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September 28, 2014

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Jin Yucheng: Blog to novel

SHANGHAI writer Jin Yucheng’s Shanghainese novel “Evanescent” has won 30 literary awards throughout the country since it was published last year by the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House and is the bestseller of the year.

Written in short, telegraphic like Shanghai colloquial language, “Evanescent” details the lives of people living in downtown Shanghai’s old alley houses from the poetic 1960s to the Internet 1990s.

It’s the first time in years that a male novelist has written about Shanghai women, a well-developed theme usually taken up by sophisticated female writers such Eileen Chang, or most recently, Wang Anyi.

Jin, 62, seems a bit shy in an interview with Shanghai Daily, claiming he doesn’t know what to say. He’s worked as a copy editor at the Shanghai Writers Association for 30 years, and “Evanescent” is his first published book in 20 years.

Jin said he is used to reading articles written by others and giving advice to young writers. When it comes to his own writing, he becomes hesitant.

He said he would often “keep thinking about the structure and language of how to write a good novel, and then get stuck.”

On the Internet Jin finally found a haven in blog writing. He registered himself as the “Dushang Gelou,” or “Lone Attic,” at (longdang is Shanghai dialect for “long alley”), a nostalgic online forum where many locals go to talk about things happening in Shanghai.

Between June 2011 and September 2012, Jin continued writing his blogs on a daily basis. With each blog he posted, he received warm applause from readers; some gave him thumbs up, others begged him for more.

Jin said blogging gives him the freedom to write without thinking of his real life identity. Hiding behind his anonymous moniker, he got to exceed himself in his writing performance.

“There was a direct interaction between the writer and the readers online, and I loved it,” Jin said. “Even if I was out of town on a business trip for a few days, I continued writing and managed to update my posts whenever there was Wi-Fi available so as not to fail them.”

As to the dialect he used in his book, Jin said that’s where he spent most of his time editing before “Evanescent” was published in paperback from its original online edition.

In Shanghai dialect, “you” is nong and “we” is a-la. “But I replaced nong with ni in Mandarin, and a-la with wo-men,” Jin said.

“I want to clear away the obstacles in reading for those who don’t speak Shanghai dialect, so that they won’t feel shunned the moment they turn to the first page.

“Many dialect experts say the language I used in the book is not pure Shanghainese. I agree. But all I want to do is to tell a story about Shanghai, to describe a detailed life in Shanghai and the characters of its people. As a matter of fact, Shanghai people nowadays do speak a mixture of Mandarin and dialect, and English as well.”

Actually, among the 30 literary awards “Evanescent” has won, 29 are from the literary bodies outside Shanghai. With so many positive reviews from non-Shanghainese readers, Jin clearly has made the right changes.

Jin said he has put all his passion and feelings for Shanghai and the people he knows into the book.

“Like a woman who has her first child in her late 50s, I wrote carefully and deliberately to make it a different new novel about Shanghai, at least in terms of its language and a much-assured image of the Shanghainese,” Jin said.


Q: How did the book “Evanescent” come into being?

A: I didn’t have a purpose when I started writing “Evanescent” in my blog in 2011. Usually when I finished some 3,000 words, I would post it online. Anyone who reads my articles would then leave their comments. Some pointed to wrongly written words, others gave suggestions asking me not to let the character die earlier... I would take down notes if they were good.

A few weeks later, as the story moved on, I began to realize I’d been writing a novel. Then I had a purpose and took it more seriously. And I looked forward to having it published when it was done.


Q: Why did you use Shanghai dialect to write “Evanescent?”

A: I am a Shanghai native. My blog is on a Shanghainese website where native Shanghainese talk about their daily anecdotes. The first post of “Evanescent” began in a wet market, where people gathered at a seafood store to talk about the newly arrived hairy crabs, a seasonal delicacy favored by many locals. There is a power in the spoken language once it is written down in dialect.


Q: What does this “God stays silent” mean throughout your text?

A: I marked this short sentence at the preface of “Evanescent.” It actually comes from one of the characters in the book, Chun Xiang. Chun is a Christian. She goes to church to seek an answer before her wedding day because she doesn’t love the man whom her mother wants her to marry. But “God stays silent.”

“Evanescent” focuses on cultural and civic life in a Shanghai community and its long-time dwellers, including those unemployed, housewives, drivers, maids, street vendors, garbage collectors, and manual laborers.

They all have their own problems in life. If they ever asked for help from God, they wouldn’t get any answer either. When “God stays silent,” they have to find their own solutions. God made everything out of nothing, so the nothingness shows through.


Q: What do you want people outside Shanghai to know about the Shanghai people?

A: I worked on a farm in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang Province in my youth between 1969 and 1978. There was a stereotype of the Shanghainese of being shrewd and snobby. I think the misunderstandings came from different habits due to the living conditions and preferences of food.

For instance, in Heilongjiang, people would store half a ton of cabbages at home in fall to get through the long winter when there was no wet market in the freezing weather. But in Shanghai, the weather is mild and wet markets are open throughout the year. For household budget, we only have to buy the daily portion instead of in the bundle.

In Heilongjiang, scallions are big and people eat them directly as a vegetable or fruit. But in Shanghai, we only have shallots, a much smaller variety that have a strong taste and are often used for flavoring other food.

Shanghai people are also known to eat in delicate portions, because we are used to eating snacks throughout the day. However, a man from Heilongjiang may feel he is maltreated in Shanghai when served with a bowl of 10 wontons at breakfast instead of half a kilo of steamed buns.

Shanghai people are smart and pragmatic. We do a small portion at a time and we don’t waste.


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