Returning to Nanyang: Interview with Lee Yung-ping (Part 2)
By Kiew Li Lian
Continued from Returning to Nanyang: Interview with Lee Yung-ping (Part 1)
In Search of the Next Literary Journey
As a novelist, Lee has spent his life in a quest of language. The Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia is often mixed with different languages, much like the Chinese of Lee’s youth in Sarawak. By constantly adjusting the language of his writing, Lee seeks the affirmation of a greater group of readers.
However, this journey in search of words has been rocky. Lee’s demanding approach towards literature has caused his works to be regarded as being difficult to understand. They are said to cause readers to sigh and publishers in Mainland China to approach with caution. Hence, even though his 1999 book The Jiling Chronicles was selected as one of Asia Weekly’s “100 Greatest Novels of 20th Century Chinese Literature”, it was only with 2012’s The End of the River that Lee entered the Mainland Chinese literary scene. The Jiling Chronicles subsequently became the last of the books from Asia Weekly’s list to come to the attention of Mainland Chinese readers. In response to this, Lee commented: “I feel honoured that I’ve set another record.” Published one after the other, works such as The End of the River, The Jiling Chronicles and The Snow Falls in Clouds: Recollections of A Borneo Childhood were well-received by readers and critics in Mainland China.
In fact, this misunderstanding arose from The Eagle Haidong Qing. The prose in this Taipei fable has been described as poetic, which Lee intuitively used to create a massive textual maze. However, as the saying goes, Heaven helps those who help themselves. With The Book of Zhu Ling, Lee managed a major achievement, writing in a style unique to himself, differing from the prose of Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese, and even Singaporean and Malaysian writers. Nevertheless, with a good command of Chinese, The Book of Zhu Ling remains accessible to readers, including those in Singapore and Malaysia.
From Son of Borneo to The Book of Zhu Ling, Lee Yung-ping set sail from Sarawak, writing about Mainland China and Taiwan, finally returning to Sarawak after a period of 50 years. From the times when he was regarded as obscure and difficult-to-understand, to today, where he has developed such a distinctive style, readers have remained steadfast in their love of Lee’s books. In fact, his new work, The Book of Zhu Ling, was at one point sold out during the Singapore Writers Festival. As Pai Hsien-yung notes, there will always be people who are able to understand. One finds answers in the fullness of time.
*We would like to thank the Division of Chinese at Nanyang Technological University for arranging this interview.
About Lee Yung-ping
Lee Yung-ping was born in Sarawak in 1947. A well-known Taiwanese author and translator, his books include Son of Borneo, The Jiling Chronicles, The Eagle Hai Dongqing, The Snow Falls in Clouds, The End of the River and The Book of Zhu Ling. He has received several awards, including Taiwan’s National Award of Art, the Hsing Yun Global Chinese Literature Award, and the National Taiwan University Distinguished Alumni Award.