is for those who have enough …’

Chen’s China is a society where rank crimes such as the Tiananmen killings and the Cultural Revolution have gone unacknowledged, leaving a corrupting stench. When the neighbours in the story visit the house and the mother blocks the doorway, they comment that a sour smell seeped out from behind her body.

In Chen’s analysis, it is natural that political crimes should find their parallel in the sexual realm. For Chen, China is held back by a pathological inability to acknowledge wrongdoing. As the police captain reflects: … how often do we think about our souls? We continue on our individual paths to destruction. At the very start of the story, Chen makes it clear that the captain’s job is as much to cover up crimes as to uncover them: we first encounter him not arresting suspects but letting them go. Later, the murderer senses that the authorities do not really want to confront his crime of killing his mother. They are ready to downplay what he has done, to find excuses rather than confront the horrors of our human nature.

In Chinese society, Chen argues, there is no interest in truth; only in ‘business as usual’. Indeed, Chen shows that language itself is primed to deflect and conceal reality: the phrase ‘talking nonsense’ is used by all three main characters to deflect unpleasant realities. In Chen’s view, one symptom of this lack of moral awareness is failure to confront one’s true sexual desires, as when the police captain refuses to admit that he masturbates:

I had done often, of course …  But to his face I lied. I am a cop, I couldn’t admit to that.

Despite appearances then, I Love My Mum is very much a political novel. For Chen, in a China groaning with hidden corruption, the ‘morality’ of the narrator lies precisely in his eventual willingness to admit to his foul deeds, to shout them out. In Chen’s view, this kind of honesty is the best that can be hoped for in China at this time, and marks the beginning of a ‘human awareness’. Chen thus draws back from Foucault’s contention that ‘human nature’ is a bourgeois construct, and remains invested in a concept of the human which, however problematic epistemologically, remains the foundation of resistance to power.

Chen’s refusal to compromise has bound him in a lifelong love–hate relationship with the Chinese authorities. One suspects that Chen obtains a measure of satisfaction from it, as he once wrote the following: ‘In this sort of country where there is no hope, to continue to seek the courage to keep living is precisely to embrace an S&M relationship where one finds pleasure in being abused’. Yet this tension continues to fuel the creativity of an important voice of conscience in contemporary China. Chen Xiwo’s powerful works are an urgent cry for China to confront its social and political ills, and for his readers to acknowledge their most subversive desires.