Shanghai author Wang Anyi scored a big hit with her 1995 novel Song of Everlasting Sorrow, which was adapted into a film and television series. But the book overshadowed her five subsequent novels and she was feeling pressure to reproduce her earlier success.
The 58-year-old writer finally accomplished this with her latest novel, Scent of Heaven, published last year, winning the grand prize in the 4th Dream of the Red Chamber Award, which recognises Chinese novelists from around the world. The award is held every two years by Hong Kong Baptist University's faculty of the arts and comes with a prize of HK$300,000.
She received her award yesterday at the Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The prize honours the Chinese literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber, but the submitted works do not have to be related to the book.
Last year Wang was a finalist in the Man Booker International Prize for her novel An Era of Enlightenment, published in 2007.
Judges of the Baptist University prize included professors and writers who asked publishers on the mainland and in Taiwan and Hong Kong last November to submit their recommendations.
"Chinese prize-winning author Wang Anyi" Video by Hedy Bok
Wang's prize-winning novel is set in Shanghai in the late Ming dynasty - 1368 to 1644 - and focuses on the meticulous women's craft of embroidery called gu xiu - which originated from the women of the once-wealthy Gu clan.
"It's a handicraft that the rich family performed as a hobby, but when they lost their wealth the womenfolk stepped in to make a living with their embroidery that became world famous."
Wang's novel is loosely based on the Gu clan, which she renames the Shen family, and tells the story of several dozen members spanning four generations.
Professor Chung Ling, chair of the final judging panel and emeritus professor at Baptist University, said: "The novel is like an encyclopedia for the culture of the Southern Yangtze Delta region."
Despite delving into the history and geography of Ming-era Shanghai, Wang's intention was not to record history but to explore the desires of her characters - which she said were timeless.
"Take the female characters," she said. "They want marriage, fidelity and the love of their man. This is timeless even in today's society, which we might think has become more open-minded, but when a woman meets someone she loves, she still desires marriage and his fidelity."