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Requiem on the Ruins

In his latest novel In the Cloud, award-winning ethnic Tibetan writer Alai breaks his decade-long silence on his experience with death during the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. In an interview with NewsChina, Alai discusses past trauma, his literary transformations and social challenges to come

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Alai was working on his mythological novel The King of Gesar at his home in Chengdu, Sichuan Province when the ground violently trembled under his feet.  

“At that moment I was writing about the fury of the gods, who make the entire world quiver in fear. It took me a few seconds to judge whether the violent quake was real or my imagination. I felt the tremor instantly spring up from the ground to my desk and it almost flung me to the floor. Then I realized it was not from my hallucination. It was a real earthquake,” reads the preface of In the Cloud, Alai’s latest book released on April 30.  

Eleven years earlier, China was traumatized by one of the worst earthquakes in the nation’s history. At 2:28 pm on May 12, 2008, powerful shock waves erupted from the epicenter in Wenchuan County and instantly spread across the province.  

The magnitude-8 quake would leave 87,000 people dead, 370,000 injured and five million homeless. The provincial capital of Chengdu, where Alai lived, was the closest major city to the earthquake’s epicenter.  

Alai joined in rescue efforts, where he witnessed suffering and death. A decade later, the writer said a flood of memories from these experiences suddenly overcame him. Then he forced himself to face his trauma and write his story about his feeling and experience.  

Disaster and Death
Alai was born in 1959 in the Gyarong Tibetan ethnic community that inhabits Aba Prefecture, Sichuan Province. He was raised in a close-knit family: His mother is Tibetan and his father Hui Muslim.  

Wenchuan is located in Aba Prefecture. After the quake, the only fortunate news for the writer was that there was no one killed in his home village.  

At 49, he volunteered for rescue teams, but was turned away because of his age. He headed in alone.   

Alai loaded his jeep with large quantities of food and water from the supermarket. He drove into the disaster-stricken area only for two falling rocks to hit his car. After he arrived, the writer joined rescuers and distributed the water and food to people in need. The day was hot and the air thick with the stench of rotting corpses. He had to wear three face masks to cope with the smell.  

“We dug a two-meter-wide pit, placed one layer of bodies, and a layer of dirt and lime above it, and then another layer of bodies,” Alai told NewsChina. “The whole thing was too much to bear, so I had to stop for a while. I returned to my car and played Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor at low volume. It was pitch dark outside. The sky was full of stars. In an instant I felt the night was so beautiful. And so was Mozart’s Requiem. Some strangers came over and silently listened with me. When the music was over, they left,” he recalled. “I thought if I was about to write about death, I hope my writing would show the power I felt in the Requiem,” he said.  

Soon after the earthquake, many noted writers wrote essays and books about the disaster. But Alai rejected requests from media and publishers to write on the subject.  

“After having witnessed so much, I had a strong urge to write something. But every time I attempted to write, I repeatedly asked myself whether I had found the most appropriate way to tell the story. I’d been waiting for the proper time for so many years,” he told NewsChina.  

On May 12, 2018, on the 10th anniversary of the earthquake, a sudden surge of memories engulfed him. He began to write. “I kept myself alone in the study that day. I wrote and wrote with tears rolling down my face,” Alai said.  

He wrote at a feverish pace, finishing the entire novel in five months. 

‘Take Care of the Dead’
Alai told NewsChina that In the Cloud was initially inspired by a series of photos taken by his friend, a professional photographer. Among them was a photo of a local shaman holding a drum and standing before the ruins of his village.  

The shaman told the photographer he had returned to the ruins for one reason: “The government takes care of the living, while I take care of the dead.”  

The story impressed Alai so deeply that he based Aba, the protagonist from In the Cloud, on that shaman.  

The story is set in Yunzhong, which translates to “in the cloud,” a Tibetan village that had stood for a millennium. Aba comes from a long line of Bon shamans, an ancient religion based in Tibetan Buddhism that also involves animism and ancestor worship. But he did not take up the priesthood, instead choosing to finish middle school and become the first in his village to work at a hydroelectric power plant.  

The 2008 Sichuan earthquake devastated the ancient village, killing over 80 people. Geologists predicted that the mountain on which the village stood would eventually slide into the nearby Minjiang River. Authorities ordered all the villagers to leave the mountain, the home of their ancestors and the mountain god they worshipped, for a safer area in the plains.  

Three years later, Aba began feeling a spiritual force drawing him back to the old village. He returned to his lost hometown with two horses and lived there for six months. Answering his family calling, Aba held rituals for the 36 families lost to the earthquake. Every day, before the ruins of every home, Aba would burn incense, chant and dance to comfort the souls of the dead. 

“I’ve seen many people like this. Many don’t have a clear sense of their responsibilities. They are not aware of their own role and just work and live with no particular purpose. But when disaster comes, something inside them is suddenly awakened, and in extreme conditions they realize their mission and responsibilities,” Alai said during a June 30 event promoting his book in Shanghai.   

Cheng Depei, a noted literary critic and Lu Xun Literary Prize winner, points out that the force of nature plays a central part in Alai’s novels.  

“The most striking feature in Alai’s writings lies in his focus on the relationship between human and nature. He sees a huge gulf between human and nature, and in this gulf is the collected philosophy and literature of humankind. In the Cloud provides a special viewpoint to contemplate the relationship between them. Humans never quite balance these two – if one cares too much about that world, he may inevitably resort to religion, while if he cares too much about this world, he would turn into a very petty secularist,” Cheng said at the event.  

Book launch for In the Cloud, May 25, 2019

Shrewd Observer
Before writing novels, Alai was a poet. A diehard follower of Pablo Neruda and Walt Whitman, he was passionate about poetry in his youth.  

Alai graduated from a teacher training college and taught in a rural school for five years before landing a job at the Aba Cultural Bureau as an editor for a local literary journal.  He began writing poems in 1982 and published his first anthology, The Lengmo River, in 1989. He was 30. 

“My youth was all about writing poetry in loneliness. I came from a very poor family and suffered from a chronic illness. As a teacher, when the bell rang, I had to be in class but most of the time I kept myself invisible from others and indulged in reading, music and writing poems,” Alai told NewsChina.  

But in the years following The Lengmo River, Alai gradually felt that poetry was no longer enough to balance his thoughts with the rapidly changing and increasingly complex world. He increasingly could not turn a blind eye to social issues. “A feeling of emptiness haunted me for a long time and I couldn’t get rid of it. The old passion gradually turned into suspicion,” Alai said. Alai began to contemplate his ethnic identity and Tibetan history and culture. Outsiders describe Tibet with an air of mystery and romance, while Tibetan history is framed in the official narrative. For Alai, neither provides a complete picture.  

He gave up writing poems and began researching local records and the family histories of 18 Tibetan chieftains, which laid the foundation of Red Poppies, his first and most famous novel.  Red Poppies tells a sweeping epic tale about the final years in the history of the Gyarong-Tibetan chieftain system from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. It was based on a story Alai wrote in the 1980s about a legendary Tibetan sage named Aku Tongpa, who masked his wisdom and intelligence behind a facade of idiocy.  

In Red Poppies, the character became Young Master, a chieftain’s son who despite his mental deficiencies, possessed great wisdom and a supernatural foresight that revealed the rise and fall of his family and other chieftains.  

Published in 1998, Red Poppies was a bestseller. It won the 2000 Maodun Prize, China’s highest literary award. At 41, Alai was the youngest writer in China to win the award.  

In 1998, Alai became chief editor of Science Fiction World, a magazine based in Chengdu. Running a commercial magazine, Alai had to interact with many people, such as writers, sponsors, advertisers, contributors, publishers and distributors. But through his efforts, Science Fiction World became China’s most influential sci-fi magazine – it now has a circulation larger than any sci-fi magazine in the world. 

Alai’s focuses do not stop with Tibetan history. As China marched toward a market society under reform and opening-up, Alai began to explore how commercialism had reshaped the relationship between urban and rural areas, and its effect on traditional values.  

“Commercialism is a much more powerful force than ideology. In the past, people could fight against ideological control, and they were seen as heroes even if they failed. But in a commercial society, there’s no chance for you to fight against its hidden rules. If you don’t follow them, you’ll be a useless person left behind, you’ll be a loser,” Alai told NewsChina.  

In 2005, Alai published his six-volume novel The Empty Mountain, which tells about the lives of the last Tibetan hunters and depicts the changes that have taken place in Tibet during China’s three decades of reform and opening-up.  

In his novella The Shade of the Cypress on the River, Alai writes about the extinction of a rare kind of cypress in a village after its highly inflated price tempts the villagers to cut them all down. Another novella, Winter Worm, Summer Grass, focuses on how the trade in Cordyceps, a caterpillar fungus found on the Tibetan Plateau prized for its medicinal value, changes a Tibetan village. 

“The desires behind consumerism have forever altered people’s thinking. I think it’s a much more crucial problem than ethnic relations,” he said.