The best of modern Chinese literature

Cao Wenxuan and Chinese literature at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair 2017 Discuss this article

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“There’s nothing adults can face that children can’t”

Ahead of his arrival in Abu Dhabi, author Cao Wenxuan speaks to Time Out Beijing...

Cao Wenxuan is one of China’s best-known children’s authors, having won armfuls of domestic accolades. He rose to new levels of international acclaim after being presented with the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award last year. The first Chinese author to win, Wenxuan received the prize for his stunning book Bronze and Sunflower, which follows two children of very different backgrounds during the Cultural Revolution. The book tells the tale of Sunflower, who accompanies her father when he is sent from the city to the countryside, and Bronze, a local peasant boy whom she teaches to read and write. The book was unanimously selected by the judges, with special praise going to the uncompromising way that Wenxuan addresses the difficult issues associated with the period.

Now a Peking University professor of literature, Wenxuan himself grew up in extreme rural poverty in Jiangsu province, and this experience translates into many of his books. His works, several of which have now been adapted into films, offer children a window into some of the most turbulent years of Chinese history, as well as broader, universal challenges lurking in life, but always with a gentle, pragmatic and understanding approach.

How important do you think it is not to shy away from difficult areas in children’s books?
I’ve always thought that there’s nothing adults can face that children can’t, and we mustn’t underestimate the ability of children to accept things. The writing process shouldn’t involve looking down on them, but rather, viewing them at eye-level. After all, the target audience is children, and it’s children who will decide on the quality of the future of the country and the human race. I believe that good children’s literature should not just be light-hearted and make them happy, but should also have ethical, aesthetic and tragic dimensions to it. If a piece of literature can emerge in the fading memory of a dying person, then that work is a brilliant one. The biggest joy of a children’s author is for their readers to still look back later on in life and be grateful for their writing. This is something that I have always strived for.

Where did you get the idea for Bronze and Sunflower?
A long time ago, a friend started telling me about her childhood, around the time when her father was at a cadre school [also known as labour camps]. Every time she went to visit him he had to work in the fields and could not be with her, so she used to go to the other side of the river and play with the boys from the village. But when she was telling me that story, a different scene came to my mind: one of the endless reed marshes from my hometown. In the depths of the marshes there was a cadre school, and I was familiar with life in the camp. And so I thought at the time that this could become material for my novel, and slowly, the story, setting and characters appeared in my head. But the narrative wasn’t coherent, so I left it for many years. After a while, I couldn’t wait any longer and I had to set the material into writing. I remember it clearly, it was probably 5am that day, I was lying in bed when inspiration or whatever it was struck. The words “bronze sunflower” appeared just like that, and, as soon as they did, I knew I had found all I needed for the lifeless material. The boy was called Bronze and the girl was called Sunflower, and what followed was a field of endless sunflowers, and then the girl’s father, who was a sculptor and wanted all his life to sculpt sunflowers out of bronze. And so the whole work appeared like this, bit by bit.

How did your own childhood influence your writing career?
My hometown is the famous river network area of Jiangsu’s Yancheng. There are rivers everywhere, and everyone lives by the water; all the villages are built by the water, and during the rainy season, the village would often be enveloped in a white fog. Water was not only an important part of my childhood, it also greatly influenced my aesthetic tastes and literary pursuits. The fluidity, cleanness, elasticity and transparency of water were all deeply inspirational to my writing. Water is also a perpetual material and theme in my novels. Many of my works, such as The Straw HouseBronze and Sunflower and Fine Rice, are set in the water village of my hometown. I am acclimatised to humid spaces, and even though I live in the city, that space is stored forever in my memory.

Do you have a favourite among your published works?
The one that’s most reflective of my childhood and in which I expressed a lot of my own experiences is The Straw House; the main character Sang Sang is basically me as a child. For a writer, every piece of work is their child – parents love all of their children and it is the same for writers. But if you must have an answer... the favourite is always the next one.
Cao Wenxuan is a special guest at the 27th Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.

The main protagonists

A guard of authors from Mainland China you need to know, for face’s sake.
By Time Out Beijing

1. Ren Xiaowen 任晓雯
Author of two novels, The Women and On the Island, Ren Xiaowen’s unusual fictional style combines a deep knowledge of traditional Chinese literature with her practical approach to life. Her novel The Women follows a group of young women, through the dark back streets of Shanghai, who turn to crime to make ends meet. It’s not as bleak as it sounds; there is plenty of dark humour and wry expression and its juxtaposition of the glossy growth of 1980s Shanghai, where the tale is set, plus its dark underworld of those without any financial grounding, lends it weight. Sadly none of her novels have yet been translated into English, but it’s surely only a matter of time.

2. Yan Ge 颜歌
Chengdu-born Yan Ge, whose real name is Dai Yuexing, is a rising, lively and exciting new force in Chinese literary circles. While her early work focused on the supernatural, her recent novels fall into the realist fiction genre. Her novel, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, which is out in French and German (though sadly not English), is based in a fictional Sichuan town where a host of middle-aged siblings are reunited for their grandmother’s 80th birthday. Yan’s biting humour and originality of prose deservedly resulted in delighted audiences across China. In the words of translator Nicky Harman: “Young Chinese women writers don’t come much more original than this.”

3. Liu Cixin 刘慈欣
A nine-time winner of the Galaxy Award for Chinese science-fiction writing, Liu Cixin began receiving acclaim for his work in the early 1990s. One of China’s most popular domestic science-fiction authors, the first volume in his Three Body trilogy has been translated into English, opening his works to a new group of readers, and there is currently a film adaptation of the book in the works. In August 2015 it attracted international attention by becoming the first novel in translation ever to win a Hugo award. The second book in the series, The Dark Forest, was released in English in 2016.

“One person I’m very interested in now is Liu Cixin,” says author Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

4. Ge Fei 格非
Although well-known to Chinese audiences, author Ge Fei has enjoyed a deserved wave of popularity among international readers, with a series of translations of his works being published in print and online. Often credited as the founder of contemporary literature in China, Fei rose to prominence in the 1990s; in 2015 he was the winner of the Mao Dun prize for his Jiangnan trilogy, a tale of tragedy, abuse and misdirected love in 1950s China. His surreal novella A Flock of Brown Birds was published in translation by Penguin, the first of his novels to be published in English.

“In many ways, he’s the writer’s writer, and his writing has a beautiful exploration of the unreliability of memory and the disorientation of life,” says Jo Lusby, managing director of Penguin Random House, North Asia. “Ge Fei is just a wonderful talent who came to the fore in the 1980s and who is highly relevant to today’s readers.”

5. Xia Jia 夏笳
Science-fiction writer Xia Jia, real name Wang Yao, is well qualified to write about the genre. The Shaanxi-born writer studied physics at Peking University and then completed a Masters degree on women in science fiction films, before taking on a PhD on the topic of Chinese science-fiction and cultural politics. Alongside this impressive academic canon, she began writing short stories on – what else? – science-fiction, winning her a host of accolades, including China’s most prestigious prize for the genre, the Chinese Galaxy Award.

6. Liu Zhenyun 刘震云
The complexities and politics of modern China are the themes that inspire Henan-born writer Liu Zhenyun, author of several translated novels and short stories. His award-winning novel My Name is Liu Yuejin (currently only available in Chinese), tells the story of a migrant worker who has his bag and all his worldly possessions stolen in Beijing, while Cell Phone focuses on the other end of society through popular, wealthy TV presenter Yan Shouyi. Zhenyun’s more recent story I Did Not Kill My Husband – a satirical romp with a thinly veiled attack on China’s one-child policy – was translated in 2014.

Zhenyun is a confident and biting satirist, with cold humour and an unflinching look at modern Chinese society.

By Time Out staff
Time Out Abu Dhabi,

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