Double or Nothing

I write about two Chinas. You could say I’m seeing double.

Sometimes I write about the real China for this blog. That is to say, I express my opinion about current affairs as I see them from a distance through the lens of media reports. It’s very possible that the China I write of does not exist in any one’s mind other than my own. I don’t worry about that.

The China I fret about is in my fiction. I try to build the historical stage ⏤ Shanghai on the eve of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War or in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution ⏤ as accurately as I can. I try to make my characters walk and talk, love and lose like the people you might have seen on the street. But, in truth, it’s all a roll of the dice. A gamble that my imagination is up to the task.

To improve my odds, I shore up my understanding of Chinese history, culture and its peoples with books about China and works written by Chinese authors. Two, in particular, come to mind today. Yan Lianke is my age and based in Beijing. Jiayang Fan could be our daughter, living in New York City.

Double speak

Yan Lianke is a gambling man. To escape life in the Henan countryside, Yan joined the Chinese army in the late 1970s. From there, he went on to become a propaganda writer, a journalist for state media and now one of China’s best-known writers. He lives on the proverbial double-edged sword.

Yan Lianke
Yan Lianke

Some of his most famous novels are banned, but others can be bought online […] His essays, often fiercely political, get deleted from the web and then pop up on other blogs later, as China’s literati evade the whack-a-mole of the censors.

Yuan Yang, “Lunch with the FT Yan Lianke” in The Financial Times, 4/5 Apr 2020

For his interview with The Financial Times, Yan must search for a secluded spot in a crowded park to avoid the government snitches.

Yet, in a lecture to students at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, he preaches bravery. He exhorts them to emulate the physician who first reported a strange new flu circulating in his hospital in Wuhan. Yan writes, If we can’t be whistleblowers like Li Wenliang, then let us become those who can hear the whistle.

To his creative writing students at Renmin University in Beijing, Yan offers a less ambitious message. He knows that most if not all of them will end up working for the state media or the government. At least don’t write lies, he urges.

With his own children, Yan drops all pretense of courage. They don’t need to say anything out loud.

Yan calls this generation obedient children. They were born after the Tiananmen Massacre. They have no rebellious spirit. The State tells them what to do and how to think and they comply.


In 1986, Jiayang Fan’s father was sent by the Chinese government to study biology at Harvard. To join him in order to reunite the family seemed like an obvious thing to do. Yet in Chongqing in 1992, this was an act of disloyalty to China. And so Fan and her mother had to hide their plans to leave.

Double portrait: Jiayang Fan and her mother
Jiayang Fan and her mother

Innocent questions were just as likely to be perilous trip wires. Before answering, I watched my mother’s eyes for instruction and waited for her gaze to guide me. When I solemnly shook my head, I felt myself not to be lying, exactly, but deflecting bodily harm.

Jiayang Fan, “Motherland” in The New Yorker, 14 Sept 2020

Fan calls her childhood reflex: doublethink. It proves to be a useful skill when, in 1992, she and her mother arrive in America and the father abandons them. Fan’s mother, a trained physician, becomes a housekeeper in Greenwich, Connecticut, so that her daughter can attend elite schools. Fan carves herself into a Chinese half and an American half. She writes, uncertainty is the country where I most belong.

Today, Fan is a staff writer for The New Yorker. When she’s not writing, she attends to the 24/7 needs of her mother, now an ALS patient in the middle of a pandemic.

Foreign speak

When Yan was Fan’s age, foreign speak was the term reserved for all languages other than Chinese and Russian. Yan speaks no English. Fan is fluent in the native tongue of her mother country and her adopted one, too.

Fan’s childhood dream was to write the Great American Novel. Yan admires Chinese diaspora writers like the Chinese-American author, Yiyun Li, but he also believes: if they want to write about China, they are too far removed from it.

For some time now, it’s felt safer to write about China while standing outside its borders. Then the National Security Law was promulgated in Hong Kong last summer. It’s a real piece of work. You can use it to declare a protest that was legal in June 2019 to be illegal in October 2020. Or to criminalize statements made by a US citizen on US soil in accordance with US laws.

When a little fish like me sees spikes in reader views for blog posts critical of China, I have to worry about the 50-cent army. Fan’s mother worries, too.

Whenever I inform her that I am travelling to report on China, as I did last year when I went to cover the Hong Kong protests, she laboriously blinks out the message “donot gainst china.” This is what my mother has blinked out with growing intensity since Donald Trump started talking about “the Chinese virus.”

Fan ignores her mother. I choose to disregard Yan. Yes, I am an American Born Chinese. My fictional China is a country of memories, my own and those borrowed. I am its sole inhabitant. As ruler, I name the beasts, the rivers, the colors of the rainbow. As servant, I listen for a far-off whistle.