Party lines

The Chinese Writers' Association employs 5,196 of the country's most popular and influential authors

Yiyun Li, born in Beijing, moved to the US in 1996, at the age of 24, to study immunology. Her stories were published in the Paris Review and the New Yorker soon afterwards. Her first novel, "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" (Fourth Estate), won critical acclaim

The Olympic torch relays and the roller-coasting stock market have quietly replaced the earthquake of May 2008 in the Chinese news. But it has not been forgotten. In a recent report, the chairwoman of the Chinese Writers' Association, Tie Ning, called on all Chinese writers to "pick up their pens" and write about the great war between Chinese people and the earthquake. According to the news, the Writers' Association had organised two groups of writers to tour the areas hit by the quakes and to interview refugees; and these writers were said to have returned with assignments to produce reportage and novels "of depth and weight" that would soon be seen in print.

My first uneasy reaction was to a few quotations the chairwoman gave to the press. Accompanied by local officials on her visit, she said, she faced gratitude from the refugees, who kept thanking her for coming to see them. This left her in tears, the chairwoman said, and she decided that she would immediately start a new book focusing on the earthquake relief effort.

The Chinese Writers' Association, founded in 1953, is the work unit for 5,196 authors. It provides resources of salaries and housing, and - especially in the time when most ordinary Chinese did not have the freedom to travel abroad - opportunities to visit other countries as delegates from the organisation. Even though membership of the association is no longer as prestigious as it once was, I am surprised, after a few googling efforts, by how many influential Chinese writers are members. Despite their dis comfort in admitting so and their eagerness to downplay the role of the organisation, its presence must still be undeniable in a writer's consciousness.

A few years ago, when I met a Chinese author in the United States, the first thing she told me was that she was officially a government employee, as she belonged to the Writers' Association - a subtle gesture to forestall any subversive comments from my side, I imagined. I was quite moved by her honesty about her situation.

In an age when the internet is pushing Chinese news media to be more transparent than ever, the responsibility for propaganda is falling to writers. One of the top-selling authors in China recently posted an article on his blog, urging the parents of the children killed in many of the crushed school buildings not to pursue their legal battles against corrupt officials and con tractors.

Their children had been remembered by 1.3 billion people in the most grandiose mourning ceremony in human history, the author told the bereaved parents. He then asked them to continue impressing and moving the world with their generosity and heroism.

Elsewhere, the vice-chairman of Shandong Province's Writers' Association published a poem, written from the point of view of an earthquake victim buried under a crushed building: "Called to by the President and the Premier, and loved by the government and the Communist Party, despite my death I am a happy ghost . . . All I wish for is a television set in front of my grave, so I could watch the Olympics and hail with my people."

When I was a child, there was an old woman in our neighbourhood in Beijing who was called by her nickname, Mrs Brave. Few knew her real name, as she was known for her legendary youth: at 18 she was the leader of a provincial women's militia and fought against the Japanese invaders in the Second World War. In fourth grade, after a field trip to the Museum of Chinese Revolutionary History and seeing her picture and story on display, our class decided to pay our homage to the nationalist hero by assigning four students each day to her house to help with her household chores. We dreamed of winning a school contest as the best Communist Youth Pioneers with our deed; we dreamed of her coming to our school, thanking the principal and the teachers, and above all thanking us for being the good children of China.

The day I was to go - a few days into our scheme - she was waiting by the gate. "I can take care of myself all right," she yelled when my companions and I came close to her house, waving a bald broom at us. "Look at what your classmates did to my broom - you children don't even know how to sweep the floor properly!"

It is understandable that a writer would always feel the urge to be at the centre of the action. The chairwoman of the Writers' Association, by organising the writers' tours, was perhaps thinking about all that she would do for Chinese writers. But it was Tie Ning's call for great literature to depict the epic war against the earthquake that worried me; even more so, it was her being accompanied by local officials and journalists, a public show that was, in the conventional format of propaganda, to be greeted with grateful tears. What did she see in the faces of the refugees, beyond gratitude, that she did not tell us?

When I visited my parents in Beijing recently, my mother told me the story of a row Mrs Brave had had with a neighbourhood Communist Party secretary shortly before her death. Mrs Brave was said to have stopped the Party secretary at the marketplace and lifted her blouse, showing a long scar on her stomach to the man.

"The Japanese did not kill me," Mrs Brave said to the man. "I tell you, in 1938 I was not afraid of the Japanese bayonets and I am not afraid of you either today."

The backstory of this public showdown was vague, but Mrs Brave, with her refusal to fit into a heroine's role, is fondly remembered by people who have known her. But, beyond this close circle, she also has a public life, and she will have to live on, perhaps against her own will, as a heroic woman in a museum. Would that fate befall the grateful refugees in the chairwoman's recounting, I wonder. Would they, too, have to live on in the shadow of propaganda, in next season's big fat novels of "depth and weight"?