Born in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, these six authors—Yu Hua, Mai Jia, Liu Zhenyun, Xu Zechen, Sheng Keyi, and Chen Ran—are facing the implications and long aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, considering the pressures of global capitalism, and exploring the tension between tradition and change in their novels. Some of them are already well known in the United States, with multiple books translated and published by trade, university, and independent presses, as well as write-ups, reviews, and profiles in major news outlets and literary publications. Others will be new to most American readers.
Lin Liying, vice president of China National Publications Import & Export (Group) Corporation, spoke to PW about these authors. “Yu Hua, Liu Zhenyun, Mai Jia, Xu Zechen, Sheng Keyi, and Chen Ran are highly representative authors of contemporary Chinese literature,” Liying says. “Their writing styles are quite different but all are very readable, exhibiting the international standards of Chinese literature. There are literary salons featuring Chinese authors at the Beijing International Book Fair each year.”
Here is a brief look at these six leading Chinese authors. We will also preview an important book by each of them.
Yu Hua is one of China’s most famous contemporary writers. Born in 1960, Yu Hua is the child of doctors and initially began a career in dentistry before turning to fiction. His major books include Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, considered one of the most influential Chinese novels of the 1990s; To Live, of which there are more than six million copies in print and which was made into a film by director Zhang Yimou; Brothers; and The Seventh Day.
Hua is part of a generation of writers who, beginning in the 1980s, reimagined Chinese literature. His novels, which began appearing slightly later, in the 1990s, are spare, carefully crafted, and often deal with the implications of the Cultural Revolution. More recent books by Yu Hua have boldly addressed contemporary Chinese society, including issues surrounding capitalism and materialism.
Yu Hua’s novels have been translated into many languages and have received international awards and honors, including the Italian Premio Grinzane Cavour and Giuseppe Acerbi prizes and the French Prix Courrier International. In 2004 he was made a chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French government. Hua is also a prolific essayist and has contributed op-ed pieces to the New York Times.
Mai Jia is the pen name of Jiang Benhu, who was born in 1964. Jiang Benhu is a hugely popular thriller writer in China. For 17 years he worked in an intelligence unit of the People’s Liberation Army, and this experience deeply informs his books, which frequently deal with spycraft and the interactions between China and the West.
In addition to his intelligence work, Jiang Benhu worked as an editor in television and currently holds executive posts with two Chinese literary organizations. His novels include Decoded and In the Dark, which have both been translated into English, as well as Plot, which won the Mao Dun Prize in 2008. Many of his books have been adapted for television and film.
Born in 1962 in Beijing, Chen Ran is known for daring portrayals of female experience in China in short stories, novels, and works of nonfiction. Her work addresses a wide range of topics, from lesbian sexuality to the challenges of the mother-daughter relationship, employing dreams, visions, and emotional traumas as allegorical vehicles with which to convey pointed social critique.
Her first full-length novel, Private Life, was published in 1996 and is the story of a young woman’s emotional and sexual awakening in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. It was a divisive work that nevertheless propelled the author to literary stardom. Among her other works are the four-volume Collected Works of Chen Ran and Bits and Pieces, a collection of essays.
Born in 1978, Xu Zechen is the author of several novels about the underbelly of contemporary urban life in China’s largest cities. He is considered one of the rising stars in the Chinese literary scene and has also held residencies and taught in the United States, at Creighton University in Nebraska in 2009 and at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2010.
His books include Midnight’s Door and Heaven on Earth, as well as Running Through Beijing, which is available in English. His most recent book is Jerusalem. His books have been translated into German, Korean, Dutch, Japanese, and Mongolian.
Sheng Keyi is part of a new generation of Beijing literati born in the 1970s and challenging official versions of historical events through allegorical fiction. Her best-known book is Death Fugue, a political allegory that “recalls Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,” according to the New York Times.
Her novel Northern Girls, which looks at the life of a migrant worker, is based on some of the author’s own experiences, as well as those of others. It was translated into English and published by Penguin in 2012, when it was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize.
Since Northern Girls was translated, Keyi has garnered significant attention in the U.S., with a write-up and review in the New York Times and an essay-length consideration of her work and the larger Chinese fiction scene in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Liu Zhenyun, an award-winning short fiction writer and novelist, was born in 1958. In his work, he explores the clash between tradition and contemporary Chinese culture. His first novel, Tapu Township, was published in 1982 and deals with the struggles of young people due to the Cultural Revolution.
Liu Zhenyun became increasingly well-known after his novels Chicken Feathers Everywhere and Working Unit were adapted as a popular TV drama series in 1994. Several of his other books were also adapted for TV and film, including Cell Phone, which became a blockbuster. His novel One Sentence Is Ten Thousand Sentences was awarded the 2011 Mao Dun Literature Prize and sold more than 1.5 million copies.
Check next week's issue for previews of books by contemporary Chinese authors.