【Industrial】Making the old new

  • Source:China Daily | Yang Yang | 2019-01-07

A souvenir edition of Jia Pingwa's popular collection of essays has been launched, Yang Yang reports.


Jia Pingwa talks about his creations with scholars, writers and critics at a recent launch ceremony of the souvenir edition of Zizai Duxing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

It may be easy for a novel to sell tens of thousands of copies in China, but it is unusual for a collection of essays by contemporary writers to achieve that scale.

Writer Jia Pingwa's essay collection, Zizai Duxing (Be Free and Walk Alone), have sold 1 million copies since it was published in July 2016.

Along with Mo Yan and Yu Hua, Jia is one of the biggest names in Chinese literature. Winning his first literary award in 1978, Jia has published 17 novels, including recent ones such as Jihua (Pole Flower) in 2016 and Shanben (Origin of the Qinling Mountains) in 2018, and many novellas and essays.

In 2008, he won the Mao Dun Literary Award, the top honor of its kind in China, for his novel, The Shaanxi Opera.

Jia's fiction writing reflects distinctive features such as the local dialect, custom, people and landscape of the place where most of his stories are set-Northwest China's Shaanxi province, where he was born and continues to live. In his essays, he follows some of the traditional styles of the ancient Chinese literati and modern aesthetics and philosophy.


Jia Pingwa talks about his creations with scholars, writers and critics at a recent launch ceremony of the souvenir edition of Zizai Duxing. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Jia's essays are popular in China. Some like The Ugly Stone are familiar to readers as they are included in middle school textbooks. He's known for his language and style: concise and simple but beautiful, rhythmic and emotional.

The 300-page Zizai Duxing contains 73 essays, most of which were written in the 1980s and '90s, when Jia was in his 30s and 40s.

"At that time, people thought essays should be lyrical like those in the 1950s. It's either about painful memories or about nature, hometowns, parents and classmates. So, essay-writing became increasingly narrow in terms of themes and ideas," Jia says.

"But after reading Zhang Zai's (1020-77) works, I realized that great essays are not necessarily lyrical.

"Essays can talk about conscience, politics, wisdom and the mind."

He agrees with Zhang's words that essay writing is "to ordain conscience for heaven and Earth. To secure life and fortune for the people. To continue lost teachings for past sages. To establish peace for all future generations".


Jia Pingwa has won the Mao Dun Literary Award in 2008. [Photo provided to China Daily]

However, since the 1990s, essays have become less popular among Chinese readers, who have come to prefer novels.

"So, the sales really surprise me. I never imagined that young readers would like my old essays," Jia tells scholars, writers and critics at a recent launch ceremony of the souvenir edition of Zizai Duxing.

"But one possible explanation is that my works are short so they suit young readers' preferences. Another reason might be the everlasting themes of youth-dreams, love and struggles," Jia adds.

For Zhang Qinghua, a professor at the School of Chinese Language and Literature of Beijing Normal University, the popularity of the collection represents a new direction in the development of "new literature" in China that was born in 1918, when writers such as Lu Xun, Hu Shi and Chen Duxiu sought to write in different styles than the traditional literati.

"New literature" marks the start of modern Chinese literature. Themes and language are influenced by Western literature.

"Contemporary Chinese writers are changing their identities not only as modern writers but also while going back to the traditions of the ancient literati," Zhang Qinghua says.

"Jia is not only a writer but also a calligrapher, a collector and a scholar, who studies issues related to farmers and land."

The popularity of Jia's essays hails a return of traditional essay writing, Zhang Qinghua says.

By observing the world from the perspective of a novelist, capturing ugly things in our daily lives and representing them in his writing, Jia has not only been inspired by traditional essays but also has formed his own style that adds new aesthetics, says Sun Yu, another professor of Beijing Normal University.

Sun's colleague, Chen Guangwei, says Jia draws inspiration from calligraphy and Chinese painting, including rhythm and techniques like leaving white spaces.

Chen Xiaoming, director of the department of Chinese language and literature at Peking University, gives four reasons for the popularity of Jia's essays.

His essays describe in simple and honest language the relationships between parents and their children, and among other family members, which touches common readers, Chen Xiaoming says.

"Jia expresses his understanding of nature by treating things as equal to humans, without imposing human will on nature," he adds.

"Another reason is his presentation of human nature as nonjudgmental. And he always injects his understanding of destiny in his works-that is, life is full of contingencies."

Literary critic He Shaojun says what touches him the most in Jia's essays is the author's free mind, without which "one can't really get into the essence of literature".


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