Nobel pursuits of a rural underdog

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2006, 12:00am

Cao Naiqian jokes that his literary passion is the least important pursuit in his life. 'First of all, I'm a peasant,' says Cao, who recently spent a month in Hong Kong at an international writers' workshop organised by Hong Kong Baptist University. 'Secondly, I'm a musician, then, a policeman. Finally, I'm a writer.'

Born into a peasant family, Cao joined a dance and music troupe before making his career in the Public Security Bureau, an institution known as a government tool for crushing freedom of expression.

But Cao is no writer of propaganda. His short stories, typically set in his native Shanxi province, are powerful and vivid tales of rural life, told from the underdog's perspective.

Swedish sinologist Goran Malmqvist, a member of the Nobel Prize committee and the man behind Gao Xingjian winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000, has translated Cao's works into Swedish and calls him 'a writer of genius. It's quite possible that he will get the prize.'

Yet as a young man Cao never dreamed of a literary career. He wanted to be a professional musician. To pursue that ambition, he headed for the ... coal mines.

Coal is the backbone of industry in Shanxi province and in the 1960s every mine had its own song and dance ensemble. Cao was keen to join, but carving out a career as a musician wasn't easy. 'I had to work for a year as a miner,' the 56-year-old writer says. 'I took this as some kind of test. From the start, I wanted to join the band.'

After earning his working-class credentials, Cao was allowed to join the troupe in 1966. With the Cultural Revolution in full sway, the song and dance troupes were used for propaganda.

'Of course, this served a political purpose. It was Mao propaganda, with folk music,' Cao says. 'I was in the band, so I was in charge of the music. I liked that a lot.'

Cao's music career ended abruptly in 1968. 'I messed up relations with the head of the propaganda team,' he says. 'So they sent me to work in a steel plant.'

Even now Cao thinks of himself as a musician, always carrying his flute and happy to play folk tunes for friends and acquaintances. 'Cao is crazy about folk music,' fellow writer and friend Li Rui told a local Shanxi daily. 'It went to the point that he dreamed of roaming from town to town as a vagrant singer. If you look at it, this type of music and his stories have a lot in common: unaffected, blunt and to the point. There's no empty chatter and no painstaking, formal experiments.'

In 1972, the then 23-year-old Cao tried his hand at making Lunar New Year scrolls for his steel works, including some of his own verses.

The management were impressed, and transferred him to the newly established police department. 'I didn't think of writing, but of reading,' Cao says. 'I spent virtually the entire 1970s reading.'

He began devouring the works of foreign writers, a preference that lasts to this day. His favourites include Anton Chekhov and John Steinbeck, both of whom wrote stories about rural life.

He's scathing about young Chinese authors whose works have bedazzled western readers. 'I rarely read contemporary Chinese authors. I took a look at the stuff, and I'm not going to touch it again, even if you kill me.'

Cao's writing career began with a bet. 'There's a rebellious streak in my nature, and so I get easily provoked into a bet,' he says. 'Walking on stilts, ice-skating, swimming, I learnt all that because of bets. Writing is no exception.

'One day, a friend pointed at all the books in my home. Quite a few, he said, but one is lacking. He said he didn't know the title, but he knew the author. When I asked him who it was, he said, 'Cao Naiqian'. And then we made a bet.

'That was in 1987. I was 37 years old. I had a job with the vice squad then, and as usual there was a lot of work. I wrote this first story in the night, when my wife and children were asleep.'

The short story, The Loneliness of the Buddha, appeared in a local literary magazine. Cao had kept his writing secret from his colleagues, but it didn't take long before they found out about it. The reaction was similar to that at the steel plant. A writer in the vice squad? That's no job for an intellectual. So they gave him a sinecure, and Cao has been working as the editor of the internal police magazine ever since.

He says he likes his job - it gives him time to write.

The first story to attract serious attention outside Shanxi was When I Think of You Late at Night, There's Nothing I Can Do. It appeared in a Beijing literary magazine, was reprinted in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and was translated into English by sinologist Howard Goldblatt, who included it in Chairman Mao Would Not be Amused, an anthology of contemporary Chinese short stories.

More than 30 of Cao's stories have been translated into English, but they're difficult to find because, although they have appeared in anthologies, no compilation of Cao's work is yet available in English. If Malmqvist is right, this might soon change.