Ah Cheng: I'm like a plucked chicken


Ah Cheng has followed an eclectic career path over the past few decades. He's best known for the fiction he wrote in the mid-1980s, as part of the "seeking roots" literary movement, particularly the novel King of Chess. In the 1990s, he turned toward the essay format and kept a regular column in the literary journal Harvest.

More recently, he has occupied himself with screenwriting, doing two films with director Tian Zhuangzhuang and working on the mainstream historical TV series The Zhengguan Reign.

In the meantime, he lived for a while in the United States, where he worked at a number of jobs unrelated to writing. In a delightfully wide-ranging interview with Oriental Outlook magazine (translated below), Ah Cheng discusses his financial situation and the difficulty that Chinese authors have in making a living purely from their writing.

His comments touch on contemporary Chinese literature and film (he gets in a few digs at Jia Zhangke in the process), and in a roundabout way, he addresses the position of responsibility that authors—"real" literary authors, at least—are still expected to occupy in Chinese society.

Ah Cheng: A Person with No Identity

Interview by He Yingyu / OO

"If you call me an author, you're calling me a beggar." At the Pousada de Mong-Há in Macau, Ah Cheng speaks in measured tones that do not quite mask his underlying resolve, as if he is intent on abandoning his identity as an author.

Today, Ah Cheng doesn't really have a "proper job." Several years ago he was still writing essays; more recently, the name "Ah Cheng" has been credited as screenwriter in movies and TV shows. But even as a screenwriter, he says, "Films belong to the director, not the writer," and "Directors have the power to completely gut your script."

Though they were both born in 1949, Ah Cheng looks much older than Bei Dao. Much of his hair, more closely-cropped than Chen Danqing's, is already white. In recent years, he's locked up his fiction in a drawer, and has paid the price: life has "become difficult." He's learned not to trust or cooperate, and he pays no attention to the vicissitudes of the world of contemporary Chinese literature. He drives a small car from place to place "taking on jobs."

The pay is far better than script-writing, he says mysteriously, but he refuses to disclose the nature of those "jobs."

Those who have met and talked to Ah Cheng come away with the same impression: he is a very obstinate person. It's said that of all Chinese authors, he is the best at go, but he insists that he knows nothing of the game. When this reporter said east, he would respond with west. During the course of the interview, Ah Cheng seemed to be intentionally sparring with the reporter, all the while smoking Da Qian Men brand cigarettes.

Oriental Outlook: You did the script for the movie The Go Master (吴清源, "Wu Qingyuan"). Do you like the game go?
Ah Cheng: Mr. Wu Qingyuan asked me to write the script, but I don't actually know how to play.

The Ah Cheng-scripted Go Master

Oriental Outlook: After the premiere, some people criticized Zhang Zhen (who played the role of Wu Qingyuan), saying that he was too "removed" from the game. What do you think?
Ah Cheng: I haven't seen the film. You don't seem to be familiar with cinema: a film belongs to the director, not the writer. You have no idea what the writer actually wrote. No director will film entirely according to the script—would he really just take orders from the writer?

Oriental Outlook: Would you complain if a director completely gutted your script?
Ah Cheng: Who says the film has to be shot according to the script? We all have to be responsible to the investors. The director has no responsibility to me.

Oriental Outlook: Lots of people can't stand screenwriting. How do you do it, with your personality?
Ah Cheng: I live a poor life. Tons of authors are writing scripts; they just don't use their real names. They're too fond of the plumage they've acquired. I don't have any plumage—I'm like a plucked chicken.

Oriental Outlook: But we haven't seen you write any commercial films.
Ah Cheng: The directors haven't asked me to. If they asked me, I'd do it. But would the movie sell? It's not something you can simply will to happen.

Commercial stuff is very hard to do. It's like a cow—everyone's seen one, so if you're even a little bit off, everyone can criticize you. Art is a ghost—since no one's seen one, how do you know what I'm really thinking? Ghosts are easy to paint. Cows are not.

Oriental Outlook: What's your opinion of "6th generation" directors?
Ah Cheng: It's really obvious that the three big film festivals have colluded with Chinese cinema. A movie on the level of [Jia Zhangke's] Still Life was able to win the Golden Lion at Venice. Western leftists have had an wretched influence on the west and on Chinese cinema.

What happened with Still Life? At first, an entrepreneur in Shanxi gave Liu Xiaodong some money to have him paint the Three Gorges, and to film a documentary that would record Liu Xiaodong painting the Three Gorges. Liu looked up Jia Zhangke; Jia went off and spent all the money on the feature film Still Life. Liu Xiaodong felt that wasn't really appropriate: the money was for you, Jia Zhangke, to film me painting, but you went and shot your own movie? So Jia Zhangke agreed to shoot another film, a documentary about Liu Xiaodong. But by that point, Liu had finished his paintings—how could they shoot a documentary? A documentary should be a true record, shot and then edited. This documentary ended up being staged, afterward.

And at the Venice Film Festival, Jia Zhangke extended his thanks to the panels of the three major film festivals. How is he connected to the Berlin Film Festival? Why didn't he thank his investor?

Oriental Outlook: Are you still writing fiction?
Ah Cheng: Yes, but I don't publish it. Writing and publishing are two separate things. There's no rule that you have to let someone see what you've written. I'm just writing to amuse myself. Whether I'll publish things later on, that'll depend on whether the system shows any improvement.

Oriental Outlook: Do you write essays?
Ah Cheng: Not really. It's already been ten years since my column in Harvest, and they deleted all of the sensitive parts. Commen Sense and General Knowledge (常识与通识) [a collection of those columns] was published by Writers Publishing House, and they cut out some parts that I felt were very important. Actually, it's not a problem if they want to make cuts, but they should at least insert blanks to indicate how many characters were deleted at each point, rather than implying that I had written it that way in the first place. Harvest, too: if they were responsible, they would have inserted blanks.

At this age, since I'm just looking for enjoyment, I'll simply not publish them. Why does Jia Pingwa get to use blanks, but I can't?

Oriental Outlook: So is most of your time spent on writing scripts now?
Ah Cheng: Writing scripts is just part of the work I do. I need to make a living—I can't be morally superior.

Oriental Outlook: You once said that authors were panhandlers. Why be so extreme?
Ah Cheng: I said that authors are beggars; I never said "panhandlers." Beggar (乞丐) is formal written language; it's different from "panhandler" (要饭的).

Oriental Outlook: Some authors, like Jia Pingwa, sell more than 100,000 copies. They can live off of that.
Ah Cheng: How much can you make off of 100,000 copies? Does that compare to what he makes off of selling calligraphy? If you're not a best-selling author, you're a beggar.

Oriental Outlook: Painting might bring in more money. Do you still paint?
Ah Cheng: No. You have to have space to paint; you can't just paint if you feel like it. Oil painters used to come from really rich families.

Oriental Outlook: Not long ago there was a Stars Group retrospective held at the Today Art Gallery. Did you attend?
Ah Cheng: No. That was just old stuff warmed over. I'd heard that people bought up paintings for a new exhibition. In the 1990s, the Stars Group held a 10-year retrospective exhibition in Hong Kong, where it solemnly declared that it was finished. It even burnt a few paintings. Aren't they breaking their word by holding another exhibition?

Someone outside of the Stars Group could hold a retrospective, but the members themselves shouldn't go.

Oriental Outlook: You could make a living within the system as a university instructor or a Writers Association member.
Ah Cheng: Those aren't solutions. Whenever I go back to Shanghai, Sun Ganlu always plays the host. Someone who only lives off of the Writers Association couldn't take me out to that kind of restaurant. [Sun Ganlu, author of avant-garde literature like Breathe, produces for film and television.]

Oriental Outlook: When you were in the US, did you have to work for a living?
Ah Cheng: Of course. Do you think I held up banks? I worked a lot of jobs in the US, but I mostly did house painting. Painting doesn't require any thinking. Who says I have to find a mentally-taxing job?

Oriental Outlook: What is your life like now in Beijing? Do you need that much money?
Ah Cheng: I need a car in Beijing, right? And even a low-end car needs to be taken care of. That's 100,000 a year. And there are all kinds of extra costs. Do the math yourself.

Oriental Outlook: If you're purely looking for money, then isn't running a restaurant the best solution?
Ah Cheng: I can't handle the underworld, but I can't handle legitimate business either. Don't just look at the outside of a restaurant; can't you see the effort that goes in behind the scenes?

Oriental Outlook: Are you interested in politics?
Ah Cheng: Of course I'm interested in politics. Politics is our life. Who is the front-page headline targeted at? Not the intellectuals. It's for the businessmen, because politics directly affects the economy. Do academics have money? It can't harm them at all.

Oriental Outlook: What books are you reading these days?
Ah Cheng: I'm most concerned with primary sources, primary materials from society. Literature is not produced out of literature. If that were the case, it would be idiotic. Inbreeding always produces idiots.

I read the local news in the newspapers. People's stories can help your thought process.

Oriental Outlook: What sort of help?
Ah Cheng: We normally live our lives within limits. Reading primary materials, you'll see a different side of life, one that you've never had a chance to see, and you'll discover lots of relationships that you never before imagined.

Oriental Outlook: So what is the appropriate designation for your current identity?
Ah Cheng: A person without an identity—you probably haven't interviewed one before. I'm just someone a little bit better-off than those disadvantaged groups.

Oriental Outlook: You just said that you like to read the local news section of the paper to look for original stories. Are you concerned for disadvantaged groups?
Ah Cheng: It is not I who should be concerned about disadvantaged groups—the government ought to be. I pay attention to their conditions. Why isn't there any literary journalism these days? Because the media has gotten strong: topics concerning disadvantaged groups can be covered in feature reports, so there is less and less of a need for literary journalism. You can't always expect authors to bear the responsibility for society. It's not necessary.

Oriental Outlook: There is some literature that you like, such as Mu Xin's works. But some people have criticized his mannered writing style.
Ah Cheng: Then just don't read them. His works aren't required reading. They're not like water or bread. Art is a luxury, and luxury goods demand a high price. That's the case with Mu Xin.

Mu Xin's and Chen Danqing's writing seems new because their knowledge structure is different from ours. The education we have received is identical—structured the same—so when you read the first sentence you know what's going to come after.

Oriental Outlook: Recently, a western Sinologist voiced a number of criticisms of Chinese authors. He said that contemporary Chinese authors have lost their creativity. Domestic academics and authors fiercely criticized him; what's your opinion?
Ah Cheng: How do a few words of criticism hinder you? Should he say nothing simply because it makes you uncomfortable? Why shouldn't he say something?

Oriental Outlook: If you suppose that there are certain problems with the voice and thinking of modern Chinese people, were those problems absent in the baihua of the May 4 Movement?
Ah Cheng: People today have a mentality that is a result of the will to power, while in the May 4 period it was a result of free choice—like Mu Xin's work, for example: whether you read it or not, neither choice is a problem. But the language of power can create problems in your life if you refuse to accept it.

Oriental Outlook: As an author and an intellectual, how do you perceive the invasion of high culture by commercial culture?
Ah Cheng: First, as I've said, don't call me an author. If you call me an author, you're calling me a beggar.

Commerce is the foundation of production and of life. Without commercial culture there'd be no high culture. We cannot escape it for even an instant; we would cease to exist if we were to do so. There is nothing blame-worthy about commerce itself; the measure is whether a commercial product is of high or low quality. Hollywood films are commercial products of the highest quality. Domestic commercial films, shit, with quality as poor as that, they aren't commercial films. They're like low-quality fakes—toothpaste that doesn't work when you brush your teeth. This is the crux of the problem.

We're only trying to eliminate low-quality fakes right now, but we haven't truly engaged commercialism. Only in a society with full financial and credit systems can we talk about commercial issues. Does China have real credit cards? Can someone without a job get a credit card? When you use a debit card you are spending your own money. In the US, utilities are hooked into the credit system, so your credit is built up gradually. If you don't have that foundation, then you can't talk about commercial culture.

Do you think that American beggars are all a certain sort of person? There are double PhDs all over the place, people who simply lost their credit and now are disconnected from commerce.

Oriental Outlook: Right now, what do you think the most important areas are for China to learn from the west?
Ah Cheng: We should move the focal point of our "grabbism" to the second world, like Japan. Japan's knowledge structures are fairly ideal. If you go to Japan, you'll find ordinary people reading books in public spaces, a book for every person. Look at their ages: if they started reading from when they were young, how many books would they have read by now?

The experiences of the first world were assimilated into the second world, and they can be easily absorbed by the third world. China has made a big mistake in sending so many exchange students to study in the US. We really can learn much more from the second world than from the west.

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There are currently 3 Comments for Ah Cheng: I'm like a plucked chicken.

Comments on Ah Cheng: I'm like a plucked chicken

for the record, of the two Tian Zhuangzhuang movies that Ah Cheng penned, the adaptation, "Springtime in a Small Town," was phenomenal, while "The Go Master," though visually stirring, was a total waste of talent on all fronts.

Why does he insist that he needs a car in Beijing?

He doesn't need a car in Beijing.

Great interview, one has to read between the lines to get all the critical puns against society and government. Wouldn't have been published if he'd been more direct.

Victor, I agree, and even if, he'd hardly need 100,000 Yuan to pay for and maintain a small car.

b., I couldn't disagree more. While "The Go Master" may not be easily accessible, I think it's a great movie. Wouldn't say that about "Springtime in a small town". Of course we don't know to what extent Ah Cheng's scripts have been tampered with.

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