When Chinese author Yu Hua was seven, his classmate’s father committed suicide by jumping into a well.
Now 45, the Hangzhou-born writer recalls: “On the day before, I had seen him holding his son’s hand in the streets, laughing and joking. The next day, he was dead.”
It was the Cultural Revolution, and the scene stuck with Yu for the rest of his life.
The revolution (1966-76) was a political campaign by then leader Mao Zedong to “purify the party”.
Ideological cleansing began with attacks by young Red Guards on so-called “intellectuals”. Millions were forced into manual labour, and tens of thousands were executed.
“It struck me deeply how a lot of Chinese people repressed their feelings then. They had to deal with many problems and horrors and yet they always put on a happy face in public,” says the author, who attended the Singapore Writers Festival recently.
Indeed, this resilient, yet, paradoxically self-denial quality of the Chinese is something that crops up in Yu’s 13 novels, spanning a writing career of 22 years.
“There is always death in my books. But, of course, there is always birth,” he adds.
It is this ability to find the silver lining that has perhaps made him one of the most popular writers and leading literary lights in China.
Now based in Beijing, he is best known for To Live , his 1992 novel which traces the life of a man from the 1940s to 1980s.
The protagonist Xu Fugui survives war, famine and the Cultural Revolution, while never losing his positive outlook.
The book has sold more than 500,000 copies in China, and was awarded the Grinzane Cavour Award in Italy in 1998.
In 1994, acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou adapted it into a film of the same title, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Ge You, who played the lead role, won the Best Actor award. The film also starred Gong Li.
Yu says Zhang told him that he had read To Live in one night, sleeping only two hours as a result.
Years later, Yu “realised it was nothing to be happy about – Zhang is famous for sleeping only two hours a night”.
Born to parents who were doctors, Yu grew up in a house opposite a small hospital, where he saw injury and death every day. This, he has admitted, is probably why many of his novels contain gore and violence.
But it was another doctor who influenced him as a writer. To be precise, Czech author Franz Kafka’s book, Memories of a Village Doctor. Yu says: “When I read it in my 20s, I was filled with excitement. It freed my writing style.”
He quit dentistry after five years to become a writer because he was bored with looking into people’s mouths.
He asked the government for a job at the Haiyan County Cultural Centre where he worked until 1989.
In 1991, he met his wife, poet Chen Hong, at the Lu Xun Literary Academy, where they were studying for Master’s degrees in literature. The couple, married for 13 years, have a 12-year-old son.
Next up, his 1995 novel Chronicles of a Blood Merchant is being made into a movie by Korean director Lee Je Yong, who also made Untold Scandal. Filming starts next year and Korean heartthrob Lee Byung Hun is tipped for the male lead.
There is also Yu’s most recent novel, titled Brothers, an epic about two men’s lives during the Cultural Revolution, and in present-day China. So huge is this magnum opus that it has to be published in two parts, with the first published earlier this month.
While Yu has a 47-year-old brother, he says the book has nothing to do with their relationship.
Instead, one gets the feeling that both characters are Yu himself.
After all, he remarks more than once how amazing it is that a man can be alive in two glaringly different eras – 1960s China and its present-day incarnation.
Later, he tells an audience of about 100 at the film screening of To Live in Singapore that the way China has opened up to the world has exceeded his expectations.
“When I started giving interviews in China, I felt very safe because I could talk nonsense and they would censor everything I said,” he jokes.
“In the 1980s, they started to print the rubbish I said, and I got into trouble with the authorities and organisations.”
With a glimmer of mischief in his eyes, he adds: “Now, even if I didn’t say anything controversial, they’d make it up. That shows how far the country has progressed.” – The Singapore Straits Times / Asia News Network