undefinedBeijing Normal University, 2021. All photographs courtesy of Yu Hua.
北京师范大学,2021 年。所有照片均由余华提供。


Yu Hua was born in 1960. He grew up in Haiyan County in the Zhejiang province of eastern China, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. His parents were both in the medical profession—his father a surgeon, his mother a nurse—and Yu would often sneak into the hospital where they worked, sometimes napping on the nearby morgue’s cool concrete slabs on hot summer days. As a young man, he worked as a dentist for several years and began writing short fiction that drew upon his early exposure to sickness and violence. His landmark stories of the eighties, including “On the Road at Eighteen,” established him, alongside Mo Yan, Su Tong, Ge Fei, Ma Yuan, and Can Xue, as one of the leading voices of China’s avant-garde literary movement.
余华出生于 1960 年。他成长于中国东部浙江省海盐县,正值文化大革命的高潮时期。他的父母都是医务工作者——父亲是外科医生,母亲是护士——余华经常溜进他们工作的医院,有时在炎热的夏日午睡在附近太平间的凉爽混凝土板上。年轻时,他当了几年的牙医,并开始创作短篇小说,这些小说取材于他早期接触到的疾病和暴力。他八十年代的标志性故事,包括“十八岁出门远行”,与莫言、苏童、格非、马原和残雪一起,确立了他作为中国先锋文学运动领军人物之一的地位。

In the nineties, Yu Hua turned to long-form fiction, publishing a string of realist novels that merged elements of his early absurdist style with expansive, emotionally fulsome storytelling. Cries in the Drizzle (1992, translation 2007), To Live (1993, 2003), and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995, 2003) marked a new engagement with the upheavals of twentieth-century Chinese history. To Live—which narrates the nearly unimaginable personal loss and suffering of the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution through the tragic figure of the wealthy scion turned peasant farmer Fugui—brought him his most significant audience to date, its success bolstered by Zhang Yimou’s award-winning film adaptation.
九十年代,余华转向长篇小说,出版了一系列现实主义小说,将早期荒诞主义风格的元素与广阔、情感充沛的叙事相融合。《呼喊与细雨》(1992 年,2007 年翻译)、《活着》(1993 年,2003 年)和《许三观卖血记》(1995 年,2003 年)标志着对二十世纪中国历史巨变的全新关注。《活着》讲述了富家子弟福贵变成农民后在中国内战、大跃进和文化大革命中经历的几乎难以想象的个人损失和痛苦,为他带来了迄今为止最重要的受众,其成功得益于张艺谋屡获殊荣的电影改编。

Once an edgy experimentalist adored by college students, Yu Hua is now one of China’s best-selling writers. Each new novel has been an event: Brothers (2005–2006, 2009) is a sprawling black comedy satirizing the political chaos of the Cultural Revolution and the unbridled consumerism and greed of the economic reform era under Deng Xiaoping; the magic realist farce The Seventh Day (2013, 2015) is narrated by a man wandering the living world after his death; and his most recent, Wen cheng (The lost city, 2021), reaches back to the late days of the Qing dynasty. He is also one of the country’s best-known public intellectuals, having authored nonfiction books on topics including Western classical music, his creative process, and Chinese culture and politics. His New York Times column, which ran from 2013 to 2014, and China in Ten Words (2010, 2011) have been heralded as some of the most insightful writings on contemporary Chinese society.
余华曾经是一位受大学生喜爱的先锋实验主义者,现在是中国最畅销的作家之一。他的每一部新小说都是一件大事:《兄弟》(2005-2006,2009)是一部黑色幽默小说,讽刺了文化大革命的政治混乱以及邓小平经济改革时代的消费主义和贪婪;魔幻现实主义闹剧《第七天》(2013,2015)由一个死后游荡在人间的男人讲述;他最近的作品《文城》(2021)追溯到了清朝末期。他也是中国最著名的公共知识分子之一,著有关于西方古典音乐、他的创作过程以及中国文化和政治等主题的非虚构书籍。他从 2013 年到 2014 年在《纽约时报》开设的专栏以及《十个词汇里的中国》(2010,2011)被誉为对当代中国社会最具洞察力的著作。

More than a quarter century ago, I, then a college senior, reached out to Yu Hua to seek permission to translate To Live into English. Our initial correspondences were via fax machine, and I can still remember the excitement I felt when I received the message agreeing to let me work on his novel. We later exchanged letters, then emails; these days, we communicate almost exclusively on the ubiquitous Chinese “everything app,” WeChat.

Our first face-to-face meeting was in New York, around 1998. It was Yu Hua’s first trip to the city, and he responded to the neon lights in Times Square, attending his first Broadway show, and visiting a jazz club in the West Village with almost childlike excitement. He exuded a playfulness, a sharp wit, and an irreverent attitude that I found startling. Could this exuberant tourist really be the same person who wrote the harrowing To Live? Apparently so.
我们第一次面对面的会面是在纽约,大约在 1998 年。这是余华第一次来这座城市,他对时代广场的霓虹灯做出了回应,观看了他的第一场百老汇演出,并怀着近乎孩子般的兴奋参观了西村的一家爵士俱乐部。他流露出一种顽皮、机智和不敬的态度,这让我感到惊讶。这个兴高采烈的游客真的就是写出令人痛心的《活着》的那个人吗?显然是的。

Our interviews for The Paris Review were conducted over Zoom earlier this year. I saw glimpses of the same quick humor, biting sarcasm, and disarming honesty I remembered from our time together twenty-five years before, but with new layers of wisdom and reflection.
我们今年早些时候通过 Zoom 对《巴黎评论》进行了采访。我瞥见了与二十五年前我们在一起时一样的敏捷幽默、尖锐讽刺和令人解除武装的诚实,但又多了几分智慧和反思。


Tell me about being a dentist. How did that come about?


I’d finished high school in 1977, just after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when university entrance exams had been reinstated. I failed, twice, and the third year, there was English on the test, so I had no hope of passing. I gave up and went straight into pulling teeth. At the time, jobs were allocated by the state, and they had me take after my parents, who both worked in our county hospital. I did it for five years, treating mostly farmers.
1977 年,我高中毕业,正好赶上文革结束,恢复高考。我考了两次,第三年考试加了英语,我彻底没戏了。我就放弃了,直接去拔牙了。当时工作是国家分配的,让我子承父业,我父母都在我们县医院工作。我干了五年,主要是给农民看牙。


Did you like it? 喜欢吗?


Oh, I truly disliked it. We had an eight-hour workday, and you could only take Sundays off. At training school, they had us memorize the veins, the muscles—but there was no reason to know any of that. You really don’t have to know much to pull teeth.


undefinedAt center, with his parents and older brother, ca. 1966.
与父母和哥哥合影,约 1966 年。


When did you start writing short stories?


In 1981 or 1982. I found myself envying people who worked for what we called the cultural center and spent all day loafing around on the streets. I would ask them, “How come you don’t have to go to work?” and they would say, “Being out here is our work.” I thought, This must be the job for me.
1981 年或 1982 年。我发现自己很羡慕文化馆的人,他们整天在街上晃荡。我就问他们:“你们怎么不用上班?”他们说:“出来就是上班。”我想,这才是我的工作。

Transferring from the dental hospital was quite difficult, bureaucratically—you had to go through a health bureau, a cultural bureau, and, in the middle, a personnel bureau—but then, of course, there was the even more pressing issue of providing proof that I was qualified. Everyone working there could compose music, paint, or do something else creative, but those things seemed too difficult. There was only one option that looked relatively easy—learning how to write stories. I’d heard that if you’d published one, you could be transferred.


Was it as easy as you’d hoped?


I distinctly remember that writing my first story was extremely painful. I was twenty-one or twenty-two but barely knew how to break a paragraph, where to put a quotation mark. In school, most of our writing practice had been copying denunciations out of the newspaper—the only exercise that was guaranteed to be safe, because if you wrote something yourself and said the wrong thing, then what? You might’ve been labeled a counterrevolutionary.

On top of that, I could write only at night, and I was living in a one-room house on the edge of my parents’ lot, next to a small river. The winter in Haiyan was very cold, and back then there weren’t any bathrooms in people’s houses—you’d have to walk five, six minutes to find a public toilet. Fortunately, when everyone else was asleep, I could run down to the water by myself and pee into the river. Still, by the time I was too tired to keep writing, both my feet would be numb and my left hand would be freezing. When I rubbed my hands together, it felt like they belonged to two different people—one living and the other dead.


How did you learn how to tell a story?


Yasunari Kawabata was my first teacher. I subscribed to two excellent magazines, Beijing’s Shijie wenxue (World literature) and Shanghai’s Waiguo wenyi (Foreign art and literature), and I ended up discovering many writers that way, and a lot of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japanese literature. By then we had a small bookstore in Haiyan, and I would order books almost blindly. One day, I came across a quote by Bernard Berenson, about The Old Man and the Sea and how “every real work of art exhales symbols and allegories”—that’s how I knew, when I saw Hemingway’s name in the store’s catalogue, to ask for a copy.

At the time, when books went out of print the Chinese publishing houses usually just wouldn’t put out any more, so you never knew, when you saw a copy of something, if you’d have another chance. I remember persuading a friend who ended up going into the real estate business to swap me Kafka’s Selected Stories for War and Peace—he calculated that it was a good deal to get four times the amount of book for the price of one. I read “A Country Doctor” first. The horses in the story appear out of nowhere, come when the doctor says come and leave when he says go. Oh, to summon something and have it appear, to send it away and have it vanish—Kafka taught me that kind of freedom.

But my earliest stories were about the life and the world that I knew, and they haven’t been collected, because I’ve always thought of them as juvenilia. When I first started writing, I had to lay one of those magazines down beside me on the table—otherwise I wouldn’t have known how to do it. My first story was bad, hopeless, but there were one or two lines that I thought I’d written, actually, quite well. I was astonished, really, to find myself capable of producing such good sentences. That was enough to give me the confidence to keep going. The second was more successful—it had a narrative, a complete arc. In the third, I found that there wasn’t just a story but the beginnings of characters. That story—“Diyi sushe” (Dormitory no. 1), about sharing a room with four or five other dentists training at Ningbo Hospital No. 2—I sent out, and it became my first publication, in a magazine called Xi Hu (West Lake), in 1983. The next year, I was transferred to the cultural center.
但我最早的故事都是关于我所了解的生活和世界,而且它们没有被收集起来,因为我一直认为它们是幼稚的作品。当我第一次开始写作时,我不得不把其中一本杂志放在桌子旁——否则我不会知道如何去做。我的第一个故事很糟糕,毫无希望,但有一两行是我认为自己写得相当好的。我真的很惊讶,发现自己有能力写出这么好的句子。这足以让我有信心继续下去。第二个故事更成功——它有一个叙述,一个完整的弧线。在第三个故事中,我发现不仅有一个故事,还有人物的开端。那个故事——“第一宿舍”(宁波二院四五位牙科实习生同住一室),我寄了出去,并发表在我的第一本杂志《西湖》上,那是 1983 年。第二年,我被调到文化馆。


Did you find it easy to get published?


I had good luck. During the Cultural Revolution, there’d been no real literary magazines in China—there was one in Shanghai, Zhaoxia (Clouds of dawn), that sort of qualified, though it was all very politically correct—but afterward, the old journals started publishing again, and new ones were founded. Even in Haiyan we had little kiosks that sold nothing but literary magazines, and there was a period from 1978 to 1984 or so when they didn’t have enough work by established writers to fill their pages. That created a wonderful environment where editors took unsolicited submissions very seriously—the one good story they found would get passed around the entire staff.
我运气不错。在文化大革命期间,中国没有真正的文学杂志——上海有一本《朝霞》,勉强算一本,尽管它完全政治正确——但后来,旧杂志开始重新出版,新杂志也成立了。即使在海盐,我们也有只卖文学杂志的小报摊,从 1978 年到 1984 年左右有一段时间,他们没有足够的作品来填满他们的页面。这创造了一个美妙的环境,编辑们非常重视未经请求的投稿——他们发现的一个好故事会传遍整个工作人员。

By 1985, it was different—it became very difficult to get published if you didn’t have a connection, especially if you were considered “avant-garde.” I remember going back to one of these magazine’s offices, sitting around and chatting with some editors, and seeing a hill of submissions piled in the corner, ready for whoever took the trash out to remove them. I realized that if I’d taken another two or three years to start writing, I’d still be a dentist.
到 1985 年,情况发生了变化——如果你没有关系,发表作品变得非常困难,尤其是如果你被认为是“先锋派”。我记得回到其中一本杂志的办公室,和一些编辑坐在一起聊天,看到一堆投稿堆在角落里,准备让倒垃圾的人拿走。我意识到,如果我再花两三年时间开始写作,我仍然会是一名牙医。