POPULAR AND ACCLAIMED BOOKS IN CHINA: WOLF TOTEM, SHANGHAI BABY AND HOLLOW MOUNTAIN

POPULAR BOOKS IN CHINA

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The Chinese equivalent of Sherlock Holmes is Judge Dee, a fictional Tang dynasty magistrate that appeared in 18th century detective stories such as “The Chinese Bell Murders”, “Poets and Murder” and “The Phantom of the Temple”.

Chinese novelists Qiu Xiaolong, He Jiahong and A Yi have reached a global audience with crime stories from China’s seemy side. In 2018, Zhou Haohui joined the group with the first book of Mr. Zhou’s trilogy, “Death Notice.” Steve Lee Meyer wrote in the New York Times: Zhou “had an unsatisfying job teaching engineering at a university outside of Beijing in 2007 when he began publishing — online — the novels that would earn him a cultlike following in China. These books — a trilogy about a police hunt for a vengeful killer — went into print two years later, ultimately selling more than 1.2 million copies. They inspired a serial on the streaming site owned by Tencent, the social media giant, that has, to date, been watched a staggering 2.4 billion times, according to his agent, China Educational Publications Import & Export Corporation. A feature film went into production in April. [Source: Steve Lee Meyer, New York Times, June 4, 2018]

In 2019, a popular online fantasy novel about antiques was adapted for an online series by on streaming giant iQiyi. Xu Fan wrote in the China Daily: “The work of fiction, titled “Huangjin Yan”, or “The Golden Eyes”, follows the adventures of a young pawnshop employee, who possesses the power to be able to see the past and future of every object he sees after his eyes are injured by a group of robbers. Thus the protagonist becomes a legend in the antique world and an easy winner in gambling on stones, the practice of buying a raw rock and then cutting it open, with the hope of it holding some gems. The story, penned by online writer Tang Yong, better known by his pseudonym Dayan, has accumulated more than 30 million views since its debut on China's largest internet literature site Qidian in 2010. [Source: Xu Fan, China Daily, March 14, 2019]

"The 56-episode online series The Golden Eyes is running on streaming giant iQiyi, and has become one of the most-followed hits on the site, which saw its paid subscribers reaching 87.4 million by the end of 2018. Led by singer-actor Zhang Yixing, a pop idol followed by over 46 million fans on Sina Weibo, the series also features actress Wang Zixuan, award-winning veteran actor Lee Li-chun and actor Wang Yuexin. The series has also opened simultaneously in several overseas markets such as Malaysia, Singapore and India, and will be released in Cambodia, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam in local languages.

Modern Chinese Writers and Literature: MCLC Resource Center mclc.osu.edu ; Modern Chinese literature in translation Paper Republic paper-republic.org ; Wang Shou Wikipedia article on Wang Shou Wikipedia ; Shanghai Baby Book Reporter Review bookreporter.com ;

Wolf Totem

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The novel “Wolf Totem” was one of the best selling books in China in the late 2000s and won the Man Asian Literature Prize. Written by Jiang Ring, a former Red Guard who spent much of the 1970s in Inner Mongolia, it is about a man much like the author who is sent to Inner Mongolia to teach the herdsmen there. During his stay he is the one who receives an education--about life on the steppe, especially wolves who are despised for killing the herdsmen’s animals but are revered. Central episodes include adoption of a wolf cub by the main character and a ferocious battle between a starving wolf pack and a herd of wild horses. The book was translated into English by Howard Goldblatt.

Howard Y. F. Choy of Wittenberg University wrote: “Wolf Totem became a cultural sensation in China when it was published in 2004 — a flashpoint for historical, spiritual, and cultural concerns. Although Jiang Rong intended his debut novel as a political fable to appeal for freedom and popular elections, it has often been regarded in commercial circles as a business handbook for the practice of wolf wisdom in market competition. As a cultural phenomenon, its wolf symbolism is as celebrated as it is controversial: it critiques Confucianism in light of militarism, calls for environmental protection and sustainability according to the law of the jungle (or, in Jiang Rong's own term, “grassland logic”), and advocates “peaceful” survival of the fittest through territorial expansion and a renewed space race.” [Source: Howard Y. F. Choy of Wittenberg University, MCLC Resource Center Publication , April 2009]

“Jiang Rong is a pseudonym of Lü Jiamin, a former political science professor and democracy activist jailed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Wolf Totem is a quasi-autobiographical novel about a Han Chinese urban intellectual's personal experience on the steppes in north-central Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Chen Zhen, the author's alter ego, spends a decade of nomadic life in the Ujimchin Banner on the Chinese border of Inner and Outer Mongolia. It is in this contact zone that the protagonist ponders the complex interrelationship between Mongolianness and Han Chineseness. He soon becomes fascinated with Mongolian wolves and Genghis Khan (1167-1227), the phantom of a wolfish heroism that once occupied China and founded a vast empire across Eurasia. When Chen risks a clash with his hosts' totem and taboos by adopting a wolfkin as a pet, he finds himself adapting to a nomadic brave new world, where he witnesses a wilderness paradise in the process of being lost to the impact of internal colonization. The novel closes with Chen's burden of guilt over having ‘snipped off the canines of the . . . cub, stripping him of his freedom with a chain during his short life, and in the end crushing his head.”

“The pleasure of reading is swiftly aroused in the beginning of the novel by its wolf lore — pages of breathtaking descriptions of wolf raids on gazelles and prized horses, followed by bloody wolf hunting. The problem with such pleasure is that the gory graphic details render violence not only delightful and entertaining, but also sublime and sacred. Wolves are portrayed as warriors and strategists, with high spirits and esprit de corps, and masterly hunting tactics in spying, encircling, ambushing, assaulting, and intercepting; they are, moreover, apotheosized as messengers from Tengger, Mongol heaven. Nevertheless, these powerful sections of the narrative fail to develop into an interesting story, as they soon yield place to the grandiose theory of evolution one third of the way into the novel. As Lee Haiyan observes, in the course of the “scientific experiment” of raising the cub, Chen Zhen's “loving gaze that elevates it to a mythic being is also an epistemological gaze that reduces it to a lab creature.” Little Wolf is simultaneously deified as the object of a new totemism and objectified by “wolfology” at the same time.”

"Structurally, each of the thirty-five chapters opens with epigraphs excerpted from historical documents or studies. An example is the legend about Mongolian ancestry from the opening of The Secret History of the Mongols : “At the beginning there was a blue-grey wolf, born with his destiny ordained by Heaven Above.” Indeed, Jiang Rong rewrites 5,000 years of Chinese history in the last 50,000 characters of his 500,000-character book so as to make it conform to his lupine discourse. ...The author concludes his grand narrative by opining that the Chinese people are not so much “descendants of the dragon” as “disciples of the wolf” and that nomads are the ancestors of the Han farming people. Seeking a barbarian civilization in the term “civilized wolf” as a modern transition from ancient “civilized sheep” to future “civilized man,” he advocates “nomadizing” peasant mentality and the necessity to “Mongolianize” Han culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the jarring sermon that comprises the last one tenth of the work has also been cut from the English rendition.”

The film of "Wolf Totem" was released in 2015. Directed by French director Jean-Jacques Annaud, the Chinese-French co-production had a budget of $38 million and received mixed to positive reviews. As of November 2021, the film had a a 67 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 30 reviews with an average rating of 6.55 out of 10. Maggie Lee of Variety wrote: "Despite its magnificent natural vistas and some pulse-pounding action in stunning 3D, 'Wolf Totem' boils down to a familiar environmentalist allegory that doesn't move or provoke too deeply. Jean-Marie Dreujou's cinematography "rivetingly conveys" the wolves' primal behavior but that the film failed to authentically dramatize the friction between humans and animals. Wikipedia]

The Three-Body Trilogy

“The Three-Body Trilogy” by Liu Cixin consists of “The Three-Body Problem”, “The Dark Forest” and “Death’s End” . Jiayang Fan wrote in The New Yorker: ““Two rival civilizations are battling for supremacy. Civilization A is stronger than Civilization B and is perceived by Civilization B as a grave threat; its position, however, is more fragile than it seems. Neither side hesitates to employ espionage, subterfuge, and surveillance, because the rules of conduct — to the extent that they exist — are ill-defined and frequently contested. But the battle lines are clear: whoever controls the technological frontier controls the future. [Source: Jiayang Fan, The New Yorker, June 17, 2019]

“In Liu Cixin’s science-fiction trilogy, “Remembrance of Earth’s Past” — also known by the title of its first volume, “The Three-Body Problem” — Civilization A is a distant planet named Trisolaris and Civilization B is Earth. Life on Trisolaris has become increasingly difficult to sustain, so its inhabitants prepare to colonize Earth, a project made possible by their vast technological superiority. Using higher-dimensional geometry, they deploy supercomputers the size of a proton to spy on every terrestrial activity and utterance; Earth’s entire fleet of starships proves no match for one small, droplet-shaped Trisolaran probe. Yet Trisolaris’s dominance is far from assured, given the ingenuity of the underdogs. Seeking out the vulnerabilities of its adversary, Earth establishes a deterrence based on mutually assured destruction and forces the Trisolarans to share their technology.

An episode in the trilogy depicts Earth on the verge of destruction. A scientist named Cheng Xin encounters a gaggle of schoolchildren as she and an assistant prepare to flee the planet. The spaceship can accommodate the weight of only three of the children, and Cheng, who is the trilogy’s closest embodiment of Western liberal values, is paralyzed by the choice before her. Her assistant leaps into action, however, and poses three math problems. The three children who are quickest to answer correctly are ushered on board. Cheng stares at her assistant in horror, but the young woman says, “Don’t look at me like that. I gave them a chance. Competition is necessary for survival.”

“When the first volume of the series was published in the United States, in 2014, the models for Trisolaris and Earth were immediately apparent. For the Chinese, achieving parity with the West is a long-cherished goal, envisaged as a restoration of greatness after the humiliation of Western occupations and the self-inflicted wounds of the Mao era. As Liu told the Times, “China is on the path of rapid modernization and progress, kind of like the U.S. during the golden age of science fiction.” The future, he went on, would be “full of threats and challenges,” and “very fertile soil” for speculative fiction.

Mingwei Song wrote: ““The Three-Body Trilogy showcases the most splendid image of the universe, full of awe-inspiring, sublime wonders. “Foregrounding the destiny of an incredibly dystopian future, Liu’s narrative sometimes remains ambiguous with regards to the conflicts between morality and survival, humanity and technology, hope and despair. Liu makes it clear through the overall plot development that the universe is a cold place with little room for morality. However, the most magic power of the trilogy may still come from the sustaining humanity that can be found even in the coldest moments and places. One of only two persons who live until the end of the universe is Cheng Xin, a kind-hearted woman, who is sarcastically nicknamed the “saint mother” by Liu Cixin’s fans to show their dislike of this character who succeeds Luo Ji to become the chief defender of Earth but submits to the tender feelings that swell in her heart when facing the alien invasion. She does not have the heart to push the buttons that will set off the assured mutual destruction of both the invading Trisolarans and all species on Earth. Her failure to act nevertheless makes her morally self-conscious. Against this backdrop of life and death struggles, Cheng Xin remains a person constantly reminding us of the moral principles of compassion and mutual aid. She makes a moral choice in an immoral universe. But she also plays an even more important role in the making of Liu Cixin’s saga: she resorts to writing to pass on some messages about humanity to the next universe. Liu Cixin ends the novel from Cheng Xin’s perspective and renames the trilogy “Remembrance of Earth’s Past”. [Source: Mingwei Song, Wellesley College, MCLC Resource Center Publication, December, 2015]

Shanghai Baby, La La La and Other Racy Novels in China

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“Shanghai Baby” was a very popular, racy novel published in the 1990s and written by Wei Hui. Set in Shanghai, it is about a 25-year-old waitress named Coco who falls in love with handsome but impotent drug addict and has an affair with a virile but married German man. Wei Hui studied literature at prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai and continued to live with her mother even after her book became a success.

“Shanghai Baby” went through six printings before it was banned for being pornographic nine months after it was first published. After this bootleg copies were available all over China and the book was published in Japan, the United States, Taiwan and South Korea. There was talk for a while of a movie. Some of the places mentioned in the book — particularly a public toilet where two character had sex — became tourist sites. “Shanghai Baby” is still banned in China.

Another popular, racy work published around the same time was “La La La” (1995), a semi-autobiographical work by Mian Mian. It details the story of a 17-year-old girl who experiments with bisexuality, heroin and sex with foreigners in Shenzhen.

Mian's novel was written first. She accused Wei of stealing her work and being a "good girl trying to be bad." The two women became known as the "Shanghai Babes." They engaged in a highly publicized cat fight on the Internet and in the Chinese-equivalent of the tabloids.

Yet, another popular, racy novel “You Can't Control My Life” (1998) was written by Miao Yong, a young woman who grew up in western China, attended a teacher's college and then came to Shenzhen and worked as a secretary. The novel is about a secretary who becomes a mistress of a Hong Kong businessman and becomes engaged in casual sex, drugs and gambling.

Many Chinese writers now write about sex. Descriptions of lengthy orgasms by female writers are popular as are Henry Miller novels. Other popular racy novels include “Breakup Dawn” and “Happiness That Last Half Day Long”. Han Han and Guo Jingming are so-called “Pretty Women” writers wrote who found fame writing online about their lives and problems.

One of the best-selling books in China in 20009 was “The Story of Du Lala’s Promotion” by Li Ke, about a young woman who achieves success in the male-dominated Chinese corporate world. The book was widely embraced by women in China as a how-to manual for getting ahead in the business world. Li Ke is a pseudonym.

One enthusiastic reader of “Du Lala’s Promotion” told AFP, “It gave me guidance and ideas. I learned a lot from this book — about how to communicate, how to survive in an office, how to ask for a pay raise and how office love affairs are taboo.” Another, am employee of a foreign firm in Beijing, said, “I don’t feel alone any more. There are thousand of Du Lalas who try to make it on their own live better lives, like me. It’s a very practical book for active young women.”

White Deer Plain by Chen Zhongshi

Chen Zhongshi (1942-2016) was best known for his novel “White Deer Plain.” Born in Xian, Shaanxi province, northern China, he published his first work in 1973 and had more than 30 works to his credit. “White Deer Plain,” finished in 1993, won him the prestigious Mao Dun Literature Prize in 1997. [Source:Sixth Tone, April 29, 2016],

According to Sixth Tone: “White Deer Plain” describes how two families, the Bais and Lus, live through the changes China faced from the 1840s, the late Qing dynasty, to the 1980s, just after China’s Cultural Revolution. The story incorporates reflections on Chinese national history and traditional culture. A central theme in the book is the decline of agricultural civilization and Confucian tradition over decades of modernization and revolution in China. “The novel was arguably Chen’s greatest work and one of the best-known works of contemporary Chinese literature. Gao Yuanbao, a professor at the department of Chinese language and literary at Fudan University, told Sixth Tone all of Chen’s works are somehow connected to “White Deer Plain.”

“The book was also a source of controversy. The judges of the 1997 Mao Dun Literature Prize asked Chen to modify the novel in two places for it to be eligible for the prize. The jury thought Chen misrepresented the Communist revolution and was too explicit in his descriptions of sex. It wasn’t until 15 years later, in 2012, that the unabridged edition came out. More than 2 million copies of “White Deer Plain” have been published. It has been made into plays and TV series by a number of artists over the past two decades, and in 2011 the movie adaptation won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.

“Xiu Xiaolin, a senior editor at the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House who befriended Chen Zhongshi more than 30 years ago, told Sixth Tone that Chen said to him before writing “White Deer Plain” that he wanted to create a masterpiece which “he could bring into the coffin as a pillow.”

Under the Hawthorn Tree

Dalya Alberge wrote in The Guardian: “A novel by an anonymous Chinese author living in America, which started life as a blog, has become a worldwide publishing sensation. It has been snapped up by publishers in 15 countries who have been impressed by the fact that it has sold more than a million copies in China and inspired a film by an Oscar-winning Chinese director. Some publishers even bought it before reading a translation. Yet none of the publishers, translators or editors knows the author's identity. [Source: Dalya Alberge, The Guardian, January 7, 2012]

Under the Hawthorn Tree, a tragic love story set during the Cultural Revolution, is written under the pen name of Ai Mi. All that is known about the author is that she leads a reclusive life in Florida, having gone there to study. She is thought to be in her fifties or sixties, if only because her insight into the Cultural Revolution suggests someone who experienced first hand the political and social persecution of Mao Zedong's last decade. She tells her readers that it was inspired by a true story. Her central character — a young woman from a "politically questionable family" who falls in love with the son of a general — is based on a real person with names and places disguised.

In a publishing world where an author's identity is often more important than their talent, it is striking that publishers as far afield as Italy, Norway, Brazil and Israel have responded to the writing alone. Lennie Goodings of Virago bought it without knowing a word of Chinese — and was relieved to discover that it lived up to her expectations when she commissioned an English translation. She said: "It's a beautiful love story, almost like a Romeo and Juliet. It has that real simplicity about people trying to love each other across class. [Set] against the Cultural Revolution, it shows the startlingly intimate reach of politics in that period [which] even affects — and infects — their love."

Goodings asked someone from Shanghai who works in Virago's accounts department to read it: "Her face fell and she said, 'I'm not interested in the Cultural Revolution. It's my parents' generation.' The next day she was at my shoulder, eyes brimming, saying 'it's so wonderful and I cried'. On the basis of that, I bought it blind." Although the original blog was serialised on a website that was blocked by the Chinese authorities, an admirer had passed it to one of China's state-affiliated publishers, which has been overwhelmed by its sales.

Anna Holmwood, the English translator, said: "It doesn't present a problem for the Chinese government. If you were to take a particular political line about the Cultural Revolution, that might be problematic. But nowadays people are very open about talking about what a terrible time it was."

In the opening chapter of the book...the central character is befriended by a Russian who teaches her a Russian song, The Hawthorn Tree. Ai Mi writes: "Of course, this had to be done in secret. Not only had everything associated with the Soviet Union become dangerous but, just as importantly, anything contaminated by the idea of 'love' was considered the bad influence and the putrid remains of the capitalist class. The Hawthorn Tree was deemed 'obscene', 'rotten and decayed', and of 'improper style' because the lyrics spoke of two young men — in love with the same young maiden."

Northern Girls by Sheng Keyi

Sheng Keyi is a well known writer in China. As of 2011, when she was 38, she had published five novels and a number of short stories. In 2003, she won the Most Promising New Talent award. Her most well-known work "Northern Girls“ was first published in Chinese in 2004 and is scheduled to be published in English in 2012 by Penguin. A shy person who doesn’t appear to seek the limelight, according to the New York Times, Sheng has a led a life that echos that of many characters in works. She grew up in a village in the southern province of Hunan and headed for the southern economic boomtown of Shenzhen in the 1990s. She held several jobs over seven years, including at a securities company and a magazine, before leaving to write full-time in 2001. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, April 14, 2011]

During her stint as a working girl she picked up many details about the seedy side of life in China . "When I lived in Shenzhen, I remember hearing that working in a gynecological hospital was one of the best ways to make money because there was such a regular demand for abortions," Sheng told the New York Times. "Enormous numbers of people have gone down the drains. It’s like a whole city down there." In “Northern Girls“ there are tales of forced sterilizations. "Forced sterilizations happen here," Sheng said. In order to meet strict population quotas, especially in the countryside, sometimes family planning officials and the police "will grab people and take them to clinics and force them to undergo these operations." Wanting to sterilize a woman who has already exceeded her allotted number of children, they "sometimes go to a house, and if the wife isn’t there, they may grab the young daughter who isn’t even married yet and drag her off to the clinic and do the operation."

Meng Fanhua, a prominent literary critic and professor at Shenyang Normal University, calls Sheng "a unique presence. She has always focused on life at the lower end of the social scale — on the despair, and the courage to live, that is there." Eric Abrahamsen, co-founder of a Web site devoted to Chinese literature in translation, www.paper-republic.org, says Sheng’s writing stands out for its style, and nuance. "There’s something very forceful and full-bodied about the language. It’s very physical," he said. Yet, "She’s got a subtlety about what it means to be a woman, that others lack."

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in the New York Times, “Qian Xiaohong, the heroine of “Northern Girls“ , a critically admired novel by the rising literary star Sheng Keyi, could be any young woman serving you in a restaurant, or leaning on a mop watching you walk over the floor she has just washed or, though she fights this fate, sitting behind a glass door in a pink-lit "hairdresser" shop, its rotating barber pole outside signaling illegal sexual services within. Millions of women like Ms. Qian have left China’s villages for its cities, looking for their place in the sun, since the government began sweeping economic — though not political — reforms in 1978. The result has been enormous social change affecting everything from family relationships to fashion to sexuality.” [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow, New York Times, April 14, 2011]

"I wanted to write a story about girls from the countryside, what it’s like to be seeking yourself in the city and trying to maintain your independence. And I think it’s very hard," Sheng told the New York Times. "These are women whose eyes and bodies see and feel the ruthlessness of the age, the difficulty of surviving," Ms. Sheng writes in an afterword to a new edition of her novel, published this year. Barely educated and vulnerable, "They are women on whom society’s eyes rarely rest for long. I feel that to present their struggle for survival, that’s interesting, and it’s valuable, it’s important."

Tatlow wrote: “A major part of migrant women’s struggle is dealing with attempts to exploit them sexually in the big cities, where prostitution flourishes and often offers better pay than other jobs, making their sexuality a central issue, says Ms. Sheng. Many academic studies, and some overseas works, notably Leslie T. Chang’s "Factory Girls," have focused on the special challenges facing female migrant workers as they grapple with new freedoms in the cities. Yet Ms. Sheng’s technique of writing through, and about, women’s bodies, is unusually intimate and direct. Her choice of a striking physical attribute for Ms. Qian — unusually large breasts — highlights what she says is a serious issue: How can a poor woman who attracts considerable male sexual attention hold on to her morals in a highly amoral society”

"I wanted to give these girls an exterior sign to symbolize their worries and anxieties as they head into China’s urban society," Ms. Sheng said. Her exploration of women’s bodies and how they shape their destinies leads her into new literary territory, says the reviewer and poet Ma Ce. "Northern Girls” is about bodies and freedom, but more importantly, it’s about the limits to that freedom," Mr. Ma wrote in an essay.

Qian Xiaohong’s breasts are a boon and a burden. "Like pomelos, while those of her best friend, Li Sijiang, are like tangerines," Ms. Sheng said. "Of course, a woman with pomelos is going to have a harder time in society than a woman with tangerines." Yet Ms. Qian, eager to grasp her freedoms, enjoys her sexuality. This is established on the first page of the novel, as rendered by the Beijing-based translator Eric Abrahamsen: "All the decent girls in the village wore loose clothing and hunched their shoulders — protecting their chests was the first step in protecting their reputations. Only Qian Xiaohong walked with her mounds thrust forward, bearing down mercilessly, like dark clouds threatening a city."

The focus on female bodies leads to harrowing territory, too. Ms. Li is seized by officials in a small town during a family planning crackdown, taken to a hospital and forcibly sterilized. Ms. Sheng said that publishers initially refused to touch her book because of that passage. And so, although "Northern Girls" was the first novel she wrote — "my virgin work" — it wasn’t her "first birth." Another, less controversial, novel, about a young working-class couple’s relationship, was published first. Abortion also features. Inadequate sex education, especially in the countryside, means many migrant workers become unintentionally pregnant.

Hollow Mountain by Alai

Alai, a Tibetan writer who goes by one name, is author of the six-volume “Hollow Mountain“, about a Tibetan village in the throes of a 50-year tumultuous transformation is a microcosm of rural China at large. Alai told the China Daily, “The protagonist of my novel is the village, not a person, and this village is broken and unstable, with an array of people on center stage at various times.” [Source: Raymond Zhou, China Daily, April 15, 2009]

Alai is from the Tibetan area of northwestern Sichuan. He won the title of “Outstanding Author of 2008," the year the last installment of his magnum opus was published. Alai emerged in 1998 with his debut novel “Red Poppies“, now available in English. Its original title in Chinese is “The Dust Settles“, and it is also set in Tibet. Alai’s writing career started in the 1980s, first with poetry and then with fiction. He is now president of the Sichuan Writers Association.

Alai doesn’t like being called “Tibetan writer,” explaining that the label “puts me down,” and insists that what he wrote applies not only to the Tibetan area, but also to all of rural China: “Our urban development comes at the cost of the rural area. An increasing burden is imposed on the countryside, something it has to bear. Things have turned for the better in the past 30 years, but fundamentally farmers' living conditions are less than ideal and their fate is one of tragedy.

“Alai says he is not a “brave man” and adds that he should not pretend to be one. “I take history and literature very seriously,” he reveals. “I write about the dark side not because I want to expose it, but because it is the truth. The value of charting the sad course of history is to make people think. If something like that happens again, people will be vigilant. If we all forget, in a generation or two nobody will know anything about it, and that'll be our tragedy, just like building on a fault-line even though you know it's there.”

“The Tibetan in 2008 he said exposed what he calls “the beautiful misunderstanding rampant among the rest of the world, including China”. This “beautiful” misunderstanding, he says, has sown the seeds of mistrust among people of different ethnicities. Alai says the outside world has a romantic version of Tibet that has little to do with its real history. They imagine Tibet to be “a cradle of myths”, which epitomizes the opposite of all undesirable things in a material world. They choose to be oblivious to the fact that most people in Tibet lived in ignorance and life did not improve for hundreds of years. “Alai takes upon himself the task of “demystifying” Tibet. “The Tibetan people are a member of the human population, and what they need is not how to be the servants of god, but to be human beings.” He also takes care not to see himself as a spokesman for all Tibetans. “Nobody -not a monk or any other person, or myself - has the right to take the place of all the people in this region. Only individuals who form this whole can present the whole picture of this race and this culture.”

Alai on Artistic Quality

Alai, one of China's few best-known Tibetan writers, is encouraging some of his peers to readjust their profit-oriented goals and concentrate instead on artistic quality. He made the remarks at the recently concluded sessions of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). [Source: Liu Lu, China Daily, March 20, 2012]

The NPC deputy and chairman of the Sichuan Writers' Association says contemporary publishing circles suffer from an erroneous belief that sales are a barometer of a book's popularity. So to please the public, some writers seek popularity through creating vulgar works that "undermine the artistic nature of literature".

"The market-oriented approach does stimulate the creativity of Chinese writers, which has greatly contributed to today's literary boom," Alai says. "But there are serious problems behind this." The novelist says that while profitability is an indicator of success, a book's spiritual and artistic value is more important. "The development of the cultural industry cannot simply follow the development routes of other industries and be solely profit-oriented. In my opinion, a good literary work should not only be readable but also put an emphasis on artistic exploration and delve deeper into human nature and the diversity of culture."

Alai says the lack of spiritual qualities in works by Chinese writers means they are not as influential as they could be internationally. "Foreign publishing houses are looking for outstanding literary works from China that allow overseas readers to gain a better understanding of the country," he says. "They do not love just entertaining works."

More foreign works are imported than Chinese works exported, he adds. "If Chinese writers want to improve their international prestige, they must improve their literary quality," Alai says. He also urges the authorities to attach more importance to the export of Chinese literary works, because "they have a more lasting and far-reaching influence in regard to constructing China's soft power and offer a gateway for foreign readers to have a deeper understanding of the diversified aspects of China. When more true-to-life literature is created in China, Chinese literature will surely be more influential."

Alai started his literary career in the 1980s as a poet. His first best-selling book, As the Dust Settles, won the Mao Dun Literature Prize in 2000. He taps deeply into the interpretation of Tibetan history and culture. All his novels have been translated into several foreign languages and have been well received overseas.

Three Sisters by Bi Feiyu

Bi Feiyu won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2011 for his masterful novel “Three Sisters”, an epic portrayal of contemporary Chinese culture--but was caught in visa bureaucracy. Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei wrote in the China Daily: Bi Feiyu has been billed by media and marketing professionals as "China's finest male writer with the deepest understanding of the female psyche." Since winning the Man Asian Literary Prize (MALP) for Three Sisters in March 2011, Bi has been much in demand. He has been attending literary dos, conferences and book signings around the world. "I haven't slept in the same bed for three consecutive nights," he says. But even before the big MALP win, events featuring him at literary festivals in Beijing would sell out the fastest. Li’s given name Feiyu, means "one who flies across the universe." It can be argued that he has quite literally been living up to his name.[Source: Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei, China Daily, January 12, 2012]

The 47-year-old, whose shaven head shows off his prominent cheekbones and brooding, vulnerable eyes to his best advantage, has the draw of a movie star. When we reach the residential compound in which Bi lives in Jiangsu's provincial capital Nanjing, the staff member manning the gates tells us, assuredly, "Oh, he only needs to win the Nobel now. The rest are already in his kitty."

Bi won the Lu Xun Award - twice. He also took the Mao Dun Prize, the highest national literary award, last September. He was the youngest among fellow heavyweights, such as Zhang Wei and Mo Yan, to do so. He was also long-listed for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2008 for The Moon Opera.

Bi began his career by writing poems and screenplays for celebrity director Zhang Yimou (Shanghai Triad, for instance). He sees his trajectory over the last 10 years as a movement from the absurd to the real. The bizarre scenario in one of Bi's early stories - The Ancestor, in which the living sleep in coffins and the very ancient great grandmother's teeth are pulled out, one by one, to exorcize the ills plaguing the house - has given way to simple tales, told simply.

Bi says he now prioritizes understanding over imagination. "In one's 40s, one begins to have a better understanding of things," he says. "Scientists sharpen their senses of logic and analysis. Writers hone their understanding." This shift from clever craftsmanship to empathy and intuitive understanding is also evident in the MALP-winning Three Sisters - the story of three women from rural China, trying to make a life at a time of turbulence and general confusion in 1970s and '80s. "Often, stories set in the 'cultural revolution' (1966-76) years talk about the damage it did to the country's economy and politics," Bi says. "But the 'cultural revolution' was more serious than politics. I am interested in individuals and how their lives panned out as a result of the social upheaval."

Bi Feiyu, Women and Conditions for Good Writing

Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei wrote in the China Daily: Women - often strong, feisty, ambitious types who do not hesitate to use their sexuality to get what they want - dominate Bi's fiction. Expectedly, he's a little tired of the "best male writer on women" tag. "It's a marketing ploy, which probably helps sell a few more copies," he says. Evidently, the label makes no difference to him, unless, of course, it implies "a disrespect for my ability to write about human nature in general". [Source: Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei, China Daily, January 12, 2012]

But the state of women in China today remains a matter of concern. "Women are still discriminated against in terms of getting jobs, raising capital for investment, retirement ages, etc," he says. "If you claim there is equality between men and women in China, you're living in a fairytale."

In his acceptance speech upon receiving the Mao Dun Award in September, Bi said a writer's vocation included the responsibility of leading an exemplary life, beside the obvious task of continuing to write well. Hectic travel since the Man Asian win in March has continued to distract him from the quiet life of contemplation, inner monologues and focused writing that Bi would rather lead.

Bi is sometimes bothered by the fact that the novel about a doctor's life that he has been trying to write for four years is probably not going anywhere. "I work best only under conditions of quietness and isolation. Quietude is my oxygen and water," Bi says. He hopes for a positive turn in March, "when the next unlucky Man Asian Literary Prize winner takes my place". That's when he plans to stop in his tracks, at least for a while, and turn his gaze inward.

Bi Feiyu’s Massage

"Massage" won the prestigious Mao Dun Award. Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei wrote in the China Daily: The idea for Massage came to him in a moment of epiphany, he says. For years, Bi had been going to a massage parlor staffed by blind masseurs late in the evening. One night, after packing up, as both clients and staffers were getting ready to go home, the lights were switched off. A woman masseuse took Bi's hand and led him through the pitch-dark corridor. "You see, Teacher Bi," she told him, "I can see better than you do." [Source: Chitralekha Basu and Song Wenwei, China Daily, January 12, 2012]

The dichotomy between physical blindness and one's sense of vision and perception has served literature well in the past. Celebrated examples include Blindness by Jose Saramago and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

The idea that limited vision might actually be an attribute - a gift, offering insight into things that people with normal eyesight may not be able to perceive - had an obvious appeal to Bi, who says he has "always respected limitations". Extending the metaphor to the scene of China's race to fast-track developmental success and commercial hegemony, he says, "Unlimited power, unbridled energy, full-on development might throw things out of control. I think a little restraint can do good for this country."

But blindness, in Massage, which can be read as a collection of interrelated stories with a blind person at the center of each, Bi says, is more about the actual physical state of being blind and society's response to it, rather than a metaphor."I am just trying to bring the things that tend to remain outside the realm of visibility into light," he says. In the story about Du Hong, for example, a blind girl is urged to overcome her limitations by learning to play the piano and is later applauded for what is, in fact, a lousy performance that is billed as her service to society.

Nationalistic fervor runs very deep in China, where Olympic medallists are ticked off for omitting to mention the role of society in their makings. It's precisely the sentiment Bi says he has been trying to satirize. He obviously does not buy the theory that every performer, athlete and writer ought to be beholden to society and "especially not the blind. Society has done very little for them, so to expect them to have to repay society is total hypocrisy," he says.

Tide Players by Jianying Zha

Jianying Zha is a writer, media critic, and China representative of the India China Institute at The New School. She is the author of one previous book in English, China Pop, The New Press, and five books in Chinese: three collections of fiction and two nonfiction books, including The Eighties, an award-winning cultural retrospective of the 1980s in China. She has published widely in both Chinese and English for a variety of publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Dushu, and Wanxiang. She lives in Beijing and New York.

David Pilling wrote in the Financial Times, Though she seems to have allied herself with the pragmatists and incrementalists, Zha is no apologist for the Communist party. Indeed, she was an early signatory of Charter 08, the document calling for democratic reform that landed Liu Xiaobo, one of its authors, in jail and subsequently won him the Nobel Peace Prize. [Source: David Pilling, Financial Times, June 10, 2011]

“Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China“ by Jianying Zha is a portrait of the movers and shakers who are transforming China. In half a dozen sharply etched and nuanced profiles, Zha dives into the lives of a vivid cast of characters that form an elite part of the new establishment in today’s China. From the chain-store tycoon determined to avenge his mother’s execution for being a “counterrevolutionary criminal” to a former cultural minister turned prolific writer and a group of cantankerous professors at China’s top university, Zha’s in-depth literary journalism renders a clear-eyed yet compassionate portrait of characters navigating the subtle complexities of modern China. By presenting a picture of a China that few Western readers have seen before, Tide Players establishes itself as a staple for students investigating Asian society, Chinese history, and international affairs.

Evan Osnos of The New Yorker wrote: “Zha beautifully combines the hard-earned expertise of an insider with the moral candor of an outsider. In exploring China’s defining struggles — over control of power, loyalty, and history’she never seeks refuge in the convenient extremes of one side of the debate or the other, but makes the hardest choice of all: to illuminate the shadows in between, with empathy and courage.” According to Publishers Weekly, the book “offers a nuanced and textured picture of a country constrained by totalitarianism but buoyed by the pioneering spirit and resilience of its people . . . an honest and thoughtful portrait that forces outsiders to check their preconceptions at the door.” K. Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy and President of the PEN American Center, said: “If you want to understand the astonishing developments in China’s contemporary cultural life . . . there could be no surer or more entertaining guide than Zha.”

Book: “Tide Players: The Movers and Shakers of a Rising China“ by Jianying Zha (The New Press, 2011]

Image Sources: Amazon, University of Washington, Ohio State University

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021


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