An old writer who is still young at heart
Xiaonan is an affectionate colloquial term referring to a little child in Shanghai dialect. In his 90s, though, author Sun Yi still calls himself an “old xiaonan,” who is forever a young pioneer wearing a red scarf in his heart.
With “The Young Pioneers’ Song” being played in the background, the launch of Sun's “Shanghai Xiaonan” trilogy last week attracted hundreds of readers at the Shanghai Exhibition Hall, where the annual weeklong book fair was held.
“My friend says I'm like a proud rooster who gave birth to three eggs at once. But have you ever heard of a rooster laying eggs, huh?” Sun joked about himself in front of the audience. “But to be honest, I do feel like a hen laying eggs during the process of writing. Those are the stories of my childhood and my youth, and I have conceived them for a lifetime. They kind of came out of my belly one by one, and I am happy that I finally rattled them off.”
Sun’s three books tell three coming-of-age stories of children who lived in Shanghai between the 1930s and 1950s when the city was under a succession of changes during Japanese occupation, the civil war and after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Born in 1923 in Suqian, Jiangsu Province, Sun says he has lived through all the three periods, survived and lived happily ever after. When the city fell following the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, Sun was like the little Yindi in the first book, "Little Yindi's Miserable Childhood," who begged for a piece of bread in the day and a cover over her head at night. She didn't know why she's so miserable and the Japanese were so vicious. To join the army and fight against the Japanese invaders was the only way she thinks she could save herself.
In the second book, "Young Pioneers Fighting Against the Enemy," Sun becomes the little Husheng (born in Shanghai) who lived during the civil war period in 1948. He joined the Youth and Children Squad, an organization under the direct leadership of Soong Ching Ling who had protected and saved many orphans during the wars. They studied at school during the day and in their spare time started the first children’s newspaper – the New Young Pioneers.
With stories, songs and poems created by themselves, Husheng and his teammates helped spread the revolutionary ideas by selling newspapers on the streets, sneaking red stars they made by themselves to the households and dropping the leaflets before the People’s Liberation Army entered Shanghai.
“This is actually a book on the history of the Young Pioneers of China,” Sun says. “I’ll never forget those difficult years when we were so much united to fight for the final victory. I hope the children of today learn to cherish the peaceful time they are enjoying now and be brave, gusty and ready to fight for what they believe in.”
In the last book, "The Story Between a Wild Child and a Wild Dog," Sun writes about a clever boy called Ah Lang and his pet dog Huanghuang when approaching the 1950s. They had experienced many a firsts in their lifetime, such as the first flag-raising ceremony at school, the first acrobatic show coming to the community and the first good deed they did on the Learning From Lei Feng Day.
“It’s a very 1950s story,” comments Qin Wenjun, one of China's most famous authors of contemporary children's literature. “The setting, the characters and even the conflicts reflect the typical ideology and mindset of China at that time, from which we see how traditions are passed down from one generation to the next.”
During his 70 years as a writer, Sun served as the director of the playwrights’ office with the Children’s Art Theater of China Welfare Institute. Founded by Madame Soong Ching Ling on April 10, 1947, the theater is the first professional children’s art troupe of public welfare in China. Over the last 70 years, it has produced more than 390 children's plays with different themes.
“Theater is a collaborative form of art that combines body gestures, languages, music and dance. The stage experience will leave a lifetime impression on the mind of children, which no one story from the textbook can replace,” says Sun, who has always encouraged schools to hold theater festivals where children can be their own master of the stage and act out their own stories.
“Through rehearsals, they build confidence, horn their speaking skills, as well as enhance communication and team building. We who write for children surely should share the responsibility to provide inspiration and guidance for the youngster so that they grow up to be loving and responsible people.”