Yan Geling: “Writing is the most exhausting Career”

2018-03-06 21:00:55 China Minutes

Chinese literature fans packed into London’s China Exchange yesterday in ready anticipation for the arrival of their literature idol, China’s acclaimed contemporary novelist Yan Geling. As she stepped onto the stage with her husband Lawrence Walker and translator Nicky Harman, both translators of Geling’s work, a buzz filled the room.

Yan Geling’s life has been just as colourful as her novels, she was born in Shanghai in 1958, and just when she was about to enter secondary school, the Cultural Revolution closed the doors on all formal education. Aged 12, she became a dancer with the People's Liberation Army and dancing came to replace school life. In 1979 she continued to serve the PLA as a war correspondent, reporting on the Sino-Vietnamese war, later being discharged with a rank equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel. After this tumultuous period in Chinese history Yan Geling took to writing books, including novels and short-story collections, and written screenplays.

From left Nicky Harman, Lawrence Walker, Yan Geling Freya Aitken-turff (Photographer Neil Raja)

Her best-known novels in English are Little Aunt Crane,The Flowers of War, The Banquet Bug and The Lost Daughter of Happiness. She has also published a novella and short story collection called White Snake and Other Stories. Several of Geling’s works have been adapted for film and television, including internationally distributed films Xiu Xiu, The Sent-Down Girl and Siao Yu. Chinese director Zhang Yimou made The Flowers of War, a big-budget film based on her work set during the 1937 Rape of Nanking, starring Academy Award winning actor Christian Bale.

Yan Geling has recently taken to the spotlight again with her novel Youth (Fang Hua), which was adapted into a blockbuster movie by renowned Director Feng Xiaogang. Youth is a coming-of-age drama which tracks the tempestuous fate of a People’s Liberation Army dance troupe from the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 through to the 1990s. It draws close parallels to Yan Geling’s own life, much of which provided material for the original novel.

When asked to comment on what it takes to be a writer Geling replied “writing is the most exhausting career, nothing compares.” She has strived to master her art over the last few decades to become one of China’s most celebrated contemporary writers. Her work often depicts deeply moving stories about life in China, highlighting wider social issues.

She claimed that as a child she was rather quiet and withdrawn, but observed a lot and developed a “sixth sense” or “sharp perception.” She creates portraits in her mind of the people she meets and this is what provides substance for the characters in her novels. At times she has to go to great lengths to find inspiration for these characters and so she once booked a trip to Japan in search of the character traits of Japanese women for her novel, Little Aunt Crane.

Yan Geling signing books (Photographer Neil Raja)

Geling said “the film Youth depicted a time in my life when I believed in heroism and dying for my country, but after seeing the suffering of war I became a peace activist, seeing limbs cut off changed me.” Geling went to America at the end of 1989 for graduate study and participated in demonstrations against the Gulf war during her time there.

Geling remarried in 1992 with Lawrence Walker, an American diplomat, who has translated some of her books into English. Translating such deeply emotional stories is not easy and Lawrence said he has “to really try to feel the emotions himself to be able to translate successfully”. He added “things have come a long way since the days of wading through Chinese to English dictionaries, today there are apps like pleco, which make things a lot easier.”

Nicky Harman, a UK-based prize-winning literary translator, who translated Geling’s Flowers of War said she takes a different approach to translating heart-wrenching stories “I have to take myself out of it” she said she can only translate such works by becoming detached from them.

Geling felt her father’s large book collection and the freedom he gave her to read influenced her to later become a writer “my father took a freestyle approach to my upbringing, he let me read anything I wanted, if I had read porn he probably wouldn’t care.” When asked about the time she worked as a dancer she said “I felt dancing was too limited, I want to tell the world what I think, when I write I can use my mind” also adding “writing makes me feel liberated, my feelings are expressed through my characters and they express the misery we have been through.”

She emphasised that as a writer it is important “not to be emotional, but in control and accurate.” Her advice for other writers was that “as an artist you are very fragile, but you must be confident in what you write, don’t care too much about what others think.”

She currently resides in Berlin, Germany with her husband Lawrence, preferring life as an “outsider” with few people recognising her celebrity status, dedicating her time to writing and “not being bothered by too many visitors.” Perhaps even her neighbours don’t realise they are living next door to one of China’s most sought after contemporary writers.



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