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January 21, 2017

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China’s serious novelists come to the fore

THE post-1980s writers, referring to authors born after the 1980s, grew with China’s reform and opening-up era. Many of them were winners of the New Concept Writing Contest, which has been held since 1999 and organized by Mengya (Buds), a literary magazine affiliated to the Shanghai Writers’ Association.

Wang Weilian, born in 1982, represents a group of serious writers who have enjoyed success in the “traditional” mould of writing in an era spearheaded by the avant-garde poets and novelists.

“As serious writers, we regard literature as the criticism of life, and the seriousness of life as the only rule to judge a great writer,” says Wang.

A recent publication, “The Sound of Salt Forming,” is a collection of 16 short stories by these post-1980s serious writers. The book was compiled and edited by Yang Qingxiang, a poet and critic himself of the 1980s.

Wang’s piece was chosen as the title of the book. Set in the Salty Lake in northwest China’s Qinghai Province, his story describes the life of two young men — good friends since their school days. After graduation, one of them stays back in the small town and finds a job in a local chemical plant. He marries a local girl from the same plant and lives a very monotonous life.

The other man heads to the city and works as a freelance artist. He meets  a girl online and dreams of a life full of adventures. The two meet again for a sense of nostalgia, only to discover that neither is fully satisfied with their lives, forcing readers to ponder on the meaning of life.

Wang was born in Haiyan, a small county in Qinghai Province, where his family was exiled from their hometown in Xi’an during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76). 

In 2004, Wang graduated with a degree in anthropology from Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, where he later pursued a PhD in literature.

His major works include novels “A Man Without Fingerprints” and “The Second Person,” as well as short stories “Upside Down Life” and “Resignation.”

Talking of the post-1980s generation of writers, Wang says using the word “generation” to classify literature implies “we don’t share a common core value of the literary works from contemporary China.”

“The lack of common aesthetic means we can only have sociological terms, such as the birth of the year, to treat writers as a group from the same era.

“However, for me, I think I have benefitted more from such classifications, in the sense that  it has helped me learn and grow up to be strong, compared with others from the same era.

“Writing is in the end a personal decision. A real writer shall eventually emerge to become a truly independent and great self.”

As to blog writing, Wang says, “they are part of the popular culture which keeps changing to suit the public taste all the time. I still believe only words with depth of thoughts and warmth of humanity will last. Only a few writers can do that.”


Q: Was there any specific incident that prompted you to turn to literature and start writing?

A: In 2000, I enrolled into the Sun Yat-sen University as a science student. It was the first time that I had traveled so far alone from a desolate small town at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau to a bustling metropolis along the south coastline. You can imagine the cultural shocks I had to go through. I was struggling to deal with the purpose and meaning of life — something that science couldn’t help. I sought refuge in philosophy and literature, in which I found the power of redemption. Writing eventually saved me.

Q: What are the themes that occur frequently in your writing?

A: All literary works tend to deal with great themes such as love, life, death and desire ... be it happy or sad, petty or great. I eventually graduated with a degree in anthropology. The study of humankind, in particular, helped me a lot in writing. I’m more concerned about the proper relationship between men and women, human world and non human world, such as new technologies and alienation.

Q: In the past 10 years, e-books not only have changed people’s reading habits, but also altered the way they find books. How does that affect your writing?

A: Of course, I like the Internet. It has changed the way I gain knowledge and experience, though I don’t like to be bound by what is offered online. With the development of the Internet, I am sure we will get more used to reading, writing and thinking online. We have to wait and see the impacts of technology on social affairs.

Q: Tell us your process of writing.

A: When I start to construct a novel, there are characters in my mind like those in a motion picture. Though they are just vague images, I can feel them and hear them talking to me. All I need to do is pen them down on the paper so as to get them out of my mind. To write a story about others becomes a way of self expression as well. While writing, I prefer to listen to the symphonies of Rachmaninoff. I am a big fan of his.

Q: What’s your plans for new year?

A: I have just finished a novella called “Rest In Peace.” Based on a series of high-profile suicides of intellectuals in recent year, the story aims to reveal the inner world of the Chinese intellectuals in a changing era of conflicts. Next, I am planning on a longer piece. It is going to be a grand adventure through worlds full of imagination. Set in the future tense, the story aims to discuss the importance of writing to the spiritual life for human beings.


Distinctive features of ’80s writers

In 2004 when Chun Shu and Han Han made it to the cover of Time magazine as representatives of the “new radicals,” post-1980s writers started to emerge on the world literary scene and became one of the most talked-about phenomena along with the rapid commercialization of China’s cultural institutions.

For them, writing was a profit-making enterprise. The emphasis on imagination constitutes a rebellion against the traditional doctrines of realism. Urban modernity and a new mode of lifestyle emerged as the most distinctive features of their works.

A dozen years later, however, as most of the post-1980s writers turned 30, their choices of life and literary paths opened up a wide range of perspectives in a global era.

Han Han, a Shanghai native who takes to blogging in the era of information, has been writing critical pieces on social issues that appealed to a generation that emphasizes more on individualism and the desire for free expression.


Return to the tradition

Guo Jingming marches toward the film and TV industry, with his “Tiny Times” series. Despite being a huge Chinese box-office hits, his films are deemed “disappointing” because of their “exercise in vanity and money worship,” according to the reviews.

Then there is Zhang Yueran, whose recent novel “The Cocoon” traces the traumatic impact of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) on the later generations.

The book is largely hailed by critics as a “return to the tradition” and “a decent reflection” on the value of writing amid the tumultuous transformation in the Chinese society.

Apart from these few avant-garde names, there are still those “traditional” post-1980s writers who were groomed in the less market-oriented writing camp through established literary journals.

They have also had their impact, both in the number of works they produced and their area of influence.

The book “The Sound of Salt Forming,” published by the University of Hawai’i Press last year in association with the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, is the first attempt by publishers to introduce the literary works by this group of post-1980s writers in English. Branded as being “serious,” they represent the mainstream writing in China today.

Among those who fall into this group are Di An, who has a literary degree from the Paris-Sorbonne University and is now a contracted writer with ZUI


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