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Dancing in the Underworld

Lu Min, one of China’s most celebrated writers, talks with NewsChina about her latest novel, the art of writing and her keen observations of the dark side of human nature

By NewsChina Updated Mar.6

Lu Min has a deceptive air. She seems gentle and quiet, her smile mild and soft. But when she talks about writing, she can’t hide her fierce rebellion and inner ambition.
Born in 1973, Lu is one of the most critically acclaimed writers of her generation. She started writing aged 25, after working in a succession of jobs as a post office clerk, reporter, secretary and public official.  

A prolific writer, Lu has published six full-length novels including Multiple Love Letters, The Steering Wheel, Undeliverable Feelings, and Dinner for Six. Her short story collections and novellas include Accompany the Feast, The Song of Parting, The Viewfinder, Stirring up the Dust and Page-Drunk. 
Her awards and accolades include the Zhuang Zhongwen Literary Award, the People’s Literary Award, the Chinese Writers’ Award, the Monthly Fiction Writer Award, the Selected Fiction Award, and she was honored with the prestigious Lu Xun Literary Award in 2010.
Her novels often depict the realities of a generation torn between the proliferation of material goods and the emptiness of the spiritual condition. Her recently published novel The Flight to the Moon is an examination of the absurdity, loss, and alienation experienced by modern people.
Lu feels that her writing is driven by her ceaseless curiosity and voracious desire to discover human nature. “I desperately need a tool, like a high-powered telescope or a long rope that I can climb down deep into the abyss of human nature. And the tool I’ve found is writing,” Lu told NewsChina.  

Escaping Destiny  

The Flight to the Moon recounts a middle-class woman’s futile attempt to escape from her mundane life by cutting herself off from her previous social connections. 
The story starts when a bus plummets off a cliff in a remote mountain area. One of the passengers, Xiaoliu, a 28-year-old woman on a solitary trip, mysteriously vanishes, her possessions left scattered around the scene. 
The woman’s disappearance stirs up the undercurrents beneath the placid surface of people she associated with: her mother, husband, lover, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Declining to accept her death, her husband and lover start a journey of discovery, both gradually uncovering the secret sides of her character that were hidden under her apparent docility. 
Xiaoliu’s life is not as satisfactory as it seems to be: she is a competent white-collar worker, very likely to get promoted, a bit lazy but still a dutiful wife with a caring and successful husband, a sweet friend with several close friends who often get together, and she has a charming lover who regularly dates her during her lunch breaks. 
Yet anxiety over her limpid and mundane life overwhelms her so much that she chooses to completely cut herself off from all the social roles she used to perform and start a new life in a strange town with a fake identity. She tries different jobs in a supermarket, from selling cartoon-style headgear, to being a cleaner and check-out operator. 
She enjoys the temporary peace she feels as a completely whole individual, rather than being known by others as one fragmented part of her social roles. Nevertheless, after the brief air of freedom comes the disillusionment: the mundanity and absurdity of life, though in a different form, surrounds her again in the new environment, reminding her that her battle is nothing more than a Sisyphean struggle. 
“Every human may go through a time in their life when they struggle with existential problems. They keep questioning themselves with a series of fundamental questions, even though the act of questioning itself might turn out to be fruitless, exhausting and with no solution – that’s where the shadow of our common destiny lies. I want to write about this exhaustion and the futile but persistent attempt,” Lu told NewsChina. 
The urge to escape spreads among urbanites like an epidemic, the writer points out. They are struggling with a crisis of self-awareness, she believes, as the sense of self has been encroached on by a high-functioning society and mundanity. 
“Gender, name, location, accent, occupation, family, education, taste, habit, these sorts of things define a person but also confine a person,” she writes in the novel’s epilogue, “Should we accept the entire predestined ingredients and muddle along or break all the chains and paint a new draft?”
Lu told NewsChina that in the novel, she strives to create a utopia where the heroine can rid herself of the gravity of worldliness and morality and let the id flee away from its shackles, even though it later proves futile. 
The title The Flight to the Moon alludes to the story of Lady Chang’e in Chinese mythology. The legend tells of a time when there were 10 suns in the sky, but an expert archer, Hou Yi, wielded a supernatural bow and shot nine needless suns down, for which he was bestowed an elixir of life by the immortals. The hero gave the elixir to his wife, a beautiful and virtuous girl named Chang’e, for safekeeping. But she accidentally swallowed the potion and floated away, toward the sky, finally becoming an immortal on the moon.  

As an archetype, the legend has inspired a variety of artistic and literary works in later generations. In 1926, China’s great modern writer Lu Xun rewrote the myth into a short story, also titled The Flight to the Moon, giving his own take on the legend – that Chang’e chose to fly to the moon to run away from an intolerably monotonous life. 
“Xiaoliu’s ‘flight to the moon’ is a defiance, just like for Chang’e, against a tiresome life. Perhaps whether the resistance eventually succeeds or fails is not important. But the process is of great importance,” commented Liang Hong, famed writer and professor of Chinese at the Renmin University of China.  

Avid Observer  

Lu’s writing career started one autumn afternoon in 1998, when she typed the first line of her first story, Finding Li Mai, on her computer, which tells of a young woman who falls in love with another. 
She had been a post office clerk for eight years. That afternoon, when she stared out from the office window and saw peddlers, plumbers, water bearers, drivers, kindergarten teachers and police officers bustling about on the street, a violent thought seized her, urging her to discover the secrets and stories of these common people. 
“Everyone has shadowy secrets chained in the heart that they never tell another. That realization hit me hard, and I was eager to keep close to them and possess their sorrows and happiness,” Lu said. 
As an avid human observer, she is driven to find out more about people’s lives. She clearly remembers a moment of clarity when she got a glimpse into the life of a stranger.
Once, after making a careless mistake, Lu had to find a customer’s home to return a 50-yuan note (US$8), which amounted to almost half her monthly salary. When she stepped into the man’s apartment, she saw shirts and shoes scattered everywhere, and she was engulfed by the smell of congee (Chinese porridge) and pickle. An uncanny feeling overwhelmed her as she felt the scene was so real and moving – “a real life is forced open because of a stranger’s sudden visit, so unexpectedly that leaves no time for the lodger to tidy it up.” 
“I find I’m very willing to bump into people’s lives as an uninvited guest for a thousand times. That vivid image of a real-life scene is etched deeply in my brain. Till now, I still feel viscerally grateful the 50-yuan note led me to that place,” the writer recalled. 
A number of novellas in her early literary career feature regional and local color, which construct an idyllic fictional town, Dongba, based on her own hometown, Dongtai, in East China’s Jiangsu Province. 
She creates a highly aestheticized rural space, vividly picturing rural images with poetry-like language, such as the barefoot doctor, the quiet tailor, a plain-looking widow, the secular monk who gobbles up meat, children playing in the storm drains amid a backdrop of fields of freshly harvested wheat and straw.
Lu creates a spiritual utopia in the “Dongba” series with a bright and warm tone. In Innocence, she tells a simple and moving story of a 17-year-old deaf-mute orphan boy who takes care of a 37-year-old woman who suffers from early-onset dementia; in Page-Drunk, Lu presents a love triangle among two teen boys and a mute girl who is fond of the Chinese craft of paper cutting; in Affairs Cut, Lu impresses readers with her detailed depiction of the art of tailoring and the traditional apprenticeship. 
As a depiction of the harmony of country life, the close attachment among the people, the dignity of village artists and craftsmen, the slow and quiet pre-industrial lifestyle, Lu’s rural stories soon earned her wide fame and popularity.  

Hidden Diseases 

Lu sees her earlier romanticized Dongba stories as “the first bucket of gold she dug from the mine of literature.” But lately, Lu’s tone has grown much darker and bleaker as she has shifted her focus to the wasteland-like cities and the spiritual predicaments of urban dwellers.
In her unflinchingly realistic urban stories, the writer, instead of directly presenting current social affairs, focuses more on the mental and spiritual condition of ordinary folk. 
In her 2013 short story collection Nine Kinds of Sorrow, she portrays a group of characters who are similarly stuck in a certain spiritual plight of their own: a couple unhealthily obsessed with undergoing healthcare treatments; a wordless man fascinated with maps; an asexual woman suffering from anorexia; a husband who desires to swoop and fly as bird; a father playing hide and seek with Death.
Li Jingze, vice president of the Chinese Writers Association and former editor-in-chief of leading literary magazine People’s Literature, described Lu as “a doctor who is keen on collecting all kinds of ailments, anxieties, illusions, obsessions and petty tricks of contemporary people.” 
“People in cities appear to live much wealthier and more glamorous lives, but deep inside, many struggle with an acute sense of stressful, uncertain anxiety. I am particularly keen on discovering the ‘hidden diseases’ that lurk in the dark side of human nature,” Lu told NewsChina. 

Her 2017 short story collection Night Talk of Hormones exquisitely explores hormones and body obsession. 
The character of Mr. Qiu in Three People, Two Feet, a foot massage parlor owner and drug dealer, has a raging foot fetish and secretly drinks the footbath water of female customers; Wang Dongcheng in Night Talk of Hormones, an artistically frustrated middle-aged sculptor, uses a strange woman’s hand to ease his desire while on a flight to draw inspiration; Director Yang in Universal Gravitation is a government official with sado-masochistic tendencies who desires to be whipped by young women as he acts like a pet dog. 
“In contemporary China, there is no writer like Lu Min who maintains a persistent curiosity toward ‘outsiders.’ Her characters always seek to digress from the normal path of life, die and gain rebirth through their acts of resistance. Lu and her characters stand on the opposite side of worldliness, and face up to the deep abyss of human nature,” said Zhang Li, a famous literary critic and professor of Chinese at Tianjin Normal University.
Some of Lu’s faithful readers, though, express that Lu’s urban stories are not as appealing as her early “Dongba” series, which they believe are the best of her works. 

“Of course, I still have deep feelings for Dongba. I miss it a lot. But for me, writing that kind of fiction is too artistically safe. If I were too indulged in writing such pastoralist stories, I’m afraid I might lose myself as well as my creativity,” Lu told NewsChina. 
Lu stressed that she always seeks to extend the artistic possibilities in her writing, even if it might look dangerous, harsh or aesthetically flawed. 
“It feels like I’m dancing with writing. We step on each other’s feet now and again, and we adjust our pace a little, trying to figure out what kind of new rhythm and new space we may create together,” Lu said.