Posted by Joel Martinsen on Wednesday, February 6, 2008 at 2:10 PM
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 IdentityInterview 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?
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?
Oriental Outlook: Would you complain if a director completely gutted your script?
Oriental Outlook: Lots of people can't stand screenwriting. How do you do it, with your personality?
Oriental Outlook: But we haven't seen you write any commercial films.
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?
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?
Oriental Outlook: Do you write essays?
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?
Oriental Outlook: You once said that authors were panhandlers. Why be so extreme?
Oriental Outlook: Some authors, like Jia Pingwa, sell more than 100,000 copies. They can live off of that.
Oriental Outlook: Painting might bring in more money. Do you still paint?
Oriental Outlook: Not long ago there was a Stars Group retrospective held at the Today Art Gallery. Did you attend?
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.
Oriental Outlook: When you were in the US, did you have to work for a living?
Oriental Outlook: What is your life like now in Beijing? Do you need that much money?
Oriental Outlook: If you're purely looking for money, then isn't running a restaurant the best solution?
Oriental Outlook: Are you interested in politics?
Oriental Outlook: What books are you reading these days?
I read the local news in the newspapers. People's stories can help your thought process.
Oriental Outlook: What sort of help?
Oriental Outlook: So what is the appropriate designation for your current identity?
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?
Oriental Outlook: There is some literature that you like, such as Mu Xin's works. But some people have criticized his mannered writing style.
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?
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?
Oriental Outlook: As an author and an intellectual, how do you perceive the invasion of high culture by commercial culture?
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?
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.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.