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Interview: Acclaimed Chinese Author, Yan Geling Shares Her Inspiration for Latest English novel, Little Aunt Crane

2016-12-21 17:11:30 Natasha Edwards

China Info 24 met famous Chinese author Yan Geling at Southbank Centre’s China Changing Festival last Friday. In an exclusive interview, she shared her inspiration for writing her latest English novel, Little Aunt Crane, what it means to be labelled as 'a female writer', and how living outside of China has given her a distinctive perspective in understanding the country's history.

Born in Shanghai in 1959, Yan Geling grew up in a family of writers before joining the People's Liberation Army as a dancer at age 12. Later, she served as a journalist during the Sino-Vietnamese war. She has a Bachelor’s degree in literature from Wuhan University and a Master’s degree in Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her translated novels include The Uninvited, Flowers of War, and The Lost Daughter of Happiness.

Her novel Flowers of War has been adapted into a feature-film starring Christian Bale. Flowers of War tells the story of an American man who ends up trapped in Nanjing during the invasion of the Japanese in the second Sino-Japanese war. He takes refuge in a church and ends up protecting Chinese prostitutes and schoolgirls from the barbaric Japanese soldiers outside.

The Flowers of War, directed by Zhang Yimou

In her latest translated novel, Little Aunt Crane, Yan Geling tells the story of a Japanese girl who after escaping a mass suicide movement in her Japanese settlement in North-eastern China, she is sold by Chinese men to a local family. The novel is set in 1945, the years after the second Sino-Japanese war and explores themes such as what defines a mother, the boundaries of love, and the hardships citizens faced during the Cultural Revolution, anti-rightist movement and Great Famine. She shows how history shapes people and their relationships. Little Aunt Crane was originally published in Chinese in 2008. The TV drama premiered on Chinese television in 2009.

Little Aunt Crane, the Chinese television-drama

Can you tell us what the research for Little Aunt Crane involved?

Back in the 1980s, I heard the story of two twin boys who were very different from Chinese children. These impeccably clean boys kept to themselves and their clothes were always neat and well mended. Then I heard another story of a young girl who would bow to greet people and kneel down to remove her mother’s shoes when they would enter their home. The students were curious to understand where this girl came from. They discovered she was Japanese and had been sold in a sack by bandits to villagers. This story stuck in my head for close to thirty years. I couldn’t write the novel as I didn’t yet understand the Japanese race, and didn’t have the money to travel there. I waited until 2007 when a TV presenter bought the rights to make this story a television series, funding my travels to Japan. I took two translators with me, and we went to a small village where half of the villagers had emigrated to the conquered North-eastern territory of China and half had stayed in Japan. I found these women who had been sold to Chinese families. They had eventually found their way back to Japan. I heard both sides of the story which is very lucky from a writer’s perspective.

Would you say Little Aunt Crane this is a non-fiction novel?

No. I used facts I discovered in my research but created the characters and their relationships myself. All the Chinese characters are based on real people and stereotypes of that era, but portraying a Japanese woman in a foreign atmosphere was more difficult; it took lots of research for me to understand who I wanted Duohe to be. For that, I knew I had to go to Japan to meet these women and hear their stories. After visiting Japanese women in this backward village that had been split in two, I then went to Okinawa and saw where the Himeyuri schoolgirls had committed suicide. Having studied different types of Japanese women and their characters, I felt I could finally relate to them. This character Duohe lived within me for thirty years and I could finally live within her. After this, the writing process came very easily to me, and by being able to finally put my ideas to paper I gradually understood how this story would evolve.

Interviewing Yan Geling at Southbank Centre

Can you tell us about the main characters and their relationships?

Duohe’s personality is based on a Japanese producer I worked with for many years. She was very Japanese: loyal, stubborn, and soft in character. You could not change her in her heart; she was who she was. Working with this producer was like looking from a peephole into Japanese culture. Duohe’s ways of bowing down in front of guests, and keeping the house clean were inspired by my research in the village. Japanese women who live in the cities no longer act in this way. The older ladies from the villages, those whose society Duohe would have lived in, still had these traditional ways of being.

Xiaohuan’s personality is that of all Chinese women. They are some of the strongest women in the world. They are tough and make do no matter what situation arises. This attitude to always make do and survive is present throughout the entire story. No matter what historical event, social crisis or family dispute happens, you must keep going.

Xiaohuan and Duohe learn to live together throughout time. They are allies and enemies. They understand that when the outside world comes beating on their door, they must hold hands and face the world together. It is their responsibility to keep the family together. When outside the situation is calm, then they quarrel over Zhang Jian. Duohe was unfortunate in that she knows she would always be at a disadvantage to Xiaohuan. This type of household was very common in China. The wife often had to live with the husband’s concubines and learn to get along with them.

Yan Geling at festival's Opening Keynote with Guardian's China correspondent

What inspires you to create strong, independent female characters that we encounter in lots of your works?

I am a woman and understand women. As a writer, I enjoy hearing people's’ stories and take inspiration from them. It is easy to get women to talk. They are emotional creatures and like to gossip. I talk to beauticians, taxi drivers, and shop vendors. They all have stories to tell me about how they met their husbands, how they afford rent, and how they get by. In the end, everyone is playing the same game. We are all trying to put food on our dinner table.

What is your opinion on Chinese media calling you a female writer?

I don’t agree with being labelled a female writer. A writer is a writer. It is discriminating to be categorized as female in a society where men are considered superior to women. I don’t encounter this problem with the Western media.

Can you tell us about working in the People’s Liberation Army as a dancer and how that affects your writing now?

I joined the People’s Liberation Army at twelve years old. I was from a literary family which was not popular in those days. In the army, I was treated like an adult. I taught myself to lie in order to stand up for myself and protect my condemned father.I have always had a very sensitive and quiet nature.My mind started analysing situations and reading into people’s emotions. In the army, no two people were from the same place and everybody’s story was different. I would listen to these people talk and feel deep compassion for them. I started writing these soldiers’ stories down on paper, trying to find a way to let go of my oversensitive thoughts of their experiences.

How has living abroad changed your perception and understand of Chinese culture and society?

To really understand China’s society and culture, I had to step outside of it and look in from an outsider’s perspective. When you live somewhere for too long, you start taking your day-to-day life for granted, and can’t see it from a critical point of view. Emigrating to the Unites States enabled me to understand the great historic movements China had just been through; the Sino-Japanese war, the Great Famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the social developments of the country. I try to go back to China often and listen to people talk about their lives. Nowadays, the major cities are made up of drifting populations. The multiple dialects in China are very colourful languages that are shaped by people from different regions. My work is very inspired by the diversity of ethnic backgrounds found in China and I believe to live a colourful life you must speak multiple languages.The Northern accent and practice of Mandarin Chinese should not be emphasized so much in Chinese society. Speaking with a different accent or in a dialect is like adding spice and flavour to your food: it adds richness to your life.

How do you feel China’s economic development has affected its art and literature?

When Japan’s economy developed, the country opened its doors to Western society and trade. People took an interest in its culture. Currently, China is at battle with the United States and Russia to become the world’s strongest economy. I can only imagine more people will take interest in Chinese culture the more developed the country is. I believe when a country’s economy and politics are doing well, then its arts and culture sector does as well.

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