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Spirits of the Northeast

The prolific, prize-winning contemporary writer Chi Zijian tells NewsChina about her new work, her literary odyssey and her deep and unique connection with nature in China’s northeast

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

We’ll talk later. Let me finish the opening match first. A fortune-telling cat said Saudi Arabia would win. Let’s see if that is the case.” The 54-year-old writer Chi Zijian responds to our interview request with childlike enthusiasm. A fervent soccer addict, nothing can distract her from the ongoing World Cup.  

A prolific and industrious contemporary writer, Chi has published more than 50 works in three decades, including Peak among the Mountains, Puppet Manchukuo, Sunshine Behind the Clouds, Last Quarter of the Moon, Snow and Raven and the short story collection Tales from an Arctic Village. In 2008, Last Quarter of the Moon won China’s most prestigious literary award – the Mao Dun Literature Prize. It has been translated into English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese and more. She published her latest novel, The Bravery of Migratory Birds, in May this year. 

Chi was born in Mohe Arctic Village, a tiny settlement on northeast China’s Siberian border with a population of around 1,000 people. Chi grew up in a land covered with primeval forest and thick snow. Her writing is marked by its depictions of the lives of those who live close to nature in northeastern China, weathering harsh conditions which embody the “fire and ice” extremes of human nature. 
To Leave or Stay 
This connection with nature is what makes Chi stand out in the Chinese literary sphere. Famed science fiction writer A Lai, of Tibetan descent from Sichuan Province, says: “I like Chi’s novels, largely because there is nature in her works, a rarity among Chinese novels.”  

Her latest, The Bravery of Migratory Birds, focuses on how human relationships are  
colored by the relationships between people and nature. The protagonist, Blackface Zhang, is a kind man who works at the Jinweng River Natural Reserve. While fighting a wildfire, Zhang, who has an intellectual disability, is saved by a white stork, and the experience causes him to form a close bond with birds. 

 Zhang later falls in love with De Xiu, a young nun who lives near the station, and the story tells how the pair breaks the shackles of religion and embraces love. The novel also portrays another love story – between a pair of white storks. The male bird, injured by a poacher, is unable to  
migrate to warmer climes when winter comes. Zhang opts to take care of the bird. The female bird, after sending their little chicks south, returns north for her partner, but the pair meets a tragic end in a fierce snowstorm while attempting to migrate.  

Zhang and De Xiu bury the birds after finding them lying together on the snow. Nevertheless, the story ends ambiguously: the couple gets lost in the snowstorm and cannot find their way back. Whether they will return home safely and be happy together or meet a tragic end is unclear.  

“If I’d written the novel 30 years ago, I would have given them a happy wedding. Life experience has shown me that fate is unpredictable,” Chi told NewsChina.  

Apart from poignant love stories, Chi depicts the adverse influence of power on people in the city, something particularly acute in the northeastern Chinese experience. One character in the story, Ironteeth Zhou, head of the Natural Reserve station, bribes his superiors with rare birds shot by poachers, and officials treat the station as their personal resort.  

“Following the reform and opening-up policy [in the late 1970s], northeast China fell behind the southern provinces in economic development. Many people there don’t have a strong will to integrate with the market, but cling to power instead,” she told NewsChina.  

Migratory birds symbolize the people of northeastern China, who are well known for “seasonal migration.” Many fly to the South (often to Hainan Province) to pass the winter and travel back home in summer. 

The novel portrays these kinds of “migratory-bird people” – such as Ironteeth Zhang – as corrupt vested interests. The ubiquitous power-money deal enables the fortunate to accumulate wealth and buy houses in the South to enjoy warm winters. But the poor have no choice but to stay in the northeast and shiver through the bitter winter. Being a migratory bird or one which stays put has become a primary indicator of social status. 

Plots, Food 
The writer leads a simple and disciplined life: she gets up at 7am and goes to bed at 11pm; cooking is her second passion next to writing, and she loves idly loitering in food markets. Two things occupy her mind before she goes to bed: what food to cook tomorrow, and the plot of the story she’s currently working on.  

She has a certain detachment from daily news and social networking. She never uses social media apps – opting instead to communicate with an old flip phone. Even so, she uses it little – just for calling and sending text messages.  

“It is through practice and experience that writers understand the times and gauge the world, not through glancing over information,” Chi said.  

Chi was born on the evening of the Lantern Festival – the 15th day of the first month of the lunar calendar – in 1964 as villagers were celebrating by decorating their doorways with glowing red lanterns, creating a spectacle in the snowy light. Her family gave her the nickname “Lantern.”  

Her father was head of the local primary school and a man of knowledge and accomplishment. He was skilled in playing violin and accordion as well as in calligraphy. He loved reading Classic literature, especially the poetry of Cao Zhi, a great poet of the Three Kingdoms period (220-280) and the younger son of the famous warlord Cao Cao. Chi was named Zijian after Cao Zhi’s literary name.  

Chi Zijian gives a lecture at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China, November 9, 2016

Although she was the daughter of a literature lover, Chi had little chance to read while growing up during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), during which many books were banned. Fearing they would endanger the family, her father wrapped up all his novels in sacks and burned them deep in the forest.  

There is snow at Mohe for much of the year. Chi’s earliest contact with the literary tradition was in the form of spoken word fairy tales and folklore told by village elders around the campfire. There was the story of the maid in a picture who came to life to cook for a poor young boy; and the lonely old man who dug a magic melon out of a field which had an infant boy sleeping inside.  

Chi began her literary career in 1983, at that time a junior at the Normal School of the Greater Khingan Mountains, a teaching college, when she began publishing short stories in literary magazines.  

In 1986, Chi published the short story collection Tales from an Arctic Village, an early work which brought much attention. The book took inspiration from her childhood when she was entrusted to the care of her maternal grandmother. Some of the stylistic characteristics of Chi’s later works took shape in this novel, such as the meticulous descriptions of scenery and nature, and the tranquil, sentimental voice.  

Support and encouragement from her family drove her early writing. After Tales from an Arctic Village was published, Chi’s cousin read it to her grandmother. Listening attentively, her grandmother continually raised an eyebrow and mumbled, “This part is real,” or she frowned and said, “This part is fabricated.”  

By the late 1980s, Chi was teaching Chinese literature. Her particular fondness for the writer Yu Dafu – who was active in the 1930s and 40s – led her to create a seminar on the writer, despite his works getting little treatment in Chinese literature textbooks. “The biggest similarity between me as a teacher and me as a writer is that I don’t like to go by the book,” she said. 
Ill-fated Gift 

In late 1991 Chi visited Japan for a cultural exchange, and an elderly Japanese person asked if she came from “Manchuria.” It was a reference to part of northeast China ruled by the Japanese between 1931 and 1945. Chi felt insulted by the jarring word. “Considering that period of humiliation has ended, why does it leave such a deep stigma on the older generations of both Chinese and Japan?” she asked.  

Manchuria was a puppet state of Japan in Northeast China and the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region from 1932 until 1945. It is associated with intense shame for some Chinese people.  
Back in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang, Chi spent a great deal of energy collecting historical materials on Manchuria and sorting through notes on folk customs and how people adapted to life under Japanese occupation. These formed the basis of her 2000 novel Puppet Manchukuo.  
It took seven years of research to write the book. “I knew it was a hard bone to bite. I feared writing it may harm my health.”  

Chi was married in 1998 at the age of 34. She says it was the happiness and stability of the marriage that gave her the confidence to begin writing Puppet Manchukuo.  

She spent two years writing the book and sent an advance copy to her husband as a gift, with the dedication: “This is the most satisfying work of mine so far. It belongs to me and you.”  
Chi’s happy marriage was sadly ill-fated. Four years after she got married, her husband Huang Shijun died in a car crash. 

The pain returns each time as she sees the advance copy of Puppet Manchukuo on their shelves. “It tears my heart apart every time I think of the cruel fact that I spent two whole years of my four-year marriage writing that book. If I had known that my happiness would be short-lived, I would have spent more time with him,” Chi said. 

Her husband’s death was a huge blow that marked a sharp turn in her works. Known previously for her pastoral, sentimental works, the tragedy imbued her stories with a sense of desolation.  
Chi’s 2005 novel All the Nights in the World is closest to her personal pain. The main protagonist loses her husband but is shaken from the prison of grief after witnessing a tragic mine disaster in the village of Wutang.  

“Most contemporary Chinese literary works take a critical, sharp, and even cruel approach to reality, which we all know can help arouse attention and interest. Chi Zijian is rare in that she’s always viewed people, things and the world in a tender, softhearted way,” contemporary writer Su Tong once commented.  

In 2005, Chi published The Last Quarter of the Moon, which won the Mao Dun prize in 2008. Narrated by a nameless elder woman of the Evenki tribe, the epic story centers on her nomadic clan in northern China and the tragic decline of their culture over the political upheavals of the 20th century.  

While researching the book, Chi stayed in a modern day Evenki encampment for several days, drinking their reindeer milk tea, listening to their songs and stories and witnessing their shamanistic connection with nature.  

Chi felt a connection with the culture of shamanism in her own hometown. “As a child entering the mountains to fetch firewood, more than once I discovered an odd-shaped head on a thick tree trunk. Father told me that was the image of the mountain spirit Bainacha, carved by the Oroqen [another nomadic clan],” Chi told the Financial Times in 2013.  

While lecturing at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chi was challenged by a student, who argued that the myths in her works seemed foolish in the era of science.  

Cover of The Bravery of Migratory Birds

She responded, “All myths cannot withstand dissection by the scalpel of science. Then again, if we only saw the world as a material one, would we not just be proteins?” 

Chi published Tales from an Arctic Village more than 32 years ago, and the Northeast has undergone tremendous change since then. The writer told our reporter that since she is not a historian, she has no intention of chronologically outlining each of those drastic changes. 

As a novelist, she is more keen on observing the gradations of life and society in small details: the ancient trees that grew densely in her hometown have gradually disappeared; the village elders who told mythical stories by the fire have gone to the next world, and nowadays it is television screens that depict mythical dramas.