Jia Pingwa talks about the reissue of Feidu

Jia Pingwa's Feidu (废都, "Abandoned Capital"), originally published in 1993 and banned shortly thereafter, was scheduled to be re-released in 2004. In late December 2003, Southern Metropolis Daily obtained a copy of the preface and printed it alongside a dialogue between critic Xie Youshun and the author.

The book itself failed to materialize, and Feidu languished out of print for five more years until it was quietly reissued in July, 2009. The preface translated following the dialogue below does not appear in the 2009 edition.

Remembering Feidu

Xie Youshun: It's been more than a decade since the Feidu affair, and we can say with certainty that it was a very important incident in literary history, not just because of the controversy over the work itself, but more crucially because of a series of issues the work brought about: the bootleg issue, the criticism issue, the publicity and hype issue, and the question of protecting the rights and interests of authors were all sparked by this very important work.
Jia Pingwa: Feidu has been around for more than ten years. Indeed, the book kicked up quite a bit of controversy on the literary stage, perhaps the largest since 1949. And it generated the most waves in society, too, and of course it was the greatest disaster for me personally. The bootlegs haven't stopped over the past decade. No end to the bootlegs, or to the controversy, or to the criticism. When Feidu was published it was printed by two printers at the same time, 250,000 copies at one and 200,000 at the other, for a total of almost 500,000 of the most official edition. Once it came out, so many people were buying it that in many provinces people came by car with cash and someone to watch the vehicle. When the publisher found that it was unable to keep up, it sold the page forms to six or seven houses who were permitted to go back and print the book. Those houses started off with around 100,000 copies apiece. So the total for official and semi-official editions was more than 1 million. Later on, it got out of control and bootlegs erupted all over so that within two years, according to the calculations of someone who knows the industry, there were 12 million copies of official, semi-official, and bootleg editions altogether.

Xie: Feidu is a classic case for a media age. As the book proliferated, the news media, publishers, critics, bootleggers, and the rumor mill blended into a strange mixture to create a grand mythological event. I've always felt that Feidu is significant not only as a piece of literature, but as a minor landmark in the history of cultural transmission.
Jia: As each person has a destiny, so too does each book. When Feidu was first published, the critical response was largely positive, but later on the winds changed, and although some people maintained their original opinions, others simply stopped speaking, and still others changed their opinions entirely. Everyone has to survive in their own environment. I can accept this. A few leaders wouldn't look at me during the day but would come over at night. During that time, I received two pieces of news. One was from Ji Xianlin of PKU. Ji is a highly influential individual. He's over ninety now, isn't he?

Xie: He was already over eighty back then.
Jia: He said: twenty years from now, Feidu will be able to shine. I didn't believe it when the news reached me, and everyone else believed it even less. Someone went to PKU to ask Ji to confirm it, and he had indeed said that. The other bit of news came from Shenzhen: Ma Yuan had strongly endorsed Feidu and had given it quite a high appraisal. Ma was a leading representative of avant-garde fiction. The critiques from north and south, young and old, provided me with quite a bit of comfort during that difficult time.

Xie: Sex was a major reason for the controversy surrounding Feidu. Another reason was the trick you played with boxes and the line "xx words deleted." I'd like to take this opportunity to ask you to tell us whether those words were actually deleted, or if it was purely a publishing strategy and the words were never written in the first place? Now that it's been more than ten years, can you finally let the truth out?
Jia: I wrote about sex. Why sex? It was because of the demands of character formation, for one: in order for Zhuang Zhidie to extricate himself, he had to seek out women. And out of a thought for the writing, for another: all four-hundred-plus-thousand characters of the novel were about everyday life. When I wrote about a meal I could write four or five pages, about drinking tea I could write three or four pages. I wrote about all of the headaches of the daytime, so there's no way I could avoid writing about the things of the night, and that meant that touching on sex was inevitable. When I was writing about sex, I wrote out a little bit, but then I didn't write any more, because I had to consider the national conditions, you know, so I thought I'd just write a little bit and that would be enough. And then I replaced the portion I didn't write with boxes. When I handed the manuscript to the publisher later on, they deleted additional sections. So the number of characters listed in parenthesis as having been deleted is actually no longer very accurate. For ten years, lots of people have asked me this question, and now I've given a truthful answer.

Xie: With this reissue of Feidu, I expect that there won't be the same controversy over the sex issue. This shows that Chinese society has indeed seen great changes.

Preface to the rerelease of Feidu (2004)

by Jia Pingwa

Feidu was published in 1993 and reissued in 2004, twelve long years from start to finish. As a person has a destiny, so too does a book. Twelve years may be insignificant for a book, but for a person it is a large number, and I have grown visibly older.

As for the book, people have already said too much about it! The year it was published, I saw ten or more volumes of criticism which taken together were four or five times the thickness of the book itself, and in the subsequent decade, critical essays continued unabated, amounting to nearly a million words. I've never said a word about it myself. I was carrying a load of eggs in marketplace, and when the masses crowded round to buy them, the eggs were squished and the ground got covered in yolk and albumen.

And now, on this day in this month, Feidu is being republished. When the news was told to me, I did not laugh, nor did I cry, but I simply finished eating. On the western wall of my study hangs a "total eclipse" (天再旦) inscription that I wrote on the eve of the millennium, and I looked at it, I looked at it for a long while. Then I found a pen and wrote on a piece of paper: Hail China! Hail to these twelve years! Hail to the people who said all kinds of things about Feidu in words like the hot summer or the frozen winter, all of them good, for were the winter not cold and the summer not hot, the grain would have no yield! And hail to the bootleggers — I've spent these twelve years basically engaged in zealous collection of all stripes of bootlegs and now have fifty editions lying on my shelves — they've let the readers continue reading!

Twelve years ago, right as I was finishing Feidu, I lived alone in a fifth-floor room in unit #3 of Northwest University's faculty dormitory #5, and as I had only a small table and a single chair, the manuscript was piled on the floor in the corner. One day the water cut off as I was doing laundry, but right then someone came to notify me of an urgent meeting so I left without turning off the faucet. Three hours later, I took a taxi back, and the driver recognized me, refused payment, and took me directly to the door of the building. As soon as I got out of the car I saw the torrent in the corridor, and an old lady on the fourth floor shouted: You're leaking water, and you've flooded my house! I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten to turn off the faucet, so I rushed upstairs and opened the door to see the slippers I kept at my beside floating just inside. First, I turned off the water, and then I went to rescue the things on the floor: a waterlogged cardboard box of noodles and a qin filled with water, and I thought to myself, that's it, the manuscript's gone, and I ran to the corner but found that it was quite fine: the water had reached a finger's distance from the manuscript but had not soaked it! I shouted: Oh man, oh man, oh man! The taxi driver had come up to help me clean up after the flood, and he was flabbergasted: "It didn't drown your manuscript?" I said, "Maybe the corner was inclined higher." He said, "It's a floor. How high could it get?" After it was over, I was still amazed, and a little later when the editor of a Sichuan-based magazine contacted me for a piece, I mentioned the incident, and she asked me to write it up for publication. But when their magazine had finished the layout, the piece was pulled, and they wrote me to say that they were afraid of committing an error, and they asked for my understanding. How could I not be understanding? I assumed that the little piece would never be publishable, so I simply dropped it and didn't ask them to return the original. A year later, I moved out of that apartment, but the place still appears in my dreams, and I vividly remember the manuscript that didn't get drowned.

Yesterday I went back to Northwest University with my daughter and we passed that building. It's an old building and its surroundings have completely changed. I asked about the occupant of the fifth floor room in unit #3, and a neighbor said, when you left another professor moved in, but that professor's moved out, and another professor is living there now. But the three locust trees out front are still there, three locust trees that haven't grown at all, and a bird had landed in one of them and was singing. I said, "Beautiful!" My daughter said, "You understand it?" I said, "I don't understand, but it sounds nice."

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