Protests in Tiananmen Square

This Author’s Story of Fleeing China Is Everything

What do you do if you’re an author whose home country refuses to publish the most important books you’ve ever written in your career? If you’re Chinese author Xue Yiwei, you move all the way across the world.


Mr. Xue, known in China as one of their “most charismatic literary stylists,” is largely unknown in the English-speaking part of the world, but that’s about to change. In 2010, he wrote a book entitled Dr. Bethune’s Children, which is a book of letters addressed to Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor who died on the front lines of the Communist resistance to the Japanese occupation in 1939. An English translation of the book just came out in Canada, his new home country.


What was wrong in his old home country of China? For a long time, nothing. Mr. Xue has written sixteen novels and essay collections. Thirteen have been published in China. The last three, including Dr. Bethune’s Children, were rejected. 


In China, authors who write about controversial topics like Communist resistance often have all their works banned. Authors whose works are constantly in print are suspected of self-censorship. Nearly all published authors belong to the China Writers Association. This group demands their members pledge their loyalty to the Communist party. Perhaps this is the reason Mr. Xue never joined. He couldn’t if he wanted to have a chance of getting Dr. Bethune’s Children published. 


However, it seemed he may never get that chance. Editor after editor rejected the manuscript. One editor told Mr. Xue this, “Dr. Bethune’s Children couldn’t appear because the attitude of the novel’s expatriate narrator was judged as harmful to China’s reputation.”


Another editor gave Mr. Xue a detailed plan on how to rewrite the novel and omit all references to the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, two subjects that are taboo in China. This response is what prompted Mr. Xue to seek publication outside of China. Dr. Bethune’s Children was first published in Taiwan in 2014.


Dr. Bethune's Children cover

Image via Amazon


The release of Dr. Bethune’s Children in Taiwan found Mr. Xue in a peculiar situation. He was neither completely banned nor completely accepted in his native country. However, he did not regret seeking publication elsewhere. He deemed Dr. Bethune’s Children one of his most important works. 


A fellow Chinese author based in Boston, Mr. Ha, commented on Mr. Xue’s tendency to write books that are the opposite of the kind of books other Chinese authors write. “Established writers in China may pay attention to big ideas but they are so isolated and confined within the system they can’t really think differently.”


Dr. Bethune’s Children is not the first controversial piece Mr. Xue has written, and his other controversial works got him in trouble. In 1989, he wrote a book called Desertion about an amateur philosopher’s efforts to quit his government job. Soon after the book was published, he joined the Tiananmen Square protests, and wrote another controversial piece, a novella called December 31, 1989. It was about the mood of dejection among his friends over the suppression of protest. The novella was published in magazines in Taiwan and Guangzhou. When the publication got back to China, the reaction was severe.


They never came at me personally, but they came to my friends. They tried to shut down the magazine I had written for. I still don’t know who ‘they’ were. Somebody, a friend, told me I should not write anymore. For my own benefit.


Mr. Xue took those words to heart. He went back to school and studied linguistics. He wrote infrequently, and what he did write and sent for publication, he sent under a pseudonym. 


In 1997, Desertion, which was largely ignored when it was first published, won a major award in Taiwan. This event prompted a leading critic in Beijing to count Desertion as one of China’s most important philosophical novels. The validation came too late however, as Mr. Xue had already decided to move to Montreal, unable to handle his native country any longer.


I could see what was happening in China. At the high point of my writing, I had to hide myself. Even after that, conversation with publishers was not comfortable. 


Mr. Xue wanted to remain a current writer in China, but did not feel safe writing there, so he moved to Montreal, took some classes at a university there, and welcomed a period of great productivity.  “I marginalized myself…but I remained an essential writer on the literary scene in China,” he said.


Mr. Xue in Montreal

Image via The New York Times


Michael Berry, a UCLA contemporary Chinese culture professor understood exactly why Mr. Xue moved to Montreal to remain current in China.


It makes sense that Xue wants to be removed from the cacophony of changes happening in China every day. The outsider perspective living in Montreal lets him explore opinions a writer in China wouldn’t dare touch upon.


In the recent years, Montreal went from a safe haven to write to his new home. He gained a fluency in English and began translating passages in Dr. Bethune’s Children into English. He’s happy about his growing popularity in his new land, but he remains devoted to getting his content out there in China. “In this materialistic era, I believe literature is more crucial than ever for the conscience of my motherland.”


Mr. Xue is clearly devoted to his country (or rather, one of his countries), and keeps hoping his writing will help things change for the better.

Featured Image via ChinaAid