China Inside Out

Yesterday my morning began with a poem for Ai Weiwei – ‘A Sunflower Seed lines of negation’ by Yang Lian. This is not how my day normally starts, but then yesterday was not a normal day. I was ‘doing the cultural exchange’ thing – all about China at English PEN. Sounds all cosy, friendly and cups of tea. There were cups of tea – china tea, plenty of friendly people, but ‘cosy’? – not the adjective I would have used.

In the morning discussion and Q&As with writers who worked in China, lived in China but had their work banned and writers who no longer could live in China. There was the pragmatist, Ou Ning whose magazine pushes at the limits but does operate self-censorship in order to get published. Chen Xiwo on the other hand has challenged the authorities in court. His novella ‘I love my mum’ is banned, it explores incest and S&M metaphors for a dysfunctional society. The ban remains. Li Jianhong was an earlier blogger, is now banned from returning to China and lives in Stockholm. When asked was it worth the personal sacrifice, Li Jianhong explained through the interpreter that when her mother was dying the authorities would not let her into China. Then she added, ‘Yes, some things are bigger’.

Throughout the day I learnt a great deal.

I now know a little of the Uyghur people and their history. A race that goes back thousands of years, not Chinese at all, who want independence like Tibet but do not get the same level of media coverage. And I can go to the British Museum and see Uyghur artefacts.

When the first women was appointed to the Political Bureau the BBC’s Woman’s Hour wanted to do a programme on her but dropped it once they realised there was so little known about the woman herself.

Despite living for many years in the UK Chinese writers still only want to write about China, their roots are very much still there.

Bilingual interpreters are amazing, Michelle Deeter listened, wrote and translated back and forth, with speed and fluency which left one who only has command of her own mother tongue, breathless.

I was given a business card, slightly panicked me as I only saw the Chinese text side first. Then Nancy smiled and turned it over, reassuringly there was the English on the other side.

And lastly, I own up, I did not try and eat the delicious lunch supplied with chop sticks, I know my limitations. Trying to chase noodles and rice around a polystyrene plate while standing up and using my inadequate manual dexterity was too much to ask.