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Literature is not dead:a conversation with Wang Dingjun

By Zhang Guanzi | 2013-08-29 | Hits:
Chinese Social Scineces Today
Wang Dingjun, a native of Lanling, Cangshan County of Shandong Province, was born in April, 1925. Writing under the penname Fang Yizhi, Wang is a famous contemporary Chinese essayist. Believed to be the most successful of the ten greatest essayists of Taiwan, Wang is known as “the eyes of a generation in China” and “the rising backbone”.
Dr.Zhang Guanzi from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences had a conversion with Wang Dingjun on literature and his career.
Zhang GuanziWhat is the motivation of your commitment to literary creation?
Wang Dingjun: I have deeply felt compulsion to make myself heard, perhaps something that became ingrained listening to the preaching at church ever since I was a little kid. Access to an audience, however—the right to stand in the pulpit, so to speak—is related to the social status, so what was I to do? Fortunately, literature has redeemed me; it has saved me from perishing. I am also lucky to have moved beyond the limits of the essay later in life, and caught a glimpse of the palace of art.
Zhang Guanzi: In your memoir My Literary Career, you tell the story of how you started writing in Taipei, where you had fled after junior high school. Settling in Taiwan, you became a producer at a broadcast corporation, then an editor at private newspapers, and later a part-time instructor at four different colleges. You served on three separate review panels for artistic awards. Looking back on the long journey, what would you say the key to success was?
Wang Dingjun:To make it short, I have been lucky enough to have met nice people along the way. As I am fond of saying, every hell has an angel; the problem is simply finding him or her. When I left Shanghai for Keelung, for instance, I was penniless. I asked around for some paper to write on, thinking only about how to get a paycheck. But after I finished my article, I had no idea where I might submit it. Then it occurred to me that Taipei must have a Central Daily News, and Taipei’s Central Daily News must have a supplement. I posted my article and sent it through the mail. Several days later I heard back and learned that my article would be published. The first article of my fourth memoir was originally named “Hooray at the Keelung Port”, in commemoration of my gratitude to the Central Daily News editor who accepted my article.
Zhang GuanziYour memoirs—four in total—are quite influential. What goes into writing a memoir, other than autobiography?
Wang Dingjun: I have been writing memoirs for 17 years. My first, Yesterday's Clouds, narrated my childhood in Shandong. I followed that with The Angry Youth, which told the story of exiled Chinese students during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The third was about my experience during the Chinese civil war. My fourth memoir, My Literary Career, chronicles the three decades of my life in Taiwan.
I’ve turned to writing memoirs later in life than my peers, but my memoirs have their own features. Writing a memoir isn’t just about writing about ourselves. When we write a memoir, we should also write about others, and we should write about the hidden laws of life. This way, readers take away more, grasping something deeper and more profound than the text they have read prima facie.
Zhang Guanzi: Since you began writing in 1949, you have tried commentary, drama, fiction, poetry and essays. Why did you finally decide to concentrate on essays?
Wang Dingjun: I am, and have been much influenced by William Somerset Maugham, who once said he was a “story-teller”. As far as I know, a story is one step lower than fiction, so I appreciate Maugham’s modesty. When I was studying in Taipei, essays were despised by the literati, discarded as unfinished fiction and unsuccessful poetry. Since I had no success with fiction though, I became fully devoted to essays. Among all the literary genres, essays are most unbridled. They are suitable for those with a more introverted disposition and given to contemplation, and I am exactly that kind of person.
Zhang Guanzi: Among the 42 books you’ve published so far, your memoirs have certainly drawn attention from readers in the Chinese mainland, but some are still unfamiliar to them. What else would you recommend?
Wang Dingjun:Critics have divided my books into three categories. One is the inspiring collections of essays “the three books about life”, which includes Open life, Touchstone of Life and We in the Contemporary World. The essays in these books seldom exceed more than a few hundred of words, and thus are quite handy. At the time they were written, the youth were not known for their patience, so short essays like these were popular. They were called “the construction material of life”. Today’s youth just need the bricks, tiles and wood with which to construct their own lives. Even if they are provided with instructional manuals complete with systematic theories, they will simply deconstruct them.
The second category of my books could provide writing guidance for the youth who love literature. These two categories have been popular in Taiwan for four decades, and I recommend them to young readers in the Chinese mainland.
Critics call the third category “lyrical prose” and I believe the works included therein, for example, A Lover's Eyes, The Broken Colored Glaze, Swirls in the Heart, and Catching Butterflies, to be my most important works. To me, these works are literature in its strictest sense, and pure essays. These are the works which have brought me fame and honor and I hope readers in the Chinese mainland like them.
Zhang Guanzi: Has your literary thought changed in your old age?
Wang Dingjun: I like literature in its narrow sense, which expresses thought and emotions through imagery. Rhetorical techniques, style and aesthetics, and symbolic meaning are the distinctive features of literature. In terms of expressing thought, literature cannot be as profound as philosophy. When it comes to recording facts, literature cannot do better than history. However, literature has its distinctive characteristics, which are beyond comparison and irreplaceable. My literary career has been smooth. In my old age, I have more life experience to draw upon and have become less devoted to maintaining social relations. Now I have ascended to a higher level in the world of literature, and can see more beauty in life. I have an even stronger desire to learn from others.
Zhang Guanzi: Some say literature is dead now, do you agree with this?
Wang Dingjun: At the present time, literary works do not sell well, casting a shadow over those who create them. Despite being in this dark place, literature will not die. Any form of art, once established, will never die. Did Fu of the Han Dynasty and poetry of the Tang Dynasty die? Although they were called “dead literature” in the Vernacular Movement in the early 20th century, this idea turned out to be merely propaganda. Literature never dies, what happens is that certain genres or styles are no longer in the mainstream. However, each genre or style may have its day. Literature existed even before writers came into being, and would still exist even if writers disappeared.
Zhang GuanziHow has your writing career been going recently?
Wang Dingjun:I am 88 now, but I am determined to continue my writing career—writing is the only way I can feel alive. Three years ago, I finished my last memoir. My latest collection of essays was recently published by Er-ya Press in Taiwan. Writing is like the ballistic trajectory, composed of an ascending trajectory and a descending trajectory, a point of maximum altitude and a touchdown. My four memoirs were the pinnacle of my writing career, and I probably could not do better in the future. However, I must keep making my works attractive, which is a huge challenge for senior writers like myself.
The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 432, Mar 27, 2013.
Chinese link:
Translated by Jiang Hong