Being Alive Is Not Just An Instinct

(Southern Weekend)  Being Alive Is Not Just An Instinct.  By Zhang Ying (张英).  March 23, 2006.

[in translation]

Yan Lianke (阎连科) was born in a rural village, and Henan is his home province.  Although he lives in Beijing, Yan Lianke says that his connection with Beijing is just a few rooms, buying vegetables in front of his house and having meals with a few friends.  The hometown in his heart is still Henan.

He loves his hometown: "Love exists in a patch of weeds and thorn bushes.  Everyone who wants to get there must pass through the weeds and thorn bushes and will inevitably get hurt."  Yan Lianke said that he will continue to use "aches and pains" to express his love for the wide earth and its peasants.  After finishing The Dream of Ding Village, he has many things that are like bones in his throat -- he must cough them out ...

In 1996, AIDS became public.  I made contact through a friend with Gao Yaojie, the "top civilian In AIDS prevention" and I listened to her explain the spreading of AIDS in the central plains.

On that day, I saw an AIDS father-and-son pair in Gao Yaojie's home.  The 12-year-old son had a low fever that would not subside.  The father took the son to Zhengzhou to see if it was a flu, but he had AIDS.  This was the first time that I ever met AIDS patients.  I gave them 400 RMB.  On that occasion, Gao Yaojie gave me the names of several AIDS orphans and she wanted me and my friends to send them money at the addresses so that they can continue to study.  Some time later, one of the children did not need our assistance anymore because he passed away.  Thus, a life just vanished like that.  Another little girl in elementary school also lost contact ...

On that day, Gao Yaojie also told me another shocking detail.  She said that when the peasants sold blood back then, they might be working in the field.  When the Blood Heads went to the fields to collect blood, they said that they would take 500 cc but actually they were taking 600 cc or 700 cc for the same money (at most 80 RMB).  The peasants who had the blood drawn were often dizzy afterwards because too much blood had been taken.  At those moments, the Blood Head would pick up the peasants and turn them upside down, shaking their bodies until the blood went back into their heads.  Then the peasants didn't feel as dizzy as before and so they continued to work.  After hearing this detail, I was speechless.  At that instant, I felt that I had to "write something."  This was the earliest cause for writing The Dream of Ding Village.

The Dream of Ding Village that people can read today is not the original idea when I first began writing.  My original idea was that I wanted to create a hypothetical country which has its own language and lifestyle.  Due to poverty and other reasons, this country organized its citizens to sell blood from the moment that the country came into being and it continued selling blood until it rose up in the eastern world.  Unfortunately, for various reasons, I could not write it out in this form and I wrote the story as it exists now.

In the novel, I deliberately avoided many true and terrifying situations.  The real village with the people and incidents cannot enter into a novel.  For example, a Blood Head in real life told me that when they collected blood, they diluted it with beer to increase the volume.  As another example, when this village began to collect blood originally, bottles were used.  But since bottles cost too much, they used soy sauce and vinegar plastic bags later.  Then they used those plastic bags again and again.  There was a water pool about two mu in area, and every night he would wash out the blood plastic bags at this pool.  After the while, the water pool was dyed red.  Over by the pool, according to the AIDS patients themselves, the mosquitoes were especially large in size in recent years.

Among these Blood Heads, there are AIDS sufferers too.  I met one such person later on.  Since he had money, his situation was different from the ordinary blood-selling peasants.  He told me in confidence: "I am ill."  But he is in good physical condition, he drinks liquor, he plays mahjong and there is no way to tell that he is ill.  When he found out that he had AIDS, he went immediately for medical examinations in Zhengzhou and Beijing.  His condition does not require him to take mediation as yet, but the drawers in his home are full of the free medicines provided by the government.  Nobody knows where he got the medicine.  He told me that Chinese medicine does not work, and he heard that Thai medicine is the best.  He hoped that I could go back to Beijing and buy him some new Thai and American medicine.  He said that as long as the medicine is good, money won't be a problem.

I have seen or experienced many things like these, but they cannot go into the novel in raw form.  I hope that someday I will be able to write a document in which I can record these unheard, unimaginable and shocking matters in detail for everybody.

I was fortunate in that, besides knowing Gao Yaojie, I was also acquainted with an American medical anthropologist by the name of Shao.  He teaches at an American university and he loves literature.  He read my novel "Sunlight Years" and he quoted my statements about illnesses when he taught classes in the United States.

Later, when Mr. Shao came to China, he spoke to me about the problem.  At the time, I told him, "The illnesses in the novel were fictional.  If you really want to understand illness in China and the problem with the Chinese medical system, you should take a trip to the rural villages.  At the same time, you can learn about the AIDS problem."  Under these circumstances, Mr. Shao went to a Henan rural village.  In the epidemic zone, Mr. Shao learned many things.  Later on, he practically became an AIDS specialist medical worker, spending half his time in an AIDS village in the central plains, instructing the AIDS patients on treatment and medication and promoting AIDS prevention knowledge.  Each time Mr. Shao returned to Beijing, we met with each other.  Later, I completed my novel "Alive" and the many conditions for me to go down to the AIDS village were ripe.  So I went with him to the AIDS epidemic zone.  We chose a key village, which is the one that Gao Yaojie introduced to me back then.  This village is relatively close to the place in which I served my military service, and I have quite a few friends there.  In the event that something unexpected happens to the two of us, we can count on friends to "take care" of us.  Under these circumstances, this village became our "point."  This village has about 800 to 900 people.  AIDS appeared in the late 1990's and exploded in 2000.  Within three years, about 30 to 40 people have died.

Mr. Shao went to the AIDS epidemic zone as a professor from the School of Medicine at Beijing University, and I was his assistant.  We went to the AIDS epidemic zone to practice medicine.  The patients and the local government welcomed us.  Even today, the local people do not know that I am a writer or that Mr. Shao is an overseas Chinese.

I remembered that the first time that I went to the AIDS village, the first thing that I saw was the coffin shop in the village.  The coffin shop was two disheveled houses with the three white letters "Coffins for sale" written on the earthen wall.  The farmland behind the coffin shop was a path of graves.  When I went through the farmland with the graves and then saw the white-lettered writings on the village house doors, the surprise and shock in my mind cannot be expressed with words today.

I only went to one such village.  Of course, this village may not be representative.  It does not represent the central plains, and it does not represent all of China.

In order to understand the most real and minute conditions, we entered the AIDS epidemic zone without cameras and pens, and we did not conduct any kind of interviewing.  To be clear, we went in to experience and we hoped to do something for the people.  In the village, apart from anything related to the treatment and prevention of AIDS, we never actively talked to people about anything that they didn't want to talk about.  There is a "local work group" in the village and when they saw that we only talked about medical problems, they were less wary about us and towards the end, they did not follow us "inch by inch" anymore.

Mr. Shao was very much welcomed by the patients.  As soon as he showed up, dozens of patients surrounded him to ask about this or that.  Then we spoke to the patients one at a time.  We encouraged them to get examined if they showed symptoms.  If they were confirmed to be ill, we would try to persuade them to take medicine.

For the AIDS sufferers, taking medicine is a very complicated procedure.  There is the "cocktail treatment", in which three types of medicine are mixed together and taken together.  The medicine has powerful side-effects.  The first three months are also like chemo-therapy for cancer treatment.  The patients who took the medicine will experience various kinds of reactions, and suffer mentally and physically.  But the patients must persist because everything would be wasted if they stop anytime, and they may even accelerate their deaths.  After the three difficult months, they move into a stable period and the illness would be under some control.

We also got the patients to come together in classes, and Mr. Shao would teach them knowledge about prevention and treatment of AIDS.

Gao Yaojie and Mr. Shao explained many things to me about AIDS.  I know that there are three ways by which AIDS can come about.  One way is through blood infection, such as sharing a needle.  The proportion is high, about 96% to 97%.  The second way is infection through sexual intercourse, about 2%.  The rest comes from mother-child infection.  There is no other way of infection.  About this, we should trust science and not be too scared.

Each day, we ate breakfast, we paid two RMB to catch a ride to the village and we worked there during the day.  For lunch, we sometimes ate at the patients' homes or else we ate at the roadside shops.  At night, we return to the small hotel to sleep.

Although the patients sometimes invited us to stay in their homes, you must realize that if you really want to stay there, it was a burden to them.  When we ate, we saw that they bring out common food and this was already a special treat as far as they were concerned.  I came from an authentic peasant family and I am a Henan person, so I understood all this.

Between 2003 and now, I have been to this village a total of seven times.  At the village, we stayed a number of days each time.  After a while, the patients began to really trust us and treated us as their family members, neighbors and village people and they would tell us many things that you cannot even imagine.

Apart from AIDS, the most important problem is that everyone in the village, whether they are ill or not, have psychological problems, and very severe ones at that.

People who have AIDS no doubt are under a lot of psychological pressure and they are feeling a great deal of mental anguish.  They look like as if they have lost their soul and totally lifeless.  For those without AIDS, they have to cope with the disaster in front of their eyes and they have to endure even greater pressures.

There was a newly wed couple.  Later, one of them became ill and the couple basically no longer had a sexual life.  Over time, the emotional life between the two changed and they became alienated, distant and indifferent.

There was another family with a two-year-old child.  The woman was a high school graduate, she was 1.70 meters tall and pretty looking  The man was ill, but they were still emotionally close and they got along in their daily lives.  Then one day the woman suddenly pulled me aside and told me that even though they were young, their family life was not "harmonious" and they didn't dare "do that thing."  At such a moment, you will have to educate her and explain to her what must be done and avoided in the sex life of AIDS patients.

Then there was another a family of three in which the male was an AIDS patient and the female had been healthy.  After the woman married the man, she was infected.  That was seven years ago.  The man said that he was unaware that he had been infected when he married her (of course, there is a phenomenon in which when a man is ill, the family and the village will try to conceal the truth and get him a wife from outside quickly so that she can become pregnant and continue the family lineage).  After getting married and then infected, the woman collapsed mentally.  She hated her husband, she hated the family, she hated the village and she even hated the whole society.  From that moment on, she would not do any housekeeping or farming work, she just threw the dishes and bowls around, she cursed the man, and she was hostile to her parents-in-law.  The man stayed home all day, hanging his head low and keeping silent.  But the problem is this: both parties are infected with AIDS already.  No matter how sorry you are, evasion is not the solution.  What will you say about this type of psychological problem?  You can only try to keep talking and persuading.

Psychological problems are bad, mental problems are worse but having AIDS in your hearts is the worst.

From our viewpoints and standards, their lives are abnormal.  The following are the main characteristics:

First, men who are ill are not as diligent as when they were healthy.  They have lost hope in life.  In local talk, this is "You sit, eat and wait for death."  But those women who are ill must still perform all the household chores and pick up greater mental and practical burdens.

Second, among all families with children, no matter whether only one parent is ill or both are ill, they would feel that there is still a ray of hope as long as the child is still in school.  They place their lives and hopes on the children, and this creates tremendous pressures on the children.  For, example, there is a certain family in the village.  The parents are both AIDS patients, but the two daughters are good students.  The youngest was such a good student that the school refused to promote her; instead, the school tried to persuade the parents to keep her back for one more year on the grounds that she was always number one among all students in the town.  If she moves up, then this school won't be able to rank in all the examinations and contests in the town.  Although this incident was absurd, the children are certainly providing a huge reason for wanting to live.  At their home, they have no interest in anything and they never smile except when it comes to the achievements of the children.  At that moment, the parents show a rare light on their face.  But in order to keep the children in school, the family has quite a burden and the parents undertake heavy physical labor that they would not even do if they are healthy.  But when you speak to the children about their studies, they don't smile -- they only have tears.

Third, although the shadow of death covers the village year in and year out, day in and day out, their love and longing for life is beyond our comprehension.  There is a 60-something-year-old 'barefoot doctor' in the village.  He is the only person who had a little knowledge about AIDS and all the sick people depended on him.  When the government organized its first AIDS survey in the village, the proportion of AIDS infected people was shockingly high.  In order not to let the village fall into total chaos, the 'barefoot doctor' did not release the names of the more than 40 AIDS positive people altogether.  Instead, he decided to do in in waves.  In the first wave, he published the names of a dozen people.  After the names were published in the evening, there was a sudden crying heard in the village at sundown.  This went on for about half a hour.  Afterwards, the village became quiet again, as if everybody had vanished.  The doctor told me that the next day, people went and did whatever they used to do -- cook meals, work in the fields, take care of children, ...  From the surface, everything looked just like before as if nothing had happened.  The most extraordinary thing was that those others who had been examined but still were not notified went to see the doctor to ask about their results.  They usually went at times when nobody else was with the doctor.  When they found out that they were ill, they remained quite calm.  They did not cry, they did not cause a scene, and they did not even let their neighbors know.  They just continued to work in the field and they still sat and ate their bowl of rice in front of the door at home.  This is the initial reaction of the peasants in the face of death and disaster.   This is their unique way of expression of their love for life.  Of course, when they were tormented by death and disaster after a while, then the other aspects would show up too, such as the shadow and darkness in human nature.

Over these several years, the village has seen some changes.  The biggest change was that all the people have different knowledge, understanding and attitudes towards life than before.  Through living, they have found very concrete reasons for doing so.  For example, adults live in order to take care of children a bit longer; children live in order to see the smiling faces of their parents; seventy or eighty year old people go back to farming in order let the children live better.  The peasants are like that.  When disasters strike, they will suffer for a few days and then they will "accept their fates," they will endure and they will try in their best to face reality and daily life again.  This is their instinct to live, and it is their spirit to live.  This ability to live is something that urban dwellers and intellectuals cannot possibly have, and it is a worldview that their forebears left them over the many generations.

Practically speaking, the houses in the village are the same houses, the trees are the same trees and the people are the same people.  But their faces are showing some smiles now, because the government and society have been trying their to help these people and doing things that have never been done before.  These people were not discarded by society and their hope for life is increased since there is no fear of AIDS.

This village is located on the ancient road of the Yellow River.  It is on the east side of the central plains and belongs to a desert region with sand earth.  To grow crops, it is necessary to irrigate the land seven to eight times before harvest.  But there is no water source and it is necessary to pump water from under the ground.  There are small wells that are more than 20 meters deep near the fields.  In previous years, people use hand-drawn diesel machines to pump water from the wells to irrigate the fields.  But the cost of diesel fuel has been soaring in recent years, and it costs at least 10 RMB to irrigate one mu of land.  Where do they find that kind of money when they can't even afford to seek medical help?  Another problem is that the diesel engines require a manual start with a lot of strength.  These sick male and female patients do not have much strength and cannot start the engines.  The result was that there are untilled lands and food shortages.  Although the government has tried to offer various kinds of aid to families with AIDS patients, the permanent food source for the peasants is in the fields instead of long-term government handouts.

In talking to the families, we discovered that the urgent business of the moment is not to give each family 300 or 500 RMB.  It is to help them irrigate their lands and take care of their most basic food supply problem.  The best method to solve this problem is to rely on electricity.  But the village has electricity only for lighting, and it would cost a lot more to bring electricity in from several miles away to run the pumps.  In addition, it will be necessary to dig wells for those families without wells and give a small pump to those families with AIDS patients.  This solves their problem about irrigating to grow food.  The project requires about 100,000 RMB.

At first, I hoped that I could find a publishing company which would undertake this project by splitting the costs with me.  I did not expect that when it comes to publishing a book, every company was very delighted; when it comes to donating money to help an AIDS village, these publishing companies found it "very difficult."  When the Chunfeng Publishing Company found out about this, their publisher called me up by telephone: "Lianke, we won't talk about publishing for now.  If you want to help such a village, we are willing to pay out this money anytime."  Later, The Dream of Ding Village was published by the Shanghai Literary Arts Publishing Company and they also generously offered to pay those costs, and they said that they will work on AIDS donations.

Right now, the money is basically in place.  The electricity cables are in place, and the transformer has been purchased.  There are still other problems that cannot be described here, so that this small project has not yet been completed.


(Southern Weekend)  An Internet blogger said that you wrote The Dream of Ding Village without ever been in the Ding village.  What do you think?

(Yan Lianke)  I have read that blog post "Did Yan Lianke visit the Ding village?".  I want to say three things:

1. The blogger thinks that the AIDS village that I was writing about was Wenliu village in Shengcai county.  He was there and he heard that there was a Henan writer by the name of "Yan" who was "gathering news from his hotel."  Therefore, he suspected that writer "Yan" was me.  I don't want to say anything about these suspicions.  I want to say that I have never been to Shengcai county, and I have not been to Wenliu village.  I went to the eastern plains of Henan, or a certain place near the city of Kaifeng.  This village is not a publicly declared AIDS village, but the AIDS situation is even worse than some announced major AIDS areas.

2. The blogger believes that I was putting on an act when I said that I did not eat in the village because it would be imposing on the villagers.  I don't know where he read that I did not eat in the village.  Actually, Mr. Shao and I often drank water and ate food and fruits in the homes of AIDS patients.  We were quite informal.  But if we went there too often doing that, it would be really creating problems for people.  Certain AIDS families could barely find enough to eat.  Should we keep eating in their homes?  Besides, why would I put on an act?  I am not an official and I am not a rich man.  To whom is this act being presented?

3. I am a person who is almost 50 years old.  At this age, I don't want to argue with anybody anymore.  The only thing that I want to do is to write better novels.  Therefore, this is the last thing I will say about this matter.  From now on, I will be silent.  It does not matter who says what, I will not respond.

(The Guardian)  Censor sees through writer's guile in tale of China's blood-selling scandal.  By Jonathan Watts.  October 9, 2006.

Millions of pints of blood are pumped through underground pipelines from a big developing country to wealthy consumers in the United States and elsewhere. The blood trade has produced the most spectacular boom in human history. In just five years, the formerly dirt-poor state at the heart of the haemo-business has become the richest nation on earth.

Such is the scenario of the novel that Yan Lianke - one of China's greatest living authors and fiercest satirists - was planning to write until the censors intervened. Based on a three-year study of the blood-selling scandal in his native Henan province, The Dream of Ding Village was to be the defining work of his career; not just an elegantly crafted piece of literature but a devastating critique of China's runaway development.

But it has turned out to be one of the most traumatic experiences of his artistic life. For his attempt to tackle a harrowing man-made disaster, Yan received a ban from the censors, became embroiled in a legal dispute with his publisher, and - worst of all - suffers a lingering sense of shame that he compromised too many principles.

In a rare insight, the author told the Guardian how he attempted forestall a ban by doing the censors' work for them. Out went the novel's most ambitious features: the blood pipeline, the global trade angle and direct criticism of national politics. Instead he narrowed the focus to a single village, where blood is bought and sold with horrific consequences. "This is not the book I originally wanted to write," says Yan, who has won China's top two literary awards. "I censored myself very rigorously. I didn't mention senior leaders. I reduced the scale. I thought my self-censorship was perfect."

But the authorities still issued a "three nos" order: no distribution, no sales and no promotion. Yan found out it was banned when he tried to sue his publisher, the Shanghai Literary Arts Publishing Group, for failing to pay a promised advance on his royalties and a donation to the village where the book was researched.

Yan has been banned before. In 1994, his first novel, Xia Riluo, outraged the censors with its tale of two military heroes who gradually debase themselves. The plot was particularly bold considering that Yan, a Communist party member, was employed at the time by the People's Liberation Army to write morale-boosting stories for the troops.

In 2004, he was asked to leave the army after publishing Shouhuo (Enjoyment), which satirised the bizarre wealth-creation schemes of many local governments. In the award-winning novel, county officials force a village of disabled people to set up a travelling freak-show to raise money for the planned purchase of Lenin's corpse from Russia. In the ultimate marriage of capitalism and communism, they hope Lenin's dead body will attract tourists.

Last year, Yan overstepped the censor's invisible line with Serve the People, a steamy and subversive parody of the Mao Zedong cult during the Cultural Revolution. It tells the story of a lusty general's wife so turned on by counter-revolutionary heresies that she and her lover smash Mao icons, rip up the Little Red Book and urinate on Mao's epigrams to reach new heights of passion. "This novella slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex," said a banning order that prompted Yan to scale back his subsequent book, The Dream of Ding Village.

Now the author fears he sacrificed too much. "My greatest worry is that self-censorship has drained my passion and dulled my sharpness," he says.

However, he sees some improvements in the censorship climate. In 1994, when his first novel was banned, he was forced to write self-criticisms for four months. Now, there are no personal repercussions and his work is published overseas. The first English translations of his novels are expected next year.

"My work has caused more disputes than those of any other author in China. But the attacks on me have become fewer. I think this shows that in many respects, society is improving, reforming, developing".

Yan is never going to be a cheerleader for China's development. It would go against the grain of a self-taught peasant whose novels are rooted in the soil.

He feels different from other mainland writers. "Contemporary Chinese literature is gripped by a desire for popularity. It is like a soft-bone disease," he says. "But I come from the bottom of society. All my relatives live in Henan, one of the poorest areas of China. When I think of people's situation there, it is impossible not to feel angry and emotional. Anger and passion are the soul of my work."

The Dream of Ding Village is about a community in Henan where almost everyone is infected with HIV/Aids because of unregulated blood-selling in the 1990s. Far more than any of his previous novels, it is rooted in reality, yet Yan says it is no less surreal.

"What I saw was more absurd than what I could imagine," he says. "No novel has ever made me feel sadder. This may not be the best piece of literature I have written, but it is the one that brought me the most pain. Even now, months after I finished, I am drained. I cannot bring myself to start another book. The situation in the village was so desperate."

Yan became interested in the subject when he was asked to sponsor two Aids orphans in 1995. One died before he paid the first instalment, the other soon after.

For research, Yan went undercover as the assistant of a Beijing anthropologist to study one of the worst-hit but least-known villages. The locals told him that at the height of the blood-selling frenzy, they ran out of utensils and so used soy sauce bottles, and used plastic bags to store the blood.

With the money, they bought houses and electrical appliances, and paid for marriages. Some peasants sold so often that they became dizzy and had to be turned upside down to get the blood into the tubes. Years later, one by one, they started dying of Aids.

There is no grimmer illustration of how China's short-term rush to get rich has drained natural resources and contaminated human lives. "I think the Aids epidemic in Henan is a warning from God that we are developing too quickly. We just haven't realised it yet," Yan says. "China is always chasing utopias. That was the mistake we made during the Great Leap Forward. And today, again, China seems to be in too much of a hurry to realise its dreams."

Additional reporting by Huang Lisha.

Banned or not banned?

Xia Riluo (1994)

Two decorated army officers dream of promotion so that they can move their families out of the countryside, but their plans are ruined when a young army cook under their charge commits suicide. The two destroy their friendship and their reputations in trying to pin the blame on each other.

Yan said his aim was to bring heroes down to the level of humans. The book was banned and he was forced to write self-criticisms for four months.

Enjoyment (2004)

A county official dreams up a wealth-creation scheme that he hopes will boost his career. He forces a village full of disabled people to set up a travelling freak-show. Audiences pay to race against the fastest one-legged runner on earth and to let off fireworks next to the ear of a deaf man. With the money, he plans to buy Lenin's embalmed body from Russia so that he can market the village as a centre for communist tourists.

Serve the People (2005)

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, the bored wife of a military commander takes advantage of her husband's absence to seduce a young peasant soldier. As a signal that her lover's services are desired in the bedroom, she leaves the slogan "Serve the People" on the kitchen table. Whenever the passion flags, they smash her husband's beloved Mao icons and rip up the Little Red Book, below. The propaganda department was not impressed.

The Dream of Ding Village (2006)

A Henan village is desperate to keep up with China's economic boom. With no other resources, officials decide to milk people's veins and soon everyone is buying or selling blood. Locals are so desperate to buy televisions and radios that they bleed themselves dizzy. A few years later, however, when they start dying of Aids, only the coffin sellers benefit from the market economy. The book has been banned.

(The Age)  A Pen For The People.  By Mary-Anne Toy.  JUly 28, 2007.

The first book that Yan Lianke, one of China's most popular and distinguished living writers, wrote was a 300,000-character novel about class struggle during the Cultural Revolution. Luckily for readers, he says, his mother burnt it when they ran out of firewood back in his home village in Henan province.

At the time it was a catastrophe for the 20-year-old, who had slaved for two years on his first novel, snatching time to write while working up to 16 hours a day at a cement factory. Yan had been forced to leave school when he was 18 to find work after his father and older sister fell ill. Ironically, it was after he joined the army as a propaganda writer that he realised the true value of literature and stopped regretting the loss of his first book, which he says now was an unworthy and uninteresting tale.

Yan, 49, has won China's top two literary honours - the Lu Xun award in 1997 and 2001, and the Lao She in 2004. He has published numerous novels and short story collections and three of his books, one of which is about to be published in Australia, have been banned. He is currently forbidden to leave the country.

We meet in the lobby of a foreign hotel in central Beijing. He feels it is safest to keep us away from his home and from the Beijing Writer's Association, which employs him full-time, paying him 3000 yuan ($A453) a month, and whose office is handily next door to the central propaganda office.

Text Publishing is releasing the English translation of Serve the People, a sexy, funny satire about the idiocies of the Cultural Revolution, in Australia next month. Set in 1967, when the cult of Mao Zedong was at its zenith and defacing an image of the chairman could be punished by death, Serve the People outraged the censors, who declared that it slandered Mao and his army and was "overflowing with sex . . . Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it or report on it."

In the book the bored young wife of a military commander seduces a peasant soldier and during the affair discovers that trashing her absent husband's sacred Mao icons - ripping up the Little Red Book, defacing Mao's epigrams, smashing Mao statues - turns her on. At one level a clever and touching story about a peasant seeking true love, it also deftly highlights the choices people made in the face of corruption, poverty and hypocrisy.

Yan, 49, began writing as a way of escaping rural poverty. He grew up in a poor peasant family in Henan, central China. Like the young protagonist in Serve the People, Yan got his break when he joined the army in 1978 as an official writer. For 16 years he was a model worker, writing morale-boosting stories and operas for the army and being invited to join the Communist Party.

In 1994 his adolescent dream of leaving the countryside was fulfilled when he was promoted to a Beijing military unit. That same year, his first novel, Xia Riluo, was published. The book, about two military heroes who destroy their friendship and reputations by trying to blame each other for the suicide of a young army cook, was banned and he was forced to write self-criticism for six months.

Yan braced himself for possible banishment back to the countryside with his wife and son, but the banning provoked stinging media attention in Hong Kong and Taiwan, which accused China of oppressing a promising young writer. The backlash had the unexpected effect, Yan believes, of saving him from further penalty.

Three years ago however, in 2004, he was asked to leave the People's Liberation Army, where he held the non-combat position of senior colonel, after his award-winning political satire Shou Huo was published. The novel told the story of a county official who forces disabled villagers into a travelling freak show - audiences can pay to let firecrackers off next to a deaf man or race a one-legged villager - so he can raise the money to bring Lenin's embalmed body back from Russia to attract communist tourists.

Although Shou Huo was not banned and later won the coveted Lao She literary award, Yan failed to find a publisher for his next book, Serve the People. Excerpts from the novel appeared in January 2005 in one of China's top literary magazines, Hua Cheng (Flower City). The bi-monthly was forced to recall all 40,000 copies of that edition after the censors got wind of it. While this pushed the book underground, young Chinese readers could access it via the internet if they were enterprising, and the novel was translated and published abroad.

As he begins to tell us about his 2006 novel, The Dream of Ding Village, the third to be banned, Yan's face, previously animated and lively, becomes serious, almost sad. Although a work of fiction, the book is based on the tragedy of China's HIV/AIDS villages, where entire families were infected through criminally negligent blood-selling practices.

He says he was compelled to write this book - which Text is also planning to publish in English - because it is a writer's duty to tell the truth.

"The situation in China is very complicated. For example, during the three years of the famine in the '60s and '70s all of the Chinese authors kept silent and I feel they failed their duty to express the truth," he says.

In the 1990s, many farmers in Yan's home province of Henan, China's biggest by population, contracted HIV after selling blood at government-owned collection stations. Local officials had encouraged peasants to boost their meagre incomes by selling blood plasma. Many were reluctant, because they believed giving blood would weaken them, but the officials reassured them they would get their blood back once the plasma was removed. This they did, but there was no testing for HIV or other viruses or infections and blood was pooled from multiple donors before being reinfused. At the height of the blood-selling frenzy, even police and army units set up plasma-buying stations.

The number of victims is unknown but Chinese AIDS expert Zhang Ke reported in 2004 that the figure for Henan alone could be more than 170,000. Dr Zhang estimated that a further 130,000 in Henan got the virus from transfusions in hospitals. To date, no official has been held to account and punished - provincial leaders who presided over the scandal were promoted.

"As a native Henan writer I felt it was my responsibility to record what happened in Henan," Yan says. In 1996, he met Gao Yaojie, a retired doctor who in 2000 helped expose the extent of Henan's HIV infection rates, only to be harassed by the authorities.

DR GAO introduced him to an HIV-infected father and son who Yan began to support financially. Dr Gao also gave him sensational details about the lengths that the "blood heads", as the collectors were called, would go to get blood, arriving at farms and holding peasants upside down to get the blood to run into their arms so they could extract more.

For his research, Yan travelled to the village in eastern Henan where the father and son Dr Gao had introduced him to had lived - both died within six months of Yan meeting them. Of the 800 households, there were 200 infected people still alive. Until 2003, when the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic forced central government to be more open about infectious diseases, it was almost impossible to get access to the HIV-prevalent villages. But Yan, posing as an assistant to a Beijing anthropologist, was able to visit the village numerous times.

He had planned to write two works about the blood-selling scandal, the first a documentary-style record and the second fiction. After Serve the People was banned, however, he felt it would be impossible to get the non-fiction work published, so he focused on a fictional account.

Last year, in an interview with The Guardian, Yan spoke of the anguish he had felt after he had self-censored Dream of Ding Village rigorously in the hope that his sanitised version would pass the censors. He failed; the book was banned and he felt dejected that he hadn't stuck to his artistic and moral guns. Today, however, he says he is quite satisfied with the book. "It is a genuine literal record of what happened in the early 21st century in China and through this work, the descendants of the Chinese nation can see what kind of disaster happened in China at that time," he says. "Since I have become the most controversial author in China, I am going to wait until the situation passes and I will write the more documentary-style work later on."

Almost 80,000 copies of Dream of Ding village had already reached the stores by the time the censors took a look at it and, unusually, they didn't insist on a recall. It sold out so quickly that this would have been difficult in any case, and many more copies have since circulated illegally and on the internet. The novel has even been translated into French.

These days, in fact, compared with the days of the Cultural Revolution, when the only art permitted was propaganda, China's 1.3 billion citizens are enjoying personal freedoms that would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago. Citizens can say privately, and to some degree publicly, what they like without being jailed - unless espousing human rights, Tibetan autonomy, Falun Gong or the incorrect line on Taiwan or the senior leaders. But despite the internet, mobile phones and illegal satellite dishes, the state still has a centralised bureaucracy that tries to control what its citizens are permitted to read, see and hear. Things are much, much better than before, but there is still a way to go.

Despite his repeated run-ins with the authorities, however, Yan says he is positive about the future of China. He cites the fact that when his first novel Xia Riluo was banned in 1994, he faced being banished to the countryside. While Serve the People, 11 years later, was banned by both the central propaganda department and the General Administration of Publishing, Yan wasn't personally criticised or punished.

And although Dream of Ding Village was banned, he still won a lawsuit against the publishers, who had refused to pay his royalties on the copies already sold on the basis that the ban had caused them huge losses. "The punishment or criticism is lessening each time . . . so I feel that the ideological reform in China, even if it is slow, is moving forward step by step. Chinese society will become more open and is getting better."

Yan is matter-of-fact about the need for self-censorship in China - it's no good writing without an audience. On his good days, he sees it as a battle of wits. "Of course I mind about this issue (censorship), but on the other hand it has brought new meanings to my writing and sometimes I can make compromises by using some techniques or strategy," he says.

For his latest novel, which he hopes to finish by the end of this year, Yan says he will revise sensitive material "into more moderate language and description but when it is published abroad I will use the original version". The work in progress is an unflattering fable, "funny and ridiculous", about China's contemporary intellectuals, who Yan believes have been co-opted by the Government. "They lack the courage to face up to the real situation," he says.

Asked what the real situation is, he replies promptly: "Chaos. China is in chaos, politically, economically, medically, morally and some people are the beneficiaries of this chaos, including intellectuals. Those at the grassroots, the masses, are the ones suffering, but in facing this kind of situation Chinese intellectuals can't see clearly."

In the past, Yan says, there were great pressures on writers and it was understandable to some degree that people didn't dare speak out. But now, he says, there is no excuse. "Now it is a self-imposed censorship, so the situation is more tragic."

Related Link: Discussion of Two Novels About Blood Selling