Author Chi Zijian uses her grassroots experience to make policy proposals to China's top political advisory body, Wang Kaihao reports.
A woman from the Ewenki ethnic group herds reindeer in Oluguya, a small township in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. The Ewenki people, who live deep in the forests of the Greater Hinggan Mountains, are described as "the last tribe raising reindeer in China". (YANG SHUHAI / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Chi Zijian was seen attending the annual session of China's top political advisory body in Beijing earlier this week.
Chi, a member of the 13th Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference National Committee, is considered one of the country's most influential contemporary writers. But she maintains a relatively low profile. Chi does not use social media, including WeChat, the popular messaging app.
During an interview with China Daily outside a meeting room at the Great Hall of the People, she spoke of Oluguya, the setting in one of her books - The Right Bank of Ergune River.
Oluguya is a small township inhabited by members of the Ewenki ethnic group in the Inner Mongolia autonomous region. The group, whose members live deep in the forests of the Greater Hinggan Mountains, is often described as "the last tribe raising reindeer in China". Chi published the novel in 2005, and it later became known in the West by its English translation, The Last Quarter of the Moon.
Inspired by her own experiences of living among the Ewenki people, the book is an epic following their history through the 20th century.
"The most important inspiration for writers is drawn from the world they live in," Chi says.
Chi, 55, was born in Mohe, Heilongjiang province, which is in China's far north. Now she lives in Harbin, the provincial capital, and continues to write stories of Northeast China.
Chi Zijian at the annual session of the 13th Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Beijing. (JIANG DONG / CHINA DAILY)
The Right Bank of Ergune River won her the Mao Dun Literature Prize, China's top literary honor, in 2009. Chi is also a three-time winner of the Lu Xun Literature Prize, another top award.
"If there are writers who have observations on places familiar to them, they will contribute to the culture prosperity there, be it through plays, musicals or other forms of art. But writing is still the foundation," Chi says.
In 1990, when Chi visited Japan, she says she was asked whether she came from "Manchukuo", a Japanese puppet state from 1932 to 1945 in today's Northeast China. She felt humiliated by the reminder of that painful history. The trip made her undertake a comprehensive study of that history and she wrote the 700,000-character novel, Puppet Manchukuo, within the next decade.
Chi first rose to prominence in 1985 through her novella, Fairy Tales of the Arctic Pole Village, which is based on her childhood.
Since then, the scenes of northern China, especially in winter, have provided the backdrops for her novels, spanning from The Right Bank of Ergune River, White Snow and Crow (2010), in which the story is set during a plague in Harbin in the 1910s, to Top of Mountains (2015), which again takes readers deep inside forests.
"Nothing will change my roots in Dongbei (Northeast China)," she says, adding that people will continue to be the main focus even in her future works.
Chi also calls for diversity in Chinese literature, as is being emphasized in art and literary circles these days.
With The Wandering Earth, a film this year adapted from Liu Cixin's novella becoming a pop culture phenomenon, Chi says she hopes this trend will continue.
Liu, who won the Hugo Award in 2015, is China's most celebrated science-fiction author.
"There is enough room for different genres of literature to grow," Chi says. "Writers can explore various fields as long as they are truly familiar with them."
As a member of the CPPCC, Chi has taken more social responsibilities outside the literary world.
In previous annual sessions of the CPPCC National Committee, she had proposed that city administrators do more to help beggars settle down, and that people from the frigid Greater Hinggan Mountains area get more subsidies for living in such tough conditions, based on her understanding of the grassroots community.
The most important inspiration for writers is drawn from the world they live in
Chi Zijian, Writer
While preparing for The Right Bank of Ergune River, she spent months traveling through the forests of Oluguya and learning about Ewenki culture. Such experiences have given her much more than ideas to create fictional works. She has also learned about people's hardships in such places.
After her long and detailed observation of life, history and culture in the country's northeast, Chi says she has developed an emotional resonance for other border areas. Chi says she has traveled to most such places in China, including the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region and the Tibet autonomous region.
"I'm astounded by the brilliant civilizations there," she says. "But their stories need to be better told."
At a current session of the CPPCC National Committee, she made another proposal to better support border areas using the strength of culture, and echoing the efforts to alleviate poverty.
"Improvement of infrastructure, like transportation, is only a part of the work," she says. "Revitalization of culture in these border areas is also crucial. Relevant studies need to be enhanced through multiple ways, such as archaeology, to fully showcase their charm."
The landscape and lives of people in Northeast China offer author Chi Zijian inspiration for her writing. (LIU ZHAOMING / FOR CHINA DAILY)
Such revitalization will get people's spirits up and the economic boom will come naturally, she adds.
She has set an example: Her poetic description of the village in the Fairy Tales of the Arctic Pole Village has turned the northern outpost into a popular and top tourism destination.
Chi says border areas also witness much communication with foreign countries.
"Russia is just across the river from my hometown," the writer says, smiling. "In our dialect, we call a kind of water bucket vedero, a Russian word."
Unique cultures develop through such interactions, she continues.
"Frontier ports not only serve for business or trade, but also help with people-to-people exchanges."
The Right Bank of Ergune River wins Chi Zijian the Mao Dun Literature Prize.
In Heihe, another city in Heilongjiang along China's border with Russia, for instance, Chi cites a 9-year-old cultural festival that has enabled Chinese and Russian art troupes and writers to regularly communicate with each other. "It is a brilliant idea to have a fair of culture."
Intentionally or not, Chi's books have become bridges for such cross-border communication, too. Her books have been translated into English, French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Korean and some other languages. Last year, the Swedish edition of The Right Bank of Ergune River was published.
Nevertheless, Chi plays down her growing global recognition.
While traditional Chinese values need to be better showcased, Chi says, "going abroad shouldn't be done in a haste".
"Overseas publishers have their own criteria for selection. Artistic merit - not fame and profit - should be a writer's primary concern."
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