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Like Father Like Daughter
Wan Fang could be called an overnight success - but one built over several nights would be a better description.

The popularity of the 20-part TV serial "Kong Jingzi (Nothing in the Mirror)," based on a novel of the same title by Wan that was published last September, has thrust the woman writer firmly into the limelight.

The public and media are eager to know what 50-year-old Wan had been doing in past decades before she made her name last year.

What has stirred people's interest is also the fact that Wan is the daughter of Cao Yu (1910-96).

Dubbed the "Shakespeare of China," Cao Yu, whose real name was Wan Jiabao, is one of the most renowned Chinese dramatists in modern history.

Cao's works, such as "Richu (Sunrise)," "Leiyu (Thunderstorm)" and "Yuanye (Wilderness)," are classics of Chinese literature.

"Every time people talked with me, they would talk about my father," said Wan.

A tortuous way to fame

Having finished her housework, Wan sat down on a cozy sofa to talk over a cup of green tea at her home in northern part Beijing.

She said she is used to being asked about her father but admitted that this left her uneasy on occasions.

There was one day in the early 1990s when Wan and her father attended a meeting. Wan was supposed to support her father while he was walking, because Cao, already in his 80s, had problems with his legs.

But feeling an impulse to keep her distance from him, she turned a blind eye as her father walked on to the stage to make a speech.

Despite these moments, Wan said the relationship between her and her father was very close and intimate.

"Sometimes I asked myself: What does it mean to me to have such a father?" Wan said. "Now I've realized that it means I am lucky. If it wasn't for my father, maybe I would not have become a writer."

Like most people of her generation, Wan quit school at the age of 13 in 1966, when the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) began to sweep across China.

At 16, she joined other young people in the country to work in the fields in a village in Northeast China's Jilin Province.

She began to write four years later when she was recruited by a troupe of the People's Liberation Army.

The head of the troupe was a loyal follower of Cao Yu. He hoped Wan would be good at writing, ignoring the fact that she had only spent seven years at school.

Wan's job was to write plays for the troupe.

Initially she had no idea of what to write or how to write, but gradually she developed a unique style.

Eight years later she retired from the army, and began writing plays at the National Opera and Ballet of China.

She began to write novels, which Wan attributed to "a subtle influence" her father had exerted on her.

The two years she spent in Jilin also remained a great source of inspiration.

But she continued to struggle when writing novels, she said.

She never discussed what she was writing with her father. But he was always the first reader of her work.

Cao would mostly use words such as "good" and "not bad."

The words were encouraging, but Wan knew her father was not satisfied, and her works were far from good enough.

For many years Wan just kept on writing blindly. She said that all the novels she wrote at that time were somewhat ego-centred and written from her personal perspective.

She said she "didn't straighten out" her ideas until a decade ago.

In 1991, her diligence began to bear fruit.

That year she wrote a novel, "Sharen (Murder)." Based on her own personal experience in Northeast China, she told the story of a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

Cao Yu, who was then in hospital, read it and this time he became quite excited.

"You are really good at writing novels now," Cao said.

Wan recalled: "I could judge from his expression that it was a really good story."

"Murder" was later published in Shanghai-based Shouhuo (Harvest), one of the country's major literary periodicals.

Her life as a writer then became smoother.

Theme of ordinary life

Unlike many writers who tend to write on "big" themes, Wan has been focusing her novels on a mundane urban life.

She has told stories that reflect the everyday lives of ordinary urban people everywhere.

That was the reason why her novel "Empty Mirror" and the TV drama that was based on it proved to be such great hits last year, especially in North China.

The novel centres on the love stories between one young woman, Sun Yan, and three men in her life.

The TV serial "Empty Mirror" appeared somewhat unattractive at first.

It was a low-budget production and there was no advertising at all before it premiered on China Central Television (CCTV), the national television station in China.

But it soon became a hit among ordinary viewers - to the surprise of CCTV, the production company and Wan herself as scriptwriter.

"Empty Mirror" even became the talk of the town in Beijing, as viewers saw their own life experiences in Sun Yan's and the other protagonists' lives.

Many people, after watching the TV serial, bought the novel to read.

Since then, Wan has become known to millions of Chinese.

Wan said the inspiration of "Empty Mirror" came from real life. It was based on a similar, but much simpler story of one of her friends, a man who married twice but suffered the pain of the deaths of both his wives.

"After learning his story, I was motivated by a complicated feeling. I suddenly felt that there must be an undercurrent under the surface of life. And life itself is fuzzy and chaotic," said Wan.

The title, "Empty Mirror" conveys such a feeling.

"It is like looking into a mirror and seeing nothing. There is nothing in the mirror. The mirror is empty," said Wan.

The feeling existed for more than one year and became ever stronger, evolving into an urgent need to write it out.

Modest and unassuming, the bubbly writer looks like any ordinary housewife, especially when she talks about her family and how she does household chores.

She talks about her quarrels with her husband, a playwright - but with understanding - and about her relationship with her son who graduated from Beijing Film Academy last year.

She admitted she cannot resist the seduction of money. She spent half of her time writing plays for TV dramas, because she makes more money that way, and more quickly.

But she will not stop writing novels, of course.

She has just finished a novella, and her latest long novel after "Empty Mirror" is "Xiangqi Miren (Fragrance)," which was published by Huayi Publishing House in August. Wan is rewriting it for a TV serial.

According to the writer, "Fragrance" is also a story about "ordinary people."

"All my writing is based on real life," she said.

(China Daily November 25, 2002)

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