For years novelist Wang Meng has declined to write about his life, believing that it is not the author but the work that is important. And while he still subscribes to that belief, he has obliged his more-ardent readers with a book that underscores his humanist philosophy, writes Zhao Feifei.
It is not unusual for first-time novelists to write confessional books. In fact, that's how some young writers find their way into print as their more cautious peers, while allowing that the fictional characters they create may be semi-autobiographical, wallow in obscurity for years.
In the case of writer Wang Meng's newly published My Philosophy in Life (in Chinese, People's Literature Publishing House, 18 yuan), the title alone makes clear that this is not a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, but a forthright confession -- one that Wang's readers have been yearning for years.
"I don't know if it was prudent to write about my life," says Wang, an august figure in Chinese literary circles and one of the nation's most esteemed authors. "As the writer Qian Zhongshu said, 'if you like the eggs, why bother learning more about the hen that laid them.' "
While Wang subscribes to Qian's analogy, and has used it on more than one occasion to assuage readers' adamant requests for an autobiography, he finally relented.
In a manner of speaking.
"Readers are so intent on getting to know the hen -- even to the extent of having it killed to see its insides -- that I decided to expose myself of my own volition, and on my own terms," says the 68-year-old novelist with a youthful grin.
Known for quick wit and maverick style, Wang's contribution to contemporary Chinese literature has been considerable. He was, for example, the first Chinese mainland writer to employ a stream-of-consciousness style. His first novel, Long Live the Youth, which he wrote at the age of 19 and remains his most famous book, was a groundbreaking work of fiction that came to define the generation that founded modern China.
The life that followed the publication of Long Live the Youth is what has made Wang such a compelling figure and prompted the calls -- at times deafening -- for an autobiographical work.
Having served as Minister of Culture from 1986 to 1989, Wang's fame as a writer has led him down many different paths. Driven by what he describes as a "constant search for beauty and identity in the world," Wang's life has been tumultuous -- so much so that at times his life has overshadowed his work.
He has survived personal insult and political mayhem, labeled a "rightist" at one point, yet securing the patronage and protection of Chairman Mao Zedong at that time. During fractious episodes in China's contemporary history, Wang's public profile has put him at odds with the powers that be, but even his detractors concede that he's "damned smart."
This courageous literary life lived in the public eye is what prompted his publisher -- the People's Literature Publishing House -- to run an initial printing of 100,000 copies of My Philosophy in Life.
Liu Yushan, president of the publishing house, says confidently that the book is a "sure-fire hit."
Despite its title, My Philosophy is neither a memoir nor an autobiography. Rather, its author says he set out to write a book that would be entertaining, enlightening and educational. Books, says Wang, "are how we learn about life and how to make life better and easier for ourselves."
Nevertheless, snippets of Wang's colorful life can be found scattered among the witticisms and wisdom in the book. He writes on a broad range of human issues, including suicide, despair, and injustice.
While the storms that rocked his life are public knowledge, never before has the author addressed them so publicly. Instead of merely recounting the events of his life in chronological order, Wang is imparting the lessons of a survivor -- the resilience required to endured ordeals without succumbing to them.
Nurtured by his father, a philosophy professor, Wang had a voracious appetite for literature even as a child. As a high school student, the blossoming intellectual took part in the revolutionary movement, assuming an active role in the Communist Party, which he joined at the age of 14. Later in 1949, he was assigned to work at the headquarters of the Communist Youth League.
Two years after the publication of Long Live the Youth, he wrote a controversial novel The Young Newcomer in the Organization Department, a realistic portrayal of the clash between idealistic young revolutionaries and entrenched senior party bureaucrats.
Because they trade in ideas, authors, if they're any good, are bound to give offense, and The Young Newcomer did just that. Wang was censured, and prohibited from writing for two decades. In 1957 he was labeled "rightist" and sent to perform farm labor in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region for 16 years.
"Most people think the prime of my life was wasted during those 16 years," says Wang. "In truth, I learned a lot during that period. I learned to speak, read and write in Xinjiang. I never stopped learning." "Men are anxious to improve their circumstances, but are unwilling to improve themselves; they therefore remain bound," notes the writer, adding that "the mind is the master-weaver, both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance."
He adapts his mind to that regulating factor, as he ceases to accuse others as the cause of his condition, but builds himself up in strong and noble thoughts; ceases to kick against circumstances, but begins to use them as aids to his more rapid progress, and as a means of discovering the hidden powers and possibilities within himself.
While some critics have panned the new book, intimating that Wang is over the hill and "has nothing left to sell but himself," the author is more forgiving. Laughing graciously when told of the criticism, Wang says: "I'll continue to sell myself. This book is just about my general view of life. I'm going to write my political view, cultural view and many other views."
Today, most writers begin their careers by writing confessional novels. Perhaps, as readers, we're lucky that Wang has waited so long (and lived a life so full) before committing it to paper.
(Eastday.com February 27, 2003)