Hai Yan: books with the reach of television

Hai Yan shows off the manuscript to Dancer.

Hai Yan (real name Lu Haiyan 侣海岩) is one of China's most dependable novelists. His books, published at a rate of about one a year, are invariably best-sellers. The inevitable television adaptations are quite popular and have been so for the better part of two decades.

How Hai Yan got his start is the stuff of legend. As a policeman in the early 1980s, he was annoyed with the unrealistic way that police were portrayed in fiction at the time, so he wrote a novel of his own. He submitted it to People's Literature Publishing House, where it sat on a desk for three months because the publisher rarely accepted unsolicited submissions. Shortly after Hai Yan cajoled an editor into taking a look, the publisher bought the novel, Plain-Clothes Policeman, which became a runaway bestseller and was adapted into a successful TV show.

But his popular success hasn't been reflected in critical opinion. For example, in a footnote to his list of nominations for the recent rankings of China's important authors, cultural critic Zhu Dake explained that he left off Hai Yan because he lacked literary merit. Other common criticisms are that his work is too crassly commercial, and that his novels aren't very different from each other.

Hai Yan addressed these criticisms in a recent interview with Oriental Outlook magazine. He also spoke up in support of television adaptations, and urged more novelists to take advantage of the expanded audience that television brings.

Oriental Outlook: Starting with Plain-clothes Police, practically all of your novels and the TV shows adapted from them have been popular with audiences. What's the reason for this?
Hai Yan: I think it's because I always go against the rules of commercial writing. Typically, things written for commercial uses need to have a happy ending, a perfect conclusion, but my novels are basically cold tragedies.

In a materialistic age, there's bargaining taking place in any human relationship. My novels go for ideal, real emotion, as well as the process by which beautiful things in life are destroyed. This probably answers the yearning many adults have for for real emotion, and it also expresses their hopelessness when their ideals are demolished.

Like the passage of Buddhist scripture I quote on the title page of my new book: "The pain of life lies in seeking without finding." We all face lots of hardship; hardship is when you cannot get what you want no matter how hard you try.

OO: Broadly speaking, your works can basically be put into the "crime + romance" genre. Where does the difficulty lie in writing this type of book?
HY: The greatest challenge in writing this kind of book lies in the fact that every novel must keep to a certain standard. They must all be original; like Harry Potter, each volume must suck the reader in to continue reading. Jin Shengtan said of Outlaws of the Marsh that Shi Nai'an's skill lay in following "Yang Zhi sells a sabre" with "Lin Chong sells a sabre," rather than "Lin Chong sells a spear" or something; this is what is meant by "committing the offense in order to avoid it," and "letting people see the difference." *

Give China's top writers the task of writing ten books set in the same time period, aimed at the same age-range, dealing with the same themes, and written in the same style, and see who can accomplish it.

OO: Are you worried that one day your works won't meet the tastes of the readers?
HY: Many people have asked me whether the "Hai Yan era" is finished, like the "Chiung Yao era" is over. One paper even used an entire page for a report under the headline "A resurgence or a burial?" I've never had the feeling of being overturned, so where would the resurgence come from? Zhang Yimou shot those three films, and no one said that he was doing a turnaround.

However, the past few years I have indeed felt that the rush of spirit is related to physical strength. When you don't have enough strength, your thinking is slower, and that's when you feel the real weight of "mental labor." And age and work constrain the sorts of people you meet every day. And the world is changing too fast; the things you are concerned with in the first half of the year may be unpopular by the second half. So the end of the "Hai Yan era" can't be avoided.

OO: Your first novel, Plain-clothes Police was adapted for television right away. Did this influence you to write your subsequent novels with television in mind?
HY: You can't be self-deceiving about this. When I write novels, I most definitely write according to the principles and rules of novels. Novels and scripts require completely different mentalities and languages - this is why so many outstanding script writers can't write novels. On the other hand, do I never think of TV adaptations when I'm writing my novels? Of course not. Of course people will want to film them.

Naturally, I enjoy novels more and I hope that people will come to know Hai Yan from the books. But I cannot deny that the worth of something must take into account the scope of its transmission. Better works that no one reads are essentially unrealized value.

OO: Was it the TV adaptations that made your novels, or your novels that made the TV adaptations?
HY: A bit of both. Many of my TV shows came out three or four years after their corresponding novel, and the novels had an effect within that time. It's hard to say whether or not my present position in the literary world is due to the TV shows, but the shows have certainly given a big boost to my profile with audiences. Television is quite effective. Didn't Jordan make his name through TV?

Unfortunately, this generation of writers lives in an A/V age, quickly turning into an Internet age. The reach of books has declined - for average books, printing 100,000 copies is quite high, and you can count on both hands the number of books that have more than 300,000 copies printed in any given year. Even so, if a book has two readers, then it only has 600,000 readers altogether.

But television - prime time programming on CCTV is measured at 20 million viewers per point. Pick a random popular show, and you'll find that it reaches hundreds of millions. Books can't compare at all. I especially urge original writers to transplant their works to formats that have the most reach - this will extend and popularize literature. For the foundation - the content - of literature is still there, and originality is still there.

OO: Do you care about the audience's approval?
HY: I have always thought that approval from the audience is the most important thing. But I also maintain that the customer is not god when it comes to cultural works. Culture functions to draw the public forward; it is not merely reactive.

My personal hope is that my works can extend their reach, but we live in a world where the standard of criticism is how loud you can squawk. You must learn to liberate yourself; you cannot go along with their standard. I will continually change my way of interacting with the audience; for example, if my pace is too slow, if the love story doesn't suit their appetites, things like that. But my basic motivation, outlook, and values won't change.

OO: You put out one book every year, more or less. Where do you find such creative ability?
HY: I ensure that my writing time, no matter what the compensation, starts at 10:00 every night. Sometimes I will write until 4 or 5 the next morning. It generally takes me a few months to write a novel; my typist always complains to me: "We can't keep up with you!"

Because I'm so fast, every time a new book comes out there are people who think that I've used "hired guns." Before Dancer came out, there was someone from a Beijing dance academy who said that he was a member of my "hack team," and also said that I was very generous and split the proceeds equally with them. Ultimately, someone with the discipline commission asked me, "If you give the money to them, where does your money come from?" I had to bring out my manuscripts to show him - I write in fountain pen, so you can see the thickets of corrections all across the paper. There's no way that anyone else wrote it.

OO: By day, a businessman; by night, a writer. Do you enjoy this state of affairs?
HY: Not at all. Yesterday, I ran into a fortune-teller, and I asked him if it would be wise for me to resign, because recently my health has been getting worse and I no longer want to stay up at night. He said it was best for me to ask again next year, that over the past few years, business, life, and health had all been difficult, but next year would be much more relaxed.

OO: Do you believe that stuff?
HY: Not really. But several people have told me the same thing, so I believe it a little. And one fortune-teller said that my best years - the "decade of good luck" - would be from when I was 92 to 102. I said, good fortune at that age means being able to munch peanuts when other people cannot. Or else it means living like Yang Zhenning.

I asked, what if I don't live that long? He said that fame is boundless after death - if you're not a Cao Xueqin, then you'll at least be a Zhang Henshui. So I joke with my friends, I'll wait until I'm dead to be famous.

Note 1: Hai Yan has used this illustration from Jin Shengtan's appraisal of Outlaws of the Marsh in the past. See this 2004 interview for a more thorough explanation.

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