SU TONG KNOWS a thing or two about women. The author, whose novella Wives and Concubines was made into the film Raise the Red Lantern, has been hailed as one of the few male Chinese writers who can realistically portray women. Many people are familiar with those four of his 20 novels that feature women as central characters. 'It's because three of them have been made into movies,' says Su, in town for last week's Hong Kong Book Fair, at which he spoke to a packed audience. 'I think it's in recognition of how I perceive [the many facets of] women and present them.' The 43-year-old says he first learnt to understand women as a child. Growing up on a crowded street in Suzhou, his inquisitive mind absorbed how the residents lived. 'I've been surrounded by all kinds of women since I was very young,' he says. 'There were no secrets in that street. When you ask me to portray women, different images of them appear in my mind. I don't need to do homework.' He says the key to a realistic female character is to approach her in the same way that Gustave Flaubert did. 'He treated himself as Madame Bovary when he wrote the novel,' Su says. 'I think that's how male writers should write about the opposite sex. 'Mainland authors often portray women simply as people under oppression or as tragic figures. But I think more should be said about their inner world, which is much more complicated. There's a sentimental side to them.' Su is also adept with his use of language, says Ge Hongbing, a professor of Chinese literature at Shanghai University. 'When you read his novels, you feel like you're seeing pictures.' Imagery-laden - sometimes even nightmarish - Su's books illustrate the complexities and cruelties of the human condition with a vividness that's won him many admirers. Born into a modest family, Su's reading material was initially confined to Chinese classics such as The Water Margin and communist propaganda. 'I read them because I had nothing else to read.' Later, his sister brought home translated works of writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The Cultural Revolution still had a grip on society, so the books had to be wrapped to conceal the contents. Su decided on a career as a writer at the age of nine, when he became severely ill and was confined to bed for two years. 'Those are years when a child needs to move,' he says. 'I was really unhappy.' His envy of other children's riotous, carefree lives during that time inspired him to write An Era of Tattoo. The tale about juvenile delinquents during the Cultural Revolution is due to be turned into a film by director Jia Zhangke (The World, Platform). A literature graduate from Beijing Normal University, Su's first job as a teacher allowed him to study people under stress. Before 1993, he would write up to 8,000 words a day - enough for a short story. 'Words are my way of expanding my vision,' he says. 'To discover other worlds, whether it's my own or other people's. All I need for this is pen and paper.' But he's since learnt to pace himself to avoid burning out. These days, he writes for four or five hours each day, and jogs and swims to stay in shape. Su says book piracy and a declining interest in reading have created a crisis for the literary sector. Sales of his books have plummeted from a peak of 100,000 to an average of 50,000. 'In the 80s, people still liked novels - it was the golden era,' he says. 'Now, new novelists have few chances [to establish themselves]. People's energies are directed elsewhere.' Su is regularly invited to literary festivals overseas. A British publisher recently asked him to rewrite a classic Chinese tale. He chose the legend of Meng Jiangnu, a young wife, whose weeping at the death of her husband caused a section of the Great Wall to collapse. 'I'm not interested in rewriting it. I just picked the most interesting qualities of the character and wrote a new story based on that,' he says of the book, which is due out in March. Su says he's content living on his royalties and a 3,000 yuan monthly writer's stipend from the government. 'Foreigners find it strange that writers enjoy so much freedom when we're paid by the authorities,' he says. 'But, really, the government seldom cares about what we write. It's one of the rare sectors where we can see the spirit of socialism.' 'I've never been a best-selling author. I never had a taste for it. If I didn't smoke and drink so much, what the country pays me is more than enough to live on. 'If I couldn't be a writer, I'd probably open a bar.'