Only Responsible to Their Art: Heilan and the Chinese Avant-Garde

Heilan was established for a simple reason: over the past twenty years, there has not emerged a single medium devoted to the artistic and spiritual ideals of Chinese literature, so we created one according to our aspirations. I founded the organisation (the name of which means Black & Blue in Chinese) as an avant-garde writers’ group in 1992. The inaugural print magazine was published in 1995, but was closed down by the state before a second issue could be released. It re-launched as a digital publication at the beginning of this century, and since then we have published 127 issues.

The purpose of the magazine is to preserve and promote young writers stymied by the drastic changes to China’s literary landscape. These changes had started even before 1990, when I first started writing. In the period between 1978 and 1990, my society’s yearning for literature, art, free thinking, and freedom found expression as Chinese printing presses published almost the entire Western canon. It was a time when the entire society took pride in the accumulation of knowledge, accompanied by a proliferation of literature magazines. This cultural moment peaked in 1990 with the rise of a Chinese avant-garde literature that placed art at its centre: writers such as Yu Hua, Su Tong, Ge Fei, Ma Yuan, Sun Ganlu and Lv Xin. This was the lucky generation. The demand for literature meant that experimental writers like Sun Ganlu and Ma Yuan were free from the pressure of finding publishers for their works, even enjoying sponsorship from official institutes. Su Tong and Sun Ganlu were given the title of ‘professional writer’ by the China Writers’ Association (meaning that they were paid a lifetime salary). Such treatment is now unimaginable.


What are the reasons for the sudden decline of experimental Chinese literature around 1990? Deng Xiaoping’s economic and political reform and China’s subsequent rapid economic development might be identified among the causes. Government-funded platforms for the publication of literature suffered – although a few still survive today, they can only maintain their rosters and are unable to assist new writers. Secondly, the market’s increasing involvement in literary publication created a plethora of book merchants and printing presses, and so gave birth to ‘market literature’.


The first sign that Chinese literature would be guided by the market was the cult of ‘post-70’s good-looking female writers’, a package dreamt up by booksellers. This signified the separation of literature from its artistic values. The collective emergence of ‘post-80’s writer idols’ such as Han Han and Guo Jingming, whose Young Adult fiction has gained him a status in China more typically afforded to teen pop stars, signified the complete domination of literature by the market; these writers represent China on the world stage, to the shame of our literary culture. Given the disappearance of those platforms promoting literature that holds true to artistic ideals we had no choice but to build a new one.


The first print publication of Heilan was made possible by the sponsorship of a friend. With the second issue ready for the printer, Heilan was ordered to terminate its operations by the Bureau of State Security. I was 23 years old. I was detained and questioned for 48 hours. The reason given was that the works published were ‘obscure in meaning’ and ‘lacked clear definition’. Having attracted attention from freelance writers and young artists, it made the Bureau of State Security nervous.


A writer is able to withstand his works remaining unpublished, but I am still unable to accept that the literary culture of a nation has been overwhelmed by the dual forces of the market and mediocrity. In the years following the termination of Heilan, the corrosion of literature by the market worsened, and the cultural climate further degenerated. The importance of artistic ideals in literature needed to be emphasised more than ever before, and so, in 2000, as the internet became more widely accessible in China, I brought together a group of web engineers and designers to create the Heilan website. In comparison to the dusty conformity of official literature, and the kitsch crudeness of market literature, Heilan attracted a radical group of writers who understood writing as a form of art.


I feel that the most important difference between our and the Chinese literature of the past is the concept of ‘no motive’. Their writing, regardless of what they wished to express, inevitably resorted to the reflection of the writer’s social and political views. Our writings attach the utmost importance to the denial of rigidly conventional ‘motives’. Over the years we have guided and maintained the creation of ‘no motive’ fictions through the day-to-day operations of the Heilan website including a forum, an e-magazine, the Heilan Novel Prize and our publishing arm, responsible for printing fifteen books since 2007. We have opened exhibition spaces in Shanghai and have curated several exhibitions (I originally studied fine art, and an acute awareness of art forms other than literature is a key part of what we’re aiming to achieve).


The Heilan online forum is an ever-updating BBS, like a message board. Anyone who completes a simple fill-in questionnaire (true identity not compulsory) is able to publish their works. Our editors publish feedback that everyone can read. This transparency is fundamental to what we do: a further effort to resist all that is veiled, hypocritical and suppressive. Although everyone expresses unhappiness with the political situation, we do not react. We consider, with Faulkner, that ‘writers are only responsible to their art’. A pursuit of art must be clear-headed, and our principles are political only in the sense that we believe in freedom and openness.


Contemporary China is brimming with dreams of success. This collective state of mind and set of values makes everyone anxious. My society is being corroded by avarice; young people are enveloped by the shadows cast by economic machinations. They are roses torn from the stem; once detached from the support and gravitational centre of the economy, they will soon wither. I do not believe that the most widely read Chinese authors have inherited the mantle of the Chinese literary tradition, nor have they truly learned from the avant-garde of the West. I believe that the most pressing issue China faces today is a lack of purpose and integrity in society’s pursuit of art, freedom and beauty. We are trying to create an alternative ‘literature circle’ upon new territories, creating a literature that places art at its core, so creating a new set of values. No one had ever heard of the wonderful young writers we’ve been able to publish. They do not wish to gain fame at the price of renouncing their values.


In this consumer society we must resist all temptations and attempts at interference. We give everything we have to protect the artistic values of Chinese literature in the belief that when people look back upon the literature of today, they will realise that this community of authors represented the real writers of our time.



Website page:


is a Chinese writer. 

Tu Qiang is a translator. 



Issue No. 10

Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer


September 2015

Interview with Allison Katz


The White Review Short Story Prize 2017