De facto farmer's raw honesty embraced by readers
Q: How did you start writing?
A: I was born into a typical rural family where three generations lived together. At dinnertime there were more than 20 people eating together. I was the eighth boy of 10 siblings and cousins, but I was the weakest. In 1960 [during the famine] it was really too difficult to sustain such a big family, so my father and uncles broke up the family and lived apart. Despite this, I often got sick and the malnutrition stunted my growth. That's why I couldn't handle the tough work of farming and was bullied at school and in the village.
Gradually I distanced myself from the crowd. Instead, I enjoyed meditating and retreating into my imagination. I didn't finish the second year of middle school ... but I got a chance and was enrolled at Northwest University during the Cultural Revolution as one of the Worker-Farmer-Soldier university students. I gained a little fame at university by publishing articles and so officially took up writing as a career.
How did you recreate the countryside of western China, a place reflected in almost all of your work?
I am a de facto farmer. My mother is an illiterate village woman who has no idea about what writing means to me, and my father, who was more aware and was proud of me, died a few years ago. I had tremendous awe for my father, who would continue to discipline me even after I got married. My parents are the people of their generation who had the most influence on me.
Although I left my home town when I was 19, I still have many relatives back there and we visit each other pretty often. My connection with the countryside has never been cut off.
My depiction of the countryside in Shaanxi province has evolved in the two decades since I first wrote about it. Back in the 1980s, the living standards of farmers were often higher than their urban counterparts. As a writer coming from the countryside, I was very excited about the changes there and naturally they inspired a lot of my work then. But the rural economy seems to have stalled and there has been no sign of progress for a decade or so.
There are many crises brewing. Today's countryside, with its constant manifestations of 'bleak village faces', often traps me in grief. On the other side, although I often say that suffering is in the countryside, the real happiness is also there, because happiness can only be born out of suffering.
One of your works, Fei Du (The Abandoned Capital), is famous not only for winning France's Femina Prize but mainly because it was banned. How has censorship affected you?
Fei Du was banned in 1993 for two reasons. The reason widely reported was its obscenity, its explicit sexual content. The other reason was because the authorities thought it conveyed a 'low and depressing tone'. The censorship was a big blow to me because it took more than a decade to shake off a reputation for being bawdy. Although there are many other works with much more explicit sexual content coming out, the ban on the book still hasn't been lifted. But due to its popularity, it thrives underground.
It was said that in early 1990s, there were more than 12 million pirated copies and every year there are at least five new pirated versions released. I have a collection of these pirated books, one copy for each version, and so far I have filled three book shelves.
How do you usually write and what's next?
I never take the market into consideration when I write, not even the readers. I am just lucky that people happen to like my work.
I used to write up to 10 hours a day, but now I cannot even sit still for two hours. When I first started writing I tended to employ a lot of writing techniques. But now I am reluctant to use them.
Some critics categorise my work as cultural criticism, or realistic, but I have never cared about schools or styles. When I have something to say, I say it. When I don't, I just shut up. My writing is no longer confined to form. As Lao Tze says, 'the greatest skill, clumsy'.
The only habit that hasn't changed is how I handwrite all my manuscripts, because I don't know how to use the computer. I do not know the pinyin system, and consequently can't type.
Take the Voice of Qin as an example, my latest work of 450,000 words. I wrote around 1.5 million words by hand for the three drafts.
My next book will be about farmers who migrate to the cities.