Born in 1954, Wang Anyi is one of contemporary China's most influential and innovative writers. Wang is currently the chairperson of the Shanghai Writers' Association. She has written more than five million Chinese characters, winning important awards from both home and abroad dozens of times.
Wang is the coauthor of the screenplay of Chen Kaige's film Temptress Moon, and has also had numerous books translated into English, including Baotown (1985), Lapse of Time (1988), Love in a Small Town (1988), Love on a Barren Mountain (1991), and Brocade Valley (1992). Her most challenging novel, Changhen Ge (Song of Everlasting Sorrow, 1996), is a beautifully written epic tracing the trials and tribulations of a former Shanghai beauty pageant winner from the 1940s to the present.
Wang's work is particularly interesting from a feminist perspective. For instance, some of her later works, particular her trilogy of love novels from the late 1980s (Love in a Small Town, Love on a Barren Mountain, and [Love in a] Brocade Valley), have been striking and controversial in imaginatively exploring feminine subjectivity and sexuality.
Chairperson of the Writers' Association
Wang was elected as the seventh chairperson of the Shanghai Writers' Association on December 6, 2001.
"I am fearful and even in trepidation over this appointment. Shanghai is a city that boasted Lu Xun and Ba Jin (two famous Chinese writers). I am not even a pupil of these masters. I don't even know how to face this new post. I was used to the relatively solitude world where I wrote, but now I have been pushed back to reality," she said, adding, "Writing is a job I am good at. Without writing, I guess I am a person who does not deserve much attention." This is typical Wang-style monologue, low-keyed, poetic, and sober.
However, Wang is not a writer leading a secluded life; she also likes to spend her spare time with others. "Writing is a lonely business. Especially today, when the market is gradually turning literature into product, the more a writer maintains a serious attitude in writing, reading, and meditating, the lonelier he or she become. So let's unite together, hand in hand, to get through this transition period."
In the market-oriented society, literature is dividing into different branches. "The popular literature is well on its way in the market process, while the 'less-accepted' serious literature has been pushed aside," Wang said
"It is very normal that serious literature is a bit lonely, but what worries me is the marketable and fashionable mass literature, which has influenced the young people's attitude towards literature. They don't really see the delight, attitude, and aesthetic pursuit of real literature," Wang noted, warning, "The criteria of a good work is gradually being lost."
"At this moment, the literature spirit is critical. A city with or without literature could be dramatically different. Literature could improve the artistic style of a city," stressed Wang, adding, "Real serious writers should have their own higher standards beyond the market's requirements. One of the most important tasks of the Writers' Association is to provide a better environment for writing, in which the writers do not have to rush to the market."
Clear-headed, reasonable, and independent, Wang is brimming with popular confidence.
"She is different. She does not pursue the literature posh. She does not drift with the tide. She is one of the best writers in Shanghai, or even in China," said a member of the Shanghai Writers' Association.
Novelist Wang Anyi
According to her character, Wang likes to hide behind her works and keep a distance from the hustle and bustle; even after being elected as chairperson of the Writers' Association, she has still managed to keep that poise and composure inside.
"I consider literature as sacred. With this attitude, all the other problems can be solved. Meanwhile, I don't require much in the way of the writing environment - as long as there is a place where I can write."
Wang usually writes in a small notebook. "I prefer writing by hand rather than by computer. All the words I use are understandable for anyone with at least a junior school education. I usually write in the morning at home, and read in the afternoon. But if there is some noise, like some neighbors decorating their houses, I often go to a coffee bar nearby."
In the past 20 years, Wang's works have experienced a lot of substantial changes in style. Even the most acumen critics can hardly categorize her into a certain group or genre.
Fang Fang, a renowned female writer, noted, "The large number of diverse works by Wang are well above the other female writers' works."
However, this has caused a small "headache" for the critics. "In the sense of literature criticism, Wang Anyi is the kind of writer who is hard to track. Her novels cover a wide range of subjects. You can never predict what her next subject will be," said famous critic Liang Yong'an.
Wang Jiren, another renowned critic, concurred, saying, "Just as you are ready to summarize her new work with a theoretic term, and are confident that you have grasped her main style, her next work turns out to be totally different. She is like naughty child who is playing a hide-and-seek game with you."
Wang herself is at ease with her changing styles. "Previously, some critics did not grasp my style correctly. When I first began to write, I was considered a "children's literature writer," while in fact I have only written a few stories about children. Then later, I was deemed as an "educated youth writer," but I seldom touched on the subject. I think my works gradually matured with my own growth. If there are changes, then they are my maturity and growth. I don't have dramatic changes like the critics say."
It is fair to say that Wang's works have become more unique and mature everyday in the past 20 years. Since the 1990s, Wang's works have also been more spiritual. Though most of the figures under Wang's pen are common people, Wang can still find "heroic features" in these people.
Changhen Ge (Song of Everlasting Sorrow), a winner of the Fifth Mao Dun Literature Award, ranks the most important ofs all of Chang's works.
"Changhen Ge does not only depict a city, but rather demonstrate a whole new view of a city that could hardly be achieved in the sense of historical research or personal experience. The epic-like approach is rare in the novel circles all over the world," noted the Sin Chew Daily newspaper.
Despite the disjointed, abundant, and complex details in the novel, the book Changhen Ge is never boring, thanks to Wang's extraordinary storytelling ability.
When not writing, Wang spends most of her time on reading and contemplating. She reads almost every book she could possibly find, writing down notes and pondering in the process.
"While we stick to our own experience and conclusion, we should understand sincerely and observe other people's views on life, and enjoy the infinite spiritual landscape in people. When we read books with the trust we have in ourselves, the books will integrate with us, meaning we will in fact reading about ourselves as well," noted Wang.
(chinaculture.org September 19, 2005)