Writing Driven by Life: Sing Chu Literature Lectures, Chapter Five
By Pang Kah Hock
Drawing from his life experience, Chinese writer Jin Yucheng charmed Singapore’s literature fans as he spoke about the power of the literary narrative.
The year 2019 holds especial significance as it marks both POPULAR’s 95th anniversary and the 15th anniversary of Chou Sing Chu Foundation (CSCF). Established in 2004 by Popular Holdings Limited’s Group CEO Mr Chou Cheng Ngok, CSCF aims to continue Mr Chou Sing Chu’s lifelong dedication to promoting Chinese culture, education and language. It is for this reason that CSCF launched the Sing Chu Literature Lecture series in 2014.
Boasting literary luminaries in past lectures such as Dung Kai-cheung, Tung Chiao, Chang Show-foong, and Xiang Yang, the fifth Sing Chu Literature Lecture featured renowned Chinese writer Jin Yucheng. Held on 30 March 2019, over 400 literature fans packed the NTUC Centre’s Stephen Riady Auditorium for Jin’s lecture, “The Enchantment of Narrative”. In her opening remarks, CSCF’s Executive Director Ruth Cao said that the Foundation has always striven to create a blooming cultural landscape in Singapore.
A Narrative Focus on the Details
Born in 1952, Jin Yucheng began writing at the age of 33. In 2012, his novel Blossoms was published in Harvest magazine to rave reviews, winning multiple awards. As the editor-in-chief of Shanghai Literature, Jin sees himself as both a writer and a reader. To him, recalling a detail in the vast ocean of literary classics attests to the success of that work. Jin used The Diary of Liu Zhaoxun as an example of how a truthfully written non-fiction can subvert the established notions of rural life in China in the past. This diary records the daily life of a landlord in Wujiang during the late Qing Dynasty, who loved to copy poetry on paper. He would periodically hand them to the monks of Mount Putuo to incinerate them as an offering. Such details thus reveal littleknown aspects of history. As a fiction writer, Jin is a master storyteller. He shared numerous intriguing stories from his past reading and his life experience. Notes from the Southern Pavilion by Li Boyuan (Li Baojia) mentions an incredible tale in which the wealthy Guo Songlin dresses up as a beggar; Chen Dingshan’s memoir Old Stories of Chunshen includes an anecdote about Ye Zhongfang, grandson of hardware industry pioneer Ye Chengzhong; and Chen Julai’s Recollections of Anchi offers an account of the Cultural Revolution, and contains anecdotes of people in the art world. Such details serve to satisfy the reader’s voyeuristic psychology in revealing the complexity of human nature and the richness of life.
The Ambiguous Character of the City
Though the rural is traditionally believed to be the foundation of Chinese literature, Jin has a special affection for the city, especially Shanghai, as its rapidly changing cultural landscape has become the main subject of his writing. Borrowing the words of Eileen Chang, he explained that the city is characterised by a profound anonymity, highlighting its unfathomable and ambiguous character. Especially in abounding and complicated Shanghai, its unique cultural landscape accommodates all types of foreign elements. After the Taiping Rebellion, the flow of literati into the Shanghai French Concession created a unique everyday culture, such as the shikumen architectural style. A marriage of Chinese and Western sensibilities bearing the collective memory of generations of people, the architecture reflects the everyday details of old Shanghai.
Jin cited the example of Zhang Weiqun, a retiree who tried to recreate what life was like in Yuyuan Road’s longtang through a meticulous collection of information about Siming Villa. Zhang interviewed every household, consulted files and records from the 1950s archived at a police station, to compile his work into the book Siming Villa, Then and Now. This type of non-fiction work reveals the particularities of a city during a specific era, giving readers a taste of what it would have been like to be there, much like Jin’s drawings for Blossoms, which utilise lines on a flat surface to recreate three-dimensional scenes of Shanghai.
Jin repeatedly emphasised that readers are smarter than writers. Western fiction uses psychological descriptions and omniscient narration, but is unable to satisfy readers’ needs. Instead, Jin turns to the traditional Chinese biji (literally “notebook”) genre of literature to nourish his work. One example is Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, where the profound details in the simple and clear narrative leaves gaps of emotions to be filled by the reader, thus creating infinite possibilities. Hence, Blossoms has an uncommon approach to narrative, focusing on simple keywords and sketching a realistic impression of Shanghai using plain language. The characters exemplify Jin’s oft-used term of “buxiang” (Shanghainese catchphrase meaning “without sound” or “does not reply”). Yet, through this perceived silence, an image emerges.
To illustrate the characteristics of narrative in Chinese literature, Jin cited a part of Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions. After spending an entire day together, Hu Lancheng wanted to know if Chang felt any affection for him. She simply opened an envelope to reveal all the cigarette butts he had left behind the day before, thus silently speaking of a deep love.
The Re-presentation of Life
Sharing the meanings in some of his drawings in the dialogue segment, Jin revealed that he draws because of his aptitude for it, and also because he wanted to use illustrations to enhance textual expression. For instance, in Blossoms, an illustration of a three-storeyed building presents the space in which characters of the novel live, without pleonasms. With all the internal details of the building visible, the drawing overcomes the limitation of words. The surreal elements of his drawings also inspire readers to make associations. For instance, in Julu Road, Chinese parasol trees along the road penetrate through the buildings to emerge like antlers – truly an image that fascinates.
Turning to language, Jin believes that elements of older literature, such as the writing of the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies school of Chinese fiction, are still of great value as they possess lasting appeal. Another feature of the language in Blossoms is the heavy use of the Shanghainese dialect, with over a thousand occurrences of the term “buxiang”, highlighting the character of the Shanghainese people.
Jin was full of emotion when he spoke about his first non-fiction work, Looking Back. Telling the story of his parents’ generation using the form of a memoir, Looking Back made him realise that the paths in life are often narrow, and a hastily made decision can have an influence on an entire life.
When asked by an audience member how he defines his ideal literature, Jin wittily compared a good literary work to a supermarket that contains just about everything, where readers can find what they need without the need for a shopping guide. Jin raised the example of the literary classic Dream of the Red Chamber, where readers have always found new meanings in repeated readings. He further suggested that writers try non-fiction approaches, using descriptions of life’s rich details and other materials to create even more moving literary works.
In his conclusion, Jin said that he was motivated to write Blossoms after a chance encounter with a beautiful woman whom he had first seen in his youth. Discovering that time had left its mark on her, Jin lamented the cruelty of time and took to writing to leave a record. He encouraged readers who love writing to start using their own experiences and stories from their lives as material to authentically re-present life. After all, literature is about human relationships, migration, change, and separation.
(Translated by Daryl Li)
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