Prize-winning authors distill China's soul

Yao Minji
Five authors from distinct backgrounds and generations have won China's top literary prize, with some of the works headed for translations to carry them abroad.
Yao Minji

Five authors from distinct backgrounds and generations have won China’s top literary prize, with some of the works headed for translations to carry them abroad.

The Mao Dun Literature Award, given out every four years, went to works published between 2015 and 2018. The winners are Chen Yan’s “The Protagonist,” Li Er’s “Professor Ying Wu,” Liang Xiaosheng’s “Human World,” Xu Huaizhong’s “Story of Towing the Wind” and Xu Zechen’s “Northward.”

The youngest recipient is Xu Zechen at 41; the oldest, Xu Huaizhong who is in his 90s. The winning books ranged in subjects from the vicissitudes of a traditional Qinqiang Opera actress to stories across generations of families along the Grand Canal.

“Professor Ying Wu,” a sprawling novel that depicts three generations of Chinese intellectuals, will soon be translated into Arabic by a Lebanon publisher. “Story of Towing the Wind,” a romantic war novel set in the 1940s, is set to be translated into Arabic, English and Turkish.

Discussions are under way for translations of other award-winners.

In recent years, more Chinese books are appearing in a wider variety of languages. Many Chinese novels, especially those originating on the Internet, have been translated by fans and volunteers into foreign languages for overseas sites.

At the same time, a growing number of literary novels, such as the Mao Dun Award winners, are attracting the attention of foreign publishers and readers curious about real life in China.

“Along with globalization, Chinese literature has evolved into works good enough to be published around the world, introducing more Chinese culture to the world,” said renowned novelist A Lai, whose own works have been translated into more than 20 languages.

“It is important to understand that Chinese culture is never singular, but rather very multicultural,” he said during an appearance on a recent panel of translators and sinologists. “We as authors need continue to improve our writing.”

Many novelists and critics have expressed concerns that reader appetite for literature is waning, while easy-to-read Internet novels are expanding quickly. A recent report found that the number of Chinese people reading works online increased 14 percent last year to 430 million. Nearly 8 million titles were released online last year, up 50 percent.

It’s often a matter of perception rather than factors such as length of works. Internet titles imply imaginative, easy-to-read stories, while literary novels tend to be regarded as more serious and difficult to read.

It can be challenging for serious authors to compete with the 24 million titles on the Internet, no matter how hard they experiment with the written word in new formats and styles.

Li Er’s “Professor Ying Wu” is one such example. The book was widely praised by critics and other authors when it was first published in the literary journal Harvest early last year, but general reader comments on the book and movie review site Douban have been mixed.

Some readers said they were impressed by the depth and metaphors in the novel, while others found Li’s unique style, such as incorporating the wisdom of ancient poetry to modern technology, rather off-putting.

Li recently told the media that he welcomes debate as long as it is about the novel.

“Controversy about the novel has been there since it was published, not just because it has won the prize,” said the 53-year-old author, who spent 13 years writing “Professor Ying Wu.”

The novel follows more than 70 characters from different walks of life who are involved one way or another with a Jizhou University plan to build a Confucius research center in the ancient sage’s hometown and hire a US-based Confucian studies master to lead it.

The encyclopedic nature of the novel of nearly 900,000 words has been likened to the classical novel “A Dream of the Red Mansions,” which incorporates food, costumes, medicine and other rituals of ancient times into the daily lives of characters in the novel.

“Professor Ying Wu” follows three generations of Chinese intellectuals — the eldest are survivors of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76); the middle-aged ones attended universities in the late 1970s and 80s; and the youngest ones grew up in the globalized world. These three groups cross paths with each other and with government officials, local businessmen and foreign investors involved in the Confucian center project.

For Chinese writers, and more widely, intellectuals, the 1980s was a paradise of foreign books, Western music and Hollywood movies flooding in to a starving young generation. Authors and poets were welcomed around the country like rock stars, and many writers born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s wrote their signature works during that era.

By contrast, writers born in the 1970s, who first published works in the 1990s and early 2000s, are often considered the forgotten generation, suffering from waning national zeal for literature.

Xu Zechen is often considered one of the most famous, well-established writers of that era. His prize-winning work “Northward” centers on the Grand Canal, the backdrop of all his works.

“The canal, since its early times, was not only a route transporting army and grain, but also a key point of dialogue, exchange and the merging of different places in China in terms of politics, economics, culture and traditions,” Xu said.

The author of “Northward” attended a middle school that sits on the Grand Canal, one of the largest man-made waterways, in Jiangsu Province. The author himself spent a few years living in Huai’an, a commercial hub of the Grand Canal in ancient times.

The novel opens with an Italian letter written in 1900, recording how an Italian adventurist, who calls himself Polo Junior, arrives in China to learn about its culture and look for his missing younger brother. He meets a low-level Chinese official who offers to serve as his translator when they travel on the Grand Canal from Hangzhou to Beijing.

As China celebrated the 40th anniversary of its reform and opening-up policies in 2018, many books, stage plays, movies and TV shows took up the subject of the nation’s stunning transformation and how the changes affected ordinary people.

Prize-winner Liang Xiaosheng’s “Human World,” published last year, was also one such work. It followed 50 years in the lives of a working-class family — spanning the “cultural revolution,” the opening of the private business sector, the reform of state-owned companies, and a major anti-corruption campaign.

Another of the prize-winners, playwright and author Chen Yan, turned his years of experience writing for traditional opera into “The Protagonist.” It’s the story of an actress in Shaanxi Province’s traditional Qinqiang Opera. The actress and those around her not only strive to be stars on stage, but also in the bigger stage of life.

Another winner is Xu Huaizhong, writer and retired general who joined the army in 1945. His “Story of Towing the Wind” interweaves a romantic tale with a famous battle during the Chinese Civil War. In it, a young student leaves home for Yan’an, the destination of Long March and a center of the Communist Party of China at the time. She encounters an army officer preparing for a key battle. Much to her surprise, she discovers that she and the officer share the same passion for classic Chinese music. They fall in love against the backdrop of cruel warfare.

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