How a novelist’s rural inspiration was transformed by his own success – Dylan Levi King
I was obsessed with Jia Pingwa long before I received the commission to work with Nicky Harman on translating the Chinese author’s late-period novel Qinqiang. I had first come across his most famous early work Ruined City shortly after turning twenty, when a book could still change my life.
Ruined City was published in 1992, but banned the following year for allegedly pornographic content. Even before it was unbanned and republished in 2009 (an English translation by Howard Goldblatt for University of Oklahoma Press finally appeared in 2016), the novel circulated widely in bootleg editions and online. The book tells the story of a horny literatus – Zhuang Zhidie – and his rivals, including Zhou Min, a rusticated upstart who arrives in the city of Xi’an to unseat the literary lion. It was unlike any novel I had ever read: a completely modern work of premillennial Xi’an, full of sexual exploits but borrowing modes and forms from classical epics and Ming vernacular novels. I made my way through Jia’s books that came after, working towards Qinqiang, a rural epic that he published in 2005.
Qinqiang was a step in another direction, back towards Jia’s native roots. Jia helped kickstart the root-seeking movement with his 1983 novella First Records of Shangzhou, but the books that followed were about the city or places where city rubbed up against countryside: Ruined City and White Nights (the brilliant but critically unloved follow-up to Ruined City, as yet untranslated) shared a Xi’an setting; The Earthen Gate was about a suburban district being swallowed up by the metropolis; Old Gao Village and Remembering Wolves brought big city characters down to the village; and Health Report was a historical work, set nowhere near Jia’s hometown or adopted base of Xi’an.
I had a vision of Qinqiang’s village of Freshwind in my head, but I had to see it for myself”
Qinqiang is the type of book that readers lose themselves in: nearly six hundred pages in the original, with close to two hundred named characters. It’s epic in scale but has a very simple central story: a poor man is in love with a sensitive and artistic woman who has married a brutish Southern Shaanxi village celebrity. Jia zooms in on this panorama of rural life, revealing stories of feuding ghosts, township- and village-level political infighting, opera company rivalries, mushroom cultivation, mahjong debts, petty arguments, madness, religious ecstasy, castration, and rape.
For a year, I spent nearly every waking hour on Qinqiang. If I wasn’t translating or editing, I was compiling family trees of the characters for Nicky and myself to refer back to, watching clips of local opera on Youtube, poring over descriptions of local dialect, tracking down obscure references; it would often happen that I would hit a moment in the book – perhaps a single sentence – that would require hours of research. I came to know more than I ever expected I would on topics as diverse as gully reclamation, village-level politics, Shaanxi funeral practices, Republican Era bandits – and, of course, qinqiang folk opera, which the book is named after: a more rugged local version of the indigenous Chinese operatic form such as Beijing opera (as in Chen Kaige’s 1993 film Farewell My Concubine).
I had a vision of Qinqiang’s village of Freshwind in my head. Freshwind (qingfengjie 清风街 in the novel) was based on Jia’s own hometown of Dihua, where he was born in 1952 and has set many of his novels and short stories. But I knew that I was missing something. Jia is an anthropologist as much as he is a poet: his attention to detail is legendary. Working on the translation, it felt I had a duty not to make it sound like any other generic village. I had to see it for myself.
But before I bought a flight to Xi’an where Jia lives and works, I happened to run into the man himself at a talk he was giving at a Beijing bookstore. Nick Stember, who was a Jia Pingwa expert and who got me the Qinqiang gig, leaned in to tell Jia what I was working on. Jia nodded to me, and his loyal assistant and minder, Ma Li, introduced herself. When I told her what I had in mind, she insisted that I would be their guest I wrote it off as politeness but a few weeks later, the invitation came. I went in April with Nicky Harman, and had two requests: let me see an opera in Xi’an, and take me to Dihua.
I knew Jia was a celebrity in Xi’an. He had written about Shaanxi’s provincial capital in many essays, and there was some amount of autobiography in the superstar writer Zhuang Zhidie in Ruined City, but I was still unprepared for the level of attention the city’s adopted son received wherever he went. I had my picture taken more times in the days I spent with him than I had in the previous ten years living in Asia. The treatment of Xian’s literary lion felt almost dangerous the night we attempted to sneak into a performance at the Shaanxi Traditional Opera Institute Theater: the audience mobbed us as we left, and the impresario pleaded with Jia to take the stage and say a few words. Our impromptu visit to the cave homes north of the city also turned into a full-fledged press junket, led by village cadres and township tourism officials.
On the morning of our trip down to Dihua village, Jia greeted me outside my hotel. We looked out on the artificial cityscape of Xi’an’s new markets while pulling on cigarettes. The square we were at was anchored by two towering statues of foreign merchants arriving by camel – Xi’an was once at the Chinese end of the ancient silk road – overlooking a complex that houses antique shops, gourmet restaurants, museums, shopping malls, and coffee shops. It’s just like in Ruined City, I said, when the city fathers tear down the old quarters to install replica Tang, Song and Ming-Qing dynasty streets. “Yes,” Jia observed, “but this fits with the history of the city, at least, doesn’t it? Imagine what they could have put here instead.”
On the way to Dihua, as Nicky and I peppered Jia with questions, the landscape outside the window turned from city to suburb to jagged mountains with green capes. My imaginary Freshwind was already changing. I had no idea the landscape was so rugged and rocky. From Jia’s writing, I had always pictured the place less dramatically, and perhaps more fertile and inviting.
Spiritually, culturally and linguistically, Jia has not broken the umbilical link to his native place”
I had to reconsider the man himself and what it had meant to grow up in a place like that. With a few notable exceptions such as Mo Yan, many prominent writers in China come from a fairly privileged urban upbringing, but Jia Pingwa was born and raised here in southern Shaanxi. His father, a schoolteacher, educated him in the Chinese classics and furnished their modest home with books, and his mother and extended family taught him rural legend and the ways of the village. With the arrival of the Cultural Revolution, Jia and his mother supported the household, with Jia’s father branded a capitalist roader and sent for reform through labor. He discontinued his formal studies to support the family and went to work on a production brigade building a dam. He was lucky enough to catch the eye of production team cadres, who noticed his skill turning out banners and newsletters. Shortly before the university entrance exam was reinstated, he was selected for a spot at a university in Xi’an, and left the village for the first time.
Although he has remained in Xi’an for most of the past forty years, Jia takes pains to paint his time in Xi’an as a temporary sojourn. Even though Ruined City and the books that followed were ostensibly about the city, all of their central characters are refugees from the countryside, looking for meaning in a new world while waxing nostalgic about village life. Zhuang Zhidie in Ruined City fits that mold – he only stays in Xi’an for ten years before mysteriously leaving the city – and so does Ye Lang in White Nights, Gao Zilu in Old Gao Village, Xia Feng and Bai Xue in Qinqiang, Happy Liu in Happy Dreams, and even Butterfly in Broken Wings.
Having spent time with Jia in Xi’an and Beijing, he convincingly pulls off the role of urban literary celebrity. In a nation where so many of those you meet in big cities are first generation urbanites, Jia doesn’t stand out as particularly rusticated. But spiritually, culturally and linguistically (his books often employ dialect, and he also prefers to speak in his local language, with Ma Li interpreting) he has not broken the umbilical link to his native place. After decades in the city, he still famously proclaimed himself a farmer. I thought the trip to Jia’s hometown might help shed some light on his dual identity.
Arriving in Dihua, I began looking around for echoes of Freshwind and other villages in Jia’s fiction. On the main street, vendors parked tricycles and stand-up tractors with sheets of Plywood laid across their back-ends, selling stockings, parkas, potatoes, pork. There were the bathroom-tile low-rises typical of the Chinese countryside, and a road that was definitely paved at one point but had been allowed to turn back to dirt. It looked about how I had imagined Freshwind – a little more modern, over a decade on from Qinqiang’s 2005 publication, but close enough. I could picture the characters and settings of the book, laid over the village in front of me.
Jia Zaiwa, Jia Pingwa’s younger brother met us at the end of the road, accompanied by a few local cadres. We went up a narrow alley and came upon Liu Gaoxing’s home. Liu, whose tenure as a Xi’an trash collector provided the inspiration for Jia’s 2007 novel Happy Dreams, has settled into retirement back in his hometown. The book turned Liu into a minor celebrity and he attempted to cash in, turning his home into a sort of museum to himself. I would have liked to check in, but it seemed that local officials were embarrassed by Liu’s marketing savvy, or perhaps it was a more complicated village dispute I wasn’t aware of. We were steered away from the brick home and led quickly past the billboards that collect photographs of Liu with fans and celebrities.
Beyond Liu Gaoxing’s home, we walked around the preserved homes of the Jia family, some rooms still in use by Jia’s younger brother and his extended family and others open to visitors. We were led into the courtyard of one and through to a room that, judging by the age of the radio on the cabinet and the posters of old movie stars on the walls, hadn’t been lived in since the late 1980s.
Jia had told me that he had last been back to the village for Qingming Festival just a few weeks earlier, to attend to his parents’ tombs, but it was obvious that he didn’t spend much time here. He seemed uneasy, quieter than usual. How strange, I thought, it must be to visit your own childhood home accompanied by official tour guides and foreigners. Whenever Jia tried to introduce some local architecture or lore, the cadres sidled up to proffer their own opinions. His younger brother, clearly used to visitors, was more comfortable playing host. “He’s a bit shy in here,” he joked, motioning to the bed. “This is where he stayed with his first wife.”
Jia Pingwa handed me another cigarette and motioned for us to leave.
Beyond Jia’s old home was a newly constructed park called Dihua Ancient Town. I had heard something about these efforts to preserve the old town, but had imagined something more restrained. Instead, a large signpost pointed in the direction of the various attractions of “China National Tourism Administration AAAA-rated Dihua Ancient Town”. These included Charming Lotus Pond, Yueya Spring, Songjin Street, Pingwa’s Old House, Qingfeng Street, Erlang Temple, and Parking Lot for Battery Cars.
Songjin Street was a collection of somber grey stone buildings selling local snacks and tat. There must be a factory town, I thought, maybe in the Pearl River Delta, devoted to turning out replica antiques and slightly weathered building materials for projects like this. There was nothing to distinguish it from the similar sites in Xi’an we had just seen, or from the many other replica old towns I had visited across China – such as the faux-Qing era Qianmen district in Beijing, or the Song dynasty theme park that replaced Kaifeng’s old town. Just like these artificial pastscapes, it felt in Dihua, without having seen what was there before, that something had been lost by the very efforts to reconstruct its history.
The replica village is stripped of everything that makes the real place fascinating”
It was jarring to wander into this sterile, empty old town – it was still too cold and too early in the season for many tourists to be there – after experiencing a brief taste of vibrant village life in Dihua proper. Below Songjin Street, just beyond the old Jia family homes, the Charming Lotus Pond separated the rest of the Ancient Town from a replica of the village from Qinqiang, with “Freshwind” (qingfengjie) written over an archway entrance. As we crossed the concrete bridge over the pont, one of the cadres said, “You should see it in the spring, when it’s covered in lotuses.”
At the end of the bridge was a three story-tall archway, leading to the replica village. A single street gathered together various shops that appear in the book, such as Zhao Hongsheng’s pharmacy. There were other shops too, set up by local entrepreneurs, selling corn liquor, noodles and handicrafts. Statues of the Qinqiang’s characters line the street, and Jia was prodded to stand for a photo beside one of two characters being married, while I was placed beside another statue of Snow Bai – the young woman the novel’s narrator is obsessed with – steaming mantou.
I asked Jia if the people who designed the street had read the novel. He said he didn’t know, and led me to look at one of the few authentically old structures on the block, pointing out the layer of cob and mud on its outer wall. Jia’s novels are not exactly rural idylls, and Qinqiang is no exception. It wouldn’t work, I suppose, to put up a statue of Rain Xia, Snow Bai’s cruel husband, attempting to murder his infant daughter after discovering her birth defect, or to commemorate his cousin beating his wife after an argument over jianbing breakfast pancakes.
The idea of a replica village is even stranger, considering that Qinqiang is set in the late-1990s or early-2000s. Although it felt as if very little of the spirit of village life, as I had come to know it in the novel, had been preserved in this replica, there was plenty of that spirit, still very much alive, a quarter mile away, over in the parts of the village still untouched by regional planning authorities and tourism officials.
The replica village is stripped of everything that makes the real place fascinating. It exists in a timewarp, not trying to depict an ancient town or even the village as it might have looked forty or fifty years ago. It is a shell, stuffed with some signifiers of Shaanxi village life, but not much else. When I quizzed a Xi’an friend on her visit to the place a year prior, she struggled to deliver any insights or even remember much of what she had seen (very cute pictures beside the lotus pond for her social media, though) – it’s a blank space for selfies.
Yiyan Wang, a New Zealand-based scholar of Chinese literature and the author of the first book-length study of Jia’s novels, makes the case in Narrating China: Jia Pingwa and his Fictional World that Jia’s writing about village life argues against the conventional wisdom among Chinese intellectuals that rural China is poor in culture. If the village modernizes according to the requirements of urban China, Jia seems to plead in his rural novels, a vital local culture will be lost. I couldn’t help but wonder if those cadres who had planned the replica Freshwind had got the message.
Just like in Xi’an, every conversation was cut short by requests for photographs and autograph-seekers. Nicky and I were mostly left alone as Jia was led around by enthusiastic local officials. As we stopped at the Erlang Temple, Jia went inside to pay his respects to the local god (a semi-mythical, deified general with a third eye in his forehead) with a gruff request that no photos be taken. A crowd formed outside, then followed us onto the square across from the temple, where the open air theater and a low pagoda had been revitalized with a fresh coat of paint.
Modernization had arrived in Dihua, but the village’s destruction was done in the name of preservation”
Jia leaned in and told me that many years before, on hot summer nights, he had climbed up to the upper floors of this pagoda. There wouldn’t be many kids climbing up there anymore, I thought, with its surveillance cameras and aluminium pigeon netting. The scenes of raucous opera performances in Freshwind’s opera theater, too, would have been out of place in that manicured and sanitized square.
It was clear that there wasn’t much Freshwind spirit left after the local tourism bureau’s attempt to cash in on Jia Pingwa fever. We would have been better off spending the afternoon on that dusty main road on the other side of the village, talking to the women selling pork. But that wasn’t on the itinerary. After our tour, we drove out to the village outskirts for a boozy lunch at an agricultural commune of sorts – another scheme dreamed up by the local bureaucrats behind the recreation of Freshwind.
Just like in Xi’an, everyone in Dihua seemed to be in the Jia Pingwa business. Along with Jia’s younger brother and the village cadres, we were joined by two local entrepreneurs: one behind the corn liquor shop and the other with plans to renovate one of the remaining old homes on the replica street. When we left the restaurant, a pair of suited men stepped out of a car with the emblem of the township government, and gave their business cards to Jia.
Back in Dihua Ancient Town, we went to the Jia Pingwa museum and bookstore, in a fake “Pingwa’s Old House,” and attempted to retire to a back room for tea. The tourists had been alerted, however, by Jia’s sister-in-law, who runs the bookstore. She recognized a golden opportunity to push book sales with a rare in-store visit by the author himself. We were swiftly descended upon by dozens of autograph-seekers and well-wishers.
The graves of Jia’s family are still in Dihua, as are the old buildings and a handful of aging neighbors, but the spirit of the village seemed to be lost. There are upsides: as Ma Li told me, turning the village into a tourist site had allowed many residents to stay in Dihua who would otherwise have had to go to the city to find work. Ma Li reminded me that even the name of the county had been changed because of the author’s fame. It had been known as Shangxian until 1988, when the name was changed to Shangzhou, reflecting Jia’s preference for the more ancient name.
Jia had been warm and funny in our time together in the city, but his mood had changed when reached the village. He was too diplomatic to say much, and I detected a hint of melancholy in him as we left. He has spent his literary career as an anthropologist-poet, writing about a tiny corner of Southern Shaanxi and the forces of urbanization and industrialization that threaten its unique culture. Yet a strange thing had happened in Dihua: modernization arrived, but the village’s destruction was done in the name of preservation, and in Jia’s name. ∎