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Author Bi Feiyu leaves it all down to chance

Bi Feiyu is a master of fate. The outspoken author and winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize tells Oliver Chou how providence has shaped his work

 

''Fate is a very funny thing," says Bi Feiyu. "It can hit you in ways beyond your wildest imagination, but I love surprises - they are my sources of inspiration."

At 50, the Nanjing-based author and winner of the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize has turned one surprise after another into award-winning masterpieces. His fan base in the West is on the rise thanks to the translation of his novels into foreign languages and movies. Six of his novels, including The Moon Opera (2001), can be read in as many as six languages. The 1995 movie Shanghai Triad, for which Bi wrote the screenplay, and the 2014 film adaptation of his novel Blind Massage (2008) have both won awards at international film festivals.

Bi made headlines in Hong Kong recently when he lamented that the city was becoming more like those on the mainland, noting the erosion of common courtesy among locals. "Good habits take hundreds of years to develop, but losing them can happen very quickly. Hong Kong people should be proud of their culture and etiquette. Safeguard them and don't let them fade away," he said.

The author is currently writer-in-residence at Baptist University's International Writers' Workshop. Professor Kathleen Ahrens, the workshop's director, calls him a "fearless" writer who tells his stories - those surprising twists in life - in a "very direct and visceral way". He also narrates with extraordinary depth and sensitivity.

Bi's first surprise came early.

"When I was seven years old or so, I was puzzled when my schoolmates were busy preparing sacrificial stuff for ancestors during the Ching Ming Festival while my family - my schoolteacher parents, two elder sisters and I - did nothing. So I asked my father, 'What about our ancestors?' He replied, 'We had none.' That's all he said."

It was an identity crisis that haunted Bi at each Ching Ming that followed. The boy was further shattered to learn, by discovering abandoned name chops in a wastebasket, that his father's surname was Lu. His father had been adopted by the Lu family during the second Sino-Japanese war (1937 - 1945) but changed his name back to Bi after his adoptive father was executed for treason, for having traded rice with the Japanese.

Growing up without a family history created a sense of rootless-ness that was especially profound in Yang village, in poverty-strick-en Jiangsu province, where ancestral identity was, and still is, deeply entrenched.

"It was not until many years later, in 1984, when I was a Year Two student in Chinese at Yangzhou Normal College that I confronted my father over the ancestry issue, after overhearing a casual remark from a relative. Even then, he would not tell me anything. My family lineage remains mysterious."

The unspoken tension came to a head in 1997, when Bi's own son was born and a decision had to be made on the surname. "Lu or Bi?" asked the new father on the phone. Silence ensued. Eventually, Bi hung up.

Bi recalls this moment in Don Quixote: A Youth in North Jiangsu, his fictional autobiography published last year: "I know my father all too well. This Bi surname consists of insults he would never shake off."

This background, he says, explains why his novels always touch on themes of lineage, posterity and child-rearing.

"I believe the best story for a novelist comes from a writer's own experience in life. He should be true to his feelings and speak directly from his conscience," he says.

Like much else in his life, Bi's relocation to the countryside outside Nanjing was an arrangement made by fate.

"I was assigned [by the state] to Nanjing upon graduation in 1987, and I taught at a training school in the remote countryside for teachers of the blind and deaf. Aside from starving, I didn't have a choice but to obey," he says.

"Compared with Beijing and Shanghai, life in Nanjing has a much slower tempo and the materialistic desire is less. I don't need to work extra hard to make ends meet and can take my time to work on my writing, something you can't possibly afford to do in big cities like Guangzhou, where I might need to produce three novels a year. But in Nanjing I can do one every three years and get enough to feed my family," he says.

In 1992, Bi left the training school to join the Nanjing Daily, where he worked as a reporter for six years. Although the repressive period that followed the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown was the worst of times for many writers, it was the best of times for Bi.

"The early 1990s was a time when literature took a nosedive in China and it has been marginalised since. The official attention shifted first to movies, then to television and, of late, to the internet. Literature was left alone and that was a huge advantage for me as I could enjoy a quiet and pressure-free environment for my writing."

But before novels came films, most notably his screenplay for director Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad. Showered with accolades, such as the New York National Board of Review award for best foreign-language film, the movie nevertheless marked the end of Zhang and actress Gong Li's romantic and artistic partnership.

"I am not proud of the movie. It's not worth mentioning at all. I allowed no reporter to come to interview me. I remained basically unknown after that movie," says Bi, slightly agitated. "I know the film is quite popular among Western audiences and when people over there prepare my CV it always has that movie in it. But I never put it in my own.

"If I had become famous through Zhang Yimou, who was then at the height of his career, I would have forever lost the opportunity of succeeding through my own merit," he explains. "A film director's recognition is not the same as recognition from literary circles. It's a movie script, not literature. I'd rather work my way up with my books, however long it may take."

The only memento he has from Shanghai Triad is his shaved head.

"Before the movie, I had very long hair, as I adored those professional soccer players whose long hair looked great when they dashed around the field," says Bi, an aficionado of the sport. "My long hair also came from my college years, when I was a poet. But then, during production of the movie, I was in the studio day and night. Zhang suggested I should have a cool cut like him. Gong Li had the honour of shaving my head clean. I have kept it that way ever since, just because it's easy to manage."

It did not take long for Bi to be recognised in his own right. In 1997, his novel Breast-Feeding Women won the Lu Xun Literary Prize, the top accolade for writers in China. The following year he quit journalism and, in 2001, won the Chinese Novel Association Prize for The Moon Opera, the book about an ill-fated Peking opera singer that introduced Bi's work to the Western world. By 2009, the novel had been translated into French, German, Spanish, English and Dutch.

In 2002, Three Sisters saw Bi win the Chinese Novel Association Prize for the second year running. It was the English translation of this masterpiece that would win him the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize.

"The prize was a total surprise to me. I landed in Hong Kong at 3.30pm on the day of the award ceremony, with a return ticket for the 8.30 flight the next morning. My intention was to come, applaud the winner and go home," he recalls.

Perhaps he'd learned from experience. The Moon Opera had been one of 17 books in the running for the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the only one from China but - despite his expectations - it didn't win.

"I was a little disappointed not to get beyond the longlist," he says. "Though I am totally passive in the process, I enjoy very much the natural selection, which is so different from the artificial promotion of writers by the government in recent years as part of state policy to boost Chinese culture internationally."

Bi believes a literary exchange has its own rhythm. Any artificial intervention spoils the delicate aesthetics of the art form.

"It's like a gentleman's walk from point A to point B, unhurried and with elegance. But when it becomes a sprint, worst still a dash to the finish line, you can imagine a runner's facial expression in making it through - it's anything but finesse, which I think is the very essence of culture."

Writing, he continues, should never be a means to an end, "otherwise the end product, that is the novel, would be tarnished".

He does not refuse government subsidies, however.

"I accept them [to aid] the translation of my works and there is no problem with that as long as I maintain my freedom of expression. I think, so far, I have been successful in keeping my composure, my rhythm - and my facial expression, too."

That is by no means an easy task in a country where the pursuit of material wealth and fame factor highly. But Bi continues his quest to uphold human dignity, which, in his words, "has vanished without a trace". That is the central theme of Tui Na, or Blind Massage, a novel about, at least superficially, the blind in China.

Praise was immediate and the novel won the People's Literature Prize shortly after it was published, in 2008, a year after Three Sisters had earned the same award. In 2011, Blind Massage won the Mao Dun Literature Prize.

Non-conformist director Lou Ye set his sights on the script and Jian Zeng, cinematographer of the subsequent eponymous movie, won a Silver Bear for outstanding artistic contribution at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. There is also a stage version of the book. After 10 soldout performances in Beijing and 16 in Shanghai, the company took it to Nanjing. The final show will be staged tonight in the city where the story is set.

"I owe the story to fate," says Bi. "It began with the muscle pain I got from a workout in 2003. I went to a massage parlour for therapy. The blind masseurs recognised my name. One of them said to me, 'You are our teacher's teacher,' referring to my early days at the specialised school. With that they opened their inner world to me and I listened to their stories during therapy sessions for the next two years. That is the basis of my novel."

Bi realised that self-pride is especially important to the blind. His discovery inspired the lines, "There are many things blind people impose on their own. In this world, there is no such thing as dignity for the blind. There is only dignity for human beings."

"[The novel is] about how we live within constraints," he says. "So it's about human society, including those in other parts of the world. From the angle of the relationship between man and society, it's about how a person confronts and overcomes his limitations, and that applies to the able-bodied or otherwise."

Blind Massage was translated into Italian in 2011 and French in 2012. An English version is due out this year.

"I hope this novel will help more Western readers know about present-day China, which may be likened to a person with their eyes closed, budging forward," he says.

"China is going through rapid changes. Note I'm not using the word 'development' here. I remember years ago, when I used to ride a bicycle, I could see both sides very clearly as I pedalled along. But now I feel like I'm riding on a bullet and it moves so fast that I can't see where I'm heading.

"People call China a major economic power. But never think China is rich just because the GDP [gross domestic product] looks good. A few major cities may be rich but the rest of the country - at least 70 per cent, including some in Nanjing - remain poor. You have to trust me on this. A country is rich only when its common people are rich," he says.

"Getting rich" became a common refrain after Deng Xiaoping launched his "opening up" policy in the late 1970s, when the country had barely stepped out of the decade-long Cultural Revolution.

"Everybody seemed to be in a hurry to get rich first and forgot to ask one big question: how? Even today, the question of how to get rich is not properly addressed.

"I think we Chinese should ask ourselves how we get rich because it has great significance for our value system. If a person was conscious of the way he was becoming rich, he would not go around infringing others' rights. His pride would not allow him to do that. He would not feel good over the little profit he got from the infringement. The choice is simply between being an original artist-creator or a wicked businessman."

Bi still seems agitated over a recent copyright dispute involving Blind Massage. The row erupted after publisher Xiyuan released an expanded version of the book based on the TV adaptation, but under Bi's name, selling copies of the two-volume set for 68 yuan (HK$85). In March, the Beijing Dongcheng District People's Court found Xiyuan guilty of copyright infringement.

"I didn't have a clue [about the law] when I sold my rights to Shanghai Triad for 10,000 yuan. It later sold like hot cakes because of the movie. Later I came to know about the law on copyright, and I specifically put that into the contract for Blind Massage," Bi says.

Even so, it was his publisher, People's Literature Publishing House, that persuaded him to initiate the lawsuit against Xiyuan.

"I was reluctant because the process is tedious and complicated," Bi says. "But more importantly I have little confidence in China's legal system. Even now that I have won the case, the books in question are still available in bookstores. You can see how incompetent the system is."

One thing he is pleased about is the spotlight the novel has thrown on care for the 83 million people with disabilities living on the mainland.

"That's more than the total population of some European countries. The story has brought about an upsurge in care for the blind. That has exceeded my expectations by a large margin - a very nice surprise indeed."

Looking back on his childhood during the Cultural Revolution, which covered 10 of the first 12 years of his life, Bi says, "It was a disastrous campaign causing great suffering to the country. But it brought a surprise to my generation: it was a totalitarian era yet it offered us a childhood of total freedom.

"But that freedom wasn't real. We children were totally neglected and forgotten. The impact of the Cultural Revolution will continue to surface in the policy-making process while it is in the hands of those who lived through it. As I said in Three Sisters, the Cultural Revolution did not end in 1976, and it may not even end when the last person from my generation expires."

The future, as Bi sees it, is a grim one.

"Children today, including my son, are facing a ruthless education system. They, too, are deprived of a happy childhood, with no time to enjoy nature and normal daily life. Many are high in IQ but low in EQ [emotional quotient]. When it's their turn to run the country, their limits as a single child in the family will surface. I am afraid there will be surprises and a price to pay, too," he says.

The future may be impossible to accurately predict but, Bi says, "As writers, we have the instinct to imagine how a story runs and that's where I put a big question mark."

As for the prospect of winning a Nobel prize, "what's the point of longing for something you have no control over? It's not an award for working hard and could be a source of unhappiness for the rest of your life if you think it is. I'd rather work hard to be a better writer and a better father."

As the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown approaches, how does Bi view the historic landmark?

While Bi's replies are generally long and critical, often supplemented with metaphors and quotes, here he becomes succinctly cryptic.

"I am only 50 years old, I can wait."

 

 

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