Originally published on Rue89, 14/8/2009.
Jia Pingwa is one of the favorite writers of the Chinese public. He received a few months ago, the most prestigious literary award, the Mao Dun prize. But the news ,in the middle of the holiday period, is the publication of one of his novels, ” Fallen Capital ” banned for pornography in 1993. The novel had, at that time, won in France the Prix Femina for foreign literature.
For many scholars, such as Gérémie Barmé and Rong Cai, the marketing of the book at the time of its initial release, is a business school case , with press articles comparing to the masterpiece of Chinese literature “The Dream of Red Mansions “, or to a classic of erotic literature of the sixteenth century” Jin Ping Mei “.
Attention is focused on the author who is said to have received one million yuan (100,000 euros) as an advance, an enormous figure for the time. Some months later, the misunderstanding was corrected, which reduced the figure to half !
“Fallen Capital ” was serialized in a literary journal. The first edition of the book is so important that it is shared between two printers. Then the publisher sells the rights to several colleagues. Overall, this book of 500 pages, sold the equivalent of 1,50 euro will be printed over a million copies since rumors of a ban pushed sales.
Jia Pingwa has a collection of 60 pirate editions, which probably reached 10 million copies. Some publishers have duplicated only the cover of the book in order to sell with it other pornographic titles.
Jia Pingwa is certainly not the author of a “yellow” book: .
Why such a success? Sex sells, especially after a Maoist period which was incredibly prudish. The book becomes a sort of manual on sex education for young generations.
But what attracted also readers are the frames “here the author was censored,” added after the beginning of an “attractive” description and specifying the number of characters removed. Simple, but stimulates the imagination.
The book tells us the adventures of a successful writer, Zhang Zhida, facing a lawsuit introduced by a former colleague after an alleged affair becoming public. The sexual adventures of the author will end with a lost lawsuit.
The characters are painters, calligraphers, theater directors, “intellectual workers”, but mostly failures and frauds. Zhang Zhida, a star novelist in Xi’an, finally only writes well paid infomercials.
The controversy was important. Some did find that the launch of the book is unworthy and it’s content vulgar, while Jia’s reputation as a writer is very significant.
Others welcome a debate that revives interest in literature and highlight that Jia, with his impeccable political curriculum, is certainly not the author of a “yellow” book, a pornographic book.
Back to bound feet :
For Jia it is his first book about a city, Xi’an, capital of his native province. His vision of a city and a decadent civilization could be politically explosive, but the press was only interested in the sexy bits.
That members of the intelligentsia behave in such a way was shocking. But the loss of moral authority of the intellectual at the time is a reality. He no longer has a role as a spokesman.
This marginal situation cannot be improved by an outdated position on women regarded as mere sexual objects. It goes back to a very traditional attitude and even to the adorable bound feet of the past!
The ban is announced only at the end of 1993, the book being a tremendous success. There was no alternative because the campaigns of the Communist Party against pornography: “Remove Yellow Products”, was a failure in spite of the impact of the actions launched in Beijing just one month after the massacre in Tiananmen Square .
After the ban, pirated editions increased, the “official” copies are seized and the editor sentenced to heavy fines. But Jia Pingwa is not sued by justice but by his wife, who filed for divorce after,it is said , reading the manuscript.
Farmers in Shengzhou are the heroes of his novels :
Jia Pingwa was born in 1952, 250 km from the city of Xi’an. This homeland of Shangzhou is very important in his work, so as Gaomi for Mo Yan or Hunan for Shen Congwen. This is where his roots are even if he now lives in Xi’an.
His studies were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution and he is “sent to the countryside” for five years. In 1978, he managed to enter university and began to write.He will be, during eight years, the editor of a literary magazine in Shaanxi.
The farmers of Shengzhou are the heroes of his many novels and short stories. As Mo Yan, what he likes most is telling a story. The topics are often more important than the plot and he wants most of all not to be connected to western political concepts or literary techniques, sometimes copied without success by other writers.
Two novels about countryside were published in French in 1990 by FLP of Beijing. A collection of short stories followed by Stock in 1995: “Carrying a Young Bride”.
After “Fallen Capital”, an interesting novel “The Sunken Village” (Stock, 2000): a village near Xi’an tries to resist urbanization, but corruption and developers create a balance of power far too uneven.
Since that time, nothing in French, but you can read in English one of his major works “Turbulence”, translated by Howard Goldblatt (1991).
Parts of “Fallen Capital” have been reworked :
And yet he has continued to write six novels since ” Fallen Capital. A great success for his novel “Qin Qiang” which won last year the Mao Dun award. This is the story of a character, a bit crazy, obsessed by Bai Xue, actress of Qin Qiang (a form of opera of Shaanxi Province).That’s the life of farmers on the loess plateau, the cradle of the Chinese nation.
In 2007, he published “Happy”, a long novel whose heroes are two youngsters from a village coming to seek fortune in Xi’an and become scavengers. The hero is inspired by a classmate of Jia, selling and delivering coal. A movie was filmed and the novel has been once again a great success.
Sixteen years later, in Xi’an, Jia Pingwa will autograph copies of the new edition of “Fallen Capital”. It seems that the book is still banned but the publisher said it had been altered, which does not seem correct, even if the boxes are replaced by quotes!
The book is sold packaged with two other major novels (“Turbulence” and “Qin Qiang”) for 13 €. Times have changed, also the censors.Neither controversy nor a spectacular success are anticipated.
Photo: Jia Pingwa at home in Xi’an in 2001 (Pierre Haski/Rue89)