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Culture

City Life Builds Character

In his latest novel, Ye Zhaoyan depicts the historic changes of early modern China through the lives of the ordinary people of his hometown, Nanjing

By Qiu Guangyu , Xu Ming Updated Jun.1

A view of Yifeng Gate, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, August 16, 2019 (Photo by VCG)

I n his Nanjing apartment, novelist Ye Zhaoyan has the study any bibliophile would dream of. Neatly packed bookshelves stretch to the ceiling. Outside the window, the Yangtze River flows as it has for thousands of years. Sometimes Ye gets up just before dawn to pen his thoughts by the window. Watching people along the river in the first rays of the morning sun, he reflects on the changing times.  

These early sessions resulted in Yifeng Gate (Yifeng Zhimen), Ye’s new historical novel that delves into the turbulent period between 1895 and 1927 as experienced through the lives of Nanjing’s residents.  

The city, which served as the capital for six ancient dynasties, was shaped by its advantageous location and its pivotal role in economy and politics. This led to Nanjing’s repeated exposure to war, especially in the 20th century, and drastic transformations to become the city we know today.  

Nanjing is a recurring theme in Ye’s work, earning him the moniker “literary spokesperson” for the city. Born and raised in the city, the 66-year-old novelist has spent his life breathing in the city’s rich history and culture.  

Whether fiction or non-fiction, romantic or historical, Ye’s books exude the city of his birth. But he refuses to be pigeonholed. “Nanjing is just a stool I can sit on to observe the world and reflect on history,” Ye told NewsChina. 

Room with a View 
Ye leads a low-key life despite his prominent family background. He is the grandson of Ye Shengtao (1894-1988), a renowned writer and educator who shaped Chinese literature and education as China’s cultural minister. A prolific writer, Ye is often compared to Chinese novelists like Yu Hua (To Live) and Su Tong (Wives and Concubines).  

Writing is such an integral part of Ye’s life that he grew anxious after contracting Covid in late 2022, which forced him to rest for a few days. He soon resumed his writing routine, even though there were times he felt his output was not up to snuff. Ye’s work ethic stems from his grandfather and father, the playwright Ye Zhicheng. Although he told media that the two men had little influence on his literary work, their habit of writing for seven to eight hours at a stretch impressed him since childhood.  

He seldom leaves Nanjing. But in October 2022, he appeared on Wo Zai Daoyu Dushu, a reality TV show about writers shot on location in Sanya, Hainan Province. Despite the promised exposure of his work reaching younger audiences, he insisted on staying only one day. Most often, he prefers to relax in his study, turn on his computer and write.  

Many of his most famous works are set during Nanjing’s Republic of China (1912-1949), such as Nanjing 1937: A Love Story and The Flower’s Shadow (which was adapted into film Temptress Moon by director Chen Kaige in 1996).  

In Yifeng Gate, Ye draws upon his familiarity with the city to depict the revolution and modernization of Nanjing, as well as the fluctuating fortunes of its residents. But Ye added that the story could easily take place in any other city that experienced similar historical changes along the Yangtze River, such as Shanghai, Zhenjiang or Wuhan. Ye leads a low-key life despite his prominent family background. He is the grandson of Ye Shengtao (1894-1988), a renowned writer and educator who shaped Chinese literature and education as China’s cultural minister. A prolific writer, Ye is often compared to Chinese novelists like Yu Hua (To Live) and Su Tong (Wives and Concubines).  

Writing is such an integral part of Ye’s life that he grew anxious after contracting Covid in late 2022, which forced him to rest for a few days. He soon resumed his writing routine, even though there were times he felt his output was not up to snuff. Ye’s work ethic stems from his grandfather and father, the playwright Ye Zhicheng. Although he told media that the two men had little influence on his literary work, their habit of writing for seven to eight hours at a stretch impressed him since childhood.  

He seldom leaves Nanjing. But in October 2022, he appeared on Wo Zai Daoyu Dushu, a reality TV show about writers shot on location in Sanya, Hainan Province. Despite the promised exposure of his work reaching younger audiences, he insisted on staying only one day. Most often, he prefers to relax in his study, turn on his computer and write.  

Many of his most famous works are set during Nanjing’s Republic of China (1912-1949), such as Nanjing 1937: A Love Story and The Flower’s Shadow (which was adapted into film Temptress Moon by director Chen Kaige in 1996).  

In Yifeng Gate, Ye draws upon his familiarity with the city to depict the revolution and modernization of Nanjing, as well as the fluctuating fortunes of its residents. But Ye added that the story could easily take place in any other city that experienced similar historical changes along the Yangtze River, such as Shanghai, Zhenjiang or Wuhan. 

Cover of Yifeng Gate

Birth of a Nation 
Nanjing has played a crucial role in the Chinese economy throughout history. This is why during the First Opium War (1840-1842), the British army sailed directly to Nanjing and strongarmed the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) into unequal treaties. 
 
Because of Nanjing’s strategic position, it was forced to open to foreign merchant ships in 1898 following the Qing Dynasty’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which established Korea’s autonomy and ceded Qing territories to Japan. Before long, Nanjing built railroads, and trains became as vital to the city as carriages and rickshaws.  

Xiaguan, a Yangtze River port outside Nanjing’s northern gate Yifeng, was opened to foreign business activities. Prosperity from the port soon spread, transforming Xiaguan into a bustling commercial center, and Nanjing developed rapidly during the Qing’s final years. 
 
For example, Nanjing hosted an international exposition in 1910, the first of its kind in Chinese history. Aiming to stimulate industry and enlighten the public, the event ��� called the Nanyang Industrial Expo – showcased domestic and foreign products from textiles to machinery and transportation. The exhibition created quite a stir and attracted many notable figures, including seminal Chinese authors Lu Xun and Mao Dun. Lu brought his students there. Ye’s grandfather, a middle school student at the time, visited with his teacher.  

Ye found inspiration for his story about Nanjing’s approach to modernization very close to home, near his apartment at Yifeng Gate (known today as Xingzhong Gate). Built in late 14th century when Nanjing was capital of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the city wall still exists.  

In the novel, Ye portrays the bustling prosperity of Xiaguan Port between 1907 and 1927, set against a tumultuous time marked by revolution, uprisings and warfare between warlords.  

The novel centers on Yang Kui, a rickshaw puller who seizes the opportunity to build a business empire. Yang becomes swept up in the 1911 Revolution that ended China’s last imperial dynasty and led to the Republic of China’s founding. After the warehouse he opens with friends is requisitioned as a revolutionary base, Yang joins their forces and participates in uprisings across the city.  

Amid the turmoil, Yang expands his business from a small warehouse to a commercial complex, supported by his connections in the newly formed government. He rises to prominence in both business and politics, and marries the woman of his dreams. But when Yang undertakes a mission for the revolution, his fortunes take a tragic turn.  

“Ye shows the abrasive nature of historical progress and how people’s destinies are shaped by the passage of time,” commented Liang Hongying, editor-in-chief of Literary News, during a seminar for the novel held in Nanjing in February.  

“Every era presents unique opportunities. We get a glimpse of today through the past and vice versa. Yifeng Gate could be interpreted as a metaphor for the rise of big companies like Alibaba, Xiaomi or Suning in contemporary China,” Ye told the Shanghai Observer, a news app affiliated with newspaper Jiefang Daily.  

“The story has two plotlines – one focuses on Yang Kui’s trials, while the other, more subtle narrative explores the modernization of Nanjing,” noted Wang Chunlin, a professor with Shanxi University, at the seminar. 

Instead of depicting heroic figures in history, Ye focuses more on the fate of ordinary individuals during social transformations who experience rises and falls beyond their control. In The Flower’s Shadow, for example, Ye portrays a woman who becomes head of her influential family after the death of her father and brother in Republic-era China. During a time when many of the social constraints imposed on women in feudal society were relaxing, she openly challenges these taboos, and puts her life at risk.  

In Yifeng Gate, Ye illustrates the plights of ordinary people as they struggle to survive in turbulent times, and their indifference toward regime change.  

“This detachment of Nanjingers stems from their yearning for a peaceful life and their resilience after suffering,” noted Liu Daxian, a research fellow with the China Academy of Social Sciences, at the seminar. 

Ye Zhaoyan (Photo by 99read)

Pen Pals 
Ye sometimes wonders how he ended up becoming a writer. Reading and writing seemed more like an imposed influence from family and society, rather than a personal choice.  

Born in 1957, Ye was a teen during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). After graduating from high school, he could not go to college and was stuck at home. Fortunately, there were books to fill his time.  

Ye traveled to Beijing in 1974 to stay with his grandfather. There, he became close with his cousin, a poet, and his circle of friends who were all passionate about literature and art. Ye began to write poems and dabble in photography. He credits these creative young friends with initiating him into the world of art.  

In 1978, soon after the national college entrance exams were reinstated following the Cultural Revolution, Ye enrolled to study Chinese language and literature at Nanjing University. With encouragement from his artistic friends, he began writing.  

He soon penned his first novel, Murder, but failed to get it published. His official break into the scene came in 1980, when several of his novellas appeared in literary magazines. Despite this success, he still considered himself an amateur, and went five years without publishing another novel.  

“I did not mean to be a writer, but eventually became one after writing a lot,” Ye told the Shanghai Observer.  

Unlike many in his field, Ye approaches writing with a sense of detachment. He is acutely aware of fatigue, exhaustion and endless labor that comes with the craft. “It’s very tiring and I have to take breaks often, particularly when writing novels. You know you can’t finish in a short time, so you have to keep hanging on. It’s like running a marathon,” Ye said.  

In the year he worked on Yifeng Gate, Ye started every day before dawn. Whenever he had writer’s block or felt exhausted, worries for his future would take hold. “I know I can’t write forever. The time will come when I can’t write. I work tirelessly just because I’m afraid that day will come,” he told newspaper Changjiang Daily.  

“I’m aware that my works are not widely read, so I have this heroic thought that I may write a book that is good enough to draw readers to my other work. For this possibility, I still cherish the time and opportunity to express myself. Like an athlete, I will go another round if I can,” Ye said.

Yifeng Gate, Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, September 7, 2019 (Photo by VCG)

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