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Good stories start at home
By Zhang Xinying (China Daily)
Updated: 2004-05-14 08:35

I listened to a lot of stories as a toddler. The story-tellers included my beloved grandpa, the silversmith next door who had travelled far and wide and even elderly grannies in the neighbourhood who had never attended school.

And these stories from my early childhood, long before I learned how to read and knew that there was a genre of literature called the "novel," were the start of my literary education. They were lively and unfettered, though I was to realize this only much later.

When I began studying literature, and the novel in particular, however, I found myself dealing with a lot of jargon about structure, plot, imagery, suspense, flashbacks and many other technical terms.

But it seemed to me that the technical jargon, which reflects the rules generally followed in writing modern novels in China in the 20th century, is essentially drawn from concepts followed in Western literature, which has little to do with the world we live in.

The buzzwords of modern literature have in some ways carried us away from the traditions of classical Chinese novels.

All this has a lot to do with the special tenderness I'd felt in my childhood and that was re-awakened when I read Mo Yan's short story, "The Carpenter and His Dog" (Mujiang he Gou), published last year.

In this story, Mo begins with Grandpa telling stories to a boy named Zuanquan and continues with Zuanquan, who is able to write and tell his own stories.

Mo's narrative, though containing elements not included in any "formal" textbooks for novel-writing, has its special spirit because it is associated with the world we live in and with the folklore tradition.

I believe that this type of narrative represents the major literary attainment of contemporary Chinese literature. Quite a number of writers have picked up on the traditional Chinese folklore tradition, as I have found in their short stories published over the past year.

Their narratives, simple and unpretentious yet rich with the realities of life, give the readers a real feeling of intimacy and warmth.

For instance, in "The Man in the Window" (Chuangkou de Nanren), Liu Ying tells of a man who is divorced and has a new girl friend.

His former wife was not much use around the house, and he had been the one who did the cooking. So he often wonders how she handles the daily routines of life.

He often walks to and from the office past his former home, and naturally he looks up at the window when he passes by.

One day, he sees smoke coming out of the open window and then sees the shadow of a man who seems to be preparing dinner.

The worry in his heart begins to melt away and he wants to laugh but doesn't... He even thinks of taking a bus home...

The simple story does not shy away from life's conflicts, and the writer deals with them in a sympathetic and simple way, stirring a feeling of warmth in the reader.

In "Red Scarf" (Hong Weijin), Beijing-based novelist Liu Qingbang tells the story of a young rural woman who tries to find more sweet potatoes in the village's fields in order to earn extra money to fulfil her dream of buying a red scarf.

Writers with little experience in the countryside and farming might have turned this tale onto a story about a poverty-stricken farm girl who sacrifices far more than she should for a silly wish.

But Liu does not. He conveys the familiar feel of the land, the soft, fertile soil mantle, for instance, and the details of the young woman's meticulous work. When dawn breaks in the early morning and a magpie flies back and forth, the girl finally digs out one more small sweet potato, its colour a reddish pink, similar to the colour of a new-born baby.

In his story, Liu communicates to his readers the intimate relationship between the people, the land, the crops and the hard work.

From narratives like this, we are able to see the quintessential colours of the world around us and get an authentic feel for the lives of ordinary people.

Especially, he and other writers convey how these ordinary people deal with the conflicts and hardships they encounter in an ever more complicated society.

In "Two Sisters' Odyssey" (Jie Mei Xing), Wang Anyi, a leading Chinese woman novelist based in Shanghai, tells of two young village women, Fentian and Shui, who go on their first journey outside their home town to see Fentian's fiance, who is in the army.

On their way to the army base, they are kidnapped, sold and forced into marriage.

Fentian is able to run away. However, when she returns to her home village, she discovers she herself is no longer the admired fiancee of a soldier but an object of shame and embarrassment. Her boyfriend breaks their engagement.

Fentian at first tries to redeem herself and re-establish the engagement by seeking help from others.

When all efforts fail, she returns to the area where she was sold, finally locates her sister Shui and persuades her to run away, leaving Shui's baby behind.

"Where are we going," Shui asks, when they arrive at a railway station.

"To Shanghai," Fentian says.

"Upon entering the waiting room at the train station, Shui bursts into tears, crying for her baby.

'Don't cry,' Fentian says.

"Shui stops crying.

"The two sisters immerse themselves in the sea of people and disappear."

In her narrative, Wang Anyi painstakingly fills in the tiniest of details, almost to the point of tediousness, but the seemingly cumbersome details give additional weight to the story's simple and forceful ending.

Readers cannot help but be impressed with the unyielding pursuit of the young village women for a decent life. This pursuit is something common to the lives of all of us.

Literary tradition

We must also discuss the connections between literature and contemporary life.

Most contemporary Chinese writers name foreign writers and their works when talking about what they've read and what has influenced them in their literary development.

It is disappointing to see such writers turning away from their own literary traditions and modern Chinese literary creation.

Some of us seem to forget that we are writing in the modern Chinese language. We are still in this literary family and belong to this Chinese tradition, even though we may now have some rich overseas relatives, and they may have broadened our understanding of creative writing.

However, we still need to become more well versed in our own traditions.

With this understanding, I want to recommend Wei Hui's "Big Old Zheng's Woman" (Da Lao Zheng de Nren), a short story about the changes in the customs in a small city since the 1980s.

Through the daily lives of the protagonists Big Old Zheng and his wife, we gain a deeper understanding of human relationships and the emotions involved.

Wei has the same patience as Wang Anyi, her narrative detailed and smooth.

The small town created by Wei's pen reminds us of Phoenix Town in the writings of Shen Congwen (1902-1988) and the Horlan River in the works of Xiao Hong (1911-1942).

Wei said she owes much to the rich legacy of Shen Congwen and Xiao Hong.

I believe it is important for our writers to discover literary ingredients from within our own literary traditions.

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