Authors expect, and indeed sometimes thrive on, criticism. Critics are well armed; they can, after all, throw the book at authors. Yu Hua seems almost to prove the point. His sixth full-length novel Wencheng has just been published, as if to feed the critics’ appetite. “I hope everyone comes to criticize me,” the well-known writer says. “Criticism means attention. If there is no criticism that means nobody focuses on you.”
Yu is well-known for To Live, his signature award-winning novel, released in 1993, but his last full-length novel Seventh Day, published eight years ago, may have prepared him for such attention, as the critics targeted the latter.
Some commented: “This book (Seventh Day) is just a collection of news!” The protagonist of that book is a deceased man, Yang Fei, and it tells of the social problems that his ghost witnesses. Compared with that last book, Yu was expecting that “there would be more criticism” for his latest literary effort, Wencheng, but “in fact, the criticism was less”.
The creation process for Wencheng was complicated. “The writers of our generation have an aspiration to write a story across 100 years. Therefore, I wanted to write a story that happened before To Live,” Yu says. After publishing To Live, Yu began to create this story. But after writing more than 200,000 characters, he succumbed to writer’s block. After publishing Brothers in 2005, he continued the story; after publishing Seventh Day in 2013, he moved it further again. Last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Yu finally completed the novel.
“I chose Wencheng as the title of this book for no other reason than because this city does not exist, and all stories are related to Wencheng,”Yu explains. In Chinese, wen means literature, while cheng means city. Wencheng is not just a city where the story happens, but a space in which the readers can let their imaginations roam free.
The protagonist Lin Xiangfu takes his daughter from North to South China, staying in Xizhen town to look for his wife Xiaomei. In the book, Yu gives his readers a sense of the region south of the Yangtze River, and the customs and manners north of the Yellow River.
In 2014, an article in the newspaper, China Arts, said that there is both variability and invariability in Yu’s literature.
“I hope I don’t repeat the style of my work,” Yu says in Hangzhou. “A writer must challenge himself.” As his novels reveal, Yu has been battling to change the form and style of his writing. Readers may have found that the “cold writer” has become “sympathetic and soft” when they read To Live and then Wencheng. In To Live, which depicts the lives of grassroots people since the 1920s, the wretched destinies of Xu Fugui and his family will touch hearts. Whereas there is less cruelty in Wencheng. Just like literary critic Li Zhuang says:”To Live tells the story of how to live without hope, while Wencheng tells the story of how to die with hope.”
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