A rare study in normal – the prolific career of an author

Yao Minji
With a focus on "family," Zhang Yiwei's stories are mostly set in Shanghai, often in a "worker's new village," a part of the city where she grew up.
Yao Minji

Zhang Yiwei's path to a professional writing career couldn't be more normal.

But its normality makes it a rare case today, when many of the richest Chinese writers first published works on the Internet, or their editors made decisions on whether a novel was fit for a game and/or movie adaptation.

Zhang also has some seemingly strange and rebellious rules. One is not to sell her copyright to movie or TV adaptations.

"It's not so complicated, or a rule with any philosophical or sociological base," she said. "I simply don't understand that industry and such copyrights, and I don't feel confident doing things I don't understand."

Zhang often describes herself as a very diligent, but not necessarily top talent, writer. Some critics may disagree on the talent part, but nobody would argue about her diligence.

In her early 30s, Zhang has published more than 10 novels, seven essay collections and a few academic books on creative writing and "Journey to the West."

A philosophy student at Fudan University, Zhang was recruited into the university's creative writing master's program, learning how to write novels and comparative literature. Then she went to Taiwan for a PhD, moving her focus to traditional Chinese novels like "Journey to the West."

She has returned to Fudan to be an associate professor, while most of her classmates from the creative writing program 10 years ago had long moved to other industries.

"Writing is nothing poetic or romantic at all," she said. "You just have to keep up the work, with patience."

Zhang was surely patient. One of her writing projects, "Family Experiment," spanned more than five years and included several novels and short story collections.

"Family is interesting. Many people had their first failures or sufferings from families, from their relations with other family members," she said.

"With 'Family Experiment,' I wanted to explore how people who are not biologically related to each other could live as families. As China further relaxes the one-child policy, children from single-child families like my generation will become a unique group in history."

Her stories include teenagers who shared each other's coming-of-age concerns with mates they met in online chatrooms – a virtual family away from their own families and troubles – or the complexities with stranger new relatives when a divorced parent is remarried.

The stories are almost all set in Shanghai, and often in a "worker's new village," a part of Shanghai where Zhang grew up and which is often overlooked by writers.

"I've always wanted to write about Shanghai families, the intricacy and deep emotions of Shanghai reflected in the families," she said.

"Coming from a worker's family in a 'worker's new village,' my Shanghai wasn't exactly like the commercial, fashionable symbol reconstructed in many novels. But both Shanghai existed."

In 1951, Shanghai built the first "worker's village" in today's Putuo District. It was a kind of neighborhood where factory workers lived, equipped with facilities like hospitals and schools to provide them with the most convenient and best living conditions possible at the time. It soon became a model for similar residential areas all around the country.

When Zhang was growing up in 1980s and 1990s Shanghai, the city was on an economic and urban transformation fast track. Factories were relocated to suburbs. People who were accustomed to being assigned apartments by their factories or companies were starting to buy properties, while new and better apartment buildings were popping up everywhere.

Such neighborhoods became relics of the city's past, filled with all kinds of factories. They were no longer the best living standards, but were a microscopic view of the lives of ordinary people in not-so-polished Shanghai.

"But then, you can still see a bit of the fashionable side of Shanghai in these neighborhoods. Coffee wasn't so common back then, but in our neighborhood, where most of your neighbors were workers, it wasn't so rare either," Zhang recalled.

"For example, my mom was an ordinary worker, like many, but she also loved literature, traditional opera, and she loved coffee. So my sailor father would bring back all kinds of instant coffee from all around the world. I probably tried all possible kinds of instant coffee in my childhood."

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