Chan Koonchung: 'Pressure to conform is high in China'

How Tibet is changing and what it’s like being a banned writer in the Mainland

Being a Chinese writer means being under a constant pressure to toe the Party line. One misstep and you risk more than just your career. Beijing-based writer Chan Koonchung knew this when he published The Fat Years in 2009, a dystopian sci-fi novel set in 2013. Set in China, the plot centres on a collective bout of amnesia when an entire month of history is misplaced. More alarming is that no one seems to care, with people instead preoccupied with being happy consumers.

It’s a thinly veiled criticism of contemporary Chinese society and there were few who were surprised when the novel was banned in the Mainland. Despite the blacklisting, or perhaps because of it, The Fat Years went on to sell in record numbers in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the West, turning Chan into an international sensation overnight. Despite the attention, the Shanghai-born author has been allowed to continue working from his home in Beijing.

In his latest novel, The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, Chan is once again testing boundaries. Published last year in Mandarin, the book has already been banned here. This month the English version, deftly translated by Nicky Harman, will be published by Transworld. When we speak to Chan from his home in Beijing, we can’t help but wonder how many banned works it takes before you become banned yourself?

‘As a writer I am still publishable but it depends on the work,’ he says. ‘The pressure to conform is always very high in China. As an intellectual you can probably have a decent life if you don’t touch the red line. Once you touch [it] you can be in a lot of trouble and that can make a big difference to you and your family. The amazing thing is that there are still so many intellectuals willing to test the water and see where that line is; still trying to be as truthful to themselves as possible.’

A former journalist and scriptwriter, Chan’s dedication to the truth is what makes him stand out, and connects his two most recent novels. The Fat Years is science fiction set in the future, while Champa, By contrast, is a present-day tale following the life of a young man from Lhasa.

After taking a driving job for a Han businesswoman in Lhasa, Champa’s life begins to change. Cosmopolitan, car-loving and Mandarin-speaking, he embarks on an affair with his older, status-conscious employer. When he leaves for Beijing the relationship unravels along with his boyish dreams, which crack under the weight of endemic racism. ‘I always think of Champa as my second take on contemporary China,’ says Chan. ‘My first, The Fat Years, dealt with many big issues. In my mind I always knew I left out one big issue, that is ethnic relationships. I left it out because I knew I was going to write a second novel. In my mind it is a continuation of The Fat Years. I don’t really see [The Fat Years] as a sci-fi work myself, I see it as a realistic novel. Champa again is a realistic novel.’

The realism of Champa is made more powerful by the tendency of other authors to romanticise Tibetan life. Novels such as Wolf Totem (2004) by Jiang Rong and The Tibet Code (2011) by He Ma, which have sold over four million and ten million copies in China respectively, perpetuate stereotypes of Tibet as a rural, mystical, pre-modern, even primitive place. The truth is that Lhasa has urbanised rapidly in recent years. The number of Chinese tourists has ballooned while the government has encouraged Han people to settle in the city. The result is that Lhasa’s current population is almost 50 percent ethnically Han Chinese according to Chan’s estimate.

‘I wanted to cut across this stereotyping and write a Tibet story without falling into those traps. My protagonist [Champa] is a very modern, young, Chinese-speaking male,’ says Chan. ‘I’m trying to pick out a young person from this background, metropolitan Lhasa, who has no grudges against Chinese [people] initially, and use this as a star ting point to see his world.’ Champa may not start out with grudges, but his experiences leave him jaded. Not least the torrid relationship with his employer and her daughter.

‘I deliberately made the relationships ver y complicated. There’s a lot of love, hate, dependency, exploitation, scheming, jealousy, everything. They’re not simple relationships. They cannot be reduced to a simple sentence and that is exactly what I want. I want to show that if we want to talk about Tibetan-Han relationships then we need to talk about them in a rich and complex way. I wanted to avoid being easily simplified,’ says Chan.

So how typical are Champa’s experiences in Beijing, where he can’t even find a room at a hotel? ‘It’s not a common thing because most Tibetans have never been to Beijing,’ says Chan. ‘For some who have the resources and who speak Mandarin, they will probably stay with friends or their Buddhist family. Now there is a policy that all landlords have to report to the police and get a permit to lease out their place to several ethnic groups. That makes it very difficult for Tibetans searching for a place to live because most landlords would not go to that trouble.’

It’s hard to tell whether the notoriety that comes with a ‘banned in China’ label has helped or hampered Chan’s career. Being cut out of the multi-million RMB Mainland market has certainly damaged his domestic profits, but that is not a concern for the writer, who has uploaded free downloadable Mandarin versions of both his books. ‘I don’t see it as piracy, I see it just as content,’ he says. ‘On the internet there are all these people who generously share their content, I see it that way.’

It’s easy to understand Chan’s laissez-faire attitude to online publishing when you learn who it is he’s writing for. ‘I have one target group in mind and that is Chinese Mainland intellectuals, especially here in Beijing. I need them to read it. Their response is the most important.’

For now Chan is keeping tight lipped about his next project. However, knowing his background in green issues and his attraction to the big questions facing China, we would bet on a novel about the environment. What is cer tain is that it’s unlikely to be published in China.

The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is available from for 130RMB.

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