Oliver Chou

With more than 60 literary works under her belt, Shanghai-based author Wang Anyi is regarded as one of the most prolific and influential writers in contemporary China. Her 2011 novel, Scent of Heaven, won the 2012 Dream of the Red Chamber Award, which includes a HK$300,000 cash prize. Shortly after receiving the award in Hong Kong, the 58-year-old Fudan University professor spoke to Oliver Chou about her inspiration and the future of literature.

How did you select the subject matter and story for your award winner?

It all came from a 100-word text about embroidery in southern Jiangsu that I found in Ming dynasty records at a public library. I am sure there was a reason why that short reference was recorded so I set off to research historic Shanghai, then a small but thriving fishing village with nascent handicraft and trading activities on the horizon.

Why are you interested in history, and is there a modern-day significance in your works?

The search for historic roots was in vogue in the mid-1980s, and I belong to that school. The period after the Cultural Revolution is referred to as the “new era”, which has gone through different phases, starting with “scar” literature, then reflection and root-searching. Writing about urban life is my forte. I am not interested in changes, but in things that stay unchanged even in tumultuous times, such as love, life, marriage, human values and needs. With these things, I see no difference between the past and the present.

As a woman writer, are you more sensitive about issues concerning women?

Many of my works do focus on women and their inner worlds, such as their pursuit of happiness, their relationships with men, their need to love and be loved, and their hope for a fulfilling life. I think my interest has to do with my mother being a professional writer. But more importantly, women in Chinese history have always been a secondary voice … [and their emotions], being contained by strong social taboo, are often primal and dramatic. That fascinates me.

Why have there been so few women writers since the May Fourth Movement in 1919?

Writers from that era were truly remarkable … [but] the political situation in China really hampered their literary output, including my mother, who wrote very little during the Cultural Revolution.

How did those 10 years of chaos affect you and your career?

The biggest impact was on my education which was discontinued at the primary school level. I had nothing to do but to read novels … mostly contemporary titles. And then I started writing my own novels, something that didn’t require specialised skills or high production costs. I always thought that had I attended college, I would have become a doctor or something.

What are the differences between being a writer then and a writer now?

We are lucky that we are spared serious political interference. I won’t say we are totally free; there is no such thing as absolute non-interference. We writers are marginalised, but there is a good side: we are spared commercial and marketing concerns, such as turning our work into a movie script, which could be quite damaging.

With China’s rise and the material well-being especially with the young generation, how do you see the future of literature in China?

I am pessimistic about the impact of my works on society. I think it is dangerous for the young generation not to read. [Kids today] have instant messaging and stories that can be taken in with just one glance on their iPad. What can I say?

Do you see this as a temporary phenomenon?

Interestingly, Europeans have maintained their reading habits, but not Asians. Perhaps Asians are eager for progress and therefore obsessed with gaining new technical know-how. If this continues, I’m afraid they will become simple-minded animals in the future.

So where do you see the value in literature?

It enriches our emotional world. A person who doesn’t read, even if they make a lot of money, has a dry and empty life.

How do you compare yourself with other contemporary writers in China?

Mo Yan, Yan Lianke, Yu Hua and Su Tong are a little younger than me but we [differ] regarding the growth of our careers in the 1980s and ’90s. As for younger ones such as Han Han, well, I’d better not talk about them as they are very powerful, and particularly sharp with current issues. Perhaps because of that, their imaginative power, which is so essential in novel writing, is limited. Novels by nature are very subtle.