Festival of Ghosts

New Chinese literature – a story by Zheng Xiaolu, read by Tiffany Lam


Ed: We're delighted to bring you a new kind of feature: audio stories. This is thanks to Anna Savittieri, who got together with her college friends Tiffany Lam and Jacob Spitzer to produce a reading of "Festival of Ghosts", a haunting story by the Chinese writer Zheng Xiaolu about family planning, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping and the text was originally published on Words Without Borders here. Anna has also done a Q&A with the author at her blog here and we've reposted it below. As Anna writes, "Translation is a huge barrier to accessing Chinese literature, but it still seems strange that so little is available in English ... Without access to contemporary culture, we forget the people, combining the state and its citizens under our notion of 'Chinese'." We hope you enjoy listening.


Anna Savittieri: What was your initial inspiration for writing Festival of Ghosts?

Zheng Xiaolu: In my hometown, we celebrate Festival of Ghosts in middle of July Lunar calendar every year to welcome home the spirits of the ancestors. We worship our ancestors for a few days and then send them away. This ancient ceremony has left a deep impression on me. I still remember one year, the time to celebrate this Festival was also the time when the state’s Family Planning Campaign reached its peak. One of my cousins, in order to escape from the hunting from the state’s family planning agency, hid in the cellar of our house and almost died from that incident. This left a deep impression on me, and inspired me (to write) Festival of Ghosts.

AS: In the story, there is a real tension over mysticism and rural culture. The mother literally feels the spirits of the dead within her as they come to her at night in violent nightmares, leaving physical marks. When she expresses her belief in the after world and its earthly haunting, she is laughed at by her neighbors and made to feel shame even as all the villagers participate in Yu Lan Jie rituals. The mother seemed to be holding onto spirits and her late husband as an act of salvation, her last hope in saving her soul against society and the state. But when she marries Eighth Uncle, she finally severs her relationship with the spirit world and with her own soul, giving into an identity which is entirely corporeal. Would you speak about the choice for the spirits to materialize in bruises on Mother’s body? Why is the after world represented as a place of violence rather than paradise?

ZX: Festival of Ghosts is a mysterious and ancient ceremony. It is the memorial time for the deceased, and also the bridge of spiritual communication between the living and the dead. During the Festival, there is no isolation between the living and the dead, and we assume that the dead are living with us in the household. We even do not speak loud, for fear that we might frighten them. In my opinion, the deceased include not only ancient ancestors, but also those infants who died from the forced abortion from the Family Planning Policy. Apparently for the latter, this is not a paradise. The pain of the "Mother" is not only a physical injury, but also a mental trauma.

AS: The story really seems to deprive motherhood of all sense of joy and pleasure. Childbirth is explained as an act of the death of the mother rather than the process of giving life to the child. The only character not confronted with violence and limitations is the narrator who is only mentioned a single time to be a boy. He is conversely an observational character who seems untouched by the bruises, blood, and sexual assault which surrounds him in this all-female setting. The men who cause this harm are fixed in the periphery, but their impact is all-consuming. Would you speak about the decision to create an all female cast except for the narrator? Do you think it is possible for the narrator to escape becoming part of this “class of villains” as he grows into male adulthood?

ZX: The victims of the Family Planning Policy are mainly women, so I create(d) a number of female characters. As for whether the "narrator" will become "the evil," I think this is not only a question to the social system, but also a question to the good and evil of human nature. I prefer to assess the world from the perspective of human nature. I think it questionable to become a pure narrator of social problems by merely disclosing the problems. We should also reflect on these problems from the perspectives of the social system and environment, as well as human nature.

At present, the Family Planning Policy in China has gradually been relaxed, as the government has come to realize that this policy has resulted in profound changes and negative impacts to society. It is expected that in the near future this policy will be totally abandoned. At present, the new rule is that married couples can have a second baby if both parents are the only child. In addition, with China's rapid development, nowadays the young generation has received better education and improved living quality. In big cities, many young, well-educated people no longer plan to have more than one kid even though the policy permits because they don’t want to bear big pressure from work and life. This is opposite to the situation from a decade or two decades ago. Today’s young generation holds different views from their parents and have more choices. In Festival of Ghosts, the story takes place in the countryside in the 1990s, a period of time when the rural people received poor education and poor living conditions. With the lack of women’s "self-consciousness" and the legal protection of women, cases of domestic violence were likely to occur.

AS: Chinese rural culture has a strong presence in this piece and I left reading feeling like I knew a lot more about life in the Chinese countryside. There are also strong markers of the setting’s “Chinese-ness” such as the role of The Party, both as a political institution and as an institution which really affects how normal people literally live and die in China and China alone.

This story also reads really well as part of a rural global series which emphasizes the twin magic and hardship of rural life. I could read this next to Can Xue, Bruno Schulz, or Calvino’s Marcovaldo and learn more about what villages are like in general; the themes of gossip, long family lines, and frugality seem to be universal to most peasant societies. 
What kind of literary culture do you see this piece fitting into, if anywhere? How much does this matter to you?

ZX: My hometown is located in the Western area of Hunan province and the traditional cultures have been well preserved there. The local natural and cultural environments have nourished me greatly and I, intentionally or unintentionally, have encompassed them into my writing. In terms of writing one’s own national culture, Shen Congwen and Gabriel García Márquez are my role models. I have learned a lot from them. Furthermore, suffering, humanities, and endurance are the eternal motif in our writings.

Zheng Xiaolu is the pen name of Zheng Peng, who was born in 1986 in Longhui, Hunan, and lives in Beijing. His stories have been published in several literary magazines in China

Anna Savittieri is an aspiring storyteller currently living and studying in Beijing. She keeps the blog an-other-land-survey.ghost.ioTiffany Lam is a Montreal-based journalist who hosts the CKUT show Tuesday Morning After and tweets @tlsy13Jacob Spitzer is a boy who likes audio. The three met studying at McGill University and dream of running their own radio station

Since this story was recorded and the interview produced, China has ended the one-child policy