Stick to your own “ancient expression” Interview on Bi Feiyu
Dec 19, 2023
Bi Feiyu: Writer, Professor at Nanjing University, School of Liberal Arts
Du Junfei: Poet, Professor at Nanjing University, School of Journalism and Communication
Du Junfei: On behalf of Youth Magazine I want to thank you for taking this interview. First question, according to your experience, since we enter the era of internet, in what aspects are the readers of the new generation different from before? Meanwhile, in what senses have our main-stream novelists been changing and adapting?
Bi Feiyu: Things have changed dramatically if we compare the Internet Era and Pre-internet Era. Let’s take an example from our daily life, our social expression, for instance, has changed a lot. You know that the essence of expression is about anxiety. Everyone is eager to make sure what they say counts, and that causes anxiety. In Pre-internet Era, such anxiety is mainly manifested in the ever-louder voice and ever-faster pace of speech, but in the virtual world of the Internet, volume and pace of your talk are factors that have been ruled out, what then? You have to solely count on the rhetoric. I would name the rhetoric of this Internet Era as “ultimate rhetoric”. You should notice that the language of the Internet often goes to the extreme. At the same time, it is funny, because sense of humor can ease the anxiety I talked about earlier.
I will give you an example. One day, a friend from the media sector sent me a text message all of a sudden, saying: “I am dying.” I was shocked, called him immediately bearing in mind that something terrible happened to him. It turned out that he’s been working overtime and was exhausted. What I mean is that the language used in Pre-Internet era, which my generation lives with, has its norms. "Dying" is a big thing. However, the expression of the Internet also has its own norms, ultimate rhetoric is the common expression. Furthermore, the gap of language will lead to the gap of thinking, and the gap of thinking will eventually shape the gap of humankind. This is the difference as I reflect on your question.
A writer of my age is probably a “mainstream novelist” that young people refer to. Ahead of me, I see two choices: one, keep up with the trend and get assimilated; two, stick to my "ancient expression". My answer is clear, I will insist on the expression I got used to, I will not consider to change. Excessive compromise is risky and disgraceful, "Wave Pushing from Behind" (a video made by Bilibili on youth) is a negative example.
Du Junfei: I agree. According to my experience with the Internet, the biggest issue is the anxiety of reading. Put it simply, it is a sort of competing noise in the literary process. Dedicated literary expression is hard to find. Writing with a sense of self-esteem is even less common. Now let’s move to my second question. In your Fiction Reading, you talked about books like Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, Water Margin, Dream of the Red Mansions, writers like Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Naipaul, Lu Xun and even Stephen Hawking. If you write a sequel in the future, what other writers would you possibly include in your list?
Bi Feiyu: Of course, I’ve been considering such a list. But it is not a list that I have to insist on, to some extent it is intuitive. I remember when I talked about Hemingway, it was proposed by the students, and the same happened in the case Lu Xun.
First of all, we have to realize that Fiction Reading has nothing to do with literary history, nor with my personal literary (reading) history, although I personally have a literary history. At the same time, Fiction Reading does not give some sort of claims or theories on fiction, something like “I am fond of stream of consciousness or 18th-century literature or 19th-century literature”. It’s not like that. My focus is the common sense of novels, which is the foundation and essence of novels.
Literature is very open. I am self-willed to do such a thing. I picked up the writers and novels that I consider good. You can agree or disagree. Now my answer to your question is very clear. I do not have a fixed list of candidates. The only certainty is that I would not talk about those writers who are alive. They are too close, and I am really not sure I can do a good job giving comments on them.
Du Junfei:I know you are not willing to say it, maybe, readers wanna read something about “great” writers they disagree. Alright, the third question, if you won’t be the author of the sequel of Fiction Reading, who do you recommend to write it? Why do you recommend them?
Bi Feiyu: I can not give you the name list, I think nobody is willing to write it. I do not have any plans to write Fiction Reading 2 at the present, Why do I need to pass this task to others? However, we can put another way, if I select several writers who I know well, talking about these classics, I may have a try.
Ge fei: Gefei is different from us, he got all the degrees,the bachelor degree, master degree and doctor degree of arts in literature, and now he is a professor. Although I am a professor too, my “professor” is just a honorary title. He becomes a real professor, step by step along the academic path. He is quiet talented in literature, and has broad vision, we often discuss some topics of novels in private. Surely, I have read some similar articles he wrote, I really admire and respect him.
Yu hua: Speaking of Yuhua, we always have some misunderstanding about him. The misunderstanding caused by himself, he always tells others he is a “high school student”, many people know it then, and they will regard Yuhua as a guy who is not well-educated, and they would consider that “Yuhua can write novels, then I can do that as well.”
You guys do not believe what Yuhua said, you need trust me. Indeed, he is quite confident, and he specializes in reading, his reading talent is no less than his writing talent. I have read most of his essays, I do not make comments on the essays about music in here, but his essays about reading are really fantastic. He can grasp the most excellent parts of literary works, and make accurate and reasonable analysis. He has good memory, but are those memories precise? To be honest, I have no idea, I won’t find out the truth on my own, however, every time he can make it quite good, anyway, personally, I choose to believe him.
Su tong: His quantity of reading is absolutely reliable, I mean he did read a lot. He is sensitive, attentive, has pure literary taste and outstanding writing gift. I can say it responsibly, if a young man wanna select a master to teach him how to write articles, Su tong is a great choice. Su tong has written a considerable amount of works about reading, these works give me an impression, Su tong’s works are like quicksilver, covering many details softly and touching readers’ heart smoothly, demonstrating a kind of marvelous beauty. I wanna reveal a secret of him, he is a real expert in studies of American literature. He can be a tutor of American literature in any university in China, as long as he wants. I might be offended by saying this, but I suggest those experts who specialize in American literature can meet up with Su tong and have some discussion with him.
Ye Zhaoyan: Ye Zhaoyan and Ge fei have some similarities, it’s very nice to chat with Ye about reading. He is a fun guy, and he set up a public persona for himself successfully. 1. Clumsy, not talkative. 2. Gentle, easy-going. It is not real, he is a mighty man, when you talk with him about reading, you can rarely get in, usually, he can keep talking for the whole conversation. I have to point out that Ye does read a lot of literary works, but he never shows off. In many occasions, when someone starts to speak at random about literature, and I am not sure about what he talks, I will look at Ye’s face, from his facial expression, I will know what is right, and what is wrong.
Qiu Huadong: I am not sure that how many books he has read, sorry, I use another word, I am not sure about how many novels he has read. Speaking of novels, Qiu is like a walking dictionary. It occurs to me that an experience in London with him, we had a conversation about novels, that was a long conversation, and till I felt sleepy but he was still energetic and quiet excited, and kept talking about novels he read. I had a question at that moment, does this man need sleep? Does this man need eat? How can he read so many novels? Does he have a “reading chip” inserted in his brain? He is an amazing man, that’s my only comment on him. By the way, it is not a secret, all people know it in the literary world. I wanna recommend two more young people, because I read their essays about writers and literary works during the pandemic. One is Li Hao from Hebei, another is Yubang from Jiangsu. I must say it in an old man’s tone, “After reading their essays and works, I was inspired and I learned a lot.”
Du Junfei: About these writers, of course, I believe your choices. However, from the aspect of conversation, criticism is more interesting than compliment. When I drew the outline of this interview, I should have thought out some negative questions. The fourth question is an old one,how do you think the reality of contemporary Chinese literature in world literature? What are the important gaps or differences between this generation of Chinese writers and the world literature mentors they admire and respect?
Bi Feiyu: People are sensitive about something at their young age, but when they are getting older, they may not care too much about it. For instance, when a young man meets a girl, he will attempt to confirm the girl is “female”, this intention is always strong, even turns into obsessiveness. However, I can meet my neighbour everyday, I do not care too much if the neighbour is male or female, for me, he or she is just an acquaintance, the conversations between us are mostly alike. The world has changed a lot, it is not necessary for us to highlight and emphasize that we are “Chinese writer”. Actually, people do not care about your nationality, what we face is human’s life, all of us are the people to express, this is the most important thing.
Du Junfei: Only very confident writers would have your mature view. Perhaps, the problem is Chinese readers are still young, just like before, whenever they see a litterateur neighbour; they would firstly try to identify their gender, and there’s nothing we can do about this situation at present. The last question, what do you think of Nanjing in a literary sense? About Nanjing’s cultural construction project regarding ‘city of literature’, as one of the organizers of this project, do you have any specific outlook to the future?
Bi Feiyu: Nanjing and literature are actually intertextual. Which city does not have literature? However, cities rarely develop an intertextuality with literature. In fact, this intertextuality between Nanjing and literature is not recent; it is well-maintained through cultural heritage; it has eventually become a historical consensus. Based on this consensus, Nanjing has officially been designated as city of literature by UNESCO. As a citizen of Nanjing, I am very honored. However, I was not very helpful during the bid process, and I basically just smiled and clapped my hands for a few times. Most difficult and complicated works were accomplished by Nanjing Literature Center. That is a team full of strength, and they have contributed the greatest share of our success.
I do not have any specific outlook, but I would say, it is a great opportunity for young writers in Nanjing. You know, UNESCO itself is a communication platform. There are many cities of literature across the globe, and writers of these cities communicate to each other frequently; this type of communication is especially common among young writers. What I’d like to say to Nanjing’s young writers is you need to learn foreign languages, and you do need the skill. For writers of our generation, the outside world was relatively permissive; we could heir interpreters if we could not speak the language, and the situation is getting strict now. I need you to think about this; you are very well-educated, but you can not make a speech or have an interview in another language. You need an interpreter with you even attending a cocktail party; it is very inconvenient for you. Writers of our generations have experienced all these; we grew first and got internationalized afterwards. New generations would have a completely different trace of lives; they would internationalize first, and grow slowly after that. I am very envious of young writers in Nanjing; they truly have a great opportunity. However, with all these good points, writing is always the priority. Everything will be meaningless if you become a fool trolling over the world after all these communications.
Du Junfei:Thank you again! Especially the speech you made just now is a very important literature criticism.
Bi Feiyu: Thank you!
Youth is one of the most famous literary magazines in Jiangsu Province, focusing on publishing short stories, essays, poems created by young writers, and it is one of the long-term partners cooperated with Nanjing Literature Center.