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Seeker of the soul of China's culture

YU Qiuyu, pictured below right, is perhaps one of the most outstanding and controversial scholars in China's world of literature.

He was born in a country village in eastern China's Zhejiang Province in 1946. In his early 30s, he went to live in a mountain area at the end of "culture revolution" (1966-76) and read as widely as he could.

He won many awards and wrote extensively on the theory of drama during and after his term as president of Shanghai Theater Academy in the mid 1980s.

His "Drama Theory History Notes," published in 1983, is the first book with a China perspective to discuss the integrated development of culture and drama.

He became the youngest art professor on Chinese mainland at age 39, an exceptional appointment as he had never been a vice professor.

At the end of the 1980s, he quit as president of Shanghai Theater Academy and started his "bitter journey of culture," reverting to a period of learning, traveling the world as a scholar.

His collections of essays, including "Bitter Journey of Culture," "Notes Made While Living in the Hills" and "The Long River Chilled in Frost," are all best sellers.

Yu is also famous for his forthright criticism of aspects of Chinese culture which earned the disdain of many and alienated him from his readers.

His reputation has been built on strong views and his criticism and rejection of long-held beliefs.

Publications that subsequently attacked his opinions of China's "culture revolution" and found fault in his writings, such as alleged historical mistakes, have all found a wide readership and sold well.

In December last year, the musical "Long River," written by Yu, starring his wife Ma Lan and directed by famous Hong Kong director Stanley Kwan, made its debut in Shanghai.

"We hope to combine Chinese drama and music in a bid to tell an ancient Chinese story," Yu said.

But Yu's reputation for controversy continued to follow him and his "cross-border experiment" drew criticism, with some detractors citing it as "neither fish nor fowl."

On a chilly winter afternoon in Shanghai on the sidelines of rehearsals for "Long River," Yu sat down for this interview at a quiet tearoom.

He had been working through the night and only managed to grab snatches of sleep but, despite that, was comfortable and confident in discussing his career.

Q: What did you think at the time about the end of the "cultural revolution and the start of China's reform and opening up?

A: After the "cultural revolution," restrictions were lifted and people's minds were liberated in many fields. All kinds of books became available, education was fully resumed and cultural activities were encouraged in all sectors of society. What impressed me most was that I could easily purchase books about philosophy, such as by Hegel and Aristotle, which had not been available in the market.

Q: China's reform and opening up policy presented great opportunities. Not too many people in your field could have been as honored as you were, becoming the youngest art professor in 1985 and then president of Shanghai Theater Academy the next year. How much pressure did this put on you?

A: The 1980s was an age full of happiness. The reform and opening up gave me great opportunities for advancement and all the honors suddenly piled up in front of me. It seems unusual now but at that time, the country was eager for knowledge and to hear from young intellectuals. After my book notes were published, I became recognized by many as China's foremost drama theorist. When I lectured in universities, even the cleaner and driver would be in the audience. A great pleasure to me was that I also got a monthly pay rise from 78 yuan to 87 yuan although I once found out that a Hong Kong professor of my age was getting a salary 1,500 times greater than mine. I knew the textbooks such professor were using was written by me. But at that time, we just lived a simple, poor, but happy and diligent life.

Q: Why did you abandon such a happy life by quitting your job and embarking on the journey of finding "the soul of China's culture?"

A: I noticed that in the 1980s people were rejecting "the disaster of culture" but did not know the nation's cultural identity. That is what I wanted to figure out from the Chinese people. During my long and dusty journey, I decided I needed to develop a new style of writing that people with a junior secondary education or above could understand, be eager to read and enjoy. Such prose is not used in the development of big concepts and thinking but the alternative that suits an academic audience is hard to understand and lacks emotion.

Q: Your increasing media exposure led you to become a "cultural star" with some believing you went on TV programs "just for show." Some also wrote books about your works' alleged cultural and historical mistakes. What do you think of this criticism?

A: I can totally understand such criticism of me being a "cultural star" as people were not aware of the three missions of culture: in-depth research, personal investigation and effective communication. These are the missions of the literati and the intellectual. It is difficult for the ordinary person to understand these roles, but through the opportunities provided by the reform and opening up, I have been able to realize them.

It is difficult to argue about the mistakes in a book. But I really appreciate the help of Professor Zhang Peiheng of Fudan University who wrote three articles in my defense against the critics.

I think one of the problems of China's culture is the lack of its public-mindedness as well as the attitude of not distinguishing between truth and falsehoods, right and wrong.

And I totally agree with the late Chinese writer Wang Xiaobo that there are two kinds of people in China's literature world: people who made contributions and people who prevent others doing so.

Q: What is next on your work schedule?

A: I am working on the "Full Collection of the Bitter Journey of Culture" which I hope to have published next year. The collection includes my 10 books and, after its publication, I want to provide it to foreign universities to replace the pirated books kept in their library.


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