Books

The most famous junk collector in Xi'an

JDM071016liugaoxing.jpg
Liu Gaoxing in his room in Xi'an.

Two years after saying that he was finished with writing novels, Jia Pingwa has followed up Qin Qiang with a new book. Jia is famous for his novels of Shaanxi life, particularly the 1993 bestseller Abandoned Capital, whose racy content made it the first example in the PRC of a book banned after publication. He drew heavily on his own experiences for Qin Qiang, and confessed afterwards that the process had taken so much out of him that he might not write again.

Happily for Jia's fans, Gaoxing (高兴), a 250,000-character novel* about the lives of junk collectors in Xi'an, was published last month. Where Qin Qiang explored village life in Jia's native Shaanxi, Gaoxing follows the adventures of two villagers who go to the big city to seek their fortunes.

The advance word from Jia about the new book was that it was an easier read than Qin Qiang, whose use of Shaanxi dialect combined with a mad narrator made for tough going. Indeed, Gaoxing, which takes its title from the name of protagonist and narrator Liu Gaoxing, is quite a readable novel. Liu and his friend Wufu arrive in Xi'an, where they find jobs on the lowest rung of society: they collect household junk that they then strip and sell off as scrap. Liu, whose given name is Hawa, decides that starting a new life in the city requires a more fortuitous name, so he chooses Gaoxing ("happy").

Liu's sharp-tongued neighbor, the hair salon girl he romances, a rowdy beggar, a policeman, and a local businessmen round out the fairly small cast of characters. Both Liu's narration and his interaction with the people he encounters are colored by his desire to appear as something more than just a junk collector. Jia Pingwa finds a bittersweet humor in these encounters and in Liu's frustrated aspirations. The largely episodic plot is given a sense of direction by the author's decision to open the novel with the story's final scene, in which Liu Gaoxing gets into trouble with the police as he attempts to board a train carrying the body of his deceased friend wrapped in a blanket (if that sounds familiar, see the excerpt from Jia's afterword translated below).

In a lengthy afterword, Jia details the creative process that led him through five separate drafts before the book reached final form. The time he spent with junk collectors and other migrant workers in Xi'an informed his portrayal of Xi'an's underclass, but he writes that he drew much of his inspiration from a childhood friend. It turns out that the Liu Gaoxing of the novel is based on a real-life Liu Gaoxing (formerly Liu Shuzhen) who grew up with Jia and who now delivers coal in Xi'an.

In the mainstream media, the story of Liu Gaoxing and his relationship with Jia Pingwa has overshadowed the novel itself. Here's a profile of Liu that ran in Oriental Outlook magazine a few weeks ago:

The Real Life of Liu Gaoxing

by Sun Chunlong / OO

Wiping his hands, Liu Gaoxing takes a blackened canvas bag off its hook on the wall. He roots around in it for a while, and then pulls out a plastic bag, which he opens, and extracts a stack of business cards.

"This is my business card. Let me give you one." Liu gingerly selects a card from the middle of the stack and hands it to the reporter. As the reporter stands amazed that a the driver of a three-wheeler who sells coal and collects junk, Liu says in all seriousness, "I had fifty printed up, and now I only have eight left. I don't give them to just anyone."

The printing of the business card looks like the sticker-ads that litter the streets. It reads "Coal Shop #39," and has his name, Liu Gaoxing, printed in the middle, with "proprietor" stuck after it. At the bottom is a mobile number ending in the digit "7".

"The mobile's out of money, so it's turned off," Liu says with a smile. "It's the off-season right now. When winter comes and more people want coal, I'll make another deposit."

Another unique aspect of the business card is its blurry photo. In the photo, Liu is talking animatedly with a middle-aged man who listens attentively while smoking a cigarette. Upon closer inspection, the middle-aged man is the author Jia Pingwa.

At the beginning of September, Jia Pingwa's new novel Gaoxing was released to great fanfare in the journal Dangdai. The Writers Publishing House subsequently issued a standalone version with a first printing of 300,000 copies. The eagerly-anticipated novel, which is based on Liu Gaoxing's experiences collecting junk in Xi'an, made Liu into a "celebrity."

Shoveling manure with Jia Pingwa

"Hurry up and ask me what you need to; I've got to get coal to the kindergarten over there in a little bit," Liu Gaoxing says in a booming voice in an out-of-the-way coal-yard on the east side of South Taibai Road in Xi'an. "I just got off the phone with Ping. I told him you were coming to interview me. He said that I should just tell the truth."

"Ping was Jia Pingwa's nickname. Everyone in our village still calls him that," Liu adds.

Liu's voice is loud; practically everyone in the coal shop, which processes briquettes, can hear him, and they file over to listen to him talk about his relationship with Jia Pingwa. This gets Liu excited, and he opens up a carton of Monkey King cigarettes and passes them around.

At 57, Liu is a year older than Jia. The two grew up together in the same courtyard, and they went to school together. The adults of the two families got along well together, and were even related to a degree. In middle school, Jia was the study monitor in the class, and he and Liu were responsible for writing blackboard bulletins.

"I was enrolled in the youth league at the time. Jia Pingwa hadn't joined," says Liu proudly.

Speaking of his childhood, Liu Gaoxing sighs. "I often shoveled manure together with Ping when we were young." Afraid that the reporter doesn't understand, he elaborates: "That is, with a metal shovel in one hand and a basket in the other, we'd find where draught animals had left droppings on the road and pick them up. We didn't have chemical fertilizer at the time, so we relied on this to fertilize the land. We could fill up a basket in an afternoon. Manure would be stuck all up and down our arms."

In Liu's eyes, Jia Pingwa was an exceedingly clever child. "Once, Ping went out to chop firewood. He chopped firewood that belonged to a distant uncle of mine, who ended up confiscating his basket. When he asked what his name was, Ping answered with my name. My uncle hadn't seen me in several years, so he really believed that Ping was his nephew. He returned the basket to him and filled it up with firewood."

In 1971, Liu Gaoxing went off to the northeast with the army, while Jia Pingwa went to Xi'an for college. The lives of the two men began to diverge.

During his time as a soldier, he often exchanged letters with Jia. Liu frequently had Jia buy medicine for his father, who was sick at home, and he sent Jia photos of him in uniform. Jia sent him in return a photo of himself at the Yan'an Pagoda.

Five years passed in the blink of an eye, and Liu Gaoxing returned to Xi'an, where he rushed immediately from the train station to the place where Jia was staying. Jia had just graduated from Northwest University and had been assigned to work at the Shaanxi People's Publishing House.

"He took me to a place near the bell tower and bought me 9-fen-a-pack Yangqun cigarettes," says Liu.

After demobilization, Liu Gaoxing returned to his hometown, where he worked as a cook in the county guest house. This was an enviable position, for as a government job, it at the very least guaranteed him a full stomach. He could also become familiar with the local leaders, making things a bit easier for him. Liu says that when Jia Pingwa wanted to ship some wooden furniture from his old home to Xi'an, he helped him obtain a timber transport license.

After hosting the provincial party secretary, Liu aspired to become a famous chef, but his hopes were quickly dashed: because he had more than one child, he had to pack up his things and return home. At this time, Jia Pingwa had begun to gain a reputation with the publication of "Full Moon."

Written into fiction twice by Jia Pingwa

After he left the county guest house, Liu Gaoxing went into the coal mines, carried stone on Qinling Mountain, and even ran a small restaurant. But because the weight of his four children, his circumstances did not improve much. Liu's original name was actually Liu Shuzhen*, but because he could see no end to his days of toil, it occurred to him when he turned 40 that changing his name might change his luck. "Liu Gaoxing" was an offhand suggestion: "My generation was supposed to be named 'Gao' anyway, and this name is pretty lucky."

Though Jia Pingwa's fame was growing, Liu Gaoxing felt that Jia was still the buddy that the had in his youth. He never put on airs; whenever he returned home he would visit them, and he still used familiar terms of address. He'd recognize people's voices immediately on the phone. "Before, he would treat me to Yangqun cigarettes. Now he buys Zhonghua."

When they met, Liu would chat with Jia about the people and events of their hometown. Jia always listened attentively.

He never thought that these people and events from their hometown would make it into one of Jia's books. In Qin Qiang [titled after a local style of opera], which Jia published in 2004, Liu discovered the reflections of his family of four.

"My father is 'Wu Linshu,' and I am 'Shuzheng.' My wife is 'Shuzheng's wife,' and my sister is 'Shuzhen.' 'Yinsheng' is Ping. The things in the book are the things I usually talked about with Ping. Ping. He's a very purposeful person; he remembers stuff we'd usually forget. He wrote it in to the book. It's true and lifelike," says Liu.

In Qin Qiang, Shuzheng, the character based on Liu Gaoxing, is a slovenly individual, whose nose "is always dripping yellow snot," but Liu doesn't mind. "It's just writing." When a documentary was made about Qin Qiang, Liu was brought on as an advisor.

When Liu had opportunities to go to Xi'an, he'd always go to visit Jia Pingwa and his mother. He'd usually bring them a bag of walnuts or chestnuts from their hometown. Once, Jia's mother made shepherd's purse dumplings especially for him. Liu has a large appetite, and he wasn't full after finishing his large bowl. So Jia gave him his own and urged him to eat his fill. That night, the two men smoked and talked; when they got hungry they split buns to eat. "I'm a farmer without much education. But I know about human relationships. That kind of feeling comes straight from the heart."

In the afterword to Gaoxing, Jia Pingwa writes: "Liu Gaoxing came to find me not because he wanted anything from me. He knew of my circumstances and personality, and we were close in age. He had things to say, I needed to listen. So we became close."

But Liu Gaoxing says that he once asked for Jia's help in one major matter. In 1997, when Abandoned Capital had just been banned and it Jia was about to be sent south, Liu made a special trip to Xi'an. First, he wanted to express his sympathies for Jia, and second, he hoped that Jia would be able to give a phone call to one of the leaders in their hometown so that his daughter could find a job.

Liu was moved that Jia, though he was in a difficult spot himself, did not refuse him. He even said that it'd be better just to write a letter: telephoning was no good, because while a leader might agree over the phone, he'd forget as soon as he hung up. Liu took the letter back home and had someone give it to the leader's secretary. A month or so later, his daughter had the job. When she showed up for work, someone asked her, "What does your father do that gives him such good guanxi?" Liu's daughter could only laugh.

With his daughter's work situation resolved, Liu Gaoxing moved to Xi'an, where he first worked collecting junk before moving to a coal-yard to sell coal. One day two years ago, Jia Pingwa unexpectedly came to the coal-yard looking for him. They spent half a day talking in one of the cramped old rooms in the coal-yard, and then Jia invited him to eat fish with pickled cabbage. Then he took him to a teahouse where they chatted while drinking tea.

"I had a feeling then that he was working on a major work," says Liu. In September of this year, Liu learned that Jia's new book, Gaoxing, which was based on his life and which took his name as its title, had been published in the magazine Dangdai. He also heard the painful news that Jia's 81-year-old mother had died in her hometown in Danfeng County, Shaanxi Province.

Liu Gaoxing hurried back to Danfeng from Xi'an. After the old woman had been buried, he and Jia
once again talked about their hometown. When the topic of the recently-published book came up, Liu said to Jia, "You're really have it all under control. You've been writing for two or three years and you never let on." Jia just smiled.

City people eat well and dress warmly—why are they so miserable?

Although he already had a character based on him in Qin Qiang's Shuzheng, Liu is more excited about Gaoxing. "Many people in our village feel that he resembles Shuzheng too, but Gaoxing is different. I'm the only person from our village who came to Xi'an to collect junk."

"I'm just a common farmer. Before, less than 100 people knew about me, but now it's probably more than 1 million," Liu says.

Liu Gaoxing lives in a 10-square-meter room provided by the coal-yard. The room has two TVs, both of which he found when he was collecting junk. They cost 20 yuan apiece, but to Liu's disappointment they both are stuck on the same channel. Over three years, because more and more people came to collect junk, money became harder to make, so Liu began selling coal briquettes. He buys the briquettes from the coal-yard and takes them to the clients' homes. There's a margin of 2 fen on each briquette; on good days, he can make 30 or 40 yuan.

Liu sees his switch from collecting junk to selling coal as a turning point in his career: "Junk collectors are on the lowest level in this city; they live day-to-day. Selling coal is a real job. You have your own clients."

JDM071016family.jpg
Liu Gaoxing with his wife and son.

Although Liu no longer collects junk exclusively, if he comes across some business along those lines while he's out selling coal, he may bring some back, out of "professional habit." The area under his bed is chock full of junk he's collected, and even the stools and the stove are things that he collected. "City people are really awful. If something is a little broken, they just switch it for a new one." But he laughs: "Although, if you are too slow to exchange, then won't the junk collectors starve?"

There are no windows in the room, so Liu Gaoxing hung an empty wooden mirror-frame on the wall; from a distance, it looks like a closed window. "Everyone has to find some happiness for themselves," says Liu.

His three daughters are all married, and the majority of his family's land has been appropriated to build a highway. So Liu's wife and son have come to Xi'an. His son helps him sell coal: "We keep separate accounts." His wife started out as a nanny for one family, but before long, they let her go because they felt she was eating too much. She found a new family, and now tends to an 80-year-old woman.

Liu seems satisfied with his present life. "There's enough to eat and drink, and there's some spending money. The only thing left is to find a wife for my son."

Liu says that after noticing how Jia Pingwa likes to write and paint, he too bought a brush and some ink and began to practice calligraphy on old newspapers. One year he wrote out a couplet for his home: "Open your mouth to eat and drink but also to smile, close your eyes and in the darkness enjoy sweet slumber."

"When Jia Pingwa saw it he said I wrote it well," says Liu. Liu believes that he's such an optimist because when he was younger he had such a hard live. He feels content with his life today. "You city people live in big houses, eat well, and dress well. I can't understand why you are so miserable."

Talking about how he and Jia Pingwa grew up and went to school together, and how ultimately their paths diverged, Liu Gaoxing suddenly laughs: "The same bricks—his fate is to line a hearth, but mine is to line a toilet!"

Liu, who claims never to have been angry in his life, says that during the Cultural Revolution, he and four of his classmates were selected as representatives to go to Tian'anmen. The other four are now successful and famous; one's in the leadership of the General Staff Department of the PLA, one's a professor, one's the general manager of a business. He's the only one on the bottom rung of society. "The world's always like that, with such big differences. I don't care."

However, Liu also has times of depression. He came to the city from the countryside, and although he's lived there for more than a decade, he feels more and more distant from the city. He once took a load of coal to a hotel and never was able to get his money because he was too trusting. He didn't write out a receipt and now the hotel won't acknowledge its debt. "How can people not keep their word?"

Aside from Jia Pingwa, Liu Gaoxing has a few other old classmates in Xi'an, but he seldom has any contact with them. "In our village courtyards, doors are always open. It's easy to visit different houses. City people all have anti-theft doors, and people first look out at you through the peep-hole to see who you are before opening up. Now people even have locked gates on the stairwells. You have to call and make an appointment just to get inside.* What a hassle."

Even Jia Pingwa didn't expect that while he was writing a book based on Liu Gaoxing, Liu was writing out a 50,000 character story of their youth, called "Me and Ping." Full of errors, this journal-like account surprised Jia: "Liu Gaoxing, if you had stayed in Xi'an to go to college 30 years ago, you would absolutely have been a much better writer than I am. If I were to go collect junk in the city today, I wouldn't be able to match you, and I wouldn't have your humor and love of life."

In the afterword to Gaoxing, Jia writes that when he encountered writers' block, it was Liu's optimism that gave him inspiration. "This novel is about Liu Gaoxing. He's a not your typical junk collector. He's how he is today because, however ponderous life becomes, he finds a way to relax. The harder life is, the more he wants to enjoy it."

* * *
JDM071016gaoxings.jpg
Cover of Gaoxing

Here are some related excerpts from the afterword to Gaoxing:

One afternoon three years ago, I was reading Journey to the West at home. I was thinking about how Tang Seng and his three disciples were actually four facets of one individual when there came the loud clang of a knock on my door. In the age of the telephone, people make appointments before meeting in person. Who was this? I hadn't arranged to meet anyone at this time. So I took my time opening the door, wanting to let this uninvited guest know that I was put off by his conduct. Clang, clang, the knocking continued. And it increased in volume, until finally there was the crash of a kick against the door.

A bit angry, I flung the door open. Standing there was Liu Shuzhen.

He said: Hey, I thought you weren't home!

I said: So it's you. When did you come to town?

He said: I live in town now!

Never a serious word from him. I laughed, and then had him come in and sit down. I said: Shuzhen, you joker!

He said: Don't call me Shuzhen. I've changed my name to Gaoxing now. You have to call me Liu Gaoxing!

This is Liu Gaoxing. This was also the first time I saw Liu Gaoxing living in the city.

If you've read Qin Qiang, and if you still remember it, the character Shuzheng is the original of Liu Gaoxing. We grew up together. When I was young, I didn't really think much of him. His hair was a bit curly and his nostrils were always running with yellow snot, but I admired his father.

...

I continued to go to the lane where those junk collectors rented their lodgings. It became something unconscious; every time I went to the south side, I would detour to see them. And if I ran into a junk collector on the street, I would stop and exchange a few words with him, or watch him for a spell. After another year or so, most of the junk collectors I knew of or was acquainted with were still in Xi'an, still collecting junk, and their circumstances hadn't changed much. Graduation had arrived for the one who was supporting his kid through college, but having caught a serious case of asthma he could no longer collect junk and had returned home. One of them made some money and partnered with another person to open a supermarket. He also built a house for himself in his hometown. He became a model for practically all of the junk collectors, and his deeds were widely acclaimed. Naturally, some of them died in Xi'an. There were three deaths: one who was struck by a car, one who died of liver disease, and one who was murdered by his associate for his money.

When the news of the one who was murdered by his associate for his money made it into the papers, I went to the village where Bai Dianrui rented a room. Bai Dianrui wasn't there, but I ran into a young man who had been collecting junk for two years. I brought up the murdered man; he said that he had seen the guy. He couldn't imagine why the victim, who had accumulated 100,000 yuan over ten years of collecting junk, had not bought a house in Xi'an. I said: So if you had money the first thing you'd do would be to buy a house? He said: I'd definitely buy a house! If I couldn't afford a big one, I'd get a small one. If I couldn't buy a new one I'd buy an old one; if I couldn't buy one with a property registration, I'd buy one without! I said: You'd never go back home? He said: When I left, I stood before the grinding floor at the entrance to town and swore that I'd never go back!

Naturally, Liu Gaoxing was still in Xi'an, and his health seemed to be better than ever. He would return home for a fortnight to take care of his crops and then come back to Xi'an. Every time he arrived in Xi'an, he'd either give me a phone call or just hurry over and knock on my door. He would talk animatedly of this and that and laugh gaily.

I said: Why is it that you're always so happy?

He paused a moment, then said: My name is Liu Gaoxing. How could I not be happy?

Unable to find happiness yet always happy—what kind of person was this? Nevertheless, after hearing his words I suddenly knew how my thought processes had to change and how my novel should be revised. Originally I wanted to write a bok about junk collectors based on Liu Gaoxing's life, but after immersing myself in understanding the lives of so many junk collectors, I wrote myself into a corner. Liu Gaoxing's words were nothing much, but it was strange—as if a paper window-cover was torn in two or a length of smoking kindling suddenly burst into flame. This novel would be about Liu Gaoxing alone. You could call him an atypical junk collector, but he's also the epitome of junk collectors. He's how he is today because, however ponderous life becomes, he finds a way to relax. The harder life is, the more he wants to enjoy it.

I said: Liu Gaoxing, I know you now!

He said: You know me? What do you know about me?

I said: You are a lotus that has grown out of the muck!

Yes, that is Liu Gaoxing—living cleanly in an unclean place.

He said: Don't gussy me up. You know that brick kiln back home. When you come out of the kiln you're black as the bottom of a pan, and only your teeth are white.

He said it better than I, so I laughed, and he brayed his laughter, too. We ate lamb in flat-bread that night.

I began writing again. The name of the original draft was City Life; now it changed to Gaoxing. I originally followed the same style of writing as Qin Qiang, writing about a city and a group of people, but now I wrote just of Liu Gaoxing and his two or three associates. The structure was originally like that of Qin Qiang, caves stacked one on top of another on a hillside in northern Shaanxi, or an array of wild chrysanthemums laid out in a mountain valley. Now it was like a single tower or a single rose, the bricks stacked up in order and the petals unfolding layer upon layer.

...

During that period, Liu Gaoxing visited a few more times. He really is a strange person. Seeing that I often did calligraphy and painting, he went and bought a brush and ink and started practicing calligraphy on old newspapers, which he piled up sheet after sheet in his rented room. Even more surprising to me was that when he learned I was writing a book based on him, he wanted to write about me. So in various colors of ink on a pad of paper, he wrote 30,000 characters telling the story of our youth. I read those 30,000 characters—it was basically just a simple series of events, full of wrong characters. But the events of the past were vividly written. What could I say to him? Such a manuscript couldn't possibly get published, and in his circumstances, writing was just wasted time and effort. But could I stop him from writing? I said this: Liu Gaoxing, if you had stayed in Xi'an to go to college 30 years ago, you would absolutely have been a much better writer than I am. If I went off to the army and then returned home, and if I came to the city to collect junk today, I wouldn't be able to match you, and I wouldn't have your humor and love of life.

However, when I had written about three-quarters of the thing, I received some bad news that nearly made me go back and start again. Becoming excited while chatting with a friend, I read off the first three chapters for him. He suddenly said: You've started off with the story of a migrant worker carrying a corpse back home? I said: It's a great beginning. He said: Where did you get that material from? I said: I adapted it from a Phoenix TV report. He said: Have you seen the movie Getting Home (落叶归根)? I said: No. What about it? He said: Getting Home is the story of a man carrying a corpse. My mind started racing, and I asked what the movie was about. My friend explained in detail the plot of the movie, and I calmed down. The movie had probably seen the same report, but it was purely a retelling of the course of carrying a corpse, while my novel simply used it as a prologue. My friend said I'd better change it, but I did not. It was like that in my first draft in 2005, so why would I change it? It's his movie, but the novel is absolutely mine, as different as a mule and a horse.

Another twenty days or so passed. Rain was pouring down that afternoon. I was writing the conclusion to the novel when the telephone rang. A phone call right then was just an annoyance, so I didn't pick up. But before long it rang again. I picked up the receiver and said: Who's this?! The voice that came over the line was Liu Gaoxing's. He said: Why don't you answer your phone? I said: I'm working right now....He said: I knew you were busy so I didn't go and knock rudely on your door. But you don't even answer your phone when I call! What are you working on? Are you writing about me? When will you finish? I said: I'm almost done. I still need to make a few small changes. He said: You've had so much trouble writing that little bit. I've finished your biography! He brayed in laughter over the phone when he said that.

Actually, he was calling me from just outside my building.

So I put down my pen and opened the door, and Liu Gaoxing, dripping wet, came inside.

An excerpt of Liu Gaoxing's "biography" of Jia Pingwa, "Me and Ping", appears in this week's Oriental Outlook magazine (2007.10.25, #206) under the title "The Young Jia Pingwa" (少年贾平凹).


Note 2: Back-of-the-envelope arithmetic for the version that ran in Dangdai gives a length of around 250,000 characters. The standalone edition gives a figure of 350,000 characters on the copyright page, but this number is just characters-per-page multiplied by the total page-length; the actual text is the same as the magazine version. The book is padded with frequent full-page pull-quotes and a number of Jia's water-color drawings.
Note 2: 刘书祯 is the name that Jia Pingwa gives in his afterword. Oriental Outlook gives 刘书正. His original name in the book is 刘哈娃.
Note 3: In the excerpt of "Me and Ping" that appears in Oriental Outlook magazine, Liu explains how he encountered this sort of door during his visits to Jia Pingwa's apartment.

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There are currently 1 Comments for The most famous junk collector in Xi'an.

Comments on The most famous junk collector in Xi'an

Nice article. I would enjoy reading more about Jia Pingwa and other Chinese writers.

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