In the early 1980s, the winds of China’s reform and opening-up swept through the publishing field.
In 1983, The Catcher in the Rye was for the first time available to the general public from the Lijiang Press, which exerted enormous influence on China’s literary landscape.
“In the past, publishers in China paid little attention to the 20th century foreign literature. They looked down on the Nobel Prize for Literature, and believed it to be an award for the bourgeoisie. Also, some market-oriented publishers focused on popular detective novels and had no clear plans for foreign literary works,” said Liu Shuoliang, the editor who oversaw the project at Lijiang Press. At the time, Liu was working to bring modernist fiction to China. “After all, reading only Balzac and [Maxim] Gorky was surely far from enough,” he told NewsChina.
Lijiang Press published a series of paperbacks that also included Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil and Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. However, The Catcher in the Rye was the most popular and influential, Liu told our reporter.
“Many literary aficionados would buy multiple copies at a time. In the 1980s, if young people met on the street or at a bus station, they’d usually share a kind of secret code – ‘Have you read it? Not yet? I’ll give one to you,’” Liu said.
In 1985, two years after The Catcher in the Rye’s publication, the first wave of Chinese modernist novels emerged, all deeply influenced by Western modernist literature. The avant-garde works Variations Without a Theme by Xu Xing and Liu Suola’s You Got No Choice, both published in China’s leading literary magazine People’s Literature in 1985, are commonly regarded as two major milestones of contemporary Chinese literature. As literary critics pointed out, both works, with their colloquial dark humor and poignant mood of lost idealism, were direct reflections of Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.
“At the time, some in literary circles believed Xu Xing’s work to be an imitation of The Catcher in the Rye. Xu was a waiter at a Peking duck restaurant. He wrapped his thoughts on life in an outraged narrative against hypocrisy. He also used curse words in his writing,” wrote Zhu Wei, former editor of People’s Literature who published Xu and Liu.
“In fact, Salinger influenced an entire generation of young Chinese and produced thousands of Xu Xings. It just happened to be this Xu Xing with his Variation Without a Theme that became an irreplaceable page in 1980s Chinese literary history,” Zhu added.
Some writers were drawn to the book in a more personal way, relating to the character in their own lives.
Jiang Benhu, 55, China’s most successful espionage thriller writer who writes under the pen name Mai Jia, adopted his literary moniker after the book. Mai Jia translates literally to “The Family of the Rye” in Chinese. He is known for spy novels such as Decoded, The Message and Plot.
Mai Jia was persecuted at school during the Cultural Revolution because of his family background. His grandfather was a landlord and his father a rightist and Christian. Bullied by students and teachers, he was ostracized for most of his youth. His only outlet was journaling his inner dialogue. By the time he started writing fiction a decade later, Mai Jia had filled 36 diaries.
After reading The Catcher in the Rye, Mai Jia found a character that resonated with his life, a boy who was “lonely, distressed, full of anger and frustration.”
“I felt every word [in The Catcher in the Rye] was written just for me. Every word glows and transforms into a spirit and power that flows through my soul and body. There hasn’t been a book since that shocked me, warmed me and stimulated me so much,” Mai Jia wrote in his essay “How Salinger Taught Me to Write” published in the Beijing Evening News after Salinger’s death in 2010.
“Salinger showed me that I could write novels this way, like how I wrote in my diaries,” he added.