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Mining Memories

Over his 40-year career, coal miner-turned-author Liu Qingbang has won acclaim for short stories and novellas that dig deep into the suffering of China’s miners and the frustrations of its rural people

By NewsChina Updated Jul.1

No writer in China knows more about life as a coal miner than Liu Qingbang. Before starting his literary career, Liu spent 19 years as a village farmer and nine years working in the coal mines. 

For four decades, the 69-year-old writer has written relentlessly about the hardships of those who toil the soil above ground and those who tunnel below it. His fast-paced and intense storylines are also loaded with cultural and social criticism. And he continues to pursue justice through literature. Since 2011, Liu has shifted his subject matter to the overworked nannies from rural areas working in Beijing.  

Liu is skillful in creating emotional tension and building suspense. A prime example is his novella Sacred Wood, which won the Lao She Literature Prize in 2000 and was later adapted into the critically acclaimed film Blind Shaft.  

Parents (2019), his latest and lengthiest novel to date, takes on issues such as exam-oriented education, the one-child policy, sexual liberation and urban-rural disparities, while reflecting on human nature amid China’s torrents of change. 

Character Origins
Eight years ago, Liu received a call from a relative with shocking news. The relative’s adult son had smothered his own child to death.  

The relative’s adult son had long suffered from a mental disorder. He had been pulled from high school and never sent back. Later, the family arranged for him to marry and the couple produced a son. But soon after his son’s birth, the relative’s son felt his child was stealing the family’s attention from him. In addition, his wife was threatening to leave, claiming the family had not bought them a house as promised.

The young man snapped and smothered his newborn. 

Liu’s Parents is based on this story. Main character Wang Guohui is an ambitious country woman who moves to the city after finding a job at a coal mine. Eager to change her family’s fortune, Wang lives vicariously through her only son He Xincheng, a sensitive high school boy. 

While Wang focuses on his grades and pushes him to get into a top university, she neglects him emotionally. Under immense pressure to succeed and lacking affection from his mother, the teen has a mental breakdown and drops out of school.  

Disappointed in her son, Wang pins all her hopes on her newborn grandson, Shengsheng. But her shift in affection inadvertently puts the child in grave danger.  

As a father and grandfather, Liu has voiced strong criticism of China’s education system through his novels.  

Liu believes China’s exam-oriented approach is deeply rooted in the country’s imperial examinations, which were designed to produce government officials. And despite awareness of the limitations of exam-oriented education in the modern world, Liu said parents and teachers knowingly participate, making them complicit in it.  

Liu’s son was a poor student and never a teacher’s favorite. He recalled one time when he attended a parent-teacher conference, his son’s teacher openly criticized the boy, prompting the normally mild-tempered writer to snap back: “Don’t make kids with poor grades out to be bad people.” Liu’s retort shocked everyone present, because at the time parents treated teachers with reverence. Years later, Liu worked this event into Parents.  

Liu said he often bases his characters on people he knew. “Sometimes I only write about a real person after they pass away. When it’s all over, you see people more clearly. They become characters and come to life again in my mind,” Liu said. 

Country Youth
Liu was born in 1951 in rural Shenqiu County, Henan Province. His father was a low-ranking officer during China’s Republican period (1911-1949), something that earned his family a bad social status under the new Communist government. Liu’s father died in 1960, leaving his mother to raise six children. Poverty was a big part of Liu’s early memories.  

Liu was a studious young man, but his dreams of higher education were shattered with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and its decade of shuttered universities. 

In 1966, Liu joined millions of young Chinese during the Great Linkup, when Red Guards nationwide were encouraged to travel the country and spread the seeds of revolution. Like thousands of rural teens, Liu traveled to Beijing to attend the giant rally that year held by Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square. It was the first time Liu had been to a city. The experience so impressed him, particularly the disparities between urban and rural life, that he became determined to move out of the countryside. 

For decades, China’s hukou system of permanent residency permits restricted rural populations from moving to cities. This lack of mobility frustrated China’s rural youth, and is a recurring theme in Liu’s fiction.  

After the Great Linkup period, Liu returned home to work and yearned to shed his official peasant status. In his hometown, Liu talked with the educated youth sent to his village from the city of Kaifeng, Henan, as part of another Cultural Revolution policy, the Down to the Countryside Movement. Liu secretly competed with these urban youth in how much more fiction he read. Liu’s conflicted feelings about his rural identity are written into many of his characters.
He tried to join the army in the hopes of getting a work assignment in the city afterwards, but was ineligible because of his father’s Republican past. 

In 1970, 19-year-old Liu got a job at a coal mine. Two years later, he wrote his first story, “White Cotton,” about the hard life of an elderly coal miner. But since all of China’s literary journals were halted during the Cultural Revolution, Liu had to wait six years to publish it. 

The mining job finally allowed Liu to get rid of his peasant status. He was now a worker at a government-run institution, a much more respectable social station at the time.  

“The coal mine is on the fringes between urban and rural life,” Liu explained, “Mines are usually located near mountain areas or the countryside. People mine for coal underground and plant crops on the surface. A coal mine is like a small society - it has some things found in cities, such as kindergartens, schools and shopping. A peasant who came to the coal mine would try any means to become a regular worker and get an urban hukou.”  

Liu had very little leisure time at the mine. His room was so small that he would use a chair as a writing desk. In 1978, Liu was transferred to Beijing to work as an editor in a coal industry newspaper. In 2001, the Beijing Writers’ Association recruited him as a professional writer. 

Liu was among the many forever changed by China’s unprecedented urbanization and mass migrations. His fiction largely focuses on the lives of coal miners and peasants.  

Many of his peasant characters work in coal mines while desperately trying to overcome the rural-urban barrier and change their social standing. These themes are central to Red Coal (2006), Liu’s novel about a young coal miner who eventually manages to marry the mine owner’s daughter. He then calls the police on his father-in-law for illegal dealings. With his father-in-law in jail, the miner eventually takes over the enterprise.  

Black and Red
During his nine years at the coal mine, Liu had seen disaster and death. He recalled narrowly avoiding a gas explosion because he had happened to change shifts with another miner. But the biggest tragedy he witnessed involved 80 miners who suffocated down a mine shaft. Seeing the rows of coffins inside the local mining bureau left a deep impression on Liu.  

In the early 1990s, while Liu was editor-in-chief of China Coal News, stories of violent crime began creeping from the mines. It was a murderous scam that involved workers recruiting new workers, killing them deep in the tunnels and passing it off as a work accident. Others involved in the con would pose as relatives of the victim and demand compensation from the mine owners. They called their victims “piglets.” 

These crimes were rampant in illegal coal mines throughout China during the 1990s. A high-profile story in 1998 involved a crime ring of 60 suspects who murdered more than 100 people that had been lured to mines in Jiangsu, Shanxi, Hebei, Shandong and Liaoning provinces and collected 2 million yuan (US$281,600) in compensation.  

Shocked by the story, Liu wrote his novella Sacred Wood (2000), which was later adapted into the internationally acclaimed film Blind Shaft (2003). Directed by Li Yang and starring Wang Baoqiang, the film won the Silver Bear at the 53rd Berlin Film Festival in 2003. 

In 1996, a huge gas explosion rocked a coal mine in Pingdingshan, Henan, killing 84 mine workers. “Their families were still new and kids still young. They cried and cried until they fainted and were sent to the hospital. When they woke up in a sickbed, they would start crying again. These details still haunt me,” Liu told NewsChina.  

He rushed to the site after the incident. He later wrote a 20,000-word essay “The Pathos of Life” to record the tragedy, which had a huge impact on the industry. Mines would commonly reference it as a work safety guide. 

While at the Pingdingshan site, Liu met a mine worker’s teenage son who was waiting for his trapped father to be rescued from the pit. The teen asked Liu: “If my father can’t be saved this time, can I take his job?” Liu was overwhelmed by the bitter reality behind these words, which served as the inspiration for his novel Red Coal (2009). In the novel, Liu attacks the moral decline of the country’s entrepreneurs in their unscrupulous drive for money.  

Liu said he cries easily, especially out of compassion for others. Xu Xun, one of Liu’s friends, told NewsChina an anecdote about how Liu stopped to talk with a donkey chained by the road because he felt sad about its toil and suffering.  

Liu said he finds that same compassion in the writings of Shen Congwen (1902-1988), an author known for his novels involving the Miao people of western Hunan Province. Liu said the sense of humanity in Shen’s work strikes a strong chord with him.  

“Good fiction has profound emotion. That emotion, which has been processed with thought, is real and deep,” he told NewsChina.

Liu Qingbang’s novel Parents