Zhang Wei attends a seminar in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province, talking about his pursuit of a noble spiritual realm. Sun Xinming / For China Daily
Zhang Wei's writings reflect an amazing stamina. The author who prefers solitude shares the secret of his vigor with Chitralekha Basu and Zhao Ruixue.
In ethos, the writer Zhang Wei is a bit like the Great Wall of China. His feats are spectacular, for others to marvel at, while Zhang himself remains unruffled by the fame and adulation. The body of work Zhang has amassed in a literary career of nearly 40 years (he is 55 now) beats his contemporaries in terms of scale and the sheer energy that went into writing these up.
He probably has nothing left to prove: Zhang is, after all, the author of 19 rather long and 13 medium-length novels, 130 short stories, four poetry collections and the humongous 10-volume, 4.5 million-words of You Are on the Highland. The latter is the longest Chinese novel ever, for which he co-won the prestigious Mao Dun Prize last year.
But Zhang keeps at it, relentlessly working on the next project and the next, like a sculptor, trying to hone an artwork that's already chiseled and acclaimed.
Awards come his way, often enough. With over 60 of these in his kitty, the big Mao Dun win, although "prestigious", is probably not much more than a new feather in Zhang's cap. "Awards indeed encourage writers to write better, but they cannot be the yardstick to judge the quality of a novel. Only time will tell if a novel has any value," Zhang says.
If public reception is anything to go by, You Are on the Highland has surpassed Zhang's expectations. A state-of-the grassroots-China novel spanning 100 years and four generations - parts of which read like inscrutable tracts of poetry - the novel ran into 10 editions in less than two years and has sold over 800,000 copies.
Given that a novel as gigantic as You Are on the Highland would take some enterprise and resilience on the part of the reader to sail through, Zhang was particularly moved when an 82-year-old retired professor made the effort. "He said reading the book was like going on a five-month long journey and that really made me happy," Zhang says.
Even as the excitement over You Are on the Highland refuses to subside, Zhang has quietly produced a series for young readers, which he supposedly "wrote on the side". Based on his memories of growing up in the ambrosial Jiaodong Peninsula in coastal Shandong province, On the Halihaqi Peninsula, published earlier this year, is a five-volume book about the adventures of a teenage hero, discovering the thrills of unmediated communion with nature.
When we ask Zhang about the secret of his energy, he attributes it to his roots. "I was born in the coastal area at Qixia, Longkou city of Shandong, which is surrounded by mountains. I have the gift of stamina. Once I start something, I will see it to the end."
We catch up with him at the plush office of the Shandong Writers' Association, which he heads, in the provincial capital Jinan, between back-to-back meetings. He manages to squeeze out an hour and a half for us - a rare privilege, given Zhang prefers to be left to himself, even when he is not writing.
"My inspiration comes from traveling and being alone, thinking," says Zhang who, religiously, reads at least 50,000 words a day. "Previously I would read a lot of European, Russian and American authors in Chinese translation but now it's mostly Chinese classics, especially works by Lu Xun and the ancient poets, such as Qu Yuan, Li Bai, Du Fu and Su Dongpo."
He speaks in a soft but distinct voice, getting lost in his own thoughts from time to time. There is a faraway look in his eyes that seems to travel far beyond the Chinese water color paintings and the heavy mahogany furniture that lends the conference room we are sitting in a thoroughly business-like ambience - a world apart from the almost prelapsarian landscapes that often figure in his work.
"My parents and I moved to live in an isolated place near a forest when I was a boy," he tells us. "The forests and the sea were what I saw most of during my childhood. I began traveling in Jiaodong Peninsula at 16. The sea is my most precious memory and remains a perennial inspiration."
Indeed, images of the sea and sailing metaphors inform a lot of his writing, from his first landmark work, The Ancient Ship, to You Are on the Highland, which, apart from its coastal setting is also replete with a whole world of inter-textual references to ancient Classical mythological tales, such as that of Qu Yuan and Xu Fu's ship.
Sadly, that mythical, pristine world of innocence is shrinking, making way for development. In September's Fable, Zhang uses a very striking image - that of moles burrowing in and turning the earth over, creating a complex system of underground tunnels, an obvious metaphor for New China being exposed to mechanization, juxtaposed against the old world of village chiefs and their authoritative wives.
Zhang concedes that development is necessary. "But if it's at the cost of destroying nature I do regret the loss," he says.
"In this age when idealism is subverted, reading Zhang Wei has a special significance. His protagonists seem to be retreating in the real world, but getting ahead in the spiritual," wrote Chen Sihe, a literary critic and academic, in an article published on Chinawriter.com.cn.
Ning Qie, the protagonist of You Are on the Highland, is a victim of displacement with the coming of industrialization. In The Ancient Ship, the old world's complicated responses to the mechanization of the traditional glass-noodle manufacturing units often lead to bizarre, high-octane drama.
What worries Zhang more than forests and agricultural lands having to make way for factories is the rupturing of the country's moral fabric. "The recent scandals about capsules (in which medicinal capsules were found to contain toxic elements in excess of safety standards) and gutter oil are examples of a diminishing morality."
Zhang's next book, unsurprisingly, is once again an ambitious project. He has been preparing and collecting material for the last 10 years. "It is about the origins of the China Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui - a secret alliance of anti-monarchy revolutionary groups, brought together by Sun Yat-sen) in Jiaodong Peninsula."
He took a break in between, traveling in North and Latin American countries, besides Europe and Southeast Asia, and lecturing at a few universities. Zhang is now looking forward to getting back to writing in earnest and completing the project by the end of the year.
In the meantime, a university in Sydney has shown interest in translating a volume or two of You Are on the Highland. "It is a kind of culture-exchange project, not just translating from Chinese to English," says Zhang.
Zhang, who can read what the person sitting next to him is writing without glasses, has the glow of an assured man who is truly going places, with a little help from a few people who remain in the background.
"As I travel frequently, I get to spend less time with my family. When I am not traveling, I tend to spend time reading and writing. I owe so much to the understanding nature of my family members," he says.