By Jane Mee Wong
Northwest Asian Weekly
In Oysterville, squirrels sing like birds and raccoons roam like bears, according to renowned mainland Chinese writers Qingbang Liu and Yinong Xiao.
This is not merely an artist’s imagination, as the two writers’ descriptions were a product of a three-week immersion into the tranquil town. Located in southern Washington, Oysterville is a town that boasts a population of 30.
The two authors’ stay during March was hosted by the Espy Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to furthering the growth and exchange of literature. Their arrival was part of an exchange trip that first began with U.S. writers visiting China in 2007.
“I had a very productive three weeks. I wrote three short stories and an essay reflecting my time here,” said 58-year-old Liu. “I liked waking up to see the ocean right before my eyes.”
For Liu, the calm ocean water is not his normal work environment. Born in 1951, in Henan Province, Liu became a coal miner during the Cultural Revolution. He then became a journalist for a mining newspaper when his writing talents were discovered. It was only until 1978, after the Cultural Revolution, that Liu attended a formal university.
By then, he already had a wealth of life and writing experience under his belt. Liu is the author of “Shen Mu” (Sacred Wood), a novel that was adapted into the film “Mang Jing” (Blind Shaft), directed by Li Yang. The story follows the actions of two coal miners in China who try to turn the tables on their exploitative bosses, even at the risk of losing their own humanity.
The piece is not completely fictional, said Liu. “It draws from what I have seen in my experiences in the coal mine industry as a worker and a journalist. Mine workers have to go through a lot of hardships. They are the reality for many peasants in China. Mine workers are the link between China’s peasantry and city dwellers. They are very important to understand.”
While Liu’s book has been published and made into a film, Blind Shaft had been censored in China.
“Many people like to focus on why the film was censored. But we should be asking instead, ‘Why is it that the literature is allowed to be written today?’ This was not possible 20 years ago. Being a writer then was much more difficult than it is now. We have to recognize the steps that China has made,” said Xiao.
Similar to Liu, Xiao has lived through many changes in China. A native of Hebei Province, Xiao was sent to Inner Mongolia as a youth. It was part of a state-led move to send youth from the city to work with the peasantry. Only 15 years old at the time, Xiao worked closely with ethnic Mongolians who lived off the grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
“I realized that reality was very different from what I had been taught,” said Xiao of his experiences in Inner Mongolia.
“The Mongolian herders who owned their animals were far from the image of landlords that we had been exposed to during the revolution. Their lives were very difficult and they worked hard. They did not fit the image of the evil and rich landlord. Our government policies toward Inner Mongolia then needed more clarity,” said Xiao.
The environmental damage that resulted from the destruction of Inner Mongolian grasslands to create more agricultural farmland exemplifies the error of Chinese governmental policies toward the region. Xiao, who is of Han ethnicity, reflects these insights into his current works. Dubbed the “Son of the Yellow River” in the literary scene, his works show the relationship people have with the Yellow River, their main source of sustenance. He also writes about the relationships between people of Han and Mongolian ethnicity, and the circumstances that brought the latter to Inner Mongolia in larger numbers.
The two writers see their art as a way to engage with something beyond the immediate.
“We have to recognize the kindness and goodness of people; it is an important part of maintaining our traditions and a sense of who we are,” said Xiao.
“Art is a way for people to express some of their ideals and to seek out their conscience,” said Liu. “I want to give people some hope in my work, that not all is a dog-eat-dog world.” ♦
Jane Mee can be reached at email@example.com.